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Dangerous Charades

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She was very, very proud of herself. She had done very well, indeed. She had fooled the one person who knew Nikita the best, . . . and she had done it in the one way she had feared she might fail at.

Abby was very contented at the moment, but it had nothing to do with afterglow. She had gotten little, sexually, out of her evening with Michael. She sighed happily. It had been a test of her abilities at masquerade, nothing more. . . . And she had passed it beautifully.

This had been the scenario she had feared the most, in this little game she was taking part in. She had known--or, rather, they had assumed--that Nikita and Michael were lovers. For all of her previous success in seduction missions--"valentine ops.," as Section would term them--she had never had to pretend to be a man's previous lover before . . . especially a man who was as dangerously perceptive as Michael was known to be.

She shifted a little on his chest, and he rubbed absently over her shoulder--his focus vague, on the ceiling. She noticed these things, of course, but she wasn't concerned about his apparent lack of pleasure over their encounter. Michael was known to be a sullen personality; she had never imagined that even sex could make him effusive.

No, Abby was entirely free of anything like anxiety about Michael's potential knowledge of her switch with Nikita; he seemed contented enough, if quiet. He hadn't--to the best of her scrutiny--seemed at all suspicious or unsure of her at any point in this evening, and she knew that--if she could fool him here, she could fool him anywhere.

Her present calm, however, wasn't indicative of her emotions during the entire evening. She *had* been nervous when it had begun. After all, Michael was a valentine op. himself; he knew how to test for sensual reactions--how to be sure that a woman wasn't just making noises. And, considering that was all she really expected to be doing, it *had* worried her a bit.

She had questioned the real Nikita endlessly through the link provided for her in the glasses. She had needed to know what he liked and--more importantly--what he expected from her. It wouldn't have gone over well if she had suddenly done something he had never anticipated or wanted, when he and Nikita were such regular lovers.

She repressed a sigh, as she looked up to study his stoic face. That mask of control had changed very little during their encounter, really; he had loosened up a bit, yes, but he hadn't really ever gotten particularly wild.

That, though, was just fine with her. She had been relieved when Nikita had told her that he never got particularly rough or overly passionate. She *had* worried a little about what his idea of sex would be like, beforehand; he seemed so repressed much of the time that she had assumed that there had to be some sort of outlet for his emotions. . . . She guessed now, though, that--if there was one--sex wasn't it.

She continued examining him; she was certain that he knew she was watching, but he never turned to look at her. She wanted to shake her head, before she gave up studying him and returned her temple to his shoulder.

She wasn't entirely certain what it was that Nikita saw in him, really; he was so cold and insular. It didn't make a lot of sense to her that he would be so . . . wanted by a woman like Nikita. She repressed another sigh. She supposed that--whatever the reason was--it wasn't something she would ever be able to fully understand.

She did want to try, though; it seemed necessary, if she wanted to be able to keep up her cover. Perhaps it was simply a physical attraction, . . . but even that she didn't entirely get. He was a decent enough lover, she supposed, although she had been a bit too distracted by her fear of detection to notice. . . . Or, at least, that was what she told herself.

If Abby could have faced the truth about herself--on many levels, however--she wouldn't have been where she was now; she probably wouldn't even have been in Red Cell. There was actually a great deal inside her that she feared--that she ran from. Facing her own inner truths terrified her, indeed, so she avoided it at all costs--without even realizing that she was doing it.

This life-long avoidance, however, was why she so deeply enjoyed her life in Red Cell--and the role she was playing now; it was why she liked deceptions and games. She was used to them; she played them with herself--unconsciously--all the time.

In truth, Abby had been in pain for many years--for much of her adult life. It had been sometime during her early teenage years when it had all begun, in fact; that was when she had begun to suspect the truth about herself--that men were not where her passion lay.

This concept, though, had been drilled into her constantly as the very epitome of evil; she had been raised on the notion that to care sensually about anyone of your own sex was one of the surest pathways to Hell. . . . It just wasn't a concept she could work herself past.

It was sometime around this same period in her life, therefore, when she had decided--subconsciously--that she couldn't look into herself too deeply. . . . It was then, too--as a partial consequence of this, that she had begun to enjoy subtle bits of sadism.

She had begun playing and enjoying mind games then--would find and prey upon those with less power. When one poor girl, who was suspected of having lesbian tendencies, had come under her scrutiny, Abby's pursuit of her had been ruthless, cunning, and brutal. In half a year, no one at the school would talk to or believe anything that the girl said; from students and staff to teachers and administrators, she was shunned and outcast. . . . And Abby had never felt more triumphant or alive.

It wasn't a long reach, really, from that juvenile bit of cruelty to Red Cell. It wasn't so much their politics which appealed to her, indeed; she had never been politically minded--it was the opportunity to cause and watch pain which she enjoyed so thoroughly, which she excelled at.

It was all a form of self-hatred, of course, but she simply wasn't strong-willed enough to hate herself. Instead, therefore, she took out her anger on whomever was weak--on whomever was convenient.

This, then, was the sort of self-knowledge she ran from--was the sort she would go to any lengths to avoid. Although she realized that she had never met a man whom she had enjoyed having as a lover, had never met one she had desired--even marginally, even in fragments--she tended to blame her lack of desire on them, instead of looking to herself instead.

The closest she had ever gotten to facing this rather large, hidden truth, in fact, had been with a Red Cell operative named Gina. The beautiful titian-haired, sky-blue-eyed woman and she had been friends, had--indeed--been *incredibly* close. She had probably been the only woman who Abby might have been able to open herself up to, . . . but she had died before she had the chance--had been shot on a mission against a government lab. . . . And Abby had never felt quite as whole since.

All of these, however, were truths she consciously denied. She didn't let herself understand why it had been relatively simple for her to seduce Birkoff, why that had held no particular fear for her--when the impending night with Michael had seemed to almost be a death sentence.

Her reasoning, though--had she allowed herself to see it, was that Birkoff was too young to demand much from her; his experience with women--as she had hoped it would be--was limited enough to make him easily fooled and satisfied with a few false moans. . . . His fantasies of Nikita had filled in the rest.

Michael, however, was different. He was a man with vast experience of women--as his files showed. He also, apparently, had vast experience with Nikita herself. He, then, would be less easily satisfied, less easily fooled; his fantasies of the woman she was supposed to be would only take her so far. . . . She had to be *very* convincing to make him believe.

She looked up at Michael's fixed expression again and smiled. She almost wanted to laugh; she had been *so* successful--in her eyes, after all. He had kept her here, embroiled in sexual aerobics, for the last several hours. She smiled more deeply. Top that, Nikita.

She looked up past Michael, finally, to the pair of glasses she had set on the bedside table--the glasses which were transmitting this entire event back to the captive woman she was impersonating. She felt entirely victorious--was wreathed in mental glory. Her eyes burned at the glasses for a second more, before she resettled her head on Michael's chest.

It was, indeed, the woman who was being forced to watch her whom she had truly thought of the most in all of this. When she had first seen the picture of the woman she was going to become, in fact, she had smiled; she was quite beautiful--could almost be said to be glamorous. . . . It wasn't something Abby had ever thought of herself.

This woman, though--Nikita, was--by the accounts of her files and the man who had trained Abby--self-assured, intelligent, beautiful, strong, and loyal. . . . Had Abby been able to question herself that far, she would have realized that these were all things she wished to be herself but had given up on long ago as too difficult to be able to fully achieve.

Here, though, in Nikita's home, in Nikita's life, Abby was able to assume all of that woman's friendships and relationships as her own. She could inspire hours of passion in an otherwise very contained man; she could gain loyalty and camaraderie from half of the people she seemed to see in Section. . . . And she could achieve it all without having to work for any of it.

Of course, it didn't hurt, either, that this mission also appealed to her not-so-latent sadism. She could fulfill Red Cell's goals here while helping to destroy all of those friendships and relationships she could never truly enjoy for herself; she could force the woman whose life she was stealing to watch as she toyed with it. . . . Better yet, she could force that woman to take part in her manipulations, and--if she didn't--she could kill the one person who meant the most to her as revenge.

All of these things were part of what drew Abby so strongly to this assignment. What truly intrigued her the most here, however, was an instinct from the repressed side of herself. She was climbing--in a psychologically literal sense--into another woman's skin. . . . It was like living out a fantasy.

She tried to hide her private smile and nuzzled a little closer for warmth--and for show--to the man Nikita cared about--the one she had just been forced to watch have hours of sex with someone else. His hand continued to trace lightly over her arm, although his focus was elsewhere.

Abby didn't notice this fact, though. However long this mission continued for, it wouldn't be long enough for her. She could live through Michael's attentions as she had lived through many another man's, and--while she helped out her companions in Red Cell--she could also toy with the life of a woman who she secretly envied but could never truly become.

She smiled. What better road to pleasure could there ever be than this? For Abby--in the life she had chosen and carved out for herself, in the one she refused so stubbornly to abandon, despite its destructive effects on her soul--there was none.

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

This had been the hardest seduction he had ever faced. . . . And he had faced them all. He had seduced everything from virgin high schoolers to elderly widows. He had encountered every need, desire, and perversion. He had left seductions bruised and bleeding--had left them wondering whether he could ever feel true desire again. . . . But nothing--*nothing* had come close to this.

Michael took a very slow, deep breath--assuring himself that his breathing would continue to sound normal--that his features wouldn't break from their emotionless mask. The woman who lay naked beside him, whose arm he was stroking absently--who he had just spent several hours "pleasing"--although he knew well that she had gotten nothing from it which resembled pleasure--had the face, body, and voice of his beloved. . . . Her soul, however, was something carved in ice.

He tried to keep himself from looking at the glasses he knew were transmitting this degraded scene back to his true beloved--wherever she may be. He didn't want her to get a good look at him; he didn't want her to see what he had done.

She had, of course--he knew, been the one to set it in motion, . . . but that was an irrelevancy to him. She had simply chosen it as the only way she could find to alert him to her desperate situation. . . . The words which had come from her doppelganger's mouth had been Nikita's cry for help.

He didn't blame her for this--far from it. While part of his soul had frozen in fear when he had finally understood what had been happening--what had been wrong--with his beloved for the last several hours, part of him had rejoiced, as well. He had finally known the truth, after all; Nikita had found a way to explain it to him, despite the dire situation she was obviously currently in.

He had known then that she was still alive, that she had not betrayed the Section or him, and--also--that she would be kept alive as long as whoever held her needed the information she could give. . . . It was a cold sort of comfort, yes, but it was a comfort, nonetheless.

It had explained so much, as well. He had known from the second that the switch happened that something was wrong--that Nikita was not Nikita; he knew without doubt exactly when it had occurred.

This cold physical twin had been substituted for her two missions ago, when she had been ambushed during their relatively fruitless raid of the plant. He had felt it the instant he had seen her, in fact; he had been so distracted by the change, indeed, that he had completely missed the two gunmen who were coming at him from behind. . . . Had he not obviously been the bargaining chip which was being used to force Nikita to help her captors, he was certain he would be dead by now.

He hadn't, of course--at first, known exactly what it was that was wrong, what was out of place with her. She looked and talked the same as she always did; in most respects, too, she was acting the same. . . . But there was something . . . something in the depths of her eyes which showed her to be a stranger to him.

This impression was only helped, as well, by her constant and sudden predilection for wearing eyeglasses. Her sunglasses--although she had seemed to tire of them somewhat after her return after her supposed cancellation--he could understand. But he knew her entire record, and he was certain that she had no need for corrective lenses of any sort. . . . The only time she wore them--ever--was on missions.

He had been trying to question her--to get some sort of hold on what the change in her was, then--during their return to Section, right after the switch. It all made such sense, now--her temporary confusion when he had mentioned her cold, her sudden desire to play with--and aim--guns, her forgetfulness about her comlink. She hadn't been confused or tired; she just hadn't been Nikita.

On some levels, truly, this discovery had been a relief. He had feared, for awhile, that this was another mission like the one against Adrian--one in which she had to manipulate him in order to be able to achieve her assigned end game. . . . The fact that this person simply wasn't his beloved had actually been rather an odd comfort.

What wasn't a comfort, however, was the fact that Nikita was missing--was the fact that he had somehow, without even fully realizing it, lost her--had left her behind. He took another slow, deep breath, knowing that he needed to keep up the mask--that it was crucial to her safety that he did.

It ate away at him terribly, though, that he had failed her--that she had needed him, and he hadn't been there. He couldn't forgive himself for this; he wasn't even sure whether it was something he could make up to her, . . . but he supposed he would have to try.

He continued to distractedly stroke the arm of the woman who had tried to take his beloved's place. When he had gone to Madeline and Operations--after the meeting which had arranged this assignation--and had told them about the switch, he thought he had almost seen pleasure in the eyes of Section's executive strategist; that pleasure had increased, as well, and had been shared fully by Section's chief, when he had answered their inquiry about how he knew this wasn't Nikita. His answer, of course, had been simple: "Nikita and I don't share our days off together."

He took another slow, deep breath. He knew that his masters had taken this single statement as a sign of victory. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that he and Nikita had spent an entire week together, with their leaders' tacit approval; the fact that their fear of their masters' manipulations was so strong as to keep them completely apart meant to Section's leaders that they had won again.

He managed--with difficulty--to keep the hate out of his eyes. He couldn't let his observers into these private thoughts.

It angered him deeply, however, that he had to keep his life separate from his beloved's, that he was forced to treat the wife of his heart as a simple colleague--nothing more. . . . And it angered him still further that Section's leaders got so much pleasure out of their detached cruelty with their subordinates' lives.

Madeline, in fact, had gone to some lengths to act on her sadism. After the valentine op. had been set for him--and Operations had left to finish arranging Nikita's retrieval, she had driven her point even further home:

"You realize that they're undoubtedly still watching." Her eyes had been waiting to evaluate his response.

"Yes," he had agreed quietly.

"Do you think you can handle it?"

He had focused deeply on her, his mask firmly in place. "Why couldn't I?"

Madeline had given him her best unpleasant smile. "She'll no doubt be watching you with her double."

Michael had nodded, refusing to let her in on his private pain. "Yes."

She had smiled a slight victory to him, unable to force him into any outer response. . . . She had then gone in for the kill, however. "She is Nikita's physical double, of course." The unpleasant smile had deepened. "Perhaps you should just let yourself enjoy the experience."

The cold stare he had leveled at her had been withering. He gave only a slight nod in response and turned to leave.

"We'll call you in when we've found her." He said nothing. "Be sure to keep her busy for at least a few hours; we'll need that much time to track Nikita."

Her words had paused him at the door, with his back still to her, but he hadn't turned. He had given only a half-nod again before leaving.

Anger burned through him at his leaders. He hated them both--hated the games they played with his life. While--in this case--their ever-present implied threats had actually had a good effect, forcing him to keep a, relative, distance from Nikita and thus giving her an easier way to alert him to her situation, part of him still couldn't forgive them for their subtly sadistic expectations.

His hand continued to rub absently over the fake Nikita's arm. He had known, of course, that this seduction would be hard for him--had known that Madeline's cruel words of "encouragement" were a lie. The fact that this woman looked like his beloved meant nothing. . . . She wasn't her. . . . She wasn't even close.

He supposed, in a perverse way, however, that this current, tormenting encounter had answered a question he had posed to himself early on in his experiences with Nikita. Then, he had wondered, once or twice, whether he were simply attracted to her physically--whether that were the deeper reason for--what he saw then, as--the inexplicably fierce depth of his emotions toward her; he had even tried to tell himself, then, that anyone with her face and body might appeal to him--had tried to explain it all away. . . . But he had known in his heart--even then--that that could never be true.

This entire night had been an indescribably intense torture for him, in fact. Her voice was that of his beloved--her eyes, her skin, her hair--all of them were, indeed, apparently the same.

But none of those things mattered. What attracted him to Nikita was her soul--her spirit--the life and fire which flowed so strongly in her. . . . And this pale duplicate--whoever she might truly be--had none of these, irreplaceable, qualities.

It wasn't just that he was incapable of gaining any pleasure from this woman who had stolen his beloved's face, as well; she, too, he knew, had taken none from him. There hadn't been a single point during the evening when she had uttered a true moan of pleasure, a true sigh of desire. All of it was fake; all of it was meaningless.

Although he didn't know all of the reasons for this lack of genuine reaction in his enforced partner--he truly didn't care to examine her closely enough to divine them all--he did understand some of them. At the heart of it, he knew, was the fact that they were both valentine ops. on a mission; personal pleasure, therefore, was always secondary and unimportant. This woman--this life-stealer--understood this fact as completely as he did--and they had both acted on it instinctively.

What surprised him, though, was that she actually seemed to think that she had fooled him. Keeping her convinced of his lack of awareness of the switch--of his pleasure in their encounter--was, in truth, what had worried him the most, . . . but she had seemed all too willing to believe.

He couldn't really understand this. How could anyone who ran these sorts of missions--even without Section's in-depth training in the area--allow themselves to believe a man who had so obviously received as little pleasure as he had? His usual targets were usually so caught up in their own pleasure that they missed his utter lack of it; that was--indeed--how he frequently survived. This woman, however, had received no pleasure at all but had still believed in his. . . . It didn't make any sense to him.

The closest he could come, indeed, to an explanation lay in the fact that he could sense that his target seemed to be completely lacking in any sort of passion. Perhaps she wasn't surprised by his lack, then, since she seemed incapable of understanding that emotion herself; maybe, to her mind, simply getting through a sexual encounter was the best she could imagine.

He really didn't know what the truth of the woman beside him was. No doubt, there was *something* which would stir her emotions, but--whatever it was--he obviously wasn't it.

This, however, was not a fact which bothered him; he wouldn't weep over having failed to please someone who had so cruelly stolen his beloved from him and had then attempted to take her place. He repressed a sigh. She wasn't aware of his deception this evening; that was all that mattered now.

He resisted the urge yet again to look at the glasses which he knew were his only link to Nikita. This entire evening had made his life without her seem unbearable. It had made him remember vividly their week together--the true, intense intimacy they had shared in it, on so many levels. He yearned for her soft touch now more desperately than he could express; he wanted so much to have this person beside him be her.

If it had been, however, he would have been acting very differently right now--would have been acting very differently all evening. He wouldn't have simply been watching his beloved through half-veiled eyes for her reactions to him; he wouldn't have been quiet, except for the few strategically-placed moans he had been forced to utter to keep up pretenses.

No. He would have been very different indeed. He had had and had shown no passion this evening. With his beloved, though, he would have used his passion to scald her, as he had burned in her flames, as well; he would have been involved, would have been entwined with her completely--body and soul. He would have been a true lover--and not an empty mannequin, following a preset pattern with mechanical detachment.

His heart tried to beat more quickly at the thought of his beloved, of his dear soul wife, but he quickly focused on slowing it once more. Part of him wanted--when she was returned to him--to be able to take her in his arms to welcome her back, to be able to hold her close--to give her all of the love he held for her in his soul. . . . Instead, he was painfully certain that he would simply stand nearby--distantly, giving some grossly moronic understatement like, "I'm glad you're back."

He repressed a tormented sigh. For all he wanted to be able to be closer to her, after this was over, he feared terribly, instead, that this incident would only bring them more distance. He simply feared that, yet again, they would miss each other's deeper emotions, while they were busy trying to hide them from their ever-present masters.

It wasn't just this he feared about their future, however. He closed his eyes for half a second, as he focused on keeping them from tearing. He knew that their increased distance was the only realistic outcome for them. How could he truly face her, after all, when--so shortly after their intimate week of spiritual union--he had once again proved unfaithful to her? . . . How could he look her in the eye, when she had so recently seen him bathed in the--supposedly--sensual sweat of her imposter?

His eyes focused blankly on the ceiling. This was, truly, the way that he saw things, as well. He had absolutely no anger at his beloved for putting him in this situation--for forcing him into another valentine mission. He didn't see it as her fault, in any way. If there was any shame here, he placed it firmly on himself--not her; it was him, after all, who had let her get abducted in the first place. . . . He felt certain that he deserved some intense and cruel punishment in return for that inexpressibly grave failure.

He tried again to emotionally block out the woman beside him, while his hand continued to lightly, mechanically, trace her arm. This was the punishment he had earned. He had--to his mind--no one to blame for his current, soul-burning torment but himself.

Michael had been lying there for some time--outwardly calm, inwardly pained and heartsick--his mind playing over all of his fears, all of his scarring emotional wounds. He had tried to force himself into the mindless, soulless submission to orders and end games that valentine ops. required, but--even by deadening his body to all outer stimuli, by cutting off his soul from all of its needs--even with his years of training and experience--he still just hadn't been able to fake more than two hours of "intimacy" with this life-stealer.

Finally, though, after what had seemed like a lifetime of waiting for it--after what *had* been several, far too long, hours with her--the call came, the one which would bring him in--the one which would finally allow him to end this dangerous charade. His heart felt like it had begun beating again. Soon, he would have his beloved one back by his side--whatever their spiritual distance; soon, he would be able to take part in her impersonator's downfall.

To his mind, truly, neither of these things could happen too quickly. . . . This was, indeed, the closest he could imagine--at the moment--to salvation.

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

She was sitting still, watching the screen--watching an abomination. She had--she knew, she kept telling herself--used the only method available to her to alert Michael to her situation; she had done the only thing she could. . . . But that didn't keep her from feeling like she had still done something very, very wrong.

Nikita tried to swallow back the lump in her throat without making a show of it. The inquisitor--she still didn't know his name--was watching her closely, and she had no desire to let him think he had won any more victories today than was absolutely necessary.

Her captor's latest score against her, in fact, wasn't even the one he thought it was; her emotions, indeed, were very different than he imagined. He thought she was jealous, that she was angry at "Abby"--as her doppelganger was apparently named--for taking her place in bed with Michael. . . . But that wasn't it--not at all.

It was true that she was being bombarded with emotions, at the moment; she had been for the last several hours. But none of them were the ones her captor believed them to be.

No. She was angry at Abby, yes, but it wasn't a sexual jealousy; instead, she was furious at the woman for taking part in hurting the people Nikita cared about. This woman--in the course of pretending to be her--had killed off almost a team and a half worth of people, some of them ones Nikita had been friendly with. She had also seduced Birkoff and then rejected him, something she had a feeling she would need to talk to her younger friend about seriously--whenever she was able to get back.

More than any of this, though, what infuriated her the most was that Abby had hurt--was still hurting--Michael, as well as the relationship that he and Nikita had tried for so long to nurture into something living and beautiful--into something which didn't simply involve sacrifice and pain. . . . It was this, truly, which she found impossible to forgive.

She saw the barely-suppressed look of torment on his face--a look which said that he was purposely killing off parts of his soul simply to be able to survive. It was a look she had wanted, for so long, to take from him--had dreamed of being able to live a life with the man she loved which never required him to destroy himself just so he could face the next day.

It hurt her so much to watch this. Now, with this depraved double's arrival in her life--instead of this repeated fantasy, she was being forced to use Michael again, was being forced to manipulate him in order to keep him alive. It was a tactic he had used with her all too frequently. . . . And she hated every second of it fiercely now, as she always had before.

She knew he had been suspicious from the beginning; from the first view she had had of him with Abby--riding back in the mission van--he had been testing her, had been trying to figure out what wasn't right--why this didn't feel like Nikita. She didn't entirely know how he had figured it out so quickly, but she could tell that he had known, even then, that it hadn't been her--even if he hadn't been aware yet of all of the details.

She had seen and understood all of this, but--because of the position they had her in, she had been forced to lead her impersonator, had had to tell her the right things to say in order to try to allay her target's fears. It had been a manipulation by proxy on her part, . . . and the only excuse she had was the one she hated so much in reverse from Michael--that she had feared for his life, that she had been trying to protect him.

There had only been one other major time, really, when she had ended up in this situation with him. Then, it had been Operations and Madeline who had put his life down as a bargaining chip, in order to force her to betray Adrian, and Adrian, too, had followed suit--all of them using her emotions to force her to hurt the one person she wanted to protect most.

She took a deep breath as quietly as possible, still watching the screen. She hated that she had taken part in harming--in betraying Michael yet again. She didn't forgive herself for this; she couldn't. While part of her wanted to claim that her manipulations--unlike his of her--didn't require him betraying himself, working against his own conscience and soul, she knew, just as powerfully, that that was a lie.

With Adrian, indeed, he had been forced to do the one thing he had always avoided--the one thing he had worked against since her arrival; he had been forced to turn his former material in. Now, . . . well, the picture on her screen answered that one; Michael had had to prostitute himself yet again. . . . And it was her who had acted as his pimp.

She hated herself for this--very deeply. While she knew that it had been the only way to alert him to the danger she was in, the danger *he* was in, as well--the only way to confirm his suspicions about what was happening, that made it no better; it made her no less guilty, in her own eyes.

She took another deep, slightly shaky, breath and focused on calming her heartbeat. She couldn't fall apart in front of her inquisitor; it would give him too much power.

It tore at her, though, that this should happen so soon after she had spent a week with Michael--trying to heal him, trying to let him heal her. She had learned yet again, then, just how much his valentine training and missions had hurt him--just how despicably they had taught him to view himself. She had wanted so desperately then to teach him that he wasn't just Section's whore--to get him to recognize that he had value, that his soul was real and beautiful.

Now, though--now, *she* was the one whoring him. Even had she been unaware of how he would approach his night with Abby--which she hadn't, it had been confirmed for her--she had seen it in every second of the last several hours.

What she saw on the screen--well, . . . this wasn't her Michael. This man she was viewing had no real passion, took no true pleasure in any of the acts he mechanically enacted. . . . No. This was a valentine op. in action, plain and simple. He assessed; he observed; he performed. There was no desire; his body was only involved by way of his brain--because it had been given orders. . . . None of it was real.

It pained her unspeakably to have been the cause of this--to have been the one to force him into this sort of situation yet again. She could see the way he was shutting down his emotions to handle it--could see it in the cold, detached look in his eyes. . . . It was a look that told her that something inside of him was beginning to die.

She took a very quiet, deep breath to steady herself. This Michael wasn't even truly human; he was nothing like the intensely--devastatingly vibrant, beautiful man she knew from her week with him so recently. That man could be almost animalistic in his passion, it was true, but his passion was so wonderfully real and alive; when he was pleased, he cried out in joy--he trembled in release. . . . This one barely even seemed to notice that he had just spent several hours intimately joined with someone else.

She kept herself from laughing at this thought. "Intimate"--there had been nothing intimate here this night--not from either party. They had approached each other like animated mannequins--fulfilling a preset, unemotional pattern. . . . Or, at least, that was what she saw.

Fortunately, however, they both did put on a good show--did keep up appearances well. In a sick sort of way, she supposed it was almost amusing; both of them were faking with each other and hoping that their partner didn't notice. She wasn't sure, really, why Abby didn't take any pleasure from Michael. She knew this was simply a valentine op. for the woman, but she didn't seem to be the sort of person who was looking for deep emotional commitments--who would be unable to take pleasure from a random fling. Nikita had noticed that she hadn't seemed to take any real pleasure from Birkoff, either, though. . . . She wondered vaguely what it was the woman did enjoy.

She thought back to the half hour or so preceding the painful masquerade she had just witnessed. Abby had been obviously nervous; it had been incredibly apparent just in her voice--and even more so in the questions she had asked of her captive.

Nikita had hated answering those questions. What Michael wanted and didn't want was nobody's damn business. All the ways she knew to please him were ones she would never willingly pass along to anyone--were ones she realized would be meaningless to him coming from anyone else, anyway.

But they, really, weren't the things she had had to reveal, in the end. She fully realized, after all, that her message had gotten through to Michael--that he knew well that his rendezvous wasn't with her.

Because of this, then, she had had to try to figure out exactly what he would be like in a valentine operation--how he would treat his target. But--since she had never closely studied any of his previous missions of this sort, for obvious reasons--it had taken a bit of guesswork on her part to figure it out.

She wasn't sure whether she should be proud or not that she had been so accurate in her predictions to Abby. She had tried, however, to steer her towards the things which would cause Michael the least pain or attention, . . . but--in doing so--she had also made herself out to be pretty much a submissive lump in her relationship with him . . . which could never be further from the truth. . . . Still, though, this approach had allowed him--as she had hoped it would--to take the lead in the mission--to simply go through the motions he had, unfortunately, had to learn so well and use so repeatedly.

She had been a bit worried, during all of this questioning--and the events which followed, however, that the inquisitor might figure out what she was up to--that he might be able to tell that she was lying. He was an intelligent and relatively insightful man, after all.

She had been pleased to discover, however, that he wasn't as insightful as she had feared. He had--evidently--taken a dislike to Michael, had decided that he was simply a machine, so--fortunately--he hadn't been too surprised by his lack of response to Abby--by his lack, in fact, of any real response during the entire witnessed encounter between the Red Cell operative and her target. . . . It was a shortcoming on her captor's part for which Nikita was very grateful.

She turned her attention back to the man's protegee now--trying to analyze her--her impostor. She hadn't been able to see her face or her expressions very often during her imprisonment--her double was more frequently the camera than the subject--but she did seem to really enjoy the manipulations she was performing, the mess she was making of the life of the woman she was pretending to be.

Nikita wanted to understand Abby; in some odd way, she felt she needed to. What sort of woman--what sort of person--after all, would agree to two years--as the inquisitor had informed her--of plastic surgery and training in order to pretend to be someone else? . . . Why on earth would anyone agree to that--for any reason?

She couldn't really understand this, since it was something she could *never* imagine doing herself, whatever the cause. She had noticed that Abby seemed to enjoy playing with other people's lives, but--then again--so did Madeline, and Nikita couldn't honestly say that she could imagine Section's doyenne willingly taking on an assignment such as this one. . . . What was it, then? What lay behind the restructured face of her doppelganger?

The only thing she could come up with, the only reason she could imagine was really very sad. The only reason she could see was if Abby were simply so deeply dissatisfied with herself and her own life that she could see no way out of it except by becoming someone else.

She looked closely at the woman on the screen who was now her physical double, as she was wrapped around Michael's side. This doppelganger was looking triumphantly into the camera, as though she wanted Nikita to admit her victory.

The subject of Abby's attentions kept herself from shaking her head. This poor woman, it seemed, could apparently only feel any power in her life--any sense of self--by trying to displace someone else, by making them disappear. . . . It was one of the saddest things Nikita could imagine.

She repressed a sigh. Nothing about all of this was proving to be easy; even her emotions toward her impostor were muddled. While part of her was incredibly angry at her for the pain she had wrought--for forcing her to help hurt and betray Michael so torturously, she also couldn't help but feel a little sorry for her. To have a life as empty as Abby's seemed horribly, unspeakably sad; she wished that there could be some better end for the woman, . . . but that was obviously an impossibility now.

She heard Michael's cellphone ring and saw him answer it, before he turned to her double and stroked her face gently for a second. She wondered what he was seeing there; she could tell, somehow, that it wasn't really his present bed mate.

She knew now that the end was approaching--could tell that soon she would be rescued and Abby would be no more. All she had to do was keep the inquisitor and Abby from working up any suspicions, as she prepared herself and waited patiently.

She repressed another sigh, however. She knew she could survive all of this long enough to get back in to Section, of course, but there would be so much to deal with, when she returned--so much emotional fall-out to handle from it all.

She hoped that she would have the strength to face the results of this debacle she had so unwillingly participated in, when she was once more in the place she--for lack of a better term--called her home. And, even more, she hoped that those she loved could find a way to forgive her for having taken part in their brutal deception. . . . Maybe, if they could, she could then begin to find a way to forgive herself.

***********

Everything had ended successfully, . . . or so she had been told. She was back and had been reintegrated into Section with a minimum of debriefing. She had had a short conversation with Birkoff--but one which seemed to have handled their immediate problems; she had decided that it was best not to go into the whole incident in too much depth with him--it could only lead to his embarrassment, after all. Michael, too, had accepted her back with his usual stoicism but also with a vague spark of relief and love in his eyes. . . . None of that helped the fact, however, that she felt like hell.

Nikita was waiting in the, out of season, boathouse of a park nearby Section. Her emotional disturbance over the problems this mission had caused herself and Michael had proven too much to simply ignore.

She had been here for half an hour now; he was supposed to be here any minute. She had tried to tell herself, after her return, that she should just try to handle what had happened without discussion; what had really set her determination to meet with him, actually, had been his look when she had exited the white room after Abby's cancellation. . . . He had looked like a man whose last hope of life had died; it was a look she simply couldn't ignore.

She still wasn't sure what had caused his pain, though--why he would be so upset that she had allowed Madeline to pull the trigger. She supposed, however, that she would find out the truth soon enough--assuming he did show up, . . . assuming he even wanted to talk to her.

Just as her mind was working on this fear, though, he finally arrived, walking slowly into the small cabin. He took his usual look around to be certain they were alone, as he approached her.

She gave him a half-smile. She felt a bit like she had no right to be here--had no right to be alone with him at all, after what she had done to him. . . . She wasn't even sure why he had agreed to come.

His eyes were pained as he walked toward her; they searched hers deeply, trying to see into her soul. She didn't seem angry, he noticed, but he wondered if he were simply misreading her. . . . He wondered if he even had any right to be here at all.

Maybe, indeed, she just needed to see him in private long enough to tell him that she wanted nothing more to do with him. He repressed a sigh. He understood, of course. If that was it, then he would open the conversation--would allow her anger to take its proper course. "Why'd you ask to meet with me?" he questioned her softly.

She took a deep breath, trying to read him, . . . but her fears were getting in her way. He must be angry--he must hate her. . . . Maybe she should have just left everything unsaid. She swallowed heavily, though, realizing she couldn't get out of this now. "We need to talk."

He nodded slightly. "Alright."

He was letting her take the lead; she wished she knew where to begin. She took another deep breath, deciding to just go on and tell him what she needed to most. "I'm sorry, Michael." She closed her eyes for a second after she said it, before refocusing on him; the words sounded so deeply inadequate--just as they had all the times he had said them to her. He missed her meaning, too distracted by his own thoughts--his own fears. "Don't be." He looked around the room, trying not to focus on her. "You had every right to shoot her." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

Nikita blinked, confused, and stared at him with her mouth slightly open, lost for a response.

He took a deep breath; evidently, she needed more reassurance than that. He was too deeply lost in his own pain to see what her real feelings were.

He tried to comfort her, although the words wanted to stick in his throat--were trying to choke him. "You had every right to be angry with her--to want her dead." He forced himself to refocus on her finally; his eyes were bloodshot.

Her lips were trembling a bit. Did he think she had done the wrong thing? Was he trying to tell her what she should have done? "You wanted me to shoot her?"

He looked away, again, unable to hold her eyes. "You did the right thing."

She shook her head, as reality suddenly dawned on her--breaking through her fears. "Michael, I didn't kill her; Madeline did." He looked back at her suddenly, focusing deeply on her--evaluating the truth of her words . . . too afraid of the pain of disappointment to believe them immediately. "You thought I'd done it?"

He took a deeper breath, still afraid to hope--needing to understand her reasons. "Why didn't you?"

She shook her head again. "I didn't want to."

"Even though she'd hurt you?"

"Michael, I've never killed anyone just because they'd hurt me." She was looking at him deeply, trying to figure out what his emotions were.

He focused on her inquisitively. "And during the war with Red Cell--our captor, the man who programmed Abby?"

She shook her head, half-amazed that he didn't understand. "I didn't shoot him because he'd hurt me," she said, before she caught herself--realizing she was saying too much.

He took in a sudden breath, his eyes closing for a second. "You did it because he'd hurt me."

She looked away, not able to meet his eyes when his gaze returned to her.

His eyes had softened, as he approached her slowly. He put his hand on her wrist. "Ni-ki-ta," he whispered for her attention. She refocused on him slowly, sadly. "I'm sorry."

Her eyes were a little confused. "For what, Michael?"

"For the war." He took a deep breath. "For what I forced you to do in it."

She closed her eyes, the memories of it returning to haunt her once more. Her own torture she had been able--with reluctance--to handle. But seeing him hurt so brutally had torn holes in her, had hurt her more deeply than she had thought possible; she had needed so desperately to protect him. When she had found out later that it had all been a lie . . .

He stroked her hand softly for a moment, seeing that she remembered, thinking that she--justifiably--hated him again. "I'm sorry," he repeated quietly before he let go of her and began to leave, his point made.

She opened her eyes, surprised that he was going--knowing that nothing between them had been resolved yet. "Michael." He stopped. She was still deeply hurt by his actions then--yes, but it was long ago--was a pain which would never quite disappear, but it had grown less immediate with time. Her resolve to talk out this more recent crisis, too, suddenly flared into life; the memories of that old, painful mission, after all, couldn't cancel out the dilemmas which had been raised by this one. "We're not done yet."

He closed his eyes for a second, pained. He was certain that she had things to accuse him of--and she had every right to. He turned and walked back to her quietly, awaiting his sentence.

She took a deep breath and began again. "Why did you think I'd want to kill her, Michael?" She looked more than a little tormented. "Did you really want me to?"

He shook his head, his eyes a little upset. "No." She waited for him to continue, and he took another deep breath. "Madeline was right, though. She did take your place--fooled almost everyone."

"She didn't fool you, though," she noted.

He ignored the comment, unable to discuss it. He looked up for a second, his eyes red, before refocusing on her. "There was no reason you shouldn't want revenge."

She shook her head. "When have I ever wanted `revenge,' Michael?" His eyes looked deep into her. "There've been some miserable bastards I wanted to rid the world of, I admit, but I've never taken revenge for my own sake."

He breathed in deeply and thought about it for a second. All of the times he could remember when she had wanted to kill someone, it was true, had always been because of what the person had done to someone else--not to her. He nodded a little, silently conceding her point but then brought his mind back to her double, still needing to know her reasons--needing to know whether she still had her soul. "Why didn't you do it, Nikita?"

She took a deep breath, preparing herself to talk about it. "I didn't want to, Michael." Her eyes unfocused a little, as she thought back through her feelings. "There were a few seconds when I thought about what she'd done--when I was angry enough to do it," she shook her head, her focus returning, "but they passed."

"And what Madeline said?"

She shook her head again, an ironic and slightly disgusted smile on her face, as she looked up to the ceiling. "Madeline didn't want me to exorcise her, Michael; she wanted Abby to exorcise me."

He looked at her curiously, as she refocused on him and continued. "Abby was the perfect operative. She took orders without question; she was efficient; she ran valentine ops. against boys and men; she acted without conscience." She took another deep breath, speaking more softly. "She was everything Madeline wants me to be."

"And if you'd killed her . . .?"

"I'd have become her," Nikita finished, nodding.

Michael closed his eyes, bowing his head, beginning to truly breathe again. He had known all of this when he had heard Madeline's rationalizations for why Nikita should handle the cancellation, but he had worried that Nikita might not--that her emotions might get the better of her. He continued to stand there with his eyes closed for a second. "Thank you, Nikita."

She looked deeply at him, surprised. "For what?"

He refocused on her. "For being yourself."

She smiled at him--a genuine smile, and his heart began to respond, began to beat faster--like a flower blossoming under the warmth of the sun. . . . She was *so* beautiful.

She saw his reaction in his eyes. She wanted to reach out to him--wanted to touch him. She almost did, . . . but she then remembered what she had put him through. Her smile died.

He looked down--pained, his brief joy destroyed, thinking of the same thing--knowing she had remembered as well; he thought she was disgusted with him. "I'm sorry, Nikita."

Her voice showed her shock. "For what?"

He looked back up at her and took a deep breath before responding. "For sleeping with her."

Her eyes were amazed. "Michael, *I'm* the one who forced you to do that."

Her argument wasn't impacting him. "You had no choice."

Her eyes were strong--almost fierce. "Then I should have found one."

He turned and started to leave, not wanting to argue this with her. "It wasn't your decision, Nikita; it was mine."

"Like hell it was!" her angry voice stopped him; he didn't turn around. "Yes, it was the only way I could think of to tell you what was going on, but that *doesn't* make it okay." He continued to stand with his back to her. "Michael, I prostituted you, and the only damn excuse I have is my own safety." Part of her knew it had been about his safety, as well, but she wasn't being that generous to herself, at the moment.

He turned back to her with panther-like quickness at her words, his eyes fierce. He took hold of her wrist--a little tightly. "Now, listen to me." His voice was rough with emotion and command. "You will do *whatever* you have to to me to stay alive. Shoot me--whore me . . . kill me, if you have to. *You* have to live."

She tried to rip her wrist from his grasp--furious at his demands of self-sacrifice, but he held it firm and moved in closer to her. He took hold of both of her wrists and held them by her sides, almost behind her back. "Don't argue with me." He was within an inch of her, his tone commanding.

She tried to free herself again, but he still held firm. Her eyes were fierce as well as a little bloodshot. "I've got news for you, Michael." She shook her head. "I'm not letting you die." He was about to speak again. "You can get as angry with me as you want to, but you're going to be angry and *alive*."

He examined her eyes for a minute. He wanted to win this argument--he *needed* to, for his own sanity, . . . but he was beginning to see--sadly--that that wasn't going to happen.

He stood there for a minute, caught in her gaze. He was so close to her--was so close to this beautiful, fierce woman he loved. If he couldn't convince her of the necessity of his demands, then he needed--at least--to be bathed in the comfort of her soul. He examined her for one more second, therefore, and then closed in on her, capturing her lips with his, caressing them with his tongue, until they opened to admit him.

They both moaned, as their love and need for each other overwhelmed them. Their anger, which had been born of their need to protect one another, began to drain away--was being transformed. He let go of her wrists, and they embraced tightly, holding each other in the kiss.

The kiss was all-encompassing, for both of them; there was an intense comfort in it neither of them could fully express. Their love flowed wildly through them, binding them tightly together as one.

It continued on for several minutes, while their bodies raged to be reunited. All of the fear for one another's safety, all of the pain of their separation was beginning to overwhelm them--was making them both desperate to be whole once more.

Finally, though, they both realized that they needed to pull away from it; they knew that they couldn't act on their need--knew it would be far too dangerous. They broke the kiss reluctantly, then, but still held each other close.

Nikita's eyes asked him to understand her need to keep him safe. "I don't want to live without you, Michael." Her hand stroked over his hair, as her look hardened a little. "I'm going to protect you, whether you want me to or not."

His hand stroked her cheek, as his eyes followed its path. "I'm not living without you, Nikita." He looked back at her. "No matter what."

Their eyes searched one another's deeply, both of them realizing that they were at an impasse. As little as both of them wanted it, then, they knew that they couldn't stop the other from looking after them--even at the risk of their own safety.

They both let go of the argument simultaneously, unable to win--neither willing to give up. He held her head close to him, instead, and they simply held each other cheek-to-cheek for several, soul-regenerating, minutes.

The embrace made them both feel the most alive they had since their week together, . . . but they realized eventually that they needed to go. They couldn't risk being followed or spotted.

They finally pulled back from one another, their eyes still devoted. He put his hand on her cheek and drew her into another soft, brief kiss, before he pulled away a little again and answered her earlier fear. "You have nothing to apologize for, Nikita," he breathed over her lips, before he kissed her briefly once more. He then pulled away--giving her one final look, before he went.

"Thank you, Michael." Her heartfelt words caught him at the door. He stopped for a second, his back still turned to her. He smiled a little to himself at the love he could feel flowing into him from her, before he forced himself to quietly continue on his way.

She smiled to herself as well, knowing he had felt the love in her statement. She sighed and then waited a few minutes before she began to make her way out of the house, too.

For all of the pain that had been caused between them by Abby and Red Cell over the last day or so, at least she was now certain again that Michael still loved her--however little it may be possible for them to be together right now. And she knew that--whatever pretenses they had to keep up for the sake of their masters--so long as the truth of their love was alive in their hearts, they could both survive.

Michael walked away from the small boathouse feeling whole once more. His night with Abby had been torturous, but he now knew that his beloved was whole and alive. . . . And he marveled once more that--despite all of the pain which still lay between them--spending just a few minutes in Nikita's arms was all it took to make him feel human.

He wished, of course, that their masters would allow his love for her to be expressed more regularly, but he understood that that wasn't going to happen . . . probably because it would make them both too strong--too whole. He knew that their masters preferred, instead, well -trained parts which were easily arranged to their own liking.

This fact was no surprise to him, though, and he knew that he could survive--if not, of course, enjoy--the necessities of playing along with the charade which Section had forced them into. He took a deep breath, as he continued to walk away. He did sense, however, that their masters had plans they were ready to implement against himself and Nikita--ones which were going to be used soon.

He hoped, of course, that he could manage to keep Nikita from turning against him, after whatever was to come, but--even if he couldn't--he was determined to simply keep her alive. He knew, after all, that--so long as she was still with him physically--there was hope; Nikita had taught him that lesson repeatedly.

Now, he just had to try to follow his beloved teacher's guidance. He would do what he could to protect her from Section's demonic games, would try to be there for her when she needed him, . . . but--whatever the cost--he *would* keep her alive. . . . Wherever they ended up after that was up to the hands of Fate alone.