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Perversities of Fate

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She had known for many years, of course, that love was never certain--that the dangers in opening yourself to another person would always be great. . . . She had never doubted this. But, for the past few days, her life seemed to be going out of its way to impress this truth--even more deeply--upon her again.

Nikita was home once more, now--was sacked out on her couch, a place she was finding herself frequently, lately. It seemed, at the moment, though, like the only real place she had to think.

She sighed. The whole situation with Mark and Angela had been so painful to watch. She had, she knew, been so jealous of them so often--had watched with amazement as they had gone about loving each other in Section, as though it were easy to do--as though it took no special skill. . . . They had--indeed, for so long--made it seem so simple.

She closed her eyes. In the end, though, it hadn't been. She had been there, in fact--had seen what that bastard Crachek had done to her, the bloody mess he had made of a beautiful woman. Mark had been right, too; Crachek had killed her out of simple perversion--had done it just so he could savor the look of agony on her lover's face.

She leaned her head back and let out a frustrated, disgusted noise. She had felt so sorry for Mark then. She had understood *far* too well what had driven him to give up S6 to Black March; it was precisely the same thing, indeed, which had once forced her to give up the location of Section's remote C & C to Red Cell. She, like him, simply couldn't bear to see the person she loved hurt that badly.

She opened her eyes, her focus on the ceiling, as she swallowed back heavily. She knew the precise reason she had helped out Mark, then. It had been because she, too, had once broken under the torture of watching her beloved harmed--because she, again--like him, would have done *anything* to make the pain stop for the one she cared so deeply about.

There had only been one difference between the two of them, indeed--one thing which had separated them. Her case had been a set up all along, . . . and, as much as she hated this fact, she knew she had been lucky. It had been because of this that she hadn't been forced to watch her beloved die in front of her; perversely, too, the fact that she had been set up to break had allowed her to survive the mission without having to pay the price with their masters for her betrayal. . . . Instead of--like poor Mark--being canceled, she had been subtly praised as Section's savior.

She shook her head. She hated all this; it was all sick--then and now. Mark wasn't a security risk, under any normal circumstances; she couldn't imagine that he would have given up S6 in any situation which hadn't involved Angela's safety. Now that that poor woman was--sadly--dead, as well, they would have had nothing to fear from him.

But no--they hadn't seen this; that wasn't the way Section worked. It expected, instead, blind and robotic obedience at all times--regardless of the reasons. . . . Any sign of humanity was a betrayal.

It was for all of these reasons, then, that Nikita had not only gone far out of her way to help Mark, but had also *never* expected him to take the path he had--the path of betrayal. She had *never* suspected, when she had finally seen no way out of allowing him to tell Operations of the compromising of the substation, that it would be--a few minutes later--her own neck in the noose.

She sighed heavily and closed her eyes again. She supposed now that maybe she should have predicted this outcome--but she had simply identified with the grief-stricken operative she had been protecting too strongly. And, since she knew that she would never *dream* of turning in another person for something she herself had done, it had never even occurred to her that allowing Mark to go up those stairs had put *her* in any danger.

She resumed her disgusted and saddened study of the ceiling. Even then, however--even when she had been taken into custody as an abeyance op., she still hadn't suspected what was truly in store for her. She had thought, originally--too innocently, she supposed--that all she had to do was tell the truth and she would be believed. . . . She had never even imagined the turns which the scarring events would finally take.

It had--indeed, she realized, looking back--only been after her interrogation that the true depths of her peril had become obvious to her. She had assumed, before then, that Madeline's powers of perception would be able to sort quickly through the problems before her. . . . It had never even occurred to her that she would still be in abeyance after this ordeal.

She sighed. She supposed, though, looking back, that the true beginning of her fear--of her growing suspicion that her good deeds might finally mean her death--was actually when Michael had come to see her. She shuddered a little, remembering. It had only been, in fact, when he had so obviously not believed that she was innocent--despite the words to the contrary he had belatedly given her--that her real fear and anger had been born.

She shook her head a little against the sofa, finally allowing herself to think through her recent emotions; she had simply been too numb to fully let herself comprehend them before. She admitted now, though--to herself, that she had been angry--had been furious --about having been put into this situation. It had pained her deeply, indeed--on many levels.

Her anger, however, didn't have one single focus, but many. The first of them, of course, was Mark; what had begun as simple disappointment with him for his betrayal after her show of friendship, had grown eventually into a sense of disgust and fury. But she had been angry, as well, at Section--for the meaningless cruelty of their abeyance policies--and at Crachek, too--for having started this whole debacle in motion in the first place with the joyful savoring he took in the pain he caused others.

She sighed again, her eyes growing a little bloodshot. Perhaps, though, her greatest feelings--in some ways, as so often before--had really been left for Michael. That *he* hadn't believed her had hurt, far more than anyone else's distrust had. . . . That he could actually think that she would ask him to force Crachek to lie--to falsely implicate Mark, just to save herself, had--she swallowed heavily--had *wounded* her in a way she still felt altogether too strongly. She had thought, for awhile, too--before all this, that she and Michael had been beginning to finally communicate more clearly with each other--that he had truly been allowing himself to see what was going on inside of her. She swallowed heavily. But maybe--she realized now--she had been wrong.

She sighed heavily once more, still thinking this over. It hadn't been too long ago that Michael had helped her to save her mother's life--had even masterminded a scenario which had allowed her mother to gain the forgiveness she had needed from her, while still keeping her safe from the truth. . . . That, indeed--too, had been the effort of a dear and trusted friend.

She shook her head a little, still amazed by all his actions of late, her thoughts growing darker. But what dear and trusted friend could know her so little that he would think her capable of framing someone else for her own failing? . . . After all his years together with her, how could he possibly believe this of her now? She let out a disgusted breath, shaking her head slightly. It didn't make any sense.

She was absolutely certain, however, that he hadn't believed her, when he had left her that first time. Everything about him--his air, his tone of voice, the way he hadn't quite wanted to make eye contact with her, his question about what she had wanted him to force Crachek to say--had spoken to his disbelief, had almost--in fact--spoken to his pain in seeing her, supposedly, lie to him.

His lack of faith in her hadn't faded quickly, either--she remembered now with pain. He had only seemed slightly more convinced of her innocence, indeed, when he had come back from interrogating Crachek, as well.

She swallowed heavily, still thinking through this. It was, really, only with the change in Crachek's story that she had truly--finally--seen belief in his eyes. . . . She had hated, though, that her life had, in the end, been placed in the hands of that monster--that the man who had, once, claimed to love her had finally, in a way, trusted a perverted murderer's word over hers.

She blinked back her tears determinedly. What made this worse, as well, was that she knew that Michael hadn't even fully thought that her supposed death would bring the truth from Crachek. He had only really suspected, she was sure, that the man would change his story--and, thereby, help Nikita's case--out of sheer perversity, once he had thought her gone.

She shook her head again and sighed once more, her mind trying to sort through his motives. As much as Michael's distrust had hurt her, she had known that he had taken the actions he had out of love; as twisted as she felt about the entire incident, then, she knew that he *had* simply been trying to keep her alive.

She knew, as well, that this wasn't something he would do for most people--knew that, with them, he would simply have allowed their fates to come to them, whatever they had been. With her, however, he had been prepared to do whatever it had taken to protect her--even though he hadn't believed her words. . . . And, as much as she despised some of the places this desire to look after her had taken him in the past--as tormented as his lack of faith still made her, she did love that he had wanted to keep her safe so desperately, regardless of any circumstances--regardless of belief.

She smiled a little, feeling her love for him warm her heart once more. She had seen the truth in his eyes, finally, too--once she had emerged from the room she had supposedly been killed in. His gaze had been full of a dozen emotions--love, relief, fear, desire, contrition, and so many other had stared out at her, had begged her to believe that he cared--had asked her to forgive his doubt.

As torn as she had still been about his earlier disbelief, as well--then, part of her had even wanted to gift him with a small kiss for what he had done for her, for his unconquerable desire to keep her safe. She had been able to see, after all, the tender, loving man he kept prisoner inside himself looking out at her desperately from his eyes; had the body keeping him captive not already turned its flesh into immovable stone, in fact, that man--she knew--would have reached out to and pulled her close, would have held her tightly to him to share his love with her--to take in just a few moments of relief at her escape from harm.

It was for this, then, that she had thanked him; it was for this that she still loved him. While the man who could torture or cancel others in an effort to keep her safe frightened--even disgusted--her a little, this tender side of him hadn't been working from anything like the same motivations. This man, she knew, loved her. . . . This man had never doubted her at all.

She drew her knees up on the couch--holding them to her chest, hugging them slightly. Part of Michael had understood her, therefore--had known that she would never willingly hurt someone for her own ends. She smiled, as she propped her chin on her knees. It was rather perverse of her, she supposed, to be happy about so little, of course, but--for their relationship, especially as it had been for several months--she knew that even a little was more than she had believed for some time that she could hope for . . . even a little was enough to be *very* thankful for.

She rested her cheek on her knees, her heart content with Michael once again--despite all the pain. Her mind switched paths, therefore. This, after all, wasn't the only part of this mission which still haunted her.

She hadn't been unaffected by it all, indeed, even after she had been taken out of abeyance. While her anger at Mark had cooled after she was safe once more--after she had understood that she wouldn't be forced to pay for something of which she was entirely innocent, she had still felt a bit of disbelief at what he had done. He was, indeed, as Walter would have put it, one of the "5% club." . . . What, then, had led him to act like this?

It was this need to understand, in fact, which had impelled her to visit him, soon before his death. She closed her eyes and hid her face in her knees. As soon as he had seen her, too, the first words he had spoken had been an explanation--an apology; he had--in the end--needed her to know that he wasn't completely despicable. . . . He had, in the end, needed her forgiveness.

Seeing this had, therefore, led her to ask him only one question--had given her a need to understand only one thing. And, knowing that--having been assured that he had, indeed, loved Angela, that she hadn't been mistaken in her previous identification with him--she had then given him the forgiveness he had needed before the end. She swallowed heavily and moved her head so that she could wipe the errant tear off her cheek, before burying her face once more. Mark's fate had, in truth, frightened her. It wasn't just, though, the conditions which had caused him to break under torture; it was the fact, as well, that his situation with Angela--their sad ends--had reminded her, too forcefully, of all her own fears.

She wasn't a fool, though. She had always known, of course, that her path with Michael would be a difficult one; it was one, in fact, which she wasn't entirely sure--frequently--that she even wanted to be on. But to see two people who had truly loved each other destroyed by their lives in Section--however much they might have been prepared for it--had hurt her deeply, vicariously, nonetheless.

She swallowed heavily and peered up just over her knees. What hurt her even more, however, was that Mark and Angela had been able to have something which she couldn't: they had had a real life together, in spite of Section--in spite of how it had all eventually ended. She took a shaky breath. That, indeed, was something which she and Michael, to her despair, simply weren't able to claim.

She lowered her head once more, fighting tears. She understood, of course, all of the reasons why they couldn't share it. The knowledge of them was painfully burned into her heart; she could sometimes hear Michael repeating them to her in her nightmares. . . . But that would never mean that the torment of it ever lessened.

She had seen, too, these last few days--with Mark and Angela, how one small quirk of fate could end things permanently--in the most painful of ways. She knew that during any mission either she or Michael could make a mistake--even a tiny miscalculation�which could end by taking either one or both of their lives. . . . But the fact that they might die never having been able to really live as they needed, always having to--for most of their time together--pretend that they didn't feel the way that everyone around them clearly understood that they did, seemed the most brutal sort of reality she could ever face.

She rested her cheek on her knee again--her eyes teary. She wondered now about such a painful ending for them, once more. She had never worried particularly about what would happen if she died, though; that was the easy outcome for her. But she wondered what would become of her in Section without Michael. . . . Why, indeed, would she even go on?

She swallowed heavily and took a shaky breath. She knew that her fear of this possibility wasn't based, as well, on her ability to survive, mission-wise; in some ways, she didn't even care about that--knew she could handle it as much as she needed to. But what would be the purpose of her continuing on in Section without him? . . . Why would she even want to try?

She shuddered slightly, as this new bit of self-knowledge crept slowly into her, making her blood run cold through her veins. She had always tried to tell herself, consciously, that she didn't need Michael to keep up her sense of self, and--in many ways--she knew that this was still true. Her personality didn't depend on him, indeed; she still knew who she was, whether he was there or not.

It was something else, however; she was starting to realize--and the knowledge frightened her terribly--that, without him, life would just be . . . less. The beauty of a child's laugh would seem so much less important; the touch of a friend's hand would seem so much less real. . . . Even the miracle of taking a breath of air deep into her lungs on a crisp Fall day would be so much less meaningful. She swallowed heavily. Nothing could ever really be the same without him here. She closed her eyes to shut back the tears. She knew she could survive without him, of course; there had been many times, in fact, when she had positively *wanted* to, but there was still something between them--something which wasn't entirely tangible, which certainly wasn't easily definable--which gave them both a sense of comfort just in knowing that the other was safe. She gave a shaky sigh. And she honestly didn't know, now that she was forcing herself to think about it, what she would do without that feeling of spiritual sanity.

She refocused, then--a little dimly, on the room, trying desperately to switch the track of her thoughts--not willing, too afraid, to think about this possibility any longer. She was rather relieved, really, that she had asked Madeline about Crachek's fate now, although she had *never* expected the answer she had been given; to Nikita's knowledge, after all, *no one* had ever been too much of a "monster" for Section . . . no one.

She smiled disgustedly, thinking through this. Section took in rapists, terrorists, and murderers of every description. Operations, in fact, had even told her, about Fanning's recruitment, "Most operatives start out flawed--one way or another"; she even suspected that he had truly been more appalled with her own "flaw"--of compassion--than he ever had been with Fanning's homicidal and brutal proclivities. She hadn't expected that Crachek would, then--since he had been considered by them at all--ever be found to be outside of the usual "reasonable boundaries." . . . She was--indeed--still astounded.

She shook her head a little and sighed, still amazed. At least, though, she supposed, his death had been some sort of justice; at least that monster hadn't been recruited into a new life while Mark's body had been consigned to housekeeping. . . . At least she could, if nothing else, try to take some solace in this--even if, in the end, it truly changed nothing.

She made a tired noise with her lips, her emotions ricocheting throughout her mind and heart, as she struggled to sort them out. While Michael's lack of faith in this mission had hurt her, he had still gone out of his way--both after her capture and during her abeyance--to help her, to keep her safe. Somehow, as well, she felt a little closer to him after it all--although she was still uncertain whether the deeper boundaries to understanding between them had been further defined by it all, allowing them to possibly overcome them in the future, or simply made more murky. . . . She suspected, in some ways--indeed, that it had been a little of both.

She rested her lips on her knees, as she continued to think through another aspect of her recent ordeal. There had been so much which was symbolic to her own life in the relationship between Mark and Angela; she knew that--in some ways--what had happened to them should probably be a lesson to herself and the man who had so permanently tangled her emotions. . . . And she wondered, as well, whether he too were thinking the same thing.

She sighed, a warmth overcoming her, as she felt her heart intertwining with his, even at this distance. She suspected, indeed--despite all the reasons for distance between them, that that would never truly happen, on any deeper level. And, as much as she was certain that this fact should make her wary, she knew just as well that she had never been more grateful. . . . She could never--in any real sense, after all--ever willingly give him up.

***********

He had almost lost her. Despite all of his best efforts to keep her safe, he had come within a breath of losing his beloved forever. He closed his eyes. And, had that happened--he knew, he would have lost himself eternally, as well.

Michael was still at Section now, had been looking through some reconnaissance footage for an upcoming mission. He opened his eyes once more. He could simply go home, of course--he knew, but there was something oddly comforting in Section for him, right now. With all of the pain and trauma which it would always represent in his life, he still, at least, understood the way things worked here; he always knew where he stood.

At home, though, alone with his thoughts and memories, there was too much pain to work through--were too many fears which assaulted him. He had almost gone there, though, after Nikita had left--after he had known with certainty that she would be safe once more, but--instead--he had decided to stay--to prepare for this next mission. . . . He had been reminded of a painful truth of his life in Section, recently, after all, and he had *no* intention of ever allowing himself to forget it again.

It was for this reason, then, that he was working at a time when almost no one else was. There were few missions active, at the moment, indeed; for Section, things were relatively quiet.

What had happened to Mark and Angela, though, had brought back to him, far too forcefully, a lesson he had known for too long, already: one second's slip could mean the death of his beloved. And, even if he weren't as fortunate as that couple had been before the Black March mission--even if he wasn't able to be with his beloved, in any true physical sense, this was still not a lesson he had any intention of ignoring.

He sighed and continued looking through reports, in preparation for the upcoming mission. The next one looked simple enough, of course, but--then--so had taking Black March, . . . and that--instead--had almost ended, twice, with the loss of his beloved Nikita.

He breathed deeply, his anger at Crachek still simmering. He was thankful that they hadn't recruited the man--if such a term could truly be applied to him, but he had no illusions as to the real reasons for Section's decision. It had had absolutely nothing, indeed, to do with morals; it had, instead, had *everything* to do with trainability.

There was, he knew, a certain sort of psychotic who worked well within Section's boundaries, who could be easily convinced or frightened into cooperation. With some, in fact, you just had to find the right trigger point and they would gladly do whatever was necessary of them. He smiled slightly, a little ironically. The "torture twins," as Nikita had sometimes referred to them--never when they were within hearing distance--were an example in point.

Other recruits, however, simply weren't that easily manipulated--couldn't be that easily led. Crachek, indeed, that fallen into this latter category in several ways. First, he had enjoyed the pain he caused so thoroughly that he would have been hard to control in interrogation sessions. Their current technicians understood how to use a carefully-controlled hand to inflict just the right amount of pain for any prisoner; they never went overboard simply for the rush of it. The same, though, could not have been said of Crachek.

The second reason was probably even more important, however; it would have been even more of a problem for their masters. Crachek had simply had no physical ability to sense pain; this was, indeed, one of the reasons that watching it had fascinated him so.

This, though, was a *huge* drawback in any operative, because it eliminated one major control technique--one of which Section was fond. And, if an operative couldn't be controlled, then they were--in the end--useless, if not dangerous, as well.

It was for all of these reasons, then, that Crachek had been eliminated. . . . And, while Michael hadn't been able to pull the trigger himself, he had, in fact, watched.

He sighed. He knew this side of him--had he told it to Nikita--would have disgusted his beloved. She had only the vaguest ability to understand his occasional bloodthirstiness--a fact for which he was, indeed, endlessly grateful. . . . That didn't, though, make the desire, when it came to him, any less tangible.

This trait wasn't, however, something from which he--his mind searched a second for the right word--suffered all the time. For most of his days in Section, in fact, he had no particular need to kill. He almost never--on a mission or in an interrogation--felt *any* desire to inflict pain; it was, instead, simply a part of the job he had been forced--long ago--to rather numbly accept.

There was one exception to this, though. When Nikita was threatened, the desire would rise in him--in little ways. Occasionally, indeed, it was simply a form of self-loathing--as it had been on the Peruze mission. Then, he had wanted Karl Peruze dead by his own hand, not just to protect his beloved at that moment, but also to--in a roundabout way--put himself in his victim's place, to pay himself back for the gross betrayal he had so recently put his heart's wife through; it was as though, in pulling the trigger, he could--for an instant--eliminate the side of himself which had just taken part in so grievously harming her . . . the side of himself which had just betrayed her soul.

He blinked slowly, realizing that he had become utterly distracted from his work--his thoughts of Nikita destroying his focus yet again. He looked once more at the reports on the screen in front of him and leaned back in his chair a little, giving up the effort as a complete loss, for just awhile more.

His mind continued--with his temporary permission--to try to sort back through his recent traumas. It had terrified him to see how close he had come to losing his beloved these past few days. . . . It only made it worse, too, that it hadn't just been one brush with disaster they had had but several.

The first of these, indeed, had begun on the mission itself--had started with Angela's tiny miscalculation, had started with the piece of metal she hadn't even seen but which had so loudly alerted their targets to their presence among them. His heart seemed to clench once more with the fear he had begun to feel at that moment. Although it had been the now-lost operative who had started the chain which had led to his beloved's capture, he couldn't hold any anger at her--not now; she had suffered enough at the hands of Crachek to make any enmity anyone might hold for her petty now.

No, it was more at several others that his real anger lay. He had been furious with Birkoff, first of all, for daring to tell him what "standard protocol" was in these cases--as though he were some recruit who needed to be told the rules. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. The young man had, twice--indeed, almost gotten in the way of him being able to protect his beloved--both then and when he had needed Crachek alive. . . . For a man who claimed to be Nikita's friend, he hadn't been acting much like it of late.

He tried to stave off his anger, however--forcing himself to think through this. He knew, of course, that their masters had been targeting their young computer genius recently--had been trying to teach him that he was not indispensable. . . . That, indeed, had been the point of bringing in Hillinger to train with him.

He suspected, therefore, that Birkoff was afraid--that he was trying, now, simply to protect his own life. He didn't blame the young man for this, really--either; he too understood, instinctively, the desire for self-preservation.

This, though, wasn't the only reason he could feel some small measure of understanding. He had been watching, as well, the questioning of all of those involved in Nikita's recent abeyance and had seen the young man trying to protect his friend--had seen him trying to word his answers in any way possible to avoid implicating her. . . . It had only been once he had been completely cornered, in fact, that he had finally been forced to give her up.

His anger dissolved a little, on reflection, then. The young man may have voiced objections to Michael's plans, but he had agreed in both cases. And--if he had truly thought that his superior's decisions were incorrect--he could have either refused to help him or notified Operations. . . . He supposed, then, that he might be able to forgive him somewhat.

There were other objects for his anger besides the young computer genius, however. Mark, certainly, was very near the top of the list of those he held to blame; it had become blatantly obvious that he had--after being helped out to an almost ridiculous degree by Nikita--wrongly turned in his benefactor, simply to save his own hide.

Michael's eyes burned, as he stared blindly at the wall. He had liked Mark, in fact, until this recent turn of events--had envied him his ability to be close to the woman he cared for, to make that relationship work in Section. But this . . . no, this had changed everything.

He changed the path of his thoughts slightly, before his rage overwhelmed him. He knew, in many ways, that the last few days had shown him three matched pairs--himself and Nikita, Mark and Angela, and Crachek and Caroline. . . . And, in many ways�however little he may like it, he did see himself in both of these other men.

He began to think this through now. With Mark and Angela, he had looked on their relationship many times with subtle jealousy. . . . He had dreamed so often, after all, of being able to share himself with Nikita as openly as Mark had with his beloved.

He could feel his sorrow welling in him. He had understood, though, why that hadn't been possible for him. In an odd way, indeed, the saving grace of the relationship between these two other operatives had been that they were both Level 2. . . . In other words, they simply hadn't been seen as important enough to either use against each other or to part.

He tried to swallow back his pain. With himself and Nikita, however, things were completely different. Whether he liked it or not, he was one of Section's favored few--was one who was watched far more closely than most. For this reason, then, their masters had tried frequently to use Nikita against him--to use her to remind him that his life was not his own to choose, that--for either of them to have any hope of a future--he had to keep her at a distance.

He sighed. Of course, he knew that there was a flip side to this, as well, knew that there was a positive. His status, indeed, had protected her numerous times; he had the authority to be able to change and override mission plans--to rework profiles to keep her safe, something Mark and Angela, unfortunately for them, had never even come close to.

He knew, however, that this wasn't always enough. His mind began thinking into this further--his eyes growing a little frightened, as he pondered what had finally happened to the couple. He wondered now what he would have done had he been in Mark's place when they had been captured by Black March. Had Crachek been torturing Nikita in the unspeakable manner that he had Angela, would he, too, have cracked--would he have told that monster who masqueraded as a man the information he had asked for? . . . Wouldn't he, in fact, have done *anything* required of him, in order to stop Nikita's pain?

He ruthlessly repressed a shudder. He didn't want to know, he decided. He honestly didn't want to know just how far he would go to protect her--just what leaps of logic he would allow himself, in the foolish hopes--in this sort of situation--of keeping her from further harm.

He forced himself, therefore, down a slightly different path. These were, though, the reasons he identified with--felt sorry for--the ill-fated pair; these were the reasons part of him wanted not to feel any anger at them at all.

What he couldn't forgive, however--since he was putting himself in Mark's place, were that man's later actions. Possibly even more than simply double-crossing Nikita, in fact, he truly couldn't forgive--even more palpably--that the man had decided that he wanted to go on living without his beloved.

His eyes burned. This was, truly--he knew, where he had most differed from the Level 2 op. Had their situations been reversed, after all, *nothing* could have convinced him to go on living without his soul's chosen one; there would have been no last-second decision to try to survive.

No. Were Nikita ever to die, he was absolutely resolved that he would, as well; he had known this for some time. His eyes flashed heatedly, as he stared blankly at the wall. . . . Anyone who tried to stop him, should this time come--he was determined, would simply have to go with him, too.

His anger at Mark raged through him. It was for these reasons, as well, that this dark emotion still existed in him--still raged at the now-canceled op. His mind continued pondering. And, heaven help him, had that man caused Nikita's death, Michael knew well that he would have made sure that he hadn't lived long after it to regret it.

He closed his eyes for a second, trying to clear his mind of his now-deceased team member. . . . He didn't want to think about him any more; anyway, there were other places where his anger lay. One of the most palpable of these, indeed, had been at Crachek himself.

As little as he liked it, as well, he knew that this feeling had been caused by his own identification with this depraved soul. Crachek, after all, had been part of another pairing--a pairing both of siblings and of lovers. A look of incredible disgust came into his eyes. But Crachek had been--in so many ways--the worst of them all. He hadn't even asked about Caroline, after his capture; when he had been told that she was dead, sometime during his brief evaluation--which he had seen Madeline use more as a debrief, he had just seemed bored--and the look hadn't been bravado. There had simply been no deeper feeling there at all.

What he supposed had disturbed him most about the man, though, hadn't truly been his emotional detachment. It had, instead, been his rather eerie ability to read people.

Michael attempted, with rather less success, to suppress another slight shudder. It angered him a little that the man had been able to read him both so instantaneously and so well. He hadn't been in the same room as Nikita--Crachek had never even seen them together, in fact--and yet, without any of this type of external evidence, he had still known with certainty where his interrogator's true affections lay.

He sighed slightly. He hated his own inability to hide his emotions for his beloved from others, especially given the almost lifetime's worth of energy he had put into keeping his feelings to himself. It always seemed, though, that anything he did to try to hide these particular emotions was useless. . . . People *always* knew.

He was well aware, too, that he couldn't even try to convince himself that Crachek had simply picked the most likely target for Michael's affections. Certainly, the man had not been foolish enough to think that everyone he met would be heterosexual, and Michael knew that he had been able to fool many others about his sexual orientation before, when necessary; many new male recruits, in fact--knowing nothing of him yet, held some hope that he might turn his eyes toward them, so he knew he wasn't always that easily readable.

No. Crachek had known--had seen it written in him from the moment he had first walked into the room to question him. . . . And he had enjoyed--to the depths of his depraved little soul--watching Michael's fears for his beloved grow.

His anger at the man was beginning to overwhelm him. He took a deep breath to try to cleanse it from his soul, trying to move his mind away from him. In the larger picture, after all, the man was meaningless. . . . His fury at him came nowhere near what he held for the most culpable person in all of this--himself.

He could feel how tight the muscles in his face and body were. His self-rage was strong today--and it currently existed on many levels.

The most obvious of these, he supposed, was simply that he hadn't been able to adequately protect Nikita either of the times she had needed him to lately, in order to avoid this entire situation; he hadn't been able to prevent her kidnapping by Black March or her subsequent torture at their hands. And, worse--to his mind, he hadn't been able to predict her actions to protect Mark--hadn't been able to keep her from harm then, either.

In many ways, with the latter of these, though, he supposed he could be angry with Nikita for her own, self-sacrificing, actions. . . . But he just couldn't quite manage it. He was still simply too grateful both that she was alive and that she hadn't been lying--that she still possessed her soul.

This relief, however, only highlighted one of the largest causes of his self-rage, at the moment. He hadn't believed her. . . . His beloved one had looked him in the eye and told him the truth about her actions, and he hadn't believed her. . . . He was quite certain that--for this astonishing lack of faith--whatever intense, unbearable punishment he received wouldn't even be half of what he deserved.

He tried to find his own reasons for this emotional betrayal now; he needed to understand. He supposed it was partly because he had known Mark, though--had known him to withstand immense torture before without breaking--which had caused him to doubt whether Nikita had told him the truth. He supposed, in some ways, as well, he had still felt a little pained at the suffering the other man had gone through in so cruelly losing the woman he loved--supposed that he had wanted, therefore, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

He sighed heavily. Or maybe that was just what he wanted to tell himself. He didn't really know, in fact, what had caused him to not believe, other than this connection to Mark and his constant fear that Nikita's compassion would get the best of her--may, indeed have gotten the best of her while watching Angela tortured. He closed his eyes for a second. Whatever it had been, however, his lack of faith in her had been truly unforgivable.

It pained him to think about this. It had only been with Crachek's final description of Mark's treason, in fact, that he had finally believed; it had only been this which had convinced him. He forced back open his eyes. All of the man's previous statements, indeed, had been undetailed, but this one--this one had been detailed in only the way a psychotic could appreciate.

His eyes were slightly disgusted. Crachek, then, for all of his ingenuity in torture, had still been a man of little imagination. Had they asked him for details of Nikita's betrayal of S6, indeed--given the fact that the man was unaware of her tendency toward compassion, the fact that he wouldn't have known that the same story he had truthfully given of Mark might have worked for her, as well--he would have been unable to provide them.

He sighed deeply, his remorse for his lack of faith in his beloved haunting him. He had wanted to ask for her forgiveness, once everything was over, truly--had wanted to ask her to still love him, despite all of his recent lapses in both action and belief.

He remembered, now, why he hadn't been able to accomplish this simple task, however. When she had emerged from the room where he had been forced to hear her faked death--and had come up to within a few inches of him before telling him simply, "Thank you"�every internal wall that he possessed had begun to crumble. He hadn't even been able to speak; he hadn't trusted himself that far. All he could manage, instead, was the smallest nod of his head--while his eyes, he knew, had begged her to touch him--to heal him, if only briefly.

He put his head into his hand for a second to rub over his tired eyes. In the long run, of course, he had been lucky that she hadn't; if she had, indeed, he would have broken--would have held her painfully close, until something dire had come along to break them up . . . like the end of time.

He took a deep breath and looked back up, knowing he needed to change his line of thought, trying to refocus on Nikita's later actions--afraid of what would happen if he continued to let his mind linger here. He was very relieved that Nikita still had her beautiful ability to see the light in others--still had the capacity to be able to reflect it out from herself, but he had, nonetheless, been unable to understand her actions later on that day; it had been then, indeed, that he had witnessed his beloved one forgive the man who had put her into abeyance--the one who had lied about her, even after all of her earlier efforts to keep him safe.

He sighed. He hated to admit it, of course, but the action had made him jealous. Mark had asked for forgiveness, and she had willingly given it. . . . The same could not be said of her feelings toward himself.

He could feel how bloodshot his eyes were. So many times he had needed--had *desperately* needed--her absolution, but she had never once allowed it. Despite all the explanations he could give, she had still never let him cleanse his conscience of his sins.

He closed his eyes briefly, swallowing heavily. He understood, of course, why this was, though; he knew that she did it as a way to protect herself. . . . It was a technique she needed very deeply, in fact, in order to keep her safe from himself.

He sighed wearily. As much as he always would have liked to believe, too, that each, latest betrayal would be his last, he always knew, as well, that that was a lie. . . . He understood, therefore, that--without true contrition, there could be no true absolution--no matter how much he desired it.

He opened his eyes again sadly and looked back to his mission plans. He needed to keep his focus. As much as he craved his beloved's forgiveness for his actions, he knew that he deserved none. Only when, like Mark--or her mother--he would truly never perform such evil acts on her again, could he hope for this blessing.

He wanted to believe, of course, that he could make this change in himself while within Section's confines--but he suspected that he may never have that much courage. . . . He knew, in fact--to his regret, the he might never even be able to attain it in this lifetime.

His heart ached slightly, as he thought sadly through his future possibilities. Maybe, he decided, when the time came for him to die, he would finally prove himself worthy--maybe then he could truly deserve her absolution. Until then, however--since he wasn't able, possibly because he wouldn't allow himself, in this lifetime, to be the man she needed, the one she deserved--he would have to content himself with loving her from a distance. . . . Until he developed enough courage to allow himself to truly share himself with her--indeed, he and his soul would only be able to adore each other--to wash in each other's comfort--quietly from afar.

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

She was having trouble, at the moment, trying to decide on what conclusion to draw about the Black March mission and its aftermath. In some ways, certainly, it had yielded her both some valuable insights as well as having given one of their more recalcitrant ops. a warning about the dangers of compassion. . . . In other ways, though--no, it wasn't quite that satisfying at all.

Madeline was seated in her office now--as so frequently, was trying to come to terms with the effects of Nikita's latest adventure on Section One. She knew, of course, that she was quite pleased with the results, on a certain level; this had, indeed, been the perfect scenario to use in order to hopefully frighten her willful subordinate into exhibiting less of--her mind tried to find a polite description for what she saw as Nikita's flaw--less of her "empathetic" tendencies.

She thought back through the events of this last mission--evaluating, as always, the impact she had seen from it. This cautionary advantage, in fact, had been the reason she had allowed the questioning to go on--had allowed the matter of guilt to remain open, when there had never truly been any doubt in her mind about who their leak had been.

She continued to ponder, then, what had been apparent to her, even early on. Mark had been an excellent operative for several years, it was true, but it had also been obvious that his . . . closeness to Angela was his weak link. Had they been certain, however, that he would never again form such a dangerous attachment--and had they not, after all the attention the matter had unfortunately received in the ranks, needed to use him as an example of the dangers of treason, whatever the cause--they probably, indeed, would have kept him alive.

But no, that hadn't been possible, in the end. In truth, ironically, it had been through Mark's displacement of guilt onto Nikita--by his own sudden show of desire to live--that the decision to cancel him had become inevitable; he had, with that one act, proven that he was untrustworthy--that he was not as easily-controlled as a cold op. should be. . . . There had, therefore, been no way back for him.

If he had simply admitted what he had done earlier, though, he would have been sanctioned and put through psych. rehab. to ensure his viability, but he would have--eventually--been returned to full status. . . . It was sad, truly, that he hadn't understood this simple fact.

She sighed slightly, remembering. While Mark had managed to pass through the machine's sensors, he hadn't passed hers. His accusation, as well, had left Madeline with a very pleasant conundrum. She had immediately understood the advantage, too, of keeping her knowledge quiet. . . . This had provided a test for too many different members of Section to simply allow to pass them by.

The most obvious target for this silent inquiry, of course, had been Nikita. In this portion of her scenario, indeed, her message had been clear and lingering. . . . If the young woman forgot it any time in the near future, she was a fool.

She did hope, too, that the younger woman could bring herself to understand the necessity of emotional detachment soon. She sighed. She was a very effective operative, after all, but--without this essential skill, she truly did have little future for which to hope.

She knew, however, that she had done what she could in this direction; she allowed her mind to move on. The young woman had not been the only subject of her experiment, was not the only place she had focused. There had been several others beyond this obvious one.

Her mind was almost amused--a little darkly, for a second. She supposed, truly, that the next one had been rather obvious, as well --though, if you were following any sort of logical progression of thought.

She had needed to know, indeed, what Michael would do in this situation--just how far he would go to protect the operative to which he seemed so inextricably attached. What she had discovered here, however, hadn't surprised her, either--although it had disappointed her. Her face grew a little more stern. Predictably, Michael had stood by his ex-material; in fact, she had witnessed him--through surveillance--ask her about Crachek's coming capture and interrogation, when he had gone to her in containment, inquiring of her, "What would you like him to say?" . . . It had been obvious, then, that he planned to stop at nothing to get whatever answer she had wanted.

She sighed slightly, her mind still analyzing. What had surprised her vaguely, though, had been the fact that he hadn't believed the younger woman--despite what he had told her upon leaving; he had only done that for the sake of the cameras--and the woman in question herself, she supposed, . . . although Nikita had obviously been no more convinced of his statement than had their watcher.

Her eyes grew even more thoughtful, as she continued to work through what she had discovered. She had noticed, in fact, that Michael had been unwilling to believe in Nikita's claims of innocence all the way up to the point of Crachek's reversal. And--she was well aware--even the situation he had set up to bring that on he had done simply in the hopes that their prisoner's innate perversity would cause him to try to bring his captor more pain by changing his mind after Nikita's cancellation, regardless of the truth of the matter.

She shook her head just slightly. She was a little disgusted, but--sadly--not very surprised, to find that Michael was willing to tamper with one of their targets simply to attempt to ensure the survival of the woman he refused, rather childishly, to give up. It was, really, rather perverse of him--to her mind; his life, indeed, would have been far easier had he relinquished this semi-obsession long ago. . . . She did wish that he would eventually learn this.

She was finding more and more, though--to her regret, that Michael's mind could not be changed on this issue, whatever may be best for him or for Section. She supposed, therefore, that it was useless to worry about it unnecessarily; when the time came to take some true action to separate them, indeed, she would know.

Her mind, then, switched tracks again to ponder the last of her important targets on this undeclared mission--Operations. He had, she knew, been either unable or--possibly--simply unwilling to see the truth of the situation which had been placed in front of him, when he had needed to choose between Mark and Nikita. He had relied entirely, instead, upon herself to make his decisions for him, here. . . . It was a dangerous path for him--she knew, but one she would have to remember for the future, should it come in useful to her.

Her eyes were only half-focused on her surroundings, as she continued to think over this aspect of the mission. She had even gone a bit further to try to test out his malleability, in fact--and there had been reasons beyond simple curiosity for this, as well.

It hadn't taken too much to convince him, though, of her "plan" to gain back Walter's focus and devotion. He hadn't--even after it had seemingly failed him--at all seen through to her true purpose in it, but she had known, of course, that their weapons specialist wouldn't be even vaguely open to any sort of faked overtures of camaraderie which his superior might make; that had never been her intention. It had, instead--rather obviously, had Paul been paying any attention--been to anger Walter into focusing again on his work, forcing him to concentrate on the hopes of avoiding such cloying sentiments from his leader in the future.

She smiled at her success, still mentally working through the results of her test. There had been other targets here, as well, such as Birkoff, but they had been relatively minor ones. And--in the end--he had done what was expected of him by siding with his masters. . . . While his tendency to want to protect Nikita still worried her a bit, then, it was obviously a trait which they had in hand for the moment. That was enough for now.

Much of this small mission, then, had gone precisely to her plans. . . . It was only some of her findings which had disappointed--if not, sadly, surprised--her.

One more finding which had fallen into this category, as well, had been their evaluation of Crachek. Although she had thought it rather obvious that he wouldn't work out for them in the long run, she had still, really, been rather disappointed with their conclusion.

There were few people, after all, who were truly suited to full-time interrogation work; there was a certain, complete detachment one had to maintain in order to be successful in it, one which too many of their ops. seemed sadly incapable of achieving. . . . Finding the right people for this work, then, could--in fact--be a challenge.

While cold, tech., and valentine ops., too, could be easily replaced, good interrogation ops. were--barring any outrageous behavior--assured of long-term security. It was why, indeed, their primary operatives in this field had been doing this same job for so long now without change; there was no one--currently--who could have done it as well.

She had hoped, therefore--although she had suspected, even from the beginning, that her hopes would go unanswered, that Crachek might be able to be used in this capacity. He certainly had the proper background for it; it was a job, truly, which most often went to reprogrammed torturers and serial killers.

In the end, however, her fears here had been realized; he had simply been unsuited to the work. An interrogation op. who might giggle over a hostile was bad for their image. Besides, it was unlikely--if he were enjoying his work--that he would have been willing to stop, and--without any ability to feel pain, they could have no control over him; thus, sadly, they had been forced to dispose of him, instead.

She sighed. She supposed--thinking back now over the whole of her little experiment--that, in the end, there had been more pluses to this latest mission than there had been minuses. They had given their warnings, had completed their original mission, and she had been able to compile--as well--a bit more information on some of Section's best to use when she needed it.

She smiled slightly now, pondering it all. Overall, indeed, it had been a very successful week. To think otherwise would, she supposed--therefore, be simple perversity.