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Veiled Intentions

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He had known that this day was coming for some time--had known that it had to. He had known that their masters' patience on this issue wouldn't last forever. . . . But he had always hoped, somehow, that he could avoid it, nonetheless.

Michael was waiting for Nikita in one of the little-known corridors of Section. He had things which *had* to be discussed with her--things which could hopefully save both her life and her sanity.

He had reworked so many missions to avoid what was profiled for Nikita in this one--a valentine op. He swallowed heavily. The words were a bastardization of any true emotion, of anything like true love or desire. And, while he could accept that he might forever be one of Section's whores, he would never accept willingly that the same should ever be true of his beloved.

Their masters, though, had been trying for years to force Nikita in this direction; it had only been with luck and his constant vigilance that she had avoided them so far. She had no idea just how many times he had protected her, in fact; he would never have told her. He had never done it, after all, either to gain her thanks or incur her debt.

He wondered now about their leaders' motives for their current intention. He truly wasn't certain whether the reason for it was that they simply saw human bodies--their operatives' bodies--as so interchangeable and empty that they expected that being whored would cause no lingering problems or loss of self.

He did suspect, indeed, that--for both Madeline and Operations--such concerns had never entered their minds, when these missions were necessary for them. When he himself had entered Section, certainly, Madeline still had a formidable reputation in these type of operations, so it was possible that they were just incapable of understanding anyone who didn't see their own sexuality as a simple bargaining chip--as something to barter whenever necessary or convenient.

It was also possible, though, too, that they did realize what a problem this sort of mission would be for Nikita. It was very possible, in fact, that that was why they--especially, from what he could tell, Madeline--now seemed so desperate to get her into them.

He had suspected for awhile, indeed, that his recent week off with Nikita had been more Operations' idea than it had been his second in command's. She, in fact--from what he could tell, seemed to want to pull himself and Nikita as far apart as was possible. . . . And this present mission--if it were successful, he knew--as well as she did, would definitely be the proper way to do it.

He closed his eyes for half a second, as he waited; he felt as though his heart and soul were bleeding, when he thought of his Nikita being subjected to this. He almost expected to be able to look down and see his skin in tatters from the wounds even contemplating her taking on such a mission gave him.

He focused on the floor. He had made a promise to his beloved recently, during their week of communion and bliss; he had promised to help her, should this sort of mission be called for in the future. . . . Now, for once, he was going to try to keep his word.

Just as he was contemplating this, the woman who made up his heart and soul turned the corner to see his expression of worry and pain. She was right on time, she knew, but he looked like he had been here for quite awhile, anyway.

"What'd you need to see me about, Michael?" she asked softly, as she approached him.

He looked up at her and was struck, for a second, with a series of terrible visions--the same ones which haunted his nightmares--visions of Nikita forced to serve, forced to whore herself to terrorists, to informants, . . . to anyone their masters owed a favor. He swallowed back heavily and forced himself to begin to tell her what she needed to know. "We don't have much time. Read the profile of the next mission." He held out a p.d.a. to her.

The look in his eyes frightened her a little. She took the p.d.a. only half-willingly, very afraid to see what pain it foretold.

He watched her, trying to repress his dark visions--his fears for her future. To force Nikita into valentine ops. seemed a desecration to him. Her body was absolutely sacred, in his mind; he had never been in any cathedral, any mosque, any temple--to any holy shrine on earth--where he felt as close to God as he did when he held her near him. To ask this of her, then, was--to him--an unspeakable defilement.

Nikita read through the profile quickly, as a cold lump of fear settled in the pit of her stomach. She could feel the poison of this running through her--sickening her. She looked up at him finally, slowly--her eyes red and tormented.

He took a deep breath, needing to begin to explain. "Listen to me closely; it's your only way through this." His eyes were both tortured and commanding.

"`Through'?" she interrupted, swallowing heavily. "You expect me to actually do this?" Her voice was quiet; she wasn't angry as much as she was feeling ill and weak with spiritual anguish.

His eyes grew more commanding; they didn't have enough time to talk about this at length. "Listen to me," he insisted again. "You *can* do this half-way and still fulfill the mission."

Her eyes were suspicious and a little bloodshot. "How?"

He took a slightly relieved breath; she was listening now, even if she didn't trust him entirely yet--a fact he could be tortured by later, when he had more time. "Markali's never cheated on his wife before; he loves her. To get him to have an affair--even for one night--you would have to push him; *you* would have to be the one to insist that this happens, to take the lead." Her eyes told him she was taking all of this in. "If you don't push him, he won't do it."

She took a shaky breath. "But Madeline will be watching, right? Wouldn't she know that I hadn't done my job?" She wanted a way out--desperately, but she knew that it had to be a viable one.

He nodded slightly. "That's why you'll be pushing him a little; he'll respond. At a certain point, though, you'll need to let him feel that it's *his* decision, not yours." His eyes tried to reassure her. "He's a perceptive man; he'll know the difference."

She still looked worried. "So, if I just hold something back in myself, he'll pull back? It's that simple?"

He shook his head. "It's not simple, but you can do it." His eyes looked deeply into her, trying to read her.

She took a deep breath. "What if I can't?"

His eyes were a little frightened suddenly; he repressed it quickly, though, refusing to take in the possibility--needing, also, to reassure her. "You can."

She took a deep breath. She knew he was right, to an extent, but she was worried, nonetheless. "Are you sure he won't push it further?" She asked finally.

He closed his eyes for half a second and refocused on her, not answering. She took a deep, open-mouthed breath and tried to pull herself together.

She knew that none of this was certain, but she also understood that Michael was giving her the only way out he could find, the only one there was, in this twisted scenario. She closed her eyes for a second and then refocused on him, a determined--if reluctant--acceptance in her look.

He nodded, seeing that she understood. "There's one more thing. When Madeline asks you about this, you have to be confident in your abilities. Otherwise, . . ." He trailed off, his inference of far greater perils obvious.

She nodded briefly, unhappily--understanding. She looked back down at the p.d.a. in her hands, her mind going back to another part of this profile. "So who's going to be shooting me, Michael?"

He took a deep breath, eyes determined but a little tortured. "I will."

She looked up to meet his gaze again and swallowed a little. She was tormented that their relationship was taking yet another perverse twist; part of her wondered, in fact, whether--when everything was over in their lives together--there would be anything terrible left that he wouldn't have done to her.

Finally, though, she sighed resignedly. She knew, at the same time, that there was no one else whom she would trust more in this perverse situation--either for their aim or for their determination to keep her from being hurt any worse than the profile called for. . . . It wasn't much of a comfort, but it was--at least--*something* hopeful.

They were caught in their tortured stare for another minute. Neither of them liked this, but they knew well that they couldn't escape--that the only way out was through.

He swallowed finally and took the p.d.a. back from her. His fingers stroked over hers for just a second--caressingly. "The briefing's in five minutes." He pulled back from her reluctantly and turned to go.

Her whispering voice caught him just a few steps away, however. "Thank you, Michael."

He turned back to her, allowing the veil on his emotions to drop for only the space of a breath or two--needing, if only briefly, to show her his heart. "I wish I could do more, Nikita."

She closed her eyes tightly for a second and then refocused on him tenderly--drinking him in. . . . She did love him so much.

He saw that she understood him; his eyes shown at her for an instant in love, before the mask came down again. He nodded briefly and walked away.

She took a deep breath, as he left her. She hoped that she could fulfill his belief in her abilities--hoped that she would be able to judge this man correctly--that *Michael* had judged him correctly, to begin with. If he had--if she could, then they would survive. . . . If not, however, then they were about to start on an incredibly treacherous path straight into the very heart of Hell.

***********

There was no excuse for it; Nikita simply hadn't done what she needed to. She had failed. . . . And there was nothing which disgusted her more than someone who couldn't do the job--unless it was someone who simply wasn't willing to.

Madeline sat in her office, in a controlled simmering of anger. The mission had been a simple one; all it had required was one night between Nikita and Markali--in fact, an *entire* night hadn't even been a necessity. . . . There truly was no excuse for failure in a scenario which could be this easily fulfilled.

Section's doyenne knew, of course, that the mission would still be salvaged. They had recorded enough, with what had occurred, to fulfill it easily, in fact. . . . But that was hardly the point.

It actually hadn't, indeed, been the point of Nikita's part in the entire mission, to begin with; there were other female operatives who were well-versed in valentine operations--ones who could have fulfilled the profile just as easily, if not more so. . . . No. Her real aim in forcing Nikita to be the one to seduce Markali had been a simple one, had been one she had been working toward for months--the greater distancing of the younger woman from Michael.

This was, to her mind, in fact, a necessity--if Section hoped to continue functioning efficiently. Michael had already openly rebelled against them once this year in an attempt to keep his ex-material alive; it was a truly unacceptable path for him to be following--one they had to keep him away from in the future at all costs.

As much as she wished to believe, however, that she could break Section's top cold op. of his predilection for the wayward operative he seemed to yearn for, she had seen repeatedly that it was an impossibility. She wanted to believe, too, that they could simply cancel Nikita, if it came to that, and have him continue on, . . . but she suspected, more and more, that that would never be the case.

If they couldn't break him of this inconvenient obsession, then, they would have to break Nikita of hers--a task which seemed infinitely more possible. . . . That, after all, *was* the true point of trying to turn her toward valentine ops.

The reason for this, as well, was--as Madeline was well aware--that Michael, being a valentine op. himself, was highly unlikely to suddenly decide that the object of his chosen fixation was soiled by such work--a conclusion some other men might reach, in similar situations. He, however, was strong-willed and completely unpuritanical enough to be left utterly unmoved by such variables.

No--it was Nikita who was the weak link here, she knew. The young woman had almost turned on her former mentor so many times in the past; all they needed now was an insurmountable betrayal or failure on Michael's part to force the young op. to give up her inconvenient desire for him.

Madeline was certain, then, that a valentine op. was precisely what was needed here. Whether the younger woman were conscious of her thoughts or not, Section's doyenne was quite aware that Nikita expected Michael's help in protecting her from missions such as this--probably partly because he had taught her to repeatedly. . . . That, however, would soon have to change.

This, then, was Madeline's goal. While having his chosen obsession turn on him wouldn't force him to give up his feelings, it would force him to distance himself, . . . and that was all which was truly required to ensure Section's interests here.

Unfortunately, however, her latest attempt at this had failed. Nikita--while claiming that her assignment could be easily handled, a claim which had raised Madeline's suspicions slightly to begin with--had shown an amazingly delicate sense in judging just how far to push Markali to get Section the tape they needed but still keep herself clean of any true entanglement. . . . It had been quite well done--too well done.

It had, in fact, been so well done that Madeline knew that Nikita couldn't have carried it out entirely on her own. Yes, the actual performance had been hers--obviously, but the idea couldn't have been; it simply required too specific a set of knowledge . . . a set of knowledge only valentine ops. were trained in so completely.

She was certain, therefore, that Michael had had a hand in this--had been behind the destruction of Madeline's plan. Although Nikita, of course, had claimed innocence--had claimed that Markali simply wasn't willing, Section's top profiler was well aware that this was a lie. She had run far too many successful valentine ops. herself to be fooled by any such childish claims.

Because of this past, as well, Madeline wasn't entirely capable of understanding what it was that prevented Nikita from carrying out such assignments--although she did understand that the woman seemed to have some sort of inner objection to them. Still, their recalcitrant operative was certainly no virgin--was *far* from sexually innocent; there were no medical reasons why she couldn't carry out such missions, either. . . . She truly was perplexed, then, at what it could be which caused Nikita to fight them so.

She supposed, however, that it must simply boil down to some overly-romanticized view of life that the younger woman was harboring--a view which told her, wrongly, in Madeline's jaded eyes, that sex should somehow be linked to an emotional attachment--should at least be connected to desire. She shook her head slightly. The ideas seemed nonsensical to her, of course, but she supposed that Nikita truly was that naive.

This was, then, a life view which Madeline had never been able to comprehend--was one which had always seemed to her to be rather puritanical and childish. To her mind, no sane adult would submit themselves to such pap--to such limited, stultifying beliefs.

Nikita, however, she supposed, had always been rather childish. That was the danger, after all, of taking in innocents--of recruiting those without even the basic instinct for death. You had to expect--she had learned, to her occasional, rather aloof, disbelief--some perverse notions of short-term morality overshadowing long-term efficiency from them.

She took a deep breath. Considering all of this, though, Nikita had--overall--still progressed very nicely. Although she had yet to learn to kill in cold blood--a lesson Madeline had tried again to force her into after her latest run-in with Red Cell--she was quite competent now in many other areas. She no longer expected, for instance, that her emotional pain should be taken so seriously; she no longer questioned at such length, either, all of the missions they went on.

Still, however, the young woman had failed miserably on this last one. Not only had she questioned whether they should be on it at all--whether there was a reason for it besides Operations' jealousy of his former wife, she had also failed again to allow herself to expand into valentine ops. in the way she needed to--both for her own future viability to Section and to complete Madeline's plans.

She took a deep breath, her mind revolving for a minute around her subordinate's treasonous observation about Section's chief. It wasn't that she was convinced that Nikita was wrong, of course; it was more that she wasn't entirely certain that it mattered.

She knew, in truth, that much of this mission had been motivated by Paul's feelings of abandonment by his former wife. . . . And, while she understood these emotions--to an extent, she knew as well that they were a distinct weakness in Section's leader.

The fact, though, that they may well be enacting a mission against an innocent man and his even more innocent wife gave her no moral qualms. If this were a personal vendetta on Operations' part, it was one which would pass. So long as it didn't become a habit, she would do nothing serious to stop him. . . . He had only had two wives, indeed--one of whom was dead, the other of whom would either be dead or insane soon--so it seemed unlikely that there would be a repeat of this lapse on his part in the future.

Madeline had not always felt this forgiving of Paul, of course. It was true that she had questioned his judgment some in the past--that she had held grudges, from time to time. His actions with her husband, which had come to a head so soon before the Adrian mission, were a case in point.

She had learned, though, to let go of these small differences--at least temporarily. She was a canny woman, after all; she had no desire to be away from the center of power, and she had even less to become George's target. It was only with Operations, then, that her true future lay, . . . although she knew, in some part of herself, that--if he should ever stumble too irreparably--she was unlikely to stay by him forever.

But for now, none of this applied. Even if Markali were innocent, it was entirely irrelevant. So long as Section came out of this without any serious dents, she would make no waves.

She sighed slightly, her mind returning to her current problem. Nikita had slipped through her plans this time, but that was only because she herself had been foolish enough to not involve Michael more closely in the plot against his ex-material. . . . It was not a mistake she would repeat.

Nikita, then, was free of her for now, but--she supposed--this was something which could be remedied in the future. . . . It was something, indeed, which she would *demand* that the younger woman face sometime soon, if only to sever--or, at least, seriously fray--the dangerous bond between her and Michael.

Madeline did realize--to her regret, however, that it was becoming apparent that Nikita truly couldn't face such missions without some sort of outside help. She didn't fully understand this, of course--except in terms of some childish world view her subordinate seemed to be harboring, but she understood it to be true, nonetheless.

If that were the case, then Section's doyenne was certain that they could find some way past this small, rather annoying barrier. . . . It was something, in fact, which she would be working on in the future.

Whatever happened after this, she knew, would prove to be not only a reprieve for Section from the dangerous attachment between their two wayward operatives, but a lesson to Michael, as well, that he couldn't keep his material to himself forever. . . . It was a lesson, indeed, for which he was long overdue.

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

As missions went, this one had been especially difficult. Certainly, he had, long ago, grown reluctantly used to having to use--and even destroy--innocents in order to achieve closure, in certain scenarios. . . . But he couldn't escape the feeling now that this latest mission had been more about the destruction of the innocent than it had been about severing the link between Badenheim and their, supposed, political puppet.

Michael took a slow, deep breath, trying to calm his system. He couldn't quite help feeling . . . unclean, somehow, because of all this; he couldn't shake the feeling that they had just brought down an innocent man for no reason other than their leader's sexual jealousy.

He was waiting now on the walkway over Section's exit--was waiting for Nikita to pass. He wanted to catch her, to talk to her--if only briefly. He wanted to try to console her with Birkoff's findings, . . . even though he felt certain that those findings had simply been planted by Operations himself.

It didn't really matter, however. Even if it were a lie, it was still some sort of hopeful comfort for his beloved. . . . And, if it was all he had, he would use it.

He sighed slightly. He knew that she felt soiled from this mission, as well--knew that she felt responsible, just as he did.

It had been awhile, actually, since he had felt this unsure about a mission's outcome--since he had felt this much guilt about his involvement in one--although he wasn't entirely certain what it was about this one which made him feel this way so strongly. Perhaps, though, it was his conviction that the whole thing had been meaningless, that it hadn't helped any of Section's goals in the least. Perhaps, too, the feeling was motivated by the rather cruel scenario that had been put into play to bring Markali down, when so many others could have been equally effective.

He sighed quietly, still waiting for her. Perhaps, however, in truth, it was just the fact that Nikita had opened up his heart so much, of late--that she had, once again, allowed him to view the world as a human being--and not simply as a programmed, mechanical operative.

Because of this, indeed, he had felt intensely for his target--for the poor drugged, bewildered, and manipulated woman whom he had taken such an active part in driving insane--with whom he had been the main motivating factor in forcing her into murder. It was himself, after all, who had put the gun in her hands--who had told her that, if she didn't shoot first, *she* would be the one to die.

He was--without a doubt--just as guilty of Markali's murder as she was . . . more so, in fact. He was quite certain that her desperate, frightened eyes would haunt him in his nightmares--would come to accuse him of this new sin repeatedly in his tortured dreams.

He sighed once more. Corrinne Markali had been a very beautiful woman--and, no doubt, a very intelligent one, as well--before they had so cruelly programmed her. He could understand what his leader had seen in her--what had led him to marry her, had convinced him to lead a double life between her and his other wife--the one who had borne him his son.

He wasn't, certainly--with his own marital record, capable of judging Operations for his former bigamy. He did realize, though, that his own second marriage to Elena had at least been ordered--had been demanded of him; he had had little choice, without flagrantly disregarding this new, important assignment.

He knew perfectly well that the same hadn't been true of his leader, however. . . . No. Operations was a very greedy man, part of his mind realized. What he wanted, he took; that it might be immoral or unethical was meaningless to him.

He had, therefore--Michael knew, seen two beautiful and intelligent women he had wanted, and he had taken them both. . . . And, his subordinate was absolutely certain, he had never once bothered his conscience--if he even had one--with questions about the morality of this act.

This, however, he could see some forgiveness for--if his leader, at least, had treated them both well--if he had loved them. The last few days, however, had been ample proof to the contrary. Section's leader had never loved either of his wives, Michael was certain now; they had been possessions to him--toys which were his alone to play with. . . . And, when they had shown a mind of their own, he had destroyed them.

He knew well that this was, truly, what this latest mission had been about. Operations simply couldn't accept that the woman whom he had bigamously married and then abandoned for years, willingly or not--the one who had been told that he was officially dead, and who, no doubt, had mourned him--had finally recovered from her grief enough to move on with her life. . . . No. Instead, he had expected her to cease all existence with him gone--to commit suttee--to throw herself on her husband's pyre, rather than learn to go on without him.

Michael, of course, did realize, however, that--in some ways--he wasn't much different than his leader. He too was fiercely possessive of the woman he loved; he had, in fact, brutally beaten--and been beaten by, mostly in defense--one of the objects of her affection in a fight which had been brought on by his own, raging jealousy; he had even tried to kill that man on a mission, simply because he couldn't allow himself to let her go.

He still did know, though, that--while these were not, to use a grand understatement, noble acts on his part--he wasn't like his master on many other levels. He did, after all, truly love the object of his affection. Had he been in Operations' position, then, he would have mourned the loss of his beloved to another with the sort of grief which would have bordered on self-destruction--might even have become a sort of phantom in her life, shadowing and watching her every move, simply to be close--but he would never, *never*--under *any* circumstances--have willfully destroyed her happiness in the way that his leader had Corrinne's.

He sighed. It wasn't, then--given his similarities to his leader, like Michael was really capable of the sort of moral judgments necessary to truly condemn Operations for these actions. He felt himself too damned, as well, to even begin to have the right to assess the guilt of others; his thoughts, instead, were more his simple conclusions about the last several days--his assessment of their leader's actions.

He knew, too, though, that even these impressions were influenced by Nikita's work with him--by her resurrection of his soul. Had she not been helping him, indeed--consciously or not, he might still have seen all of these things, but he would simply have dismissed them--would have been unlikely to have felt as . . . dirty as he now did.

It was an odd feeling for him, actually--guilt. It had been a very long time since he had allowed himself to admit to such an emotion after a mission--unless it had involved some action he had taken against Nikita.

His mind turned back to his beloved again, as he leaned up against the wall, still waiting for her exit. He had successfully coached her into avoiding the seduction she had been slated to pursue in this mission, fortunately. And, for this, truly, he was grateful. . . . But he also feared that it wouldn't be long before such roundabout tactics would no longer work for them.

Madeline, indeed, had not been pleased at Nikita's escape from her latest plan; he was certain that the time would come, in the near future, when he would be presented openly with an ultimatum: Nikita's soul or her life. . . . And, when it came, he was tormentedly certain which path he would take.

What he did hope, however--at least, was that Madeline had learned that Nikita wasn't capable of simply carrying out a valentine op. without help of some kind. She just wasn't cold enough, wasn't detached enough from her own emotions--from her own body, after all, to be able to submit to this sort of work willingly. . . . It just wouldn't happen.

He did hope, then--at a minimum, that Section's executive strategist would take this fact into consideration. He didn't know where such contingencies would lead, of course, how well they might help them, . . . but maybe--if he failed her, they could at least save her sanity.

Nikita was *finally* leaving Section for the day. It had been an excruciating one, one which she was painfully certain would be on her conscience for some time to come.

She had been helping to destroy an innocent woman for the past week or so, indeed--had taken part in a plot to ruin her faith in her husband, her life, and herself. . . . Possibly even worse, too, she wasn't even entirely certain that the man the entire mission had been about had been guilty of anything at all--except of being in love with Operations' ex-wife.

She shook her head slightly, as she walked slowly down the hall. She had been surprised to discover Corrinne Markali's link to Operations, to say the least. When she had helped him to save his son Stephen's life a few years ago, after all, she had been told that the boy's mother was dead--and Stephen had certainly seemed convinced that his parents had been married.

It had only been in talking to Birkoff during the course of this mission, that she had found out the truth about their leader--that he had been a bigamist, had--without any orders or missions--been married to two women at the same time. . . . It was a truth which made sense with what she knew of him, of course, but it was one which disgusted her, nonetheless.

She sighed deeply. She had tried to talk herself out of her overwhelming guilt about this latest mission for the past few hours by believing in Markali's guilt, . . . but--even with the evidence she had been led to find against the man--she still wasn't entirely convinced.

Even if she had been, as well, she knew it wouldn't have helped her conscience in the least. She had still willingly taken part in destroying an innocent woman--in leading her to kill the husband who had--as far she could tell--truly loved her. . . . She knew, without a doubt, that this was a stain she would be unable to ever cleanse her conscience of--no matter what pretty lies she told it.

She tried to change the direction of her thoughts, as she walked away from Section's inner workings finally--not really wanting to focus on this any more, at the moment. She was thankful, indeed, that she had been able to escape the trap which Madeline had set for her here--that she had been able, with Michael's guidance, to once more keep hold of her sanity and her soul.

She was grateful to him for this--very deeply. She loved dearly that he was keeping the promise he had made to her during their one week together--that he was trying to prevent her from having to follow the path he himself had been forced to take so long ago.

She loved him for this--loved that he would try so hard to keep her from having to prostitute herself. She knew, too, that while he did this partly for himself, because he didn't want to share her--he also did it for her alone, did it simply because he didn't want her to have to endure the pain he knew that sort of mission would inevitably give her.

She prayed, as well, that this new trust between them was a pattern they would be able to keep up in the future, but she feared --rather painfully, that it might not be. She was most afraid, indeed, that--given Madeline's anger at her for not falling into her latest web--he would be faced with the dilemma he had always had to cope with since he had know her, the one he had failed her on so frequently: her soul or her life. . . . And, while she prayed that he would make the right decision when it came, she feared just as strongly that that wouldn't be the case.

Michael's silent vigil was finally rewarded when he saw her come into view on her way home. He couldn't help feeling that they were being driven further apart lately--that this latest mission had already put some distance between them, even though they had tried to work together to protect her.

He wasn't entirely sure why this was, however, but he suspected that it had something to do with their mutual pain over the actions they had taken lately--pain which they were entirely incapable of either helping each other heal or erasing. . . . They simply couldn't risk defying Section to be together, after all.

He sighed quietly, his mind still on this dilemma. As much as he wished this situation weren't true, that couldn't make the feeling disappear. "Did you hear?" he stopped her, as she began to leave.

Somehow, she wasn't particularly surprised to find him there. "About Markali?" she looked up at him, almost reluctantly, her eyes sad.

He assessed her, as he tried to give her the only hope he could find--false as he was certain it was. "He was dirty after all."

She nodded slightly--acknowledging Section's findings, if not the truth of them. "Yeah." She paused. "Doesn't make me feel any better."

She looked at him for another few seconds before turning to go. As much as part of her wanted to discuss this further, she knew there was nothing they could truly say. . . . Besides, nothing they could do now could change the pain they had already wrought.

She sighed heavily, as she moved toward what now seemed like the very long journey back to her home, feeling incredibly alone. The facts they had seen to were irreparable: Markali was still dead; Corrinne was still insane. . . . What use could any words be in the face of that?

He watched her walk away sadly. He understood her feelings; as much as he wished that he could give her some hope, then, he knew that there was none to give here. Even if Birkoff's findings had been true, it wouldn't have made him feel any better, either; even with the personal pain they had, thankfully, managed to avoid lately, they had still been part of the defilement of a woman's soul, . . . and there were no words he could ever give her which could make that any different.

***********

His mind kept repeating one single, irrefutable fact: it was her own damn fault. Had she just waited, had she just been faithful, she never would have been in this position to begin with.

Operations sat in his car outside of the private sanatorium where his former wife would now spend the rest of her days. He had been parked here for about 15 minutes, waiting to see her brought in.

He told himself that he regretted having to take the actions which had led her here, but--at the same time--part of him realized that this wasn't true. . . . Part of him, he knew, wanted revenge.

He had married Corrinne when she was very young--had been captivated by her from the moment he had met her. He had felt a need to possess her so strong that he had allowed nothing to stand in the way of obtaining her--not even the fact that he was already married.

His emotions for her, then, had always been intense. He had kept himself alive in that hell hole in Vietnam by thinking about her daily; she had been the *only* reason, many days, that he hadn't simply allowed himself to die. All he could do was imagine how pleased she would be, when he returned to her--when she discovered, to her joy, that he was still alive.

He clenched his jaw slightly. What he had found out, once he had finally been liberated, however, had been very different. . . . She hadn't bothered to wait at all; she had been married to Markali, instead, for almost a year.

It had been then, indeed, when he had agreed to go along with the premature announcement of his death and join Section. She had been the one thing he had lived through it all for; without her, there had been no reason to go on with his outside life.

He had still had another family, however--or, at least, he had still had the son from that marriage. . . . But he had never been there for much of his son's life, anyway; he hadn't really seen why that should change now.

He was still angry at Corrinne, certainly, but he had never once thought about things from her perspective; it had never even occurred to him to try. She had, though, been worried sick for him--had prayed night and day, when his letters had stopped arriving. When she had discovered that he was missing, she had been seriously ill with grief and despair for several weeks, but had spent them all --nonetheless--trying to press every person she could find to look for him, to try to discover what had happened to the man she loved.

When the letter had come to her, announcing that he was dead--a letter she had received while he was still imprisoned, she had broken down completely for awhile. . . . It had only been, in fact, with the very patient and caring help of Nikolai Markali--who had been introduced to her by a mutual friend--that she had even begun to recover. Her recently-made, genuine friend had suggested, too, that she see a counselor, that she needed professional help to work through her grief. She had gone, then, reluctantly--half-destroyed that she wasn't dead yet to join her Paul--but after awhile, with help from both her doctor and her friend Nikolai, she had begun to recover her equilibrium--had begun to find the strength to go on.

She had known for some time, as well--had sensed that Nikolai was in love with her, but he had waited until she was more stable to make anything like a romantic advance toward her. . . . Once he had, furthermore, she hadn't responded to any of them quickly; it had taken almost a year after this point, in fact, until she had finally agreed to marry him--had agreed to try to move on beyond her beloved Paul.

None of her torment, however, mattered even vaguely to Operations; he simply didn't care that she had honored his memory--that she had missed him almost to the point of irreversible despair. All that mattered to him was that she *had* finally moved on beyond him--when he had given her permission to do no such thing.

It didn't matter to him, either, that he had been unfaithful to her during the entire course of their life together--during the whole of their marriage. He was completely unfazed by his duplicitous love life; when he chose a woman, after all, she was his. . . . Any decision she might make otherwise was, to his mind, a betrayal of him--and that was entirely unacceptable.

His other wife had understood this, too. She had mourned away the rest of her life over him--had worried and grieved her way into an early grave.

This, to him, then, was the proper way to handle things. Had he simply left her for another woman, in fact, he would have expected this identical behavior from her, nonetheless.

Operations, rather obviously--from all of this, had never been much for "women's rights"; he wasn't--in truth--much interested in *anyone's* rights besides his own. . . . It had only been in working with Madeline, in fact, that he had come to accept that a woman could even be capable of anything like logical thought.

Most of these ideas, however, were truths he only half acknowledged about himself; he hadn't even truly faced the fact yet--consciously--that this latest mission had simply been his long-delayed excuse to get back at his former wife for her "betrayal." . . . And, as much as he told himself that he was sorry, part of him was well aware that he was anything but; he was convinced, in fact, that it had had to happen someday--that it had been the only logical result of her faithlessness.

He had known that Markali wasn't in league with Badenheim, of course; he had never truly suspected that he was. His true reason for targeting him, indeed--beyond the fact that it had given him a chance for revenge--had been that this particular politician wasn't amenable to Operations' political games; he wasn't willing to play, . . . wasn't willing to take the part of one of his pawns.

Now, however, with this obstacle out of his way, the sure winner of the suddenly all-but-uncontested election was a man who would happily work with him. . . . And this was an outcome which Operations needed desperately in this particular part of the world.

He smiled slightly. He had no qualms, either, about having forced a false confession from Section's prisoner to have an excuse to begin this charade--or about having planted the encrypted file which would connect Markali, posthumously, to Badenheim; these were simply necessities of the game. . . . And Operations was a man who was well-conversed in--had created many of--its rules.

He truly did feel a huge sense of success about this latest mission, in fact; he now had a political ally, had been cleared of any possible wrongdoing by Oversight, and had finally gotten back at his former wife for her abandonment of him. . . . It had all worked out very well, indeed.

What he needed to keep an eye out for, however, was Madeline. She had actually questioned his judgment about this last mission--had suggested that he was working against Section's best interests. . . . It was a betrayal he knew better than to ignore.

And, indeed, any questioning of his authority--in any context, no matter how small, was viewed by Operations as a betrayal. To his mind, his best interests *were* Section's best interests; they were completely inseparable to him. . . . It was, possibly, something Madeline needed a reminder of.

He was still a bit angry, as well, truth be told, at her romantic rejection of him, around the time that she had discovered the actions he had taken to rid himself of Sand--his romantic rival. He was still a bit surprised, in fact, that she had taken that situation into her own hands--that she had been the one to pull the trigger on her husband; he had already arranged, after all--as a rather perverse present, to have Nikita handle that for her.

Madeline was, he knew, a very cold-blooded woman, but--in a way--it was her cold-bloodedness which appealed to him. She could look at a problem--in his mind--like a man could, could see it without the distractions of emotion or claims of morality. . . . It was a very helpful perspective to have as a back-up.

What she didn't always seem to understand, however, was that she was his. She was *his* choice, and--as surely as he had helped her make her career in Section, he could destroy it. . . . He found it a bit perverse of her to forget this fact.

He saw some movement and held the binoculars up to get a look inside the sanatorium's gates. . . . There, finally, was Corrinne.

His heart started beating a bit faster; she still looked incredibly lovely. Just as the video of her from Madeline's sessions had suggested, she had lost *none* of her overwhelming beauty. . . . Even in her distracted state, she still was as absolutely captivating as the girl who had entranced his imagination all those years ago.

He sighed slightly, taking her in. It was a pity that she had to end up like this. . . . If only she had waited for him.

As she was being wheeled into her new home, as well, his heart almost stopped, as she seemed to spot him. Her eyes almost seemed to recognize him--to take him in for a moment, . . . but then the moment passed, and her distraction returned, as she went back to looking at her new surroundings absently.

He lowered the binoculars and stared after her. All those years ago, she had captured a part of him. Even now, he wondered whether he had ever truly regained it.

He took a deep breath and pulled himself back to the present. Still, it couldn't be helped. She was where she had been destined to be from the moment she had betrayed--had turned against--him all those years ago.

He wrote her off in his mind, then--as much as he was able to, and finally drove away. There was no reason to upset himself worrying about dead memories. The past was the past. . . . And he had never let himself dwell on such things, anyway.