by Tara O'Shea
Someone had to since she had ignored him and kept it. Two days alone in the flat had made it positively frantic for attention. When he had filled the water dish, the cat had leapt onto the counter and batted playfully at the sunglasses suspended from safety-pins, just within its reach, until Michael pulled out the bag of kibble from below the sink. The adolescent kitten had leapt down, play forgotten, and twined around his feet as he poured the dry kibble into a bowl, purring loudly before devoting its full attention to its meal.
He had fed the cat. Michael clung to that mundane act as if it could somehow forgive the complete and utter invasion of her privacy. Perhaps it would. But no simple act of kindness would come close to repairing her shattered trust. That damage may well be irrevocable; he doubted Nikita would even give him the chance to try.
So instead, he fed the cat, and tried not to see her lying unconscious in the Section infirmary, recovering from a gunshot wound--among other tortures inflicted by Red Cell.
Sinking into the chair closest the French doors, he rubbed his eyes with one hand, letting the other dangle, an obvious invitation to the cat, who accepted with feline grace and only a touch of kittenish exuberance. Bounding across the room to insinuate itself in his lap, it butted its head against the open hand. He absently scratched behinds its ears, and the purring began again as the kitten closed its eyes in pure bliss.
She had broken under torture. The shame of that etched across her face was his worst memory. She had, for those few moments, hated herself for being weak enough to break. She had expected him to hate her for it; he could see that writ in those pale blue eyes, in the way she steeled herself for the words that never came. Never mind that she had broken to save him.
And he had used her. Section--through him--had used her. It had all been calculated, planned for, expected. Every contingency was explored. Their relationship--if it could even by rights be called that, half-formed, mangled and abused as it was even before this catastrophe--had been exploited to save lives. He had agreed to his part in it because it was logical. It was that simple. If someone had a weakness , you exploited that weakness if it brought you closer to your own ends. It didn't matter if it was friend or foe. Stranger, or lover...
That was what he had been taught, and that training was all that had kept him alive. Nikita had received the same training, and knew it just as well as coolly, logically, and intellectually as he did. The difference was, she still believed she could somehow bend those inflexible, iron forged maxims if it meant hurting someone she cared about. Always find a way around it. Somehow.
Michael wished he had that freedom, that luxury. That strength.
But the day would come when she would realise that she didn't really have that option either. That day would come when her usefulness no longer outweighed the inconvenience of compassion and a conscience. That day was coming, sooner than he would have liked...
And when it came, she would either change or die.
Either way, the only living part of him that still existed would cease to breathe , and he would be a dead thing too.
So he fed the cat. Even changed its litter, performing the mundane tasks without thought. He was actually amazed to find there was little else left for him to do; unlike her quarters in Section, Nikita kept the flat neat as the proverbial pin.
He chuckled as he remembered the changes she had wrought on the standard issue, dormitory-style bedroom that each new operative called home until their training was complete. The rooms were stark, the floor ubiquitous white linoleum, the walls that same unforgiving white, and the recruits were allowed to decorate them however they wished.
"Decorate" was kind. Nikita had defaced hers with glee. Spray paint and Christmas lights. Operations had been appalled. For that matter, so had Birkoff, who, at the tender age of 15, had had a problem with Chaos. Madeline had been amused.
Michael had been intrigued.
He had chosen this flat for her, asked Madeline to have it decorated tastefully, expensively, but still cutting edge. Black leather furniture, dark blue drapes, pearl grey walls and blond wood. When next he'd seen it, it had been a strange hybrid of her old room and the place he'd made for her. Bright fabric-covered chairs and couches that didn't match a single thing, coloured wires and newspaper collages, cluttered yet still barren.
Now--with the gangly cat curled up in a patch of sun splashed across her bed, the green-grey walls newly painted warm ochre in panels, some of the abstract paintings with their muted but still vibrant colours re-hung, if not in the places they had been originally, or even in the same orientation--now the airy, spacious flat felt like a home, or at the very least, a haven. The gaudy sunglasses still hung above the counter from their chains of safety-pins, and she'd kept that dreadful chair upholstered in newsprint.
He could feel her presence, even if the flat was complete devoid of any personal artifacts. Not even so much as a single blonde hair on her pillow, or a glass in the sink. The refrigerator, wallpapered in newspaper clippings, was barren of photographs. She could pick up and disappear tomorrow, and there wouldn't be a single trace of her existence left in this place.
She could have died in that cell.
Retrieving his jacket, and smiling at the cat hairs, he took one last look around the flat before opening the door.
He should have checked first. Sloppy.
"Whoa!" Carla froze in the act of knocking on Nikita's door, shock and surprise frozen on her face--an expression he knew he mirrored. "Who are you?' she asked, her eyes narrowing shrewdly.
He smiled warmly. He could be very charming when he chose, and he chose to be so now. "You must be Carla--I'm a friend of Nikita's. I just came by the feed the cat."
"Where is she? Usually she lets me know when she's going off someplace, so I can."
"She wasn't expecting to be gone long. Skiing accident--"
"Ohmigod--Is she okay?" Concern replaced wariness, and he sought to reassure her.
"Pretty banged up, but she should be home soon."
"I have keys--if you want I can--"
"No, that's okay. I don't mind." He shrugged. "I don't even know that cat's name, actually," he said, sounding vaguely embarrassed.
"That's because I don't think it has one," Carla laughed. "I mean--I asked her about it, and she said she was holding off. Naming it meant she was going to keep it, and she wasn't sure she was ready for that."
"But that was months ago..."
"Yeah," Carla laughed, sticking her hands deep in the pockets of her overalls and rocking back on her heels. "She's in denial--big time. I think I heard her call it 'Michael' once or twice--"
He stared, and she laughed. "I know--who names a cat like that after an archangel? Anyway, do you want some coffee?"
"No, that's okay. I have to get back." He jerked his head in the direction of the door, and she nodded.
"Okay. See you around--and hey, tell Nik I hope she feels better."
"Sure." he stuck his hands deep in his pockets, and started back towards the stairs.,
"Hey, I totally forgot--what's you name?"
But he didn't answer her.
Nikita struggled with her keys, leaning one crutch against the door as she fumbled with the lock. As the door opened, the cat stood on the couch, arching its back and giving her a sidelong glance that seemed to say "Oh, you've finally decided to come back. How nice."
"Well, I don't blame you--" she sighed, and then noticed the bowl and fresh water. She snagged the phone on her way to the bedroom, and her neighbour picked up on the first ring.
"Carla--I'm sorry, I meant to call.--"
"Yeah, I know. Must have been some guy for you to just take off for Angelfire and forget about the poor little fuzzball."
Nikita froze, and then quickly recovered. "Yeah. I was having a great time, until I fell."
"Skiing's like that. That's why I don't ski," Carla laughed. "
"Thank you so much for feeding the little monster--"
"Don't thank me, thank Mr. Wonderful."
"The guy--the gorgeous guy," she clarified. "He had keys to your place, came in and fed the cat, even changed Monster's littler, which is great because, while you know I love you, damn I hate doing that--"
"Oh. I didn't remember asking him to, but they had me so pumped full of drugs--"
"So, what's his name? Where'd you meet him? Are you, like, friends, or you know, friends? Spill."
"Caaaarla... " Nikita tried to laugh, but it came out hollow. Carla didn't notice.
"Okay, fine. I'm only your best girlfriend--"
"He's nobody--honest. Just someone I know."
This was met with skeptical silence. "Okay. You want some coffee? I can put a fresh pot on--"
"That's okay. I'm still sore--I just want to dive into bed."
"Okay. See you tomorrow."
"Yeah," she said brightly, and then replaced the phone in its cradle.
The cat came and brushed up against her calf with an inquisitive "mew". She swept it up into her arms, ignoring the twinge in her side, and kissed the spot between its ears as she padded off to her bedroom.
Nobody at all.
Just someone who'd fed her cat.