Under the Influence

They told me everything. Of course they did. They wanted to see the look on my face as I heard the words.

'Nikita will be personally involved'.

They didn't need to explain to me how personally. I could read it in their eyes. Just as I could read the resentment on Madeline's face after Nikita hadn't gone all the way with Markali, now I could read her arrogance.

'She will do as she is told'.

Just as I was forming reasonable objections in my head – after all, Nikita hadn't received the necessary valentine training in her days – Madeline intercepted me:

'We know that Nikita lacks certain skills here. That's why we'll be using a behavior enhancement technology. The Kasper project'.

I try not to gasp. As hard as I can. But I know Madeline notices that I can't hold her penetrating gaze any more. My thoughts are rushing, stumbling on one another… I need to form up a plan, I need to get her out of this…

'Is it safe?' – I ask trying to buy some more time.

'Nothing irreversible', - Madeline gives me one of her unpleasant smiles.

I nod, as if it was comforting, and then I realize something else. The Kasper project does not create feelings out of thin air. It uses something the test subject is already feeling and redirects it.

I'm afraid to look at the PDA, that I'm holding in my hands, but I already know what I'm going to see there. Not only Nikita will be personally involved, but they are going to use her feelings for me as a basis. And I will be the one paving the road to her destruction.

We are certainly not in Kansas any more.

What is happening to me?.. Was it me just a couple of hours ago shuddering in ecstasy on these soiled sheets with this despicable scum of a man?

He is sound asleep, not even moving. So was I - after two hours of… What? Fucking? Lovemaking? What the hell was it?

Hadn't he killed dozens of people with those same hands that he touched me with? Hadn't he pronounced a thousand of foul, deadly words with that same mouth that drew hot lines on my skin?.. But then again, how is it any different from Michael?

A cold shiver runs down my spine and I suddenly feel an urgent desire to look at myself in the mirror. Madeline's words are ringing in my head, like a recurrent nightmare I've been having all these years since I first came into Section…

'You're one of us now, Nikita'.

Have I finally become one of them? Has my soul turned into stone? Have my eyes gone blank, like Michael's?

I silently crawl out of bed and come to the mirror, half expecting to see a portrait of Dorian Gray there, with all the sins written on my forehead. Ladies and gentlemen, behold: a woman with no heart. Another whore who was fooling herself thinking she was any different.

Section always prevails. They told me so. Over and over. Madeline - with a condescending smile, Operations - almost with triumph, Michael - with a doomed relentlessness. I refused to believe them. They could have my past buried on the cemetery (row eight, plot thirty), they could turn my body into a killing machine, but they can't have my soul. My soul is mine, my feelings are mine, my choices are mine…

Are they?..

My bloodshot eyes are looking back at me from the mirror, accusing and disbelieving at the same time. I can barely keep my face from contorting in violent cries: my lower lip is twitching, my nostrils are drawing air with nervous deliberation… Oh, what have I done?! What have I become?!

Section surely knows how to mess with your head. Whether with psychological manipulations or technology… The hell we put Corinne through just with some magic pills and Madeline's dubious therapy… The secret cloning experiment on level five for god knows what purpose… My own personal impostor waiting for me to shoot her between the eyes… How the hell is it even possible?! All in the span of two weeks! How do I even begin to disentangle this web of lies and surreal events?

I put my hands to my face and trace the contours, as if checking that it is still me. How am I any different from Abby? She had seduced Birkoff to get information and I just did exactly the same thing with Karl Peruze. And my body even seemed to enjoy it, for some reason filling me with memories of that night on the barge with Michael… Am I going completely insane? How can I even compare these things?!

The reddish spots on my neck from Karl's stubble are staring at me from the mirror, the silent reprove that makes me lower my eyes and almost crumble down to the floor. I hold onto the nightstand with my both hands and try to breathe. I didn't even have to fake anything!.. How could my body betray me in this way?!.. How could it react with exactly the same passion to this heartless monster and to Michael?

I can't subdue my cries any more, they are rushing out of me, slamming at my face, destroying the features. I hurry to the bathroom, close the door and slide down a wall in complete darkness. The cold tiles make me shiver even more, but it's a small punishment for what I did two hours ago. I should be whipped bloody or tortured or stigmatized… Anything – just to make me forget about this other pain of losing my identity, of marring my memories of Michael… I curl into a ball and try to stuff the bathroom mat into my mouth, so that my wailing does not wake up Karl. I'm trembling violently and I'm fiercely gripping at the floor. Even though I'm lying flush against it, it seems like it's swirling under me, taking me deeper and deeper into the pit of despair…

The last time I felt so out of control was when they accidentally brainwashed me in that devilish machine. When I couldn't even see that I was not myself until Michael slapped me into consciousness.

And then it hacks at me. The pain sudden and sobering at the same time. Could it be that Section has done something to me, this time on purpose? Could I have been conditioned somehow into falling in love with Karl?..

I sit down on the floor, wipe tears from my eyes and think of the only person who can help me right now. Walter.

Her every moan hacks a chunk out of my heart, leaving bigger holes than all the killing I've done over the years. A lot of people say I have no heart at all and sometimes I think they are right. But then something like this happens – something that always has to do with Nikita – and I feel just how much of it I have left, aching and beating in my stone cold chest.

How could I have done this to her? How could I have let them?..

She doesn't even know what's going on with her. She was never able to separate the job from the reality. And as much as I hate to admit it, she could never resist her feelings for me…

I tried to push her away, as hard as I could. I didn't want her to get hurt any more than she already had. But she refused to leave me, refused to stop caring about me.

Look where it got her.

We are only monitoring the sounds here, but I can easily imagine the whole picture. Oh, I remember all too clearly the way her mouth gasped when I flicked my tongue along her earlobe and then down her neck, the fervent speed of her beating heart when my hands found her breasts, the involuntary breaks in her voice as she wrapped her long legs around my torso, pressed my arousal to her quivering stomach and whispered my name…

'Mi-chael…'

I start at the thought and realize this wasn't just a figment of my imagination. The surveillance tape clearly registered her saying my name… I hope to God Karl doesn't notice it. Even though it's hard to have a conscious thought when you're with Nikita, that man is not really in love with her.

Another throaty moan reaches my hearing and I'm thrown back into hell. The hell of witnessing her with another man, the hell of knowing that she is in over her head, that I have put her there and I will not be able to help.

The raging guilt is fighting the agonizing desire in my heart as I hear her convulsive breathing. The precious memories of that night on the boat are sledgehammered into ugly bits and pieces, strangely similar to what's going on with her and Karl right now… Was that how she felt when she watched me perform with her impostor? Could she tell the real me from 'the mission Michael'?

She begins to give out little rhythmic cries and I know Karl is deep inside of her. I can tell how fast he is moving, I can recognize her upcoming pleasure even being a thousand miles away.

My fists are curling into tight balls, the nails ripping the skin on my palms. How could I have let this bastard fuck her? How could I have desecrated our memories?

The only true thing I gave her during all these years was my touch. Every time I put my fingers to her skin, put my mouth on hers – mission or no mission – I silently prayed she could tell the difference. I hoped against hope that she could feel the reverence I had for her and that she could carry it with her later on as a silent proof of a man I could have been.

Now all of it is ruined. Now all of it is reduced to despicable manipulations, to valentine missions with scum like Karl Peruze.

She's feeling exactly the same way under this bag of dirt as she was feeling trembling under my weight, exploding into fragments as the orgasm was pulsing at her core. The Kasper project is feeding off her own desires, reversing her memories, using everything she holds dear against her very self.

For a moment there my heart stops beating and I fear I will never be able to move again, let alone look her in the eyes.

I did this to her. I destroyed her.

Maybe she will finally learn to hate me just as much as I deserve.

The only thing I wish for is that she could somehow find her way back out of the darkness – and into the light again. With someone else who would not be dragging her into hell over and over again.

Wherever I look – I see his face. I don't know if it's the side effects of the drugs or my aching imagination, but his face is everywhere. Projected on the ceiling, stretched behind the canvas on the south wall, etched in my memories. A masculine face with a firm jawline and a straight nose, an unsettling – and yet such a dear – face with penetrating eyes and disheveled hair. The face I'm always craving to touch… The face I slapped so hard a couple of hours ago I almost cracked my own wrist.

Oh, such a bastard!..

How could he?!.. After everything we've been through… After I held his hand through losing his son… How stupid of me to think it might have brought us closer! To think it might have opened up a new chapter in our relationships… Something more honest and trusting…

Michael…

I whisper his name almost involuntarily and tears are spilling out of me again. I've been sitting here on the couch for at least an hour – raging and then crying.

Yes, things are changing between us. But they are changing for the worst. He is as far away from me as ever. He went as low as using our most precious moments as means of a dirty manipulation. I remember I asked him, shortly after I was brought back into Section, whether that night had really happened… I remember that he gave me his usual silent stare. So maybe I had been so immersed in my own emotions that I'd misinterpreted his actions… Maybe I was never more than a fling for him and everything else is just missions and my wishful thinking.

His face is staring at me again from behind the canvas and I get up to tear it down.

Get out of my life, you bastard! Leave me alone!..

Why can't I just stop caring about you? Why can't I stop kidding myself that there is a good man inside a cold-blooded killer and a merciless player?

I kick the pieces of torn canvas with my leg - and then crumble down to the floor to hug them.

Oh, Michael… How did you manage to crawl under my skin? What makes me think that there is more to you than looks and skills?.. Can it be that all of my feelings towards you are just carefully conditioned? Is it all one of the brilliant Section's plans to keep operatives under control?

It looks so predictable, doesn't it? A young recruit falling for her mentor. It should be easy to generate, way easier than destroying a stable marriage, for example. We manipulated Corrine to kill her husband that she had loved for almost ten years… So making an innocent girl care for a handsome man should be like a children's game. I wasn't even the only recruit having the hots for Michael… Remember Vizcano? Remember Karen?.. How am I any different from them?

I gasp in pain recalling Michael's face after he lost Adam. Memories are starting to clash in my head, bringing up his tortured eyes, his slumped shoulders… The way he didn't want to let go of Simone in that bunker… The way he was waiting for Rene to shoot him… The way he was playing that cello grieving for his son… These moments meant more to me than all of his lying words and treacherous actions. When I could see him like this – open, unguarded – my heart just couldn't help but bleed for him.

He couldn't have planned it. I doubt he even knows what I feel like when his 'ruthless Michael's mask cracks and then falls off his face completely. I don't think Madeline could have predicted it either. It's too messy and to risky – compared with a graceful seduction which Michael had performed with me a lot of god-damn times.

I get up from the floor, carefully collect the destroyed canvas pieces and then throw them into the waste-basket. Yes, Section is masterful at manipulations, but I still have that little stubborn part of my soul that feels sympathy… Even when it's for the devil, I know it is completely mine and unplanned for. Surprisingly enough, they never tried to use it against me. Somehow it is never a part of their equation.

So, Michael… This is where we'll stand. You're still their errand boy and I'm still Nikita. And we're as far from each other as ever.

- Here's your coffee, sir.

The waiter puts the cup on the table, and I nod absently. He leaves.

The restaurant is full of people, but it might as well have been empty. She's not here with me.

We were here a couple of weeks ago, at the exact same table hiding in the corner and facing a quiet backyard. I remember the leaves were already crimson and yellow, covering the ground with a soft patched blanket. And I felt quiet and peaceful… As if I was home again. Not that home that I had built under orders with Adam and Elena, but something much bigger, much more truthful. Something like the home I grew up in.

You were looking at me with such loving eyes, Nikita, that for a moment there I couldn't help but bathe in your tenderness, your forgiveness. I had been lying to you for almost four years, keeping this blood-cover mission going and then, back in Section, letting myself claim you. I knew what I was doing to you. I knew you would only end up getting hurt. But I just wasn't strong enough to stay away from you.

'I'm sorry', - you told me, and I saw my pain mirrored on your face.

It was me who should have been giving the apologies. I was so swept with guilt, I could barely look at you. But then I felt you touch my hand, lying lifelessly on the table, and warmth spread through me. The kind of warmth you get sitting by a fireplace on a cold winter night, sipping tea and sharing a woolen blanket. I finally gathered the strength to look you in the eyes – and what I saw there, took me about twenty years back, to my childhood.

I suddenly remembered one morning when we were all gathered around the breakfast table. My parents, my sister and me. I was ten years old. The day before was the first time I had cheated on an exam, and I hadn't yet told anyone but it was eating me up inside. Everyone was behaving as usual, and I felt sick. I was watching them trying to find the right moment – and then I just blurted it out. 'I cheated!'. My mom froze in mid-air, with a spoon brought to her mouth. Then she put it down, sighed and made me tell everything. My words stumbled over one another, and by the time I finished I was shaking and sniveling. I was afraid they would never forgive me. But then my mom came over and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. And my father made me swear I would never do anything like this again. And I didn't realize what I was feeling back then… But I took it with me and carried it in my heart through my whole life. They loved me no matter what.

I didn't deserve this – oh, to the contrary - but this is what you were offering sitting there by my side. I couldn't speak yet, but I was so overcome with emotion, that I took your hand and brought it to my mouth and started covering your palm with small kisses.

'Mi-chael…'

The way you say my name always makes me quiver… And this was when I noticed that your hand was trembling, your pulse beating faster in my grip.

I put it back on the table and covered with mine.

'I'm sorry, Nikita', - I whispered. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat and tell you exactly what I was sorry for…

I'm sorry I had been lying to you for four years. I'm sorry I've made you the slave to my valentine moves. I'm sorry that my every touch brings up the doubt in you. I'm sorry that I've sired a son with another woman, even though I love him more than life. I'm sorry I can't give you anything - anything…

I looked up at you and couldn't utter a word.

'Michael, it's okay. You don't have to explain anything…'

You were so devastatingly beautiful… Accepting me into your heart as if I was still a ten year old boy, having committed no bigger crime than cheating on a test. You had seen me kill and threaten and beat people bloody, you had been abused by me in every possible way - but you were still sitting there holding my hand.

I could never understand it about you. What do you see in me? I am lost to the world. There is no way back for me.

I was eternally grateful to you for spending that hour at the coffee shop with me and I could only hope that you could read it in my eyes. We exchanged very few words and I tried my hardest not to make our touches more explicit. I didn't want you to get apprehensive… More importantly, I wasn't sure I could control myself then if I tried anything more than simply holding your hand.

As accepting as you were back then, I knew I would have to hurt you again some day. Probably sooner than later. These two weeks proved me right.

I'm glad you slapped my face. That was the least you could do, because I deserved a bullet in the heart. I don't know how I went through the motions… I performed this mission perfectly to the letter. I gave you the disks knowing full well what they contained. I watched you fall for Karl, listened to your moans in his bed… And I just stood by and did nothing. I did not lift a finger.

I take a gulp of my black coffee and look outside. The leaves have shriveled and turned into mud, the trees stand naked and stern across the pale sky. This is what my soul is like - barren and cold.

I'll protect your life with my own, Nikita, but - aside from that - there's nothing more I can give you.