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Invisible Chains

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Her body should have been growing tired, but her mind was too active to let it. There was too much which had her senses spinning, just now; there were too many questions. . . . Of course, it was hard, too, to feel truly tired when you were at least half-certain that you were only dreaming.

Nikita's feet crunched through the snow behind Michael's, the pack he had hidden in the woods for her on her shoulder. He hadn't said mu . . . no, he hadn't said *anything* to her, really, since they had escaped--since they had left the mission team behind.

It wasn't that he was ignoring her, though. He had looked back to her a few times, in the more difficult parts of the woods, to make certain that she was alright, that she was still with him. It wasn't that he wasn't concerned about her, then; it was more that he simply seemed to be locking something tightly away inside himself--something she was certain she had yet to discover.

She sighed and tried to speed up a little to keep up with him. He looked back at her with quiet eyes, and then continued on, slowing a little.

She watched his back, as he walked ahead of her purposefully. These past 24 hours had all seemed more than a little unreal. Ever since he had shown up in her apartment with three bemusing little words, "We're getting out," she had been unable to tell whether she were truly awake.

Maybe she was really in some strange Section fantasy, she thought--maybe she was being experimented on in some machine, while they watched her reactions to mental stimuli; maybe that was it. There was little, indeed, they could do which would surprise her anymore.

She shook her head slightly, trying to work these strange thoughts out of it. No. This was happening; it was real. They were out wandering through the, very cold, woods; they were fugitives from their masters. . . . But none of that even began to tell her what to make of it, however.

They had been walking for quite some time now--had been walking quite a way even before they had come across the relatively-friendly driver who had given them a lift. She hoped now, too, that they were closer to their destination--wherever that may be.

A confused and determined look came over her face, as she pondered this further. Michael glanced back at her, running his eyes over her--half-lovingly, half-assessingly--before he turned back to trace their path once more. They had taken a shortcut through the woods awhile ago, and she was beginning to hope--indeed--that they would reach another road soon. At least it might suggest that they were closer to . . . whatever.

She looked at Michael again. She wished she knew what had brought all this on--what had caused him to bolt. This really wasn't like him, after all.

Thinking about this further now, she still wasn't certain that he even had, really. . . . She was wondering, more than a little, now--indeed, about whether this were all simply a mission.

In truth--she thought again now, it seemed too odd to be anything else. Even having lost a post to Zalman, she still couldn't see Michael leaving--running. He knew their games too well, understood too much how they worked to try this. . . . It simply didn't make sense.

She sighed quietly. Even if he did run, as well, why take her? He certainly didn't need her to escape; he would, in fact, have been *far* safer on his own.

She remembered, of course, what he had said earlier, when she had asked him much this same question; she doubted she would ever be able to forget it. There had been a half-searing look of honesty and desire in his eyes, as he had turned to her in the truck: "I don't need you. I want you." She took a deep breath of the icy cold air before she coughed a little, remembering that that may not be the best idea in this weather; Michael looked back at her briefly again. She wished she could believe him.

They came once more to a road--well, more of a smallish dirt path--and began following it. It wasn't quite as snowed over as the deeper woods, however, so it was easier to make their way through. "That's a blessing, at least," she thought.

She still wished she knew what was really going on here, though. Somehow, the longer she was with him, the more she began to doubt that they were really free. There was just something in his air which suggested a . . . heaviness, almost a longing. He simply didn't seem to her like a man who had just broken free from a life in Hell in order to be able to start anew.

Of course, she didn't really know what he *would* be like, in those conditions, however; there was no way she could. The closest she had ever seen him to it, in fact, had been their one week together so soon after he had been separated from Adam and Elena. Then, too--she remembered, there had been the same feeling about him--whenever thoughts of their real life had intruded on their happiness; his spirit had just seemed to hang more heavily, had seemed to be ringed in invisible chains, as he had remembered again that they weren't truly free. . . . He was too much like that again now.

She was beginning to feel, therefore, that this *must* be some sort of mission; there had to be something else going on. She suspected, somehow, that--if they had been free, even if they may have been in danger of being recaptured--he wouldn't be quite like he was now; she would expect, in that situation, indeed, that he would have had just a little more . . . joy about him. She sighed. But that wasn't the case here.

She tried, then, to think about other possibilities for his decision to run. There was only one thing, really, which she could ever imagine forcing him out of Section One, and that--as much as it frightened her--was her. She suspected, however, that--if he felt it were the only way he could protect her, he would break them both out--would get them both free, just to keep her alive.

She wasn't aware, of course, of any reason why she might be in abeyance, at present, though. Her part in giving up S6 to Crachek had been found to be false and forgiven awhile ago. Their masters, too, didn't seem particularly displeased with her at present, . . . but she hoped that there wasn't just something she had been missing.

Her heart seemed to squeeze in a little at this thought. . . . God, she hoped this wasn't it. As little as she liked it, she knew that Michael's life *was* Section. Outside of them, he would be lost--would be disconcerted. It wasn't that he particularly liked his life there, really; it was more that he just didn't yet understand how to live elsewhere. And, until he did, he would never really be able to find any true happiness outside of its heavily-patrolled borders.

If, then, he had gotten them out because he was protecting her, she suspected that he was doing it only because he didn't intend to live long, anyway. She feared that he would see his role in such a half-life as only consisting of the need to get her away--to see her safe, before he gave himself up for the sacrifice. She closed her eyes for a second. God, she prayed, then, that this wasn't the reason.

She looked at the road again, as Michael glanced back toward her with concern at just her greatest moment of distress. She looked at him with eyes which held too many questions. He blinked once, slowly--cutting off the answers, and then returned his eyes to the path.

She took in as deep a breath as the crisp air allowed. She really did hope, having thought through it now, that this would turn out to be a mission--even though she hated that he hadn't simply told her that at the start. As little as she would like being left out of a briefing on something this important, she would like it even less if he had made so grave a decision about the course of their lives without telling her.

She shook her head just slightly, not quite drawing his attention; she wished he would let her in more. She didn't like being towed along like a favorite possession--like a toy he just couldn't be without.

She sighed, however, a bit too tired--too confused--to be angry, at present. She wished, though, that he would tell her--would just tell her the truth of what was about to happen. She was tired of the games, of the shadows; she wanted--for just once--to stand in the light, even if it hurt her eyes, even if it burned her. She wanted his honesty, no matter how painful.

She glanced around at the snow on the ground, covering the terrain--making them guess at what lay beneath it. It seemed to her suddenly to be the perfect environment, the perfect metaphor, for their present situation--hell, for their *daily* situation. Nothing in her life was ever clearly visible; you always had to guess--had to pray that, when the snow melted, you would be proved right.

She looked over at Michael, who walked to her side--only a bit ahead of her. "I hope this is a mission," she thought. He turned the full force of his deep gaze on her, and she knew that something inside of both of them quivered, as though reverberating from the sudden impact of the intimacy of their souls; he was so beautiful. She continued her thought: "And I also hope that you're able to tell me soon." . . . Today, indeed, she wanted the real man--not the eternal mystery.

**********

It seemed to Nikita that they had been walking forever in silence by the time they finally came upon the small cabin. She was a little surprised, in fact, when Michael began walking up to it so confidently; he had never told her where they were going--of course, but--somehow--this still hadn't been what she had imagined.

She looked at their new surroundings, as they approached the building, and slipped a little, when Michael suddenly came to a halt in front of her to open a shutter. He didn't make any mention of it, though, as he began to lead her into the small house, which was unlocked. "That's unusual," she noted to herself, although she did realize that there probably wasn't much reason to lock a door out in the middle of nowhere.

She continued taking in their new surroundings, as he entered in front of her. He looked around a little, making certain it was safe--blocking the door to protect her, in case anything were out of place. It was an unconscious gesture for him by now, one he would have found it impossible to give up--had he even wanted to. Nikita didn't even notice, however, still too preoccupied with taking in their new haven.

Michael held the door open for her, quietly inviting her in. She smiled happily, as she looked around--too charmed by what she was finding to notice him for a few minutes. He watched her enter and then shut the door, moving finally across the room to put down his pack, as she continued her pleased inspection.

"How'd you find this place?" she asked, eyes still wandering.

He tried to ignore the aching in his heart; he wished to God that this were real--that he were here with her as a man, not an operative. . . . He wondered, as well, how long it would take her to ask about the real reason they were here.

He took out the field router and put it down near the cabin's hiding place. "I saw it when we were doing aerial reconnaissance." He repressed a sigh. "I noticed it because it was over 50 kilometers from a population zone," he answered in his mechanical, Section-trained way. He supposed that he was trying to give her a hint of their real purpose here, even in his speech; he prayed she wouldn't be too angry. He walked across the room to the stove, distancing himself from her slightly.

She was looking toward the upstairs. "Who owns it?"

He opened the stove, wanting to give the room some heat to battle the chill he feared the truth of their situation would bring her. "I do."

She looked over at him, drawn away from her study of the cottage. Her surprise was evident. "Really?"

He went on--telling her the half-truth on the surface of their situation. "And then I bought the land around it--a hundred hectares." He began putting paper in the stove.

She took in this information, as she wandered around the cabin--looking back at him, as she gave him her assessment. "I like it." She found a door which led to a small garage containing a black range rover. The idea of this place belonging to him was starting to warm her; she made a small noise, before saying, "It must be beautiful here in the summer."

Michael looked back from his preparations at the stove to smile at her. "I wish I knew," he answered to himself. His heart clenched a little as he thought about being able to come here--to stay here with her, wishing again--for just a second--that this were all real.

She was getting a little nervous. The things which lay unsaid between them were beginning to build inside her; she wasn't certain how much longer she could contain them.

She spotted an old record player and went over to it; music always calmed her. She was suddenly struck, as well, with a real desire to know what it was he listened to, when he had a chance to choose. Behind her, Michael lit the stove.

The records she found were old, well-used. "These look like they've been around," she said a little nervously. Not really knowing any of the music she saw, she pulled one out and looked at the cover; it looked like it contained the music of a sad chanteuse. She settled on it, putting it on to play.

The soft sounds began to fill the room, calming her a little. She turned to walk over to the couch, blowing on her hands, half from cold--half from her still-unsettled nerves.

He had already gotten up from the stove and retrieved some food from his backpack, as she lay down half-way on the couch. She watched him chop up vegetables for their dinner, as she sized him up. There was still too much tension between them. She tried a joke, smiling at him--referring back to their one week together--to see if she could get a reaction out of him. "I didn't realize you had such talent in the kitchen, Michael."

He didn't really even notice the comment, however--too lost in his own fears, his own thoughts. He felt the tension growing, as well; he wondered how long it would be now before she asked.

He wished, of course, that he could just tell her, that he could just open himself up to her--but he couldn't. He had begun them on this silent path, and it had now trapped him within its stillness. . . . She would have to be the one to lead their way.

He gave her a distracted answer, therefore, revealing more of what was inside him. He needed her to ask, needed the truth of what they were here for to come out, before the secret drove him mad. "Still a lot of things you don't know about me." He thought about it further for a second and looked up at her with saddened eyes. "Maybe it's time you learned."

His eyes were pleading with her: "Talk to me, Nikita. . . . Ask."

Her look was warm, as she took him in. She knew what he was waiting for--knew that he was ready to tell her what she needed to know, and her heart glowed with tenderness for him for actually wanting to tell her.

They looked at each other for another second, before she spoke. "This is a mission, isn't it, Michael?"

He began breathing again, his relief evident to her. "Yes."

She nodded, assessing their situation. "Are we being watched?"

He shook his head slightly. "There's no surveillance."

She leaned toward him, resting her elbow on her raised knee, which rested against the back of the couch. "So what's it all about?"

His eyes were sad; he hated not having told her before--hated that she was being forced to take things as calmly as she now did. He continued preparing their dinner, his eyes shifting between her and the food. "Zalman. He's Red Cell."

She took a deep breath. The news didn't surprise her, really; she had always gotten bad vibes from the guy. She nodded again, not entirely processing how this mission worked yet. "So, why are we here?"

Her eyes looked deeply into him. His simply caught hers sadly, trying to explain without words; the words themselves seemed too brutal.

She took in a deep breath, as she came to understand. "The field router." She nodded again. "We're the bait."

He closed his eyes for a second and looked back to his preparations. "Yes."

She propped her elbow on the back of the couch, running her hand into her hair, as she stared down. "So, how's this work exactly, Michael? How does he find us?"

He took in a deep breath. "He doesn't." He swallowed, looking up. "He finds you."

She looked back up to him quickly, several thoughts all tumbling through her mind at once. One of them, though, quickly became the most prominent; her eyes narrowed a little. "You're going to let yourself get captured, aren't you?"

He met her eyes honestly, nodding. "Yes."

She understood the process now. She swallowed, looking away for a second--trying to hide, even from herself, just how much the thought hurt her: "You're going to give me up?" She looked back up at him slowly, eyes tortured.

What she saw in his gaze was a soul trapped behind barbed wire--looking out at freedom. He nodded only slightly.

She closed her eyes tightly and then focused on the floor once more. She hated this--hated that he would be the cause of her pain again, hated that he had been set up to betray her, . . . hated that he would be tortured. The last thought rumbled to prominence suddenly in her mind, and she looked up at him again, quickly. "You're going to let Zalman interrogate you."

He nodded a little. They both knew what it meant.

She took a deep breath, torn between the pain of knowing that he was betraying her once again and the desire to protect him from pain, as well. She thought through it all and finally shook her head. "Zalman can't break you, Michael. Even he has to have enough sense to know that."

His eyes were getting a little bloodshot. He looked back to the food, moving into another stage of their dinner's preparation. "If he can't, Operations will help him."

She let out a small gasp, before she realized she had opened her lips--the truth of those words having dawned on her. "Adam," she whispered.

"Yes," his barely-audible voice replied, his gaze not focusing on her.

Her voice had a bit of panic in it--some she couldn't control. "He . . . you . . ." She took a deep breath, trying to pull her continuously rising horror under control. "He won't be hurt," she stated uncertainly.

He tried to pull a steadying breath of air into his lungs. "I don't think so." He looked back up at her, eyes saddened.

The look that passed between them lasted for several seconds, as a million thoughts went unspoken. Finally, she decided to pull them away from the random path they were on--trying to focus, needing to know. "Where will they capture you?"

"There's a town not too far away. They'll find me there."

She nodded a little. "They torture you; you give me up," she tried to conceal the fact that she had to swallow heavily at this point, "and then Zalman comes to take me in."

He shook his head a little. "No, he comes for the router." He looked up at the ceiling for a second--reining in his emotions--before refocusing on her, eyes tearing--voice a hoarse whisper. "I'll explain all the details over dinner."

She nodded. "That's gonna be some dinner," she thought ironically.

He saw her reluctant agreement and went back to his preparations.

She rubbed her hand through her hair, and then propped her head on her palm, as she stared at the floor, thinking. "Is this Operations' plan?"

"Yes," he said quietly.

She nodded, her focus unchanged--her thoughts dark. "You weren't the one who was supposed to get captured, were you?" She looked up at him, but he refused to make eye contact. "Michael," she prodded, when he said nothing.

"It doesn't matter," he replied without looking up.

Her eyes took on a loving light. "You changed it to protect me."

He closed his eyes, before looking up at her. "You're still in danger," he said softly.

She shook her head. "But I'm not the one being tortured."

He looked back down. "Doesn't matter," he repeated.

She only thought her reply. "Yes, it does. . . . It matters a lot."

She watched him for a moment, as he concentratedly prepared their dinner. She knew that she would be--in both Operations' and Zalman's eyes--the more logical one to break, but he had--without her permission--changed the profile in order to keep her, relatively, safe from pain.

Her eyes, which he avoided, were full of deep love for him. There had been so much pain between them--so many betrayals and brutalities--since they had spent that one happy week alone, but now she wondered--she *hoped*--that they were finally coming to a place where they could trust again, where they could love again--even if it were only at a distance.

She watched him preparing their meal, and her heart clenched further with tortured love--with the desire for this little fantasy in the woods to be *real*. She needed him to know, then, as much as she could tell him at the moment, that she cared--that she appreciated his efforts to keep her safe; she spoke softly but with confidence. "Michael."

He looked up at her finally--reluctantly--to see the deep devotion in her eyes; his heart seemed to be crying out for her. He wished to God that he could just hold her--that he could allow himself to be that close.

She smiled at him--a smile that made his heart ache. "Thank you," she said simply.

The love in his eyes warmed her far more than the small fire he had started for them earlier. He gave her the smallest of nods--the most he was willing to trust himself with at the moment--and then returned to his work, knowing now--however unlikely the fulfilling of that desire may be--that they were *both* wishing for something more.

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

Dinner had been, well, . . . odd--a mixture of mission parameters and pregnant pauses. In fact, as soon as he had made all of the plans clear, they had fallen into a silence which they had never quite managed to end.

Nikita was lying back on the couch now, exhausted from the day--eyes closed, half-asleep--mind wandering back over the last few hours. The silence between them hadn't been an uncomfortable one, just . . . significant. She had been able to tell in it--and in the look in Michael's eyes--that their whole current situation in the cabin too closely mirrored his own fantasies, as well. . . . And that information had, indeed, quieted any of her fears for the moment.

He was outside gathering wood now--had insisted, mostly--again--in his silences, that she stay inside to rest, while he did so. She didn't really object too much, either; it was giving her time to reflect--to come to terms with the rather odd situation they seemed to be in.

In a way, indeed, she was enjoying this--was loving this opportunity to be with him, away from Section's cameras and profilers. They had too few opportunities to be alone, normally--too little time to be able to be themselves. . . . Perhaps, then, they should just try to enjoy this.

She sighed. That, though--she knew, was easier to think than do. She still didn't, after all, really know what Michael expected out of all this. Did he want them to become lovers again? Did he want them to be friends? Or was this, despite its resemblance to his fantasies, simply another mission for him? She shook her head slightly. She really wasn't sure.

She wasn't absolutely certain, in fact, what *she* wanted out of this, really. What did she actually think should happen here? And--whatever it was--could she truly hope for anything more than simple, temporary cohabitation?

She made a discontented noise. She supposed, really, that she should be more angry about all this--about having been dragged off into the wilderness under his false pretenses, only to then discover that it was all a sham. She sighed once more. What kept her from this reaction, however, was the fact that she had feared so strongly that he was preparing to sacrifice himself for her sake. In contrast, then, simply being duped by him yet again didn't seem quite so bad. She smiled slightly. And the conflicted emotions award goes to . . .

Her smile faded a little, as she continued pondering. Having decided that there was nowhere good this train of thought could lead, indeed, her mind went back to trying to decide what she did want from Michael. Even though she wasn't entirely sure about all this, she supposed what she did know was that she wanted to take this opportunity to be close to him--not necessarily sexually, just . . . close. Maybe, indeed, that would help settle some of the usual, lingering fears between them.

This wasn't all, however. She wanted to see, too--needed to know, whether Michael actually desired something deeper with her, something more permanent. She just wasn't sure anymore. She knew that he cared, yes, but what did he want? Was the fact that she was alive enough for him, or did he dream of something more?

She opened her eyes for a second, an awful thought entering her head. She really hoped that this wasn't all just a passing desire for him. She knew he truly cared, yes, but could he also be happy simply with one night--with an occasional brush with passion with her, whenever a mission allowed? She shuddered slightly. God, she hoped not.

She closed her eyes again and continued to drift, once more--trying to put this unsettling thought out of her mind. There was a more solid level of comfort between them again now, at least; she knew, then, that she would have to use that to test him--to try to see what he wanted from her. . . . Maybe then she could begin to figure out what she wanted for herself.

By the time Michael returned from his search for kindling, Nikita had been dozing for awhile. She woke up when the door opened on its old hinges, though, and watched as he entered the cabin. She sat up, stretching, while he put his load down near the stove.

She watched him at his work, assessing him. Her eyelids were still heavy with sleep, wanting to close on her, but she fought against it--needing to better understand what was happening between them. She looked at his back sadly, as her mind thought over their situation--wondering how much time they had before the real mission began. "How long do you think we'll stay here?"

He looked up a little as the impact of the question hit him. He had stayed a little longer than necessary outside, half-freezing himself as a punishment for his part in bringing her into this mission unaware--for not being able to let her in on Operations' plans.

He turned to walk back to her. His voice was sad; he really didn't feel that he had any right to be here with her at all, but he still wished to God that they could stay, all the same. "Not long enough." He seated himself on the opposite end of the couch--distancing himself, while still wanting to be close. His eyes were focused on his own thoughts.

Her next move, then, surprised him a little. She moved over to him, lying down with her head on his thigh. He watched her, not touching her--his gaze loving but melancholy.

Nikita was looking away from him, her leg wiggling back and forth absently on the couch. She didn't want to make him too nervous; she was afraid he would bolt. "I'm so glad you bought me here. I wish we could stay." The statement was completely truthful, but it was also aimed at provoking a response.

He looked down at her sadly. He wanted so much more. He wanted a lifetime--but, more than likely, they would never get it.

When he spoke, therefore, his voice was a hoarse, unhappy whisper. "Let's not think about the future. Let's just enjoy this while it lasts." His eyes were watering. He knew that he should look away from her but was drawn, by his love, to examine her features, anyway.

She took in his meaning and changed the subject slightly, shrugging a little; she focused across the room. "You know, I couldn't get that window closed today." She rubbed her arm slightly. She was cold, but she was asking--as well--for his warmth, on so many levels.

He understood but wouldn't--couldn't allow himself to--respond as she wanted. "I've got to go into town tomorrow and get some . . . things." His voice was hoarse, was barely able to speak. He knew, more than likely, that he wouldn't be coming back to her then.

He swallowed a little, preparing to tell her what they both knew was a lie. He looked down at her, though--eyes captivated, and his expression brightened a little--just from being able to examine her beautiful face. "I'll pick up a new latch."

"So, it'll be cold tonight, then," she said--covertly pleading for his warmth once more. She shifted her shoulders a little on his leg, her arms still crossed over--trying to warm--herself.

God, he wanted to give in to her request. He wished he felt worthy of making love to her, of at least holding her close; he had dreamed of it so often. . . . He knew he didn't deserve this, though.

He sighed a little and reached over for a blanket which had been lying along the back of the couch, draping it over her with a slight flourish--careful not to touch her. Nikita made a happy noise and snuggled under the blanket, closer to him.

He watched her small joy--enraptured. . . . She was so beautiful. He couldn't resist putting his hand on her shoulder.

"Thank you," she murmured.

He began stroking her lightly through the blanket. It was all he would allow himself, but he couldn't quite stop himself from being close to her somehow, even if it was in so small a way.

She noticed what he was doing. Right now, it seemed a huge gesture. She tried to interpret it, a little confused.

He focused on her for a few more seconds before looking away, his eyes tortured--unfocusing slightly. He wanted to hold her so much, wanted to be able to take part in the mutual comfort she was offering, but he knew he couldn't allow himself to. This, after all, was a mission. By late tomorrow morning, probably, Section would have him once more, and he would have abandoned her to face alone the rest of what had been profiled--all the pains which she had only so recently been warned of. . . . This wasn't real.

He couldn't stop thinking, either, about the fact that he would have to betray her again soon in this scenario. He knew, of course, that it wouldn't be real this time--that it was only for Zalman's benefit, but that didn't make it any less painful. He didn't, therefore, deserve her tenderness--her love.

She was looking up at his face. "I thought you said we weren't going to think about the future."

He looked down at her and smiled a little. She had been divining his thoughts again. . . . God, he loved her. "Sorry," he said finally.

They both needed one another's comfort so much. They were caught in each other's gaze for several more minutes--both of them wishing for something more but afraid to take it, afraid to ask.

Finally, he opened his mouth and took in a quiet, deep breath--breaking their silence. "Rest," he said simply.

She smiled up at him--knowing that they had both just chickened out. "I don't have the courage to kiss you, either, Michael," she thought, before she turned her head to rub her cheek on his thigh, letting the silence overtake them once more.

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

It was about a half hour later when Michael finally suggested that they should go to bed. They had spent the intervening time in that same position on the sofa, both of them lost in their own thoughts--neither of them quite able to move things any farther. . . . It was a peaceful version of limbo.

Once they had lit the candles to take with them--however--and began making their way up the stairs, Nikita found that she was suddenly terribly nervous. Her eyes wandered unhappily from him to the rest of the cottage, almost as though she were looking for an escape.

Michael moved to one side of the bed, too, with a quiet confidence which made her suddenly question everything. Her steps, as she moved to the opposite side and sat down, were slower--more tentative.

She put the candle down on the side table and bounced on the bed a little--testing its firmness. At the moment, it was more a nervous childhood habit than an invitation.

He took up the other side, sitting quietly--his back to her. He was waiting for her to speak, to make the first move--of whatever kind it might prove to be.

The fact that he wasn't pushing her didn't mean that he was happy with waiting, though; the silence which sat between them was almost painful for him. He quietly took off his shoes. He wanted--desperately--to know what was in her mind--to know what she wanted, what she felt. . . . What was she thinking of him, at this moment?

That, however, was a question even she wasn't sure she could answer. She dropped her head into her hands, running her fingers into her hair--upset, confused, . . . worried suddenly that all this was just a mission to him. "How's this gonna work?" she asked finally; it was the most coherent her thoughts got, at the moment. She held her hands out questioningly, not looking at him.

He was at least relieved that she had finally spoken again. Now, he just wished he had a real answer.

He turned his head to the side--toward her but not looking at her--and made a suggestion, attempting to find what would be most comfortable for her. "We can be careful. . . . Take things slow." His voice almost broke, as he said it; even though he wasn't trying to become her lover again, this wasn't what he wanted, either. He knew, however, that it was what he needed to offer--knew it was what he should give her. He waited silently for her response.

She rolled her eyes a little and nodded, only realizing with his words that this *wasn't* what she wanted. She thought it through, then, and presented a different path for his consideration--finally understanding what she was hoping for. "There's another option. I mean . . ." She stopped for a second--her eyes fantasizing, remembering the past. "We can live today like it's our last." She bit her lip, waiting for his response.

Her words struck him deeply, but he knew he couldn't respond to her the way he wanted to--couldn't allow himself to get lost in his fantasies; he had to point out what might happen. He took in a slow breath and turned to her, his eyes deep, powerful. "It very well could be." She turned to him quickly--caught up, soon thereafter, in his gaze. Her eyes were upset, a little accusing. She realized now that she really hadn't thought of it this way before--hadn't yet taken in the possible ramifications of this mission.

Michael's eyes were a little sad, but he kept up the contact--making certain she understood his message. He hated this, as well, but he wouldn't let her fool herself about the dangers of their situation--wouldn't let her get so caught up in their mutual fantasy that she forgot that her life could be taken if she lost focus.

She turned away from him, as the horrible knowledge sunk further in; she was a little in shock, really. There was just too much going on in this mission, on an emotional level; she had gotten distracted from its real purpose--possibly because she had only recently been told it.

She lay down on the bed, her hand on her head. She turned her gaze to focus on the candle, as she attempted to take all of this in.

He watched her sadly, as she processed the true dangers of their mission for the first time. "I'm sorry, Nikita," he said softly.

She continued to focus on the candle silently for several long seconds--her mind working through several puzzles at once. "Why'd you bring me here, Michael?" she asked finally, still not turning to him.

He took in a deep, quiet breath. "You know already."

She nodded just slightly. "The mission required two people." She looked back at him, her deep stare pinning him. "But why *me*?"

His eyes were confused--hurt. Her words had struck a chord which made him ache; his answer was more defensive--showed more of his emotions--than he had meant to. His voice was deep but quiet. "Who else do you think that Zalman--that *anyone* would believe I'd run with?" He paused, looking deeply at her--pained. "Who else do *you* think I would?"

She closed her eyes, admitting defeat in this. No--there was no one else, she knew. But--right now--that didn't make this any easier. "So this is *just*," she looked back at him, "a mission?"

As his last question had broken through her barriers, so this one broke through his. His gaze was a little frightened--like something small and vulnerable caught a few inches away from the jaws of something large and hungry.

The silence lasted for at least half a minute. She waited for him to answer, refusing to let him go, their gaze unbroken.

"No," he said finally.

She waited for more. When it was obvious it wasn't coming, she prodded him. "So what is it?"

Oh, God. She wanted too much. She wanted a view into his soul.

His eyes were slightly wide. He was terrified. He wanted to refuse to answer her, wanted to run, . . . but there was nowhere to run to, was nowhere he could hide.

He knew that he had to answer her for another reason, as well. He, after all, had been the one to point out that this was a mission, that they were in danger--that this could be their last night together on earth; he had been the one to put the idea in her head. . . . How, then, could he stay silent?

He did the best he could to answer, therefore. "I told you earlier today, Nikita. I want you." His voice was soft. He looked down at the bed, as he continued; her eyes had proved too powerful for him. "I didn't bring you here to seduce you. I won't ask you to be my lover." He met her gaze again. "But that doesn't mean that I don't want you."

She looked up at him, seriously but a bit more tenderly. "I pretty much asked you to be *my* lover earlier, Michael," she reminded him.

His eyes searched hers, needing consolation. "You still want me?"

"Yes," she replied simply. "I don't happen to think that spending my last night on earth in your arms would be a bad idea." His eyes stared lovingly at her, but he made no move toward her. "Are you refusing?"

His gaze suddenly spoke of an unfathomable sadness. "Yes," he barely managed.

She saw in his eyes that this wasn't a rejection so much as a temporary refusal. Her look was still tender. "Why?"

He sighed deeply. His eyes traced softly over her face, down to her neck--gazing at those places he wanted to touch--to taste. "I don't want you like this."

She watched the tenderness and desire in his eyes and waited for more of his words. He sighed and dragged his gaze back to hers, trying to explain. "This is both a mission," he shook his head, "and it's *us*."

He sighed, a little frustrated. The words weren't coming out like he wanted them to; he had known how to use them to seduce and to tease for so long, but they always seemed to fail him when he needed them most. "I don't want you to feel like you have to," he sighed again, "`perform'."

She was beginning to understand; she shook her head, her eyes trying to convince him of her feelings. "I know that, Michael." She saw it in his eyes. "But, . . ." she trailed off, unable to put her need for him into words.

He nodded a little. "I know." He sighed quietly. "But a mission is no place to," he paused for a half second, making certain she caught his choice of phrase, "make love."

She swallowed heavily, suddenly afraid that her memories were false. "We have before," she reminded him quietly. He nodded slightly again, his eyes incredibly saddened. "And you almost thought, after it, that it had *only* been a mission," he reminded her, as well.

She looked away, and his eyes traced her face again; he needed her to know this, just in case something happened to him, . . . just in case something didn't. "If we live," he took a deep breath, "I can't let you forget again--I can't let you question what's happened between us." His voice was barely a whisper. "It hurts too much."

Her eyes shot back to him, slightly amazed by this confession. Her fears, though, started to overtake her; her look grew a little desperate. "But what if this *is* our last night?" Her voice was roughened by emotional pain. "What if, after you go, I never get to see you again?"

He reached his hand out toward her, so tentatively. He touched her cheek very lightly--barely brushing along it. "I said I wouldn't be your lover tonight." His eyes held such love. "I never said I wouldn't hold you."

She swallowed back a giant lump in her throat, tears threatening to spill from her eyes. "Mi-chael," she whispered, barely audibly.

He leaned down to her, his eyes keeping contact all the way, and brushed his lips against hers very softly. She let her breath out in a tender gasp.

He pulled away, but she wouldn't let him go. She caught the back of his head gently and pulled him softly toward her again.

Their lips touched once more, as they both let out sighing moans. They pressed themselves together a bit longer this time, but he still pulled back from the kiss after too few, quickened--shared--heartbeats.

He caught her eyes completely. "Please don't ask," he begged her, knowing her thoughts. He couldn't stand to make love to her again like this--not on a mission, not when she would be so likely to confuse it with parameters and profiles. If they did, and she questioned its truth again, the pain of her doubt would kill him. He couldn't take it.

Her eyes were sad. She wanted so much more--wanted to be able to share herself with him completely tonight, . . . but she knew that he was right. Missions and making love were incompatible; it was too easy to get confused about motives. She couldn't take it, either.

She nodded slightly, agreeing to put limits on the physical expression of their intimacy tonight. He closed his eyes--in both gratitude and sadness, before looking back at her.

He tried to dispel his own melancholy, however--remembering how fortunate he was to be with her at all. He smiled at her slightly, then, and pulled back--standing up; he pulled down the covers on his side. "Come to bed, Nikita," he asked. She smiled--silently agreeing to try to enjoy what time they had--and stood as well.

They both watched each other, as they undressed only slightly, pulling off their pants. They were both dressed too well for the weather to have this act reveal any flesh.

When she reached for her sweater, however, he said quickly, "No. Please." She nodded again, understanding that--for both of them--holding their need for one another in check was difficult; bare skin was too much of a temptation.

She pulled back the covers on her own side and climbed into bed after him. They looked at each other for another second and then blew out their candles.

He held the covers up to invite her over to him, and she happily agreed, sliding over toward him and nestling her head on his still-clothed chest. She sighed, something inside her finally beginning to feel healed. "I've been wanting you to do this all night."

He wrapped his arms around her tightly and kissed the top of her head, his hand stroking down her hair. He shook his head a little, his eyes unfocusing, as he thought his response silently: "You have no idea how much I wanted to, my love."

He sighed slightly. "Sleep, `Kita," was all he said aloud, however. She sighed contentedly--seeming to have heard his silent message, and he continued to place warm kisses on her hair and over her temple, his arms holding her to him soundly--making her feel safe and loved, for the first time in many months.

Both of their hearts seemed to be entwining, but nothing was said between them. He held her close, then, as--for the only time in far too long--she fell asleep with his scent soothing her, with his hands warming his tenderness into her, . . . with their shared love healing them both.

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

He woke up holding her for the first time in months. She was breathing softly against him, was molded to him with the sort of intimacy which belied their layers of clothing. . . . It was his definition of bliss.

He kissed the top of her head. She seemed so peaceful, at the moment--so unlike the tormented figure he had turned her into so often of late. He sighed sadly. He hated that he would soon be betraying her once more.

He held her closer, and she snuggled against him in her sleep, enjoying his need for her. The move made his heart ache. He had told her everything she needed to know, and some things she hadn't, about this mission now--finally, but that didn't stop him from still fearing what was to come. . . . There was so much, after all, that could go wrong.

Michael had feared, in fact, when Operations had first presented this profile to him and had warned him not to tell Madeline, that he and Nikita were simply being set up for cancellation. It would be, indeed, the perfect plan, . . . and *he*, in it, would end up being the cause of it all.

It was only when he forced himself to think past his fears, in fact, that this profile did make sense to him--except for Madeline's exclusion. He suspected, however, that was simply some little power game which Section's leader was playing with his second-in-command; he was thankful to be left out of it.

He knew, as well, that Zalman did seem likely to be what Operations had accused him of. He had understood, too--which further reassured him, that neither he nor Nikita had done anything of late to anger their masters, so their elimination--fortunately--would have been counterproductive, at this point.

He ran his hand down Nikita's hair and heard her murmur his name, as she shifted against him in her sleep. He smiled and kissed her head once more.

He had hated not being able to tell her the truth from the beginning of this mission. She had deserved that much, indeed, . . . but there had been too many reasons to keep her in the dark--from the possibility of Zalman having bugged her apartment or having a bug near Section's surveillance equipment (he still wasn't certain that Nikita wasn't being watched again by their leaders) to the fear that her knowledge of his future betrayal of her to Zalman might force her into outward displays of coldness which could cause their target to question their supposed defection together. . . . He hadn't liked it, then, but he had known that his silence was necessary.

Still, the fact that he had had to pretend that he was escaping with her--had had to pretend this with her, as well--had hit too close to home. Although he knew Nikita was certain he was incapable of it, he fantasized about this possibility all the time--dreamed of being able to steal her away from Section, away from the pain and trauma, and into a world where only the two of them mattered--where each day was marked only by their love for each other and the various, wonderfully trivial, concerns of life.

He sighed and looked toward the window, judging the time. He knew he would have to go soon, would have to leave her once more, . . . and he hated it. He wasn't looking forward to anything which was to come--not deserting her, not Zalman's scattershot torture methods, not being forced to even *pretend* to choose between her safety and Adam's, and not--certainly not--to betraying her.

He put his cheek on her head and rubbed it there, enjoying the feel of her soft hair against his skin; his mind went back to their arrival at the cabin last evening, to her deduction of the details of their profile. He hated that she thought he would give her up, for anything--for anyone. He still didn't know exactly what he *would* do, if he were ever forced to decide between protecting her or his son, but he was certain that--whatever he might do about Adam--he wouldn't betray her. . . . It made him sick to have to pretend.

He closed his eyes, holding in his pain. He knew that this betrayal of her was the course which Zalman, in his idiocy, was most likely to believe. And--he knew as well, the sooner they could trap him, the sooner this nightmare would be over.

He held her closer--opening his eyes once more, as she murmured in her sleep. The only decent part of all of this was that he had been able to hold her again, had been able to share himself with her--if only for a little while. He sighed. He just wished it could continue.

He tried to force his mind onto another path; continuing on this one might make him insane. He hoped, of course, that they would both make it through this; it was certainly more than possible that they would. But--even so--he still didn't know where that would leave them.

He kissed her hair once more, breathing in its scent--trying to comfort himself, as his thoughts continued to disturb him. They wouldn't--sadly--have another opportunity like this one for, . . . well, possibly forever; they so rarely got the chance to be close at all. To be able to do so without cameras or observers--to be able to be together when their intimacy wasn't required by Section, indeed, was a gift; he didn't know when they would be this fortunate again.

He sighed once more. The last few months had been hard ones--had made this particular moment seem even sweeter than it would have to begin with. He had hurt her so deeply, so frequently--in fact, that he had truly feared--at one point--that their relationship would be damaged beyond all hope of repair, had decided that to wish even for casual friendship with her might be asking too much.

Fortunately, although he had certainly feared for a time that it might, this trend hadn't continued forever. More recently, there had been a slight upswing between them; things had gotten a little better. She had even kissed him briefly, when he had helped her protect her mother from Section. . . . That had been the gift which had made him believe, indeed--ever so slightly, that maybe there was actually some hope left for them, after all.

He swallowed back heavily, his eyes reddened--feeling thoroughly overwhelmed. To be here with her now was a blessing he knew he could never deserve, but it was one he was more thankful for than there would ever be words to express. That she still cared for him at all was a miracle; that she could take comfort in his embrace was a divine gift. She was everything beautiful in the world and yet she was here in his arms--was happy being intimate with his soul. . . . It was heaven. He didn't understand it, but he wouldn't be fool enough to question it, either.

He sighed quietly, sadly--the path of his thoughts turning once more. He had to admit to himself that he did wish it had been possible for them to make love last night. He was still tormented by the intimacy they had shared during their one week of happiness, so long ago; it still came back to haunt him in his dreams--both waking and in sleep.

He shook his head a little and kissed her hair once more. He knew, too--however, that it hadn't been right last night--hadn't been able to happen then, for all the reasons he had told her. He was determined that--in the future--she would never be able to question the truth of their intimacy again; he wouldn't allow it. And, if that meant that they would avoid it, in some circumstances, so be it. When he made love to her, she had to understand--then and forever--that it was real. . . . Without that knowledge, part of him would be undeniably--irretrievably--lost.

He looked back toward the window, knowing the time for pain was close. He put his hand on her head and kissed her slowly several times--drawing strength from her sleeping form, gifting her with his own.

He held her close for another few heartbeats--taking in her sweet scent to comfort him through the torture to come, pondering their future. He didn't know, once this was over, where they would be--what would become of them. He wanted, of course, for them to be able to continue their closeness, but he had no idea whether that would be possible.

He closed his eyes, bathing himself in her light--sharing his love with her sleeping form. For a fleeting second, too, he allowed himself to wish that he could return to her today, . . . but he knew--in the long run--that it would be easier if he didn't; another night together might prove too much of a temptation for them both. They needed their strength and concentration for what was to come; it was better if they just, then, got the mission over with.

He heard her moan happily in her sleep, as he held her, and he made her a silent promise--one he would never allow himself to break: "I will come back, Nikita. No matter what, I will protect you."

He kissed her temple once more, trying to transfer his words into her mind--trying to gift her with his own conviction. This done, then, he could finally let her go--could begin to try to leave. He kissed her temple devotedly one more time and then began the emotionally painful task of unwrapping her from around him.

She wasn't made happy by his desertion; she began to fret, began to wake up. He leaned down to her temple, kissing it once more. "Quiet, Nikita," he murmured, kissing it again. "Sleep," he kissed her once more, "sleep, my sweet one."

"Mi-chael," she murmured warmly, dreamily, before falling into a peaceful sleep once more.

He watched her for a few more minutes. He could wake her, of course, but then she would just have longer to wait for their ordeal to start. She had been trained too well to be able to sleep for too long a period, as well--he knew, so she was in no danger from unexpected visitors. . . . Besides, she needed the rest.

He let his hand stroke over her temple for a few more seconds. He would leave her a note to explain his absence, would give her a time when he should return--which would allow her to know, depending on whether he made it back by then, whether they had gotten to him yet or not. He smiled. Maybe, too, she could even convince herself for a minute or two--when she found it--that it was all real, after all. His smile deepened slightly, reflecting the love for her in his heart. They both deserved a few sweet illusions in this half-life they lived.

He watched her for one more minute, drinking in the sight of her to keep himself together during what was to come. She was the most beautiful creature ever born--was the most awe-inspiring of God's creations. "My God, Nikita," he thought, "I love you."

He leaned down to kiss her temple one final time before pulling away from her. She smiled in her sleep and murmured happily, "Michael."

He stood by the bed, smiling at her, his eyes full of devotion. He took one more moment, then, to tuck her last, sleeping word to him into his heart--to keep him alive, before he turned from her--turned away from his angel to walk into Hell. ************

Extra warning: The interrogation scenes begin here and continue on into the next chapter.

He gritted his teeth, as the pain continued; he had been strapped in a chair, suffering, for at least 15 minutes now. He had, in fact, been counting through the minutes--had been attempting to keep track of them, . . . had been doing anything possible to keep his mind off the pain.

Michael tried to focus on something--on anything that would keep his mind busy, would keep it clear, . . . would keep it disconnected, as much as was possible, from his body. Electrocution, really, he decided, wasn't the worst of the tortures he had undergone, by far--especially not at the current level he was experiencing it; here, at least, his interrogator knew that his prisoner was too important to lose, so he had to keep the shocks at a level which wouldn't threaten his heart.

He tried to focus on his breathing. Even with this fact established, though, Michael knew that Zalman was pushing it. His interrogator--his future target--paced by him again, as his current prisoner mentally evaluated him. The man had no concept of how to use pain, of the right levels and proportions; he tended to use a sledgehammer, where a finely-sharpened blade would have done the job--far more adequately, in fact.

Michael continued to concentrate on his target--as much as was possible, as the man pushed the button once more to begin a new round of shocks. Zalman was not only crude in his methods, he was ineffective, as well. He didn't understand other people--didn't even try to; he had no ability to see outside of himself, indeed. Therefore, if someone ended up acting in a way he hadn't expected, he blamed the person for taking the action--not himself for failing to anticipate it. . . . It made him easy to trap, as a target, fortunately, but it also made him an unpleasant person--and an ineffectual interrogator.

He closed his eyes for half a second, trying to ignore the horrible whirring sound which Section had specially added to the machine he was now attached to; he knew that it was only there to increase the pain, psychologically--to remind the prisoner of what was happening to him. "It's not important," Michael told himself silently. "Focus beyond it."

He opened his eyes once more, as Zalman circled around to look at him again, before pacing back behind him. He refused to quite focus on the man who was playing at interrogation with him now. He wouldn't give him any illusion of psychological advantage.

As calm as Michael was forcing himself to be now, there was an absolute simmering of corrosive disgust in his chest. He knew that Zalman would be simple to catch, in the end, but--right now--he allowed himself to admit, for once, that he hated the bulls--- he was being forced to undergo to get there.

He listened to his own thoughts more intently, finally able to disconnect himself somewhat from his body. He knew he was getting tired if he was becoming profane--even internally. He allowed himself to focus in on this trait. He wasn't certain what it was in him which kept him from using such language on a more normal basis, however--other than its inefficiency and inexactness. There had been a time for him, in his college days--certainly, when such words came freely.

Maybe, he decided--his intellectual self-examination continuing to successfully distance him a bit from his pain, it was a combination of various elements which had led him to his current linguistic tendencies. Partly, he was certain, it was the knowledge that his quiet, soft-spoken authority tended to frighten the people he needed to far more than a more bombastic style would have--but he was sure that wasn't all. Maybe, as well--then, it had some connection to his days in prison--to his desire to distance himself from the memories of them--in speech as in all else.

He went on purposely focusing in on this issue to keep his mind off his surroundings. But maybe, as well, he thought�remembering suddenly that he needed to keep up the pretense of the pain for Zalman's sake, even after his mind was finally freeing him of it--it had something to do with his father. He remembered only too well, after all, the way that man had cursed at him when he had been angry--which had been frequently; although he had seemed cool and refined to the outside world, he had been a different man at home--in many ways. . . . Perhaps it was this, too, then, which had led him to strive to make himself a different person than his father had been--in whatever ways he could find to do it.

A shock of pain passed through him once more, as his mind came to the end of one pathway of thought, and he fought desperately for another. This wasn't the worst sort of torture he had undergone, certainly; Section had modified their electro-shock machines to a fine art form--to one where the nervous system could be shocked almost to the point of shutdown while the brain carried on with only minor fluctuation. Section, indeed, was rather the Michelangelo of torture techniques. . . . Others, though, weren't as discriminating.

He had, in his many years in Section, been through almost all of them by now, probably--almost all the forms of torture there were. He had been interrogated by the most inventive of inquisitors and the most sadistic of psychotics. . . . And, somehow, he had managed to come through it all relatively intact.

No, he decided--then, the method he was suffering through at the moment wasn't half as bad as some. The psychological tortures were the worst, in fact--were the ones from which there was no hiding, were the ones which left the deepest scars; he was thankful he wasn't being subjected to any of those--at least, not yet--and not by anyone who understood how to get any sort of true, visceral response. Most of the physical tortures, too, were worse because they were more specific--were something done to a particular part of the body--which he had always, for some reason, found much harder to take than the more generalized methods like shock, . . . but everyone was different there.

Everyone in Section, indeed--he let his mind wander further--had a different way of making it through physical torture. Everyone had some particular way to distance themselves from it. . . . Some were even rather bizarre.

His own method, of course, had always been intellectual--had been to try to think of something--anything--else, to disconnect himself from his physical form. He remembered a now long-dead friend of his, however--Chuck, who had always focused unblinkingly on the mental image of the first girl he had ever kissed--even though he hadn't seen her in about 20 years. Jurgen, too, a man who enjoyed food but wasn't particularly fanatical about it, had counted slowly through every flavor of ice cream he could think of--starting over again at the beginning, if he lost count from pain.

This mental pathway was leading Michael away from himself successfully for several long seconds, until he was struck by a sudden thought. . . . He wondered now what it was that Nikita focused on.

The pain suddenly became stronger--probably both from this latest thought as well as from the fact that Zalman had upped the level a bit; his interrogator, it seemed, was finally losing patience. He tossed the shock's control box across the table in disgust--a move he wasn't even aware had given Michael a large psychological advantage over him, one which indicated that his target had won this round--and sat down, only looking at his victim from time to time.

When he finally spoke, his voice showed incredible disgust--utter disbelief. "Is she really worth *all* this, Michael?" He paused for a second in legitimate amazement. "I mean, would she even do *half* as much for you?"

His target stayed silent--his disgust far greater than his interrogator's. The man was an idiot; Nikita had done more for him than he had ever done for her--had withstood more tortures than he could even remember. She was worth a million Zalmans . . . was worth a million of himself.

His interrogator was still amazed. He had expected, once he found Michael, that he could be broken quickly. In truth, indeed--although he couldn't admit this consciously, this belief was probably based on the fact that even one mild shock could break Zalman; he couldn't even imagine that there might be anything to live for but himself.

He licked his lips a little, shaking his head; his eyes were still turned away from Michael. He couldn't let himself face this fact--either, but he was afraid of him. "You know, they, uh," he looked at his target finally, "they briefed me about the two of you--Michael and Nikita, Nikita and Michael." His disgust at the thought of two people being truly linked to each other--especially in Section--showed in his voice. "But having read your file, I must tell you," he shook his head in disbelief, "I'm surprised."

His target--and his future captor--listened to the man's ramblings in disgusted but continued silence. How dare he even speak her name? It was sacred--like speaking the true name of God. . . . How dare he bandy it about so casually?

Zalman continued--oblivious to the true thoughts or feelings of his prisoner. "To go this far--for what, hmm? *Love*?" He said the word almost as though it were a--rather repellent--foreign concept. "You?" He shook his head, looking away for a second. "I find that very hard to believe."

Michael blinked--one of his first real reactions to Zalman; he still wasn't looking at him. His disgust for his captor was overwhelming him. This excuse for a man had no concept, no understanding of love; he would never be willing to sacrifice enough of himself to help create a whole with another person. He only understood being served.

Section's two main interrogation ops. arrived in the room with the door's usual, calculated protest; it--like everything else in this room--had been created to intimidate. Michael's thoughts continued through it all, however, still only half-focusing on anything which happened around him. He wasn't certain, of course, that he could truly claim to understand love, either, not with all of the repellant things he had done to Nikita so often; he, as well, was only too rarely willing to truly share himself with his beloved. But he did know that he understood the concept *far* better than this man ever could.

The ops. moved into the room, looking at Michael in shock. Had he focused on them he would almost have felt pity at their situation.

Zalman didn't even notice, however. He stood. "Either I severely misread you, . . . or this is about something else." He waited for a reaction from Michael; there wasn't one. "Where is she?" he demanded.

Finally--for the first time since the interrogation began--Michael looked up to focus on his captor. To Zalman's disgust, though, all that was readable on his prisoner's face was anger; it was altogether too obvious that he hadn't even come close to breaking him.

The rage the double agent should have placed on himself for his utter inability to carry out his job, however, landed heavily back on Michael. "Make it extremely unpleasant," he ordered before leaving the room.

"He doesn't even have the stomach to watch," Michael realized internally. He then turned his attention back to his newest torturers.

He noticed, though--once Zalman was gone, that the look of shock they had put on for him just a few seconds ago--the ones he hadn't even bothered to notice--drained away slightly. They watched their newest assignment for another few seconds before the woman looked over to her partner, who then went to the panel on the door--punching in an appropriate code.

None of them spoke, but Michael understood clearly that something vital had just changed here. He knew, of course, that codes for various things--privacy, equipment, supplies, etc.--were frequently entered before an interrogation, but he could see in his would-be torturers' eyes that the situation here was different. He sighed imperceptibly, therefore--understanding that he had just been saved from their less-than-tender mercies--by Operations, he guessed.

He knew that he wouldn't be interrogated, then, but he could also see that appearances would have to be kept; they may just have blocked viewing of the session inside Section, but none of them knew where Zalman may have placed Red Cell's bugs. . . . At least, however--this time--Michael knew the pain would only be a show.

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

When Zalman returned about an hour later, his whole mood had changed. The desperation and disgust had lifted; he was jovial--cocky. . . . Michael knew, then, that Operations had finally taken a hand in things.

He wasn't certain whether to be grateful for this or not, however. The worst, the truest part of his pain, indeed, the emotional pain--which made simple, racking shocks to the body seem pleasant--was about to begin.

Zalman examined his target happily, satisfied that he had been softened up sufficiently by the helpers he had never even bothered to learn the names of. He didn't notice, either--so wrapped up was he in his own smugness, that the tell-tale little lines under the eyes which should have been there weren't. He simply wasn't that perceptive.

He snapped his fingers at the peons who--he thought--had done his work for him where he had failed. "Get out," he ordered, not even looking at them. They did, . . . but they remembered his actions all the same.

The Red Cell informant pointed his finger at his target. "A *very* impressive showing, Michael." He leaned over to whisper confidentially to him, his self-assurance so great--at the moment--that he felt himself able to do anything. "Y'know, in the long run, they probably should've offered the promotion to you."

Michael looked at him, allowing Zalman to see in him the--false--dawning of knowledge that he was finally gaining the upper hand, that the tide had changed. His interrogator backed away and threw in another barb at the woman his prisoner loved--just for the hell of it. "And all this for some *second-rate*, blonde whore?"

The current captive tried to hold down his physical revulsion. Zalman, he knew, saw *every* woman as a whore--probably his own mother included; it was just that some of them appealed to his libido more than others.

Still, though, the words disgusted Michael. Nikita had only been a whore once--and that had been by his own hand. He held back his nausea at the memory. If anyone here was a whore, indeed, it was him.

Zalman's meaningless words continued; he was only speaking because he wanted to inflict a little extra pain now--thinking he had the upper hand again. "I mean, with all of the important things in the world worth dying for . . ." He gave up on his little diatribe, losing interest in it--except as a precursor to what he was about to show his victim.

Michael pondered this man again silently. He could see that he only liked a fight when he knew he could win--when his opponent was unarmed, tied down, handcuffed, and blindfolded--while he himself had a large gun. It was why he relied so heavily, in fact, on technology he could use at a distance for torture; he was afraid of those he interrogated, even when they were strapped down. . . . He wanted an absolute advantage.

He had, then--his captive continued to size him up, undoubtedly been the sort of child who had enjoyed picking the wings off flies. . . . No, he amended; flies couldn't cry out in pain. He was probably more inclined toward puppies and kittens; even full-grown dogs and cats would have proved too much for him.

Zalman continued to taunt him, unaware of all that lay beneath the surface of this current scene. "Oh, that reminds me," he said with mock casualness, "before you do die, there is something I'd like you to take a look at." He was pointing at him. He began grinning, too, as he walked over toward the monitor the room was equipped with; he was *very* pleased with himself, even if everyone else had done the work for him--because he was utterly incapable of it himself. "Special presentation, Michael--live feed, just for you."

His target took a quiet, deep breath and closed his eyes, knowing what was coming, trying to brace himself for it. He had been reading the reports on Elena and Adam, but he hadn't allowed himself to view the pictures; there was still too much guilt connected to them.

His interrogator turned on the screen with a flourish; he couldn't remember the last time he had enjoyed something so much. "You know, as thorough as I thought I'd been, I had no idea until about an hour ago that you had a son." He looked back from the screen to his victim, waiting to savor his reaction.

Despite his desire to look away, Michael's eyes were irresistibly drawn to the image. . . . His son. The beautiful child he had somehow helped give life to was playing happily with a ball. His hair was longer, he noted, as well; he wondered whether it had been his idea or his mother's, but he suspected--regardless--that it was a sort of subtle tribute to him.

His heart clenched painfully, as he continued to watch--a thousand emotions assaulting him at once. Guilt, loneliness, fear, love--even joy ran through him, shocked him far more strongly than Zalman's ineffectual black box. His child seemed so happy, seemed to be enjoying himself so much. He had read in the reports that he was adjusting well, but it was only now that he began to truly believe it. . . . He was grateful.

His eyes were haunted with this knowledge now; the emotions Zalman saw, indeed, were no act. He knew, at this moment, however, that there had to be a God. Not only had he created his Nikita, but he had created this beautiful child, as well; he himself had had no part in him besides having unintentionally--long after the time he should have originally--given him his heart.

His interrogator's words broke through the myriad thoughts tumbling through his mind. "Now that is something worth dying for."

Some small part of Michael's brain was still profiling his interrogator--even as most of his mind was caught up in the miraculous image before him. He wondered whether Zalman would have thought that his beautiful child was worth dying for, if it had been a girl--if it had been some lovely, small picture of life like Nikita. . . . He suspected not; the man had no soul.

The Red Cell mole waited, watching his victim--whose eyes were still on the screen. "Something worth living for?" he added. He paused the image, smirking.

"No," Michael realized suddenly--internally. If this situation had been real, he now understood clearly, he would have chosen death --here and now. . . . That, indeed, would have been the only way to protect both his son and Nikita.

His mind thought into this further--probing his own logic. If he were dead, after all, then threats to Adam's life would be meaningless; if he were dead, then he couldn't give Nikita up.

He knew now, without doubt--then, what he would do, if he were ever forced to truly chose between them: he simply wouldn't; he would die, instead. Then, they would both be safe. . . . God, he prayed--however--that it would never come to that.

Zalman walked back toward his prisoner; Michael's eyes followed him, almost imperceptibly. The interrogator was supremely happy, knowing he had won. "I know you hate me, Michael. I mean, when you're someone like me, you try not to be too concerned about what *other* people think."

His eyes locked with his target's, as that man assessed him. "Of course you don't think about how other people see you," Michael filled in silently. "If you were more concerned with that, you'd understand what was really happening now."

Unaware of this conclusion, Zalman continued. "So hate me, until your *dying* breath, if you must." Michael blinked for a second, making certain that his real thoughts would be hidden from his persecutor. "But you may not want to take that dying breath until you're absolutely sure that your son is safe from the likes of me."

The man's target closed his eyes once more--for a second--then looked at the screen to his side, storing its image within himself for one final heartbeat, before closing them again and leaning his head back--his look defeated. In a few seconds, he would have to pretend to give her up--would have to pretend that *anything* could force him to do this. He braced himself, tried to accept what had to be done--but that didn't stop his anguish. . . . This may not be real, indeed, but it still hurt like hell.

His interrogator closed in on him. "Game over, Michael. . . . Where's Nikita?" His victim's eyes opened quickly, hating the fact that this excuse for a man had said her name again. He opened his mouth to try to speak--to try to pretend to give her up . . . anything to keep her sacred name off of this despicable man's lips.

Zalman leaned toward him, grinning and shaking his head a little--mockingly. "I'm sorry, Michael. I can't hear you. . . . *Speak up*."

No words which had passed his lips had ever hurt him quite so much; it was hard to even force himself to form the right sounds. "She's at the farmhouse. Five kilometers southwest of town."

His tormenter--information finally in hand--left him then, smug and happy in his victory. Michael watched him, as he went; the eyes which focused on that retreating back were absolutely tortured.

He was half-surprised that his tongue hadn't fallen out--that the world hadn't ceased to turn--that there had been no rumbling from deep in the earth to mark the enormity of the betrayal he had just pretended to commit. He knew, of course--thankfully, that this wasn't real, but that didn't make him feel any better. . . . It didn't make him feel any more sane.

He knew, of course, that it would be a few minutes before they came for him--knew that Zalman needed to be able to get out before they could come to let him go. They would ensure, of course, that the double agent's transport was just slow enough to allow Michael to catch up to him; he would be there, in the end, to protect his beloved.

He understood, however--as surely as he still breathed, that he shouldn't have to be doing this. . . . She shouldn't even have to be in this situation.

He sighed, leaning his head back to wait--quietly but not particularly patiently. He had told Nikita what she needed to know to complete this mission, but he hadn't told her everything; he had, in fact, lied to her--through purposeful omission. While she had been right when she had guessed that the mission profile had chosen her as the original person to be interrogated, it hadn't been supposed to happen the way he had let her think. . . . She hadn't, in fact, even been supposed to go with him.

He knew, of course, that the plans themselves had been a test from Operations, but that hadn't changed his actions. Originally, Section's leader had told him to escape alone. They had both known, then--however, who Zalman would target first; Michael wasn't even sure that his master would have saved her from the Red Cell op. in the end, despite her lack of knowledge of the plan. . . . And this was, of course, an outcome he couldn't allow.

Michael, then, had suggested the alternative that had eventually occurred. He had had to, however, give his argument on several fronts, before Operations had accepted it. First, he had argued that having two people on this mission would make the profile easier--and he had also suggested that a woman might appeal to Zalman more. Operations, though, had purposefully held out--denying his final approval--until his subordinate had suggested reluctantly that the general perception of his relationship with Nikita might make it suspicious, if he ran alone.

These words themselves, of course, had been a gigantic victory for his leader--had been an admission Michael had *never* wanted to be forced to make. He had been left with no choice, however; he could either admit to their closeness and protect her, or deny it and possibly let her die.

He sighed and looked toward the door, his impatience growing. He had had to alter the profile yet further, later, as well, in order to keep his beloved out of this chair; she had been right in her assessment of that part of the original mission. It had only been by reminding Operations again that Nikita might prove to be better bait for the lecherous Zalman that he had, in fact, finally agreed.

Michael's hands gripped the metal chair's arms, as he tried to hold in his anger--thinking back, thinking ahead. He was no longer able to just wait. He needed to be let out of here immediately--needed to be there to protect her. He had felt closer to her last night than he had in many months. . . . There was no way in hell he was losing her now.

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

The last day or so had been just plain, well, . . . weird. First, Zalman had been assigned as new head strategist over Michael; then, Michael--*Michael*--had bolted with Nikita, had taken off in the middle of a mission. And now, they were all packed away in a van, on their way--slowly--to a mission where their real target was their mission leader. He sighed. It just didn't get much stranger than this.

Fredricks wasn't completely new to the world of Section; he had been in it, in fact, only about a year less than Nikita, and he shared her same field rating. Neither of them were considered particularly important, ranking-wise, but he was frequently pegged to be the leader of break-off teams, on typical missions. For the really important stuff, though, they got someone else.

He thought back now to when all this had started--to the Tomas mission yesterday. He had never expected to have to suddenly assume leadership of the whole mission because his Class Five superior had decided to take off with his girlfriend--apparently miffed over having lost a post. It was supposed to have been a lot simpler than that--more precise but simpler. . . . But it hadn't worked out that way at all.

He had really disliked the situation he had been left in, as well. He didn't mind running the break-off teams, from time to time, but he was--overall, as he was well aware--really more of a follower than a leader. He didn't like having to be the one to answer to an enraged superior for mission anomalies he had had no part in; that was one of the many aspects of Section leadership which Michael--as far as he was concerned--was more than welcome to.

The chaos which had ensued with their real leader's completely-unexpected departure hadn't ended on site, either. Once he had gotten back, he had been ruthlessly debriefed, as though the whole thing had somehow been his fault, as though he was supposed to be watching his mission leader for any signs of rebellion--as though it wouldn't be considered treason in him, if he did.

He sighed quietly. As little as he had liked the whole situation personally, though, it wasn't really himself that he had been the most worried about; he was only a minor concern, in his leaders' minds. But Michael, Nikita, and Walter . . . they, sadly, were a different story altogether.

He continued to think into his relationship with the last of these a bit further. He had been friendly with Walter for awhile now, even if they weren't really close; the older man had even referred to him as--what was it? oh yeah--one of the "5% club."

He had felt bad hearing what had happened to Walter, then, when he had gotten back from the utterly anomalous mission. He had gone to see him, indeed--once the recently-tortured weapons expert had been released from Medical, but he hadn't been able to cheer him up particularly that day. He had discovered, however, that the recent ordeal the old guy had been through hadn't been what was bothering him; he had been too worried about Nikita, in fact, to be anything more than basically genial.

Walter, though, hadn't been the only one who felt that way. There had been a pall over the whole of Section, indeed, this last day or so--had been a lingering sense of fear from many segments. Nikita was a lot of people's favorite; she was beautiful, thoughtful, funny. She was the sort of person you wanted around--both on a mission and after it.

Of course, as much as so many people liked her, no one really knew her particularly well; it was like she was friendly with everyone but friends with only a very few people--very lucky ones, in his mind. Still, she was the sort of person who was fun to talk to, was fun to be around. . . . No one had really wanted to lose her.

The whole thing, really, had been a shock. The only part of this latest desertion which no one had been surprised by, in fact, was that it had been taken on by both Michael and Nikita. Section, he decided now, had done well in planning that one; no one would have believed it if he had run alone.

Their whole relationship, indeed, didn't really shock anyone, as well. No one was even remotely surprised that Michael was so obsessed with her--and everyone knew that he was. For a lot of the men, and some of the women--as well, she was the sort of person they wouldn't have let go of, either--had they had even half a chance with her to begin with.

No, no one wondered what Michael saw in her; even those who were jealous of her understood that--however catty their comments may have gotten, at times. . . . What a lot of them had more trouble understanding, however, was what she saw in *him*.

Fredricks continued to ponder this now--trying to penetrate this conundrum. He seemed to watch her constantly, after all, seemed *way* too possessive--without, as far as anyone could tell, ever giving her anything in return. . . . It was rare, in fact, that he even really let her socialize.

Sometimes, yeah--the man's subordinate thought again, he would allow her to take part in a poker game on the way back from a mission--not that he ever overtly told her she couldn't do anything; he would just often distract her in some way to keep her from taking part. A lot of the time, too, to talk to her was referred to as the "silent death"--not because of anything Nikita ever did, but because of the flaming hot death you got if you looked in Michael's eyes soon thereafter--and no one with any sense wanted to piss off their mission leader, . . . not anyone who wanted to live, anyway.

All of this, then, made a lot of people wonder what she saw in him. No one questioned, of course, that her lover--as everyone pretty much knew them to be--was attractive; even the men, somewhat reluctantly, agreed with that. But Nikita was a bright spot in anyone's day, and Michael, . . . well, he was the sort of guy you wanted as a mission leader--was efficient, intelligent, and would try not to lose any more ops. than he had to--but he wasn't exactly friend material. His long silences, in fact, tended to really freak out a lot of people. Except on physical terms--and there wasn't much of anybody in Section who hadn't seen the tape of the Armel mission at some point--no one could quite figure out what she wanted out of him.

Their relationship, however--he thought again now, really didn't seem to be a simple one; he really couldn't imagine that it was *just* about sex. There seemed to be, indeed, some sort of weird bond between the two of them; they always seemed to be in each other's heads. Everyone knew damn well, too, that you didn't f--- with one unless you intended to deal with them both--and even when he treated her like hell, then, which sometimes seemed to happen a lot--they were still completely connected to one another. . . . *No one else* had the slightest chance.

He sighed quietly, pondering Nikita's choice of companion once more. It wasn't that Michael wasn't well-respected; he was--to the contrary--possibly the most respected, as opposed to feared, person in Section. When it appeared that he had taken over from Operations a few months ago, in fact, during what had later turned out to simply be another mission against Red Cell, there had been a quiet sense of rejoicing among the ops. Everyone had *loved* the thought of having him as their main boss; he might sacrifice you--it was still Section, after all--but at least he didn't usually seem to be doing it just for what many ops. thought were personal reasons--for the sheer hell of it.

Fredricks wished now, not for the first time--indeed, that that supposed change of command had turned out to be real. There would have still been a sense of order to things; nothing much--outwardly--probably would have changed, but there would have been less fear simply for the sake of fear in everyone's day-to-day lives. . . . And *everyone* would have liked that.

He continued looking back over the last few days. All of this, then, was why Michael's supposed defection had been such a huge shock. When the news of his desertion had gotten back to the ops. in general, in fact, there had been an overwhelming sense of confusion--and, in some cases, of despair. If they had lost him, then they had lost the best--and most reliable--of their leaders; even worse, however--to many people's eyes, they had lost Nikita, as well. And, if that had happened--indeed, there would have been more mourning than he suspected their leaders were even capable of trying to predict.

He thought further, again, about everyone's favorite op. now. It wasn't any one thing about her which made her so valuable to a lot of the people in Section, however. There were other women who were as--or more--attractive; there were other people who were even more fun. But there was something about her--was something that lit up a room. . . . It wasn't definable; it was just *there*.

He looked around the truck to the other ops. now. He suspected that Operations had entirely missed the general sense of relief which had been passed around when their real mission profile had been told to them. Now, they didn't have to take down Nikita--or Michael. He smiled slightly. Now, they got to take down Zalman.

He looked at the smug idiot--who was still grinning happily to himself, waiting to betray them all. Fredricks knew that everyone involved was going to enjoy this. Zalman had been a pain-in-the-ass for a long time; the higher he climbed, in fact, the more self-centered and intolerable he became. The fact that, after today, they would never need to take another order from him again made *everyone* happy. . . . It was about time he was gone.

His mind switched tracks slightly, pondering the man. It made sense that this was just a mission, really. No one, indeed, had even begun to understand how *Zalman* could force Michael to give up the woman he almost never let out of his sight; everyone knew that Michael wouldn't let her go--for anyone or anything. How Zalman could believe that he would break--that *he* could break him--was beyond him. . . . The man's arrogance truly knew no bounds.

Fredricks reached up and subtly checked his link, making certain that it was ready to record whatever was about to happen. Walter had taken steps to ensure their safety by giving Zalman a gun loaded only with blanks, but--even if something went wrong and they were to die--he would be happy to, just so long as this idiot was no longer around to hurt anyone. . . . It would make a whole lot more sense to go down here, indeed, than in some of the pointless missions they got sent out on too often.

He repressed a smile; his mission leader and target was too wrapped up in himself to really notice if he hadn't repressed it, of course, but he wasn't taking any chances, anyway. Whatever happened today, they were bringing this guy down. . . . And *that*, indeed--to his mind, was something worth dying for.

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

Nikita had been waiting by the window now for most of the day. Although it was still light outside, it wasn't by much. . . . Soon, she would be waiting for them in the dark.

She had already gotten through the preliminary team coming to check out the house earlier. That, indeed, had gone as well as she could have hoped--aside from the fact that she had temporarily forgotten the router. Fortunately, however, that had been remedied quickly.

Things really could have gone *much* worse, she knew. Michael had warned her, in fact, that if they had found her then--that early--she would have had to kill them. She had been damn glad they hadn't, therefore--close as it had been; she had been praying that it wouldn't come to that.

She sighed now, thinking back to this morning again. She had hated waking up without him. It had, indeed, woken her rudely from the reverie this whole experience had become for her.

She had enjoyed last night more than any time since their week together. Although they hadn't been able to make love, there had been a closeness between them which had healed her somewhat, which had begun to mend the wounded tissue of her soul from the indignities and betrayals of the last few months.

She hadn't, in fact, ever wanted it to end--even though she knew that it had to. She would have been content just lying in his arms forever; that, indeed, was her definition of bliss.

She even seemed to remember dreaming about him, now--dreams in which he had been holding her, had been gifting her with his sweet, healing touch, as he had held her tenderly. He had even seemed to quiet her, when her dreams had taken on a darker turn; she thought she remembered him kissing her temple softly, seemed to feel as though he were making some deeper promise about their future--as though he were placing that promise deep within her soul to warm her on cold nights.

She sighed. Waking up without him, then, had been terrible--had nearly been traumatic, although it certainly wasn't as though she hadn't anticipated it. She guessed, though, that she had hoped that he would wake her, nonetheless--would give her a chance to say goodbye. . . . But that hadn't been the case.

Her eyes were still saddened now, thinking back. She had felt so deserted when she had woken--as though she had been stranded alone on a strange world--left in the middle of nowhere to make her way.

She shuddered. For a little while, in fact--up until she had found his note, she had wondered whether this whole situation had simply been a ruse; she had wondered whether her original fear about his intentions in leaving Section had come true--that he had gotten her out but had gone back to give himself up in her stead. She swallowed heavily. The fear, indeed, had left her with a chill that had begun at the center of her being and had then spread out; she had begun to wonder then--in fact--whether she would ever be warm again.

Finding the note, though, had calmed those terrible questions. She hadn't liked its significance, especially as noon had come and gone, but she had at least understood that he had meant what he had told her; he hadn't, to her great relief, lied.

She couldn't help, however, the way her mind kept racing through the pain he must be experiencing--running unstoppably through the kind of torture he must be undergoing in her place. Zalman, she knew, would be the sort of interrogator who had no understanding of how to get information from anyone and would, therefore, practically kill someone with pain, instead.

She couldn't stop herself from thinking over all this. She still hated--with a sensation of burning, simmering rage--that the man she loved was suffering for her. It was, she knew--as well, supposed to be her who was suffering--her who would give him up; while she was glad, of course, that she didn't have to be tortured, it didn't make her feel any better that it had to be him, instead. There could be nothing like comfort there.

Her mind forced her to think into this a bit more deeply, though--reversing the situation. Could she have done it, if it had been her--could she have given up his location under torture, even as a pretense? Or would she just have died with that information, refused its demonic symbolism--even if it had ruined everything?

She shuddered again. She suspected--with a little fear, really--that it would have been the latter. In some ways, of course, she had more resolve than did Michael--had resisted Section, in particular, in ways they still hated her for--but, when it came to this, she just didn't think she could do it, for whatever reason.

She sighed a second later, however, as her mind wandered back to the specific reason why Michael would be giving her up today--and she suddenly questioned her earlier conviction. If she had been in his place and they had threatened Adam's life--if she hadn't given up his father--would she still have been able to hold out?

She shook her head a little. . . . No. There was no way. A threat to his son would, in fact, be just as palpable a threat to her as it would be to him; there was no way she would ever willingly see that beautiful child hurt.

She closed her eyes tiredly for a second at this last thought before refocusing out the window again; her mind went back to what was happening--or had happened? she wasn't sure of the time element here--with Michael. As much as it hurt her that he would give her up--even as a planned part of a mission, she knew that--if the real choice ever came between herself and his son--she prayed that he would choose Adam over her. . . . She wasn't certain she could ever forgive him, in fact, if he didn't.

Her tiredness, her pain over these thoughts seemed to be sinking into her bones. But all of that fled her suddenly a moment later as she saw operatives beginning to flood in from the periphery. They let her spot them for a few seconds--giving her a chance to react--before they fired.

She began with them, then, the scenario which had been planned, without her knowledge, from the beginning--acted out her part in this charade, until they had her surrounded. By that time, too, she was on her back on the floor, was stuck in the position she had been forced to throw herself into in order to help fulfill this game, by pretending to shoot at an op. above her; she was now staring up at Fredricks. "How'd you find me?" she asked--for Zalman's benefit; he had to be around here somewhere.

He hated telling her this; he liked her too much to enjoy even pretending that her lover had turned her in. "Michael gave you up."

She continued on disbelievingly, shaking her head--a smile of denial on her face. "I don't believe that."

That, though--fortunately, was as far as this charade needed to be carried out--for now. The two ops. went down--supposedly the victims of gunshot, as she moved back on her elbows a bit--trying to get away from the door. "Zalman!" she said in--false--amazement.

"*Finally*," she thought to herself.

His voice, as he looked down at her, was stern. "It's over, Nikita." His tone lightened a little, though, as he continued. "Where is the field router?"

She continued on in the shock she would have felt, if this had all been real. "You killed your own team."

He shook his head, his voice more gentle. "Not my team. Now where is the *field router*?"

She nodded, as reality seemed to dawn in her eyes. "You're Red Cell."

He grinned at her. "Well, you know what they say." He gave a light, laughing snort. "Don't give up the day job."

He moved in closer to her then, his patience seeming to dissolve; he was holding his gun on her from above. She angered him by saying nothing. "What is it with you people?" he asked, disgust evident in his voice. "Michael, you--what is it that convinces you that all this is worth dying for?" His face was filled with disdain and disbelief.

Her next answer wasn't acting. "It's people like you," she whispered confidently.

The honest answer didn't please him. He moved in closer to her, nodding--enjoying the fact that he was going to be able to rub this in. "At this very moment, . . . Michael is *strapped* into a chair--waiting. If I were to go back empty-handed . . ." He leaned down to kiss her.

Nikita's revulsion won out. No more stalling. She turned her head away from him, as she tugged open her jacket quickly, showing him the router in her inside pocket.

His goal achieved, Zalman removed the router and stood up, leaving her on the floor for another few seconds before helping her stand as well. She watched him cautiously, as he stayed close to her. "I suppose," he smiled, "now that I've got this, my `rising career' at Section will have come to an end."

He continued to hold her gaze, while her frightened and disgusted breathing quickened; now he could do the thing he had really been looking forward to. He spoke almost conversationally. "You know, the amazing thing about this unit is that it, um, it transmits and receives simultaneously. When I turn this on, Nikita, they'll think they've located you." He kissed her, and she pulled her head away from him; he moved, then, to her neck--kissing down it. "It should take them about an hour to get here, wouldn't you say?"

Her stomach was roiling; if he had really tried this, she probably would have been sick on him--after she had killed him. As it was, though, she held still and watched, while Michael finally entered the room.

He had been listening for several minutes--waiting until Zalman had both revealed himself and was in a distracted enough state to be certain to miss his entry. The wait, however, had nearly killed him. He had known that this excuse for a man was waiting to rape his beloved--that he was moving toward it quickly; he had guessed--correctly, as well--that it would only be his close secondary mission to getting the router. . . . He wanted to pull the trigger on the gun he held to Zalman's back very, very badly.

The look Nikita saw in Michael's eyes was an almost frightening combination of fire and ice. Had he not been under orders to bring his target back alive, she was quite certain that Zalman would have been dead by now.

The double agent was amazed--and disgusted, when he saw what was happening. All around him, his recently-killed team were resurrecting themselves, while the man he had just interrogated held a gun to his back. "It can't be," he complained.

Nikita shook her head, her disgust far outweighing his. "If you think about it long enough, it'll come to you." She slapped him for good measure--as some way to try to erase the disgusting mark on her soul the sickening feeling of his lips on her skin had left.

It wasn't a very hard slap, but it knocked him back anyway. It was partly shock, of course, but Nikita could see--again--that he wouldn't really have been that hard to fight off, had it come to that.

Michael approved of her hitting him. He just wished she had done it harder. The slap she had given Zalman for being Red Cell and for trying to rape her hadn't actually been as significant a one as she had given him, during the Peruze mission. Still, he understood that he had probably, in the end, deserved it even more; she expected betrayal from Zalman, after all, but not from the man who loved her.

The operatives filed out past them, taking the shocked and defeated Zalman along with them--leaving Michael alone with his beloved. His eyes were tender and apologetic, once the team was gone, as well. She, however, was still a little upset; she looked down before refocusing on him.

He put his gun away, as he came closer to her. "Are you alright?"

She closed her eyes for a second, shaking her head a little. Being the object of Zalman's "attentions" had upset her more than she had realized it would; she didn't think, however, that they had the time to discuss it. She looked past him to the door. "Don't we need to follow them?"

He shook her head. "They'll go back ahead of us. I'll drive us back." He looked at her more closely, asking his question again--with more emphasis. "Are you alright?"

Her eyes were watering but she didn't say anything. She had too many emotions to express them all: the disgust and violation of having Zalman touch her; her relief at knowing Michael was well--and at his timing; . . . her lingering shock at the whole of the last 48 hours or so. Her eyes begged him to understand all of this, but she couldn't put it into words.

He lifted his hand to her cheek tentatively, needing to comfort her. When she didn't flinch away, he placed it there gently, stroking her soft skin; his eyes begged her to believe him. "I wish I could have stopped him sooner."

She closed her eyes and nodded a little. She did understand, but her tormented emotions were there, nonetheless.

His eyes traced her face with incredible sadness, before he pulled her toward himself, placing her head on his shoulder. When he did, too, he noticed--to his relief and comfort, that she seemed to begin to come back to life in his arms.

"Michael," she breathed, as she brought her arms up to hold him, rubbing her cheek to his shoulder. His warm, gentle touch healed her, took away the fear and the pain. His love flowed into her--salving her wounds.

He held her close to him, kissing her temple. "I'm here," he whispered tenderly. "I'm here," he repeated. Her touch healed him, as well; both the physical trauma of this afternoon--and, more significantly, the emotional torment of it--seemed to drift away, as she returned his loving embrace.

She sighed. She was glad they didn't have to go back with the other team--that they had a few moments to themselves. She had needed this far more than she had realized; despite everything they had been through--and all of the contradictory emotions which so often assaulted her--she did love him so much.

He didn't want to let her go--not now or ever. His hand stroked along her neck, trying--somehow--to cleanse it of Zalman's defilements.

"Michael," she repeated, holding him closer--understanding the beautiful intent of his action.

Oh, God. There was no way he could avoid the truth of this. He loved her so much. . . . Holding her was like embracing angelic light.

He pulled back from her a little bit, just enough to look at her, his hands framing her face. Her eyes told him clearly of her feelings--as his did the same for her.

They were caught in the look for several long seconds, speaking without words. Then--by mutual consent--he pulled her toward himself, and they pressed their lips to each other's in two tender, but brief, kisses.

They became ensnared in one another's loving gaze once more, when the kisses ended. They both knew this couldn't last, of course, but neither one of them seemed eager to end it.

He realized now that there was one more thing he needed to do before they left--before he lost the chance. He held her eyes for one more minute and then leaned in to kiss her left cheek tenderly, before lightly kissing down her neck--consciously replacing the unwelcome feeling of Zalman's lips with his own.

"Michael, yes," she whispered, holding him to her gently. He seemed to be cleansing her soul, leaving in it nothing but warmth, tenderness, and love.

My God, she wished this could go further--wished they could make love to each other now, could wash away all of the pains and indignities they had suffered this day. . . . But she knew--sadly--that that couldn't happen.

Michael's wonderful purification continued, as her mind thought back. She had understood it this morning, really--had known that they, that *he*, had made the right decision last night. Had they made love then and she had woken later to find him gone, she would have questioned--would have worried. . . . and that just wasn't something either of their souls was strong enough for, at the moment.

He finished this arousing bit of tender spiritual cleansing and then kissed his way back to her lips. They shared one more, slightly lengthier, loving kiss.

He pulled back from her slightly--reluctantly, a few heartbeats later, and they continued to look in each other's eyes for a minute. She sighed finally, though, and turned her head to look around the room. "Neither of us is ever coming back here again, are we?"

He closed his eyes for a second--shutting back the pain, before she looked back at him tenderly--her last look at their peaceful cabin complete. "No," he said simply.

She realized there were a few things she had never really asked him before; she took hold of the opportunity. "Are the things here yours?"

He smiled a little sadly. "Only the records."

"Are you taking them with you?"

He nodded slightly. "They'll get brought to me."

She looked off over his shoulder for a minute, as she pulled all of her thoughts together. "Michael," she began, as she refocused on him slowly, "thank you for bringing me here."

His eyes were damp, as he examined her in love. He took her cheek in his hand tenderly and pulled her into one last, light kiss--explaining to her there all the things he couldn't in words. . . . She understood his message.

When he pulled back from it then, he stroked her cheek for one more second--luxuriating in her eyes. "We need to go." She nodded and smiled slightly, before looking around once more.

His gaze never left her face, as she examined the place where they had had something like happiness. It was her, after all, that this cabin symbolized to him--was her who had made it beautiful.

They both seemed to let out a sigh at the exact same moment, the image of this place--and their time here--forever impressed upon their hearts. Then, with reluctance, they turned away from their fantasy to return to the real world--moved away from the light to take back up their places in the shadows. . . . At least there, however, they would still be together--and that, if nothing else, would provide enough beauty for them to chase away a little of its pain.

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

Neither of them had known, really, what to expect of themselves once they returned to Section. They had understood, certainly, that the night they had spent in the cottage was a fragment out of time--a soulful anomaly. . . . While both of them, indeed, wished it could continue, neither one truly believed that it would.

It had been, therefore, with more than a little surprise at his own actions that Michael had found himself asking Nikita to have dinner with him that evening--once the debriefs, interrogations, etc. were over. And it had been with some little shock, as well, that Nikita had not only found herself agreeing but had even offered to make the meal.

It was, then, through these unexpected proposals that they were together now--just having finished the dinner which she had spent that evening putting together in hopes of pleasing them both. They were each still a little confused at where they stood, however; their presence together, indeed, suggested to them that something was changing between them, but--for the life of them--neither of them understood any of their new relationship's details yet.

Both of them now, in fact, were--more and more--discovering that they were becoming emotional strangers with themselves. Their relationship had altered without yet explaining to them how it had, and they--therefore--were still attempting to keep up.

They weren't--they did realize, however--quite the same people they had been at the cottage; they had changed from that--were stiffer with each other again, while still sharing their old intimacy. . . . It was all *very* confusing.

Most of dinner, though--fortunately, had been congenial, if quiet, with both of them still feeling their way into this new emotional place. Now, however, they were lapsing into an even more confusing part of their evening--and both of them, at the moment, were feeling that they were suddenly wandering into *very* new territory.

Michael poured each of them a bit more of the wine he had brought before carrying a glass over to Nikita. She half-noticed that he gave it to her while purposely not touching her hand; she wondered what that meant.

"Dinner was wonderful. Thank you," he commented--almost too politely, even to his own ears. He wished he could understand why he suddenly sounded like he were on a date with a congenial stranger.

"Well, it wasn't as good as the meal you cooked at the cabin, but . . ." She stopped there, giving up; she was just babbling, anyway. God, she was nervous. She was suddenly feeling like some virgin schoolgirl on her first big date.

He chose a spot to sit which was close enough to allow him a good view of her beautiful face but which still wouldn't be too close. He perched on the elevated floor area which came out slightly beyond the panels which marked her bedroom wall; his eyes ran over her face lovingly, wondering why they both felt so odd.

She sipped some of her wine--more because it gave her something to do than because she really wanted any. She didn't know where to take the conversation.

He picked up the thread of her last words, as he looked at her honestly. "I liked it there," he said openly--hoping the words might start to bring them back together. It was the closest he could get to telling her his deeper truths.

He watched her, waiting for her response; she only nodded, though--agreeing but not trusting herself to answer too fully. She didn't seem to understand how to put anything into words tonight.

The music which played--which took up the frightening but tender space between them--had been inspired by Michael's choices at the cabin. Even in its sadness, though, it was rather comforting to her.

He looked down again and sipped his wine, a little lost on how to proceed. He had hoped that his words might bring him more of a response. He wanted--*needed* to know what she was thinking now.

Nikita watched him, her emotions tumbling through her. Just the way he lifted his glass to drink made her heart ache with love. . . . Oh God--he was just too beautiful; she looked away.

In an odd way, however, just being near him like this was helping her mind to process things more. She was beginning to understand her own emotions now--was beginning to piece them together; there had been so many months--so many days, indeed, of silence and pain between them lately. During them all, too, she had learned to lock away her feelings for this man--had learned to pretend that they weren't important, that they weren't really there.

The cabin, though, had changed all of that. As much as she wanted to be able to shut them all away again--for her own sanity--she knew now that was no longer possible.

He felt the silence between them like a pain in his heart. Dear God, he wished he understood her--wished he could view into her soul to see what battle raged there; he had said already all he could--had said the only thing he had trusted himself to, as an opening gambit. . . . He wished to God, however, that he had the courage to just ask her what she wanted from him--what she wanted from this new relationship they were suddenly, tentatively forging.

She answered the question she wasn't aware he had a second later--finally finding the strength to put her emotions into words; she was still looking away. "You know it can't be casual between you and me." It was, partly, what he had said at the cottage, but there was more to it than that, as well. She shook her head, pausing for a second longer to think about it and then shrugged a little, looking up at him. "I can't do that." Her voice was breaking--was a little husky; she looked away again, deathly afraid of his answer to her, . . . deathly afraid that this would be all he wanted.

Michael's eyes held *so* much love for her. He found--to his surprise--that he was finally breathing again.

She had answered his major fear already--the fear that he was simply imagining what he wanted to see in her, . . . but there was still far more to her statement than that. He looked away a little, then, as he gave her words serious thought; he was lost for awhile in his own mind--in his own memories.

Nikita's pulse pounded loudly in her ears, as she waited soundlessly for his answer; her heart seemed to ache. . . . Dear God, she hoped he needed more, as well.

He came to his silent conclusion--unaware of her fears. He couldn't do that, either--he realized finally; nothing between them was casual, in any sense. They made love to each other with their whole souls, possessed each other like fierce animals; neither of them could pretend that they were capable of just a night of sex--of simple physical gratification. . . . It just wasn't possible for them.

He gave her as much of a verbal answer, finally, as both his silent nature and his training in emotional denial allowed him to. "I know." He refocused on her in love, waiting for her response.

Nikita returned his emotional gaze. Whenever she looked in his eyes at times like this, she felt lost. As much--as deeply--as she loved him right now, all she felt, in this moment, when she looked there was saddened and rather lonely.

He knew exactly how she felt. He raised his glass to her--a toast to their love but also to their agreement that nothing between them could be halfway. . . . And since, unfortunately, halfway was all they were allowed at the moment, it was also, in a sense, a toast to nothing--to loneliness.

His eyes looked into hers with incredible love--devoted himself to her and her alone. She held out her glass to that look, to his love--to her own.

She understood, as well--though, that she was also toasting their separation. . . . And, although she knew it was unavoidable, she hated it nonetheless.

He consummated the toast by drinking, agreeing that their love was only meant for each other but--barring the day when that would be possible--also admitting that they would have to share that love in exile. His eyes expressed everything he didn't feel capable of putting into words.

She kept eye contact with him while he drank, continuing to hold out her glass toward him--but she simply couldn't drink to this. She swirled the wine around a bit in the glass before lowering it.

She wouldn't agree that they had to be lonely. . . . She didn't like it; it wasn't right.

He understood her meaning, but he knew he couldn't just agree to it--couldn't let her fool herself. He forced himself to speak--however painfully, as he looked at the floor; he took in a deep breath, preparing himself. "You know we can't be together, Nikita." He paused. "Section . . ."

"Don't," she cut him off. He looked back at her; both of their gazes were sad. "I know."

He shook his head--looking to the floor once more, trying to find the words to express his feelings, then--to explain their need to agree to this path. "Neither of us do things halfway, Ni-ki-ta."

His pronunciation of her name made her shiver slightly; it would have been playing dirty, if he had even been consciously aware that he had done it. "I know," she breathed.

He looked back at her with pain in his eyes, trying to understand her intentions; she took a deep breath, as she prepared to try to explain them. "I know we can't be together. I know all the reasons." She sighed, shaking her head, frustrated at their situation. "But, Michael, isn't there anything we can be between colleagues and lovers? Can't we just be together like we are right now?" She shrugged. "Can't we be friends?"

He smiled vaguely at how this line sounded coming from her, as he looked at the floor again; he knew how very differently she meant it from its usual connotation. His smile faded, however, as he thought about it further. "Would that satisfy you?" he asked finally, looking back up at her.

She shook her head. "No." She sighed deeply once more. "But it might keep me from feeling so," she paused--searching for the right word, "empty."

His eyes focused on hers with such intense love. His heart seemed to cry out in pain just hearing her use that word about herself; he couldn't stand it. Angels shouldn't have to be alone, shouldn't have to be without love. He thought about it even further, too--knowing, as well, just how unbearably empty his life was without her.

She smiled a little, seeing in his eyes that she was winning him over. "You told me at the cabin that it was time I learned more about you." She knew he had meant it differently, but that didn't really matter to her right now; it was true, anyway. "I think you're right."

He swallowed heavily--his eyes drinking her in; he needed this, he knew--more than he could ever express. . . . He loved her so much.

He nodded a little and lifted his glass again. This time, too, she smiled slightly and did the same. They both drank, then, their eyes watching each other devotedly--both of them agreeing that, until there could be something more, there could at least be friendship.

They continued to look into each other's eyes, as well, even after they had lowered their glasses. She finally looked away only when the gaze became too much--when it was caressing her soul too intimately. "I have some downtime tomorrow . . .," she began.

He smiled to himself. "How much do you know about Impressionism?" he asked quietly, interrupting her gently. She refocused on him quickly, her eyes caught by his gaze; his smile broadened just slightly. "I'd like to take you to the museum tomorrow."

She gave a smile which warmed him--which melted away all the lingering ice the loneliness of all the years before had placed in his heart. "I'd like that."

His loving eyes shone at her, warmed her, as well--bringing her out of the winter she had been living in for so long. "Good," he said simply.

They watched each other lovingly for sometime after that, half-amazed that they had managed to create a change of such magnitude between them--their resolve to follow this wonderful new path set firmly. They knew they couldn't be together romantically just now--knew that Section wouldn't allow it, but they were determined that--if they had to live separate lives--they could at least spend them in each other's company.

She looked into his eyes deeply now and noticed, to her joy, that the invisible chains he had wrapped himself in for so long were beginning to fall away. Yes, to an extent, they were both still bound by them--Section had seen to that, but they were no longer binding his soul so firmly, were no longer keeping him from feeling his own love; now--indeed, he was able to breathe again.

Nikita thought back to their long journey through the snowy woods the other day--suddenly struck by its symbolism once again. They had been living in the dark woods for too long--had only been able to guess at what was under the snow. Now, though, it was finally spring again, and--if they couldn't share the cottage they had found together as lovers, they could at least live in it as friends.

She smiled at him deeply, the warmth of her feelings for him overflowing her heart. Their love had still been there underneath the snow all along. And, if it could survive the cold of the winters they had seen up to now, she knew it could survive anything which was to come, as well. . . . It seemed that they were, indeed--after so long, finally out of the woods.