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A Road Not Taken

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“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished .... He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.”

The above mission statement began every episode of the television series Quantum Leap. Following is essential information on Quantum Leap for those unfamiliar with the series. I feel that it would be more beneficial and less confusing to write everything in this format rather than sprinkle information throughout the story.

Project Quantum Leap is a time travel experiment that, in the words of Admiral Calavicci “went a little ca-ca.” The project is located in a vast mostly underground facility.

Dr. Samuel Beckett is the founder of the project. He was the youngest summa cum laude graduate of MIT. He holds seven doctorates including one in Quantum Physics. He met two star Rear Admiral Albert (Al) Calavicci while the two were working on a government project called Star Bright.

By the time the two had met, Al had hit rock bottom. He’d been a pilot, shot down in Viet Nam after which he had been a POW for several years. His career had faltered after his return and designation to desk duty. Al was drinking heavily and in danger of getting washed out of the Star Bright project and most likely the navy as well. Sam saw something in Al and Sam went to bat for him.

They became fast friends and when Sam started the Quantum Leap project, Al was there for him, going to bat for funding, helping to build the accelerator and volunteering to become his observer.

As for the project itself, Quantum Leap is Sam’s brainchild. It was supposed to be a time travel experiment where a person would be able to travel within his own lifetime to observe history.

When funding was threatened and shutdown ordered due to unfeasibility, Sam stepped into the nuclear accelerator chamber before it was ready. This is where the experiment went wrong.

Rather than being an observer, Sam physically leaped into the body of a person whose life he was supposed to fix.

When Sam leaps into another person a blue light appears over the person’s body for a moment. When the blue light disappears, Sam ‘takes over.’ Everyone around him sees and hears the other person. While physically Sam looks like the other person, he retains his own mind and persona. The only time he can see the person he’s leaped into is by looking into a mirror.

Conversely, the person Sam leaps into, ends up in the Waiting Room of the Project. This person is called a ‘visitor’ and the people at the Project see Sam, not the person he’s leaped into. If the visitor looked into a mirror, he’d see Sam, not himself.

The exception to the above is Al. Through a neural link Sam had established between himself, Ziggy and Al, Al can find and accompany Sam on his leaps. Al appears to Sam in the form of a hologram that, in most cases, only Sam can see or hear. Since leaping causes holes in Sam’s memory, Al, through the handlink with Ziggy, provides Sam with vital information.

Al sees Sam and everyone around him as a hologram as well. Al steps into a room called the Imaging Chamber which is in his own time but it enables him to see and interact with Sam. However, being only a hologram, Al has no physical presence and cannot intervene in a physical manner.

Al is the only person at the Project who sees the visitor as him or her self, usually before entering the Imaging Chamber to find Sam. He also sees Sam rather than the person Sam has leaped into.

Finally, this brings me to Ziggy. Ziggy, (“she”) is a parallel hybrid computer Sam designed to run the Quantum Leap project and oversee the entire facility. Sam gave Ziggy an ego and that brought on complications.

Ziggy comes up with probability percentages of what Sam is supposed to fix in the person’s life he leaped into. Ziggy is not infallible, but for the most part she ‘guesses’ correctly. Once Sam successfully completes his ‘mission’ the unknown force leaps him out and everyone waits to see where he leaps next.

While Al is in the Imaging Chamber he communicates with Ziggy (and the rest of the people at the Project) via a handlink. Ziggy is not always as forthcoming with information as Al and Sam would like. Sometimes she doesn’t have information fast enough, sometimes she just doesn’t want to share. Al has been known to abuse the handlink, mostly in frustration, on more than one occasion.

Sam doesn’t leap in chronological order, he can be in 1995 in one leap then jump to 1988 in the next leap or vice versa.

That ends the background information on Quantum Leap. For anyone interested in more QL information, this a great site to start with: http://www.finifter.com/quantum-leap/

A final author’s note: In the show, Sam Beckett didn’t *start* leaping until 1999. And by now he’d have been leaping for at least seven or eight years, making it 2006 or 2007 in Al’s time. So, a couple of years after ep 508 would still be in Al’s past. I hope that clears up any confusion.

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

A blue light appeared and spread itself over the form of police officer Paul Cone. By the time it was gone, Dr. Sam Beckett had switched places with the officer.

As sometimes happened, less often than Sam would have liked, Al appeared almost right away. Also as sometimes happened, *more* often than Sam would have liked, Al appeared agitated, concentrating on the hand-link to Ziggy, the supercomputer that Sam had built for his time travel experiment.

“Stop, Sam. You’re going the wrong way.” Al told him impatiently. “Well technically, sticking to your beat, you’re going the right way, but Ziggy says that’s a bad thing.”

“So, where am I supposed to go?”

”To an alley a few blocks from here, I’ll fill you in on the way.”

“Great, you actually have some answers *before* I get into trouble.” Sam retorted then quickly followed his hologram friend.

“Your name is Paul Cone, you’re a beat cop about to help in the arrest of the wrong person for murder,” Al gave Sam the information obtained from Ziggy. “In the original history a street kid was wrongly accused of killing a cop. The real perp got away but nobody believed the kid when she claimed she didn’t do it, cos nobody saw him.”

“What happened to the kid?”

“The kid’s name is Nikita Wirth…Jones. She was convicted and subsequently recruited into a covert antiterrorist organization in…” Al paused, striking the hand-link impatiently, as was sometimes necessary. “Europe. Section One. Damn, that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Anyway, she eventually rose to the top of the organization…”

“That’s a bad thing though, right?” Sam asked as they rounded another corner.

“Yeah, her father ended up getting killed. A couple of years after that she tried to bring down the organization because the higher ups…” Al slapped the hand-link again. “Killed her former lover and his son cos they were a liability and a weakness.”

“Did she succeed?”

“Enough to bring chaos to the Agency and for terrorism to flourish in the meantime,” Al paused. “Come to think of it, I remember now. It took the Agency two years to recover. Hell, they’re still not up to what they used to be.”

“So, what am I supposed to do about it?” Sam asked, rounding one final corner into an alleyway as the blue light appeared once again.

Entering the alleyway, officer Cone, back in his own body, heard a girl screaming, “Help!” as a man stabbed a police officer and turned towards the girl.

“Drop the knife,” Officer Cone quickly draw his gun and yelled.

********

“Yes?” The man known as Mr. Jones answered his ringing phone.

“The mission has been aborted,” A male voice intoned.

“Aborted?” Jones asked angrily. “Why?”

“Actually, sir, it failed.”

“How?”

“A beat cop stumbled onto the scene too early, saw the whole setup,” He paused. “I checked it out. It was a random.”

“I see,” Jones returned thoughtfully, his mind already working on a contingency.

“Would you like me to initiate a new profile?”

“No,” Jones replied. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Sir?”

“I’ll recruit her myself.”

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

It had been over five years since that fateful blue light changed the course of Section and Agency history. Much had changed thanks to the interference of the quantum leaper.

Phillip Jones personally took on Nikita’s ‘case.’ His other daughter Michelle, was already working for him. When he decided to bring Nikita on board, he sent a grateful Michelle, by then a veteran of the Agency, into the ‘real world’ on an extended leave of absence. The only stipulations were to maintain reasonable contact, keep a low profile and return in four years to re-join her sister in the organization they would someday run in his stead.

While Michelle enjoyed her ‘extended vacation,’ the first since she started working with her father as a teenager, she had no qualms about returning. She didn’t always *enjoy* what she sometimes had to do, but Michelle understood the importance of the Agency and her father’s work and couldn’t see herself doing anything else for the long term.

Nikita for her part, after some initial misgivings also took to Center. Her initial reluctance and anger at her father for abandoning her and her mother was dealt with. Mr. Jones explained that he only tried to do what was best for them. By the time he had found out that Roberta Wirth was pregnant as a result of a brief but memorable affair, Nikita had already been born and the two had moved away.

Thinking he was doing them both a favor by keeping them out of his work, Jones left them alone. It had been a painful decision but one he thought had been right. It wasn’t until years later that he finally convinced himself, with a bit of prodding from Nikita’s half-sister Michelle, that checking up on his ‘second’ family would not irrevocably bring them into his shadowed world.

By then, it had been too late. Roberta had been well on her way to self-destruction with Nikita an unwilling along for the ride. By the time Jones caught up with his former lover she had, in a drunken stupor, kicked their daughter out on the street to fend for herself.

Jones had originally thought to recruit Nikita into Section One and watch from afar as she (hopefully) stood on her own. He’d then bring her in to Center to help right the wrongs that were becoming more commonplace in Section One and throughout the entire Agency. When the profile for her recruitment failed Jones had changed his mind, reasoning that she’d had enough tribulations already in her relatively young life. In Center, Nikita would finally have some semblance of family and a chance at a better life.

In the four years that Nikita in essence traded places with her sister, she proved to be a great asset to the Agency. Just like her father and half-sister, Nikita was intelligent, quick-witted and sharp, a good strategist as well as tactician. Just as importantly, she was a good politician, garnering loyalties equal to her father’s.

By the time Michelle returned from her sojourn to the real world, the Jones’s were already on their way to reforming the organization. Eighteen months after the three ‘reunited’ the entire Agency had been evaluated. Phillip had taken responsibility for Center and assigned Section One, the cornerstone of the Agency, to Nikita. As Michelle, due to her many years of service, had a more extensive knowledge of the Agency than Nikita he assigned the remaining Sections as well as Oversight to her.

********

“Sir?” Gail’s voice came over the intercom in the Perch where Operations, Madeline and Michael were discussing the outcome of the latest mission. Birkoff had been sent in to infiltrate and help dismantle a cult that doubled as a terrorist group and had succeeded.

The triumvirate had disagreed on the wisdom of sending the young head of Comm inside in the first place. Michael had been against the idea, arguing that Birkoff was too valuable to risk on the mission. He had been overridden by Operations, still smarting over Hillinger’s ‘employment’ by Oversight, who felt Birkoff had been coddled too much and needed to prove his worth. Madeline had agreed and Birkoff had been sent.

Thanks to some off-profile activity courtesy of Michael and Walter Birkoff had returned in one piece. Of course, as far as Paul and Madeline knew, the mission never went off profile. As a reward for his success Birkoff was given a week’s downtime after his debrief, leaving Gail in charge during his absence.

“Yes?” Operations answered, hitting the intercom button on the wall by the tinted window overlooking his ‘domain.’

“We’ve received an encoded transmission from Center.”

“Have you deciphered it yet?” Operations asked.

“Yes, sir,” Gail answered. “Your presence is requested at Center.”

“By who?” Operations asked.

“Mr. Jones,” Gail replied.

“Are you certain?” A surprised Operations asked, his mind furiously working on puzzling out the question of ‘why now?’ In his twenty plus years in Section he’d never met the man responsible for running the Agency. The recent standoff with George fresh in his mind, Operations knew this summons was not a coincidence.

“Yes, sir. The signature’s unmistakable.”

“When?”

“Immediately, sir.”

“Very well, you can tell Mr. Jones I’m on my way.”

“Madeline and Michael’s presence has also been requested. He’s downgraded missions on pad in the interim,” Gail relayed the rest of the message.

“Fine, we’ll be on our way in five,” Operations severed the connection and turned to his second in command. “Well, this is unexpected,.” He commented with more calm than he felt.

“Yes.” Madeline agreed serenely even though she wasn’t comfortable with the development either.

“What do you suppose triggered the summons?” Operations wondered aloud.

“I don’t believe it was the stalemate with George. That would have been dealt with sooner,” Madeline replied, addressing the obvious first.

“Perhaps it’s a culmination,” Michael threw in thoughtfully.

“Of what?” Operations asked.

“We’re due for an evaluation by Oversight. With George proving to be ineffective in…controlling us, perhaps Center is stepping in instead.”

********

Section’s top three were escorted through Center by four burly operatives after their identities had been confirmed and their bodies checked for weapons. A short elevator ride preceded a walk through a long, wide corridor. When they reached the frosted glass double doors at the end of the corridor they were motioned inside, the doors sliding open.

The escorts remained outside as the trio entered the futuristic looking office. Seated behind a squared off glass topped desk was a stout sixty-something male and standing on his right was a slim, blonde twenty-something female.

“Please sit down.” The man directed, gesturing to the three chairs on the opposite side of the table and waited for compliance before continuing. “As you’ve already undoubtedly discerned, I am Mr. Jones, the head of the Agency. This is my daughter Nikita,” Jones nodded at the young woman. “You’ve been summoned here for evaluation. Any questions before we begin?”

“Why now?” Operations, the least patient of the three, asked.

“Certain events have necessitated immediate action,” Nikita answered vaguely, taking over the meeting, as pre-arranged with her father. “The motivation will become clear shortly.”

“Of course,” Paul ceded.

“We have studied Section One at length and I have come to definitive conclusions.” Nikita switched to the singular and forestalled any questions about her capabilities, “Be assured, my proficiency extends beyond mere genetics.”

“Who is the performing the evaluations?” Madeline asked for clarification.

“I am,” Nikita answered decisively.

“Justification?” Operations asked.

“Eighteen hour days spent studying every detail of Section One,” Nikita answered Operations’ *real* question.

“From the outside?” Madeline interjected.

“From the inside,” Nikita countered, pressing the intercom button underneath the desk. “Send in Mr. Crawford.” She commanded in response to the voice asking “yes?”

The hidden door behind the desk immediately slid open and a young man emerged. The identity of the newest participant in these proceedings stunned the three Section members.

“Birkoff?” Operations stood. He was not the first to recover from the shock, but he *was* the obvious choice to verbalize the astonishment.

“Actually,” Nikita contradicted. “Mr. Birkoff hasn’t set foot in Section in two years. *This* is his twin, Jason Crawford.”

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

Three years ago Jason Crawford had been the president and majority owner of a multimillion dollar computer software company he’d founded five years previously at the age of eighteen. Set for life and beyond, Jason should have been content. But he wasn’t. He was unhappy and, even worse, bored.

It dawned on Jason that what he was really missing was his old solitary working habits. Sure, he had dozens of people working for him, but he had been happiest when it was just him against the ‘big boys.’ No partners, no backup, no ‘net.’

One night he got his wish, an offer he didn’t want to refuse. He had come home after a typically long day at the office to quite a surprise. Seated on his couch, looking completely at home, was a blonde woman a few years older than him.

Recognizing the woman as the magazine writer who had interviewed him two weeks prior, Jason demanded to know what she was doing there, and better yet, *how* she got there. Security in the apartment building was supposedly state-of-the-art and airtight.

After a vague comment about state-of-the-art being relative, Nikita went on to explain that she had actually been interviewing him for a job rather than a magazine article. She then went on to explain what she had to offer and Jason found himself intrigued.

Finding out he had a twin was shocking enough. Finding out where that brother had been all these years was something else. Nikita had then gone on to tell Jason that they wanted him to impersonate his brother - for several years. She explained what was going to be expected of him in that time. She gave him a cell phone and told him he’d be contacted in a week for his answer. Unspoken was the threat of consequences if this conversation was revealed to *any* one.

Jason didn’t know that Nikita’s charade of two weeks ago had been for research, to determine what approach would be best. If she had had any doubts that Jason would have declined the offer, they wouldn’t have presented it to him as an offer. It served Center’s purposes for Jason to believe he was a willing participant rather than a ‘recruit.’

One week later when the cell phone rang, the young computer wiz said yes. The next evening, as far as the rest of the world knew, Jason Crawford died in a ten car pileup on the freeway. Section One who themselves had been keeping an eye on him for possible future recruitment were disappointed at the loss.

Jason spent the next year studying his heretofore unknown twin, backwards and forwards, inside and out. He was remade into Seymour Birkoff’s mirror image, even undergoing eye surgery to match his brother’s less than perfect vision.

Jason actually only met his brother briefly, barely long enough to exchange their current attire and receive final instructions. He didn’t know that Birkoff was not doing this by ‘choice,’ that he had been grabbed on one of his few outings out of the Section and told to cooperate, or else his friends in Section would suffer the consequences. The two stared at each other for long moments and each swore silently to himself that once this ‘assignment’ was over they’d get to know the other. Assuming they were both still alive, of course.

********

Every aspect of his brother’s life had been relentlessly driven in to Jason so that when he made the switch the ‘integration’ went smoothly and no one in Section was the wiser.

One of the stipulations Jason was working under was that his safety net was very minimal, he should not expect Center to run any interference for him. Sink or swim, he was on his own.

It wasn’t long before it hit Jason what he’d really gotten himself into, but by that time it was too late. He was far from stupid and understood that once he started, there was no backing out. He also understood why *he* had been chosen to replace his brother rather than a look-a-like. Knowing it was his twin that was impersonating him, Birkoff would be less likely to try to ‘interfere’ than if it had been a stranger. Just like Jason, he wanted to one day get to know his brother and wouldn’t intentionally jeopardize his life.

Although he’d been briefed on the people he’d come into contact with, the reality was still startling. Jason couldn’t understand why there was an underlying fear in Birkoff even though he was obviously the best at what he did, no one else in the organization even coming close. It didn’t take long at all for Jason to conclude that in Section, being the best wasn’t always good enough. It also wasn’t long before Jason ‘figured out’ the people around him.

Walter genuinely appeared to care for ‘him’ almost like a son and he was an interesting guy to be around to boot. Walter, even at his age, was still a ladies’ man and Jason, unlike Birkoff, appreciated that aspect of Walter’s personality as well.

Chuck was great, a level four op who actually had a personality, very rare for Section. It was no wonder that Birkoff liked him. Mowen was another high level op that was okay. He wasn’t as animated as Chuck or Walter, but he was a good guy in his on way.

Davenport, a level five op, also seemed okay, but Jason was reserving judgment on him because of the company he kept. ‘Errand boy’ and ‘watchdog’ for TPTB were a couple of the nicknames Davenport had been saddled with.

One guy that Jason didn’t like even though he didn’t exactly know why was a spec op named Jurgen. Granted spec ops were different, had to be in order to be successful, but Jurgen just plain gave Jason the creeps.

As for the ‘major’ players, Jason learned quickly that Operations’ wrath was best avoided - at all costs. Regardless if you were the one to screw up or not, if a mission went wrong, stay out of the man’s reach.

Madeline, Operations’ longtime second in command was even scarier. At least Operations showed some emotion, even if it was anger most of the time. Madeline’s sole purpose it seemed, was the betterment of Section, whatever the cost. Jason had a feeling that no matter their seemingly unbreakable relationship, if push came to shove, Madeline would sacrifice their leader if it benefitted Section’s cause. ‘And,’ Jason thought, ‘she wouldn’t regret it for more than a moment. Lucky for Jason, he’d been briefed on Madeline and knew enough not to fall for her ‘mother hen’ act or (as many ops dubbed it) her ‘Mona Lisa’ smile.

Jason also figured that he had the unofficial third member of the command chain, level five op Michael, pegged as well. At least he thought he did until his sixth mission in Section.

********

Jason’s first mission upon his ‘entrance’ into Section was a retrieval mission and it had also been the first of many lessons that things were seldom as they seemed in Section.

While he oversaw another operation, Michael had gotten shot on a mission to destroy a chemical plant in Klodno. He didn’t make it to the van, but he wasn’t confirmed dead or captured either. A faulty remote detonator had sent Michael in to detonate manually and he had been hit at least twice trying to get back to the van.

Funny thing was that Walter wasn’t censured for faulty equipment and when Jason asked Walter, the older man just gave him a dubious look and told him that his equipment *never* failed.

At first there was no rescue planned, the odds against bringing Michael out too high. Then suddenly things changed and Michael’s life became valuable again. Of course, it was all a cover to bring out a deep cover op without casting suspicion on him.

Jason decided that although the thought of Operations and Madeline playing such ‘games’ with their top operative and protégé was scary, Michael’s reaction, or lack thereof, was even scarier. He’d gone about his business like nothing had happened, like he hadn’t been nearly killed because he didn’t ‘need to know.’

Sure, Jason had already heard about Robo-Op, Terminator and Machine Mode, had himself met the man briefly just before the ill-fated mission had gone out and thought Michael extremely cold, even for Section. But still, something like that *had* to bother you, didn’t it? Michael just shrugged it off like it was normal and expected.

Ever since then Jason had given the man a wide berth. Well, as wide as it could be, given that he was head of Comm and Michael was the field leader.

A few weeks and five missions later, Jason was sitting in a Section van waiting for Michael to plant trackers on a bunch of Stinger missiles. Unfortunately, the team was somehow compromised and the perimeter breached. Jason had undergone firearms training in Center but he’d never actually shot anyone. Hell, he’d never even shot *at* a real target.

Panicked, Jason fairly shrieked into the comm. unit on an open channel. Michael had, predictably, been the first to react, calmly telling him to switch to B channel. Once he did, Michael’s terse, but calm “report” reassured Jason enough to follow the level five operative’s instructions and (repeatedly) shoot the hostile.

Luckily for Jason, Birkoff had never shot anyone either so Section didn’t suspect anything. Upon their return, Jason went to Medlab to get checked out, as per standard procedure. He wasn’t worried about any anomalies in the medical records as he had hacked into the system and changed the records to match his right before leaving Center.

After he left Medlab, Jason sought out Michael to thank him for his help. True to form, Michael merely nodded in acceptance. What *did* surprise Jason was the ‘pep’ talk that followed. Michael told him, it could happen to anyone and offered a few lessons at the target range and simulator.

When Jason told his new friend Walter about the incident and Michael’s subsequent offer, Walter shrugged it off. The cynical, grizzled veteran told Jason that Michael was merely ensuring that the head of comm. stayed in one piece until someone better came along. As for offering to ‘help’ afterwards Walter muttered that he had just caught Michael on a good day.

Unconvinced, Jason made a mental note to figure out if Michael’s thoughtfulness was a singularity or if he had been genuinely concerned.

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

Author’s note: Just a reminder that in *this* timeline Any Means Necessary followed Three Eyed Turtle

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

Over the next year and a half, Jason had come to doubt his original opinion, deciding that Walter was probably right. Sealing that belief was Michael’s response to him when Jason asked for his help in dealing with Felix, an operative recently placed in abeyance. The cold op had it in for Jason, blaming him for being put in abeyance.

Jason went to Michael for help. He told him that Felix threatened to kill him and asked him what he should do. Michael’s answer? “Don’t let him.” At the time, it sure as hell sounded like a rebuff. Fortunately for Jason, the problem was taken care of, although not before he ended up pulling a gun on Operations, mistaking him for Felix.

As much as he wanted to believe his original gut instinct about Michael after that first incident, the man had given him nothing to ‘work with’ since. With evaluation fast approaching, Jason had nothing to back up his original impression and classified Michael in the same category as his superiors.

Even though Operations had wound up with a stalemate with George, he was still upset. Most disconcerting to him was the fact that George had stuck his own mole right under their noses. The cocky computer genius they thought they had gotten rid of, Greg Hillinger, was very much alive. Worse, he had stolen the Gemstone file and brought it to George.

The Gemstone file contained very damaging information, not the least of which was evidence of Section’s cancelation of Adrian, the mother of Section, after they discovered her plans for a coup. While that information would damage only Section’s relationship with the head of Oversight, there was plenty of other intel on that disc that would destroy Section’s leaders if it got out. Thankfully, their obtaining the Key file, an equally damaging disc on George, allowed the stalemate.

Still smarting at opening the chicken coop door to the wolf themselves by recruiting Hillinger in the first place, Operations decided that it was about time for Birkoff to be tested in the field. He was old enough, and had been in Section long enough. If he couldn’t perform in the field, they’d replace him with someone who could.

‘Birkoff’s’ test came in the form of a cult/terrorist group called ‘Soldats de la Liberte.’ The head of Comm was sent in to infiltrate without any prior field training. Jason almost didn’t make it back. He thought for sure he was a goner when Michael appeared out of nowhere with a gun to his head, especially given the fact that he had used the man to establish his loyalty to the group and nearly gotten him killed.

Granted, Jason had used Michael because he figured the level five op could get himself and his team out of *any* situation, but Michael hadn’t known that. When Michael trained his gun on Jason with that infamous ‘blank stare’ of his, Jason was ready to upchuck his stomach’s contents.

On the way back to Section, Jason once again thanked Michael for asking questions before shooting and then believing the answers. Michael simply nodded his approval at Jason’s tactics, telling him he understood that the younger man had merely done what he had to complete the mission and return in one piece.

Jason figured that since Michael was in such a talkative mood, well talkative for him anyway, he’d ask a question that had been bugging him for a while.

“Why didn’t you help me with Felix?” Jason asked quietly, trying to keep the conversation private as he turned around from the console to face Michael who was sitting on the bench behind him.

“I did,” Michael countered, his surprise at the question masked by his impenetrable gaze.

“Huh?” Jason asked, confused.

“I knew you could handle him,” Michael elaborated. “You needed to know it, too.”

********

Jason was still pondering Michael’s answer when he to went to Madeline’s office to debrief with her and Operations upon their return to Section. After a very thorough debrief, Operations smiled his wolf’s smile and told him that as a reward for his first successful field mission they were granting him three days of downtime.

When he got home after his debrief (he had moved out of Section as quickly as possibly without arousing suspicion), he found he’d come full circle. Sitting on the couch just as she had almost three years ago was Nikita Jones.

Jason’s work in Section was finally over. It was time for evaluation.

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

Before the implications of Jason Crawford’s impersonation of his twin could sink in, the trio was split up.

Jones and Jason left the office for parts unknown while Nikita remained behind with Operations and Madeline. Michael was ushered into the waiting room where Jason had come in from and was left alone to ponder his fate in light of the separation from his superiors. As Section’s efficiency had remained constant and he’d been almost as large a part of Section command and policy as his superiors, Michael ruminated on why he had been separated from them.

Michael didn’t think the separation boded well for him. There were no ‘openings’ in the other Sections. They had recently been evaluated and necessary changes made. If it had been as simple as promoting Operations and possibly Madeline to a position in Oversight, there would be no reason to exclude him from the proceedings - unless he wasn’t slotted for the Perch.

Although Michael saw nothing in his performance to suggest dissatisfaction, he knew that didn’t mean Center wouldn’t. Perhaps they felt his primary strengths were in the field and had decided to keep him where he was. Recognizing the futility of debating an already determined fate, Michael sat back and concentrated on an upcoming mission he was due to lead. He’d familiarized himself with the schematics of the weapons warehouse earlier so he mentally went over all the possible ingress and egress points again and considered alternative contingencies.

********

While Michael was busy trying not to think about what was going on the other side of the door, Nikita had begun Section One’s evaluation. Operations, Madeline and Michael were the only ones who’d been ‘invited’ to Center, the rest would be evaluated inside Section One.

“Section One has gone down an interesting path in recent years,” Nikita began, sitting behind the desk her father had vacated while Operations and Madeline sat across from her. “As time is of the essence, we’ll just hit a few highlights.”

“Of course,” Operations stated blandly for the both of them while Madeline sat on his right side, an almost thoughtful expression on her face.

“Let’s start with Dorian Enquist,” Nikita looked at the two in front of her for a reaction. She didn’t need to look at her computer screen as she had all the facts memorized.

“What about him?” Operations asked tightly, remembering the late green-listed supplier and informant.

“You jeopardized a mission and sensitive material…” Nikita answered, her tone deceptively mild.

“Madeline was not acceptable collateral,” Operations interrupted while Madeline remained silent, not surprised that this episode was coming back to haunt them. She *knew* Operations had made the wrong decision back then in sending a retrieval team to stop Michael who was in mandatory refusal. In the end Michael completed his mission and got Madeline out, but not before getting shot by the retrieval team. He’d ended up spending more time in Medlab as a result than Madeline.

“Since when do we put ourselves before the unprotected public?” Nikita asked, her tone less mild. “Before you answer that one, let’s talk about Nikolai Markali. The evidence was soft, yet you proceeded anyway.”

“Had we waited until after the election it would have been too late. He was on Badenheim’s payroll, the people Markali would have put in place would carry on even without him.”

“The fact that as a result of your still unproven contention your ex-wife was placed in a sanitarium had nothing to do with it?” Nikita asked rhetorically then continued. “Even more disturbing, the election proceeded and Badenheim placed a proven puppet in the position.” She turned to Madeline, “And you supported the profile, even though you had doubts from the outset.”

“Paul’s track record was impeccable,” Madeline finally spoke up. “Regardless of my… feelings on the matter, I believed Paul knew what he was doing.”

“Yes, you certainly believe in each other more than the Section, I’ll give you that.”

“Meaning what?” Operations asked.

“Rather than conforming to standard policy you decided to try to circumvent or suborn it to suit your own purposes, not Section’s,” Nikita replied. “We could continue on this course and discuss, among others, Charles Sands at length, but I’d like to address more current utilization of Section for your own agenda.”

“George,” Madeline guessed that the means they used to gain their stalemate with the head of Oversight did not go unnoticed.

“Yes,” Nikita confirmed. “As we speak, George is being retired as a result of his role and his inability to control the Sections, mainly One, but the others as well.”

“And our fate?” Operations asked, knowing now that his and Madeline’s would be similar.

“The same,” Nikita answered. “With the stipulation that there will be no challenge. Any attempts at obstruction will result in immediate cancellation.”

********

Once the two former leaders of Section One were escorted to their new ‘home,’ Nikita sat back for a moment. She didn’t think the two who’d just left would go quietly, but she was prepared. The ‘community’ they’d been sent to was under strict surveillance and Nikita had several operatives who’d be taking advantage of that close surveillance. Worst case scenario, she *would* keep her word. Any attempts to come out of retirement would be met with swift cancelation.

Now, unto the next evaluation. Michael Samuelle, senior cold op and field leader, unofficial third in command. Interesting dossier was an understatement. He’d been brought into Section a decade ago, graduated training in a little over half the allotted time and immediately attained level three status.

Michael had very rarely failed to do Section One’s bidding or achieve successful closure on a mission. The last glaring failure had been about five years ago, ironically not long after Nikita begun working for her father. He’d been put into a long term undercover mission. A blood cover was very rare for the Agency, only a handful of them attempted over the years and only when all other options failed.

Michael had had to be pulled out of the mission after several months. While he had progressed to a close relationship with Salla Vacek’s daughter, Madeline felt that Michael would not be able to maintain a convincing appearance of attachment for the long term that this mission would no doubt require.

Madeline had tried distracting him by having him mentor a female recruit. She’d hoped that between these two duties Michael would come out of the emotional abyss he’d fallen into following his wife’s ‘death’ on a mission.

But when her strategy failed, Section pulled Michael off the assignment and put his aloofness and emotional detachment to better use. Since then, going by the numbers, Michael’s single-minded devotion to Section One’s goals, as structured by its leaders, and his record had been impeccable.

Nikita’s instincts were hardly ever wrong and in this case they were telling her that what she was about to do was a mistake. She had the feeling she would regret this later, but the decision had already been made and her word given.

********

“Sit down, please,” Nikita swiveled her chair towards the opening door behind her. She waited until Michael settled into one of the chairs vacated by his ex-superiors. “Paul and Madeline won’t be returning to Section One.” Nikita didn’t pull any punches.

“Oversight?” Michael asked even though Nikita’s tone made him think otherwise.

“Retirement.” Nikita answered.

“Why?” Michael asked, trying to gauge his own fate without giving her the satisfaction of asking directly.

“They deviated from the Agency’s goals.”

“How?”

“Rather than serve the greater good, they’ve been serving their own agenda,” Nikita answered. “Paul has been slowly drawing the map of the world in his own image and Madeline has been going along with him rather than setting it right. Attempting to impede Oversight, Section’s governing body, was the last straw.”

“Section One’s success against terrorism has been constant,” Michael countered.

“Perhaps the numbers were high, however, the ends were no longer just but rather self-serving,” Nikita contradicted. “Regardless of your opinion on the matter the decision has been made, debate is futile.”

“Am I being retired as well?” Michael finally asked evenly, even though he was fairly sure of the answer. Had his fate been the same as his former superiors’ he wouldn’t been separated from them in the first place. Not that he really cared one way or another. If he was truthful with himself, he’d admit that he’d been unconcerned with his own fate for a long time now.

“I will be assuming command of Section One for the immediate future,” Nikita answered. “My father and I both feel that you are too much Paul’s protégé to adhere to the significant policy changes I will be implementing. Furthermore, you have shown ruthless tendencies rivaling Paul’s. You show no regard for innocents or your fellow operatives.”

“Am I being slotted for cancelation?” Michael asked blandly.

“That was the original plan.” Nikita drawled. “I don’t think you’re capable of adapting.”

“I see,” Michael commented calmly, prepared for his fate.

“However, someone disagrees,” Nikita paused. “For whatever reason Jason thinks you’re still salvageable. In his two years in Section, he thinks he’s seen something that I’ve missed.”

“What?”

“Potential,” Nikita replied. “So, you have three months to prove one of us wrong.”

“How?”

“You’ll be moved to second in command and replace Madeline.”

“What are the conditions?” Michael asked, understanding he’d be on ‘probation,’ something he hadn’t been subjected to in almost ten years, for the duration.

“Your mind-set has to change,” Nikita answered. “Every mission that goes out will optimize civilian and operative survival. Furthermore, a majority of the abeyance pool will be reintegrated into the mainstream and you’ll be expected to help accelerate retraining.”

“Is that all?” Michael asked, blank stare still intact.

“No,” Nikita answered. “Your current position needs to be filled. Whatever the outcome of the next three months, you will not be returning to field command. The best in-house candidate is Davenport. However, he isn’t ready yet so I’m transferring an operative back to fill the vacancy in the meantime.”

“I understand.”

“Good. If you adapt, you’ll take over the Perch and the field leader will take over as second with Davenport succeeding him in the field.”

“Who are you bringing in?”

“Jurgen.”

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

*Author’s note: since TPTB didn’t give us too much about you-know-whose background, as my favorite ‘houseboy’ (a cross between Lucy and Desi) said, “I make it up, I make it up.” :) ************************************************************************

Jurgen had come to Section One fifteen years ago. Never completely comfortable in Section, he nevertheless had always been two things: a good soldier and a survivor. Both traits came in handy and he flourished despite his initial reluctance.

Although he wasn’t overly extroverted, Jurgen developed a few friendships in Section. One of those friendships had been with an operative named Simone. Contrary to popular belief their relationship had always been platonic. Jurgen’s affections were always those of an older brother, not a lover.

Because of his military background Jurgen had ‘graduated’ six months early and had been an operative for over three and a half years by the time Michael arrived in Section. At the time Michael was brought into Section, prison recruitment was still a fairly new program, only in existence for a few years. They’d originally started the program to increase the number of operatives, still low after the coup that dethroned Adrian several years before.

The two leaders, Madeline especially, saw almost unlimited potential after Michael’s initial evaluation upon his recruitment. Jurgen had been given Michael to train with orders to train him ‘intensely.’ Jurgen followed orders and trained Michael almost mercilessly. His methods were a success as evidenced by Michael’s unprecedented graduation nine months ahead of the two year schedule and immediate promotion to level three.

While Jurgen had merely been following orders in his training, Michael didn’t exactly see it that way. Though Michael eventually understood that Jurgen was only doing his job, that didn’t mean he ever thought of his trainer as a friend either.

When Simone and Michael started seeing each other Jurgen figured it wouldn’t last, nothing in Section really ever did. Most operatives, cold ops especially, took comfort from each other more than anything else. Even that didn’t often last too long, the possibility of not returning from a mission usually a deterrent from getting too close.

Such ‘casual’ relationships were tolerated, even encouraged by Operations and Madeline, by then in command of Section for several years. Outside relationships were, for obvious reasons, frowned upon in Section, so operatives’ ‘dependency’ on one another was considered the lesser of two evils.

To everyone’s surprise though, Michael and Simone grew closer and closer. Jurgen, like many others, couldn’t understand what kept the two together. They were as different as night and day. Where Simone was warm, Michael was cold. She was outgoing, he was reticent. The only thing they seemed to have in common was the ability to complete a mission and immediately move on.

Regardless of his opinion, Jurgen saw how happy Simone was with Michael so he and his former material ‘tolerated’ each other. Michael for his part, despite assertions to the contrary from both parties, was never completely convinced that his former trainer’s feelings for his wife were strictly platonic. All in all it made for a tense relationship between the two most important prople in Simone’s life. Tense, but civil. At least until the mission that ruined all three lives.

Operations and Madeline did not put up with Michael and Simone’s marriage for very long. The couple had ‘eloped’ while on mutual downtime. But rather than force a separation and negatively impact morale, the Section leaders decided to show the newlyweds exactly what permission to maintain a marriage in Section would entail.

********

In Section One Operations ordered it and Madeline carried it out. He dictated the destination while she dictated the course. Operations’ destination was the breakup of Michael and Simone.

Even as far back as the pair’s frowned upon marriage, Operations planned on eventually moving up into Oversight and had already slotted Michael for the Perch. He wanted no interference in his protégé’s ascent. In his opinion, Simone was a stumbling block.

Operations believed there was no room for emotion at the top, only duty. It wasn’t so much that he conveniently forgot his own occasional emotional ‘outbursts,’ but rather that he wanted to eliminate what he perceived as a weakness of his own from his eventual heir.

A hard wedge was not a viable option, the disintegration of Michael and Simone’s relationship had to be appear ‘natural,’ the result of life in Section rather than the result of machinations, to discourage others.

The first thing Madeline did to that end was convince Operations to promote Michael to level four while keeping Simone at level three. No longer equal, Simone would have to follow orders while Michael gave them. Madeline assigned the most difficult missions she could for the pair, not so much *physically* difficult as emotionally.

When that didn’t bring about enough of a wedge between husband and wife, Madeline assigned Michael a blood cover mission. The timing of George’s ‘request’ to step up their efforts against Salla Vacek coincided perfectly with Madeline’s plans.

Under the guise of doing anything and everything possible to expose the exceptionally insulated terrorist, Michael was assigned to seduce and then eventually marry Vacek’s daughter Elena.

Again, the pair persevered, but Madeline did so love a challenge. Finally, three months after the Vacek assignment, Madeline found the perfect mission. A husband and wife scenario was needed for a six week long mission. Due to the Vacek mission still being in its early stages, Michael could not simply disappear for that long without losing whatever ground he had gained with Elena. Madeline’s solution to the ‘problem’ was sending Simone in with Jurgen.

The two operatives came back from the six week long mission with their relationship unchanged, but the mission served its purpose. Michael and Simone were never the same. Michael’s earlier doubts about his wife and his former trainer resurfaced, reassurances from Simone not enough to extinguish the old doubts completely.

Simone soon began to wonder if maybe Michael’s doubts were based on his experiences in his undercover mission. Perhaps he had begun to feel something for the target and was trying to put the blame on her to alleviate his own guilt. Mistrust rapidly reigned in their private lives and before long bled into their professional lives.

A few scant weeks later, after another argument that seemed the norm recently, the duo was sent out on what was supposed to be a cold mission against a group calling themselves Glass Curtain. Simone asked for backup upon which a still irate Michael asked her if she was now doubting his skills as an operative as well as his continued commitment to them. An angry and exasperated Simone told him to forget it and they left without backup.

Jurgen never forgave Michael for allowing Simone to ‘die’ because of what he perceived was petty jealousy and ego. Whatever fragile truce they had was severed after that mission and their animosity became palpable.

Also palpable as a result was Michael’s descent into an emotional abyss. He shut down completely, refusing any human contact and became more machine than human. The shutdown was so complete that he had to be removed from the Vacek mission as Madeline feared his coldness and detachment would make any union between him and Elena very short-lived.

Two and a half years later Jurgen led a mission against a resurrected Glass Curtain and found a tortured Simone in the compound. A fire-fight ensued during egress and Simone took a bullet that had been heading straight for Jurgen. He managed to get her out and on to the waiting Section helicopter.

Simone’s injury was severe and coupled with her two years spent as Sparks’ ‘plaything’ she didn’t make it back to Section. Before she died however, she managed to tell a newly promoted Michael (who had been overseeing tactical from Section), via comm. link that she loved him.

The tables turned and Michael never forgave Jurgen for Simone’s death and he wasn’t the only one. Jurgen never forgave himself either and knew he could never return to field work under Section’s current regime. He’d suspected that they, at the very least, knew of Simone’s continued existence. He’d been gathering blackmail material on Operations and Madeline over the years and finally put it to use to get himself out of the field.

Jurgen was transferred to Spec Ops and he and Michael stayed out of each other’s way for the next year until a highly irregular transfer to Center took him out of Section. Jurgen was still an honorable man, at least as honorable as one could be given their occupation. Once he was confident in his latest superior and his new position he destroyed the blackmail intel against his former superiors, thereby not allowing it to get into the hands of people who might put it more sinister use than he did.

Center would have transferred him sooner, but Nikita waited an extra six months until they were sure Jason was ‘secure’ in Section. Jurgen was well thought of in Center and after half a year of observation and testing, Nikita decided he was the right person for what she needed.

Nikita explained Center’s plans to Jurgen. Years spent in Section under Operations and Madeline and their constant mind games more than convinced Jurgen that Section needed change and he was ready to do whatever was asked of him.

For the next year Jurgen trained and learned all he needed to in order to assume field leader position upon his return to Section. He also trained with Nikita and others for Madeline’s position, something that was a certain eventuality as well. In that year Jurgen and Nikita developed a friendship that had recently turned into something more. What that ‘something more’ was exactly was something they were both still trying to figure out.

********

Eighteen months after Jurgen left Section, Nikita told a resigned Michael that his former trainer would be taking over his position.

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

Shortly after Operations, Madeline and Michael departed for Center an Agency housekeeping team swept into Section. As they sanitized the Perch and Madeline’s office they were observed by the few operatives still milling about at that late hour. Sanitation complete, they split up, one group heading for the Tower, Operations’ in-house lodging the other to Madeline’s Section quarters.

Once they left Davenport and Chuck congregated by Munitions, figuring if anyone was privy to what was going on, it would be Walter. The two field ops had been around long enough to know that something big was happening. Neither could remember the last time any Agency sweepers came in to Section.

Davenport, Chuck and Mowen had been on the way out when the team had come in, assuming they’d hear all about their leaders’ summons in the morning. Reckoning that the summons would mean ‘shaping up and shaking up’ for Section personnel, they figured they’d better get a good night’s sleep before the shoe dropped in the morning.

Seeing the housekeeping team arrive postponed their departure. The three found things to do until the sweepers finally left. Davenport and Chuck were waiting with Walter until Mowen returned with confirmation that the Agency team had cleared van access.

“Damn,” Walter cursed as soon as Mowen joined them. “I wish Birkoff was here. He’d be able to hack in to that transmission Center sent and see what the hell is going on.”

“What do you think it is?” Davenport, the highest level op of the group asked Walter.

“I’m betting on a new regime,” Walter replied.

“You think Operations finally got Oversight?” Mowen asked. It was a well known fact that Operations was after George’s job. If he was moving up, it’d stand to reason that Madeline was going with him. It would explain housekeeping, preparing for the next Section chief.

“Maybe,” Walter answered. “But, I don’t know if that would be such a good thing.” “What do you mean?” Chuck asked, surprised. “You’d be sorry to see him go?”

“To Oversight, yeah.” Walter confirmed. “You’d think they’d have better sense than that.”

“All I know is I’d be one happy camper if he and Madeline were gone. Better Oversight’s problem than ours.” Davenport chimed in. “You think they’ll give the Perch to Michael?”

“Hope not.” Walter muttered then elaborated before Chuck could protest. “A few years ago, I’d be thrilled with the move. But you gotta admit your friend died along with his wife. He ain’t the same man anymore.”

“Can you blame him?” Chuck retorted, about to say more when Walter interrupted again.

“Besides, if that was the case, they’d have moved Michael’s things to the Tower to make room for his replacement.”

Before the four men could discuss anything further, they heard a commotion and turned to see seven people entering the main area.

A twenty-something blonde woman, flanked by two bodyguards, came striding purposefully in, her destination the Perch. Following closely behind were Michael and former Section op Jurgen. And just behind them were what appeared to be two Birkoff’s.

********

By noon a briefing was underway, all the furor had died down to whisperings and mutterings and it was almost back to business as usual. Nikita had thought it best to show Jason and Birkoff together to avoid complications later.

Jason could not remain in Section because regardless of the secrecy surrounding his ‘duplicity’ intel would filter out and rumors would inevitably make the rounds. Rather than leaving Section personnel wondering about the authenticity of Jason and doubting that there was in fact a twin, Nikita felt it best to show irrefutable proof that it hadn’t been Birkoff who’d been ‘spying’ on them. It was necessary to smooth Birkoff’s reintegration into Section and avoid operatives’ need to take the new regime’s word for the truth.

Birkoff had already been instructed to say nothing other than that he was pulled out without warning and isolated with the threat of cancellation for himself and anyone he tried to contact. Of course, most operatives, knowing the way things worked would have no doubt believing Birkoff’s claims.

The noon briefing consisted of Nikita laying out a new mission’s objectives and Michael’s elaboration of the strategy. It was a simple search and destroy of a small cell of an up and coming terrorist group calling themselves The Collective. Nikita felt it was the perfect test for all involved. There were a half dozen or so Collective operatives holed up in an abandoned warehouse in a relatively busy waterfront.

Davenport would be team leader with Jurgen overseeing tactical in-house. Since this was Jurgen’s first tactical oversight command as field leader, Michael would be listening in to evaluate and help out if necessary.

As the mission would not go live for another six hours, Michael retreated to Madeline’s former office, now his. His excuse was that he had a lot of work to do to familiarize himself with his new responsibilities.

When they’d returned to Section, Nikita had given Michael the Collective mission to profile, her instructions clear. The terrorists were collateral, everyone else wasn’t. Michael had done as he’d been told, biting back any comments. He knew he was perceived in the same category as his former leaders, obtaining goals at *any* cost, including civilian and operative lives. Disputing claims to the contrary would be fruitless.

Michael strode into his new office and sat down behind the desk. He’d been offered the choice of renovation, but declined anything drastic, merely getting rid of the flowers and changing the desk and chair. Why bother? Either way he was only going to be there for three months.

Sitting down and logging on to the computer Michael checked to make sure there were no urgent matters that needed his immediate attention. That done, Michael sat back, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and finally allowed himself to reflect on his so-called promotion.

Center’s evaluation of Michael did something to the new second in command for only the second time since reaching operative status in Section One. It made him doubt his abilities, something very dangerous in his line of work.

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

The first time Michael had doubted himself professionally was over five years ago, after Simone ‘died.’ They’d had an argument and Michael let his emotions get the best of him. He’d told her in anger that backup was unnecessary rather than thinking it through clearly as he would have done had the suggestion come from anyone else.

Michael himself was injured on that mission, badly enough to keep him in Medlab for a few days. The Michael that emerged from Medlab was not the same one who’d left for the mission three days prior.

Guilt and grief followed by fear motivated Michael from the moment he woke up and remembered what had gotten him admitted into Medlab. The fact that his wife died on a mission because of him was too much for the ‘old’ Michael to handle. To cope, he emerged a new man.

Michael had always known that he belonged in Section. At first he believed he was doing penance for the youthful transgressions which had resulted in the death of almost a dozen people. The fact that he’d been betrayed by his comrades in L’heure Sanguine when they’d ‘mistakenly’ set the bomb off in the university for noon rather than midnight didn’t change the fact that he’d been the one to build the bomb in the first place.

Ultimately, he’d come to regard his work in Section as more than reparation. Michael started to believe in what he did, moving up the ranks quickly as a result of both his natural and learned skills. While he wasn’t exactly happy, he was content with the good he knew he was doing.

Gradually, Michael carved out a niche for himself in Section One, developing a few close friendships while still maintaining his unprecedented numbers. He and Simone had started out as friends, as she’d been one of the few females he worked with who didn’t immediately invite him into her bed.

Friendship eventually turned into more and Michael and Simone ended up falling in love. Falling in love hadn’t been the mistake, alerting Section by getting married had been. After his wife’s death Michael blamed only himself for allowing something or someone to distract him from what he’d come to regard as his duty.

His shut down was a direct result of that guilt and grief as well as the fear of letting it happen again. Other than having had to pull him out of the blood cover Operations and Madeline were happy with the new, and what they’d deemed improved, Michael. So much so, that they’d promoted him to level five far ahead of the normal curve and anointed him the unofficial third in command.

Just when Michael thought it was safe to go back into the proverbial water, to once again establish some close human contact without fear or guilt, he received a painful reminder that it wasn’t.

A previously inactive Glass Curtain made their presence known again by downing airplanes. Not trusting Michael to lead the team in the field on this one, Operations sent Jurgen. When it was all over, Simone was found only to be lost again, this time permanently.

Whatever niche Michael had managed to carve out of for himself again so recently was gone in the space of a few minutes. This time, the abyss was deeper. So deep, that even Operations and Madeline worried about his state of mind.

Recklessness and suicidal tendencies prevailed and Operations needed something to keep Michael from going over the edge, thereby losing their ‘investment.’ Madeline, as usual, was ordered to find that something.

Madeline knew exactly what needed to be done, but she decided that she needed an indirect approach. She sent Michael to meet a contact in a public park. Michael was told to be there at two even though she told the contact to show at two-thirty.

Madeline’s reasoning? That particular park was popular among the upper middle-class families who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods and Madeline had it on ‘good authority’ that a particular mother and child often frequented the park after lunch.

While waiting for the contact, Michael watched the patrons of the park detachedly until he saw a familiar face - Elena Vacek. Taking refuge behind a tree, Michael watched as Elena cheered on a young boy playing soccer with a few other children. Once, in scolding the boy because he wasn’t playing ‘gentlemanly,’ Elena called out the boy’s full name in a warning tone.

The boy’s name? Adam Michael. Looking at the child, Michael guessed him to be about four years old. Quick calculations brought forth suspicions that Michael investigated as soon as he’d concluded his meet with the contact.

Less than two days later, after hacking in to hospital records and medical files Michael confirmed his suspicions. Adam was his child, conceived just before he had been pulled out of the blood cover. Hacking into Section records, Michael discovered that Doug Carter, a level four operative with a background in valentine operations was now ‘on the case.’ He and Elena had married just under two years ago and Section was still waiting for Salla Vacek to make an appearance.

Michael had been in Section far too long to believe in coincidence and he knew enough to recognize their games. So, Operations and Madeline wanted him to know that he had a son without telling him directly and overtly blackmailing him into returning to form.

Fine, if that’s the way they wanted it, Michael would play along. He was a patient man, knew Section wouldn’t move while the mission was still in play and risk losing their quarry in any way. Until the endgame was achieved Michael would monitor. Once Salla Vacek was caught, then they’d ‘negotiate.’

Vacek *was* caught eventually. Six months before Center decided to step in and turn Section upside down a scenario was enacted. Elena was poisoned and thinking that his daughter was dying Salla Vacek came to her hospital bedside only to be gunned down along with his supposed son-in-law.

Negotiations began soon after with both parties laying their proverbial cards on the table. Since Michael was back in the fold, Operations was content to let things remain status quo.

In exchange for Michael’s continued high level performance Adam (and Elena) would be taken care of and records altered to erase Michael from the equation. Changing the records was easy. Section swooped in and took Elena and Adam under the guise of witness protection and explained that falsifying data would better ensure their future anonymity.

Michael accepted the terms and continued to produce. Operations had given his word that he had taken care of Adam’s safety personally and Michael had no reason to doubt the man’s word, at least in this case. Operations had given Michael his word of honor in the past and had kept it, and this time was no different. He’d used one of his many outside, non-Section resources to ensure that no one besides himself, Michael and Madeline would be privy to the truth.

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

Bringing his thoughts back to the present, Michael understood that things were different now and the new regime expected a different kind of production from him. Adapting was something he normally did exceptionally well, but the truth was that he was tired.

Michael knew that if he was honest with himself, he’d acknowledge the fact that Jurgen had what it took to replace him as field leader until Davenport was ready. Furthermore, psych ops was always a specialty of his former trainer’s and it would serve him well when he’d become second in command in three months. He’d never be right for the Perch but Madeline’s old position suited Jurgen well.

Michael was no fool, knew what would happen after the three month probationary period ended. He’d either be given the Perch and Nikita would return to Center or he’d simply be canceled with Jurgen replacing while Nikita remained in the Perch until someone else was ready.

The only thing Michael didn’t know was whether or not he cared about which of the two scenarios would play out.

********

Nikita stood by the darkened windows looking down from the Perch. Her first day in Section was finally over. Jurgen had successfully run tactical oversight for the mission against the Collective and Davenport had performed well in the field. The team had retrieved some useful intel that she’d immediately forwarded along to Michael for profiling a follow up mission.

After debriefing Jurgen had gone to his new place to finish unpacking while Michael had retreated to his Section quarters claiming it was too late to go home, especially given that he needed to be in by five.

Taking one last look at her ‘domain,’ Nikita sighed and headed for her own temporary quarters. The Tower would be ready in a couple of days, the remodeling she wanted negligible.

On her way out Nikita spotted Walter closing up Munitions. Taking a detour Nikita walked over to the older man and waited while he closed up shop and lowered the gate.

“Hello,” Nikita smiled in greeting.

“Ma’am,” Walter turned to his new boss, not sure what to call her.

“Nikita’s fine.”

“Well, that’ll take some getting used to,” Walter returned, uncomfortable in the woman’s presence. While he may have been unhappy with Operations and Madeline’s way of doing business over the last few years, he didn’t yet know if this change was for better or for worse. “Something I can do for you?”

“You’ve been here the longest of anyone. You’ve also seen the most,” Nikita began. “I’m curious, what’s your take on this place?”

“You don’t want my opinion. If you did, you would have asked before not after,” Walter answered, unafraid of the consequences. He *had* been in Section a long time, almost thirty years. Cancellation and retirement were threats he’d lived under for more years than he cared to count. “So, what is it that you *really* want?”

“You’re wrong,” Nikita contradicted Walter. “I *did* count your opinion.”

“How? I never talked to anyone from Center,” A light bulb went off. “Jason.”

“Yes, Jason,” Nikita confirmed. “You and he were very close.”

“Yeah, now I see why,” Walter returned. “Don’t know why anything around here still surprises me.”

“Actually, his only job was to gather information and stay alive.”

“Whatever,” Walter was unconvinced. “What’s your point?”

“Like I said, thirty years and you’re still here. What makes you come to work every day, so to speak, after all these years?”

“Someone’s gotta make sure these kids come back in one piece,” Walter answered. “As long as I can keep helping to make sure that happens, I’ll keep coming to work.”

“So, it’s not the place but the people?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, then,” Nikita paused, changing tactics. “I noticed you haven’t had a physical in quite some time.”

“Don’t need one,” Walter countered. “I can take care of my own aches and pains, been doing it for years.”

“Nevertheless, I expect you to get checked out in the next couple of days.”

“What for?”

“To make sure you can help the ‘kids’ come back in one piece for another thirty years,” Nikita answered then turned around to go ‘home’ while Walter stared thoughtfully at her retreating figure.

********

Four weeks had gone by and things settled into a routine, or at least as routine as they could be in Section. After an initial wariness, Nikita had come to be accepted and respected by most of the operatives. The sweeping changes she’d made in her first month didn’t hurt.

The fact that Walter, whose opinion was one of the most respected among recruits and operatives of all levels, had taken to affectionately calling her Sugar within a couple of weeks helped, too. That Nikita (having from day one abolished the title of Operations) allowed it helped even more.

What helped the most though, were Section’s numbers in that time period. The overall success rate remained where it was but losses, both Section and civilian, dropped. The operatives weren’t stupid, they knew that Nikita wasn’t solely responsible for the numbers shift. Michael had been responsible for strategy, Jurgen oversaw tactical and Davenport, Chuck and Mowen led most of the teams. What *was* credited to Nikita was the fact that acceptable collateral was no longer so readily acceptable.

Jurgen was fitting in well, too. He established himself as competent rather quickly. But he established something even more important just as quickly - his accessibility and affability. It was something his predecessor hadn’t done in almost five years, a long time in Section years. So long in fact, that few remembered Michael as anyone other than ‘The Terminator.’

Opinion on the former filed leader and current second in command was still up for debate.

Walter had finished collecting the gear from the latest mission, putting it aside for inspection and conversing with Birkoff and the returning team leader, newly promoted level five operative Chuck. Jurgen had run tactical with Davenport watching and learning. With Michael moving out of the field and Jurgen’s status as field leader temporary, personnel moves had been made.

Other than Nikita and Jurgen no one knew that Michael was on probation. The assumption was that Nikita was here to oversee and smooth the transition. Davenport training for Michael’s old position further fueled that assumption.

Most figured that once Nikita was ‘comfortable’ with all the personnel moves she would return to Center. They were only partially correct, however. The truth was that as Michael had guessed, if he exceeded expectations and proved Nikita wrong he would attain the Perch and Jurgen would move up to second. If Michael ‘failed’ Jurgen would still move up to second, the position he had been training for in the last year and Nikita would remain in the Perch until a suitable candidate was primed.

As Walter was finishing up and the only operative left at Munitions was Chuck, the three conversed while waiting for Chuck’s summons to debrief.

“Good job, man,” Birkoff congratulated Chuck on his first successful mission since his promotion. The computer wiz was slowly working his way back into the fold and re-establishing friendships after a two year absence.

“Thanks,” Chuck smiled.

“Yeah, lucky for you there’s a new boss,” Walter grinned. “Otherwise with your stellar personality you’d be in abeyance instead.”

“That reminds me, who recommended the promotion?” Chuck asked Birkoff, figuring he’d know.

“Michael.”

“Really?” Walter asked, surprised.

“What?” Chuck defended his former friend. “I’ve been telling you not to count him out of your five percent club.”

“One act doesn’t…” Walter began.

“Chuck, debrief with Jurgen,” Nikita came by Munitions for her informal appointment with Walter. She had taken to practicing on the shooting range and familiarizing herself with Walter’s latest gadgets at least twice a week.

”Better get back to Comm myself.” Birkoff muttered, still not entirely comfortable in Nikita’s presence, despite what he’d heard from Jason and Walter. Unlike his brother and friend, Birkoff’s introduction to Nikita and Center wasn’t on the best of terms and he was still wary.

As Birkoff turned to go, Michael strode through the area on his way to the white room to interrogate the hostile Chuck and his team had brought back. On his way he caught the stares of three still standing in Munitions. Without breaking his stride Michael shot a brief nod of acknowledgment and approval at Chuck as he passed into their line of sight.

Once he turned the corner, Chuck looked over at Nikita and Walter who were readjusting their own gazes back as well. He could tell what they were thinking and felt the need to say something.

“He wasn’t always like this you know,” Chuck directed his comment to Nikita, knowing she wasn’t exactly enamored of her second in command.

“What changed?” Nikita asked when she realized Chuck expected a response. As long as she had been studying Section, the object of their discussion had always been the way he was, but Nikita humored Chuck by asking.

“His wife died,” Chuck answered. “Twice,” He threw over his shoulder as he turned towards Michael’s old office to debrief with Jurgen.

********

An hour later Nikita and Walter were back in a deserted Munitions. Most of the ‘training’ sessions occurred late, when a couple of hours without some kind of a crisis wasn’t such a rarity.

They’d spent a half hour at the target range and another half hour in Walter’s lab testing the older man’s newest explosives. As she handed back her gear Nikita’s expression turned thoughtful, remembering her very brief conversation with Chuck.

“So, what do *you* think about Michael?” Nikita asked. Walter had been the only one in Section that she’d confided in about the true nature of the personnel reconfiguration. Instinct had told her from the beginning that she could trust the aged hippie, and her instincts were rarely wrong.

“Personally or professionally?”

“I figure they go hand in hand.”

“Well, he is good at what he does. Always has been,” Walter hedged.

“So were Paul and Madeline,” Nikita reminded him. “Do you think he can change?”

“I don’t know,” Walter answered honestly. “But he *is* adapting.”

“Not good enough. I can’t afford to leave Section One in the hands of someone who doesn’t believe, just goes along with the tide.”

“Well, you’ve still got a couple of months to decide.”

”Yeah,” Nikita sighed, turning to head out for the Tower, her home for at least the next two months. “Thanks Walter, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Hey,” Walter called, waiting for Nikita to turn around. “Did you ever consider that maybe it was *Operations’* way of thinking that Michael adapted to?”

“I thought you…”

“All I’m saying is that Section hasn’t been a bed of roses for anyone in the last few years. Lots of people adapted to survive, doesn’t mean they changed what was inside.”

“You know, Walter,” Nikita smiled at his ambiguity. “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re very wise or just full of crap.”

“When you figure it out Sugar,” Walter grinned. “Let *me* know.”

********

The sliding door to Michael’s office opened to reveal Section’s current field leader. Jurgen had debated the necessity of this conversation since he’d returned to Section a month ago. Knowing his former material would never bring up anything not Section related himself, Jurgen decided it was finally time to get the ball rolling.

“Yes?” Michael inquired as Jurgen stepped down into the office. He’d been reviewing a profile when the other man’s presence outside his door was signaled. Not exactly surprised, Michael prepared himself for the conversation ahead and smoothed his features into his usual bland mask.

“We need to talk,” Jurgen announced, sitting down in one of the two chairs across from Michael’s desk without waiting for an invitation.

“Concerning Section?”

“Indirectly.”

“What do you want?” Michael asked, logging off the computer and sitting back.

“We’re going to be working together,” Jurgen started. “This isn’t temporary, I’m going to be here for the long haul.”

“I’m not,” Michael countered, immediately throwing the other man off balance. “So, why bother?”

“You plan on ah, leaving?” Jurgen asked, surprised at both the information and the sharing of it.

“We both know the probationary period is merely a formality,” Michael answered without a hint of accusation or even criticism.

“You can’t really believe that,” Jurgen returned, his original purpose in coming to Michael completely forgotten. “What would be the point?”

“To ease the transition,” Michael replied. “Eliminating the entire hierarchy at the same time would have been too much of a setback. Three months is sufficient to restructure and complete the housecleaning.”

“Believing that, you’re not…offended?”

“I have no illusions about the Agency or my longevity in it,” Michael replied, his expression betraying nothing.

********

After a still off balance Jurgen left Michael briefly wondered how long he’d have to wait until their conversation netted him the desired results before returning to the profile he’d been studying.

As expected, Jurgen discussed his and Michael’s conversation with Nikita. They’d come to the conclusion that Michael had used the opportunity to try to manipulate them to his own endgame. Just exactly what that endgame was though, neither could quite figure out.

********

The newest Section leaders’ working relationship had been nothing but cordial since the pronouncement of the evaluation results. The week after Michael’s bombshell however was more than just a bit tension filled. As Nikita was as stubborn as Michael was obstinate they engaged in a battle of wills, each waiting for the other one to blink.

Both Nikita and Michael wanted answers, but neither was willing to ask the questions. Section functioned as usual, the two working together but scrupulously avoiding any topic other than ‘business.’ Michael was by nature and necessity more patient than Nikita and he had the added advantage of having nothing to lose.

Michael hated not knowing and not being in control of both his fate and that which was around him. *But,* he hated laying his cards on the table even more. He hadn’t exactly lied to Jurgen as he honestly didn’t believe that he would be given the Perch. He didn’t think he would be canceled, but rather transferred and demoted.

In the five weeks that Nikita had been running Section, Michael had been grudgingly impressed. She’d laid out her plan and stuck to it. Section had maintained high numbers and there were significantly less casualties. Perhaps her original assessment *had* been correct. He’d long ago lost the ability to separate the acceptable collateral from the unacceptable.

Maybe he *would* be better off someplace else, somewhere where he could start over and regain what he’d lost over the years. He barely remembered what he was like before Simone was lost to Glass Curtain. The five years since his wife’s capture were a blur of missions, isolation, sacrifices and lost lives. Was there really a place for him in a kinder, gentler Section?

As for Nikita, there were less than two months left to her self-imposed deadline. Extension was not an option, she’d given her verdict and there was no going back. She knew the response she’d get from her father if she notified him that she needed more time. He’d tell her no, three months was plenty. If Michael couldn’t be trusted with the Perch by then he never could be.

Nikita never threw anyone’s life away, but in this particular instance she was even more hesitant than usual. She chalked it up to an unwillingness to lose Michael’s impressive skills and experience and nothing more, refusing to dig any deeper for her motivation in keeping the sometimes exasperating man around.

Finally, after a week of mental chess matches, at the end of another long day Nikita summoned Michael into her office.

“You wanted to see me?” Michael inquired, stepping into the Perch.

“Yes,” Nikita confirmed looking up from her desk, one of several new additions to the Perch’s furnishings. “Sit down, please.”

“Thank you.” Michael complied.

“We’re almost at the halfway mark,” Nikita was going to get answers and results, but that didn’t mean that she was going to lay all her cards out to get them.

“I know,” Michael didn’t bother to pretend he didn’t know what his superior was talking about.

“I would have expected some suggestions or policy recommendations from you by now,” Nikita circumvented.

“I didn’t believe they’d be welcome,” Michael replied honestly.

“Why not?”

“You’ve made it clear from the beginning that my…abilities were lacking. Why would you want my input?”

“You’ve been here a long time. At the very least your experience is valuable,” Nikita answered. “Quite frankly I expected more initiative from you, regardless of whether or not it had been asked for.”

“Fine,” Michael returned wearily. “Where do you want to start?”

“What do you think is going to happen if Jason’s faith in you is proven wrong?” Nikita thought it important that he understood the consequences.

“A demotion and transfer.”

“That’s not an option at your level,” Nikita countered. “Neither is retirement.”

“I understand,” Michael returned, a slow blink his only visible reaction.

“Good,” Nikita replied in a dismissive tone, not realizing from his unchanged expression that Michael was still unsure whether he cared or not. It wasn’t in her scope to believe that anyone could consciously accept, let alone wish for, oblivion. “I expect some modification in your behavior and attitude.”

Unable to see past Michael’s façade, Nikita was unaware of the damage done from their conversation.

********

Once he was gone, Nikita refused to acknowledge that the discussion bothered her in the least. She would not regret what she had said. Putting the conversation and everything else aside, Nikita began studying the report on the screen in front of her. Half an hour later she gave up any pretense of working and headed for the Tower.

Hoping to banish all thoughts and relax before going to bed, Nikita drew a bath, sat back in the tub and closed her eyes. But, unlike most other times, Nikita couldn’t keep her thoughts at bay.

She’d wanted to provoke a reaction, that much Nikita owned up to. Time was short as it was, and besides, she was tired of trying to figure Michael and his motives out. Had she gone too far? Was her original approach a mistake?

From everything she’d learned about Michael, endless sims included, her method should have been sound. Michael needed to be the best at whatever he did, that much had been obvious since he reached operative status a decade ago. Nikita had thought that by challenging him to prove her wrong Michael would rise to the occasion and quickly show his continued value.

Nikita had told Walter that she needed Michael to change and not merely adapt. But had she given him a fair chance by hanging cancelation over his head from the get go? She wasn’t so sure anymore.

To top things off, she’d let her frustration get the best of her. She’d conceded that she goaded Michael an hour ago, his “I know” inciting her to do it. Nikita figured his next reply, about his ideas being unwelcome, was just another ploy of some kind. So she lost control, something she had worked very hard on these last five years, and lashed out once more.

Then of course, Nikita admitted, she made things even worse. Looking back now, she realized that Michael might have actually been sincere when he asked her where she wanted to start. Resigned, but sincere. At the time she hadn’t seen it and instead of getting down to business she again reminded him of his precarious situation.

Nikita cringed even more as she recalled her last statement to Michael before dismissing him. “I expect some modification in your behavior and attitude.” Damn, she had sounded like a high school principal rather than the head of the most clandestine anti-terrorist organization on the planet.

“Tomorrow.” Nikita concluded, giving up and getting out of the tub. “I’ll fix it tomorrow.”

But what is it about him that irks me so badly? And why the hell am I even thinking about him, let alone feeling guilty at my behavior?

********

Before anyone had a chance to fix anything, events led Section One down a different path.

The next morning while Nikita was still in the Tower discussing business matters with her father a mini-crisis gripped Section.

Davenport had begun training for field command. His first four solo efforts had been successful and he was now running tactical oversight of his fifth. Jurgen was team leader on this one, a fairly straightforward retrieve and destroy.

Things fell apart towards the end and egress turned very ugly. Information had been downloaded, the charges set and already on countdown but the Section operatives came under heavy fire before they cleared the incineration zone. Faulty intel put the perimeter patrol on the ‘wrong’ side of the building and the team was spotted prematurely. Security at the targeted plant was good and the Section team was quickly surrounded then pinned down in two groups of three.

Neither Jurgen nor Davenport saw a way out from their respective vantage points. But they both knew that the mission and the destruction of the three-story building came first. Therefore, the countdown had to continue, regardless of who would get caught in the explosion.

Nikita was just entering Section when things had turned sour but she too could only watch as the team’s egress became impossible, seeing nothing to save the situation. Jurgen’s team originally numbered in six but were now down to four. Jurgen himself was barely mobile, having been injured while trying and failing to save the two operatives pinned down with him.

Before the doomed operatives got their final orders Michael strode quickly into Comm and grabbed Davenport’s earpiece. A rapid series of commands later and all four remaining team members cleared the incineration zone and were on the way to the secondary pickup point. Even with Jurgen’s injury slowing him down, Michael had managed to get the man out, with seconds to spare.

By the time the people standing in Comm recovered from their shock, Michael was almost halfway back to his office.

Nikita was the first to recover and ordered Davenport to write a report then wait for the team’s return to, along with Jurgen, debrief with her. That done, Nikita hurried after Michael and caught up to him as he was about to enter his office.

“Michael,” Nikita called out after checking to see that they were alone in the corridor.

“Yes?” Michael turned around.

“You saved the team,” Nikita commented.

“You’ll have the report within the hour,” Michael returned.

“Why?” It was important for Nikita to know the reason behind his actions. “You despise Jurgen. No one would have been the wiser if he hadn’t gotten out…”

“I helped train Davenport and recommended him for the position,” Michael interrupted. “The team’s lives were my responsibility.”

********

“Damn the man,” Nikita muttered again. Facing the darkened perch window, she watched Michael as he strode through Systems on his way out for the evening. She had sent him home after telling him she’d debrief Davenport and Jurgen personally.

As she watched, Michael changed course to speak with Davenport, having seen him coming in from the opposite direction. She couldn’t make out was being said, but it seemed to Nikita that Davenport’s countenance was much improved after the brief conversation.

Before Michael could take his leave, Jurgen hobbled over to the two men, having come straight from Medlab to debrief. Nikita saw Davenport wisely beat a hasty retreat. After an even briefer exchange with Jurgen, Michael walked away, facial expression as bland as when he’d first entered the area. Jurgen merely looked puzzled, then thoughtful as he watched his former material walk away.

“Damn,” Nikita muttered again as Michael finally left her line of sight. ‘Did he save the team because he cared or was he just trying to demonstrate his continued usefulness? His answer to her unasked question and the blank mask that had accompanied it were of no help. If she thought she could get an honest answer, she *would* voice the question.

Seeing Jurgen make his way towards the Perch, with Davenport quickly catching up and following, Nikita pushed aside her questions and frustration to concentrate on the matter at hand.

********

Davenport left the perch an hour later, somewhat assured that the lives lost were not his fault. Once they were alone Nikita and Jurgen turned the discussion towards Michael’s behavior during and after the mission as well the day’s events relevance to Section’s future.

“You’re sure you’re all right?” Nikita asked Jurgen, after his involuntary grimace of pain. “We can call it a night.”

“No, I’m okay,” Jurgen resisted the temptation to sit, leaning instead against the still tinted aerie window. “What’s troubling you?”

“What was that exchange downstairs about?” Nikita asked in reply

“With Michael?”

“Yes,” Nikita confirmed.

“None of us saw a way out; I still don’t know how he found it,” Jurgen replied. “I tried to thank him for what he did.”

“Tried?”

“He said, ‘there’s nothing to thank me for. I was just doing my job.’” Jurgen elaborated.

“Would you have done the same?”

“Yeah, now I would, even though I’m sure Michael likes me about as much I like him,” Jurgen replied. “Up until two years ago, I probably wouldn’t have. But Michael would have, that much I’m sure of.”

“Why?”

“After Simone was…thought dead, Michael lived and breathed Section. He never let anything, anyone, or his personal feelings interfere. After Simone was confirmed dead two and a half years ago, he *completely* shut down. Didn’t even talk to anyone, unless it was Section related. Still doesn’t,” Jurgen sighed. “I’m not proud of my behavior afterwards, but I managed to hold on until I got out. Now, coming back here and being a part of what’s going down, it hits home.”

“What does?” Nikita asked, not following.

“The hell that this place was, and what it took to survive. And before you ask, I might be tired of this crap myself if I were in Michael’s shoes,” Jurgen continued. “You hired me on partly because of my Psych Ops proficiency. My professional opinion is that he’s not looking to die, but he’s not looking to live either,” He paused. “Now I want to ask you something.”

“What?” Nikita returned distractedly, her mind still on Jurgen’s statements.

“Why do you care more about whether Michael lives or dies than *he* does?”

“I-I told you before…” a jolted Nikita stammered.

“I know, no one is acceptable collateral,” Jurgen interrupted. “What else?”

“What makes you think there’s more?” Nikita asked, stalling.

“Isn’t that why I’m here - because I’m good at reading people?”

‘Yeah, maybe too good,’ Nikita thought.

“Well?” Jurgen prodded.

Nikita paused, suddenly aware of the personal impact that question provoked. Better to think about that later, much later, when she was alone and recovered from the shock of realizing that there *was* a personal impact.

Sticking to professional reasons, she replied, “The truth is that he’s the best candidate. There’s no one to promote from within. Paul and Madeline made sure of that. The other Sections have their own problems. Oversight and Center have different mindsets. Bringing in a complete outsider isn’t an option either.”

“What *is* an option?”

“Good question,” Nikita returned ruefully. “I’d have to remain for as long as it took to find and train someone.”

“I thought you had to return to Center.”

“I do, that’s the problem.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I‘ve already decided that Michael can do the job. Now I have to figure out how to make him *want* the job.”

“You know how,” Jurgen argued, referring to a previous strategy discussion. He agreed with Nikita about Michael’s suitability for the Perch and was willing to go even further than she was to make it happen.

“No,” Nikita countered adamantly, knowing exactly what he was referring to. “I won’t use the boy.”

“At least until you find someone else,” Jurgen continued. “If it’s the only way…”

“No,” Nikita reiterated forcefully. “It’d only be a temporary solution. And besides, it would make me no better than Paul.”

“At least think about it.”

“That avenue is closed for discussion.”

“Fine.” Jurgen saw that Nikita’s mind was made up. He’d bide his time; there was still enough of it left to persuade her otherwise. “Are you done for the night?”

“Not yet,” Nikita lied. “You should get some rest anyway.” She smiled, softening the blow. “How about a rain check?” She didn’t want him to suspect that the real reason she was refusing his implied dinner invitation was because she needed to be alone with her tumultuous thoughts.

********

Alone in the Perch, looking down at a nearly deserted Section, Nikita let tumble the thoughts she’d held back from Jurgen. She hadn’t really lied a few minutes ago, at least not completely. There simply weren’t any viable candidates for the Perch. Considering what she’d gleaned from her sister, Michelle, Nikita could forget about looking to the other Sections for a contender.

Jurgen understood that as well, and had offered her a solution when it became apparent her original strategy was failing. “Use the boy to bring the father in line.” Uneasy on the inside, Nikita didn’t let it show. Her outward response had been non-committal; she’d merely told him she’d think about it.

Even though she’d been vaguely unsettled with the conversation at the time, Nikita had realized Jurgen was looking out for Section One’s best interests. However, she hadn’t wanted to discuss it again. Now, the repeated suggestion clearly angered Nikita. No one deserved that kind of sword hung over their head, certainly not someone whose cooperation they were trying to gain.

Michael especially didn’t deserve it, not after everything he’d endured and everyone he’d lost as a result of his ten-year tenure in Section One.

Now where did that come from? Nikita asked herself. Why on earth am I defending Michael?

Before Nikita could answer her own question about her second in command, a loud beep from the computer alerted her to a top priority message, clearance level eleven.

Sitting down at her desk, Nikita rapidly entered her codes and opened the red-flagged file. Paling almost instantly at the message in front of her, she slumped in her chair, a softly uttered, “Oh my God,” escaping from her lips.

How could this have happened? Nikita was appalled, They were under our protection.

Nikita reacted immediately by sending out a team of top operatives. That done, her thoughts turned toward how she was going to tell him this terrible news.

********

EIGHT HOURS LATER.

“You wanted to see me?” Michael asked, as he stepped into the Perch, folding his hands in front of him. The look of apprehension on his superior’s face put him immediately on guard.

“Yes,” Nikita sighed, alerting Michael that it wasn’t apprehension, but pity in her expression. Believing the pity was for his fate, Michael steeled himself while keeping his expression unreadable.

“There was an incident last night,” Nikita began hesitantly.

“Yes?” Michael prodded, when Nikita’s pause stretched into silence.

“A woman and child under Section’s protection were killed in an explosion.”

A feeling of foreboding forced Michael to ask, with a calm he didn’t feel, “Who?”

“I’m sorry, Michael,” was all Nikita could manage. In that moment Michael understood that his son’s parentage and security were not as secret he thought they were and Adam and Elena were both dead.

“How?” Michael had to know.

“Salla Vacek’s brother, Stephan,” Nikita answered, startled at the change that overcame him. She’d been witness before to what many referred to as his ‘machine mode,’ but the coldness and detachment emanating from the man in front of her went far beyond that. She felt shivers course down her back as she looked into the emotionless depths of his icy green eyes.

“Where is he?” Was the first thing Michael wanted to know.

“A Center team brought him here a few minutes ago,” Nikita answered. “I know this is little comfort now, but there was maximum security coverage. This should never have happened.”

“How *did* it happen?” Michael couldn’t keep the accusation out of his tone.

“We were monitoring for possible contact. The team followed Stephan after he visited with them. We didn’t know he would blame his niece for his brother’s death,” Nikita defended lamely. “He planted a bomb before he left the house; it went off a few hours later.”

“I *want* him.” Michael spoke with deadly equanimity.

“He’s in the white room,” Nikita acquiesced.

“Thank you,” Michael responded quietly, then turned to leave.

“Michael.” Nikita stopped him, waited for him to face her, and reluctantly reminded him, “We need his intel first.”

“Of course,” Michael returned, still eerily calm, and exited the Perch.

********

Even though Michael blocked the live feed from the white room, Nikita’s higher clearance netted her access codes to override his. However, she respected his desire for privacy and after a torturous internal debate decided not to watch the interrogation live. The sound of her intercom broke into Nikita’s thoughts.

“Yes?” Nikita punched the intercom.

“Jurgen to see you, ma’am,” The disembodied voice announced.

“Send him up.”

“I think you’re making a very big mistake.” Before even fully stepping into the Perch, Jurgen was making his feelings known by forcefully reiterating his position.

“And I still think you’re wrong,” Nikita countered. “Michael will get the intel we need from Vacek.”

“I agree with that much. He has the most incentive.”

“Then why the argument? I thought your main concern was Section.”

“It is,” Jurgen agreed. “That’s why I’m telling you this is a mistake. You’ll get the intel, but you’ll lose Michael in the process.”

“How?”

“He won’t come out of this intact.”

“He needs the closure,” Nikita argued “Besides, it’s already begun.”

“Replace him.”

“No,” Nikita answered with absolute conviction. “Michael’s stronger than you think.”

“Michael's feelings are strongly shielded but they’re still there. He’s not as invulnerable as *you* think.” Jurgen countered, equally adamant.

********

Although she had decided to forego monitoring the live interrogation, Nikita’s conversation with Jurgen had left her unsettled. She was good at reading people, but Jurgen had known Michael longer.

By the time Nikita’s doubts had reached the point where she was finally compelled to turn on the live feed, Michael had almost completed the interrogation. She took the opportunity to reflect on their almost two months of working together. It dawned on her that, although it was Jurgen with whom she was having a personal relationship, she found herself spending more and more time thinking about her second in command. Furthermore, all her thoughts were not Section related, which was beginning to cause her concern.

Nikita was snapped back to the present by the sound of a gunshot. Looking at the monitor in front of her, she turned in time to watch a neat little hole form on Stephan Vacek’s forehead.

Her eyes followed the gun in Michael’s outstretched hand as he slowly lowered it, turned it around, and purposefully raised it toward his head. Nikita’s eyes opened wide in disbelief; her body momentarily frozen. Without engaging the safety, Michael ran the barrel of his weapon slowly up and down the side of his face, from forehead to chin. His outwardly unseeing jade eyes turned inward, looking at something non-existent within the room.

Nikita thought he had the look of a man who had come to a decision, about to carefully make his next move, seemingly against himself.

“Michael!” Nikita wrenched herself from her frozen disbelief and fairly shouted into the intercom connecting her to the white room. Thinking he was about to kill himself with the gun just used to avenge his son’s death, she acted quickly, without conscious thought, pressing another button on the console before his name was completely out of her mouth. The fast acting knock-out gas released at her touch had been installed for use against hostiles who managed to escape the white room’s restraints. She prayed it would stop him in the scant seconds she believed to be between Michael and certain death.

Her forceful tone turned Michael’s attention toward its source - the camera mounted in the far corner. As hoped for, before his gaze had even completely focused, Michael succumbed to the gas.

Pausing only long enough to ensure the white room was locked to all but her own access codes, Nikita quickly and deliberately strode across Section, careful to shield from notice the events of the last few minutes. She calculated she had at least fifteen minutes until Michael regained consciousness.

After checking for any personnel within sight, Nikita opened the white room door. Taking no notice of the dead man still under restraint, she dropped to her knees in front of an unmoving, silent Michael. He was lying on his back near the door, still clutching the gun in his right hand, alive.

After pausing for a moment of silent thanks, Nikita gently pulled the gun out of Michael’s grasp and pushed it away. Looking down at the unconscious man, she noticed how young and vulnerable he appeared. His shoulder length auburn hair, almost always severely swept back, fell in disarray around his face, an errant strand curled across his forehead. Gone was the cold expression or blank stare he usually sported, in their place a look of peace and innocence.

Nikita berated herself for not listening to Jurgen when he argued Michael’s emotional state was too unstable to survive the interrogation. She didn’t want to believe her error in judgment of Michael, but the evidence precluded any further denial. She would never forget the recent scene in this very room - Michael running the barrel of his gun up and down the side of his face, gaze unseeing, almost flirting with the deadly weapon in his hand.

Her heart beat faster and her pulse raced anew at the reminder of how close she thought she had come to losing the man next to her on the floor. She’d never been more scared in her entire life, which led her to the stunning realization of the depth of her feelings for him.

Mesmerized by the captivating sight in front of her, Nikita found herself reaching out to tuck the stray curl behind his ear. Unable to pull her hand away, she was about to run her fingertips down the side of the face he’d so recently caressed with his gun, when Michael’s eyes opened.

Apprehensively pulling away from a rapidly wakening Michael, Nikita stood up and averted her eyes. She silently reproached herself for forgetting that Michael had an unusually high tolerance for drugs, chemicals and pain.

Getting his bearings, Michael rose quickly, albeit a bit unsteadily. Waiting until Nikita faced him, his eyes piercing green lasers, he uttered only one word, “Why?”

“Why?” Nikita looked at him incredulously, at a momentary loss for words in answer to his accusatory challenge. “Why?” she threw back at him again, letting her tone of voice convey her disbelief at his question. Michael, by now in full command, refused to let her gain the offensive and increased the intensity of his stare, defying her to answer him.

The tense silence that followed was broken by Nikita. “It looked like you were just about to . . .”

“Why did you stop me?” Michael saved her finishing the sentence, disappointed she’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. At the same time however, he was unaccountably pleased at her caring enough to stop what she’d misread as a suicide attempt.

“I-I,” Nikita faltered. “I couldn’t stand by and watch you die.”

“Why?” Michael was curious. He allowed himself the unaccustomed luxury of hope, his expression a bit unguarded. “You wanted me canceled from the beginning.”

Not expecting this reaction, Nikita again floundered. Discomfort clouded her usually clear blue eyes, causing her to retreat to the safety of the company line to recover her composure. “You’re still needed. Section isn’t finished with you.”

Michael’s mask slammed back into place. “Section. Of course.”

Nikita felt him about to walk away, and didn’t want him leaving with an adverse impression. Distracted by his alluring green eyes, she misguidedly asked, “Do I need to put you on suicide watch?” “Why bother?” Michael answered, slight sarcasm tinting his usual monotone.

Nikita reacted immediately to Michael’s inflection. “I told you…,” she started to proclaim….

“Section is not finished with me,” Michael completed, interrupting the harangue he saw coming. The hint of bitterness in his voice did not go unnoticed by Nikita.

“That’s right.” Since he hadn’t denied his attempt at suicide, Nikita concluded Michael might try again. She needed to prevent that right now. “And I don’t think you will make any further attempts.”

“Why not?” Michael asked, the challenge back in his eyes. “It’s my choice; it affects no one else. Section has seen to that.”

Michael’s somber statement led Nikita to believe that he really did want to die. His refusal to shed light on his actions in the white room reinforced the belief. Desperate to forestall another attempt, Nikita forced her compassion aside to use a tactic she’d always stood staunchly against.

“You have a sister,” Nikita unemotionally began, belying her inner turmoil at using against him the last remaining tie to his personal world. She needed to explain no further. “I understand.” Michael returned to machine mode, his expression set in granite.

“Good.” Nikita concluded the discussion, not totally happy with the result, but inwardly relieved at having bought some time. “Everything after the interrogation’s completion will be deleted from the surveillance tapes.”

Michael comprehended Nikita’s message. Potentially devastating, their discussion and events precipitating it were to be known only by them. Blank stare securely in place, he uttered the expected response, “Of course. Will that be all?” Michael wanted to be out of the white room and away from Nikita as quickly as possible.

Nikita, unable to find the words to stop him, stepped aside to allow Michael’s determined exit. With shuttered gaze, Michael walked swiftly towards his office. Needing to leave Section to process his thoughts about what had just occurred, Michael grabbed his coat and strode purposefully toward the elevator. Before he could reach his destination, Jurgen appeared in his path.

Concerned for ‘whatever was best for Section,’ Jurgen had tried to access the live feed and then the surveillance footage from the white room, only to find them both blocked.

Jurgen was frustrated, especially after watching Nikita’s slow, unsteady gait as she crossed the corridor on her way back to the Perch a few minutes ago. Now, he saw his chance to discover what had taken place by intercepting Michael.

“How did the interrogation go?” Jurgen tried to make his interest sound friendly and casual.

“Fine,” Michael replied - standard answer, standard tone, standard look over Jurgen’s shoulder. “Nikita is studying the tapes for useful intel. Expect a profile in the morning.”

“Anything unusual, out of the ordinary?” Jurgen asked, surprised that Michael wasn’t writing the profile himself and hoping to provoke some answer to his concerns.

“No.” Michael’s distinctive one-word answer was accompanied by a red stop sign in the center of his green eyes clearly broadcasting, “Don’t even go there.”

Jurgen knew he’d discover nothing else when Michael stepped around him and resumed his course to the elevator, effectively ending any further discussion. Feeling this was one thing Nikita would *not* confide in him, Jurgen nevertheless headed for the Perch.

********

From his vantage point in Munitions over the years, Walter had seen and understood more than anyone else. He’d been collecting gear from Chuck’s returning team, but this didn’t stop him from noticing Nikita’s purposeful and somewhat tense stride to the white room.

Walter had then been distracted by the small group of Birkoff, Davenport and Mowen who’d come to congratulate Chuck on a successful mission. They’d then begun to tease him about his new relationship with Liz, a level three cold op, and to ‘manfully’ warn him about the distractions a ‘pretty woman’ could provoke on a mission. Walter listened with half an ear, his thoughts elsewhere.

Walter knew why Michael had wanted privacy in the white room; knew all about the true paternity of the boy who’d been killed in the explosion for which Stephan Vacek had been responsible. After thirty years in Section, there wasn’t much Walter didn’t know.

A few minutes later, as the conversation around him was breaking up, Walter saw Nikita’s return - her stride slow, gaze unfocused. Shortly thereafter, Michael crossed toward the elevator, momentarily waylaid by Jurgen. From where he stood, Walter watched the conversation. Jurgen obviously wanted something from Michael, whose stoic expression and body language clearly indicated he wasn’t going to get it.

Putting together the looks and actions of Nikita, Michael and Jurgen, Walter was certain something disastrous had taken place in the white room. Whatever that was, for the first time since Nikita took over the Perch, Walter’s emerging peace of mind was threatened.

Things did not bode well for Section.

********

Michael rode his motorcycle out of Section, driving by rote, no destination in mind. His usual calm exterior belied the disconcerting tangle of thoughts inside his head. As was his strategy with any challenging situation, his superior profiling skills led him to set aside the undependable confusion of emotion, and use instead the orderly precision of logic.

First, he was forced to admit to himself that Nikita’s words and actions had been skewed by his withholding the truth - that there was no attempted suicide. How then could he, who prided himself on his fairness, judge her? He justified his omission by telling himself that he did not really lie to her. He had simply taken advantage of a better opportunity to “test” her.

With this troublesome sticking place overcome, he examined Nikita’s reactions in the order they had occurred. Seeing what she believed to be an imminent suicide attempt, she had taken immediate action to prevent it by releasing the gas. Sound strategy; he would have done the same. She then proceeded quickly to the white room, no doubt shielding her actions from notice; another sound strategy.

Once inside, she rushed immediately to check his condition. Michael’s orderly processing of events halted here. He had come to consciousness a short time before Nikita realized it, section training dictating the assessment of his situation before showing any signs of awakening. Eyes closed, he still felt Nikita’s sympathetic, warm gaze, which had surprisingly stirred his desire. His body reacted to the gentle, searching caressing of his face, as to the sun after a cold winter. It was hard to remain still, to keep his sensitive fingers from returning her arousing touch, to suppress the tremble that threatened to engulf his body. He opened his eyes quickly, hoping to catch her off guard and see in her eyes what he had felt in her touch. He was not disappointed. Before she was able to turn aside, he saw desire in the darkened blue depths of her unshielded glance.

Michael thought back over the last few weeks. As he and Nikita continued to work together, they’d become more comfortable in each other’s presence. He had grown to respect Nikita and had even begun to see her as more than just a colleague or boss, maybe even a friend. To his consternation, on more than one occasion, he’d even found himself fantasizing beyond friendship. Michael thought that Nikita had begun to feel further than professional respect for him.

After their close contact in the white room, even before opening his eyes, his suspicions about both their feelings were confirmed. As they started to talk, he had actually chanced the belief that there was cause for optimism about his future in Section and with Nikita as well. But this was short lived, dispelled with her crushing statements.

“Do I need to put you on suicide watch?” “I don’t think you will make any further attempts.” “You have a sister,” “You’re still needed”

Worst of all, and most painful, was Nikita’s declaration on the heels of his son’s death: “Section isn’t finished with you.”

He hadn’t needed to know Adam to love him as any parent would. Michael’s grief was as great as if he’d spent a lifetime with his son.

Before the white room encounter, Michael had begun to think Section was different this time around. He’d seen many positive changes wrought by Nikita over the last few weeks - changes he envisioned continuing when the Perch was his to command.

In the end though, it had all been an illusion, as had Nikita’s concern for his continued well being. Michael now saw her apparent sorrow over Adam and Elena’s death as regret over losing an effective means of controlling him.

There would be no “kinder, gentler” Section, no regarding operatives as human beings with feelings, no support, no praise, no……..

Section had been better off with Paul and Madeline. You always knew exactly where you stood. They didn’t pull the carpet out from under your feet - they never offered it in the first place.

However, in six weeks none of it would matter any more. Six weeks, that’s all he had to endure. In six weeks, as originally intended, Center would cancel him.

Michael smiled ironically. His strategic thinking was complete. He knew how he must proceed. Clarity and composure again reigned on the inside as well as the outside.

Six weeks.

********

Outwardly polite and cooperative with each other, both Michael and Nikita churned inside with unresolved issues, unexpressed feelings and unanswered questions. Their personal thoughts and decisions, however, did not interfere with their working relationship. They were both too well trained for that.

Ten days after the confrontation in the white room, Nikita had scheduled a breakfast meeting in the room Paul and Madeline always used for this purpose. Both Michael and Nikita approached this meeting with some trepidation, but for different reasons.

Nikita knew that, due to some appalling statements she had made in panicked haste, Michael’s loyalty, respect and desire to remain at Section had been compromised. If she now expected to undo the damage created, she’d have to replace his negative impressions with positive support and encouragement. Uncertainty as to how to accomplish this with a man as complex and multi-layered as her second in command was the cause of Nikita’s trepidation. She hoped the personal and warmer setting of this room would be a good first step.

Michael, on the other hand, desired to accomplish nothing at this meeting. As far as he was concerned, the days of strategy, maneuvers and tactics were behind him. His goal was simply to get through the next month or so with as little pain as possible for himself, or those around him. His innate sense of pride dictated against performing poorly, but he would no longer sacrifice his soul to do well.

His trepidation sprung from conflict within himself regarding Nikita. His own eyes had shown her to be a liar and cold manipulator as Section’s leader. Nevertheless, he had trouble believing this image, perhaps because of his growing attraction and desire for her as a woman. Then too, her invitation to this more intimate setting was intriguing.

Nikita welcomed Michael to the elegant, but simply decorated room and to a seat at the large glass table upon which was set an antique silver coffee service and tray of French brioche and croissants, chosen especially to please him. She took a seat opposite him, passed the tray, and began to pour the coffee. Fortunately, breakfast was proving to be an excellent ice breaker, helping to dispel the nervousness both Nikita and Michael were feeling.

Nikita reached across the table, set a cup before Michael, looked up and found him staring at her. His probing green eyes asked questions which she didn’t want to answer, not even to herself. She tried to look away from those compelling eyes, eyes that haunted her waking and sleeping hours since their white room confrontation.

But she was no match for Michael’s stirring gaze in her imagination, let alone here in person. Her body betrayed her, pulling toward him, aching, longing. She tried to remember she was Michael’s superior at Section, but it was Michael who now seemed to have the upper hand.

Even though Michael was aware of the power wielded by focusing his famous emerald glare upon an unsuspecting victim, at this moment he was feeling more captive than captor.

Nikita’s guileless blue eyes gave no discernible clue as to what images lay behind them. Had he been able to penetrate the blue boundary, he would have seen pictures conjured there that mirrored his own.

He was aware, however, of the distraction provided by the closeness of Nikita’s long blonde hair, the intoxicating aroma of her sweet-scented shampoo threatening to overwhelm his senses altogether. Immediately, the image of her in the white room came flashing before him, as it had done so many times since then. Once more, he felt her gentle touch, arousing in him the same desire as then. He grew steadily warmer, his body throbbing, hardening flesh straining the material of tightening pants.

As the amount of space slowly diminished between man and woman, a harsh buzz from the intercom sounded, restoring proper distance between Section’s leader and second in command. Startled into reality, both hoped no notice had been taken of the physical manifestations caused by their errant thoughts. Each, needing time for composure, hoped the other would speak first.

Emotional distractions were not tolerated in Section One, the most clandestine anti-terrorist organization on the planet.

********

“Davenport’s doing better than projected.” Nikita predictably broke the silence that reigned from the intercom’s intrusion. Birkoff had buzzed in to inform them that he’d downloaded Section’s current numbers into their computers. Silently thanking the computer wiz for interrupting, Nikita finally gathered her errant thoughts enough to discuss business. She noted with relief that Michael had been too immersed in what, she erroneously believed, were Section related thoughts to notice her slip in concentration.

“His numbers have remained stable despite the added responsibility,” Michael commented, also silently thankful for Birkoff’s interruption as it allowed him enough time to compose himself. He was grateful that Nikita hadn’t seemed to notice his discomfort. “He should continue to do well.”

“However, his successor is another matter. Perhaps we promoted Chuck to Davenport’s old position too quickly.”

“Chuck’s personal relationship is still distracting him,” Michael interrupted, feeling the need to defend his old friend. “He’ll adjust.”

“A three and a half percent drop in efficiency.” Nikita pressed a couple of keys to bring up the recently promoted operative’s statistics. Michael’s brusque manner brought the remnants of her wandering thoughts back to the business at hand.

“Yes,” Michael returned. He knew what this would mean for the operative. Section pounced on half a percentage drop and this was considerably more significant.

“Talk to him,” Nikita suggested.

“I’ll transfer Liz to another team,” Michael reasoned. “That should ease the distraction caused by their relationship.”

“There’s no need,” Nikita countered. “Keeping her on Chuck’s team will keep him more focused on the objective and returning with his team intact.”

“No censure?” Michael asked, surprised.

“No,” Nikita answered, then took advantage of the opportunity for a more personal admission, hoping Michael would discern the deeper meaning. “I may have been rash in the past about the best approach to motivate operatives’…commitment to do the job. I don’t want to make the same mistake again.”

Upon hearing her ‘confession,’ Michael turned to look at her, but Nikita’s attention was already back on the screen. Pondering her statement, it took Michael a moment to focus on her next words.

“Section Three reports increased activity by the Collective.” Nikita continued staring at her screen, afraid to let Michael see how personal her admission really was.

“The Collective’s using Red Storm as a cover,” Michael commented after a moment, “allowing the smaller group to take responsibility.”

“For what reason?”

“They don’t want to show their true strength yet,” Michael surmised.

“What do you suggest?” Nikita asked for his input, trying to draw Michael out through his expertise. “Take them down now?”

“No, step up surveillance,” Michael replied after a moment’s hesitation. ‘Why was Nikita asking him his opinion now?’ He almost smiled ruefully as realization dawned. She was going to use his skills and experience for as long as he was around. He couldn’t really fault her, as he’d do the same in her position. Deciding to allow it, Michael gave his honest opinion. “We don’t know who’s funding them yet. Take them down now and we’ll never find out. They’ll merely go underground until they find a new group to back.”

“Agreed.” Nikita turned to the next topic. “The Asian Sector has asked for our assistance to handle their internal security problem,” she continued, unaware that Michael had misread her intentions for requesting his contribution.

The two spent the next half hour on Section business. Each avoided looking directly at the other for fear their desire, too close to the surface, would re-emerge and break the tenuous professional relationship they’d barely managed to attain.

********

The end of the long, mission-laden day found Michael on his way back to his office to finalize his latest profile. Crossing the main corridor he noticed Jurgen making his way to the Perch, a thoughtful expression on his face. Wondering if he was going there to discuss Section business, Michael shrugged it off, believing if that were the case he’d hear about it soon enough.

Nikita stood before the privacy-tinted Perch aerie and noticed Michael crossing the floor below as Jurgen made his way to the Perch stairs.

“You wanted to see me?” Jurgen asked, stepping into the room.

“Yes.” Nikita replied gravely, although somewhat startled by Jurgen’s voicing of the familiar phrase she’d come to associate with Michael. It caused her to recognize she’d spent more time with Michael over the last couple of months than with the man standing in front of her.

“Everything all right?” Jurgen asked, immediately concerned at Nikita’s unusually somber expression.

“Fine,” Nikita answered, closing the distance between them by tentatively reaching out and placing her hand on his arm. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you….”

“It’s about us, isn’t it?” Jurgen’s suspicions prompted him to ask.

“Jurgen…” Nikita’s tone conveyed his accuracy.

“It’s okay.” Jurgen sighed sadly.

“What do you mean?”

“Us,” Jurgen answered. “There is no ‘us’ any more, is there?” He knew Nikita’s feelings for him were of friendship now, even had suspicions as to one of the major reasons behind it.

“I still care for you,” Nikita tried.

“Care, yes. But it’ll never be more than that for you, will it?”

“I...I,” Nikita tried to explain but couldn’t find the words.

“The truth Nikita, please, before…”

“Before what?”

“I could grow to love you,” Jurgen admitted. “But I could also live without you.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Nikita paused. “How did you know?”

“Things haven’t been the same since we’ve been in Section,” Jurgen stated. “Better to acknowledge that now, before feelings get out of hand.”

********

While Nikita and Jurgen were sorting out their feelings, Michael sat in his office completing the last profile for the night. It was a simple search and destroy which, thanks to one of Nikita’s new policies, wasn’t so simple. He’d spent twice the amount of time he’d usually spend on a profile in order to ensure zero collateral. Michael wasn’t upset at the extra work. Saving lives, Section and innocent alike, was something he was glad to do.

Nikita had occupied his thoughts for most of the day, and he needed to get away from them. Michael shut down his computer and prepared to go…home.

Home. Now there was an interesting word. He hadn’t really had a home since Simone’s death - over five long years. What he had was a place to ‘crash.’ If he were lucky, he’d get five hours of sleep before the start of the nightmares. The only things worse than nightmares were his vivid dreams of Nikita, dreams he thought could never be. Between the dreams and nightmares, he invariably woke up in a sweat.

Thoughts of his lonely existence again brought up his breakfast meeting with Nikita and the olive branch with which she’d seemed to reach out.

“ I may have been rash in the past about the best approach to motivate operatives’…commitment to do the job. I don’t want to make the same mistake again.”

She’d actually looked *at* instead of *through* him just before she made the statement, almost making him believe it was personal.

Almost. Until the time he remembered that Section wasn’t finished with him. Yet.

Grabbing his jacket, Michael sighed and left his office. Reaching the main corridor, he observed Jurgen leaving the Perch, a sad, almost wistful expression on his face. Michael’s instincts had told him from the beginning that his former mentor and current boss were involved in a personal relationship. He’d seen the way they sometimes looked at each other, and at first thought it was merely banding together in a new and sometimes hostile environment. But he soon realized there was a personal component.

Jurgen and Nikita’s behavior towards each other in Section had been nothing but professional in the two months they’d been here, but there *was* something between them, Michael was sure of it. Although it hadn’t stopped Michael from fantasizing about Nikita, it was just another indication of how foolish he felt those fantasies were.

Curious as to the reason behind Jurgen’s apparent melancholy after leaving the Perch, Michael shot him a questioning look as he passed him just below the Perch. Receiving a closed look in response, Michael continued staring at his former mentor, waiting for elaboration. When none was forthcoming, Michael surmised that the reason behind the other man’s blocked appearance had nothing to do with Section business.

Not knowing what to do, Nikita observed the silent staring match below, as both participants simultaneously turned their gaze up towards the still tinted Perch.

********

Unfortunately, not Nikita, not Michael, and not Jurgen, would have the luxury of time to sort out their feelings. The last month of Michael’s probation flew by in a whirlwind of activity.

News of Section One, and the rest of the Agency’s changes of leadership, had leaked out into the world of anti-terrorism and terrorism alike. Thinking the change in hierarchy was a golden opportunity to strike, many terrorist factions escalated their activities. As a result, Section was kept very busy, affording little time to dwell on anything other than the job at hand.

The various terrorist groups eventually realized that the Agency was not weakened, but rather strengthened, by the sweeping changes, and sat back to lick their wounds. By the time that happened, and Section One had a chance to breathe, Michael’s three-month probation period was almost over.

“Yes?” Nikita hit the intercom.

“Mr. Jones for you,” Birkoff announced from Comm.

“Father.” Nikita could guess why he was calling, but hoped her voice didn’t give her concern away.

“Things are stable again. It’s time,” Jones told his daughter.

“Time for what?” Nikita stalled, preparing an argument.

“Nikita,” Jones warned. “The deadline is approaching fast. Have you made your decision?”

“He still hasn’t been given a final test.”

“The sooner Section’s leadership is resolved, the sooner you can return to Center,” Jones asserted. “You have forty-eight hours.”

“Of course.” Nikita acquiesced and disconnected, not even noticing she was duplicating Michael’s standard response.

Nikita was frustrated at her inability to determine Michael’s commitment to Section. Increased activity prohibited any communication other than strictly business matters. Regrets were counter-productive; she had forty eight hours to develop and profile Michael’s final test.

Michael’s unmatched qualifications as well as her growing personal feelings for him were motivating factors in Nikita’s desire to see him succeed. To this end, she needed to devise a test he was certain to pass.

Michael was what Section needed to guide it into the future.

********

“You wanted to see me?” Michael inquired, entering the Perch.

“Yes,” Nikita answered, handing Michael a PDA. “I need you on a solo mission.”

“Of course,” Michael answered, looking down at the PDA. “Who profiled this?”

“I did. It was necessary. You know René better than anyone else, but you’ve been too close to the situation.”

Michael nodded.

As usual, even though he knew the target, Michael’s expression showed nothing, except for the merest flicker in the center of his constant green eyes. The target, René Dian, had been the leader of a now-dormant student political/activist group, to which Michael had belonged to in his pre-Section days. Mentor and friend to him, René had sheltered Michael’s sister when he was falsely arrested, thought dead, and secretly recruited by Section.

“René’s collateral, but no one else is. We need one hundred percent containment and zero exposure,” Nikita stated.

Deciding he wanted back into the game, René had planted a bomb at a government owned chemical plant. Acquiring him and disarming the bomb was the first and easy part of the mission.

The government wanted no one, including the guards on night duty at the targeted plant, to know a bomb had ever been planted. The one hundred percent containment, and reason for a solo operative, was the mission’s second and hard part. Or at least that’s what Nikita told Michael. Michael’s familiarity with the bomber made him the best candidate for the job. The solo mission made it the best test for Michael.

“I *can* send someone else, if...”

“I’ll be fine.” Michael interrupted, mask firmly in place.

‘I hope so,’ Nikita thought to herself as she watched Michael exit the Perch and stride over to Walter for his gear.

********

Once Michael cleared van access, Nikita got her own gear from Walter.

“You’re going out too?” Walter asked.

“Yes.”

“Then you’d better take this.” Walter handed her a tracker.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a new tracker. Frequency’s set to Section’s comm. units,” Walter explained. “As long as Michael’s wearing his comm. unit, you can follow him anywhere.”

“How’d you know…?”

“Been here thirty years, Sugar, you know nothing gets past me,” Walter evaded.

“Thanks, Walter.” Not wanting to lose any time, Nikita let her question go unanswered in favor of staying close on Michael’s heels.

“Don’t suppose I can convince you to take some backup…”

“Walter,” Nikita cut him off. “The security guards are Center ops. Michael will take care of the target. I’ll be fine.”

********

Ten minutes after Nikita left, Jurgen came by munitions.

After explaining the reason behind her upcoming absence, Nikita had left Jurgen in charge. Uneasy about Nikita’s safety, Jurgen confided in Walter, and asked for the older man’s help. Since Nikita had never been in the field, both men believed she needed looking after. Thankfully, live missions had been completed and nothing was on pad for the next ten hours.

“I gave her the tracker.” Walter handed Jurgen his gear. “It’ll emit a signal you can follow on the PDA.”

“Thanks, Walter.”

“Yeah,” Walter returned. “Just make sure they *both* come back alive.”

********

Alone in the back of the van, Michael contemplated the mission. His sharp instincts, honed over a decade in Section, made it quite apparent there was more to this mission than he’d been told. In typical fashion, he had let nothing show and did not question his superior’s orders, but he *knew* this mission was a test to decide his future, or lack thereof.

Michael had every intention of failing his test and he knew just how he would do it.

********

Three-thirty on a cool Thursday morning.

Going dark for this mission, Michael switched vehicles ten miles before the target zone and drove an unlighted, black Section SUV on a narrow dirt path, ending at the north edge of the forest surrounding the chemical plant. Looking toward the east side, he sighted an empty, nondescript four door sedan with license plates belonging to René Dian. Driving around to the west side, well away from the sedan, Michael parked the SUV securely under cover, grabbed his gear, and proceeded along the west edge of the forest, past the south entrance to the building.

Continuously scanning the area, Michael finally sighted René at the southeast edge of the forest, looking toward the south front entrance of the one story structure, housing the chemical plant. René was using the surrounding forest as cover, standing behind the first line of trees, just outside the surveillance cameras’ range. As was his usual custom, René waited to ensure his plans and the bomb’s detonation would go off without a hitch.

********

According to the given intel, René had secured a clerical job six months ago at the plant, where, piece by piece, he’d smuggled in his bomb. Luckily for the employees and general population surrounding the plant, René’s resurrected group, L’Heure Sanguine, had been under Interpol’s surveillance for the past two years. A deep cover operative was part of the group membership.

At the monthly meeting Tuesday night, René had boasted that the bomb would be ready Wednesday morning, planted Wednesday night, and detonated Thursday morning. Arrogant, and certain of his plans, René informed the members that, as had been previously agreed, the bomb would be placed “where it would have substantial impact.” Detonation was set for six o’clock, just before sunrise, when much of the day shift would start arriving. René had originally planned on being late to work that day or calling sick but then changed his mind. He wanted to make sure no one suspected him so he could do this again somewhere else.

The plan called for René to leave the south entrance, with the rest of the employees, at day’s end Wednesday. He would then later circle back to the building’s entrance, using the forest as cover. During René’s employment at the plant, he’d learned his way around the grounds by taking long lunchtime hikes, claiming they were helping to keep him in shape.

Unknown to René, immediately after Tuesday evening’s meeting, the planted operative reported to his superior; Interpol reported to the Agency; the Agency handed the assignment over to Section One; Nikita, finding it to be the perfect test she sought, assigned it to Michael.

********

Four o’clock, Thursday morning; two hours to detonation.

Michael cautiously made his way through the forest toward the south entrance of the chemical plant building. Seeing that René’s attention was focused there due to the presence of the security guards’ stations, Michael took a circuitous route north to the back of the building. His black clad form melded with the forest and shadows of the starless night, helping him to remain out of both René’s and the security guards’ line of sight.

Michael gained entrance through the back door of the building by looping the camera’s surveillance feed - constantly running the same twenty second picture. Knowing René would plant the bomb where it would cause the most destruction, he headed straight for the main laboratory, with calm, noiseless dispatch.

Reaching the lab, Michael looped the camera’s surveillance feed from the top of the door, and entered the room. He found the bomb in a locked storage cabinet. A thorough perusal revealed that René hadn’t changed methodology in the last fifteen years. He uncovered a bag with 250 grams of semtex, wrapped in aluminum, surrounded by nails - the same configuration René had used all those years ago when he and Michael were student activists at the same university.

Once he dismantled the bomb, Michael made sure to cover any evidence that a bomb was ever there, ensuring one hundred percent containment and zero exposure. Returning to the SUV, Michael placed the now defunct bomb inside, and took off for the expected confrontation with René.

Section wanted his former best friend dead or alive, but they were in for a surprise.

********

Moving rapidly but quietly, Michael made his way to the southeast edge of the forest, where he had last seen René.

I can’t kill him and I can’t bring him in. To do neither fails Nikita’s test. So be it. At least my debt to René for raising my sister will be paid before my cancellation.

Finding his quarry leaning against a tree, Michael put away the mini night vision binoculars in a pocket of his flak vest, and moved to within five feet of his target.

“René,” Michael called out, keeping his weapon holstered. Whatever happened, he wouldn’t be using his gun.

Turning at the sound of his name, René Dian brought his gun up towards the direction of the voice. Gasping in shock, he thought he recognized the face behind the voice, but that man had been dead for over ten years. “Michel?”

“Yes,” Michael confirmed, stepping closer, unafraid of the gun now pointed at his head.

“I thought you were dead, we all thought you were dead. What happened to you?” René asked, lowering his weapon, shock still plainly visible in his features.

“It’s over René. I’ve disabled the bomb.” Michael ignored his old friend’s question, the story of his life post L’Heure Sanguine not something he was willing to discuss on his last night on this earth.

“What’s going on?” René asked, confused. “You suddenly reappear after fifteen years…why didn't you let me know you were still alive?”

“I couldn't,” Michael replied wearily. How could I tell him about Section One, the enemy according to their idealist standards?

“Why not?” René asked, his interrogating persona coming to the fore.

“I can't explain, and if I could, I'm afraid you wouldn't understand,” Michael evaded.

“Why are you here?”

Michael’s absence of speech and blank face revealed nothing.

René knew that stonewall look well. He would not get an answer from Michael about his activities since his supposed prison suicide, so he tried another approach.

“How did you find me?”

“The details are not important. I have access to…” Michael paused, knowing the possible danger of retaliation from René’s group, especially since he’d already decided René would walk away from this alive, “people ... in the community.”

“You're on the other side.” Realization dawned on René.

“Yes.”

“And you've come here to, what? Arrest me?” René asked angrily. He was finding it hard to believe that the man standing in front of him was the same man everyone believed had died a martyr for their cause all those years ago.

“No, I'm not here to hurt you, René.” Michael denied the accusation.

Meanwhile, by using Walter’s tracker and her night vision goggles, Nikita was able to follow Michael and stay out of sight. She approached from Michael’s right, close as she dared. The two men, concentrating intently on their conversation, didn’t see her. Unable to clearly make out their words, she nevertheless felt uneasy.

“Then please, tell me what is so important. Why *are* you here?”

“To ask you to stop.”

“To stop. It's ironic, isn't it? We always talked about them, the oppressors. And now, you are what I fight against - the police,” René returned bitterly. Shock wore off, to be quickly replaced by contempt for what he saw as his old friend’s corruption.

“Not exactly,” Michael hedged.

“I see little difference,” René returned contemptuously.

“A policeman has rules.”

“And you don’t?”

“No.”

From the tone of Michael’s voice, René knew pursuing this further would not be in his best interest.

“So, what now, my old friend?” René understood Michael didn’t plan on bringing him in.

“Get out. Find a new home. Stay low.” Michael counseled. It was the best he could do. Once Section found out that he’d let the target go, they’d send another team after René. There was no point in lying; housekeeping would know the truth when no body was recovered. They’d have to cancel him for disobeying orders, and he’d finally be free.

“My home is wherever people are oppressed.”

“They won’t look for you right away. I can protect you long enough for you to get away, but you have to do exactly as I say.”

“You mean sell out everything I believe in so I can save myself? Let the others be caught while I run? Please Michel! You know me better than that,” René threw out disgustedly.

Unbeknownst to Nikita, her own shadow wasn’t far behind her. Jurgen had used the signal from Nikita’s tracker to follow her and stayed back until she came to a stop. Once she did, Jurgen scoped out the location of all three members of this drama, and found himself a spot opposite Nikita, to Michael’s left. Judging from the way the conversation was going, it was a good thing he was situated to take a shot at René, Michael or both.

“Don't make me end it here.” But then again, perhaps this is best, a certain irony to die at the hands of the person that started me on my current path.

“What happens if you don’t bring me in?” René asked, the resigned tone in Michael’s voice finally getting past his anger and piquing his curiosity.

“Doesn't matter,” Michael declared, his tone ending any further discussion on the subject.

“They'll kill you,” René surmised. He took Michael’s ensuing silence as confirmation, and used it to his advantage. “Join us, Michel. Give your life some meaning again; or if death comes, give it some purpose.”

“It's not possible,” Michael returned, reconciled to his fate.

“I won’t stop fighting the oppressors,” René stated forcefully and without regret.

“Then you leave me no choice,” Michael responded quietly, seeing that René would not back down, would continue to plant bombs. There was nothing Michael could do for him, nothing he *would* do. René cannot not be allowed to continue and Section will see to it he is stopped. They are probably already awaiting his return home as a contingency.

“You either, my old friend,” René returned, bringing his weapon back up to point at Michael’s head.

Michael did not draw his gun.Death from René, or cancellation at Section. In the end it doesn’t matter. It’s over.

********

Whatever scant illumination existed in the black night formed dark shadows, and shed little light into the dense foliage surrounding the area. Four participants, with different goals, stood ready to play their parts in the ensuing confrontation - in what might have proved to be a major turning point for each.

René, once mentor and friend to Michael, wanted to escape alive. He preferred having his old friend join him, but will not allow Michael’s obstruction of his path to freedom.

Michael, disillusioned and resigned, was determined to let René escape unharmed, thereby failing Section’s test, and ending his life one way or another.

Nikita, realizing Michael's professional and personal value, had grave misgivings about his end goal. She followed him, hoping to avert any disaster.

Jurgen, while still in love with Nikita and aware of her attraction to Michael, looked out for both Michael and Nikita, for the good of Section.

The stage was set.

Michael and René faced each other, finished with their discussion.

Nikita (unaware of Jurgen’s presence) and Jurgen covertly watched the two, poised for action at any sign of trouble.

What happened next took place very quickly, causing each participant to act by instinct, without benefit of preparation or forethought.

********

Michael stood motionless, awaiting his fate. René hesitated before shooting his old friend.

Nikita, using René’s hesitation, pushed Michael out of the bullet’s path. René’s bullet found Nikita instead of Michael.

Jurgen’s bullet missed a moving René. Michael, in retribution for Nikita, killed René.

Silence.

Michael, afraid of what he might find, bent down to search for a pulse on the motionless Nikita, Jurgen right behind him.

********

Relieved at finding Nikita’s pulse, the two men immediately began to search her body for injuries.

Jurgen pushed Michael aside, unchallenged, and turned Nikita carefully. He spotted a bullet hole just below her ribs, and tore open her jacket. Thankfully, she was wearing her flak vest, into which the bullet had lodged, but not penetrated. No determination could be made on site as to possible damage caused by the impact.

Searching for some indication of consciousness, Michael studied Nikita’s face. His eye was caught by the dark stain on a rock under her head. Recognizing it as blood, he found its source under the back of Nikita’s hair..

Both men looked up at the same time, each indicating the injuries he had found, each concerned about Nikita’s condition. Jurgen gathered her into his arms and quickly moved toward Nikita’s van, followed by Michael, loathe to let her out of his sight. Housekeeping would sanitize the area and take care of the extra vehicles.

Once inside the van, Jurgen carefully placed Nikita on the nearest bench. Michael grabbed the first aid kit, gave it to Jurgen, walked to the front of the van, and pounded on the driver’s wall ordering him to go.

Jurgen had taken charge of Nikita, effectively blocking Michael’s participation. Anxious to know Nikita’s condition, but reluctant to ask, Michael let his eyes do the questioning. Blaming Michael for Nikita’s injuries, Jurgen’s answer was a venomous stare.

Accepting Jurgen’s obvious condemnation as his due, Michael moved as far as possible from the other two. But he didn’t need the censure in Jurgen’s eyes, he was doing a good job of censuring himself.

The need to make sure Nikita would be all right, was one of two reasons Michael returned to Section in the van. The other, was to accept his cancellation, as had been stipulated, for the failure of his test.

********

At van access, over half of Medlab waited for their injured leader’s arrival. Nikita was placed on a gurney, surrounded by Medlab personnel, who knew better than to prevent Michael and Jurgen from following.

As soon as the news of Nikita’s injuries spread, Section was in an uproar trying to separate facts from rumors. Security was called in immediately to help quell the ensuing panic, secure a private Medlab area for Nikita’s treatment, and block the secured area from any but authorized personnel.

Michael and Jurgen were forced to wait outside the secured area, where a distressed Walter joined them. Walter, not getting any answers, paced nervously. Jurgen, unable to stay long in one place, moved from seat to seat, occasionally shooting accusatory darts at Michael. Michael, impervious to Jurgen and the rest of his surroundings, stood immobile against one wall, section mask hiding his inner turmoil.

They waited.

Finally, the head physician came out into the waiting area. Anxious to hear Nikita’s prognosis, all three looked up at him.

“Nikita is blind,” The head physician announced dramatically before giving his prognosis. “However, we're fairly certain it's only temporary.”

“Fairly?” Jurgen asked.

“Most likely post-trauma,” he diagnosed, “and stress related.” He looked pointedly at the three men in the waiting room. “I’m confident once the swelling in the brain goes down, her vision will clear up. I’ll be more comfortable with the prognosis once I’m able to conduct a more thorough examination.”

“Why haven’t you done so already?” Jurgen asked.

“She wouldn't allow it,” came the frustrated response.

“She wouldn't…” Walter found his voice. "Why the hell not?"

The physician ignored Walter’s question, the answer obvious if you knew Nikita. He turned back to address Jurgen and Michael. With a professionally indignant air, he relayed his patient's demands. “Nikita ordered me *out* and the two of you *in.*” He pointed to Jurgen. “You first.”

********

Twenty minutes later a very weary Jurgen came out of Nikita's room, his emotions hidden behind a carefully blank mask, aware of Michael's eyes on him. Michael's own expression gave no hint of inner turmoil, but Jurgen was well aware that the pupil had far surpassed the teacher when it came to keeping feelings captive.

Needing time alone to process everything he had just heard and the resultant feelings, Jurgen blandly informed Michael that it was his turn to visit Nikita.

Michael merely nodded and turned to walk toward Nikita's room. Jurgen watched him leave, then sank down into one of the chairs lining the wall of the observation room.

Given what he now knew, he had no doubt that Michael and Nikita's meeting would be short. Jurgen knew full well that he was supposed to leave Medlab immediately and write his report of the mission.

Jurgen looked at the closed door to Nikita's room. Orders be damned. Before Nikita's instructions were carried out, he and Michael had *several* things to discuss. Until they did, he wasn't going anywhere.

********

Once he walked into the room, stride unusually slow and hesitant, Michael stood and looked at Nikita wishing things could be different. She was sitting up on the hospital bed in Medlab whites, having refused to lie down and give in to the pain or her temporary disability. A gauze bandage covered the right side of her temple, a stark reminder of the situation and his part in it.

“Michael?” Nikita had obviously heard the automatic doors slide open.

“Yes,” Even that one word sticking in his throat, Michael continued to drink in the sight of her knowing it was the final time.

Nikita leveled her open but sightless gaze towards the voice. Forestalling anything Michael might have to say she got right to the heart of the matter, “I’ve already filed my report.”

“I understand,” Michael returned quietly, waiting for his sentence. He’d not only failed his evaluation, but his actions had gotten the leader of Section One wounded. The one person who, under different circumstances, might have brought him back to the world of the living lay in Medlab because of him.

“I stepped into the line of fire, preventing you from shooting René,” Nikita continued in a rush, wishing once again she could see his reaction. She knew intuitively however, that this conversation could not wait until her sight returned.

“What…?” Michael asked in shocked disbelief as he marched over to Nikita’s bedside.

She knew he was right beside her, close enough to reach out and touch. Taking a deep breath, Nikita nodded slowly. “You passed your evaluation.”

“No…” Michael began almost in a whisper, his voice nearly cracking.

Pushing away a faint feeling of panic, Nikita cut him off, turning her face toward the sound of his voice. He had to understand and accept her decision. It wasn’t too late for them. She needed him professionally but even more importantly, she needed him personally. “Jurgen’s report will read the same.”

Silence greeted her statement but Nikita was not about to give up.

“Give me your hand,” Nikita stretched out one hand toward him while carefully removing the command key from around her neck with the other.

Automatically obeying her request, Michael’s mind swirled with the implications of both her words and actions. He watched as Nikita grasped his arm and dropped Section One’s command key into his outstretched hand.

“You have command,” Nikita declared firmly.

Tearing his gaze away from her damaged but still beautiful eyes Michael looked down at his palm. He knew she was offering so much more than just the command of Section One, but he couldn’t do what she was asking.

“Nikita…” Michael began, trying to put his feelings into words.

“You *have* command,” Nikita’s fingers tightened around his wrist, her voice an odd mixture of resolve and pleading. She had no intention of taking no for an answer.

“Why?” Michael asked softly, looking down at the key again.

“You know why,” Nikita replied just as softly, waiting for his reaction. It was the first time either one of them had voiced their feelings aloud.

“I do,” Michael acknowledged sadly, unable to resist the urge to reach up and caress her face with his free hand, longing for all that he would never know .

“And?” Nikita prodded, barely controlling the urge to lean into the gentle touch.

“I’m sorry,” Michael returned, reluctantly dropping his hand, guilt and regret showing plainly in his eyes. “You deserve better,” The three words conveying his feelings. Section deserved better. Even more importantly Nikita deserved better. After all, what did he have to offer anyone besides pain and death?

“So do you,” Nikita countered fiercely, relief at her feelings being returned only momentary. She understood the deeper meaning behind Michael’s words but refused to accept them.

Michael’s response was cut short as the head physician, weary of waiting, barged in. He informed the patient that unless she was willing to risk permanent blindness, he needed to examine her. Now.

Although acquiescing, Nikita sent Michael out with one last decree, “We’ll finish this discussion as soon as I get out of here.”

“Of course,” Michael answered without turning around, his words implying a promise he wasn’t at all sure he would keep.

********

Stepping out of the private Medlab room, Michael wasn’t surprised to find Jurgen waiting for him. Walter was nowhere to be found, undoubtedly a result of Jurgen’s prompting.

“Not here,” Michael stated, discontented with the lack of privacy. Nikita’s private guards were still standing watch.

“No, not here,” Jurgen agreed.

By silent, mutual agreement the two men made their way to one of the private, unmonitored training rooms. They had their usual blank faces on, revealing nothing of the tension between them.

Walter had already filled the appropriate people in on as much as they needed to know. Other than Walter, no one had even suspected a change of command was supposed to be the endgame of their leaders’ return from the field. As they watched them make their way through Section, no one questioned either man. Everyone simply assumed they were going to privately work out control of Section One.

Walter knew the truth behind the mission gone wrong. He also knew that Nikita couldn’t cancel Michael. With her father and his colleagues to answer to, there was only one way for this to happen.

Judging by Nikita’s injury and Jurgen’s barely suppressed fury, Walter guessed the truth would never make it into *any* official document.

Jurgen stepped aside to let Michael precede him into the training room. Expression carefully blank, Michael waited for his former trainer to begin the conversation.

Taking a deep breath to try to at least somewhat calm down, Jurgen began sarcastically, hands fisted at his side, “I suppose I should congratulate you.”

“Why bother?” Michael retorted mildly, knowing Jurgen wasn’t happy about his promotion.

“Oh, I think you deserve commendation,” Jurgen stated facetiously, crossing his arms over his chest tightly, lest he lose control. “You got what you wanted and paid back the brass for putting you on trial.”

“You don’t believe that,” Michael returned quietly.

“I believe that you got what you wanted,” Jurgen asserted. “As for getting Nikita injured, you might as well have pulled the trigger yourself.”

Michael remained silent, letting the other man vent his anger.

“Your attitude is what nearly got someone killed. You just don’t give a damn about any one or any thing other than Section. Hell even your wife wasn’t as important!” Jurgen went on even as he noticed Michael’s eyes flashing in pain. The jab had hit its mark.

“He would have been caught,” Michael countered, his emotions too raw to dispute the more painful past Jurgen had brought up.

“So, you were going to take the coward’s way out? Let René kill you then hope that Section picked him up?” Jurgen, shaking his head, asked derisively. “Nikita made it so easy for you. All you had to do was cancel René. She knew you wouldn’t be able to bring him back to Section.”

Jurgen’s words confirmed the truth behind the evaluation. If Michael had any compassion, he would have completed the mission by canceling René himself, rather than bringing his former friend back to Section and the white room.

René’s intel hadn’t been necessary, they had all they needed from the undercover Interpol agent, and teams were already rounding up the other members of the group.

“I expected Section…” Michael began.

“Doesn’t matter,” Jurgen interrupted. “I’m going along with Nikita’s directive for her sake, not yours. It’s her ass on the line here, even more than yours.” He stepped closer to Michael, his expression grim. “But, the minute you step out of line, you’re finished.”

********

Vow made, Jurgen left the room, his anger not alleviated. He completed his report, as per Nikita’s instructions, and then left Section. He didn’t much care whether or not the new leader would have authorized his departure. He didn’t ask.

********

Michael left the room a few minutes after Jurgen and went straight to his new office, the Perch. Nikita would finalize the official transfer once she was released from Medlab. But he was certain that Walter had already informed the necessary personnel in Section of the change in command.

His assumption was confirmed when the permanent guards at the foot of the Perch merely nodded at him and stepped aside.

Darkening the window, Michael stared out over his domain. The Perch had been his goal for many years, but the victory seemed much too hollow. So many lives lost, so many more hurt in his quest. Looking down at the bustling activity, he asked himself, Was it worth it?

********

Although he’d been informed of the change in leadership, Birkoff was oblivious to the whole story behind it. He’d seen Michael ascend to the Perch almost half an hour ago, and then an agitated Jurgen leave Section a few minutes ago.

Birkoff sat at his console and contemplated how the new chain of command would affect him. A loud beep came from his computer interrupting his musings.

Once he read over the scrolling data, Birkoff punched the intercom to the Perch, “Mich…I mean…uh, sir?”

“Michael’s fine,” Came the answer, titles never a priority for Michael. “What is it?”

“The arms deal Sinclair’s been planning.”

“Yes?” Michael inquired. Sinclair was a small time arms dealer moving up in the business. His next deal would propel him to the big time. Section’s job was to make sure that deal never happened. Sinclair and his buyer were to be taken alive if possible, but they were acceptable collateral.

“He’s moved up the timetable,” Birkoff announced.

“When?” Michael asked. The meet was originally scheduled for three days from now.

“Six hours.”

“Send up the intel. I’ll write the profile.”

“Done. Who do you want me to call in?” Birkoff asked two minutes later, curious about Michael’s writing the profile even though now in charge. Guess he wants to have as much control as possibly over the first mission under his watch.

“You have the list.” Michael had sent it while awaiting the intel.

Birkoff looked at the names on his screen, more than a little confused. The roster Michael had given him consisted of abeyance and marginal operatives only. Considering the mission, this was not surprising. However, a team leader had yet to be selected.

“Yeah, but who’s leading the team?”

“I am,” Michael replied.

********

When Walter received the inventory for the Sinclair mission, he was also more than a little surprised. He might not have worried if he hadn’t been privy to some of the ‘behind the scenes’ intrigue over the last few hours.

Walter could understand Michael’s desire to both profile and lead the first mission under his command. But at the same time, he couldn’t help wondering if perhaps there was something more behind Michael’s decision than just a show of leadership.

In either case, a contingency was in order. Not to mention a visit to Medlab, Walter thought to himself as he saw Michael walking toward Munitions. He just hoped that the sedatives administered to Nikita earlier had begun to wear off. Walter shook his head. She’s not going to be happy about this.

After a brief glance in Walter’s direction, Michael picked up his gear in silence, acting as though nothing was out of the ordinary. Walter took his cue from the younger man and pretended the same.

Walter waited until the team left Section and Michael’s new bodyguards returned from Van Access, and then headed for Comm. His gut was telling him something bad was going to go down.

Perhaps he was an old fool, too many years in Section feeding his paranoia. Maybe this mission *would* go down smoothly. “Yeah, right,” Walter mumbled to himself as he made his way to Comm. “Paranoia’s helped keep me alive for thirty years.”

He needed mission details, but he also wanted to keep his suspicions to himself and not raise any undue alarm - and he knew just the person to help him.

“Hey, amigo,” Walter greeted Birkoff. “What’s cooking?”

“Just the Sinclair mission,” Birkoff answered.

“Nothing else looks hot?”

“Nope.” Birkoff shook his head. “Good thing, too.”

“Yeah, with Michael out in the field and Nikita stuck in Medlab, that only leaves Jurgen to hold down the fort.”

“Not even,” Birkoff countered. “He’s gone. Stormed out right after he finished his report.” He glanced at Walter. “Man, I’d love to see what was in it.”

“Don’t even think about it.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not about to touch that one. That baby’s sealed for Nikita’s, or now I guess for Michael’s eyes only.”

“Good,” Walter stated, feeling his tension ease slightly. That was one worry alleviated. “When’s the mission goin’ live?”

“Two hours,” Birkoff replied. “Michael wants to take ‘em out as soon as the buyer arrives.”

“Two hours?” Walter repeated, turning away without another word, his thoughts preoccupied. Hope it’s enough time.

“Hey!” Birkoff called out, surprised at his friend’s abrupt departure. “Where you going in such a hurry?”

“Medlab,” Walter replied.

********

Puzzled, Birkoff watched as Walter departed in the direction of Medlab. He turned back to his monitor and stared at the mission profile once more, his mind running over the scenario. If Walter’s going to Medlab, it can only be to see Nikita. If Nikita is out of sedation, Walter will definitely tell her about Michael’s mission. If she hears about her new Section head leading a mission, she’s going to freak out.

Birkoff pulled off his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. What a mess. He had no doubt that Nikita would do everything she could to stop Michael before the mission went live.

But blind and wounded, what could she possibly do?

********

Walter looked at his watch and glared once more at the closed doors of Nikita's Medlab room. He'd been pacing the corridor and he was rapidly running out of time. When he’d arrived in Medlab over half an hour ago, he’d noticed Section’s head physician, Dr. Ross at the nurses’ station. Walter had overheard Dr. Ross ordering the nurse on duty to page him as soon as Nikita signaled the nurses’ station that she was conscious.

Nikita’s private Medlab quarters had been quiet when he'd first arrived. Her two guards, posted outside the door to her room, had been the only other people in the immediate vicinity.

Finally, over an hour after Walter arrived there was some action. Walter was as close to Nikita’s room as the guards would allow when Dr. Ross had rushed past him. Two minutes later, Section's resident eye specialist had quickly followed, joining his colleague in Nikita's room.

Despite his impatience and increasing anxiety, Walter had been pleased to see that Nikita's private guards had thoroughly searched both men before they'd been allowed to enter. With her sight impaired, she was all too vulnerable.

With both physicians in attendance, Walter was now effectively shut out. With less than an hour left before the Sinclair mission went live, there was a very real chance that he wouldn't be able to speak to Nikita in time. ‘Screw that,’ Walter scowled. He sat in one of the chairs in the corridor and folded his arms. ‘Twenty minutes, then hell or high water, I’m going in.’

After fifteen minutes had passed, Nikita's primary physician finally walked out of her room. The man would have walked right past him, but Walter had waited long enough. He was at his side in an instant.

“Doc,” Walter grabbed the man’s sleeve.

The tall, dark-haired man looked at him calmly. “Yes?”

Walter jerked his head toward Nikita's room. “What’s going on in there?”

“Dr. Drake is examining Nikita’s eyes,” Dr. Ross informed him. He knew that his patient and Walter were close and didn’t see the harm of giving him the news.

“Any change?” Walter asked anxiously.

“Actually, yes,” Dr. Ross smiled. “We're using a new, fast-acting ocular injection, and she's responded very well, even better than we had hoped. Her vision is still blurry, but she *can* see. It's hard to predict how quickly her sight will return completely. She’ll start getting partial sight almost immediately. Full sight could return within the hour, or it could be several days.” He looked pleased. Medlab personnel were always pleased when their patients recovered, but in this case there was even more incentive. Not much hope of longevity if you screwed up the care of ‘the boss.’ “Dr. Drake is very optimistic about a complete recovery.”

“How soon can I see her?” Walter asked urgently, glancing at the clock on the wall.

“Dr. Drake should be done shortly,” Dr. Ross answered. “But, I’m not sure Nikita’s up for company just yet.”

“It’s urgent,” Walter persisted. “Can you tell her I need to see her right away?” He glanced at the guards as he spoke, knowing that he'd never make it into the room without a formal invitation.

“Walter…” Dr. Ross began to protest.

“Doc,” Walter interrupted. “Now. Please.”

“I’ll tell her,” Dr. Ross relented, sensing the other man’s desperation.

********

Fifteen minutes later, after being thoroughly searched for concealed weapons, Walter was allowed into Nikita's room.

The patient was sitting up in bed, smiling at him. “Walter.”

“Hey Sugar,” Walter returned, relieved that she could apparently see well enough to identify him. “You can see me?” He asked for confirmation.

“You’re a little blurry around the edges,” Nikita grinned. “But yeah, I can see you.”

“That’s good to hear,” Walter attempted a smile.

Nikita peered at him carefully, frowning. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure anything *is* wrong.” Walter hedged, unsure of the best approach.

Nikita closed her eyes for a few seconds, as though she was trying to adjust to her unstable vision. When she opened them again, she stared at him intently. “Is it Section?” Nikita prodded.

Walter nodded, still trying to think of the best way to tell her of his concerns. “I need to speak with you about the Sinclair mission. The timetable moved up, it’s already gone out.”

“What's wrong?” Nikita seemed to pick up on his train of thought. “Where’s Michael?”

“He's leading the mission.” Walter replied, waiting for her reaction.

To his surprise, she merely nodded. “I thought as much.”

“You did?” Walter was confused.

“The first mission under his watch? I’d probably do the same,” Nikita replied then amended, “If I had his field experience, that is.”

Walter stared at her. “So, you’re not worried?”

“No.” She studied him briefly. “Why? Should I be?”

“Well, things did look kinda grim when you three came in…”

“It's okay, Walter.” Nikita interrupted, reaching out to pat his arm reassuringly. “Michael and I talked.” She smiled ruefully. “Not about everything, but it was definitely a start. He’s fine.”

“You’re sure?” Walter wasn't convinced. He'd seen Michael after that talk and the younger man hadn't seemed fine to him.

“Yeah Walter, I’m sure,” Nikita affirmed. “When does the mission go live?”

“In a few minutes.” Walter checked his watch.

“Well, then, I need your help.” Shifting her position slightly, she swung her legs over the side of the bed.

“With what?” Walter watched her slip her feet into her boots and smiled faintly. She was already dressed in her own clothes. Apparently, she felt the same way about Medlab and hospital whites as most Cold Ops did.

Nikita looked up at him, “Like I said, things are a bit blurry and if I’m gonna have to lean on someone, I want it to be you, not a bodyguard.”

“Where do you wanna go?” Walter asked.

“The Perch.”

“Why?”

“I want to monitor the mission personally. And in private,” Nikita replied.

“All right.” Walter acquiesced, figuring he’d stay close himself, ready for even a *hint* of an anomaly. “It’s not like I could stop you any more than your doctors could.”

********

It was the strangest feeling, as though she was watching a badly focused television picture. One moment, things were so fuzzy that she could only make out vague shapes. Then she would blink, and everything would slam into focus so fast that it made her dizzy.

Nikita gripped Walter's arm a little tighter and let him lead her to the Perch. Despite his efforts to appear calm, she could feel the tension in his body, and she felt her own heart rate pick up speed in reaction. She trusted his judgment implicitly. If Walter thought that something was wrong, then something was wrong.

After negotiating the stairs, they reached Michael's new office. Finding it in darkness, Walter activated the internal lights (leaving it dark to outside view) which made Nikita's eyelids flutter involuntarily at the sudden intrusive glare. The sensation of looking through gauze faded and shapes became sharper. She let go of Walter's arm and took a few hesitant steps into the room, her vision growing clearer with every blink.

Nikita breathed a silent sigh of relief. Thank God. She had hated feeling so helpless, so dependent on everyone around her. Gesturing toward the wall screen, she glanced quickly at Walter. “Have Birkoff patch in the live feed...”

Walter nodded. While he headed for the intercom, Nikita turned back to the screen. As she turned, she caught sight of something on the desk-something that didn’t belong. She walked slowly toward the large desk, her heart beginning to pound unsteadily in her chest. As her gaze crystallized and focused on the incongruous item on the desk, she knew Walter had been right to be worried.

Lying on the desk was a two-worded note from Michael saying “I’m sorry” and next to it lay Section One's command key.

********

Birkoff monitored the mission from Comm as usual while Nikita and Walter monitored communications from the Perch. Nikita had given Birkoff explicit orders that no one, not even Michael, was to be aware of her and Walter’s monitoring.

Nikita and Walter tapped into communications just in time to hear Michael relay tactical changes to Birkoff. They were relieved to hear that it sounded like Michael intended to bring everyone home. Perhaps he’d changed his mind or they’d misunderstood his apology.

********

Sinclair’s base of operations was a warehouse in a remote, seldom used part of the docks. He paid the pier owner and the local cops good money to leave his place of business alone.

He also paid half a dozen mercenaries well to guard his base. Their job tonight was to cover the perimeter of the warehouse while Sinclair completed his deal.

The Section van arrived near the docks and stopped far enough away from the site to be undetected by Sinclair’s men. Michael ordered the two teams of six to remain behind while he surveyed the perimeter. Once he scoped out the scene and returned to the van, Michael made a few adjustments to the profile based on what he’d observed. The perimeter guards had no communication devices so they could be taken out concurrently before the fire-fight started. Just because he had his own agenda on this mission, it didn’t mean that any of the other operatives had to be sacrificed.

Michael’s new tactical changed the profile from an abeyance mission that’d trap team one in ground zero to one that would sustain minimal, if any, losses. He relayed the changes to Birkoff, who complied immediately. The new configuration would leave only Michael in the incineration zone, but with plenty of time to get out before the charges went off.

Several minutes later, using the buyer’s arrival as a distraction, team one fanned out. The six man team, in synchronized movements, dispatched the mercenaries guarding the perimeter and took their places with no one the wiser.

Under the guise of patrolling the area, the Section operatives began planting charges on the outside walls of the warehouse as well as in strategic areas around the perimeter.

Knowing that time was of the essence, as soon as the Section team hit their marks, Michael stealthily made his way into the warehouse, planting charges as he went. With Birkoff guiding him, he found the stand alone computer that contained a list of Sinclair’s network of contacts as well as potential buyers.

Birkoff was scanning the scrolling intel as it came in while Michael kept pace at his end. If the lists were comprehensive enough, there’d be no need to bring Sinclair in alive, thereby enabling an easier egress. If everyone was acceptable collateral, all Section had to do was set the charges and get out before the deal was completed.

Satisfied that the intel was sufficient for Section’s needs, Michael confirmed that the team had planted the charges while carefully making his way out of the warehouse.

On his way out of the warehouse, Michael’s comm. unit came to life. Team one’s leader reported in, “Looks like they’re about to wrap up the deal.”

“Team one begin egress, team two cover retreat.” Michael ordered as he ducked behind a cluster of stacked crates. They were a few yards from the warehouse, on the opposite side of the retreating teams. It was a vantage point that allowed him to watch the coming action, while remaining well out of the line of fire. Mission closure comes first. Michael reminded himself. Behind him was a clear path to safety.

Michael knew that as soon as team one broke their positions, Sinclair’s people would realize something was wrong. Team two’s cover fire served a dual purpose. The first was to cover team one’s egress. The second was to pin down Sinclair, his buyer and their people, thereby ensuring they got caught in the explosion.

As soon as the first shots rang out, Michael again spoke into his comm. unit, “Charges set for three minutes.”

Michael would remain where he was until the teams cleared the incineration zone, then meet up with the van at exit point Alpha.

At ninety seconds to detonation, team two’s leader reported that both teams cleared the incineration zone.

“Get to the van,” Michael ordered. “Now.”

Michael then remotely detonated the charges he’d planted on his way in and continued watching the scene. The location of the explosions effectively pinned the targets in the incineration zone, ensuring they didn’t get out before the rest of the charges went off.

Birkoff, tracking with infrared, immediately noticed that Michael wasn’t moving to the van after he’d detonated the charges. Since there were no other thermals around him and he was out of the line of fire, Birkoff couldn’t understand why Michael was still stationary.

“Michael, seventy five seconds,” Birkoff tried raising him via his comm. unit. “Why aren’t you moving?” He waited a beat. “Michael? Michael?” He yelled, staring at his panel, and realized that he’d somehow lost communication with Michael. Looking up at the darkened Perch, Birkoff hoped that Nikita could pull off a miracle.

Once the mission’s success was guaranteed by the initial explosions, Michael had shut off his comm. unit. He then remained behind the crates, waiting for the death that Nikita’s interference had so recently denied him.

He was tired of losing everything, tired of starting over. His parents, his friends, his wife and his son - all gone. He had nothing to offer except pain and death. The one person who was offering him another chance at life would be much better off without him in the long run anyway.

Sixty seconds and it would all finally be over.

With Birkoff’s voice still ringing in their ears, Nikita turned to Walter, a look of horror on her face. “Oh God, no...”

“Delta channel,” A determined and surprisingly calm Walter commanded to Nikita.

“What?” Nikita asked even as she moved to obey Walter’s directive, her fingers flying over the panel in front of her.

“I knew something was hinkey from the get-go,” Walter hurriedly explained. “I glued a comm. unit inside Michael’s jacket collar before he grabbed it.”

“Walter, you’re a godsend,” Nikita exclaimed, while keying in the access codes for Delta channel.

********

Sixty seconds.

Michael sighed and closed his eyes briefly, assuming images of his painful past would pummel him. But, instead of the tragedies of his life, what Michael saw in his mind’s eye were innocents and operatives saved by his actions. He saw Section friends he’d distanced himself from - Chuck, Davenport and Walter among them - who’d still remained loyal despite his aloofness. And finally, he saw Nikita’s image, the one that had haunted him for the last three months.

Can I have a future without loneliness and pain? Can I start over one more time? Before Michael could formulate his answers, a blue light appeared, running the length of his body. When the light show was over, Michael was no longer Michael, but rather Dr. Sam Beckett, quantum leaper.

“Run, Sam!” Al stepped through the imaging chamber’s door before it was completely raised. “This way. Hurry!” He pointed to where the two Section vans were waiting.

“What?” Sam asked, his usual disorientation immediately following a leap muddying his senses.

“Now, Sam!” Al yelled. “I’ll explain later,” He sighed in relief as Sam started getting up from his crouched position.

“Michael!” Nikita’s voice startled Sam into immobilization trying to figure out who was talking to him and from where.

“Huh?” It sounded like the voice was coming from his jacket collar.

“Michael! Don’t do this,” Nikita repeated half-pleading, half-shouting. “Come back to me.” She gave up all pretense of command. “Please.”

“Later. Just run Sam! Now!” Al hollered again, knowing each second was crucial.

Taking a quick look around him, Sam muttered, “Oh, boy!” before sprinting to safety. Al kept pace and helped direct Sam to the quickest route away from the incineration zone.

********

“He’s moving.” Birkoff relayed from Comm. He hadn’t been privy to the flurry of activity in the Perch and he didn’t know about Nikita’s pleas over the Delta channel. But he had Michael, (well, Sam now) on thermal and watched as the red dot representing him moved suddenly and swiftly out of the incineration zone.

Nikita, Walter and Birkoff, waited with bated breath as the final seconds ticked by. Had ‘Michael’ cleared ground zero in time?

********

Sam cleared ground zero by the skin of his teeth. He was still breathing hard from the exertion of running for his life at full speed. Teams one and two were waiting for him inside the vans.

As soon as Sam got to the vans, the back doors of the one carrying team one opened.

“It’s okay, Sam,” Al told him. “Get in. Nod to the short guy with red hair and tell him to go.”

“Go,” Sam ordered O’Neill, team one’s leader, just as Al had directed.

“You all right, sir?”

“Yeah, fine,” Sam mumbled with a half-smile, hoping that was a good answer. O’Neill gave him a strange look but thankfully didn’t add anything further.

“Good,” Al continued. “Don’t say anything else. Take the laptop, sit down in the back of the van and start typing.”

“Typing what?” Sam whispered out of the side of his mouth, as he followed Al’s instructions.

“Anything. Doesn’t matter,” Al replied, following Sam to the back of the van after he’d grabbed the laptop. “Trust me, you start typing, no one will bother you.”

“Fine!” Sam obeyed once more, typing gibberish without looking up from the screen.

“Good, now just look fierce while you’re typing.”

“Fierce?” Sam questioned.

“Better yet,” Al smirked. “Remember that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, ‘The Terminator?’”

“Yeah,” Sam returned, bewildered at the turn of the conversation.

“Like him,” Al added. “Cold.”

“Happy?” Sam hissed sarcastically, once again following Al’s directions, “Now what the hell is going on?” He looked up at his friend for an answer and noticed one of the operatives staring at him. Without any prompting from Al, Sam gave him a frosty glare and the op hastily looked away. “From now on, I’ll type questions on the laptop, okay?”

“Yeah, good idea,” Al nodded. “Much less conspicuous.”

“Well?” Sam typed.

“You remember your last leap?” Al asked in answer.

“Sorta,” Sam typed, his usual Swiss-cheesed memory following a leap pretty clearly for a change. “It was short, I was a beat cop who had to prevent the wrong person from being accused of murder.”

“That’s the one,” Al confirmed. “We fixed one thing, but broke another.”

“Go on,” Sam typed.

“Well, Nikita Jones, the kid in the alley, was never accused or sent to prison and recruited by Section One. Instead she was brought into the Agency by her big-wig father,” Al paused to punch the multi-colored hand-link to Ziggy for more information. “She turned out fine, but someone else’s life went ca-ca.”

“Let me guess who,” Sam typed. “The guy I leaped into.”

“Bingo,” Al hesitated.

“Well,” Sam typed impatiently. “Who am I?”

“Uh…”

“Al!” Sam hissed, worried at his friend’s hesitation.

“You’re a high level Section One operative.”

“Isn’t Section One based in Europe?” Sam typed.

“Yeah,” Al confirmed.

“So, if I’m in a van, heading back to headquarters, that means I’m somewhere in Europe, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Al answered.

“So, how’s that possible? I only leap in the US.”

“Ziggy figures since something went screwy with the last leap, you bounced around the threads of the reality begun with the leap and ended up here as a result.”

“An anomaly? Like when I leaped into my Civil War ancestor?”

“Exactly.”

“Well then, am I going to get a name so I can answer to it?” An aggravated Sam typed.

“Michael Samuelle.” Al paused, waiting to see if Sam’s sometimes Swiss-cheesed memory kicked in again.

Sam’s fingers stilled on the keyboard, “I know him, don’t I?” He typed after a minute.

“Yeah, do you remember from where?”

“The Project.”

“That’s right,” Al nodded.

“He was sent in before final funding approval.” Sam typed slowly, remembering.

“Yeah, the Agency had been sending him for security checks cos of his background in engineering,” Al confirmed. “You’ve met several times.”

“Is he the one you told me about on the last leap, the one the Agency had killed?”

“Yeah.”

“So, we didn’t fix it? He still got killed?”

“Yeah.”

“By the Agency?”

“No,” Al replied. “He did it himself.”

“Why?” Sam typed.

“That’s what I’m gonna find out,” Al answered, punching the hand-link. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Just type any gibberish and keep any dialogue to a monosyllable.” Al thought for a moment, trying to remember more about the Section operative from the few meetings they’d had. “If any one asks, you’re fine.”

“What about the woman talking to me through that communications piece?”

“That was Nikita Jones. But don’t worry, she won’t contact you with others around. I’ll be back before you get to Section One,” Al advised, then opened the door to the imaging chamber. “Oh yeah, and if you have to speak, whisper,” he finished, and stepped through the door back to his own time.

“I hate it when he tells me not to worry,” Sam muttered to himself before returning to the laptop. Gibberish? The heck with that. As long as I’m here…

********

The last thing Michael remembered was coming to a decision about his continued survival as the seconds before the detonation counted down.

He didn’t remember the seconds ticking down to zero, and he didn’t remember getting here, wherever here was. It seemed to Michael that, in the blink of an eye, he went from crouching behind a stack of crates, about to make an important decision to lying on a hospital bed in a sterile, chroma key blue room. Looking down, he found himself dressed in a tight, white shimmering body suit.

Even more odd, it had taken him a few minutes to remember who he was. Michael’s first thought upon ‘awakening’ was, Medlab, I must be in Medlab. Then he asked himself, What the hell is a Medlab?

Most disconcerting was his next thought, Who am I? Closing his eyes and concentrating, Michael willed himself to remember. By the time he remembered who he was, and what he had been doing, the sliding door on the opposite side of the room opened to reveal a vaguely familiar face. The man who walked into the room was wearing a fedora hat and a loud multicolored jacket that matched the hand-link he carried.

“Admiral Calavicci?” Michael sat up on the bed.

“You remember me?” Al asked hopefully.

“Vaguely,” Michael answered, unwilling to admit that, at this point, he was still having trouble remembering exactly who *he, himself,* was. “We’ve met several times, regarding the Quantum Leap project.”

“That’s right,” Al confirmed. “You visited the project a few times for Section One, to make a security check before final funding approval, and again after Sam, ah Dr. Beckett, leaped.”

“Where am I?”

“In the Project, actually.” Al answered, ignoring his squawking hand-link. He was going to handle this himself, as Ziggy had apparently caused enough trouble on the last leap.

“This is the waiting room,” Michael stated, remembering the schematics of the facility. “Why? How?”

“Why, how, what?” Al asked, confused. Talk about monosyllables.

“Why am I here?” Michael elaborated. “How did I get here?”

“Oh,” Al sighed, scratching his forehead, debating how much to reveal. He looked down at his still squawking hand-link, punched a few keys and silenced it. “You’re what we call a visitor. Remember what that is?”

“No,” Michael admitted.

“It was in the file you read the last time you were here, well the last time you know of anyway,” Al qualified.

“I don’t remember all the details.” Michael frowned, frustrated with his apparently fragmented memory.

“S’okay. It’s the Swiss-cheese effect.”

“What?”

“Well, during a leap the visitor’s memory is usually Swiss-cheesed. You know, holes in the memory. Sometimes the holes are huge, sometimes they’re smaller. Sam’s sometimes affected with it, too,” Al explained. “The good news is that it appears that the holes in *your* memory are of the smaller variety.”

“During a leap?” Michael fit the pieces together. “I’m part of a leap?” If he hadn’t been aware of the project in the first place, Michael wouldn’t have been half as accepting. He’d be more likely to believe this was an enemy playing head-games.

“Uh, yeah,” Al confirmed, looking at his once again squawking hand-link. “Just a sec.” He walked over to a small panel by the door.

“Admiral!” An indignant but somehow still soothing female voice, seeming to come out of the walls, intoned. “There’s a seventy eight point two percent chance that you’re…” The voice was abruptly cut off as Al punched a series of codes into the panel by the door.

“Sorry about that,” Al turned to Michael. “Ziggy was driving me crazy.”

“Ziggy?” Michael asked hesitantly. “The project’s computer?”

”Yeah, that’s her,” Al confirmed. “Don’t know why she thinks I’m gonna listen. If she hadn’t screwed up the last leap, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”

“What mess? What leap?” Michael asked, modifying his usual concise speech pattern slightly so he’d be better understood.

“Never mind about the last leap. What’s done is done.” Al steered the conversation elsewhere, having finally deciphered Michael’s code. Oh gee, two words instead of one. What an improvement. “Look, we don’t have much time…”

“Are you suggesting that I’ve been…”

“Yes, Sam has leaped into your life,” Al knew what Michael was about to ask. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” He could see that, despite his familiarity with the project, Michael was skeptical. Al couldn’t blame him, but he also needed Michael to accept what was going on, and fast.

Al was gone for a couple of minutes, and when he returned he was carrying a portable shaving mirror in his hand.

“Here.” Al walked over to Michael who was sitting up on the right side of the bed, his feet planted on the floor, as though he was getting ready to leave. He handed Michael the mirror and waited, ignoring the screeching hand-link. He knew Ziggy was vehemently opposed to what he was doing, but time was short.

Standing up, Michael took the mirror from Al and brought it up to face level. Despite the foreknowledge, he couldn’t quite mask his shock at what he saw.

Peering back at him was a face that he recognized, but was not his own. It belonged to a man in his mid 40’s, brown hair with a streak of white in the front. It was the face of a man he had met several years before, on his first Section dictated trip to the Quantum Leap project - Dr. Samuel Beckett.

Al’s bold move with the mirror quickly provided just the proof that even a skeptical Michael couldn’t deny. Disconcerted at the sight before him confirming the leap, Michael unconsciously rubbed his chin with his right hand, a nervous gesture rarely seen. He was even further unsettled to see the image in the mirror mimic his actions.

Michael dropped the mirror on the bed and turned back to an impatiently waiting Al, his face unreadable, shields slamming into place. “Why me? Why now?” Ever the Section operative, Michael had another thought, “Where is Dr. Beckett now?”

“We-e-e-ll.” Al’s hesitancy wasn’t because of surprise at the swiftness of Michael’s acceptance. One thing they had in common as soldiers of a sort was knowing well the futility of resistance to what was directly in front of you. ‘Accept and deal’ was a way of life for any one in any sort of military organization. Without that trait, you probably wouldn’t live long, let alone flourish.

What did surprise and make Al pause was the absolute coldness and stillness accompanying the slamming of Michael’s shields into place. Al had seen much, both before and certainly during and after his days in Vietnam as a POW. But even he felt a shiver course down his spine at the lack of expression evident in the younger man’s face. Terminator indeed, Al thought.

“Sir?” Michael prodded. Al may have been off of active duty, but he was still a two star rear admiral with top secret clearance and deserved the title of respect.

“Okay, okay. One question at a time.” Al snapped out of his musings. “Why you? Because your life went ca-ca five years ago. Why now? Because you weren’t supposed to die on this mission. Where’s Sam? In a van, on the way back to Section One. Ziggy figured that since Sam kept you from getting blown up, he should have leaped by now. Since he didn’t, we have to figure out why and fix it. Hopefully, *before* he reaches Section. I got him covered until then, but it’d be a real pain in the ass to cover him once inside. Capiche?”

“Yes,” Michael replied, figuring they had an hour until the van reached Section. “What year is this?”

“Huh?” Al asked, hoping Michael wasn’t asking what he thought he was asking. “You don’t remember?” he questioned, hopefully.

“I remember what year I ‘left.’ I’m asking what year *this* is,” Michael clarified, knowing the other man knew exactly what he was asking.

“What makes you think you’re not in your own time?” Al asked, stalling until he ascertained if he could bluff his way out of this one.

“In my present, I last visited the project five months ago for the biyearly security inspection. It was just after Dr. Beckett…vanished.” Michael explained his reasoning. “You look older, as does Dr. Beckett’s mirror image. I’d calculate a five to ten year difference.”

“Seven, actually,” Al grudgingly admitted. “But that’s all the questions I’m gonna answer. Our present isn’t relevant to your past except for how we’re gonna fix it.”

“I understand,” Michael returned. He certainly *did* understand about a ‘need to know’ policy; he’d been on both ends of Section’s version of it. He also appreciated the danger of knowing too much about the future.

“Good,” Al nodded, beginning to pace the length of the Waiting Room. “Now, why do you want to die?”

“What makes you…?”

“If Sam hadn’t leaped in you wouldn’t have made it out in one piece,” Al interrupted.

“That doesn’t necessarily indicate that I wasn’t trying to get clear.”

“Ziggy says you hadn’t been moving for over fifteen seconds after you should have started back,” Al countered.

“What benefit does Section One gain with my continued…service?” Michael’s long missing sarcasm started to surface. The truth of the matter was that he’d essentially come to the conclusion that he *did* want to live before he leaped. But Al’s insistence on the subject piqued his curiosity.

In Michael’s evasion, Al recognized rock bottom when he saw it. With the help of a bottle, Al had created a black hole for himself before Sam had lifted him out of it. So he’d allow the evasion - to a point. “Well, I’m not gonna lie and” - Al paused, shutting off the once again screeching hand-link - “tell you that your life turns out to be all peaches and cream.”

“But?”

“But, I know what the future was like without you in it,” Al continued. He still retained some vague, but nevertheless disturbing, memories of the future before Sam prevented Nikita’s Section One recruitment. “And it wasn’t pretty.”

“You’re speaking from experience,” Michael stated, intrigued.

“Bingo,” Al remarked. “As you pointed out, this is the future. Sam’s previous leap fixed some of it, but not enough.”

“What happened?”

“Huh?”

“You mentioned a previous leap…”

“Oh no, I told you before, we’re *not* gonna go there.” Al mentally berated himself for the slip up. Of course Michael would pick up on the words “previous leap” and want to know about it before dealing with this one.

“If it involved me, why don’t I remember it?” Michael ignored Al’s protestation.

“I never said it involved you directly,” Al countered. “Look, we’re getting off topic here.”

“I thought that *was* the topic,” Michael interrupted, “my continued survival.”

“It is,” Al nodded. “So, what would it take to convince you to live?”

“Why bother?” Michael questioned blandly, masking his genuine curiosity. “I can’t be Section One’s best chance for the future.”

“Why not?” Al asked, wanting to hear the other man’s reasoning.

“Section’s changing; I can’t change with it,” Michael explained with more than a hint of truth. Despite concluding that he wanted to live, the past three months did make him question his continued usefulness more than once. “Not anymore.”

“Can’t, or won’t?” Al queried sharply. “There’s a whole world of difference between the two. Never pegged you for someone who’d give up so easily.”

“Easily?” Michael’s eyes flashed dangerously, momentarily before he reigned in his emotions.

“I don’t get it.” Al ignored the brief flash of anger. He could be a hard-ass himself when he needed to be. “You finally see the light at the end of the dark tunnel, and *that’s* when you decide to throw in the towel?”

“There may be a light,” Michael sighed, “but perhaps it isn’t meant for me.”

Al pushed. “Too stubborn to believe it?”

“What would you know?”

“What would *I* know?” Al spat indignantly. “Guess that leap noticeably Swiss-cheesed your memory after all.”

“Meaning?”

“You’re not the only one who graduated from the school of hard knocks,” Al answered. “But I’m still here, thanks to a good friend.”

“Dr. Beckett,” Michael surmised.

“Yep,” Al nodded. “And despite your behavior over the last few months, hell the last few years, you’ve still got a few of those.”

“Perhaps,” Michael acknowledged. “However…”

“Fine. You’re not worthy. Yada, yada, yada,” Al interrupted, exasperated. He knew he wasn’t going to get someone as stubborn as Michael to change overnight. Fortunately, he had hit upon a solution. “We’re running out of time, so I’m gonna make you a deal.”

“What kind of deal?”

“Considering your job, it’s hard enough to stay alive without sabotaging yourself. So, in exchange for your word that you won’t pull any more suicidal stunts for six months, I’ll give you a glimpse into Section One’s future without you - with someone else at the helm.”

Contrary to what Ziggy was thinking at this time, Al knew *exactly* what he was doing. He and Michael were both soldiers. Michael may not have entered his duty voluntarily, but he excelled at it, and was still there over a decade later. At the least, it showed that he believed in what he was doing, if not the means by which he did it. Above all else, perhaps even more than victory, the one thing a good soldier wanted and needed was to believe that his actions had made a difference.

“All right,” Michael agreed. Before the leap occurred, he had just about made the decision to escape the explosion anyway, so it wasn’t like Al had to twist his arm too much. A glimpse into the future of the organization he had helped advance was an unexpected bonus.

“Good,” Al nodded, knowing that once given, Michael’s word was set in stone. “Now, lie back down on that bed, or at least sit on it.”

“Why?”

“Cos if all goes well, you’ll be going home shortly,” Al explained. “Until Sam leaps into someone else, his…body will be, for all intents and purpose, comatose. Much easier all around if you’re already on the bed.”

“Of course,” Michael complied, and sat down on the bed facing Al, his bare feet on the floor.

“Okay, here we go.” Al didn’t intend to lie; Ziggy’s somber predictions didn’t need any embellishments. He turned his hand-link back on and looked at it for confirmation that nothing had changed since he had last checked. “You’re hard to replace, and a permanent Operations isn’t named for almost a year. But it doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“The new Ops had no field experience and too little time to get up to speed,” Al answered. “Just six months later, a group called the Collective breaches Section One, and most of the operatives are killed defending it, the new Operations included. Not long after that, the Agency, with the loss of its cornerstone, topples too, and with it go the rest of the Sections and Oversight. Over three years go by before the Agency and the Sections are rebuilt to even a fraction of what they were before.”

“What about Nikita Jones?” Michael found himself asking.

“She, uh…” Al punched his hand-link unnecessarily, as Ziggy had already given him the information. Al’s hesitation stemmed from the desire to let his already spoken words sink in before he delivered the coup de grace. He’d heard Nikita Jones’ pleas over the comm. unit when Sam leaped into Michael. And if Ziggy was correct, the feelings were mutual. Of course she’s correct. Otherwise, why would Nikita’s fate be the only one Michael asked about?

“Yes?” Michael prodded.

“She remains at Section One, as your permanent replacement, when no suitable candidate is found.” Al paused before delivering the final blow. “She dies defending it.”

“I see,” Michael closed his eyes briefly then opened them, a new determination evident in the set of his features. Any remaining doubts as to his course of action were squelched with Ziggy’s predictions.

“So? You’re going to keep up your end of the deal?”

“You have my word.” Michael replied, now eager to go home.

“Hmmm, Sam still hasn’t leaped…” Al said after a few moments, both men surprised that Michael was still there. Hearing his hand-link screech again, Al raised it to eye level. “Ah.”

“What?”

“Be right back,” Al replied. “Actually, if Ziggy’s right, you’ll be gone by the time I get back. So, I guess I’ll see you at the next security inspection.” He grinned and left the Waiting Room before Michael could respond.

********

While Al was wheeling and dealing with Michael, Sam ran into a glitch.

“Sir?” O’Neill walked up to Sam. As the senior op and team leader, he was the only one in the van who dared intrude on a busy Michael.

Oh boy, Sam worried, when he realized the operative was talking to him. Blank look and monosyllables. Remember to speak in monosyllables. he recalled Al’s words. “Yeah?”

“Uh. . .” O’Neill was taken aback by the slang. “What happens when we return to Section?”

At a loss, Sam thought for a minute before coming up with his best ambiguous answer. “Business as usual.”

“I don’t understand, sir.” O’Neill was even further confused by Sam’s reply.

“Well, what is it exactly that you’re asking me?” Sam stalled for time, hoping Al would show up in the interim. Not exactly monosyllables, but at least I got the cold glare down. I hope.

“Are congratulations in order?” O’Neill kept digging. Before they’d left for the mission, the team had heard rumors that Michael had just been given command of Section One. Bursting with curiosity after talking about it amongst themselves, they had elected O’Neill as the candidate with the best chance of ferreting out the truth from Michael.

“Congratulations?” Sam asked, his mind racing.

Ironically, Sam’s confusion served to alleviate O’Neill’s concern about Michael’s mental state. Typical Michael, to answer a question with a question. “On your, uh, promotion.” He forged nervously ahead. “Is it true? There’s been a change in leadership?”

Oh, boy. What promotion? Al never told me about any promotion! Sam had no idea what to say, but thankfully, he heard the Imaging Chamber door open. Al appeared with his hand-link, immediately grasped the situation, and came to Sam’s rescue.

“Tell him, ‘I have command.’ Just make sure to do it without emotion or bragging. Okay?” Al instructed.

“I have command,” Sam dutifully repeated, giving his best blank stare. It wasn’t on a par with Michael’s, but a very nervous O’Neill didn’t notice.

O’Neill smiled. Many in Section had long believed that Michael belonged in the Perch. They had respected Paul Wolfe out of fear, but they feared Michael out of respect. “In that case sir, I just want to say that it will be an honor working for you.”

“Thank you.” Sam didn’t know what else to say. Lucky for him, Michael wouldn’t have said anything else, either.

With a final nod, O’Neill returned to the front of the van, eager to impart the news to the rest of the team.

“Whew,” Sam mumbled. “That was close.”

“Michael was even more stubborn than I remembered.” Al explained his delay as he looked down at what Sam was typing. “That’s not gibberish.”

“No,” Sam confirmed, opening a blank document to type his part of the conversation. “It’s the mission report. If I’m supposed to fix things for Michael, I don’t think mentioning an attempted suicide in his report is the thing to do. ”

“No, that’s great Sam, but how’d you do that?” Al asked.

“The laptop’s uplinked to Section One’s computers,” Sam typed. “Compared to my building Ziggy, hacking into Section wasn’t all that difficult. Pulled up the mission profile and a bunch of Michael’s old debrief reports, and voila - a completed report, minus the suicide attempt.”

“Well, what’d you say caused the delay?”

“Miscalculated how much time needed to get clear. If Michael comes back before we get to Section, I’ve left him a note about what he ‘missed’ while I’ve taken his place as well,” Sam paused, pointing to the minimized document at the bottom of the screen. “So, what’s going on in the Waiting Room? Has Ziggy figured out what else I have to do?”

“Yeah, actually. Exactly what you’re doing now.”

“But I’ve finished already,” Sam typed. “So, why am I still here?”

“The records,” Al explained. “Ziggy says you have to hack into Section and destroy the data recorder of the time lag between Michael’s giving the retreat order and your running out of ground zero.”

“On it.” Sam got back to work.

The hand-link to Ziggy screeched before Sam had a chance to finish. Looking down at it momentarily, Al ordered, “Oh, and erase that uh, private conversation on Delta channel.” The hand-link squawked again. “Wait!”

“What?” Sam asked, startled.

“Add what you’re doing to the note you’re leaving,” Al answered.

“Right.” Sam added the information into the note he’d already typed, and minimized the file. He then added that Nikita was fine now, certain Michael would be concerned. Next, he closed and deleted the dialogue box he’d been using to talk to Al, then finished deleting the extraneous data.

A few minutes later, pleased with his accomplishments, Sam looked up and said, “Done.”

The words were barely out of his mouth before the blue light appeared and Sam leaped out of Michael.

********

The blue light was gone as quickly as it had appeared, and Michael was back in his own body, in his own time. Luckily, he remembered enough of his experience in the Waiting Room to understand why he was in the van as opposed to the field.

Michael quickly and covertly surveyed his surroundings. He was in the back of a Section van, presumably on the way back from the Sinclair mission. It didn’t look like any one was the wiser about his ‘disappearance.’ Dr. Beckett must have been one very good actor.

Satisfied that his jaunt into the future had gone undetected, Michael looked down at the laptop in front of him and suppressed a smile.

Apparently, acting wasn’t Dr. Beckett’s only skill. Hacking, it seemed, was another specialty of the quantum physicist.

Reading the extensive notes Sam left for him, Michael had to admire the other man’s computer skills. He did create Ziggy. Compared to the hybrid computer, Section’s mainframe must have looked like a simple computer game to him.

Sam had transcribed, into the file he’d left behind, Nikita’s short but meaningful communication on the Delta channel just after the leap. Whether he imagined her voice, or some part of Sam’s memory crossed with his during the leap, Michael could hear Nikita’s voice in his mind as he read the transcript. From his changed perspective, he welcomed her words and the emotion behind them.

When Michael finished reading, he backed out of the file and deleted it, leaving no trace in the laptop of anything non-sanctioned. Checking his watch, he realized he still had some time until they reached Section.

Michael used it to go over the debriefing report Sam had left him. Marveling at Sam’s proficiency and quick studying, he made only minor adjustments before signing off on it.

He was aware of the glances cast his way by the rest of the team, but paid them no attention. He could imagine what the others were thinking. Michael smiled inwardly. He was thinking it himself. I’m back.

The Michael who had leaped out was not the same Michael who had leaped back in again. While the operatives in the van weren’t aware a switch was ever made, they knew *something* was different.

The resigned aura around Michael for the last three months had been replaced with his more usual unreadable stare and powerful presence. These had been a part of him ever since he was granted level three status immediately upon completing training.

The operatives traveling back to Section with him may have not have been able to explain it aloud, but they knew he had changed. Brief, surreptitious glances at Michael confirmed their beliefs. It was something in the set of his features. He was once again the determined, efficient, sometimes necessarily ruthless, but never deliberately cruel, operative who had surpassed all others in his ten years in Section One. He once again looked like the man who would make a brilliant Operations.

Just as he finished his report, the driver’s voice came over the speakers and announced that ETA to Section was fifteen minutes. Michael relayed the information to Birkoff in Comm, and used the remainder of the ride to plan what he’d say to Nikita upon his return. Isn’t she going to be surprised? Michael smiled to himself.

********

When Michael relayed their arrival time, Birkoff was still puzzling over the gap in information - the very information Sam had deleted from the records. He finally gave up and headed for the Perch to inform Nikita in person.

Hoping that Walter could shed some light on the anomalies surrounding the Sinclair mission, Birkoff took a circuitous route past Munitions. Walter had spent the last forty five minutes setting up the inventory for a mission that was going out the next day, and getting ready for the returning inventory from the Sinclair mission.

“Michael’s team should be back in less than fifteen,” Birkoff informed Walter, walking to the back of Munitions. Walter didn’t really need the exact time of the mission’s return, but Birkoff used it to try to engage him in conversation about the mission. The older man seemed to know *everything.*

“Good,” Walter nodded then turned to go. “I’m gonna meet ‘em at Van Access. Nikita wants to debrief Michael personally,” he finished, then stepped around Birkoff, ending any conversation.

“Nice talking to you, too,” Birkoff muttered to himself. What’s everyone hiding about that damn mission anyway? Birkoff heaved an audible sigh and made his way to the Perch.

********

“Yes?” Nikita turned around to face Birkoff. She’d been staring out the darkened aerie window, contemplating her recent words to Michael over the Delta channel, and what she would say when she saw him.

“The Sinclair mission is due to arrive in about ten minutes,” Birkoff replied.

“Fine,” Nikita nodded, wondering why Birkoff felt the need to deliver the message in person. “Anything else?”

“Yeah,” Birkoff answered, rubbing his head in agitation. “There’s an anomaly in the communication logs from the mission.”

“What kind of anomaly?”

“Everything past Michael’s ordering the teams to evacuate is gone,” Birkoff elaborated.

“Tampering?”

Birkoff shook his head in the negative. “I *thought* it was transmitting everything originally. But now it just looks like recording stopped for no apparent reason. I’ve tried everything I know to recover it.”

“What’s your opinion?” Nikita asked. “A glitch, rather than obstruction?”

“Yeah,” Birkoff confirmed, “no trace of fingerprints or tampering.”

“What about Delta channel?”

“That’s the funny thing - all communication was fine for those couple of minutes, just recording was down,” Birkoff stated. “The only thing I can figure is a power surge somehow knocked it off-line temporarily.”

“Can you get the data back?”

“I tried everything I could think of.” Birkoff scratched his head. “But, I couldn’t get *anything* back.”

“All right. See what you can do about insuring that it won’t happen again.”

“Yes ma’am,” Birkoff nodded, then left.

Once he was gone, Nikita smiled to herself. She was going to ask Birkoff to destroy the ‘incriminating’ recordings anyway. Sometimes you just get lucky.

********

Seven years in the future, Al was waiting for the next visitor. Sam had leaped out of Michael, but he hadn’t ‘landed’ yet. As Al paced the length of the Waiting Room, he thought about the last leap, pleased with his role in “putting right what once went wrong.” He figured Nikita would probably call it “luck” when she found her Delta channel conversation missing from the log. Luck my ass. Al chuckled softly to himself. But if I know Michael, he’ll tell her the truth one day.

********

Walter stood in the corridor by Van Access, waiting for the Sinclair mission to unload. Team two had just disembarked from the first van, and now team one was coming through the door. He nodded to the returning operatives as they passed him. Walter informed the two team leaders, waiting for debrief instructions from Michael, that their inventory would be collected shortly in Munitions.

Michael was the last one to come through the metal door. Walter immediately noticed that something about him was different. This was not the same man who’d left Medlab looking defeated. This was the Michael who put the ‘fear of god’ into anyone who crossed his path. Walter smiled inwardly with satisfaction.

Michael acknowledged Walter with a nod before turning to the two waiting team leaders. “Debrief your teams. I expect your reports in six hours.”

“Yes sir,” they returned simultaneously, and walked off.

Michael turned to Walter with a questioning look once they were alone.

“Nikita wants to see you in the Perch,” Walter informed him.

“Of course.” Michael had expected as much, and wondered why Walter felt the need to tell him so in person. He turned to go, but Walter’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“Her vision’s back.”

“I know.” With an enigmatic smile, Michael turned and headed for the Perch.

He knows? A puzzled Walter stared at Michael’s retreating figure. How the hell…He was *not* supposed to know.

********

Whatever Nikita was going to say to Michael died in her throat as she watched him enter the Perch, locking the door behind him. He paused evocatively at the threshold, his usually inexpressive gray eyes smoldering green. Equally apprehensive and mesmerized at the predatory gleam in his eyes, Nikita found herself backing up against the railing by the darkened aerie window.

“You wanted to see me?” Michael teased, using the greeting she’d come to expect, amused and taking pleasure at Nikita's retreat.

“Yes.” Nikita suddenly found it difficult to breathe, let alone speak. She watched as Michael fairly prowled towards her, the gleam in his eyes intensifying. “W-What are you doing?”

Coming to stand directly in front of Nikita, Michael whispered, “I thought you wanted me…” He paused intentionally, “to debrief.”

“Yes, I did…” Nikita trailed off as Michael slowly and deliberately reached around her to shut off the intercom. That accomplished, Michael remained in place, a hair’s breadth away from Nikita. He’s cutting us off from the outside. Struggling to stay calm, she carefully moved around him, going for the remote to lighten the aerie window just a few feet away.

“No interruptions,” Michael reproved softly, grabbing her wrist. Sliding the remote from her fingers, he caressed her hand, setting the nerve endings on fire.

Nikita snatched her hand back quickly, unnerved by the sensations Michael was creating with just his light touch, and moved to the door. She wasn’t at all sure a locked door was a very good idea at the moment.

Two long strides and Michael cut her off before Nikita reached the door panel. He grasped her arm and turned her to face him. She nervously pulled her arm away, but didn’t make another move for the door panel.

Keeping eye contact, Michael lifted her hand waist level and began caressing her palm, slowly. ‘Isn’t this what you want?’ his eyes questioned silently, then traveled leisurely and purposely from her lips to her eyes then back to her lips.

‘Yes,’ Nikita screamed in her mind, but gave it no voice, still not trusting his intentions. She looked away, unable to hold his look or control the shiver Michael’s heated gaze triggered. She needed to be sure of his motivation. “What kind of game are you playing?”

“No games, Nikita,” Michael answered, locking his gaze onto hers, finally allowing his feelings for her to show in his eyes. He brought his other hand around to entrap both of hers, sliding each hand, palm up, under Nikita’s. He then slowly lifted his hands, stroking her wrists until their hands were shoulder level, palm to palm. She absorbed the compelling current of his eyes, reveling in the electricity coursing through her body at his touch.

As entranced by Nikita as she was by him, Michael had nevertheless noticed her involuntary shiver, and smiled inwardly with relief at her reaction. He continued to dance his long sensitive fingers around with light sensual scratches, encircling her wrists with his thumbs. Nikita’s breathing became erratic as one of Michael’s hands slowly made its way down her body, brushing the nape of her neck, her hardening nipples and quivering stomach.

Reaching his destination, he lightly fingered her thigh, rubbing through the coarseness of her skirt. His other hand roamed across her shoulder, then reached up to slowly smooth an errant lock of Nikita’s hair, caressing her face as he did.

“Michael…” Nikita’s breath caught as his hand moved up to her eyebrow, gently stroking. She had seen her feelings mirrored in his gaze. This was the Michael she had sensed and fervently hoped was there. Finding out anything more could wait. Right now, she needed to ask only one question. “Michael,” she smiled innocently up at him, “Are you trying to seduce me?”

********

By the time Michael had begun his sensuous dance around Nikita, Admiral Albert Calavacci had moved back to the future. Pacing the Waiting Room floor in his own time, he was anxiously watching for the next visitor to put in an appearance in Sam’s motionless body.

At last, the blue light appeared over Dr. Sam Beckett’s body and Al turned to look at the figure on the bed. Not quite believing what he was seeing, a bug-eyed Al walked cautiously over to the bed.

As the figure on the bed sat up, trying to get his bearings, Al stared at him from the side of the bed. He had long ago become accustomed to the diverse visitors Sam’s leaping brought to the Waiting Room.

There was, however, one person Al wasn’t expecting. For Dr. Beckett to appear in his own body, it would mean that, at long last, the quantum physicist had leaped home. Even though everyone at the Project was hopeful for it and constantly working toward this, the reality was quite shocking.

Could it finally be? With mounting excitement, just barely able to recover his voice, Al croaked out, “Sam?”

********

“Michael,” she smiled innocently up at him, “Are you trying to seduce me?”

“Yes,” Michael’s lips twitched briefly in mirth, pleased that she felt comfortable enough to tease him back. Nikita had bewitched him ever since he’d seen her sitting imperiously behind her Center desk. With his mouth close to her ear, he whispered, as if to tell her a secret, “Is it working?”

He leaned back in order to see her answer, and was rewarded with the biggest smile he had ever seen on Nikita’s face. He absorbed her smile, its strength triggering his own wide grin.

Nikita, who had rarely seen Michael anything but somber, was stunned by the transformation. She gazed with awe at the handsome face she knew, illuminated by the infectious happiness he now radiated. She flashed back to their first meeting. Even then, though unsmiling, his softly spoken words had sent shivers down her spine and made her weak at the knees.

"Yes," she answered finally, delighted by his teasing manner and obvious desire. “It’s working.”

********

Eyes that held amusement turned quickly into twin pools of passion, as hands began to slowly caress and explore. Bodies became aroused with electric sparks and deep pangs of desire.

Michael moved his lips ever closer, barely a hairbreadth away. Understanding what he wanted, she reached up and touched his lips in silent invitation.

Reassured of her eagerness, Michael leaned in to kiss her. Nikita closed her eyes with the contact, content to simply feel. They toyed with each other’s lips at first, trading little open-mouthed kisses. He pulled slightly back, gauging her reaction.

Nikita stifled an impatient moan and opened her eyes. “Mi-chael,” she warned, grabbing him by his shirtfront and pulling him back to her.

“Debrief later?” Michael asked, his eyes twinkling.

Nikita’s mischievous smile left no doubt as to the answer. She closed the remaining distance between them, winding her arms around his neck, her tongue tracing his lips, seeking entry. His lips parted, allowing her tongue to slip inside his hot mouth. He groaned as her fingers threaded his hair, gently tugging, urging him impossibly closer.

As their tongues mated, their stroking hands reached eagerly for places only before imagined. She slid her hands lower, exploring his tempting butt, a part she’d lusted after ever since her first good look.

Their kisses deepened.

Ever the strategist, Michael determined there were too many barriers between them, and pulled away momentarily. Before Nikita could protest the separation, he reached for her hand, guiding it to his mission jacket and the zipper at its top. Holding her eyes with his, he slowly lowered her hand, unzipping his jacket.

Reaching the zipper’s end, she felt the heat of his arousal through his tight black mission pants. Smiling, she fondled and flirted with the hard evidence of his desire. Groaning at the contact, Michael enjoyed her ministrations until his constrictive mission pants made it painful.

He reached for the hem of her sweater, lifting it as she raised her arms, slowly, languidly caressing her bared skin as he went along. He pulled her sweater off, tossing it to the side, as he reclaimed her waiting mouth.

Returning the favor, albeit more quickly, Nikita pushed him back slightly, and pulled off his jacket, vest and tight T-shirt. She tossed them onto the increasing pile of clothing, and recaptured his erotic lips, until impatience overwhelmed her.

Wanting more, Nikita grabbed the waistband of Michael’s mission pants and, together with briefs and thigh gun-belt, tugged them carefully down. Her breath teased his freed arousal before she bent lower to undo and remove his boots along with everything else she’d already tugged down.

His own patience nearing an end, Michael stopped her before she could return to his growing erection, capturing her hands and placing them on his shoulders as he knelt in front of her.

He unzipped her skirt and slowly slid it and her lacy panties down, placing little wet kisses in their wake, even as he removed her boots. As Michael rose, he sensuously glided his splayed hands up until his probing fingers reached her core, and elicited from her a groan of pure carnal pleasure.

He smiled in satisfaction at her reaction, but the smile faded quickly as she grabbed his wandering hands and led him to the couch she had placed in the perch. She took a folded throw blanket from one of the arms and handed it to him.

Michael took his cue and draped the soft blanket on the carpeted floor. He grasped Nikita’s hand, pulling her down with him, and laid her on her back. Before he had a chance to settle himself, she flipped him over on his back and pinned his arms by his sides.

Michael tensed momentarily, unwilling to cede control - in any arena. She looked at him then, love pouring out of her eyes, asking him to trust her. “Please,” she softly entreated.

Nodding in acceptance, Michael softly whispered, “You have command.” Nikita knew his trust was even more reluctantly given than his love and understood the meaning of his acquiescence. Her thousand watt smile, in loving appreciation of his capitulation, chased away any lingering reservation. Michael relaxed completely.

Nikita straddled his waist and ran her hands over his face, tracing it lightly with her fingertips before leaning in to kiss him. Inflaming tongue licks along Michael’s forehead, eyelids and cheeks preceded one deep kiss that left them both gasping for breath.

Mouth following hands, she torturously roamed his entire torso, stopping just short of the thin trickle of hair leading to Michael’s throbbing manhood.

Looking up at his eyes, Nikita was distracted by the depth of feelings that shaded his eyes to a deep green. Unable to lie still any longer, Michael took advantage of her lapse, gently flipping her over and reversing their positions.

He looked down at her momentarily, still stunned by the amount of love and passion shining from Nikita’s wide, blue-eyed gaze. It had taken the leaper’s intervention to make Michael recognize it, but she’d managed to bring him out of his self-imposed isolation, and made living something to look forward to. He hovered over her, taking in her radiance and skin flushed with desire.

“Lie still,” Michael ordered, planting his arms on either side of her.

The two words, softly spoken but laden in steel, reminded Nikita of the time she first viewed him through Section’s surveillance video-the commanding aura surrounding him had pulled at her even then.

Trusting him as he had trusted her, Nikita obeyed the whispered directive, closing her eyes in ectasy at the first touch of his lips on her face. Michael lingered there, tracing a wet path along her eyebrows, eyelids, cheeks and jaw. She’d waited for this since his first evaluation, when he had flustered her even though *she* had been evaluating *him.*

Nikita moaned in delight at Michael’s comforting weight on her - at his mouth’s kissing, nibbling, and licking - at his hands’ reverently stroking and caressing.

His mouth made contact with already taut nipples as one hand reached down to play with her sensitive bud.

Sensing her readiness Michael slipped his fingers into her wet core, stroking her inner walls and pulling her perilously close to the edge, as she writhed and shuddered underneath him.

When she felt her climax approaching, she grabbed a fistful of his hair and not ungently pulled his mouth up to hers.

“Now,” Nikita ordered, her impatience showing in her wild kiss. Locking her legs around him, she reached down to guide his rigid shaft into her welcoming depths. What had been promised by the dance of hands, came to fruition in their ecstatic body dance.

In a last bit of coherency, Nikita thanked every deity she could think of for Michael’s choosing to come back from the Sinclair mission.

Michael could barely control the intensity of his thrusts as he pounded all his love, longing, and frustration of the last three months into a very receptive Nikita.

“Harder,” Nikita gasped into his mouth. Her level of desire was equal to his. “Faster,” she pleaded. Readily complying, he increased the speed and force of his drive.

Nikita bucked, gasping for breath, and cried out Michael’s name at her potent release. Several powerful thrusts later, Michael followed her into ectasy, convulsing with his own shattering climax as he pulsated wildly inside of her.

As his mind came slowly back to him, he thanked whatever force was driving the quantum leaper for helping him find his way.

Michael was home.

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

EPILOGUE

Author’s note about the convention of “leaping in time” as used in this story and its application to the epilogue:

Sam leaped into Michael by going back seven years in time. It was the year 2007 in Sam’s time and 2000 in Michael’s time. When Sam leaped home, he returned to the year 2007.

As this epilogue begins, seven years have passed in Michael’s time and it is the year 2007. In Sam’s time, which is now the same as Michael’s time, it is three days after Sam leaped home, still in the year 2007. Hope that clarified things.

********

“Ready to go?” Nikita asked her husband as she stepped into the Perch.

“Yes.” Michael turned from the window overlooking the main area of Section One and smiled at his wife.

Michael had come up here for one last look over what had been his province for the last seven years. He’d only meant to stay a few moments but memories of his time in Section, almost two decades, had kept him here for the last ten minutes.

“Good, because Birkoff’s left for Center already. He and Jason were arguing about who’s going to be responsible for what.” Nikita returned his smile. “And Poor Davenport has been itching to come up here, now that it’s his.”

“Let’s go.”

“Good or bad memories?” Nikita asked as he walked over to her. They knew each other well enough by now to almost read each other’s thoughts. Certainly well enough for her to know what had brought him up here after the official change of command below.

“Both,” Michael replied honestly while Nikita took her own ‘final’ look around.

“More good than bad, I hope,” Nikita stated huskily. Her gaze rested on a particular patch of carpeting, a surge of heat shooting low in her belly. The Perch may have been remodeled over the years, but she remembered very well where they had conceived their first child.

“Much more,” Michael smiled, gliding over to her side. He knew *exactly* where her thoughts had gone. They took one last look through the aerie window and then walked out hand in hand.

As they reached the main area, loud voices could be heard coming from one of the exit corridors, getting closer. Michael and Nikita immediately recognized the loudest of the voices, and were hard put to suppress their surprise.

“And *I* told *you* that the iris scan and palm print was plenty, not to mention that weapons scan,” Al stated to the leader of the Section security team following him and Sam. “Since our clearance outranks yours by a lot, why don’t you and the rest of the muscle just go back the way you came?”

“You may have clearance, sir,” the head of security answered, “but only Agency personnel are allowed entry unescorted.”

“Listen you little…”

“It’s policy, sir,” the exasperated security op interrupted.

“It’s all right.” Michael waved the security team away as the group entered the main area.

“Yes sir.” The head of security took his squad and left.

The operatives milling about in Section stared curiously at the two men whom Michael had allowed to remain unescorted. One look from Michael, though, had sent everyone scurrying back to their posts.

Realizing that the visitors were here for Michael and Nikita, Davenport retreated to the Perch to discuss new policy with Chuck, his second in command.

“Sheesh, the security here is tighter than…” Al grumbled.

“Al,” Sam interrupted his old friend’s tirade, afraid of where he was going with that sentence.

Michael and Nikita smiled indulgently at the admiral. They’d gotten to know him well over the last six years, ever since Michael had told Nikita of Al’s role in helping him return from the Sinclair mission.

“Dr. Beckett,” Michael began the introductions. Nikita had never met Dr. Beckett, having set foot in the Project for the first time only a few years ago. “My wife, Nikita…”

“Please, call me Sam,” He chuckled. “It’s still taking some getting used to - being called my real name by anyone other than Al.”

“Yes, of course,” Nikita smiled. “You’ve only been back a few days.”

“Three days,” Sam confirmed, “and it sure feels good to be home.”

“Nikita and I had planned to visit the Project in a few weeks,” Michael stated.

“We thought you’d prefer some more time to settle in,” Nikita added.

“That’s okay,” Sam answered. “Al and I wanted to visit before you left for Center.”

“How did you know?” Nikita asked.

“Ziggy still likes to keep up-to-date on everything,” Al replied.

“She does, does she?” Nikita smiled knowingly. The one thing with which her father had been unsuccessful was creating a supercomputer with artificial intelligence. Having learned Ziggy’s capabilities, she was glad her father had never developed anything so sophisticated. It would be much too dangerous to leave everything to computers. Dr. Beckett had known as much, and neurally linked himself and Admiral Calavicci to the computer as a failsafe to ensure control over Ziggy. “What else does Ziggy know about the Agency?”

“Well, let’s see,” Al scratched his head. “She knows that your father’s retirement accelerated the timetable for you two to take over. She also knows that your sister, Michelle, just took command of Oversight and named her husband, Jurgen, as her second in command.”

“Okay, Al. That’s enough,” Sam chided.

“What? It’s not like I told them Ziggy’s predictions…”

”A-a-a-l,” Sam sighed. Whether he was a hologram or in person, Al never changed.

“All right, all right,” Al relented then turned to their hosts. “How about a tour of this place?”

“Of course.” Michael answered without hesitation. Their two guests certainly were no security risks, moreover they had top level clearance.

“Nah, you and Sam should catch up,” Al countered, smirking. “Besides, if I’m going be escorted, I’d rather it be by your lovely wife. Married or not, I *do* have my reputation to protect.”

“I’d be honored to escort you,” Nikita grinned, while Michael just shook his head in amusement. She took Al’s arm to lead him off.

“Oh, before I forget,” Al turned back. “When Paul and Madeline found out we were coming here, they told me to make sure you two were coming to the wedding.”

“Are you kidding?” Nikita laughed. “After all this time they’re finally getting married? There’s no way we would miss this.”

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

Shortly after officially taking charge of Section, Michael suggested to Nikita that the former leaders’ counsel would prove invaluable in mapping out Section’s future. After some initial reluctance by Nikita, Paul and Madeline, Michael had been proven right. Over the years the two former leaders of Section had provided a surprising amount of insight and wisdom, helping to improve all the Sections. Even more surprising was the pair’s acceptance of their situation and relinquishment of their thirst for power.

A few years later, the strain of running the Project, in addition to always being there for Sam when he leaped, threatened to overwhelm Al. Nikita had suggested “Paul and Maddy” for managing the Quantum Leap Project so that Al could concentrate only on helping Sam.

The venture had proven beneficial to all parties involved, and Paul and Madeline had since become an integral part of the Project. Everyone knew there was a personal component to their relationship, but it wasn’t until recently that the two had admitted it. There had even been even talk of creating a pool, the betting centering on when the two would finally come clean. But the rumor was that Madeline had found out about it, and convinced the would-be organizers that it was in their best interest to “cease and desist.”

Now, Paul and Madeline were finally getting married and everyone invited couldn’t wait to attend this affair. It seemed that when Sam fixed something, the rippling effects extended far beyond just the intended ‘targets.’

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

While Sam and Michael talked, Nikita toured Al around Section, finishing up at Munitions. She introduced Al to Walter, smiling inwardly at the realization of their similarities. The weapons expert had refused to retire. He’d been quoted more than once as saying, “they’d have to cart me out in a body bag before I retire.” Besides an unwillingness to go gently into that good night, the two were also very similar in personality. ‘Favorite, dirty old uncle’ was a moniker Nikita had more than once thought of in her dealings with the two men.

Al and Walter seemed to hit it off immediately, perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit in the other. After ten minutes, though, Nikita rolled her eyes at yet another round of one-upmanship storytelling between the two old warhorses, and left them to their bantering. She returned to Michael’s side and spent a few minutes talking to Sam. The trio decided to go out for lunch, and Sam called out to his best friend that it was time to go.

Al said goodbye to Walter and turned towards the others. Before he had a chance to leave, though, Walter fired a parting question.

“Did you know that Sam was willing to give up his chance of ever going home?” Walter asked. “He chose instead to leap back for you, and keep your wife from remarrying while you were MIA in ‘Nam.”

“Of course I knew that,” Al responded automatically. He turned to walk away until he realized the possible ramifications of Walter’s statement.

Walter grinned at Al’s dumfounded double take. Seeing Al start to put the pieces together, his finger up in the air to ask a question, Walter quickly closed down the grate over Munitions. He disappeared into the back, effectively preventing any further interrogation.

Thwarted, but unable to let his thoughts go, Al turned back towards Michael, Nikita and Sam. *I* didn’t know Sam had a choice. The only way that Walter could have known…

Al paled as the explanation became apparent. That old hippie? The force leaping Sam around?