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Innocence Lost

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He had betrayed her--again. Once more, she had turned to him for help--had received his promise of it--and had then been turned in. . . . It was a pattern she was becoming heartily sick of.

Nikita was at home again now, had simply given up on Section for the day. Even though she was finally on her own, though, she couldn't quite sit still; she was pacing around her, too-small--at the moment, apartment as though she were an unwillingly caged lioness. She had too much rage--too much despair, at the moment, and absolutely no way to release any of it.

She realized, as she thought about the whole situation, indeed, that she hadn't even asked Michael for his help this time. All she had needed, really, was his silence--was simply for him to *not* betray her. She shook her head--her thigh brushing past the corner of her couch, as she stalked past it. The miserable bastard hadn't even be able to give her that, though.

She didn't know entirely why she had ever decided to trust him enough to admit what she was doing, either. The only reason she could figure out, in retrospect, was that the whole situation with Kruger had simply upset her too much; when Michael had cornered her about her actions in Belgrade, she wouldn't have been particularly convincing denying that she had done anything wrong if she had broken down and cried--which she had certainly felt like doing, by that point.

She knew, however, that it wasn't like she could trust him. God knows, he had proven that to her recently--as painfully as it was possible for him to.

She rolled her eyes up, trying not to cry, and finally decided to sit down, heavily, on her sofa, her arms crossed over herself. The memories of the Peruze mission were still altogether too fresh; it had only been a few weeks since Nikita had discovered--to her horror and unspeakable trauma--that she was suddenly a valentine op. . . . It was a revelation, truly, that she had yet to recover from.

She covered her eyes with her hand, fighting angry tears. Her life had been thrown completely off-center then, indeed, and she was beginning to wonder now if she would ever be allowed to really recover; Michael had gone out of his way, had proven to her very well just how far his depravity went--had proven just how far he was willing to push her. . . . She still hadn't been able to even begin to forgive him.

She sighed a little. She doubted now, in fact, that she would ever be able to. He had hurt her too deeply that time, had so grievously damaged something in her soul that she wasn't certain she could ever honestly say that she would either be whole or healthy again.

She looked up once more, her hand in a fist, one knuckle absently running over her lips. They had barely spoken since then--hadn't spoken at all, in fact, until the past few days, about anything other than missions--and only then when it was absolutely necessary.

She had pondered, indeed, for a little while after the damn mission with Peruze, about asking to be transferred off his team--even about asking to be transferred out of Section One completely, to one of the substations. She had honestly decided then that she would be happier never seeing his face again--that she might be capable of recovery *only* if she never had to hear his voice once more.

This, truly, hadn't changed, either; she was *definitely* still of this opinion. The only thing which had stopped her from leaving him altogether, indeed, had been one simple fact: she had nowhere else to go; she had no one else to turn to.

She sighed again, lowering her hand. Michael was an evil and irredeemable son-of-a-bitch, of course, but at least she was used to his brand of evil. Most of the other team leaders tended to care even less than him about the fate of the operatives on their missions; too many of them, as well--like that idiot Ferrara--seemed to see themselves as having the right to choose any of the female ops. they wanted as their own personal whores, and--so long as they didn't make a *habit* out of hurting the viability of the ops. on their missions through rape--nothing was ever done to stop them.

As far as going to the other substations, as well, she had still run into a mental wall. Not only was she certain that she would simply encounter much the same problems anywhere she might go, she also knew that she would have no one at all to fall back on there. Here, at least, there was Walter and Birkoff; somewhere else, though . . .

She swallowed heavily. All of her plans, too, had been cast aside when they had hit one other, insurmountable barrier for her: she was certain that asking for a transfer would be seen as a victory by Operations and Madeline. . . . Even if they decided to honor it, then, which was by no means certain, she simply couldn't allow them that much power over her.

She had stayed, therefore--had dealt with Michael as best she could, which usually meant silently. . . . But none of their enforced interaction meant that anything between them seemed likely to ever get any better.

Her anger began to build, as she thought further about her life. Right now, too, she really wasn't sure she gave a damn if things ever did change between them. She was clenching her jaw, her fury simmering. All she wanted was to be let out--was to be let alone; as far as she was concerned, Michael could bed every f---ing woman in Section without it bothering her in the least. . . . She would just feel sorry for his targets.

She made a raw, frustrated noise in the back of her throat. She had to admit, though, that she truly wasn't sure what the hell was up with him, lately. He had been watching her the last few days as though he actually gave a damn what happened to her--an impression that she knew had to be gravely mistaken, given his part in the Peruze mission.

He had been tracking her lately, however--had been trying to stop her from getting into any new trouble with their masters. . . . Had she been stupid enough, she might have actually believed he cared.

She shook her head, as she leaned it back on her sofa. No, that was crap; she knew better. He was obviously just looking out for his masters, like the faithful little lap dog he was. He just wanted to be certain that she didn't upset any of their plans for her . . . whatever the hell they might be.

She closed her eyes, as she ran her hand back into her hair. It was those plans, however, which worried her. She knew now, after all, that her recruitment hadn't been a fluke. Section had never believed that she was guilty at all; they knew, in fact, that she wasn't, because--like poor Kruger--they had been the ones to set her up in the first place.

Her hand came down to cover her face, as her mind focused on that recent mission. She wasn't going to stop feeling guilty for that one for a long time to come, she was certain. Kruger was an innocent; he had simply been living his life quietly, without bothering anyone else, . . . until she had come along.

Now, however, he was no longer alive--not really. He had been recruited into an organization which didn't exist, to do a job which wasn't even human. She closed her eyes more tightly, holding back tears. And *she* had been the cause of all of it.

She couldn't get over this, truly; she just couldn't get past her part in having destroyed another innocent in exactly the same way *she* had been "killed." . . . She really had, she decided, become the person she had always hated. She had spent five years in Hell, and--apparently--she was now definitely one of the damned.

She folded her arms lightly over herself and stared up at the ceiling. In a way, though, she knew Kruger was actually luckier than she had been. He--at least--had been told why he was there, why he had been recruited; his innocence had never been questioned.

She shook her head. She still didn't know why she was here--why Section had wanted her so badly. Surely they weren't that desperate for tall blondes; she had definitely met a few other Nordic Amazons in her days among the damned. . . . She, though, had had little education, no tactical training, no special skills. . . . What the hell had they wanted with her, anyway?

She took a deep breath and lifted her head up again. She almost wondered whether she had been recruited as a lure for Adrian. Section's founder, after all, had certainly been tracking her from her earliest days.

She sighed. If that were true, though, why not just tell her? Someone had gotten to the man who had set her up for recruitment before she had even found him in Belgrade recently--had briefed him on how to act with her. While she was certain that Michael had been involved in informing their leaders of her plans, she knew that Madeline and Operations must have been in on this, as well. . . . Why, then, should they continue to hide the truth?

She shook her head. The Adrian scenario wasn't enough. It had to be something else; she had to have been recruited with something else in mind.

She had the feeling, too, that Michael was well aware of whatever this truth was; that was, no doubt, part of why he had been watching her so carefully lately--to make certain that she didn't accidentally ruin his masters' plans for her. She shook her head again. . . . Bastard.

She didn't know which way to turn anymore. All she wanted from Michael, right now, was his distance; she just wanted him to stay the hell away from her and stop messing up her life any more than it had been already.

She let her mind switch away from him again, needing another focus--at least temporarily--to keep her anger from overwhelming her. Madeline and Operations did obviously have something planned for her; why else wouldn't they let her know the reason for her recruitment? Why else keep her in the dark? They had to be planning something--something big, something--no doubt--unspeakably nasty, for her.

She took in a slow, pained breath--working past the desire to cry. She just wished, now, that she had some clue of what this new, unpleasant fate would be, so that she could prepare herself for it somewhat. . . . Whatever it was, after all, it was obviously going to be unbearable.

She swallowed heavily. She wished she had an idea of how to proceed--of where to go, . . . but she had none. Michael was useless and untrustworthy; Walter didn't have deep enough connections, and Birkoff was being too closely watched. . . . All she had was herself.

She closed her eyes for a second and rubbed over them, tired and spiritually hurting. If she couldn't avoid whatever brutal fate Section had planned for her--whatever fate they had recruited and trained her for, then she wished that she at least had someone to turn to for hope or comfort. . . . But, there too, she was utterly alone.

She sighed, as she looked back up. Her life was beginning to seem increasingly meaningless; she could feel herself becoming the soulless machine Michael had spent his entire time with her training her to be. Someday soon, she feared, she would look into her eyes in the mirror and see nothing--would see only an emptiness reflected back at her . . . just like that miserable bastard did every day.

She swallowed back her tears and stood up, deciding to try to push away her fears long enough to make some tea. She wasn't sure that there was any way out for her from the, still unknown, path Section had set her on, but she *was* resolved to attempt to face it with as much of her humanity as she could manage to salvage--with as much as she could manage to steal back from them and Michael. . . . That way, at least, in whatever Hell she would eventually be placed, she would still have some tiny fragment of light left to illuminate the darkness in which she would always be so profoundly trapped.

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

He was finding, lately, that there was nowhere he could turn where he wouldn't find her--was no corner of his life where he could hide from the guilt of his betrayals of her. . . . She was everywhere--her beautiful, tormented features silently accusing him of all he had done.

Michael was at home now, having--like Nikita--finally given up on Section for the day. He just couldn't stand to be in the presence of his masters any longer than he had to be, right now; they seemed to see too clearly into the corners of his soul--saw too well that he was mourning the loss of a woman whom he was still with every day.

He sighed, as he leaned back against a counter in his kitchen. He had come in here intending to make himself something to eat--more from necessity than want; he knew, logically, that he could only deny his body's needs for so long.

He looked around the small room. He had given up his plan, however, once he had actually come into the room; like every other portion of this place, after all, it reminded him far too strongly of his beloved.

She had been here--had been everywhere in what could be called his "home," although the connotations of the word seemed entirely bereft of meaning without her. The memories of their week together continued to haunt him--to trail after him like ghosts demanding redress . . . reminding him of all he had done to her in the days since.

He was truly at a loss to escape her anywhere, but it was always worse here. Memories of her were in every room; every corner was a spot where they had been together, had shared themselves more thoroughly than he had ever imagined possible. Even when--*especially* when--he tried to sleep to forget her, he would find his mind suddenly catching her scent, as though her spirit still lingered with him--dallying to remind him of the love he had once professed, . . . the one he had now so deeply profaned.

He swallowed heavily, fighting his emotions. It seemed appropriate, he decided--however, that he should be so deeply tormented by her; it only served him right, indeed, for all he had done to her.

He thought back again now to their fragile days of peace together. He had made her only two real promises then: that he would try to protect her from Section and that he would never stop loving her. He sighed. But there was only one of them he had managed to keep. . . . The other he had betrayed so completely as to utterly prove the depths of his own innate depravity.

He gave up on any plans to eat. He had nothing like an appetite, and he was only too willing to punish himself with hunger; it was, indeed, the least he deserved.

He began to move toward his bed, then, giving up on any other pursuits. His mind wouldn't allow him to focus on anything other than Nikita; she was the only thing in his heart--in his soul.

He smiled softly--disgustedly--at himself, at this thought: his "soul." He knew what a lie that was; he had proven it to be in too depraved a manner to ever be able to forget. He was soulless--was empty. There was nothing at all in him which could be recognized as alive by an angel like her. He felt his eyes watering and tried to ignore the sensation. He had destroyed all of that, irredeemably, several weeks ago.

He began to strip off his clothes to prepare for bed. The Peruze mission had been the end of everything good in him; something within him, indeed, had died, when he had given her that disk. . . . Everything which had occurred after it had simply been its funeral.

He took off the last of his clothes and slipped into bed naked--half-determined to torment himself with the feeling of his sheets against his bare skin. He deserved the torment, after all--deserved anything terrible which could be done to him. . . . There was none of it, indeed, which could ever come close to what he had done to her.

He lay there, eyes red, staring at the ceiling. It was the nights when he was alone in bed when he felt her the most, too--when she came to him the most. He could almost close his eyes and breath in her scent, could almost feel her skin brushing against his, her soft hair flowing over his chest.

He remembered, as well, everything they had said to each other--everything they had done. . . . Every promise, every caress was indelibly printed on his heart.

He rolled to the side and rubbed his cheek against the sheet. He had finally furnished his apartment after the Peruze mission--had done it to try to distance himself from her memory, . . . had done it to try to lessen the constant strain of the guilt he felt from being in the place where he had once been happy with her.

It hadn't helped, though; it hadn't changed anything--not really. His mind still remembered it all far too clearly. No physical change could ever make him forget.

He couldn't help thinking, too, that he had been right from the beginning. She was--she always would be--better off without him. In the last few weeks, he had proven that as much as it would ever be possible to.

He thought back on the whole mission sadly. She had been right to slap him then; he had deserved it completely. . . . What he really didn't understand was why she didn't do it more often.

He thought, however, that he might finally have discovered the reason for this, earlier tonight. When she had left Section, she had given him a look which clearly said that she believed that he had turned her in--that he had betrayed her yet again. And, along with it, was another which seemed to tell him plainly, as well, "I'm not even surprised anymore."

He took a deep, tortured breath and rolled himself onto his back again to resume staring blankly at the ceiling. For once, though, he hadn't betrayed her today; he had kept his promise to her--had kept quiet about her attempts to figure out the reason for her recruitment. . . . He guessed from her look, though, that Madeline hadn't needed his help to discover what she was up to.

He sighed and rubbed his eyes, tired of the recurring image of her tortured stare which kept returning to him. In some ways, he knew, Nikita was still an innocent; she still honestly believed that it was possible to do something--to do *anything*--which Section didn't know about beforehand. . . . She still truly thought that her soul was her own.

He looked back up at the ceiling, his hand landing absently on his chest. He wished, of course, that there was some truth to this belief, but he knew--from far too many years of painful experience--that there wasn't. Section knew everything. Section saw everything. Any attempt to outsmart or circumvent them was quixotic; they would *always* know.

He had wanted, then, to try to protect her--to keep her from angering their masters into harming her yet further. He knew that he had failed her--no, had betrayed her--miserably on the Peruze mission, had knowingly bartered her soul for her life because of his insurmountable need to have her near, but that didn't mean that he had any desire to see her hurt yet further. As always, he simply wanted--*needed* her alive. . . . He just prayed that he could manage that in the future without destroying the beautiful essence of who she was.

This, then, had been the reason for his concern--the reason he had been watching her like a hawk for the last few weeks. He had known that recruiting Kruger would be far too familiar to her, would make her question her own place in Section. He had known that she wouldn't accept the mission--and its more personal revelations--silently.

In truth, though, he knew that she shouldn't be expected to. For as much as he had always told her to just do the job, to not bring questions of morality to the missions, he had understood for many years--probably, on a subconscious level, all the way back to her recruitment--that she, indeed, was not who her file had said she was. She had never--before Section--even *imagined* taking a life.

He closed his eyes to try to hold back his tears. It ate away at him terribly that he had been part of--no, he had been the largest factor in--the destruction of her soul. He had trained her to kill in a hundred different ways--both with weapons and without, had trained her to inflict pain on every level; he had taken an innocent, beautiful soul and had purposely gone about planning its degradation--its death.

He rubbed his eyes again. He couldn't forgive himself for this; there was absolutely no way he could or should. Nikita had come to him ready for salvation, . . . and he, instead, had thrown her into Hell.

He didn't blame her for wanting to know the reason she had been set up and recruited, either; she would have been a fool--or spiritually dead--to not have wondered. He uncovered his eyes and stared at the ceiling once more. But he had known, nonetheless, that he couldn't let her search for it.

Now, though, he knew for certain that Section had discovered her search for answers. It didn't matter that he had kept her confidence--the confidence she had asked him, almost as a last favor, to honor. He had done it because he loved her, indeed, but it had made no difference. . . . They had known all along.

What concerned him now, however--along with the rest of his fears for Nikita and for what there was left of his relationship with her, was what their masters might do to her. Was there truly something in store for her which he hadn't been aware of? Had Section recruited her for an end game he had yet to discover?

He sighed. He wished he knew the answer to these tormenting questions. . . . If he did, indeed, he might have a better chance of protecting her.

As it was, though, he was at a loss--in every aspect of his life. . . . The woman he loved more than anything else--the one he had been so close to so recently--now rightfully despised and distrusted him.

The words she had given him during their week together, as well, had now proven to be a lie because of his own evil actions. . . . There was no way, he knew, that she could still care for him; it was an emotional impossibility.

He sighed, his mind returning once again to the issue of her safety. He was lost, truly, as to how to protect her from whatever it was that their masters might have planned for her. . . . All he could do, he supposed--sadly, was to keep an eye on her--was to pray that he could find a way to keep her alive, in whatever was to come.

He was already aware, indeed, that he would be betraying her again in the weeks to come; the mission against Philo demanded it. His only desire now, therefore, was that he could continue to keep her alive to despise him for another day. . . . In Section, sometimes, this was the closest one could get to hope.

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

It was hard to believe, given where they had been only a few months ago, that things were now going so well. For awhile, indeed, there had been little hope for them; their every second had been spent simply trying to survive. . . . Now, however, it appeared that the dark days were finally behind them.

Madeline switched off the view she had been keeping of various of her unhappy operatives and continued on with her current train of thought. Section had survived their recent crises quite well; they had weathered threats by George, poorly-performing operatives, and at least two coup attempts of varying intensity to now be at one of their strongest levels in many years.

She smiled slightly. The plans she had been masterminding had worked quite well. The Peruze mission had been a special stroke of genius for her; forcing Michael to "betray" Nikita--as his young romantic interest would no doubt have put it--had turned out even better than she had hoped. The young woman now had no one to turn to in her times of need--or, at least, no one who could truly help her. The dangerous bonds between the recalcitrant operative and her former trainer had finally been somewhat lessened--if not, as she still hoped, completely destroyed.

Things there, of course, still weren't entirely perfect, however. Michael was still watching after her far too much for Madeline's peace of mind, but his former material--fortunately--no longer trusted him enough to turn to him completely.

She smiled slightly. The whole situation, she realized, though, was truly rather ironic. If Nikita could only have looked past her emotions enough to realize it, she would have seen that Michael was still willing to help her far more than she imagined. . . . Thankfully, however, the recalcitrant young operative seemed incapable of understanding this.

Because of the young woman's distance from her former trainer, as well--because he hadn't been helping her, she had been entirely unable to hide her recent attempts to access her files from her watchers' eyes. All of her recent forays--both in the computer and on her personal mission to Belgrade--had, therefore, been entirely obvious.

It had almost been a pleasure to watch the young woman try to outfox them, really, Madeline thought. She was still so innocent in some ways; she still believed that it was possible to elude detection.

She was quite an amusing diversion, in fact, but she never did seem to learn--never did seem capable of understanding--that her life was no longer her own. She was still fighting, on some level, what had been true for five years. . . . Her life belonged to Section; anything else would always be a dangerous self-deception.

As much as Section's doyenne was sometimes annoyed by her young operative, then, she could never quite get over her fascination with her. She could never quite understand how she was able--so many times over--to find a sense of hope outside of Section; how many times she could retain her dangerous connection to Michael after all the missions he had been used to betray her on--how many times she could put them behind her without losing her sense of compassion; how many times she believed that she could deceive the very people who had taught her everything she now understood about deception. Madeline shook her head slightly. It really made no sense to her. The closest she could come to an explanation for this, indeed, was to try to label Nikita as "unintelligent"--but, at the same time, she was well aware that the woman was capable of perceiving much more than many of her comrades did. The best she could do, then--the closest she could come to comprehending, was to call her "naive." . . . It was the nearest she could come to understanding a pure soul.

She shook her head slightly, Nikita's obtuseness still confusing her, and started her mind down a different path--one she could more fully comprehend. She turned to her computer once more and pulled up an image of Birkoff and Hillinger working near each other. She smiled to herself. This was another pairing--one of a different sort, obviously--that she was going to enjoy watching a great deal.

The pairing, in fact, hadn't been a fluke. The idea of bringing Hillinger in early from his training had been Madeline's. Birkoff, after all, had been getting out of line far too often lately; they had needed some way to keep him focused.

The surest way to do that, then, she had decided, was to remind him that he was not irreplaceable--that there *was* someone else who could do his job. . . . And Hillinger, she knew, was the perfect--the most goading--person available to issue him this reminder.

It wasn't just that Birkoff had taken a dislike to Section's newest computer genius early on, either. Hillinger had a way, admittedly, of making himself detestable to everyone nearby; he needed, indeed, to be watched carefully. While he had already learned that deceiving Section was dangerous, had learned that he couldn't get away with a gross betrayal of his leaders--had, in fact, gotten himself recruited by trying to, he was still conniving and utterly untrustworthy.

This, though, was what made him so perfect for Birkoff, in Madeline's efficiency-oriented eyes. If Birkoff was busy watching his back, then he would no longer have time to plan the sort of coups he had attempted twice already--once with Michael and Nikita, once with Walter. If he were constantly wondering whether he was about to be replaced, then he could no longer afford to be overly focused on anything else.

This was, she knew, a necessary step for them, as well. While Operations claimed that he could handle their young computer genius, Madeline realized that Birkoff had grown into a far larger problem than Section's leader had taken the time to fully realize.

She sighed. They had tried the distraction method before, of course; she had seen Felix's threat to him and had discussed it with Operations. Between the two of them, then, they had poisoned the young man's drink with cyanide--a substance he would be certain to recognize before any harm was done (every operative knew not to trust the scent of almonds), destroyed the tape of the abeyance operative's death and had then even gone so far as to corner the young man soon after it, just to see his reaction. She smiled rather deeply. Paul had been quite amused by that; it had given them both a bit of comic relief.

This lighter side had only been a by-product, though; it had all been meant as something more, as well. And it was a message the young man had, at least, half received. He hadn't tried to betray them since then, . . . but he had had other lapses which had been almost as troublesome.

Over the past few months, indeed--on top of the coup attempts, he had also caused a security breach, when his hormones had gotten the better of him with the Red Cell operative he had thought to be Nikita. She wondered for a second now, thinking back on this incident, about the possibility of sending in one of the valentine ops. to run a seduction mission with him--simply to work off some of his still, to her mind, too adolescent needs--but she dismissed it again, deciding that such a scenario could end badly--either with him deciding that he was being rewarded or with him developing an inconvenient crush on an operative who was needed elsewhere.

She turned her mind back to his other recent failings, therefore. He had been far too concerned, as well, with Operations' possible reaction to the news of his son's death. . . . And--while this had been, unfortunately, very astute of him--it was also the sort of insight which she wished him to have less of in the future.

She looked down at her desk, contemplating. Sometimes she decided, both she and Operations made the mistake of forgetting just how intelligent Birkoff could be, outside the realm of computers. They had grown so used to the young boy who ran missions like efficient computer games; they seemed to be too frequently forgetting, of late, that he was now a man--and they had allowed his personality to grow a bit too freely, as a consequence.

She hoped, then, that Hillinger would prove to be the message they had intended him to. . . . If he wasn't, then they might, in fact, have to try more intensive methods.

She sighed, her mind still analyzing. All of the problems she had been seeing around her, of late, seemed to stem back to one person--Nikita. She, indeed, was the only one who could convince Michael to rebel--who could even influence his emotions to the extent of making him unable to carry out direct orders, as had happened when he had failed to drug Elena during the Vacek mission.

Nikita's former trainer, however, wasn't her only unintentional convert. She was also the one person who could help convince Birkoff that displays of rebellion or emotion were allowable; she was even the reason for one of his only accidental breaches of security, in all of his years with them. . . . She was, apparently--as the recent Red Cell mission against them had shown, the person who he dreamed about when he was alone.

She shook her head slightly. None of this was acceptable, of course--but, now, fortunately, it appeared that they had things in hand once more. So long, indeed, as they could keep Birkoff looking over his shoulder and could also keep Nikita away from her safety net of Michael, then their chances for future success were great. And, since she was convinced that both of these things were very possible, she had, indeed, very bright hopes for the days to come. She smiled. . . . All they needed to do was keep these naive displays of emotion in their operatives in check, and everything would be fine.

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

He felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising once more. That idiot Hillinger was looking at him again. . . . He wondered, not for the first time in the last few days, what he had ever done to deserve this.

Birkoff tried to focus on the program he was running, but it was too elementary to really divert his attention. He still couldn't believe just how bad the past few months had been, really; sometimes, in fact, it seemed like every decision he had made lately had been the wrong one.

It all went back, in fact, to finding the umbrella file he had told Walter about. They should have gone through with it--should have carried their original plan out; he should have known that Operations was lying--that he was just covering his ass. . . . Instead, though, they had fallen for their leader's improvised trick--and everything since had been downhill from there.

Not all of it, of course, had been Section's doing, he knew. His little dalliance with Abby--as Nikita's double had apparently been named--had been entirely his own doing. He had no one to blame for that little bit of idiocy but himself.

He still didn't know what had led him to do it, either. . . . Well, no, that wasn't completely true. The particular body part which had led him into it had been all too obvious at the time, but it had been an act of vast stupidity, all the same.

He sighed quietly. He didn't think, though, that he could solely blame the lack of blood which his brain had been experiencing at that moment. He knew, really, that he had been fantasizing about Nikita for a lot longer than he wanted to admit.

It went back--oh hell, it went back, really, to when she had been recruited. She was only about three years older than him, really; some part of him had always seen them as being just right for each other. . . . Well, some part of him had *wanted* to think that, at least.

The unpleasant fact of it was, though--he knew, that he had still been a kid--in a lot of senses--back when she had been brought in. He had never tried to fend for himself in the world; he had never been alone; he had certainly had nothing like sexual experience. . . . None of those things had ever--in the time he had known her--applied to her.

He supposed, nonetheless--however, that it had galled him somewhat that she was obviously so attracted to Michael. It wasn't that, in general, this would have been a surprise to him; the man was generally considered to be the human version of catnip among the women ops. No, it was more that Birkoff knew that the Class Five op. had just been paired with her, like he had with so many others, for the purpose of seducing her into the ways of Section--for the end game of stealing her soul.

He almost sighed again and then stopped himself, knowing that Hillinger was still watching. His computer finished cycling through the program it was running, and he decided to log out; he had had enough of the idiot for one day. He would have to face his new "assistant" again tomorrow. . . . He wasn't interested in putting up with him any more for now.

As he got up to leave, Section's newest--and most annoying--boy wonder, said--in mock geniality, "Leaving things to the big boys now?"

Birkoff didn't even turn to him. "Goodnight, Greg."

"Goodnight, *Seymour*," Hillinger smirked at his back.

Birkoff counted to ten--*very* slowly--as he left, trying to keep himself from returning to clobber his new boat anchor. He didn't feel like dealing with this kid any more tonight. He looked back out of the corner of his eye, though, to see Greg eyeing his computer. "Forget it, creep," he thought. "I've triple encrypted it this time."

He started making his way back to his quarters, while trying to put the moron out of his mind for awhile, his thoughts returning to their previous pathways. It had taken him some time, really, to understand that Michael did seem to see Nikita as more than just another recruit/valentine target. He supposed that it had been a combination of desire and inexperience which had caused this oversight, at the time; he had wanted so desperately to believe, after all, that she could see him as something more than just a colleague.

He had wanted to think this, in fact, even before he had really become her friend. Just working with her in computer tutorials had been enough--if he was honest with himself--to fry his hormones, although he had tried to hide it--even from himself--in those days.

He supposed it had been when she had helped him survive, after he had had to pull the trigger for the first time, that he had really begun to understand her, though. He had accused her early on then, however, of being what it said she was in her file--a cop killer. . . . It was only in the years since that he had realized just how unlikely that "fact" was.

His soul froze a little, too, as his mind took a slight detour. His relationship with her had always been a little complex. He had had to--after all, more than once--keep quiet about missions which were obviously going to be rough on her, ones which would see her beaten and betrayed; he had even sat quietly by and allowed her--or so he had thought--to be killed in the explosion which had been planned to take her life.

He sighed. In truth, he still hadn't really forgiven Michael for that one. He had come to realize, though, in the years since then, that her former trainer *did* seem to truly care about her; he had gone out of his way to protect her more times than Birkoff could remember, in fact--had broken profile after profile to save her life. Had it been anyone else, he was sure, the older man would simply have written them off and continued on his way. . . . It was only Nikita which aroused such displays of protectiveness in him.

It was Nikita's feelings toward her ex-trainer, though, which he could never really understand. The man, indeed, had betrayed her so intensely and so often; he couldn't imagine anyone continuing to care for another person after such continuously brutal treatment.

He supposed, then, that it was partly from these reasons that he had believed she might come on to him. It had been so tempting, in fact--had fulfilled so many of his fantasies. . . . Or, at least, he supposed, that was his excuse.

He sighed, as he reached and entered his quarters. He had thought about moving out of Section many times, in the last couple of years, but it was--in the end--far easier to be here; he was needed too often, and at too many odd hours, to really have the privilege of living outside.

He flopped himself on his bed and stared at the ceiling, his mind going back to his most recent torment. He had known that Operations and Madeline weren't happy with him, but he had never imagined anything he could do which was bad enough to get saddled with Hillinger.

He took off his glasses, placing them on a nearby table, and rubbed his eyes. God, he was tired. The whole situation with Tatyana had worn on him. If he hadn't been so distracted by having Hillinger around him constantly, he would have noticed--would have thought about--that boy's part in his old assistant's downfall far more quickly.

He stopped rubbing his eyes but lay there with them closed. He didn't trust Greg's stated reasons for having set Tatyana up; he still didn't believe that she had actually been doing anything wrong--certainly didn't believe Greg's savior routine. That guy wouldn't do anything for *anyone* out of kindness. . . . There was *always* a personal motive with him.

He hated, though, that he couldn't just trust his instincts--that he hadn't been able to save poor Tatyana from Greg's machinations. She hadn't--as far as Birkoff could tell--deserved what had happened to her. . . . He really hated that he had been too chicken s--- to just come out and tell Spec. Ops. about what had really gone on.

He sighed and stared at the ceiling--which was, thanks to his lack of glasses, rather out of focus. He hated, too, that he was going to have to deal with Hillinger on a constant basis, from now on. The guy couldn't be trusted--not just with him, but with anything in Section; he was the sort of person who would sell out everything--everyone--he knew to Red Cell in a heartbeat, if he thought he could get something--hell, *anything*--out of it.

He was frowning a little. Nothing good seemed to be happening to him at all, lately. Everywhere he turned, something went wrong or he screwed up in some incredibly blatant way. . . . It was--especially with Hillinger sliming his way around in the wings--a great way to get himself canceled.

That, though, was really only the beginning of his fears. Having Hillinger to worry about, indeed, meant that he wasn't the only one who was in danger; anyone the guy didn't like, he could definitely try to kill off. Already, he had gotten Tatyana taken away--and, probably, canceled--simply because, he was sure, she had had the inherent good sense to not be interested in him. . . . God only knew who was next.

He closed his eyes tiredly, disgusted and a bit disturbed. He wasn't certain about how to handle Greg--about what to do to keep him in line. He himself, obviously, wasn't exactly a favorite with Operations and Madeline, at the moment, so anything he might do against their new boy wonder would have to have a damn good, obvious reason for it--and, in truth, he just didn't know where to begin.

He sighed once more and decided, therefore, to simply try to deal with things as they came. He would watch his and everyone else's accounts closely, to make certain Greg didn't pull the Tatyana stunt again; he would keep a close eye on any missions Greg might oversee, as well, to make certain that no one got unavoidably hurt. And--too--he would keep an eye out for Nikita and Walter, as always--just to make sure he didn't try anything against them.

There was only one person, in fact, who he wasn't particularly worried about. . . . He was certain that Greg--idiot that he was--still had better sense than to try anything with Michael.

For now, though, he supposed--sadly, that that was about all he could do. However much he wanted to be able to protect them all, this--to his mind--sadly incomplete plan really was the only option he had at the moment. . . . Maybe, if he watched closely in the future, there would be something more.

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

All in all, it had been one hell of a productive few days. He wasn't quite where he wanted to be yet, it was true, but he was getting closer. . . . All he had to do now was wait and watch for his opening.

Greg sat at his computer, quietly and secretly creating a computer virus far stronger than the one he had used on Section originally; that one, after all, had had to be done on the spur of the moment. He didn't know whether he would ever actually need this one, of course, but he knew that it was always best to have a backup . . . or several.

He was, really, enormously proud of himself, at the moment. He had, in just a couple of days, managed to get promoted to the post of Birkoff's assistant--the closest thing there was, short of Birkoff himself, to having all of the computer power there was in Section. . . . The fact that most promotions in this place came over the body of your predecessor didn't bother him in the least.

He had been planning for this inevitability ever since his unwilling recruitment, indeed--had been plotting ways to get more power. He was just a little surprised, in fact, at how easy it had all been; Tatyana had really been the perfect patsy. . . . Had she seemed more interested in him, of course, he might have waited until he had slept with her to pull this same trick, but--since she seemed so frigid--he had cut straight to his original plan.

His mind went back to this previous thought briefly. He wouldn't really have slept with her--not in the normal sense of that phrase; part of his mind understood, after all, that he was still far too much of an adolescent to have any chance of even half-satisfying anything female.

He had, however, once or twice--in his days as a full professor, gotten some desperate graduate student to give him a blow job or two, as an exchange for a grade--which, of course, never came. He always destroyed their careers after that, in fact, just to make certain that anything they might say about him would sound like they were simply telling random stories in hopes of surviving.

That, truly, had been his plan for Tatyana, too--had she only gone along with it. He was a little disappointed, certainly, that she hadn't, but it didn't bother him too much. . . . He knew there would be others.

He leaned back in his chair--very proud of himself, as he thought back again on his recent accomplishments. He no longer, indeed, even mildly regretted having been recruited into this place.

He had thought, of course--at first, that he would miss his old life, would miss the perks of his job as the star professor in his department--would miss his mother taking care of his needs. . . . But that, to his surprise, hadn't happened.

What he had found, instead, was that Section was *exactly* where he wanted to be. Here, he could play with technology far in advance of what he had ever seen before; here, his material needs were met without the clinginess his mother had always added to her services. "Greggy, do this; Greggy, do that," his mind whined, in her mock voice. "Take a coat; it's cold out. Don't overwork yourself at that computer; you'll ruin your eyes." . . . Whine, whine, whine.

That wasn't all, however. The other plus he had found here, too, was that he could plot and plan to his heart's content; in fact, some of it was even job-related. All he needed, really, was a little more power and he could then do whatever he wanted--could have whatever woman he wanted. . . . What could be better than that?

He had never been happier, really; Section was perfect for him. It was like a giant toy box with lots of cool machines and fun souls to play with. . . . And no one here, when he played the game right, felt they had the right to whine at him endlessly about some stupid sense of "morality."

He glanced around com. to size up the female ops. nearby; none of them were quite his type, really. There was Gail, of course--who had the attraction of having once belonged to Birkoff, but he had always had a preference for blondes.

His mind went back to Tatyana again. It was too bad, really, that he had had to get rid of her so soon; they could have had a lot of fun together . . . or, at least, *he* could have had a lot of fun. To him, indeed, they were pretty much the same; so long as he got off, the entire issue was meaningless.

He sighed slightly, one final time, about Tatyana. Couldn't be helped. His mind mulled over who was left, therefore--having already discounted the remaining tech. ops. He had always wanted to try out one of the valentine ops., really, but he knew he didn't have enough power, unfortunately, to force any of them into a relationship yet.

His mind turned, then, to the woman who half of Section seemed to be hot for--Nikita. Birkoff had even, it had been said, had a fling with her body double a couple of months ago. Although he laughed at his supposed superior's stupidity in being taken in by the woman, he secretly envied him; there wasn't a straight guy in Section, after all--as far as he could tell, who wouldn't give the use of a body part for the chance of a few hours in the sack with the real thing. . . . Getting someone who looked exactly the same, therefore, had to be just as good.

He wondered, then, as his planning continued, if he could find some way to force Nikita into a relationship--if only for one night. He knew it would be hard, of course; he would have to get around not only Birkoff, who tended to keep an eye on her, but Michael, as well.

His mind pondered the difficulties further. It wasn't any secret, to anyone in Section, that any move made against Nikita was made against her lover, too. But everyone knew, as well, that--along with the fact that Nikita was very much Michael's personal property, the relationship between them tended to be a stormy one; some days--some weeks, in fact--seemed to be nothing but hail.

It was possible, then, he supposed, that one could simply catch her during one of these down times--could sneak in under her radar, when she was angry at her usual flame. God . . . he wished.

He sighed, slightly wistfully, as his mind focused in on the inherent problems in this plan. It was well known, though, that she had almost *never* dated anyone besides her usual bedmate, and--the few times that she had--her choices had all been men who were at least a few years older than her; they all seemed, too--from what he had been able to gather--to have light hair, to be physical opposites of Michael. He sighed, as a dark curl fell closer to his face. So much for that option.

He continued trying to plan, therefore. The really frustrating part of the whole thing, in fact, was that--no matter how much she and her lover seemed to hate each other, at times, they were still always watching out for one another; every time one of them got into a jam, indeed--as far as he could tell, the other always seemed to be there. . . . Getting to her, then, would be tricky.

His mind continued to work on this, however. He thought for a little while about trying to get Michael to give her up to him temporarily, by some stratagem or another--by some threat to her life, perhaps. . . . But he knew that was a difficult option. Michael may have, everyone knew, backed down to Madeline and Operations recently and put Nikita's pretty ass into service for them, but Birkoff's assistant--to his regret--just didn't have that same kind of power yet.

He sighed once more. That wasn't the only difficulty with the Class Five op., either; if you crossed him, in fact--as well, you were more likely than not to end up dead. . . . Michael, everyone knew, played for keeps.

Maybe, then, he decided finally, he was going about this the wrong way. Maybe he could find some way to back Nikita into a relationship on her own.

He continued pondering this path, trying to work out its kinks. Probably, it wouldn't be through something he could threaten *her* with, though; he had seen from the files he had snuck into that she didn't tend to roll over when it was just herself on the line. He would have to find a way to trap someone she cared about--like Michael . . . or Birkoff.

He smiled to himself--a little, ferret-like smile--at this new thought. That was perfect. He would have to remember--whenever he found a way to eliminate Birkoff--that he should blackmail her with it first, tell her to put up or Birkoff gets it. . . . Then, of course, Birkoff would get it anyway--but only after he got his.

He leaned back and stretched in his chair, smiling at a pretty girl who was passing nearby; the girl rolled her eyes in complete dismissal and kept walking. "Bitch," he thought.

He tapped a few of his computer's keys, his virus ready for use, should he ever need it. He then looked around to make certain he was alone before calling up the file film of the Armel mission. He knew he couldn't have Nikita yet, but he could--at least--think about her until then.

He smiled. He was certain--given his success so far, as well--that the time for his future triumph wouldn't take long. His smile grew deeper. Yes, indeed . . . all he had to do now was wait.