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It was supposed to be over by now. He had told himself--had promised himself--that by this time the pretense would be over . . . Elena and Adam would be free of him. . . . But nothing--to his despair--had gone to plan.

Michael had left Elena's bed after she had finished crying herself to sleep. He couldn't stand watching her any longer--couldn't stand seeing what he had done to her.

Of course, it had been bound to end in tears, anyway, he realized. If the plan had worked, she and Adam would have been grieving him by now, thinking him lost to them. . . . They didn't realize that he had never been theirs.

He was in the room which doubled as his office, trying to hide from the evidence of the pain he had wrought. He had had a revelation lately; he had begun to realize that he would miss them. . . . It wasn't a welcome epiphany. He had told himself for so long that his mission wife and son were meaningless to him; he didn't like finding out that had merely been self-delusion.

It wasn't, though, that he was in love with Elena. . . . He never had been. But he *was* becoming consciously aware that she was more than a simple assignment.

He did love her, he knew now. She had become as dear to him as a sister, and--even if he had to pretend otherwise--his feelings for her were deep fraternal ones; he wanted to see her safe, . . . wanted to see her happy and well-loved, like any good brother would.

The fact that they had had a child together didn't change any of this; their sex life was simply a necessary part of his cover. He took no joy--found no pleasure in it. Unlike some of his other targets, however, he was truly pleased that he could bring her happiness in it; she deserved whatever of that emotion she could get, before he brought her life to a spiritual close.

He sighed and went over to the window. He hoped that Nikita could understand all this. It was she, after all, who had made his emotions possible--who had taught him to love once more. Without her, he would have been dead long ago--in spirit, if not also in body. She had taught him to care, to be selfless in his relationships--or, at least, to try to be. If she hadn't come into his life to teach him this important--long-delayed-- lesson, he was sure he would have been a machine; Elena and Adam would have been entirely expendible to him--their destruction a cause of simple regret. Of course, without her--without his beloved--he would have ended his life several years ago--Vacek, Elena, and Adam be damned. It was only Nikita who had given his world meaning.

He smiled slightly, remembering their first meeting. She had been a frightened and suspicious lion cub in those days--full of life and fire but easy prey to the larger, more cunning animals that surrounded her. Winning her trust hadn't been easy--especially since he had purposely destroyed it so often. . . . If she had been a lion, she would have mauled him by now.

He laughed very slightly. For some inexplicable reason, though, she hadn't. She had certainly shown him her claws more than once, but she hadn't given up on him entirely; he had no idea why not, but he was capable of recognizing an undeserved miracle when presented with one. He sighed. His cub was a beautiful lioness now--capable of all the violence he had trained her for. He had wanted this mission to be over so often so that he could have some chance of truly being her mate.

He shook his head slightly and turned away from the window to sit at his desk, still lost in his thoughts. What he had never entirely foreseen was his material's influence on him; it was her unshakable belief in human dignity, after all, which had reminded him that it was alright to care. He knew, too, that--on some level--she understood this. She never questioned that he should love his wife and son. . . . In fact, she seemed to feel that he should care more.

He closed his eyes briefly. He couldn't, though. He refocused on the room. He didn't know whether this was because it wasn't possible for him or because he wouldn't allow himself to; he refused to question himself deeply enough to find out.

He had always known, however, that this mission was finite. As long as he had been on it, it would still have to end someday--now, someday soon. To feel any deep connection to Elena or Adam, therefore, would be anti-productive. . . . It would certainly be a self-cruelty.

There had been so many times in the past six months, in fact, that it had seemed close to an end. He had deluded himself so often that it was almost over.

Today, though, had been the cruelest of those illusions. The end had been within reach; he had been so close to being able to walk away. He had prepared himself for it for so long--had braced himself. To have to bring his sweet, saddened wife home to his angelic, devoted son--the boy who thought his father had created the world just for his pleasure-- had been soul-wrenching.

He needed to be done with this--needed it to be over. He wasn't sure he could survive another day--much less several weeks--of playing the devoted family man to two of the world's most kind-hearted and innocent targets. He shook his head. They deserved better than this--all of them--Adam, Elena, . . . Nikita. . . . It was even possible that he deserved a better life.

He sighed and closed his eyes, his mind switching tracks--not fully ready to take in this thought. How would his mission family survive his loss? He had arranged their world with himself as the center. . . . What would become of them once that center disappeared?

He knew that, financially, they would be secure, but that part was almost meaningless. He forced his eyes open once more. Elena had always had money; even if Section didn't provide for her, he knew she would be alright there.

No, that wasn't his concern. It was their emotional well-being that worried him. Neither of them was equipped to survive alone, simply because they had never really had to. He had found Elena mere weeks after her mother's death and had subtly manuevered her into near-total dependence on him. Yes, she could handle his absences--barely, but her emotional life depended strongly on his presence in it.

Adam was much the same; his small world--like all children's--was centered around his parents. Michael had made certain, as well--partly out of guilt--that the child had as much love from him as it was possible for his cover personality to give.

He swallowed back the growing desire to cry. His wife and son were both hopelessly vulnerable in the outside world; the mission had required, really, that he foster that. . . . He had nightmares about their fates, once he was gone.

He remembered too often what had happened to Lisa Fanning . . . the vengeful, frightened, broken soul she had become. The million dollars he had given her hadn't prevented that.

He knew he was fully responsible for her pitiful fate, and it scared him to think of Elena or Adam suffering a similar one. . . . He wished to God he could protect them from that.

In truth, that was why he had suggested, a few months ago, a change in Section's end game plan for this mission. Originally, it had been assumed that Michael would just tell Elena the partial truth and disappear, when it was over; that was, after all, their standard operating procedure. After his unfortunate encounter with the wounded Lisa, though, Michael had felt the need to suggest an alternative--his own "death."

In many ways, it was agreed, this would be preferable. If Elena saw his --and her father's--death as random, then she could ask no deeper questions; if she remained unaware of who her father truly was, then she could inquire no deeper about Michael's motives and disappearance. . . . It allowed Section much greater safety.

It also, however, protected Elena and her son. If she didn't ask inconvenient questions, after all, she wouldn't be killed, . . . although Michael hadn't made this known as a part of his reasoning.

One other thing he hadn't made clear to his superiors was the further hope of emotional protection this plan gave his abandoned family. In it, Elena could, of course, never know the truth of her marriage; she and Adam could grieve a man who had never existed, . . . instead of cursing one who did.

He rubbed his eyes. It wasn't a perfect plan, though; nothing could be, unless the mission had simply never happened in the first place. He wished for this frequently, but it was obviously too late for that.

He looked back up. No. He had doomed Elena to live in pain from the day he had met her; he had damned Adam, likewise, from the moment the poor child had been conceived. One way or another, he would end up forever destroying their sense of peace.

"Michael?"

He looked up to see Elena standing in the doorway. He plastered a half-smile on his face and pressed a few keys on his laptop--which he had turned on earlier, pretending to have been working. "Sorry. I couldn't sleep."

She came over to him sadly and stroked his face. "I'm sorry, Michael. I hate having shared my pain with you."

His heart clenched painfully at the irony of it. He stood up and kissed her lightly on the lips--the way he always did when he could get away with giving so little. "It's not your fault. It's just this situation."

He forced a smile. "You didn't plan it." He was stroking her cheek.

She shook her head slightly and rubbed her cheek into his hand. "I just don't understand it all, though. He asked to see me. Why not show up?" She sighed, shaking her head a little. "It doesn't make any sense." He took her in his arms so that he could hide his face for a moment. "No. . . . No, it doesn't."

After a few more minutes of the embrace, she pulled back to look at him. "Would you come back to bed now, Michael?" She touched his face. "I don't want to be alone."

He forced another slight smile to hide all his real emotions. "Of course. I'll be there in a minute." He kissed her temple.

She pulled away softly and began to leave. She turned back to him, however, at the door. "I love you."

Michael could hear in his mind the screams of a man in pain; he prayed to God that Nikita wasn't nearby. "I love you, too," he smiled.

Elena smiled sweetly and walked back down the hall.

He swallowed heavily and closed his eyes for a second. This mission needed to end soon. If it didn't, he might not survive it. He then took a deep breath and forced himself to return to his devoted target.

***********

As often as he had lived through them, he hated nightmares: the pain, the betrayal, the coming of undeserved, early death. They were completely inescapable, . . . especially since they were his everyday reality.

Michael had always hated hospitals, too; the efficiency, the incurable pain, the sanitized and removed blood stains, the occasional utter futility all reminded him far too much of Section. There was too often an air of subdued despair to them that was all too familiar.

He hated that he was here now, that he had been fool enough to be tricked onto a mission which was so obviously a distraction for him. He was getting sloppy. . . . And Elena was the one paying for it.

He sat in a chair in the waiting room, alone with his vicious thoughts until the doctors left her again. He had rarely felt more trapped before; he had tried to avoid this path, to keep his poor, deceived target from suffering yet more by his hands. . . . . But he simply hadn't been quick enough, smart enough in his actions.

He had felt the darkness closing in on him ever since Vacek had refused to show up to meet his daughter. He had known that Section wouldn't wait patiently, that--in their usual, calculating way--they would see that meeting as the only way to get Vacek--to stop the bombings.

It wasn't that Michael entirely disagreed with them. It was more that, for the first time, he was beginning to wonder whether the ends could truly justify the means.

Part of his mind, of course--the Section-trained side, berated him for this thought--called him weak and foolish. The other part, however--the one which responded to the light which had begun to form in his soul, knew clearly that Elena's death was no more justifiable than the victims of Vacek's bombings.

His soul, too, had been winning of late--for one of the first times in his life; when he had been given the order to poison his mission wife, he had felt himself being strangled--the pressure of the pitiless order crushing the breath of life from his lungs. He had attempted to put up a defense--to argue for other methods, . . . but he had failed miserably. In some ways, though, the worst part of the cruel assignment--other than the actual act itself--had been trying to tell Nikita. He closed his eyes. He had called her in early, because he had been certain that Operations and Madeline were planning something soul-crushing for him. . . . He had needed--had absolutely depended on her presence to get him through it.

He resumed disconnectedly staring at his surroundings. Once the moment had come to relate the mission profile to her, however, he had been almost too overwhelmed by guilt to speak. She had forgiven him so often in their life together--had, especially, accepted so much of his evil recently--that he felt as though he were betraying her when he revealed the true depths of his corrupted soul.

It was her he had thought of most in this twisted scenario; it was her he was truly betraying. She was the one who had begun to open his soul-- to free it.

She had done it, as well, through a sheer effort of will and love-- working at the huge boulder which blocked the entombment of his light. It was for her and through her that he had begun to reclaim his humanity --to refute the demonic pact he had made so long ago. To tell her about this soulless plan had been a debasement . . . a defilement of all of her angelic efforts with him.

She had known this, too, on a certain level. He could see the look of shock--of revulsion in her eyes at the thought of the plan . . . and especially at finding herself being forced to be complicit in it. He had had no answer to her horrified question--had no idea whether he could go through with the murder of his wife. . . . That in itself had harmed her, he knew . . . had harmed *them*.

He sighed shakily. In a way, though, Operations and Madeline had miscalculated when they had ordered her to be part of this phase of the mission. They had done it, of course, both so that they could happily view this perversion of life and in hopes of damaging the bond between Nikita and himself. . . . But they had made a fatal error in judgment in doing so.

It was Nikita's presence, in the end, which allowed him to refuse to take part in this sacrilege. Having her there was like sitting across the table from the embodiment of his conscience.

She had said nothing about the plan, after their initial conversation; she had said little, overall, about the entire mission. . . . She no longer needed to, though.

In the beginning of their time together, Nikita had had to berate Michael constantly to try to desperately unearth some sliver of conscience in him. Over the years, though--as his soul was reborn through her efforts, she had needed to bombard him with less frequency and intensity in order to have him listen. In fact, during their mission in the Balkans several months ago, all she had had to do was to force him to take his own responsibility for the abandonment of two innocent children, knowing that--as soon as he could no longer distance himself from his guilt--he would give in and act responsibly.

He clasped his hands together, leaning back in his chair. There had been setbacks off and on, of course--times when his desire to protect her had outweighed the pleas of his soul. Overall, however, he had allowed her--with increasing frequency--to open up his heart . . . to make him human again.

So it was that sitting at that table with her, preparing himself to poison his own wife, had turned into a sort of Judgment Day for him. Nikita had sat there as his jury--calmly awaiting the outcome . . . waiting to see if he was truly damned.

He had begun to do his duty, then--had started to follow the rationalizations of his Section-programmed mind. He had thought he could go through with it, that it would be possible to simply allow Elena to start dying. . . . But he had been wrong.

In those few seconds that it had taken Elena to lift her glass to her lips, time had slowed for him--and he had remembered an extraordinary occurrence which he had put out of his conscious mind for many years. He recalled how--years before--he had been almost fatally shot and--while he had been dying--he had had a vision.

The only part of it he could remember anymore, though, was one clear moment--the most terrifying, soul-chilling of his life: he had been standing in a sea of fire; all around him, other lost souls were wandering pitifully, their eyes showing the most intense pain expressible. And-- as close as they sometimes were to each other--they never touched; each walked through the fire eternally . . . alone.

Michael closed his eyes, remembering. He had almost seen the flames around him, as Elena had lifted her glass; he could hear the raging, endless fire crackling on all sides. He knew, too, that Nikita was nowhere nearby--that she never would be again . . . that, with this one act, he would lose her eternally.

It was then that he had acted, knocking the glass from Elena's hand. He had known at that moment what true Hell was. . . . It was eternity without Nikita. He opened his eyes. Operations and Madeline could find another way to Vacek.

He had known, as well, in that moment, that he had saved his soul, and --although it went against everything Section had ever taught him--he would *never* regret it.

No. He swallowed heavily. What he did regret was his own short-sightedness, his own stupidity, . . . his own selfishness. It was through all of these, after all, that he had been too wrapped up in himself to anticipate his recent orders; it was through all of this that he had allowed himself to be called off on a mission as a pretense to get to Elena. . . . It was through all of this that he was now watching her die.

He had spent too long, lately, caught up in his own emotions--his own torment over the mission as a whole, and his necessary distance from Nikita during it--to see what was really happening around him. Normally, he would have been looking ahead--trying to foresee and forestall Section's callous plans. . . . But, normally, it was Nikita he was protecting.

The guilt washed over him. He had failed to protect the sister of his heart--the deceived mother of his child . . . Elena. He had been too concerned with his own fate to look ahead into hers. . . . It was a mistake he knew he would never have made with Nikita.

He sighed. That didn't matter, though; he had failed, and Elena was paying for his mistake.

To make it all worse, as well--he had just recently taken out his anger on the woman he loved, suspecting her of siding with Section, when she came to check on Elena's condition. He shook his head slightly. His guilt was making him stupid. This was, he knew, the one time he should be turning to his beloved the most--asking for her help, at least for her sympathy, and he had accused her, instead, of conspiring with the enemy. He sighed angrily. What kind of a fool was he? Why couldn't he have simply reached out to her-- have held her close to take in all of the sympathy and warmth she was offering? Why did he *always* push her away?

He shook his head again. He understood nothing at the moment. Instead of treating her as the friend she was--his only true one--he had made an empty threat, had made a promise of retribution to Section, should they leave Elena to die . . . when he knew very well that he would never begin to carry it out.

His anger turned to sorrow, as he closed his eyes briefly--rubbing at the bridge of his nose tiredly. He was useless. He couldn't save his mission wife; he couldn't protect his unfortunate son, and he had pushed away the woman he loved more than life. The fact that she would probably return to him unasked held little comfort for him; she shouldn't have to trail after him. . . . And, anyway, he knew he would always just hurt her again.

He looked up, blinking back tears. All that was left to him now was to wait and hope that Vacek's men would come--that he could convince Vacek to go to his daughter. It was, now, Elena's only real chance of survival . . . even if it would mean her emotional death.

He could see no point to his life anymore; he was a straw man--powerless, impotent, incapable of giving love to those who deserved it. He was waiting numbly for the sea of fire to burn him to ash. . . . And, if Elena died or he was unable--didn't have the strength left--to build a bridge to Nikita, that was exactly what it would do.

***********

She had thought that being near the end of this mission would be a relief--would let her start to breathe again. She had thought, as well, that knowing Elena would be alright would allow her to get through it all with some sense of sanity. . . . But she now knew that she had been very, very wrong.

The mission was, after so many years, in its final phase; Michael was in with his recovering wife, awaiting Vacek's arrival. . . . Nikita was posted outside his door, attempting to prepare herself for the hell which was to come.

So far, however, she wasn't doing a very good job of it. Hell, she couldn't even process the past few weeks anymore.

There was little she felt sure she understood now; she wasn't even entirely certain of Michael's feelings toward her. She sighed. The last few days had made her question everything.

It wasn't that she was unhappy that Michael had refused to poison Elena; she had, in fact, been inexpressibly relieved. Watching him then had been like having a loaded gun pointed at her head; she could only breathe again once it was lowered. She didn't know whether she could have witnessed that crime and gone on loving him . . . have gone on *speaking* to him. She was pleased, too, that he was showing some real concern for Elena--that he didn't want to see her die. . . . She just wasn't sure what lay behind his actions anymore.

She leaned her head back and let out a breath. During those few weeks in Michael and Elena's house, she had thought that she had come to grips with his feelings for both of the women in his life; she had seen and sensed--again and again--that he had no romantic feelings toward his mission wife, had seen clearly that his tenderness was not linked to passion. In look after look, too--when they were alone, his eyes had told her the truth of his feelings for her. . . . Or so she had thought.

Now, however, she wasn't certain. He had, after all, threatened the *lives* of Madeline and Operations, if Elena did die; she couldn't imagine him doing the same for her. He had, in fact--just a few months ago, quietly let her go, when he thought she would be cancelled after the Adrian affair. Had she died, she suspected that he would simply have gone on--possibly pulling closer to Elena and Adam before moving on with his life.

Maybe she was just fooling herself. Maybe she had always just been the "other woman"--a passing passion, an appealing--but temporary--lover. Or maybe he had thought himself in love with her only to be reminded of where his true feelings lay, when Elena was threatened. . . . She really didn't know.

She wanted to believe that it was all real, of course--didn't want to think it had all been a lie . . . even an unintentional one. But it was hard to overlook his recent accusation--the distrust in his eyes when she had come to check on him.

She didn't like to think about the fact that she had recently given him reason to distrust, of course--when she had used him during the whole mission with Adrian. Even then, however, she had only been trying to protect him; she would never have done it if he hadn't been threatened. She hated, as well, that the opposite had been true of them many times --far more often than she had *ever* entertained the thought of betraying *him*. Over and over, he had protected her through lies and pain. And--too often--she had forgiven. . . . It wasn't fair that he couldn't forgive one ordered betrayal from her, when she had accepted so many hundreds from his hands.

If she weren't so dispirited, in fact, she would have been furious. She *deserved* his trust, after all; she had proven that *hundreds* of times.

It really wasn't enough, either, that he had confided in her again after his recent moment of doubt. Even if his distrust of her had been fleeting, its unfairness had stung her deeply nonetheless.

She sighed and looked down at the floor. Her emotions were roiling; she couldn't get a hold on them. Michael's actions so confused her, she didn't know where to begin to sort through them. On the one hand, he had protected Elena by flagrantly disobeying a direct order . . . not to mention his threat. At the same time, though, it was she who had had to prompt him to start to call Walter--to keep him from letting Elena die.

She shook her head slightly, looking up. He seemed to be talking out of both sides of his mouth lately--both defending his wife and willingly allowing her to be killed. . . . She wondered whether even *he* knew what he was doing, at the moment.

In some ways, really, the whole thing seemed so symbolic of his feelings toward his wife and son. She had certainly seen signs that he truly cared about them--in his recent actions, in looks and embraces. Conversely, though, he sometimes seemed wholly unconcerned about their fate--more wrapped up in himself than in them.

She had seen this, especially, after the aborted mission against Vacek a few weeks ago. When she had mentioned to him then that there was something good about the delay, he had simply looked at her--completely lost--and said, "Good?" The benefits of the delay of Adam's separation from his beloved father had never even occurred to him.

She sighed. Sometimes, she had to admit, she really did understand his desire for it to be over, though. . . . It was, however, for purely selfish reasons, since it would be the utter devastation of both Elena and Adam. She had had one of those moments yesterday, in fact, when she had been babysitting Adam. He had wanted to show her his scrapbook, probably as a way of consoling himself--of convincing himself that Mommy would be okay.

Looking through it, however, had been a fiery torment to Nikita. It contained, after all, picture after picture of Michael and his happy family--showed his beautiful child in all his stages of development. His family looked so joyous in every picture, too--they were laughing, smiling, giggling; you could almost feel the pleasure radiating from them. . . . It had been another painful reminder of what she and Michael could never be.

She rubbed her eyes tiredly for a second. Forcing herself to really analyze, she had to admit that she hadn't entirely been able to make out the looks on Michael's face in those photographs. Yes, he was always smiling, but--when she let herself be truthful--she knew it was his "mission smile"; it showed no real joy.

Still, he had been there--had been with them--for longer than she had known him. She looked back up. And, for all of her time with him, he had always returned home to his family's smiles and cries of joy--to their warm embrace. . . . Even after her two nights with him, it was Elena's bed he had returned to.

She knew she shouldn't be jealous--understood clearly on a certain level that his family truly was a mission for him, but she couldn't help it. It wasn't sexual or romantic jealousy, though; she could feel --when she allowed herself to--that there was no need for that. No-- it was that sense of family she envied.

She knew, of course, that she had always envied this in others, never having really experienced this feeling herself. But--in this case--it was more than that. . . . It was Adam.

She had always wanted children--had always wanted a chance to give someone all of the love and understanding she had been denied. She had for some time, as well, imagined having chidren with Michael--imagined raising some beautiful, strong product of love.

In Adam, she saw all of this . . . except he wasn't hers. He belonged to the wife of the man she was in love with. She shook her head. It was a hard irony to get past.

She closed her eyes momentarily, relenting a little on her desires. As much as she almost needed this mission to be over--needed to be away from the constant reminders of Michael's double life--she hated how it was ending. True, she was relieved that Elena would recover physically. But, for what was about to happen to her, she could imagine no true recovery. She couldn't see a particularly positive outcome for herself, either.

She didn't really imagine that there would be a sudden turn-around in her relationship with Michael. She opened her eyes. She wasn't selfish --or foolish--enough, as well, to want an end to this mission so that they could be together; she wasn't even sure, at the moment, what the likelihood of that outcome was. Given the last several days, especially, she suspected that--whatever happened--it would take some time to work things out . . . at best.

All she truly hoped for, in fact, was that he would come to her, that he would allow her to help him. She understood that there had been a lot of changes between them in the past half year or so, but--unless this one could be wrought--she knew a relationship between them would always be a bad idea, would always mean her going to him--would always require her surrender. . . . And that could never be healthy--for either of them. They needed to learn to trust each other, if they were ever going to have a chance. . . . It was the only way, after all, that they would ever survive Section.

She heard Birkoff's voice in her comlink and picked up her magazine, pretending to read. The sequence had started; she was out of time for private thoughts. . . . The countdown to Elena and Adam's destruction had begun.

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

He had had one main thought circling around in his mind for many hours now: the dead weren't supposed to be able to still feel pain. . . . But he knew, of course, that pain was only to be expected in Hell.

Michael was walking now--was wandering through the night. He had no destination. He had no purpose. He was simply moving--as though by blindly going forward he could outrun his own suffering.

He was supposed to have been prepared for this; he had told himself that he was for months--for over a year. He had thought that being away from Adam and Elena could make him forget.

The truth was just the opposite, however. It was only now with distance that he was beginning to see clearly, to understand his own emotions, . . . and he didn't like what he was finding out.

He did love them, after all; he did care. They had, long before, become more than a simple mission.

His pain, however, wasn't based on losing a wife; that part of it had always simply been an assignment. He had, though--for the second time in his life--lost a dear, beloved sister.

He couldn't stop hearing Elena's screams, couldn't stop feeling her shock--her trauma at the scene he had enacted in front of her so recently.

He had stolen from her a father who--twisted as he may have been--had cared about her, had taken from her an--illusory--husband she dearly loved; he had turned her into a widow and orphan in one terrible moment, . . . and, worse, he had forced her to witness the entire, horrible event. He had thought, before, that this way would be kinder--would save her from the pain of knowing the truth. But the pain of the lie she had seen was almost as great. This way left her with her memories intact and unchallenged, but it would also leave her an emotional cripple.

He stopped for a moment to let some cars pass before crossing a street.

He knew Elena was strong, but she had never had to cope on her own for very long before. When her mother had died all those years ago . . . when Section had eliminated her with a custom-made disease to make her daughter vulnerable, Michael had been there--had come to her like the white knight to the rescue; he had helped counsel and coax her through the pain he had helped cause.

Now, there was no one to help. Section was looking after her materially, . . . but money couldn't solve her problems. It couldn't bring back the joy she had once known; it couldn't make her feel beloved again.

Michael wasn't certain whether he should be ashamed or proud that he had been able to bring this emotion to her before, since--for much of their time together--it had been a lie for him. He had had a tenderness for her almost from when he had first met her, but the love of a brother which he had developed had taken a few years.

It had only been relatively recently, really, that he had loved her at all. He had never, however, been in love with her.

He knew she was better off not knowing this--was better off not being faced with the truth of her life. That didn't mean, though, that she was without pain.

What made it all worse, too, was that she wasn't alone in it; she had a son to look after now. . . . It might actually have been kinder if she hadn't. This way, after all, she had to both try to accept her own grief while counselling her young child through his.

He stopped walking momentarily, unable to go forward. He didn't know how--or if--she would be able to do it. She had always been wonderful with Adam, of course, but it took so much extra strength to be a widow with a child. She could never show her pain, would always have to appear strong for her son's benefit. . . . He honestly wasn't sure that she had the strength to do that alone.

He sighed deeply, closing his eyes briefly, before forcing himself to walk on. Elena's trauma was, in truth, only the beginning of his guilt. . . . Adam was story unto himself.

Michael had told himself for so long that his son wasn't his to love that he had come to believe it. He had spent every day with the child showing him tenderness but holding something back in himself--locking away any desire to feel a connection to him. . . . He had told himself it was the only way to stay sane.

Now, however, he suspected that had been a lie--suspected that sanity was impossible here. He had wanted to protect himself--to shelter himself from the torment of this day, . . . but he was realizing that he had only accomplished the absolute opposite.

Had he allowed himself to connect with his son, he thought now, he might have some true memories to fall back on. As it was, he remembered every event in his son's life through a cloud--through a haze of emotional separation.

His heart ached. He swallowed heavily. It was only now that Adam was lost to him, that he realized he had really had a son. There had been weeks--months away from him, before, when he had only vaguely recalled that the child existed; that was part of a mission, after all--he had told himself, and his outward reactions to him *had* all been self-programmed.

It gave Michael a physical pain to realize that there wasn't one single moment of Adam's life that he had wholly been there for. Part of him had always been elsewhere--focusing on getting Elena to contact Vacek, on the latest mission at Section, . . . on himself. Now--only now that he was forever gone from him--when that sweet, loving boy would never again run into his outstretched arms--was he feeling the emotions of a parent. . . .And it was way too damn late for them to be of anyone's use anymore.

He took in a deep, shaky breath--still attempting to hold back the desire to cry. His son would grow up without him. He wouldn't be there to share his joys and fears, his triumphs and failures. He wouldn't get to give him fatherly advice, as he wandered awkwardly through adolescence. He wouldn't be there to help him when his heart was broken for the first time. . . . He wouldn't be there.

It wasn't that Michael had any doubts about Elena's parenting skills; she had always had more than he did--had always been wonderful with their child. It was just that both she and her son were such fragile souls--so easily hurt, so capable of being broken by emotional torrents . . . by the torrents he had brought upon them.

He closed his eyes briefly, as he swallowed back tears--before dimly refocusing on the street. It was almost meaningless that Elena had survived Section's gambit with her life. Both her and her son's innocence had been destroyed; both of them would have to be rebuilt before they could go on. . . . He hoped they had the strength to do it.

Michael's reddened eyes attested to his emotional state, as he walked along, almost unaware of his surroundings. He wished fiercely now that he had a destination--that there was someplace to go, but he knew that there wasn't. . . . He had destroyed every haven.

He wanted, of course--he *ached* to go to `Kita. He wanted to go to her like a small boy who had skinned his knees while playing would go to his mother. He wanted to be able to cry in her arms, to lay his head in her lap and have her stroke softly over his hair, to hear her tell him it would be alright--that *they* would be alright.

He needed her more now than ever before, . . . but--in a sick bit of cosmic irony--the removal of the one lie which had been the main obstacle between them had created an even bigger wall.

He knew, of course, that she was waiting for him--that she was hoping he would come. He knew that she needed him now to help cope with the pain of this mission every bit as fiercely as he needed her. . . . But he couldn't go to her.

It was impossible, after all. Today had proven to him irrevocably that he was only born to give others pain. If he went, he would stay, and then the Hell that followed with him would join them to devour her, as well.

He choked back tears. He could remember almost no point in their life together that he had brought her joy--or even fleeting happiness. Almost every smile he remembered seeing on her held back tears--or was used to cover her anger, shock, or doubt. And those few, quickly-moving moments of happiness he had managed to give her were always, almost immediately, followed by intense pain.

He remembered, for example, the only "present" he had ever given her-- remembered every detail of that night. She had been so overwhelmed just to be in a nice restaurant, so happy to have such a small pleasure; he had tried to hold onto that for as long as possible--had delayed the inevitable beginning of her first mission as long as he could. . . . But it hadn't--never could have--been long enough. That night was only the first of many--was only one in a long line of betrayals. He had half-seduced her, had brutally beaten her--had lied to, manipulated, and chipped away at her soul for as long as he could remember.

Even their two nights together--the only real experiences of his life --had been followed by pain. He had used the first, after all, to manipulate her into coming back into Section--had used it to steal her freedom, leaving her body physically battered by his own hands into the --demonic--bargain. The second he had followed with an emotional slap to the face--pulling back, telling her that one night of truth between them had been a mistake.

He could think of few things more evil than purposely giving pain to the person you claimed to love, but he had done it with her more often than he could remember. . . . He had seen few terrorist acts which could top it for cruelty.

The revelation of his double life with Elena and Adam had only been one in a long line of atrocities he had done her. She had gotten to the point now where she barely even seemed to resent them anymore. . . . He could imagine little that would be less healthy for her than that.

The fact that she still needed him seemed to be some sick, cosmic joke; he couldn't stop the tear which flowed down his cheek at the thought, so he attempted to ignore it. There was *nothing* in him he could offer her. If he let himself, he would simply take from her until she was empty-- until he had finally killed her.

The only way to prevent that was to stay away. If he allowed himself to go to her, he would only do her more damage--would only bring her more pain, either now or later. If he could keep himself distanced from her, however, maybe she would learn that she was better off without him--could begin to understand that her need for him had always been illusory--was simply a delusion he had forced on her. . . . It would be *so much* healthier for her if he weren't with her.

He continued walking into the night, ignoring the emotional pull--the call of Nikita's soul to his, her psychic plea to join her. All of his hopes for their future had been destroyed--had never even been real; hearing Elena's cries had taught him that. He was an evil force come to destroy the righteous and innocent; Nikita was safer without him. . . . No angel should ever need a demon in her life.

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

After hours of waiting, she had forced herself to admit that he wasn't coming--that she would have to spend the night alone with her grief. She was still standing by her window, though--her cellphone nearby, praying that she was wrong--that he would change his mind. Nikita swallowed heavily. She needed Michael now more than at almost any other point in her life. For the first time, after all, she felt like she knew all of his important secrets--felt that he was finally allowing himself to be revealed to her. And, although she wasn't always entirely happy with what she found in him, she could accept it. . . . It hurt her that he couldn't do the same with her.

She leaned against her wall and slid down it, resting herself there--still watching out for him. Although she had partly accepted that he wasn't coming, his refusal to confide in her still hurt her brutally. Partly, of course, this was because she knew he needed to--could feel his grief reaching out to her, begging for her comfort. Partly, too, though, she was hurt because she had known they were moving forward before all this--had felt the positive changes between them. To have him close her out now simply seemed cruel.

She couldn't understand his distance. She could clearly feel in him that he didn't need time alone, that he needed companionship--*her* companionship--instead, more desperately than oxygen. . . . Why wouldn't he come to her, then?

She had hoped, earlier, that the knock on her door might be him--even though she could sense that it wasn't. She still hadn't expected Mick bloody Schtoppel, however. What the *hell* Section was trying to tell her by moving *that* guy in next to her, she didn't want to know.

She hated to admit, as well, that he had proven a welcome distraction. If he hadn't come, after all, she would have been doing exactly what she was now--praying for Michael. It had actually provided some comfort to her to have to counsel someone else; it had distanced her from her own problems.

She was rather embarrassed to confess, too--if only to herself, that she actually kind of liked Mick, or--at least--she didn't hate him as much as she liked to claim. He was harmless, after all--for all of his talk; he was well aware that she could break any bone she chose in him at any moment. She even suspected, to her vague disdain, that the thought turned him on a bit.

Still, she hadn't really expected that Mick had a conscience. . . . Who knew? He was so good at being a low-life that it was hard to remember, at times, that there was a person under there.

She leaned her head back against the wall and laughed slightly. She didn't know how she felt about the fact that she had, God help her, "bonded" with Mick. She didn't like realizing that she really did need a friend that badly--especially one who didn't entirely belong to Section.

She was hardly likely to open her life up to him, however; she was never going to invite him over for long, soul-baring chats about herself. . . . He wasn't that kind of friend. But she suspected that he *would* prove to be a welcome distraction from her pain, at times.

She sighed and changed positions--sitting cross-legged on the floor, her mind going back to her real problem. She knew she should learn to just live her life without Michael; she knew she should be able to get through the painful missions without him nearby. . . . In fact, she knew she could; she had done it often enough.

She didn't *want* to, though; she didn't want to be without him. She wanted him to come to her in his distress--to tell her all his problems, to let her help. She wanted to wake up with him in the mornings and know that--barring death or other disasters--he would be there again in the evenings. She wanted to be able to have open conversations with him--to have him trust her with his thoughts and emotions. . . . And she hated that these simple desires should seem like an overly-romantic fantasy with him.

She closed her eyes for a minute. She needed to talk to him now-- needed to tell him how much being part of this last mission had hurt her. She wasn't looking to cast blame; she knew he felt guilty enough. She just needed to get out her emotions, before they suffocated her.

She sighed, swallowing heavily. Although she was feeling deserted now, she knew that Michael did care--knew that he loved her. She was certain that he was staying away now for some screwed-up and misguided reason: out of guilt, to "protect" her, or some other nonsense excuse that covered up his fear of being close to her; that was, really, what it always came down to.

It wasn't like she didn't understand this fear, to a certain extent, as well. She opened her eyes again. Her emotional--her spiritual intimacy with Michael could be frightening for her, too. She was half-certain that, if she was determined to find him right now, she would only have to close her eyes and follow the warm, painful hum that flowed between them. . . . They were always connected.

She knew that, for a man as insulated as Michael, such true intimacy was terrifying and--in Section--even dangerous. She also understood, however, that he survived on that intimacy every bit as much as she did.

For either of them, the severance of that bond would be their death. Still, Michael liked to tell himself that he could survive without it --that to rely on it was dangerous for them. And--to an extent--she knew he was right. Section would use them--it had used them--repeatedly; their bond--to their masters--would always be a commodity to be targeted. That didn't matter, though. She was willing to risk further pain at Section's hands if there was some point to it--if, when everything was over, he was there.

She sighed and closed her eyes once more. She knew she couldn't force this, however. The next move was his; it had to be. She had done the chasing--the reaching out for too long. . . . It was his turn to come to her.

She opened her eyes and reluctantly stood up, taking one last look into the night before closing the door. He wasn't coming--not tonight . . . maybe not ever, and she had to force herself not to spend her life waiting. . . . She needed to find a way to go on by herself, until--if, as she hoped, that day ever came--he changed his mind.

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

Nikita wasn't the only one Michael had left deserted that night. Now home once more in the bed they had once shared, his bereft wife lay awake, trying to force herself not to cry again. Her eyes were still puffy and red from the last time.

Elena still found it hard to believe her tragic, sudden misfortune. In the space of less than a minute, after all, she had lost every family member she had except one--had watched two of the dearest die in front of her.

She understood now, only too clearly, all those stories of time slowing down in a tragedy. Looking back on it, she wanted to believe that there was something she could have done--that she could have protected them . . . something, . . . but she couldn't; she hadn't been able to do anything, hadn't been able to move.

She remembered hitting a rabbit with her car once; it had been frozen in her headlights--simply waiting for her to run it down. . . . Now she knew exactly how it had felt.

These last few days had been hell. She had come so close to death with her illness, had prepared herself for it--had braced herself to be separated from the beloved men in her life. . . . But she had never, *never* been prepared for its opposite--to live while losing *him*.

She swallowed heavily; she just couldn't get over how unfair it was. She and Michael were supposed to have dozens of years together--a lifetime. They were supposed to be able to watch their beautiful child grow up. The wonderful years they had had together weren't enough; with all the joy they had shared, there was still too much they had never done.

She closed her eyes, the tears coming again. She had been lying in his spot in their bed--whenever she lay down--since she had returned-- had been trying to get close to him again somehow. The sheets still had his scent. . . . It was one of the only comforts she had.

She refocused on the darkness, trying to remind herself of her only real reason for life. Indeed, almost the worst part of it all--after Michael's death--had been having to tell Adam; she had already had one conversation with him about death before that, . . . but she--and he-- had never expected it to be Daddy who would be gone.

With a child's understanding of death, too, he had tried to argue his way around it, had tried to apply some--skewed--logic to make it go away. . . . It had been so like his father that it had almost broken her heart.

He wanted to believe that this was just another temporary separation-- that Daddy would be back in a few days; she closed her eyes, as the tears flowed freely. How could she explain to him that he *never* would be--that he, the grandfather their poor child had never met, and "Aunt Nikita" were all gone for good? How could he ever possibly understand, when she didn't herself?

She forced her eyes open once more. It was all so senseless, after all--so random. Some disturbed, angry man shooting at strangers--how could she explain that to a child . . . or to herself? Where was the justice in it?

The fact that they had told her that the man had been shot and killed by police, as he was fleeing the hospital, didn't make it any better, either; in fact, it made it worse. This way, she couldn't ask the questions she needed to--had no way to gain the closure she so desperately sought; there would never be a trial or an explanation. She would be left to draw her own, insufficient conclusions.

She *hated* that, she thought--growing angry. She wanted to be able to confront this man--to ask him what right he had to steal her family-- to take almost all of her joy. She needed answers for her pain, . . . but she was receiving none. . . . And she never would.

She swallowed back her tears. About the only thing she had been-- thankfully--spared was seeing Nikita killed. And--while she was relieved to have been able to avoid *some* trauma--it didn't help her enough. Now, she had to say goodbye to them all. The funeral was tomorrow, and it was obvious she was going to look like hell for it . . . like it mattered. There was just no way to hide this sort of grief.

She sighed. She hadn't even been able to plan it herself--had had to rely on one of Michael's co-workers to do it. All she really knew was the arrangement of their graves: her father would be buried beside her mother--although she wasn't sure whether or not he deserved it; there would be a plot left open for herself, then Michael--she blinked back tears again--then another she hoped would be open for many decades to come for Adam, then Nikita.

Her mind began revolving again around the thought of Michael's warm-hearted cousin; she did wish, not for the first time, that she had at least been spared her friend's loss. If she had to lose both Michael and her father, she needed Nikita's shoulder to cry on, needed her gentle help to soothe her.

It seemed hard to believe that it was only a few weeks ago that they had all been so happy--that Nikita had joined them to share in the comforts of family. It had been so nice to have a woman to talk to--especially when Michael was away. . . . She would miss her terribly.

She sighed, swallowing heavily. Michael's beautiful cousin had been so full of life; she hadn't deserved this. And, if she hadn't been kind-hearted enough to be visiting *her* on her sick bed, she would still be alive.

Elena closed her eyes once more, trying to keep from blaming herself. There had been a crisis counsellor, Dr. Moore, who had seen her at the hospital; she had warned her against this--had given her the business card for a colleague of hers and encouraged her to see him so that she had someone to talk to--to help get herself through this. She swallowed heavily once more. She supposed she should do it; everyone else was gone now.

Everyone else, that is, except--thank God--Adam. She sighed again-- thankfully--and opened her eyes. If she lived to be very old, she would still be saying prayers of thanksgiving that he hadn't been there; at least she had been spared that.

She knew it was good, too, that she herself had been spared to take care of her child. Without her, . . . well, no, she didn't want to think about that.

She supposed it made sense, as well, that she had been given Adam to help see her through this. Without him, she would have willed her own death; she knew she couldn't have gone on.

As it was, though, she knew she had to be strong for him--had to help him face the truth--had to help him try to avoid anger, guilt, and despair. He was all of her life now--her reason for survival. . . .She would make it through to watch him grow.

She sighed once more, her mind going back to Michael. She wasn't sure this was a loss she would ever really recover from; she knew it might be years before she felt real joy again . . . if she ever did.

But--for Adam's sake--she would sincerely try. She would raise the beautiful son Michael had given her--the one their love had created-- to be everything she had known of his father: kind, loving, intelligent, funny, . . . devastatingly beautiful. She would raise a son who would one day steal a woman's heart, as Michael had stolen hers; she would raise a man who knew how to love. Her determination was fixed; her child would learn to both survive and love. She knew she would raise a son Michael would be proud of--so that he could look down from heaven and smile. She heard the door creak open, as she sat up in bed. For a fraction of a second, she thought it would be Michael--coming home quietly in the night, as he sometimes did.

"Mommy?" Adam's voice called for her. He was rubbing his eyes sleepily.

She smiled at him--half-heart-broken, half from love. "What is it, darling?" She held her arms out to him, inviting him to her. He came to her, still crying a little, and she helped pull him up into bed. "I had a nightmare." He had been trying to show what a brave boy he was by sleeping alone.

"Sssh," she soothed, holding him to her, stroking his hair. "Lie down here and get some sleep. We'll try to chase them off together."

She pulled the covers over them both and wrapped her arms around him--his back to her stomach. . . . It was much like the scene she used to make up with him and Michael.

"I miss him, Mommy," his tear-filled little voice said. She closed her eyes for a second, trying to keep from crying, attempting to maintain control of her voice. "I know, sweetheart."

She kissed his head. "So do I." She held him closer to her--trying to draw strength from the physical proof of her bond with her beloved husband. "Now, try to get some rest."

He swallowed. "Okay," he agreed bravely.

She kissed his head once more. Then, Michael's abandoned mission tried to get some much-needed and hard-won sleep to fortify them to begin their new life without him.

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

It seemed reasonable to think that, given enough dark days spent sinking even further into despair, you would eventually hit bottom and be able to start climbing once more. . . . It *would* seem reasonable, but--in Michael's case--it would have been wrong.

He was at his new "home" now, was attempting to claw back together some of the shreds of his personality--of his sense of sanity. Every time, though, that he thought he had hold of one, it slipped through his fingers again--cutting him as it left his hands.

He was sitting in a chair in his sparsely-furnished living room now, rocking himself back and forth. He didn't really know what was happening to him, but he did know that he hadn't been capable of coping ever since the end of the Vacek "mission"--hadn't even known where to begin. He closed his blood-shot eyes. . . . No. That wasn't true. He had known *exactly* where to begin; he just simply hadn't had the strength to do it.

He had spent a week away from Section, after the mission . . . had spent a week away from *her*. His guilt, his pain--it had all coalesced into the fierce need to be alone--into a fear . . . a need to protect Nikita from himself.

He opened his eyes again, not entirely focusing on the room. In the end, though, he had found that the isolation simply strengthened his inner demons, and he had been forced to return to active status just to keep going. . . . This decision, however, had been a near-fatal mistake for his sanity.

It was then, indeed--tragically, that his true battle with his own darkness had begun. He was completely unaware, though, of what had led him to his current, disintegrating state, but it had, in fact, been just one simple, unnoticed error.

It had been a seemingly typical mission--an order to destroy a lab which was working on various drugs used in brainwashing experiments. They had been told to take what samples they could, kill the personnel, acquire their files, and get out--leaving nothing behind.

It had all gone to plan, as well; he had led the entire mission like he had a thousand before--efficiently, expertly--with no obvious problems. Nothing had been out of place. . . . Or so he had thought.

What he still didn't realize, however, was that he had been contaminated; at one point during the mission, his hand had brushed across a puddle, near a sink, of what appeared to be water. He had thought absolutely nothing of it at the time--had had no reason to.

He had found, though--as the mission was ending, that he was jumpy, nervous; he had felt unaccountably anxious about everything. He had tried to dismiss it, to pretend otherwise, but the feeling simply refused to subside.

He had barely made it home, in fact, before the walls crashed in-- before the drug he had been exposed to had taken its true effect-- smashing through every barrier he had ever erected around his most private thoughts and emotions. . . . He had never felt so completely lost before--so hopelessly out of control.

If Michael had known that he had been exposed to LSD 25, of course, it still wouldn't have made the experience pleasant--his demons were vicious ones--but he could at least have been prepared to fight them. As it was, he wasn't even aware that they were attacking; he could only view the destruction they were wreaking on him in their wake. Because he was unprepared, too--because he was totally unaware of what was happening, he had been--and still was--incapable of fighting. He simply wasn't clearly conscious that anything had changed--that he didn't usually spend hours obsessive, hyperventilating, unable to move --hallucinating the flames of Hell.

There were only a couple of reasons, in fact, that he hadn't become completely self-destructive--irretrievably frenzied. It was partly due to the fact that his years and training in Section had given him an extraordinarily high tolerance level to a variety of drugs; he had also, though--almost humorously--been saved by Section's vitamin supplement policy--by the daily dosages of vitamin B that he had taken for so long, which naturally counteracted this particular drug.

These factors, thankfully, were enough to keep him alive--were enough to keep him from a *complete* personality breakdown. . . . They weren't even vaguely enough, however, to stave off his demons. In fact, his very bad trip was only made worse because of his constant--now nearly life-long--policy of repressing his emotions and thoughts; had he been more open with himself, after all, his demons might have had less to play with.

As it was, though, Michael's psyche was their playground--was a schoolyard recess for all of his churning, sinister emotions. His mind had been entirely unable--altered as it was--to order or silence their ravaging screams.

They had begun wreaking their destruction, actually--predictably, if he had been able to still think in such terms--with his feelings for Nikita. Since every second of his life--every moment of his existence began and ended with her, this was, really, only to be expected.

The mental process which had led him to his current state had started, then, upon arriving home. He had noticed that the sound of crackling fire--which he had half-imagined for several days--seemed to be getting louder. He tried to explain this away, however, as exhaustion.

With it, too, though, had come thoughts of his beloved--thoughts which, try as he might, he was completely unable to fight. They had bombarded him, in fact, until he had ended up sitting in a chair, rocking himself, for several hours--as he was now doing again; all he could do was simply remember all of the injuries he had caused her-- both physically and spiritually. The memories, indeed, had been so vivid that he had almost been able to see them--could visualize the exact look of pain or betrayal on her face with every wrong he had done her.

The images had overwhelmed him--had battered him; he had begun to hyperventilate so badly at one point that he had actually made himself sick, but they only seemed to get stronger. Finally, however, when it had become obvious that his guilt would destroy him--if this continued, some deep-seated defense system in his mind had finally managed to save him--almost at the last second--by shifting all of his guilt onto others--by making *him* the real victim.

This reaction had probably saved his life, but it had also sunk him into the absolute depths of self-pity. Since he couldn't allow himself to accept any true blame for his actions, he instead focused on who had ordered them: his masters . . . Section One.

From this point on, he was capable of survival, even if he had little interest in it. His mind interpreted every evil thing he had ever done as pain *he* had been caused; every atrocity he had committed was solely the fault of his orders, not himself. Simone's abandonment to Glass Curtain--and eventual suicide--were no longer even marginally connected to his decision to refuse back-up; Elena's desertion was no longer his. . . . And Nikita . . . well, Nikita rarely even got added into the equation. His guilt over her was a kind of self-destruct mechanism for him; he couldn't accept it and go on living.

His mind, therefore, found a new innocent on which to focus . . . Adam. And, instead of truly seeing himself as partly responsible for either Adam's callously-planned creation or his pain at being abandoned, he cast himself as the victim of a nefarious plot by Section to deprive him of his beloved son.

This, then, was how Michael was able to see Adam--who he had spent years making certain wasn't even vaguely central to his life, who he had only recently admitted to himself that he loved--as the focus of everything he was. In a cryptic, subconscious way, the child began to represent not himself but all of Michael's psychic, emotional, and spiritual need for Nikita--for the woman he loved. When he mourned his son's loss, therefore, he truly mourned hers--the fact that, when he had needed her most, he had pushed her away.

Had the drug not been in his system, he still would have grieved for the loss of his son, of course, but he would have grieved even more strongly for what he himself had helped do to the child--for the pain he had helped bring him. This way, however, his mind protected him . . . saved him through self-pity--allowing him, as that emotion always did, to admit his guilt in word but not in truth, to feel that he was the victim of his victims.

It was a perverse bit of mental acrobatics which allowed him to do this, but the basis in denial this manuever needed was already deeply implanted in him. It had, in fact, allowed him to survive almost half of his life--a "life" that had been spent in Section.

Thus, Michael's grief was representational. His feelings of persecution replaced the guilt of having persecuted. His obsessive grief over the separation from the son he hadn't allowed himself to truly know overlay his truer grief over having so badly and repeatedly damaged his relationship with the woman he so desperately loved.

For the sake of his survival, though, it had to be this way for right now. With the hallucinations--and the complete destruction of his emotional barriers--he would have aimed the gun he now decided to load at his own head, if he hadn't transferred his emotions. Because of this switch, however, he was able to simply aim at the false image of the happy father and husband which talked silently at him from the screen he was watching; he could blame that separate, unrelated person for the damage which had been done to his son--allowing himself the ability to survive.

By the time he was rocking himself on the floor in front of the image of his son, most of his mind had become so distanced from the person called Michael that he could no longer clearly remember the man. He just knew one thing that he so very rarely ever allowed himself to admit: he was hurting, was bleeding psychically from the wounds both he and Section had created. The drug was causing him to go a bit overboard, but he was finally--if briefly--letting himself admit that he, too, was a victim. . . . If it were only a realization he could have carried on to his post-hallucinatory life, he could have become a better-integrated soul.

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

No one else in Section, of course, knew what had really happened to Michael . . . not even the woman he loved. All she knew was that he had withdrawn almost completely from her and was now--more and more-- becoming a stranger.

Nikita, in fact, could no longer identify the man she saw so often as "Michael"; nothing in him seemed like the man she knew so well. Michael didn't blatantly zone out, for instance, at briefings or-- especially--on missions; even when he was inwardly distracted and in pain, he was still always outwardly focused--was *always* able to do the job. . . . Hell, from what she had heard from Walter, he hadn't *ever* admitted that he wasn't functioning completely--even when it had been obvious, after Simone's death--and during her own six-month disappearance, that he would rather die than live.

She was standing in the entry hall of his building now, having spared him--to his regret--from an assassin's bullet. She didn't entirely want to be here, but she seemed incapable of leaving; her feet simply refused to carry her beyond his threshold.

She wanted to help him, wanted to break through to him, but--with every passing day--there was less of him left that she understood; it was this very reason, in fact, that had caused her to come here finally. She had been hurt--and a little angry--that he had never come to her, after he had been separated from his wife and child; she had wanted so badly to be there to help him--had needed him, for just once in his bloody life, to ask for help.

But no. He hadn't. He hadn't phoned; he hadn't come by; . . . he hadn't even acknowledged her presence several times since. And, after all they had been through--after all of the changes which had happened in their relationship, that had hurt. . . . Deeply.

It hadn't changed, though, her need to be close to him--the need to be there for him. She had gone to his apartment to try to talk to him --to see if having to deal with her face-to-face would change his recent approach to her.

To put it mildly, however, her trip hadn't helped. She sighed deeply. What she had found here was a man she didn't know--one so enmeshed in self-despair and self-pity that he could barely focus outside himself.

He had almost seemed determined to hurt her, in fact. He had refused almost entirely to even focus on her, didn't seem to want to even look at her. More than that, though, he had treated her like an intruder--like an enemy, as though she had come to psychoanalyze him for Section, . . . as though she hadn't needed to know he was okay.

She huffed out a breath and closed her eyes for a second--leaning her head back against the wall. It hurt her immeasurably that he would do this, that--not only would he push her away--but he would simply suggest that she had no meaning at all in his life.

She opened her eyes and blinked back tears for a second. The only touch of feeling he had shown to her, in fact, she couldn't even fully interpret. He had admitted, however--for the only time she could remember--that he had hurt her. . . . It really was an absolute first.

He had told her before that he was sorry, that he "wished things could be different," but he had *never* actually admitted his own responsibility for her pain, either partially or in full.

She looked down at the floor, shaking her head. In a way, though, she realized, he hadn't even admitted it this time. His admission, really, had sounded more like an excuse, like some egotistical "swinger" telling his one-night stand, "I can't stay wicha baby. I'd only break your heart." She laughed slightly. That hadn't been it, exactly--of course, but the rebuff, the complete denial of any deeper feelings for her had been the same.

She wanted to just leave him, really--to just walk away, . . . but she couldn't quite get herself to. Although their recent conversation had hurt--had scarred her as badly as any other they had ever had, she couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't really him talking.

She didn't know what was going on--couldn't put her finger on it, but she couldn't abandon him now. She rested her head back against the wall once more. No. She would wait--would protect him, and maybe--when it was all over--he could tell her what the hell was going on.

Upstairs from the woman he had just hurt, Michael was still being overwhelmed by his recent, undetected, contamination. He had taken to playing his cello, in fact, to drown out the sound of the flames, the screams of the occasional lost soul; it gave him something to focus on, which forced the noises into the background slightly.

He was oblivious, at the moment, to Nikita's presence downstairs. Although he thought he felt her nearby, he was thinking he saw and felt a *lot* of things lately that his mind wasn't capable of penetrating; he couldn't let himself focus on it.

The hallucinations, indeed, had really kicked in heavily the last day or so. There was nowhere he could look that he didn't see them, although he told himself--consciously--that it was just his imagination being vivid. . . . This explanation, however, didn't make them go away.

It wasn't, though, that his mind was incapable of logical thought. It was more like it had decided to split itself up into segments. One part saw the visual and auditory delusions his mind kept creating as reality and accepted them; another dismissed them as simple exhaustion; . . . yet another was logically analyzing.

It was this last part which could see that Section was playing tricks with him. This only increased, however, the hallucinatory part's feeling of persecution; it didn't help at all to pull him out of his current, diminishing state.

His visit from Nikita, therefore, hadn't helped matters any. It was she, after all, who he was repressing the most guilt about. Her presence--usually so healing--now unfortunately only made his demons-- his hallucinations rage.

He couldn't even stand to look at her anymore. Whenever he did, he saw her the way she had looked after he had brutally beaten her in order to reintegrate her into Section. The flames which surrounded him, as well, seemed to constantly reach outward from him to engulf her--threatening to burn her alive.

He couldn't allow himself to admit to the guilt his hallucinations clearly represented, however. If he did that, right now, he would kill himself.

Nikita, therefore, had to be integrated into his delusions. His altered subconscious varied between turning her into simply another, separate victim of Section's machinations or--worse--a Section spy, sent to test out his functional viability.

Thus, while he had admitted to her that he had hurt her, his dysfunctional state of mind had meant it not so much as an admission of guilt but as yet another way in which he had been victimized. Section --to his mind--had forced him to push away the woman he loved; they were solely responsible for his loneliness and isolation. . . . He just wasn't capable, at the moment, of admitting his own part in his despair.

His altered state, then, had forced him further into the sort of situation he was so mourning being part of. He had brutally hurt his beloved once again. . . . It was an irony which would plague him, once his sanity finally returned.

The sounds of the cello continued into the night, therefore, as Michael attempted to drown out the screams and the growing sounds of flames. And Nikita guarded him downstairs, completely unaware that the truest dangers were in his mind--that his mourning of a lost son was simply a hallucinatory symbol of his love for her.

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

Anything which didn't fit into a mission profile was never welcome in Section. Madeline, especially, hated anomalies. . . . And Michael's behavior, of late, was the most puzzling anomaly she had seen in some time.

She had known Michael ever since his recruitment; she had been his trainer in valentine ops; she had profiled him both on duty and off. But nothing she knew of him so far even vaguely explained his recent actions.

She sighed, leaning back in the chair in her office. She had seen Michael after most of the major traumas of his life: his recruitment --which followed on some very unpleasant prison memories, his first mission, his first valentine op. against a--very brutal--man, the beginning of his marriage to Elena, Simone's deaths, the birth of his son, Nikita's supposed cancellation, his mission against Rene'. After each one, he had--at least--been depressed, frequently even suicidal.

But never--not once--had he ever given up on appearances; he had never before altered from Section's standard response of "I'm fine" when asked about his emotional state. She shook her head. Something, this time, was very wrong.

He hadn't reacted at all like she had expected him to. Given his-- frequently open--proclivity for her, she had expected that he would waste little time in binding himself to Nikita, now that he was free of his long-term mission. The very fact that he hadn't was at least . . . curious.

It was more than that, though. He seemed positively incapable, lately, of hiding his emotions--a problem he had *never* experienced before. . . . In fact, he was no longer even trying.

This worried her. As little as Operations wanted to admit it--given his rather aging alpha male's jealousy and fear of the rising pack leader--Michael was important; he was the future of Section One. No one else had--no one else ever would have--his promise . . . his potential.

It was true that Nikita was causing him to act out more often, recently. But that was--and always had been--a containable situation. While his refusal to poison Elena had been disappointing, as well--and had obviously been caused, if only subconsciously, by Nikita's influence on him--he had done his duty in the end; his mission viability was still very salvageable.

In light of all this, then, his utter lack of concern for missions, appearance, or even for Nikita, of late, was odd. It required an explanation, . . . and she was quite certain that it wouldn't be found in a simple psychological profile.

She thought back, trying to recall when his most unusual behavior had begun, and she was finally, quietly struck with an inspiration. She pressed a button on her com. system to contact the man in charge of such inventories. "Walter."

"Yeah?" his gruff voice replied a few seconds later.

"Send me a complete run-down of all the chemicals found on the Ostrowitz mission."

"The lab's still analyzing a few of them," he pointed out. "Get them to send everything they know," she ordered quietly.

"Will do."

She clicked off the link and sat back. Whatever the outcome, she had already decided not to share it with Operations. This information was simply too psychologically intriguing to share, . . . unless she should find it useful in the future.

It was still only a suspicion, too, but--if it were the cause --it would explain many things. . . . And, if she were very lucky, it might even have provided a good test run for a new psychotropic agent . . . as well as some potentially valuable insights into the workings of Michael's mind.

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

It was very possible that Michael would have simply continued on in his degrading state for several more days had Operations not acted when he did. The older man's plan, in fact, had shown more psychological insight into his operative than he had exerted with any of them for quite some time.

Setting Nikita up to be abducted, indeed, had truly been a stroke of genius. It was the first thing which had really broken through into Michael's hallucinatory world, since it had first begun.

Seeing the woman he loved grabbed, though, and--even worse--hearing Operations order her abandonment, reminded him of what had been central to all of his fears and torments for the last several days; it had given the logical portion of his mind the strength to begin to overpower the hallucinations.

His body, as well, had reacted instinctually to her peril. After all, the need to protect Nikita was innate in him; it was almost part of his genetic code. It could, too, make him survive almost anything; Rasputin's fortitude was nothing to Michael's, given this impetus.

Another plus to this plan, as well--one Operations would never know about--was that it helped to finally start clearing Michael's body of its psychotropic contaminent. Before this, he had been almost inexpressibly docile; even on missions, he had simply hung about on the fringes, allowing others to handle the real work, while his mind focused on its own illusions. . . . Even shooting Van Haven hadn't really gotten his system going.

Now, however, his blood was pumping once more. His heartbeat had started to thunder, in fact, from the instant of her capture; it then only continued to speed up as he raced to help her--beginning to eliminate, consequently, most of the drug from his system.

He was in "machine man" mode by the time he found her. His world, admittedly, was still a bit fuzzy around the edges, but the sounds of the flames--the severity of the cries--had decreased; he could focus once again.

Once he did, too, he could see what--who had always been in front of him . . . who the true center of his life was. In fact, once he had freed her, she seemed to almost shine with light. . . . And he realized, taking in her beauty--now marred, once more, by the violence of others--that she had always been the light he was working toward . . . even before he had met her.

For Nikita, however, the time since her capture had forced her to hit the bottom of a very deep well of despair. She was profoundly convinced that she would die here . . . and that Michael wouldn't even give a damn.

The physical blows she received were the least of her pain. She was beginning to lose track of how often she had had to put up with this crap--was starting to wonder whether there was some sick cosmic force out there that got off on watching her abused. At this point, though, she was too disgusted to be depressed; it just pissed her off more than anything else.

No, her real pain here wasn't this; it was Michael's absence--his absolute dismissal of her. And, since Section--following standard procedure--had switched off her link, she had no way of knowing the truth.

It wasn't that she wanted a white knight to save her, really; it was more that she would like to believe that he cared enough to try to keep her from harm--as she always did with him. . . . But she was beginning to realize that wasn't the case.

Her emotional pain had built with every blow. It hurt her brutally to think that he didn't care--that he would simply sit by and allow her to die.

In fact, it made her angry, and her anger continued to build--to wrap itself up with her despair--by the second. She had spent the last week or so protecting him, getting little or no rest to do so; she had been ready to talk, to comfort, . . . to heal--had he allowed her to do any of these things; she had even--before this latest turn of events--calmly accepted the revelation of his wife and child--had offered him her strength through the ordeal of losing them. Now, however, she was going to die by some idiot scumbag's hand--for no good or noble reason, . . . and that bastard Michael didn't even give a damn.

Once he actually arrived, she was lost on how to feel. She knew--sort of--that she was glad not to die--she was even vaguely relieved that he cared, but the momentary relief was soon over. She couldn't get past how much she had given for so long, . . . while he had offered nothing but silence and pain.

Once Michael saw past his immediate relief and comfort at seeing Nikita alive, in fact, part of his mind registered her conflict, as well, as he looked at her lovingly, . . . but he was lost as to how to answer her silent accusations. He couldn't clearly comprehend his own actions over the last several days; he certainly couldn't explain them to her. All he could do, therefore, was to stroke a thumb softly over her now-bruised cheek and swallow back his tears. "Let's go," he told her quietly--eyes sad, before they began a very long, silent journey back.

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

Nikita's emotions remained conflicted, as she arrived back at Section, got checked out by Medical, and debriefed. She took the opportunity to shower and put on a bit of make-up to cover her bruises. . . . They weren't that bad, really, she evaluated; Michael himself had given her worse.

She was heading back out, in fact--entirely unsure of how she felt about her ex-trainer--completely uncertain whether she even gave a damn anymore, when Walter caught her and ushered her into a back part of the weapons room to talk. His mind had had bigger things to deal with lately, but he knew she needed the information he was about to give her. "There's something you need to know about Michael," he began.

She sighed, a bit blase'. "Yeah?"

He could see the conflict in her eyes. He reached out to take her hand, to try to focus her attention. "Sugar, he was drugged."

Her look of boredom fled; confusion replaced it. "What are you talking about?"

"The Ostrowitz mission--the lab. Did you see Michael touch any of the chemicals?"

She shook her head. "Walter, he's not that stupid."

He shook his head as well--emphatically. "I don't mean intentionally. Were there any spills--were any liquids exposed?"

She thought very carefully--trying to remember. "No," she said finally. She paused again. "The only thing was some water near the sink."

He closed his eyes for half a second; for someone who had lived on the streets for so long, her working knowledge of the drugs found there was abominable, . . . although he supposed acid wouldn't have been the most popular. He held her hand warmly. "Sugar, LSD 25 can look like water."

She looked at him curiously. "LSD 25 . . . acid?"

He shook his head. "Not just acid. This stuff is so powerful, it doesn't have any street value. Its only real use is in unbalancing someone's mind--usually to make them suicidal. It'll last for days, if *you* last that long."

She took hold of his hand. "And you think Michael was exposed to this?"

He nodded. "It makes sense. Look at the way he's been acting lately."

He shook her hand a little. "Even you couldn't shake him out of it."

She opened her mouth to speak but couldn't quite find the words.

He put his other hand on her shoulder. "Sugar . . . he needs you. Whatever your feelings--whatever he's said the last several days, it wasn't him." He stroked her shoulder. "Do him . . . do yourself a favor, and go to him."

"But the drug . . ."

"It should've worked its way out of his system by now, for the most part," he assured her. He smiled. "He should be back to his usual silent self."

She smiled at him and then leaned in to kiss his cheek briefly. "Thanks, Walter." She broke away to find Michael, forcing herself to put on an outwardly casual air so as to draw as little attention as possible--and so she wouldn't scare off Michael with the intensity of her approach.

She had listened, despite her pain; it was the best outcome he had hoped for. . . . At least one thing had gone right for him today.

"Anytime, Sugar." He shook his head, smiling. "Anytime."

*********** It was an hour or so later when Nikita and Michael were hidden away in the corner of a local coffee bar--tucked far enough back to keep their conversation private, if they spoke softly. Nikita had just passed Walter's revelation on to Michael--who was still trying to process it.

"LSD 25?" He was staring blankly at the table.

"Yes." She paused, as he gave no outward reaction. "Does that not make sense?" She tried to catch his eye.

He snapped back to himself and looked at her. "No--it does." He seemed to be focused more on his own thoughts. "It makes a lot of sense, actually."

Things began to fall into place for him. He could see how his mind had descended into hallucinations, how they had manifested themselves from his despair. He could see, too, how he had pushed Nikita away; he remembered his hurtful words to her, when she had come--in all of her honesty and love--to help him, and he closed his eyes for a second at the thought that he had harmed her once more. "Michael?" She was worried by the pain in his face--by his silence.

"Where did you go when you left, the other night?" he asked, changing topics slightly. His eyes were still closed.

"What do you mean?" she responded innocently.

He refocused on her with a look which begged for her honesty. "When you came to see me the other night. Did you go home, when you left?"

She said nothing.

He closed his eyes again, head lowered. "You've been protecting me."

She shrugged. "It's not important."

He looked at her again, seriously. "You know it is."

She looked away.

"`Kita," his soft voice caught her, making her refocus on him reluctantly. "I'm sorry."

She swallowed; she still wasn't sure what to think of all of this, but she knew that she needed to take this opportunity to understand. "Why didn't you come to me, Michael--once the mission was over?" She sighed. "You knew I was there for you." She paused, speaking even more softly. "You knew I needed you."

He looked away. "I couldn't." "Why not?"

He took a deep breath and focused on her once more. He shook his head slightly, as he spoke. "I didn't want to hurt you any more."

She shook her head as well, incredulous. "And you don't think it hurt me to just sit around waiting--to know how much you needed me, but to know you weren't coming?" Her voice almost broke.

He closed his eyes again. "I'm sorry, Nikita."

"No," she stated firmly. "I'm tired of apologies. I want an explanation."

He took another deep breath and looked at her once more. It took him a few seconds to build the strength to tell her what he needed to; fortunately, however, the drug was still having a bit of an effect on him--allowing him to work past his usual barriers and speak plainly. "I've never brought anyone happiness, `Kita," he shook his head, "not really. Even with Simone, there was always something in our way-- Section . . . Elena."

He sighed, blinking back tears for a second before looking at her again. "With you . . ." He paused. "I've hurt you from the day we first met. I've lied to, manipulated, and betrayed you numerous times."

His eyes searched her face for evidence of the bruises her make-up hid, his voice getting softer. "I've even beaten you brutally." He refocused on her eyes. "I don't even know why you would still want me."

She said nothing--unable to answer that question herself.

Michael continued. "When I `died' in front of Elena . . . I heard her screams. . . . My mind put you in her place. All I could think was that--someday--I might end up hurting you that badly, as well."

She watched him with love, but she couldn't respond. She knew that outcome was all too possible, too.

He closed his reddened eyes tightly for a few seconds, trying to shut back the pain; he had taken her silence as agreement--as an admission that they were better off apart. His tear-filled eyes looked at her once more. "I'm so sorry, Nikita." He took her in for one more second and then rose to leave.

"Michael." Her voice caught him, as he was passing by her. She was still looking straight ahead. "Do you love me?" She wouldn't ask him to actually say the words.

He closed his eyes again, a tear escaping unnoticed down his cheek. "More than life," he said softly.

She reached to her side and took his hand before looking up at him.

Her eyes held a challenge. "Then have the courage to stay with me."

He looked at her as though she were the only hope he had ever seen. His hand tightened softly around hers. "Are you sure?" His voice was soft to keep it from breaking.

Her thumb stroked his hand. "Section's going to use us regardless of what we do." She shook her head slightly. "We can't escape that. The only thing we *can* control is how we treat each other."

His eyes held so much love for her, but they were also tinged with fear. "I don't want to be the cause of any more pain for you."

She swallowed, looking at him sadly. "We're both going to hurt each other again," she said softly. "Section will see to that."

She held his hand more tightly. "But I know that I," she paused-- accepting his emotions, as well, "that *we* will hurt much more if we're apart." Her eyes were very strong.

"And when I do hurt you again?" His eyes searched hers; he was convinced that there was no chance for them, but he also hoped desperately that she had found some magical answer--that she knew some way around their painful fate.

She shrugged slightly, unafraid. "I don't promise we'll be in love every day, Michael." She paused, wishing she didn't have to admit this now but knowing that the truth was imperative, if they were to have any hope of healing; her voice was very soft and low. "I know I'll hate you some days." She sighed briefly. "If we're ever going to have any sort of chance at happiness, though, we have to learn to work together." Her eyes pinned him. "Now, tell me that isn't the truth," she challenged.

He looked at her for another several seconds--taking in just how overwhelmingly beautiful she was. His hallucinations had disappeared, but she still seemed to glow with light. He hated that he would hurt her again, hated what he knew Section would do to them. If their happiness were only an illusion, however, it was one he needed--was one he wanted more desperately than the next beat of his heart.

His eyes took on a quiet sensuality it was hard to hide when he was with her. He lifted her hand to his lips--cupping it over his mouth, so that he could kiss her palm. He repeated the action once more and then lowered it. "No. You're absolutely right." He let go of her hand and returned to his chair.

They both just watched each other for a minute, taking in the tenuous victory they had just achieved. Michael broke the silence by speaking first. "So, where do we begin?"

She leaned onto the table toward him. "Talk to me. Tell me how you've been feeling." He seemed to be pondering how to begin, so she gave him a starting point. "Do you miss them?"

He sighed, looking at the table. "Yes."

"You aren't hurting me, Michael. I want to know how you feel."

He refocused on her sadly, wanting to share his pain with her--to let her inside his barriers. "I wish I'd known him more."

"Who? . . . Adam?"

"Yes," he nodded.

She looked confused. "But you were with him for his whole life, up to now. How could you not know him?"

He shook his head. "I never let myself. . . . I shut him out." She looked at him with tremendous sympathy. "Michael, I'm sorry."

He closed his eyes, getting angry. He knew he was to blame, now that the delusions had left; he didn't want her sympathy. "Don't feel sorry for me, `Kita. It's my fault I wasn't there."

"Michael," her voice soothed; she needed him to stop seeing himself solely as either the abuser or the victim. "Just for once, give yourself a break. Adam loves you." He refocused on her, still angry. "You were a wonderful father to him." She saw in his eyes all of the pain he had obviously been tormented by while raising his son. "All of the conflicts you felt, you spared him." She paused for a second, trying to find a way to get him to see the truth. "He's going to remember you as the father who adored him. Is anything more important than that?"

"You know that's not enough." His voice was harsh.

"No," she responded quietly. "I know that it is." She sighed. "My mother never loved me, Michael; she never wanted me. She made that obvious in every way she could find for my entire life with her."

She shook her head. "You spared Adam all of that pain. . . . You've given him a foundation of love to build the rest of his life on."

He shook his head in response. "But it was a lie."

"Doesn't matter; it was real to him." She paused, wondering how much she should point out to him. "Besides, you *did* love him."

He focused deeply on her--a cold rage in his eyes. "No. . . . I didn't."

She shrugged, giving in slightly. "Okay, maybe you didn't every day. Maybe when you were away from him, you forgot he existed for weeks at a time; maybe you even regretted his birth--I don't know." She sighed. "What I do know is that you cared enough to make sure that he felt cherished, . . . and there is *nothing* more important a parent can do than that."

He closed his eyes and sighed, conceding to her logic somewhat.

"I wish I could've done more." He looked back up at her. "I wish he'd been born to a man who could love him as he deserves."

Nikita lay her hand across the table to him--offering him a connection to her, knowing that no words could take away the pain Section's coldly calculated "mission" had forced on him. He looked down at her palm before reaching up to trace a finger over the lines there. "I wish a lot of things," he whispered.

She closed her eyes for a second, swallowing, before she looked back at him softly. "So do I."

He entwined his fingers with hers, still running a thumb over her palm. He needed to be with her--needed to accept her offer of love.

She alone gave his life meaning; without her, his existence was nothing more than a cruel joke for which he had no desire to discover the punch line.

He didn't know why she loved him--would never understand it. For once, though, he wouldn't turn her away. Even if just for a little while--in the smallest of ways, he would show his love to her.

He looked back at her seriously--quietly. "What are you doing for supper?"

She shook her head slightly. "No plans."

"Good." He kissed her hand. "Would you have it with me, then?"

She smiled. "I'd like that."

He looked down at the table and back up at her, his smile tender-- a darkened shade of the innocent she had met briefly after the debacle on the Perez mission. "So would I."

He stood up, letting go of her hand, and came around to hold up her coat for her, as she stood. She smiled at him, a little surprised by the gesture, and slipped it on, pulling her hair out from under it to fall down her back.

He stroked his hand down the soft tresses, his voice a shudder behind her. "We have a lot of lost time to make up," he whispered.

Nikita blinked and turned around to look at him, her purse now in hand. . . . Did she really just hear that?

Michael leaned in to her, his hand on her cheek, and pulled her into a brief, but tender, kiss. "Let's go," he smiled at her. The genuine, beautiful smile she gave him in return made his blood course through his veins a little faster. For once--for just a second--with no plan or agenda, he had made her happy. A joy which had seemed dead these past few weeks was reborn in his heart. . . .

He no longer heard any flames; Nikita had chased them all away.

He smiled at her, his eyes full of love, and then put his hand gently on her shoulder to guide her out of the coffee bar--away from the other couples, who couldn't help but watch. . . . But he no longer cared what they thought.

They both knew that this was likely a tentative peace--that Section would eventually come between them to try to destroy it, but--for a moment--it didn't matter. They were together, in love, and--for the first time--there were no lies between them to serve as obstacles to their happiness. And--for as long as this lasted--that would be all that mattered.