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It was hard to remember now just how long she had been waiting to hear those words, but she supposed it must have been her entire life. Many years had passed, indeed, since she had first consciously wished for them, but now it had finally happened. . . . Her mother had finally told her that she loved her.

Nikita was at her apartment now--was out on her balcony, staring into the night, . . . was pondering her life. She had been standing out here for many hours, despite the cold; the hot tea she had brought out with her had grown chilled long ago, as well--but she was simply too caught up in the line of her own thoughts to notice any of these inconsequential matters.

Her mind went back to her early years again. Certainly, there hadn't been a second of her childhood which had passed without the almost-painful desire to have her mother care for her--hell, to just have her mother *notice* her, which she *never* seemed to, . . . unless she was angry.

She had spent many nights then fantasizing, in fact, about what it would be like to have her mother treat her well--just about having the woman who had given her life hold her in her arms when she was frightened, like any child in their situation would have been, of the noises in the dark night. She had often dreamed of this, indeed, instead of her reality--instead of only having her mother get close to her for warmth on the cold ones, . . . usually along with drunken mutterings about how her child wasn't "as good as having a man."

She closed her eyes. There was still *so* much pain--were still so many things which hurt her just to think about--from those days. She had so often looked at the wealthier, well-dressed little girls at school--the ones who always looked at her as though she had the plague--and wondered whether their mothers ever hugged them. She opened her eyes and smiled slightly. Given the way they had acted, though, she still didn't know the answer to that one.

She let out a deep breath, as her mind drifted back sadly to one of the things her mother had said to her earlier today: "I was never a mother to you." She swallowed back heavily, hating to think it through. She knew, however, that she had been right; she hadn't been--ever.

She sighed sadly, pondering it. Yes, Roberta Worth had physically given birth to her, but her mothering seemed to have ceased at that point, as far as her memories went; there had been little tender in the treatment she had received at her hands. Her mother had given her food, clothing, and shelter--when she could get them--but she had usually treated her daughter like a freeloader, like a burden she had been reluctantly saddled with. . . . And she had never seemed to care in the least if these feelings had been clearly transmitted to her child.

She remembered back now. The few times, really, that their material needs had best been met had been when they had moved in with one of her mother's "boyfriends." . . . But these men had always seen the young girl who came in tow with Roberta as a burden, as well.

She laughed a little--humorlessly. Hell, actually, those had been the decent ones. The worst ones, . . . well, they had viewed both mother and daughter as whores to be used. . . . And the fact that she herself had still been very young had only seemed to inflame them further.

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to control her emotions--trying not to cry. The gravest of her mother's betrayals, she knew, had been in not hearing her about this--had been in not being believed. Her mother had even slapped her once, calling her a "slut," for even mentioning such a thing--for daring to tell her about it.

She swallowed back heavily, her breathing unsteady. It had been this fact, truly, which Nikita had found the hardest to forgive, had been this betrayal which had haunted her the most--far more, even, than having been thrown out on the street; at least on the street, after all, she hadn't been confined with her attacker--at least there she could hide, could run. . . . At least there she had had *some* option--unlike her life at home.

She opened her, slightly-reddened, eyes once more, sighing sadly. She had never really minded the streets, really; she had spent far too much of her childhood on them to have them hold too much fear for her anymore. Yes, there were many people you had to avoid--were lots of things to be wary of, but she had known and could run from most of them, so the fear of them had been lessened significantly for her.

She had been lucky in that knowledge, she guessed, though. Your average person who had suddenly found themselves homeless, she knew, would be lost--but, by that point, she had known her way around and could defend herself enough to feel more in control.

No, none of the inhabitants of the streets had frightened her too badly. The main thing she had disliked about the streets, in fact, had been the people who didn't actually live there--had been the ones who had looked at you like you were worse than trash, the ones who would talk about how dirty and loathsome you were right to your face, without even thinking that it mattered. When she had been arrested and put on trial, indeed, there had been *no one* who would believe her story simply because of where she had lived--or, rather, where she hadn't; the prosecuting attorney had actually referred to her repeatedly as a "street rat"--a subtle bit of character assassination which her own, court-appointed, attorney hadn't even bothered to object to.

That, however, hadn't been the end of it, either; the whole jury had looked at her like she was scum, as well. Although there had been no motive for the murder, they hadn't needed one to convict her. She was just a "street rat," after all; the more of them you got rid of, the better off you were--right?

She swallowed back her anger heavily, her eyes misting a little. She wondered whether there had ever been anyone in her life who had simply believed her when she had told them the truth. She shook her head slightly. No, probably not. She couldn't remember anyone, at least--not at home, not on the street, . . . and--certainly not--in Section.

She sighed, thinking back. She had blamed her mother, indeed, during the first few years after her recruitment, for what had happened to her life--had told herself that, if she hadn't been thrown out on the street, then none of this could have happened.

Now, however--although this had been easy to believe at the time, she suspected that that was a lie. She knew now, indeed, that everything from the murder charges against her to her entrance into Section had been a set up. She knew, with certainty, that she hadn't just been in the wrong place at the wrong time; she had been framed.

Her heart clutched at the thought. In some ways, this more recent bit of knowledge had really just added to the feeling of forgiveness she had already given her mother--the one she had had for awhile now. Even if her mother had believed her--even if she had kept her close by, she knew now that, if Section had wanted her, they would have taken her anyway; there might have been one person who would have believed in her innocence--in that scenario, but that would certainly never have been enough to change her masters' minds. . . . It might have, in fact, just gotten her mother killed.

She shuddered a little, thinking all of this through. She still didn't know, of course, what it was that she had been recruited for in the first place, but she knew now that her mother had been entirely innocent of it--even incidentally. She swallowed back slightly, her mind switching tracks. As to the rest of what she had done, however . . .

Nikita sighed and leaned onto the railing on her balcony, staring into the lights of the city. She had had a long talk with herself about a year ago--had tried to think through all of the issues her mother's memory always raised in her, and she had forgiven her then--had realized that her mother simply hadn't had the time to work through all of her own problems before she had suddenly found herself a mother-to-be.

Her eyes were soft, as she looked out into the night. It had been a big change in her, really. But it wasn't so much that she thought her mother had done the right things; it was more, instead, that she had finally started to look into her reasons for doing them.

She shuddered a little again, thinking into this. One of the aspects of her mother's life which still haunted her, indeed, was the terrible choices in men she always seemed to make; they were all, always, such total bastards. . . . In fact--she remembered sadly, if they hadn't been, she had often accused them of not loving her enough and had left.

She swallowed back heavily. This pattern had simply puzzled Nikita when she had been young, but it had begun to plague as she grew. . . . Indeed, since she had forcibly entered Section, she had thought back to this dysfunctional pattern of her mother's an absolutely disturbing number of times.

It was too familiar, after all. She still often worried, indeed, that she was too much her mother's child, in this sense. Her relationship with Michael--in fact--had seemed simply like willful self-mutilation to her all too many times.

She sighed tiredly again, her mind circling around this thought. There were periods when she knew that Michael truly cared for her, that he wasn't lying when he said that he didn't want to hurt her--that he was, indeed, trying to protect her. She shook her head a little, her thoughts taking a slight detour. At other times, though, there was simply no rational reaction she could have to his mental, emotional, and physical assaults except to decide that they were being done purposely--that he was enjoying them . . . and that she was a masochistic fool for agreeing to stay around him long enough to allow them to continue.

All of this, indeed, still plagued her; she had spent many nights alone in her bed--awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering if the pattern of abuse her mother seemed to intentionally search out were somehow inborn. . . . Was the truth of it, in fact, simply that she was genetically predestined to search out some idiot of a man to hurt her?

She sighed and stared at the ground. She knew in her heart, of course, that this wasn't the truth, but--during those many times when Michael's words and actions seemed more intent on shredding her soul than healing it, it was all too easy to forget.

Her bleaker thoughts disappeared, however, when she remembered that he had certainly come through this time. She smiled a little and looked back up at the city lights once more. The favor he had fulfilled for her today had been the most generous gift he had ever given her; nothing before, in fact, had even come close.

She took in a deep breath of the cold night air, as she thought over this. He had done many things for her before, it was true, but he had never done anything so . . . altruistic until now; all of his other gifts, indeed, either seemed to come at a price or were, in truth, just acts of selfishness.

This was true, in fact, of all of his actions up to now--of all of the ones she could think of; everything else seemed to have an agenda attached. Some of them were missions; some were simply stratagems--but none of them had, in the end, actually been done for her sake.

Their few romantic times together had all, certainly, too, been as much about himself as they had been about her. . . . Even her brief escape from Section had been about him, in the end; he just hadn't been able to truly let her go.

She hadn't even been certain whether she should go to him this time--whether she should even ask for his help. It was only the conversation she had had with him recently which had finally decided her, in fact--the one when he had told her that she should come to him if she needed help . . . well, that and his recent invitation to spend the day together.

She sighed. She didn't know, really, what had motivated him to do either of these things. He really did seem, though, to be trying to extend himself to her lately--had been trying to prove to her that he still cared--that he still wanted her.

This time, however, had actually seemed--finally--to prove this silent assertion. This time he had nothing particular to gain, except her good opinion of him--which was something he had discarded all too often before.

There had been no reason, either--she continued to analyze, for him to take the actions he had simply to keep her alive; he could easily just have gone to Procedures and told them what her mother was doing before she could get there to prevent him. . . . She would have hated him for it, of course, but that certainly wouldn't have been a first.

No. The only real reason she could find for his actions this time was that he had wanted to help her--that he did, indeed, . . . care. Her smile grew deeper. It had, truly, been precisely what she had told him--the kindest thing he had ever done for her.

Even his attitude, when he had found her crying--as well, once her mother had gone, had touched her heart. He had left her alone for a few minutes--letting her sort through her emotions in peace, until they had simply run out of time. When he had come in to find her still weeping, however, his expression had been one of such intense love and empathy that it had stolen her heart; his eyes had seemed to speak lovingly to her soul. . . . Both of them had been caught there for several long heartbeats, in fact, before he had--reluctantly, it seemed--told her that they needed to go.

She smiled. She had felt, at that moment, that he had deserved something for his kindness, but it had been obvious that he hadn't expected the "reward" she had given him later. She laughed a little, remembering the brief kiss. She had never seen Michael quite so quietly stunned before. . . . It was a memory she was going to treasure for a long time to come.

Her heart felt lighter than it had for sometime now. She wondered, indeed, whether she was witnessing a turn-around in her relationship with Michael. . . . Was it possible that things were actually getting better for them?

She took a deep breath, beginning to feel the chill of the night, as her fears clung to her slightly; she rubbed her arms a little. She wanted to believe this, of course--wanted it *desperately*, but she was still a little too wary to. Michael had so often helped her out only to turn on her soon thereafter; she couldn't entirely believe. She supposed, then, that she would just have to wait to see what was to come.

She decided to go inside finally, only retrieving her cup as an afterthought--having half-forgotten it was there. She wanted this coming time to be a rebirth, wanted to think that her life was getting better--for both of them, . . . but she had learned too often just what could happen when you hoped too strongly to be extremely wary of trying it again.

She closed the door to her balcony and took her cup to abandon it by the sink. The past few days had opened up a lot of old issues for her--many of which she suspected she would be working through for some time to come.

She supposed--thinking back on it now--that her recent dilemmas all dated back, indeed, to first seeing Jamie again. . . . It hadn't been a pleasant surprise; she had never liked him, after all. He had always been one of the boys she avoided as much as possible--was one of the ones she had run from.

He had been a pusher, in those days; he still was a bully. He had never, either, taken any responsibility for any of this actions--although, she supposed--in that line of work, it was something you really couldn't afford to do. . . . But she couldn't forgive him for having been the partial cause of poor Sheridan's death, anyway.

She sighed deeply and wandered over to her couch, lying back on it to half-stare at the ceiling. No, she had never liked him in the days they had been on the streets together, and several years and his introduction to Section hadn't changed that. . . . Hitting him, indeed, had felt good.

She wasn't quite certain why she had agreed to help him at all, in fact--although she supposed it had just been her instinct for taking in strays which had won her over again--even if they were strays who bit you. . . . One day, she knew, she was going to have to break herself of that habit.

Maybe, though--she continued to ponder, she had helped him, as well, simply because he had been part of her old life--had been a connection to who she had once been, even if he hadn't truly known or understood her at all--then or now. She supposed, really, that it was hard for her to turn her back on someone who reminded her so strongly of her other self.

She knew, too, however, that she had also helped him just to try to keep the other members of the mission safe. She laughed a little, disgustedly; he had almost shot a couple of innocents simply because he hadn't bothered to learn how to use the equipment. She shook her head. He wasn't going to last long.

She sighed a little and rubbed her eyes. It wasn't just his incompetence which would probably see to it that his life expectancy wouldn't be that long, though; it was also that recruitment into Section had done *nothing* for Jamie's personality. . . . He was still a jerk.

He had a certain type of arrogance, too, which tended not to play well in a cold op. There were some tech. ops. who could get away with it, it was true--like Greg Hillinger, but Jamie's skills were *far* too easily replaced; two-bit pushers who held up drug and liquor stores, after all, weren't exactly hard to find.

She sighed again, still thinking it through. There were a fair amount of arrogant bastards in Section, yes, but their arrogance was different than his. Michael, Operations, a dozen others--all of them could be easily convinced of their innate superiority, but they were still completely willing to put themselves in the line of fire, if it came to that; Jamie, however, would rather hide behind the body of the op. in front of him--if he wasn't absolutely certain that he would win. . . . That was the sort of trait, indeed, which didn't tend to ensure long-term viability.

She wondered a little now why she had told Madeline about her former acquaintance with Jamie. Maybe, though, it had been a way to keep herself from having to look after him too much; if their masters were aware that they had known each other, indeed, they would keep an eye out to prevent any collaborations between them. . . . Maybe she had just done it, truly, to wash her hands of him.

She leaned her head back further, still focusing on the ceiling--her mind taking a slightly different path, as she told herself that this was the best path. There was no reason, in truth, that she should have to look after the recruit.

The last few days, indeed, had opened up a lot of old wounds for her, but--in some ways--it had closed several of them, as well. She had now both gotten and given some closure with her mother--had protected her from finding out truths, in fact, which would likely have gotten her killed, had replaced them with lies which she hoped might not be *quite* as painful as the ones they had told her originally--however little truth she knew there may actually be in such a belief. She had confronted and washed her hands of Jamie, finally, as well--a small wound compared to so many others, but one she was pleased to be rid of, nonetheless. She had also, though, come to the most comfortable point she had been in with Michael in many months. . . . And that, truly, was one of the best parts.

It wasn't like she was utterly content, however--sadly. She did feel some guilt over the actions she had had to take with her mother's investigator; she had truly hated threatening him in the way she had, but she knew--in the long run--that she had saved his, and possibly also his wife's, lives. . . . He would never know this, of course, but they were safer now because of her actions, nonetheless.

She stretched her arms back over her head, hanging them off of her sofa at an angle that would have looked odd, had anyone been watching. Even if some of her protection had been a bit rough, she had still acted to take care of so many people lately, and--for this--she was truly proud. . . . This side of her wasn't one, indeed, that she ever wanted to let die.

She had a lot, relatively, to be thankful for, then. Her mother was safe and had now told her the things they had both so desperately needed to have said; her old wounds there were healing--as were some of the ones she shared with Michael.

She knew that she should be happy, then--and, in many ways, she was. She did wish, though, that she could have known her mother more--the real woman, not the drunk who had abused and ignored her. She wished it had been possible for them to talk and truly share themselves, in the way that mothers and daughters were supposed to.

She swallowed slightly and sat up a little. She knew that having her alive, however, was the best she could do for now--well, no . . . forever--so she tried to let this desire go.

Her thoughts continued, though, to mill around the woman who had given her life. She supposed, in some ways, that she *was* her mother's child. They both had, after all, survived so much--had come through it all stronger and more capable of love.

She smiled. She loved her mother for giving her this quality, too--this ability to withstand, to make it through; even had she not been in Section, it was something she would be eternally grateful for.

Her mind switched paths slightly. She wondered now what Michael had seen in the woman who had brought her into the world. Had he seen her strength--her beauty? Had he seen the lines of her merging into the woman who was her daughter? She smiled. She supposed she would probably never know, but she hoped, indeed, that he had.

She realized something suddenly, too. . . . She realized that, in a small way, she really was happy.

She didn't know where things would go from here, of course--what new hell the next day might present to her--but, for a few hours, at least, she had a small spark of joy in her soul again. . . . And she had learned, from far too many years spent in Section, that even the smallest fragment of joy should be cherished.

She remembered Michael's face, when she had kissed him, again--now. Maybe, indeed--she thought suddenly, she had even managed to share this precious emotion. She smiled, content for the moment. She hoped so. . . . Even these small fragments, after all, were worth a lifetime of memories.


She had kissed him. No mission, no assignment--no tricks or games. She had kissed him. Not in anger, not in disgust. He almost wanted to smile. She had kissed him. . . . And, when she had walked out his office door, she had taken his soul along with her. Michael was still in his office now, was--ostensibly--working on reports. But that wasn't the real reason he was still here, he knew. . . . He had stayed, truly, because he just didn't feel capable of leaving anymore.

He felt entranced, as though Nikita had cast a spell on him with her simple, brief kiss. He smiled slightly, thinking back to a movie Elena had once gotten him to see with her--"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"; he was remembering Jane Russell's line now--when Marilyn Monroe's fiance had stood, stunned, after receiving the touch of her lips: "I don't know what you do, honey, unless you put novocaine in your lipstick." He almost wanted to laugh; he was beginning to feel *precisely* the same way.

He closed his eyes for a second, trying to pull his errant thoughts back under his control. Nikita had left him feeling entirely unlike himself--which was, in truth, a blessing . . . if a dangerous one.

He refocused on his office again, his stoic mask back in place, even though his emotions didn't reflect it; he sighed. He had been at Nikita's service the last several days, and--despite the danger--he had treasured every second of it. She had asked him too rarely, of late, for help or advice; she had been, for the most part--indeed, almost terrifyingly remote. . . . This latest opportunity to help her had, then, been a blessing he had welcomed with unspeakable gratitude.

It wasn't that it had been easy, however; the path they had chosen had still been a perilous one. He had known, in fact, that she would have been safer if he had simply reported her mother's search to Procedures and let them handle it, . . . but he just hadn't been able to deny her--not when she had, finally, come to him willingly once again.

He sighed, his eyes slightly haunted by love and gratitude. It had been a miracle, truthfully. After his various actions over the past few months, he had begun to expect that she would--understandably--simply never trust him again; that she was even still talking to him was astounding--but that she had come to ask for his help with something as important as this . . .

His heart felt so full of tender emotion; he loved her so much more after these last few days--if that were even celestially possible. Although he still found her soul's regenerative abilities almost impossible to believe, they only made him adore her all the more; she had grown so strong, was so *incredibly* beautiful. She had come through all of the abuses he and Section had put her through in recent months with her soul intact, somehow. . . . God, he adored her.

He was, yet again--in fact, convinced that she was angelic. How could any creature with less than supernatural strength, after all, survive all that she had and still be able to love?

Nikita had, truly, come through so much, too--not just in the last few weeks, not just from him or in Section, but in her years before it, as well. She had survived a lifetime of abuse at home, on the streets, and with him and could somehow still look at another human being with empathy and true concern.

As much as he loved her for all of this, though, he couldn't even begin to understand it. He had never--really--been able to comprehend her ability to survive her childhood. He, quite to the contrary--in fact, had grown bitter and angry in his, and he had been given everything--had had more money than he could ever begin to understand how to use. But she, . . . she had had *nothing*--no home, no money, no family--and she was more capable of love than he ever had been. . . . She had to, indeed, have been touched by God.

He had always loved her for this, however--among a million other things. He adored that, somehow--despite everything he had done to her, her soul still shone brightly.

His profound love, though, still didn't equal comprehension; he just couldn't understand how she could forgive her mother for all she had done--why she hadn't simply wanted her dead. He was quite certain that, had the same been true with him, he wouldn't have tried at all to save the woman--but Nikita hadn't paused for a second to consider letting her willfully die.

He knew, however, that she had been worried when he had told her how far Roberta had come on her own. She had--reasonably--feared, that Section would demand that woman's cancellation.

He had known, in fact--had been able to tell, that she had been prepared to be the one to kill her, if it had become inevitable; he had understood, after all, that she wouldn't just go to Procedures to allow them to handle matters. She had been bracing herself for this outcome--had only wanted to be able to speak to her once, indeed, before she carried it out.

There had, he knew, been a few seconds when he had pondered letting her do this, too. He had thought about it--about allowing her to fulfill her mother's most-cherished wish and then taking on the role of her executioner.

He had realized, however, within a heartbeat after this, that he couldn't let it happen. He had understood that to do that would have meant the death of her spirit, . . . and that was something he could never allow to happen--no matter how often he had pushed her toward it himself.

It was then, therefore, that he had started to develop the plan they had finally enacted--had found a way to allow Nikita and her mother the closure both had needed, while still protecting them. . . . And--even without the kiss--he was still deeply grateful that he had done it.

He sighed a little, his mind switching tracks slightly to focus on the object of his beloved's protection. He had wondered for many years just what sort of woman her mother was; he simply found it hard to believe that the woman who had given his true love life could be the monster she would have had to be to have thrown a creature as precious as Nikita onto the street--to have turned her away.

He had seen, however, for many years--off and on--just how deeply affected Nikita was by her mother's neglect. The second words he had ever heard her say, in fact, had been about the torment of her abandonment; when he had handed her the picture of her faux funeral, her main thought--the one she had said through her tears, the one which had tormented her far more than her own faked death and recruitment--had been, "My momma didn't come?"

He closed his eyes for a second. It pained him more deeply than he had words to express that *anyone* could hurt the divine woman he adored in this way. Those few minutes in the white room with her, in fact, had captured his heart irrevocably--no matter how often he may have tried to deny it; he had never--for even a second since then--truly belonged to himself.

He focused dimly on his office walls once more. What he couldn't understand, however, was how her mother could leave such scars on someone so precious. He had even taken the opportunity the night of her first mission to ask her how she had become homeless, how she had ended up on the streets, but he had never been able to fully comprehend her answer on any deeper level.

When he had met Roberta, then, he had expected to meet a monster--sober or not. What he had discovered, instead--to his intense self-regret, was a person who far too closely reflected himself--one who, for whatever thin reasons, had hurt a creature so divine she seemed to have been touched by God--one who, like himself, should have looked after and protected her . . . and, instead, had only brought her nearly-unbearable pain.

He sighed sadly, remembering. Roberta had shown him so many pictures of Nikita during her discussion of her daughter. He had been entranced, too, by this glimpse into his beloved's early years--had had trouble, in fact, trying to keep himself from staring at the images with incredible love; they had, absolutely, caught his heart.

It hadn't just been the pictures which had riveted him, though; Roberta, indeed, had gone to some lengths to try to impress upon him how important this search was to her. She had almost been crying, in fact, when she had explained how much she needed to find her--when she had discussed, with such self-loathing, what a terrible parent she had been, how much she wanted to see her daughter again, in order to make amends. And it had been to his own surprise, as well, that he had ended up attempting--needing--to comfort her.

His eyes showed intense love and pain. This, however, hadn't been all. He had found, indeed, the longer he had been around the woman, that he had understood her. Both of them, after all, were living with such crushing guilt--with such *incredible*, overwhelming pain--from the memory of their various abuses and neglects of the one person who meant the most to them in the world. Both of them *needed* her forgiveness, needed to feel her love--needed her, despite all the reasons she shouldn't, to think of them fondly and with her immense compassion, even if the good memories she held of them were only of the briefest of moments.

He had only met Roberta twice, then, but--in a way--he had learned to love her. This woman, after all, had given life to the most precious creature to have ever been born; that such a miracle may have been an accident seemed entirely irrelevant. It had happened. . . . That was enough.

Had Michael been capable of the sort of forgiveness required in such an act, he might well, too, have extended his revelations about Roberta to his own situation with Adam. But--although the thought tickled somewhere at the edge of his mind--he simply couldn't allow himself to admit it into his consciousness. He had--thanks to Nikita--been able to admit that he had truly loved his son, whatever the orders which had created him and his own years of neglect to the child, but he was still incapable of forgiving himself for having sired and then abandoned the boy--despite all the reasons he simply couldn't stay.

Even if he couldn't learn all the lessons he needed to from this experience, however, he could still--because of all of this, understand and identify with Nikita's mother--a bit more than he was comfortable with, in fact. He had wanted, after all, to hate her so deeply, but he had found, instead, a woman of incredible strength--one who Nikita reflected in all the good ways, . . . and anyone who reflected his beloved, he would never be able to hate.

He closed his eyes for a second, his mind changing tracks. He had helped Nikita, then--to his mind--in only the smallest of ways, had aided her simply in keeping her mother alive. His eyes focused on his office wall again. He had wanted, however, to do *so* much more.

He thought back through the last few days. He understood now why she had turned down his offer to spend a day together--knew now what her prior plans had been. And that knowledge, too, had settled his mind greatly.

He had worried when she had turned him down, at first--frankly. He had seen her talking to the recruit--Jamie, had feared slightly that she had plans with him, even though he was still too early in his training to be able to leave the facility without a mission.

His soul seemed to burn just slightly, thinking about it--a fact which was reflected in his eyes. He hadn't been able to understand why she might want to be with him, though; he was arrogant, rude, not overly bright, and not attractive enough to make up for any of these failings. While he well understood that he himself was no prize, to think--even briefly--that she might prefer that particular boy's company to his own had stung him deeply.

He had been relieved, then--in more ways than one, when she had come to tell him about the situation with her mother. He had understood then that her rejection of him hadn't been about the idiotic recruit.

This visit hadn't entirely stopped his . . . curiosity, as he termed it to himself, about her relationship with the boy, however; he had, in fact, looked up Jamie's record later, to try to find a clue to his connection with Nikita, and had discovered that they had both come from the same neighborhood. He had understood--to what he didn't want to admit was his relief--then that Nikita was simply being herself, was helping out an acquaintance--since he sensed that they couldn't quite be called "friends." He hated, of course, that she would do something so inherently dangerous for herself--especially for someone who was so obviously unworthy of it, but he had--at least--finally understood her motivations.

He thought back now to his invitation. He didn't actually know, in fact, what he would have done with her, if she had said yes, but he had just needed the opportunity to be near her again outside of a mission--had dreamed of being able to see her laugh, of being able to watch her in joy. It hadn't been a sexual invitation, indeed; that was far too dangerous for them both right now, but he did just want--did need--her near, if only for a little while.

He wondered now whether he would have the courage to ever ask her again--whether he would even get the chance. He hoped so, but he knew--as well--that he shouldn't hope too far.

His mind, having settled himself on this count once more, took a slightly different path, then. He had been a little amazed that she had come to him, really. Although he had asked her to--had invited her to come when she needed his aid, the trust she had put in him by speaking with him so candidly had still rather astounded him.

He smiled very slightly, as he looked down at his desk. He had been incredibly grateful to Nikita for putting her trust in him again, however, and he had been determined to live up to it. But, while he was almost contented now by the fact that he had been able to help her, he was still feeling a little shell-shocked by her reward.

His heart glowed--happily. It had been hours, indeed, since she had left him now, but her kiss still tingled on his lips. If he licked them slightly, in fact, he could almost taste her.

He hadn't been able to thank her for this soulful gift, though; he had been so stunned by her action, truly, that he hadn't even been able to respond to it. By the time his mind had begun working again, indeed, she had already pulled away, had started to leave him. And, when she had looked back at him through his window, she had taken his heart off with her, when she had smiled.

He sighed a little. He supposed, truthfully, that he was still sitting here in some subconscious hope of her return, even though he knew she wouldn't be back tonight. She had gifted him with all she was going to; he knew he should finally begin, then, to move toward his home.

He wondered for a second, though, whether her words to him were true--whether this were "the kindest thing" he had ever done for her. He sighed a little, some of his joy fading. If it was, indeed, then he had little to show for himself. He had simply helped her prevent her mother's murder at the hands of their masters; if that was "the kindest thing" he had ever done, then his history with her--it seemed--was sorely lacking in kindnesses.

He swallowed a little--knowing, sadly, that this was true. . . . It was true--and he hated himself for it.

He sighed slightly again, trying to change his train of thought--continuing to analyze his own actions. He understood, too, that he had done it--at least partly--because he had needed to ensure that she would do nothing which would endanger her, nothing which might mean he would lose her; he knew without doubt, after all, that he couldn't have continued living without her near.

He closed his eyes just briefly--shutting back the soul-crushing pain of this thought--before refocusing on his office; his mind changed paths slightly. He also knew, however, that this wasn't all. He had needed, really, not only to look after her--but also to try to make up to her for all of the pain he had been giving her so regularly of late; he had wanted her to look at him once again with joy in her eyes, instead of the sorrow and torment he had so often put there. He had needed her to be happy, indeed--if only briefly. . . . If that were kindness, he decided, then it was a cheap version of it--but, whatever its proper name, it was a desire he simply hadn't been able to ignore.

It had torn at him terribly, though, that he couldn't have helped her more. When he had gone back into her fake hospital room to get her, in fact, the sight she had made had torn at his heart; she had been weeping quietly--had been losing the battle against her tears.

He had been caught, staring at her, for several very long heartbeats, after that. He had wanted, so desperately, to just hold her close--to tell her how precious she was to him, to remind her of all she was worth. But, instead, all he had told her was that it was time to go. . . . Somehow, though, she had seemed to have understood his deeper message, nonetheless--or, at least, he hoped she had.

He closed his eyes for a second, wondering whether he were on the verge of a rebirth with his beloved--wondering whether that could even happen. Was it even possible, indeed, for them to coexist without pain? Could he actually approach her on a regular basis and not--rationally--have her shy away?

He sighed and opened his eyes once more. He did--as unlikely as it seemed--pray fervently that it would be so; he hoped that she might begin to understand a bit of the truth that he knew lay between them--that she might truly understand that he loved her, despite all of the torments of their past.

He thought back again to her gift to him--tried to hold on to the small sense of joy her kiss had lit in his heart, despite all the facts which seemed to contradict his hopes. He supposed it had been a week of old wounds, really--of supposed protectors who were guilty of unforgivable derelictions of their duties. He sighed. What he did hope now, however, was that Nikita--the beloved, tender creature who inhabited his soul--could prove that her angelic powers of forgiveness could extend to him, as well as to her mother. . . . If she could do that, if he could prove himself worthy of it--if they could truly create this miracle of healing together, indeed, then maybe, just maybe, their future happiness might not simply be a delusion, after all.


Five years. It had been five, *long* years that she had been searching for her now--for her daughter, her precious little girl. She swallowed back tears. And, in the end, what she had found was what she had always feared--that she herself had destroyed her.

Roberta sat alone in her apartment, rocking herself slightly. She had battled the bottle and won several years ago, but--while there had been many times when she had been tempted since then--she had never been so desperate for a drink as she was again now.

She started crying once more and put her hand over her nose and mouth--as though that could stop the pain. She had had so many dreams--so many fantasies of how it would be once she found Nikita again, of how it would feel to hold her in her arms. She half-choked back a sob, feeling completely unable to face the pain of this latest tragedy. Now, all of her the hopes she had been living for--*all of them*--were ruined.

She leaned forward, still rocking herself slightly, and put her face in her hand, sobbing fiercely. She had been a worthless mother--had had not just an empty, meaningless life, but had destroyed in it the one person she was supposed to have taken care of the most--the one she should have loved.

Her sobs were wracking her slightly, as she still tried to fight them. She had tried to tell herself, many times, that everything would have been different if Richard had lived, that they would have been the perfect little family--would have lived happily ever after. She let out a gasping sob. But even that, she knew, was garbage. Richard had, overall, been a bastard, just like the rest of them; there would only have been more pain if he were alive.

She put her face in both of her hands now and leaned over onto her lap, giving up her struggle against her tears--sobbing desperately. It had taken her *years* to even begin to ask herself why she did it--why she always went to men like that; she had dragged Nikita through one nightmare of a relationship after another, had subjected her to an incredible succession of meaningless, worthless bastards--all because her stupid whore of a mother wasn't happy unless someone was beating her up.

*Nothing* had broken her from this pattern, either. She was starting to half-choke on her sobs. She had even thrown her precious, beautiful daughter out on the street because of what the final bastard had done to her. It hadn't even been so much that she had believed him over her; it was more that Nikita just wasn't able to fulfill the need she had felt to be hurt.

Her desperate crying continued, as her mind ran over all her crimes. It had been this last betrayal, too, she knew, which had led--ultimately--to her child's incarceration. She didn't believe for a second that she had murdered anyone--although, at the time, she had been too drunk to think about it or give a damn. No. She had dumped her daughter on the street to die, . . . and that was precisely what she had done.

She was beginning to feel physically ill with the strength of her torment. She didn't even begin to know how to cope with this, couldn't imagine surviving it.

She knew, though--as much as the desire for it raged in her, that she didn't want to go back to the bottle. There had been too many years of that--all of the years of her daughter's life.

Her tears were starting to choke off just slightly. It had only been with the news of Nikita's "suicide," in fact, that she had begun to come up for air; it had been then that something had *finally* broken through to her--had set off what small fragment of consciousness she felt she had had left.

She had understood--with a conviction stronger than anything else in her miserable life--once this breakthrough had occurred, that her daughter would *not* commit suicide. As little as she had truly known her, she had still known this beyond doubt.

It had been then, finally--too, that she had left the idiot she had given up Nikita for--the one who had beaten her so regularly. It was then she had found a woman's shelter and had begged for help--expecting, at the same time, that they would turn her away without question, not wanting some damn drunk who had given up her daughter.

She looked up finally, her tears still flowing, but her sobbing having quieted somewhat--her mind thinking back. But for some reason--for some reason she would *never* understand--they hadn't. They had taken her in, instead, and had given her the strength to change: had helped her to find the ability to give up drinking; the ability to look inside herself and find the reasons for--the programming her childhood had given her to--constantly search for someone to hurt her--which had, in turn, given her the ability to overcome these self-destructive desires; and--most importantly--to find out what had truly happened to her precious, but much-tormented, daughter.

She swallowed back heavily, her crying having subsided--for now. All of these were kindnesses she could never stop being thankful for, she knew, but she was now truly beginning to wonder whether they had been wasted on her; she really was thinking that they should have spent their time on someone more deserving--on someone who hadn't already destroyed her own child.

She sat there now, her tears still on her face--looking as though she were half in shock. She knew her life was over; there was nothing left. Everything since she had sobered up had been aimed toward finding Nikita. She let out an errant half-sob. Now that her daughter was truly dead, there was nothing left for her--wasn't even anyone to leave the rather small inheritance she had received from her estranged parents to.

She gave an ironic half-smile at this thought--remembering, a bit too clearly, what that couple had been like. "Perfect. I became my own mother," she mulled. Her mind ran back to her comatose daughter's face, and her eyes misted again. At least she had spared Nikita that, she supposed, if--truly--nothing else.

She jumped when she heard a knock at her door, her mind scrambling for one grief-distracted second at who this could be, before she realized with certainty who it was. "Come on in, Hugh," she half-murmured.

She sighed a little. She should have known he would be by; the altogether-too-sweet man simply hadn't learned yet that she wasn't worth it--wasn't worth the time or energy. Her eyes grew slightly darker, pondering this for a second. Well, he would learn today.

A man only a few years older than her--with hair that had been prematurely gray for several years from, like her, a life far harder than it should have been--walked in cautiously. He had felt something was wrong and come to check on her, but when he saw her he almost forgot to close the door behind him. "Roberta?"

He had loved her from the first time he had met her, although he had seen immediately that she had been through more in one lifetime than most people went through in dozens. He had realized that she seemed to have good reason not to rush into any relationships, however, so he had simply become her friend--had done so because he didn't like the idea of life without her in it.

He had always wished, of course, that he could meet her beautiful daughter--knew, from all she said of her, that she had to be a very special person. His worried eyes took her in. Now, though, he was beginning to fear that that would never happen; she looked like she had been through hell--and, for what he knew of her life, that had to mean something truly unspeakable.

He walked toward her slowly. "I killed her, Hugh," she murmured, half-staring at a spot on the floor across the room. "I killed my daughter."

He was getting worried. Had she gone back to drinking? He spoke slowly. "What d'you mean, Robbie?"

She looked up at him with eyes which held the most sober--and most thorough--pain he had ever seen. "Just what I said. *I* *killed* *her*." She sighed, trying to swallow back the tears which were coming again, her voice getting a little softer. "I killed Nikita."

He shook his head and knelt down beside her, beginning to stroke her temple lightly--in a way he always did, when he felt it was alright to be so close. His eyes were gentle but concerned; he knew he wasn't being given the whole story yet, and he refused to be driven off by her because she was drowning once again in some misplaced sense of self-loathing. "What happened?" His voice was gentle.

She swallowed heavily. She was allowing his touch now because she was too lost in her own pain to really be taking it in; she normally pushed him away out of an inner certainty that she didn't deserve a man this good. "I found her." She gave a smile which was masking tears, her mind caught entirely in her memories. "She was a damn medical experiment, but I found her."

She had looked away. He waited quietly for her to go on, knowing she wasn't finished. "The new investigator led me to her. She was in the hospital, had agreed to be part of some experiment to get out of prison." She closed her eyes, the tears coming once more. "They turned her into a vegetable, Hugh." She was crying again now. "They turned my beautiful baby into a goddamn vegetable."

She was leaning forward again--her grief sapping her strength, when he caught her in his arms; she sobbed into his chest--not totally registering that he was even there, too lost in her own torment. "You told them to turn off the machines?" he asked quietly, as he held her; he had begun to put together her line of thought now.

She nodded into his chest. "I killed my baby," she murmured pitifully, before her self-anger rose again, her tears increasing, as well. "Damn it!" she screamed, beating one of her fists against his chest and looking back up at him. "Why did I do it? Why did I turn her out?"

She shook her head and went on, stopping him before he could interrupt. "Why the hell did she have to be *my* daughter, huh?" She was sobbing between her words. "She was an angel, Hugh--the most beautiful little girl anyone'd ever seen; we used to get stopped on the street by people who'd comment on how gorgeous she was." She shook her head again. "And it wasn't just her face! It was who she was--what she'd do to help out anyone!" She was screaming now. "She was gorgeous and beautiful, and *I killed her*!"

He could see that she was growing hysterical; he was afraid she would hurt herself if she continued. He took hold of her face--just firmly enough to get her to really focus on him. "Listen to me, Roberta. Listen!" She focused on him a bit more. "Stop crucifying yourself. No!" he said, stopping her from interrupting him. "I'm not saying you've done the right things in your life, but the good Lord knows how to forgive those who really ask him to." Her sobbing was starting to slow down a little. "And if anyone's sorry for what all they've done, it's you."

She started breathing a little bit more regularly. Hugh had the ability to calm her in a way no one else really did.

He saw her relax slightly; he started trying to talk her through this. "Did you get a chance to talk to her?"

"She was in a damn coma!" she was starting to get upset again.

He shook his head. "I didn't ask you if she could talk to you; did you get a chance to talk to her?"

She nodded a little, tears choking her a bit too much to try answering aloud.

"What did you tell her?"

She bit her lip, working past her tears--trying to keep from crying again. "That I loved her. That I was sorry." She swallowed heavily. "That I wanted her to find just one good memory of me and take that with her."

He was stroking the sides of her face, calming her--trying to give her something slightly more positive to focus on. "And where do you think she is now, Roberta?"

She gave a half-smile. "She's where she belongs." She shook her head a little. "She was never meant for this earth."

He nodded a little and drew her to him--seeing that she was calmer, and rested her head on his chest. She sighed a little, comforted despite herself. Her pain wasn't really subsiding, but--somehow--with someone else to help her with it--someone she loved and trusted, it suddenly seemed survivable.

She held him a little closer, while he stroked her hair soothingly. She had no idea why the hell Hugh *wanted* to help her with it, however, but he was the only man she had ever been emotionally close to who hadn't hurt her--who hadn't even tried or wanted to, and he was the only one she trusted.

She still didn't feel whole, of course--she probably wouldn't for a very long time to come, but she did--for once, for one of the only real times in her life--feel safe. And, for this, as for so much else, she did love him deeply.

She sighed a little, the pain within her now just a simple, incredible, painful roar--but one which she might be able to live through. She smiled--just slightly. That he could do even this for her seemed a miracle to her, indeed.

Her mind dared to look for just a second into the future. Maybe, together with him, she could find a way through; maybe together they could even find a way to use her small inheritance to keep other misguided women like herself from committing similar emotional crimes, could keep them from having to face the sort of tormenting memories she would now have to live with for the rest of her life.

He sighed, holding her tightly--feeling her pain. The fact that her torment was subsiding a little now wasn't enough for him; he just hated seeing her like this.

This didn't mean, though, that he would leave her. . . . Nothing in heaven or hell could ever force him to do that.

He wasn't her lover--didn't particularly care, in a larger sense--whether he ever was, although he did want that and much more with her. He had sat with her through illness and helped her fight off the call of the bottle; she was, truly, far more precious to him than anything else in this life ever could be.

He couldn't--wouldn't let her go, then. He would help her find the inner strength she refused to believe she had so much of, and they would get through this together. . . . So long as she was with him, indeed, they would both be alright.