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Love's Sacrifices

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She was finding more and more, lately, that--no matter how intensely she had prepared herself for the worst--things always seemed to slip into an even deeper level of Hell than she had expected. Section, it seemed, was working overtime to dream up even more new ways to torment her. . . . And Michael, apparently, was acting as their main inventive genius.

Nikita was walking slowly and disgustedly through the park now. She was on her way to meet with Michael--but, for the life of her, she wasn't sure why. . . . Why, indeed, should she even bother, anymore?

He had made her life an unremitting hell recently. There had been several months of nothing but betrayals and games--several months where he had seemed to be able to focus on nothing besides finding new and even more painful ways to damage her.

She ground her teeth together slightly. She did, at least, have to praise his inventive mind, though; he had now added whoring and almost canceling her to the list of his old favorites. He was, she supposed, at least becoming more creative in the methods he was using to torment her soul. She gave a small, disgusted smile. Gee, thanks, Michael.

She shook her head slightly, as she pulled at the branch of a nearby tree while she walked by it--tugging off a couple of leaves absently before she let the branch spring back into place behind her. She, of course, had simply come to expect such degradations from him, however. . . . It was all he was really good for, anyway.

What she couldn't make out, though, was why she seemed to give a damn enough to still be helping him. She had gone after him, in fact, once she had discovered that the events yesterday had simply been a mission against Philo--had followed in his wake to protect him. She shook her head again, a low growl emitting from her throat. Why the fuck did she bother?

She had been forced--repeatedly and excruciatingly, lately, indeed--to admit that she despised him; he had simply given her no other choice. There had been too many deep betrayals, of late, to ever be able to work her way beyond them in this life, in fact; she knew with certainty that their pain would follow her on, even after he finally managed to kill her.

Something between a sigh and a growl rumbled out of her. Everything between them, lately, seemed to be shit. Hell, she wasn't even sure whether he had treated her this badly--this constantly--since her first full year as an active op.

She bit her bottom lip slightly, tears of anger threatening to fall. Nothing, truly, she decided, had ever changed between them--despite all of his lying words during the week she had spent with him. She was beginning to wonder now, in fact, whether he had simply set her up for that week in order to hurt her more thoroughly during the past few; maybe, indeed, he was just getting off on the sadism of it. . . . At the moment, it truly wasn't something she thought him incapable of.

She was beginning to wonder, in fact, whether there were *anything* he wouldn't do, if he were ordered to. . . . She was really beginning to wonder, indeed, whether the truth of it was that he just enjoyed it.

She tossed the leaves in her hand into the air randomly, like an angry little kid. She was feeling a bit petulant lately, truly, but she knew full well that her reasons for these emotions were anything but childish; she understood that her hatred of Michael was irreversible now--that, like some inoperable cancer, it had metastasized. . . . But, truthfully, at the moment, she really didn't give a damn.

She was even beginning to feel, in fact, that she could enjoy the sadism he was showing her lately, in reverse; she could almost enjoy watching him rot in Hell, had she been given the chance. . . . It was, unquestionably--indeed, *precisely* what he deserved.

She was clenching her teeth in anger, as she continued along the path in front of her. The thing she couldn't understand, however, was why she still seemed incapable of doing just that--of letting him fall prey to whatever may come, of simply sitting idly by and allowing him to die. . . . He had already proven, after all, these past few days, that he was more than willing to do the same with her.

No, she realized, suddenly; it was much more than that. He hadn't just stood by, in fact; he had helped take her to the white room to face off against Madeline and possible cancellation. She shook her head. . . . Why the *hell* should she still care what happened to him, then?

The further she walked along--pondering this, too, the more furious she grew. For all of Michael's promises during their week together, there had now been a betrayal to disprove every one; she simply couldn't understand why she wasn't just able to see him for the irredeemable monster he really was.

She sighed angrily at herself. What the f--- was wrong with her, anyway? She felt a lump of almost unbearable sorrow in her heart, which she tried to repress. There was something, certainly, though--whatever it was, which caused her to run to his side unquestioningly whenever he needed her. And, again--whatever this was, she truly didn't seem to have the power to resist it.

She had been having an internal debate, recently, indeed, while pondering this very question. She was beginning to wonder whether she had just been extremely well-programmed by him or whether she were simply far more inherently masochistic than she usually believed herself to be.

She shook her head a little. It was a hard choice, really, but--God knows--it had to be one or the other. . . . There sure as hell wasn't anything else which made any sense, anymore.

She had come down to these two choices, too, since she had become completely convinced, lately, that--whatever this unknown factor was--it obviously couldn't be anything good or noble. . . . No. Whatever it was, it was demonic, . . . and its call had trapped her more surely, more painfully, than any prison ever could.

She thought back through her choices again, however. She didn't want to think that it was masochism; she didn't want to believe that she was somehow responsible for all of the bulls--- he seemed so determined to expose her to. She knew that she didn't enjoy this--that she didn't want it, . . . but she still couldn't figure out, then, why the hell she continued to put up with it.

She sighed tiredly. She knew, though, of course, that--in some ways--she really had little choice; there was nowhere for her to go to escape him, was nowhere to run. . . . She had figured that out, to her regret, long ago.

This fact, however--obviously, didn't come close to ending her pain--and she did *so* desperately want to end it. She had even, on occasion, half-pondered walking into his office with a gun and just finishing it once and for all; it really seemed, on reflection, like her only way out. . . . But--unfortunately, even in her fantasies--as soon as she saw his eyes in focus beyond the barrel of her gun, she relented. She swallowed heavily--upset at her own emotions. It really didn't make any sense.

She had put up with so much from him, especially lately, she knew, but she *was* beginning to feel that this mission had been an end for her. . . . She just couldn't take much more of this, after all.

This last one, indeed, had killed something inside her; he had used her ruthlessly yet again to achieve his end game--had forced her into the white room, had almost had her canceled, . . . had even pretended to shoot her himself--without her prior knowledge of his plan. What more would it take before she simply let him die? . . . How much more pain did she require before she broke?

She closed her eyes for a second, as she continued along the path to the boathouse--where she was supposed to meet with him, her mind still in turmoil. She didn't know why he wanted to see her now, but she was beginning to wonder why she still cared enough about what he might say to agree.

She refocused dimly on the path. She knew she should just go home, should just turn around and give up on hearing whatever nonsense he had planned to tell her; it wasn't like it could really make any difference to how she felt, anyway. . . . Nothing, right now, could do that.

None of it made sense. She couldn't figure out why he was even bothering with this--what he possibly thought he could say to her that would make any difference.

A smile of irony--of disgust--came over her features, as she pondered the possibilities further. Which technique would he try this time, though--an apology? A "logical" explanation? The old "I wish things could be different" speech? She shook her head. Too late, Michael. . . . She had heard them all.

She swallowed back a lump in her throat. She could feel her anger getting stronger. It was running through her veins like a poison, was weakening her horribly.

She hated this--hated that she *had* to hate him, that he had treated her in a way which allowed for no other emotion in response. Part of her, after all, remembered--altogether too clearly--what their one week together had been like, how healed and whole she had felt in it, how beloved and desired she had known herself to be. . . . That the son-of-a-bitch had made her feel so diminished--so used up--after that short space of communion between them seemed, indeed, like the greatest sin he could ever commit against her.

That, though, wasn't the cause of all of her anger; she hated, too, that every move she had made for the last few days had been predicted and planned--hated that even her thoughts weren't allowed to be her own. She knew she had simply taken the only course she could--had done the only thing available to her. . . . That the whole goddamn ordeal, however--from Operations' madness to his cancellation of Discus to her own, various supposed cancellations--had been a set-up was truly unforgivable.

She tried to avoid grinding her teeth together again in her fury. She was going to meet with the bastard now, yes, but she still had no idea why. It was a total waste of time; there was absolutely *nothing* he could say which could ever make this right. He had taken the delicate crystal of their relationship and had purposely and ruthlessly shattered it. . . . There was no way they could ever be whole--together--again.

There was only one thing left to her, at the moment, then; her heart grabbed onto it in a desperate attempt to keep some sense of strength--of self. Maybe if she could just find the will to, she could give him a final goodbye--could tell him unquestionably to let her go, could force him to stay the hell away from her outside of missions--now and forever; maybe, indeed, if she could, she would have a way to survive. . . . If not, however--if she had to continue on hopelessly in this painful labyrinth she had been trapped in--then every day she lived through would be an unexplainable miracle.

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

He remembered a time--one which seemed to have taken place a lifetime ago, now . . . a time when he had been happy; he had held his beloved in his arms, had known that she cared for him--that her love for him was complete and freely given. . . . But that time now seemed like some tormenting dream--was only a tiny spark which served to make the darkness surrounding him more all-enveloping by contrast.

Michael had been waiting in the out-of-season boathouse for almost an hour now; Nikita was supposed to have been here at least 20 minutes ago. He would have been worried for her safety, in fact, had he not been certain that her lateness was due more to emotional than physical distress.

He wouldn't have blamed her, of course, had she decided to stand him up. He had had absolutely no right to ask her to come, anyway; he had forfeited anything like that *long* ago. . . . The last few months had only managed to make the reasons for the distance between them all the more evident.

He knew she had no desire to talk with him, but he was, nonetheless, absolutely determined to meet with her; he needed to, regardless of the consequences. There were things he had to tell her--things he had to discuss with her--even if she didn't believe him, even if she only hated him more afterwards. . . . No matter what, they just had to be said.

It wasn't, of course, like the words he needed to impart now were anything new; the distress between them had been brewing for some time. But there had just been too many nights without her, too many days when all he could focus on was how much he had made her despise him. He couldn't go on without trying to explain.

In some ways, too, their latest mission had brought to a crisis the emotional turmoil he had been suffering through for so long. But it still hadn't been the hardest. . . . It hadn't even been close.

The hardest--his eyes glazed over in pain, just forcing himself to think about it--the hardest had been the Peruze mission, had been the unspeakable betrayal of her body and soul he had willingly set into motion and witnessed then. . . . Nothing for a long time to come was going to be able--he *prayed*--to top that one.

He ruthlessly pulled his mind back from this path, however, unable to focus there and remain sane. This latest mission had been bad enough--had made all of his old terrors about their destinies resurface. He had had *so* many nightmares, after all, about killing her--either accidentally or on purpose, had suffered through too many tormenting, terrifying dreams about placidly following orders to eliminate her. . . . To have had to come close to that, even as a front, had been *brutal*.

He sighed wearily, as he leaned against a post and waited, watching the door--wondering whether she would come at all. This entire last mission had been incredibly difficult, truly; there had been so many levels of it he had needed to keep going at once. He had both been conspiring and communicating with his leaders while apparently being in conspiracy against them--had needed to ask so many questions he already knew the answers to, while trying to keep straight all of the watchers around him.

There had been so many targets in this mission, as well--both false and real, both physical and symbolic. He had worried, indeed, about the wisdom of Operations' insistence on being drugged, had been legitimately concerned--for Operations' safety, not his own--when Madeline had questioned him in the coded way they had planned beforehand--the one which told him to set forward the timetable or Operations wouldn't make it.

His mind focused on his master for a minute. He was, he admitted, rather impressed with his leader's ability to carry out so well the mission he had begun. He had lost none of his sharpness with age; he could still have survived as a cold op. on a daily basis, had that been necessary for him.

His mind continued analyzing. Philo, too, had not been a target who should be underestimated. He was a very astute man--a good reader of character, overall; Michael knew well that a single slip would have cost him their one chance at him, would have meant that all of their torment and trouble had been meaningless. . . . He had needed to be very careful, indeed.

But all of this--all of these people, truly--paled in comparison with the target he had been the most worried about: his beloved. She was not, of course, one of the scheduled objectives of the mission, but she had been used in this game as much as, more than, most--had, indeed, been their main pawn. . . . And he had hated--had been in pain--every second of it.

He sighed. He wondered if this was how she had felt during the mission against Adrian. . . . Both operations, in truth, had had a lot of parallels.

Both he and his beloved, during these missions--indeed, had been forced to use the other--had had to convince each other of their treachery without quite admitting it; they had both, as well, been secretly working with their masters while ostensibly working against them--had appeared to be acting out a gross treason while, in actuality, they had simply been following orders. . . . Both of them, too, had had to count on the other acting in a predictable manner, in order to finish the game. He closed his eyes and sighed painfully for a second. And, for her, he suspected--like himself, it had hurt like hell.

He refocused dimly on the room. He knew, of course, that she hated him now--but he also knew that he had given her every right to. . . . He had never once, in all of the years he had known her, in fact--he realized now, ever given her a reason to feel any other way.

He closed his eyes again, briefly--pained at his own internal admission of truth about his actions. He was feeling more and more like his blood was made of some corrosive acid--like it was destroying his veins as it ran through his body, . . . like he was being poisoned by his own evil.

He opened his eyes reluctantly, once more, to stare at the floor. This was only appropriate, however. He wasn't human, after all; he was a demon--was something evil and vile, had been sent to earth solely to torment and destroy the innocent and the pure. . . . Maybe, indeed--he thought suddenly, that was the true reason he wanted her here today; maybe he was simply motivated by a demonic need to destroy, . . . as though he hadn't seen to that enough with her already.

There weren't words low enough to describe the level of self-disgust that he harbored at the moment. He knew, unquestionably, that he was damned; he had lived every moment of his life with that end in mind, apparently, had molded himself with great care into a creature who was completely irredeemable, who was utterly lacking in higher value. . . . Nothing could save him now.

None of this, however, stopped his dreams. He still wanted--still wished, fiercely--to deserve the angel he had fallen so hopelessly in love with so long ago; he still dreamed--daily and nightly--about the joys of being near her, about the nirvana of loving her. She was--she *always* would be--his vision of heaven. . . . It was unfortunate, then, that he was so permanently a denizen of hell.

This latest mission, too, had only made him think even more intensely about his future desires for the two of them. Standing in Operations' office--looking down on the underworld that man ruled--had given Michael, not a taste for power, but an unquenchable desire for self-determination.

He knew now--unquestionably--that he wanted Operations' job. It wasn't that he had any intention, however, of actually overthrowing his master, but he did have every intention of being the next in line, when the throne finally changed hands. . . . It was only with that sort of power, indeed, that he could imagine finally being able to cease his constant torments of his beloved.

His mind ran--enraptured--over the possibilities he could create from such a change. Maybe he could then find her some place in Section which would be safer, somewhere where he could watch over her--where she would no longer be required to destroy herself in mission after brutal mission . . . somewhere he would create for her alone.

He wasn't really sure that he wanted, however--no, in fact he was certain that he didn't want--her to take Madeline's place. While Nikita could be very good at profiling, to a certain extent, he never wanted her to have to run another interrogation again; he never wanted to see her compromised that far.

He stared off for a few more seconds before shaking his head slightly--shaking the bewitching thoughts from his mind. He was living in a fantasy land. Operations was far too tough to give up his hold on his personal kingdom for some time yet. . . . As much as he might wish for it, then, his days of being able to protect Nikita without question were still *very* far away.

He sighed unhappily--sorting through his own thoughts--and swallowed back the lump in his throat. He knew that the protection he gave his beloved wasn't worth the name; he knew that she would have been incredibly happier had he simply ceased looking out for her at all.

He also understood, however--to his torment, that this was an impossibility. As long as there was life in his body, he would keep Nikita alive--whatever he may have to do to achieve this end. . . . It was simply a tragic irony that his actions, instead, so frequently made her simply yearn for her own death.

He could feel how bloodshot his eyes were becoming, as he continued to sift through his own pain--his own actions. He had hurt his beloved so constantly--so irrevocably--in the past few months that she was no longer able to trust the idea that he even still wanted her alive; one of the things which had eaten away at him the most on this last mission, indeed, had been the fact that she had actually believed that he would allow her to be--would take part in her being--canceled. . . . The look in her eyes when he had come to take her to the white room, certainly, would haunt him for many, many years to come.

It pained him horribly that she could believe this of him. He had been keeping watch on her, after all, during this entire mission--had made sure that she wasn't physically hurt at any point in it. He had held her back at Section on the first, phantom mission against Pogue simply to keep her out of the line of fire, in fact; he had only allowed her to go on the one in Siberia, too, because he was certain that she was the only one who could have the morals and the gall to stand up to Operations' insane orders there--but he had already known without doubt that she wouldn't be canceled then.

It hurt him so deeply that she didn't see this--that she didn't understand that even the actions which had caused her to further doubt him had only been aimed at protecting her. He had only been coming to take her to the white room, in fact, in order to save her; had she not already broken away from her guards, he would have taken possession of her, instead--would have taken her from them, would have kept them from hurting her--regardless of their orders.

But--to his torment--that hadn't stopped the way she had interpreted his actions; both her look then and when he had shot her with the tranq. had been full of betrayed love. He felt his heart seemingly corroding away inside of him. He hated that she seemed to believe that he would kill her--especially because of some random order.

He knew, though--as little as he liked it, that she had reason to believe this, of course--that he had given this emotion of hers far too much basis over the past few months, but he would still *never* have seen her harmed. . . . He *hated* that she didn't know this yet.

He could feel the pain of all this in him--could feel it tearing through him like internal razor wire. The whole situation between them was so deeply--was so painfully ironic: she was the only person on earth whom he trusted, but she believed him capable of any atrocity to her, in return; he dreamed of a life with her, while she dreamed of a life finally free of his presence; he loved her both fiercely and tenderly; he was the man she loved and the person she most despised. . . . And none of it--*none of it*--seemed capable of ever truly being repaired between them . . . not--at least--while there was a Section.

He sighed. His life with her was horribly entangled. And, he knew--to his everlasting regret, *he* had been the one to tie those Gordian knots.

He looked up at the door and wondered if she were going to come at all. He decided to wait for another hour before he gave up.

He knew, of course, that meeting with her today couldn't solve their problems--wouldn't make their path any easier, but he couldn't stop himself; he needed to see her, needed to tell her the truths that lay inside him--even if it was only to give her the opportunity she so fully deserved to spit on them. . . . Although it was almost nothing--compared to all of the divine repayments he so fully owed her--it was, certainly, the least he could do for her now.

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

By the time Nikita finally made her way to the boat house--about 20 minutes later, her emotions had worked into a state of intense rage and disgust. She sauntered into the room slowly, deliberately--eyeing Michael as though he were, truly, beneath her notice but her attention had been drawn to him by morbid curiosity, nonetheless.

He took in a breath upon seeing her. She almost looked as though she were stalking him, but he had a feeling that her current attitude was more that mauling him would be a waste of her valuable energy.

He stared--half-transfixed--into the deep, glacial blue of her eyes, as she assessed him; they defined the paradox of "cold fire" for him. . . . This wasn't going to be easy.

She stopped well across the room from him, still pondering him as though he were a cross between a lab specimen and something she had discovered on the bottom of her shoe. "So?" she shrugged slightly. "What did you want?"

He took a deep, quiet breath, and then spoke softly, as though he were talking to a wild animal he was afraid of provoking. "I just wanted to explain."

She gave a short laugh of derision and looked up at the ceiling for a second. "I should've known you'd go for that angle." She refocused on him. "I'd actually bet myself, though, that you'd try starting with the old `I wish things could be different' shtick." She nodded, mockingly. "It's quite effective with some women, I hear."

He blinked slowly--trying to hold in his intense pain. Her disgust was well deserved, he knew; he couldn't argue with it, . . . but it still hurt him like hell.

He needed to tell her some things, though--regardless of the torment this encounter was giving them both; he tried, then, to simply begin with what he needed to say. "I didn't want to hurt you, Nikita," he began.

She cut him off. "Oh, wait!" She held up her hand, in a gesture of false excitement. "I know this one! Let's see--`I didn't want to hurt you; it was Section's plan, not mine; I do what I have to do,'" she rattled off, as she met his gaze with a look of false happiness which overlay incredible pain. "Have I left anything out?"

He saw that her eyes were overly-bright, like a fever victim's. He took another deep breath, talking slowly--in hopes of breaking through to her. "Philo was dangerous, Nikita. He had to be brought down."

All false humor drained from her face in an instant. "Don't patronize me, Michael. I know very well how dangerous Red Cell can be." He looked down at the floor, and her head dipped to follow him. "Would you like me to remind you of the various times I've been used against them? With Bauer--with Jenna . . . how about during the war with them? That was a good one, don't you think?" He closed his eyes, the pain overwhelming him, as she continued. "You must have enjoyed that little bit of playacting; I got tortured *real* well then." She laughed unpleasantly again, before delivering her verbal coup de grace. "I was actually stupid enough to believe you cared."

His eyes were still closed, trying to block out the torment her words inflicted. He knew they were deserved, but he *hated* seeing her like this--couldn't stand to see her so full of rage; she was supposed to be a creature of joy--of light, not this thing he had lowered her to. "What do you want me to say, Nikita?" He looked back up at her finally, shaking his head. "Nothing I do can make it disappear." He sighed. "Nothing I say will take the past away."

She laughed derisively again, refusing to give any quarter to him. "Then what do you want with me, Michael? Wasn't the point of this to get me to forgive you--to tell you that everything's alright, that you can do anything you want to me, and I'll love every second? Isn't that your little fantasy?"

He closed his eyes for a split second before he refocused on her with a blazing, intense gaze. "*No*." The gruffness of his tone broke her--for at least a heartbeat or two--out of her false humor; her look became more real. "I *never* wanted you as my plaything, Nikita."

The truth in his eyes burned into her enough to keep her from mocking him again, but her look was still angry. "Then what the hell do you want me as, Michael?"

His gaze was the most honest she had seen from him in many months. "I want you as all the things I told you during our week together." He shook his head. "*None* of that has changed."

A small fire seemed to glow in her eyes, her look incredibly accusing. "Hasn't it?"

He knew she was referring to Peruze, more than any of his other betrayals; his heart seemed to be moaning in pain from within him. He sighed unhappily, before he began--trying to explain the inexplicable; out of habit--and because he had no other way to even try to approach it--he fell back into Section speak. "I had no choice. You either slept with Karl, or you were in abeyance."

She smiled slightly, unpleasantly. "Really? That's *precisely* what Madeline said?" Her tone was disbelieving--knowing.

"She didn't have to."

"No, precisely," she returned. "She didn't have to, because you didn't wait long enough to let her." She shook her head, her eyes still focused on him darkly. "She waved a stick in front of you for half a second, and you ran to fetch it."

She looked him up and down, disparagingly--ignoring the intense torment in his gaze. "You're their goddamned lap dog, Michael." She met his eyes again--her rage finally overwhelming her completely. "You're meaningless," she assessed him for half a second with cold eyes, before she turned to go.

"*No*," his voice growled at her. He couldn't let her go like this, not if he intended to keep on living.

She paused at the door--not having even opened it, one hand on the frame; she had been stopped more by her own thoughts than his outburst. Her voice was deceptively casual. "How much did it take to sell me out, Michael?" She turned back to face him, her eyes apparently calm but burning deep into him, nonetheless. "How long did it take to convince you to turn me into a whore?"

His eyes were red, his breathing unsteady; he couldn't take the pain of this any more. "You think I enjoyed that?" His own anger began working its way to the surface. "You think I *liked* that they brainwashed and raped you?"

His honest words hit their target, breaking through her denials; she saw, without question, in his eyes, that he had, indeed, seen that mission in precisely the same way that she had. Her lower lip started to tremble a little, as she fought to control it; the memories--the pain of it--was overwhelming her, but she was trying desperately not to break down.

His eyes softened slightly, as he saw that she was really listening to him; he finally told her what he had wanted to then. "I would have given my life, if I could have protected you from that, Nikita--would have given my soul." He shook his head, telling her the interpretations of those events he needed to believe. "There was nothing I could do. Madeline had decided the profile whether I was part of it or not."

Her eyes grew angry--incredulous--once more at his denial of responsibility. "And you think that makes it okay?"

"*No*," he stated, in honest fury--cutting off her growing rage. "Nothing between us is okay; nothing between us is right . . . not now."

Her anger drained away again, as she saw that he wasn't trying to excuse his unforgivable actions; her look turned into one of despair, trying to understand. "Why did you get me to come here, Michael? What's the point of this, other than to make all the wounds between us even worse?"

He didn't answer. She shook her head, then, and continued. "We can't solve them; we'll *never* solve them, as long as you keep doing their bidding without question." She saw that her truthful words were getting through to him; she finished out her point. "As long as you're their errand boy, anything you say to me--any promise you give--is useless." She had to swallow heavily, her eyes becoming bloodshot. "You aren't even real." She did it again--fighting her pain, her voice becoming softer. "*We* aren't even real."

He closed his eyes tightly to hold back tears. She was right; he knew it, . . . but he also just couldn't let her go. "I know there's no way to forgive me, Nikita." He looked back up at her with incredible sadness. "So I'm not asking you to. All I want is to have you remember that my," he stopped, sighing--unable, once again, to bring forth the right words, "feelings for you aren't a mirage."

She was quiet, fighting the urge to cry; his eyes were looking straight into her soul, as his voice grew much softer. He *had* to have her understand him. "*Everything* I said to you during our week together--except my denials--was and always will be true," he sighed, "no matter what I do."

Nikita lost the battle with her tears, finally; they began to flow softly down her cheeks. Her heart ached terribly with the torment of this.

Her voice was very quiet, her eyes tender but despairing; as much as she wanted to, she couldn't leave it at that. "That's not good enough, Michael." She shook her head, trying to explain. "I can't live on memories," she swallowed heavily, "ones I'm not even sure are real anymore, when every day I face another betrayal from you." Her eyes were begging him to understand. "The promises just aren't enough, when the reality keeps proving them to be lies."

He closed his eyes again and focused on taking deep breaths; he was trying desperately to control the searing pain her honest words caused him. . . . He wished to God he could deny them. "I know," he whispered finally, agreeing--even though he didn't want to. He looked back up at her despairingly.

She sighed, shaking her head--still trying to comprehend his motives. "Why ask me here, Michael?" She smiled slightly--more in confusion than derision. "What do you think we can say to make it alright?"

He swallowed heavily, a tear starting to escape down his cheek; he was beginning to feel like everything inside him had died. "There is *nothing* I can say to make it better, Nikita." His eyes looked into her soul. "I wish to God there were."

She closed her eyes, unable to take the intimacy of his stare. He swallowed back his tears once more, as he fought for control--as he fought for the words to explain himself. "What I needed to tell you, though, was this." He swallowed heavily. "The only time I've ever been alive--the only time I've ever been whole was the week I spent with you."

She looked back at him, her gaze tormented and loving, as he continued. "I know there's nothing in me now you want--nothing you think you can trust." His eyes searched her soul--begged for her to listen. "But I didn't betray you to Section when you asked me to hold your confidence a few weeks ago," he sighed, praying he was getting through to her--too frightened to fully trust the comprehension he saw in her eyes, "and--if you ever need me again--I'll be here."

His gaze stroked over her soul; the intimacy of it frightened them both, but they couldn't break away. He finished out his message. "No matter what, no matter the appearance of things, I will always protect your life at the cost of my own." He shook his head, knowing all her objections--knowing she was right. "I know it's not good enough--know it never will be. But it's all I can give you, right now." Their gaze connected them completely. "Please, if you are certain of nothing else good about us--please," he repeated, begging her quietly, "just remember this."

The tears were flowing down her cheeks steadily now; she wasn't really even trying to stop them anymore. Her eyes were full of intense love and pain. They accepted his words, but without any promises.

He nodded slightly, understanding her look, and took a deep breath. "That's what I needed to say," he whispered. He took her in for one more second before he moved toward her, walking toward the door.

She couldn't speak; there was nothing she could say. He understood, however--not asking her to. She just watched him, then, as he came toward her.

He stopped near her, caught overwhelmingly in her tormented, loving gaze. He needed to communicate his feelings to her one more time before he left.

His hand came up to lightly brush away the tears from her right cheek, as his eyes quietly professed his love for her alone. She swallowed heavily--fully understanding his unspoken words, and he leaned in slowly to kiss the tears from her other cheek, taking in her sorrow as his own.

She took in a breath, overwhelmed by the genuine emotion which flowed from him. "Michael," she whispered--almost inaudibly.

He stayed near her, eyes closed, for a few seconds longer--absorbing as much of her love as he could, trying to give her his own--before he pulled back once more. His eyes caught and returned her gaze--all of his love flowing into her again for a second, before he leaned in to kiss her cheek softly once more.

He stayed near her once more then, both of them simply breathing each other in. There was nothing either of them could say; they could feel the bonds between them holding them together--giving them both strength, even where--minutes before--they had threatened to tear them apart. . . . It was a beautiful moment for them both, indeed--but it wasn't one they could hold on to for too long.

He looked back at her finally, then--knowing he had to leave; he held her gaze for another heartbeat, before he forced himself to pull away from her. His hand, however, lingered on her face until the last second--until he turned away and was gone.

They both closed their eyes sadly, once they were parted. Both of their hearts ached, even as they felt more whole from their few seconds spent bathing in one another's souls. . . . Neither of them, after all, was capable of being tormented alone; they felt--they experienced--each other's pain too strongly for that.

There was nothing, though, that they could do to help themselves, at the moment. There was no way to make things better. They were both lost in Section's labyrinth--their souls the sacrifice their masters demanded; nothing else--their loyalty, their servitude, their efficiency--was enough. . . . They were trapped.

Neither of them knew where their future might lead, of course--where they might end up--although neither of them had much in the way of hope, either. The only thing they wanted, truly, was simply not to be torn apart--not to be torn into pieces by their leaders and each other; they both knew that--unlikely as it seemed--their future happiness was solely contingent on their being allowed to be together.

They only had one thing to hope for now, indeed; they could only pray for one thing--that Section wasn't strong enough to permanently keep them apart. . . . If they could just find some way back through the maze of lies and pain to each other, then they could both finally--for what would feel like the first time in their lives--have something real to hope for.