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Princes of the Universe - Modified

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PRESENT:

She awoke to darkness. Her head ached and she was thirsty. She tried to get up to get a drink and couldn't, that's when she realized she was strapped to the bed. She tried to remember what had happened, how she got there. All she could remember was walking down the shadowy hallway of a private home that had been converted to a Red Cell safehouse searching for fleeing hostiles, a shadow behind her and then...nothing. She didn't even know how long she'd been there or where she was. How did this happen? As little as three months ago she would never have let herself be taken by surprise like this.

No one was coming even though she was awake. It gave her time to think. But rather than think about how she was going to escape, her mind wandered back to the past three months, how and what changed her into a shell of the woman that she once was.

It all started with that catastrophic mission three months ago. Everything that could possibly go wrong did. She couldn't stop herself from thinking about it, couldn't stop the pangs of guilt. It was her fault and her fault alone that he died. He was protecting her, as usual. The irony of her just having recently been taken off the acceptable collateral list of Center added to the guilt of his death.

The mission profile was simple, deceivingly simple. She should have known right away something was amiss, it couldn't be that easy, especially in light of Operations' and Madeline's repeated attempts to rid themselves of her and Michael. But she put away her doubts partly because she wanted to believe that finally, after several difficult - no, impossible - missions their superiors were finally giving them a break and partly because she was too exhausted to think straight.

She thought back to the briefing room where it all started, was it only three months ago?

********

THREE MONTHS AGO:

"This is the target." Operations explained to the small, assembled group, pointing, as he turned to the monitors. "There are two hostiles in this warehouse, your job is to go in, interrogate on site then cancel them both and blow up the warehouse."

As he looked around the room, Operations realized that his setup was perfect. Not one of those assembled realized that they had placed them in the abeyance pool. Four operatives who were of no more use to the section and one who'd long outlived her usefulness and was more trouble than she was worth. Maybe with Nikita gone Michael would still be salvageable. Now that Oversight was attainable he needed Michael for the Perch, but he needed him without weaknesses, without Nikita. Operations had let this go on for too long already, any longer and Michael would never be able to let go of her, would follow Nikita into death.

"Why aren't we bringing them here for interrogation?" Nikita asked, turning her suspicious blue eyes to Operations.

"The profile calls for on-site activity only." Operations replied calmly, his temper in check with victory so close at hand.

As if she could almost read his mind, Nikita asked, "Why isn't Michael leading the team?"

"Michael and Jason will monitor at a...distance." Operations replied, almost slipping by saying a *safe* distance. "Michael will be there to evaluate only, it's been too long since you've led a team, this is *your* mission, Nikita, do not fail." Operations and Madeline had discussed leaving Michael here, but that would just further arouse his and Nikita's suspicions and they didn't want that. Madeline suggested the less deviation from the norm the better and Operations had concurred.

"Transport leaves in 30 minutes, get your gear from Walter. Jason will give you the intel on the way. Any questions?" Operations summarized and when he saw no more questions were forthcoming, turned quickly and walked out.

********

During the short plane ride over, something was nagging at Michael. The mission profile didn't feel right, but he couldn't quite grasp why. It wasn't intuition, he didn't believe in that. But, Michael had been a Section operative long enough to develop and hone his instincts. These instincts were now telling him something was wrong. He decided he would keep a close eye out on everything, just in case.

Once at their destination, Michael dropped Nikita and the rest of her team and took off, as per Operations' instructions.

Michael's sense of foreboding and deja vu crept up on him again as they were moving away from the target site so he stopped the Suburban only a couple hundred feet from the team's drop-off point. Michael didn't bother informing Operations of the change in location and Jason, noting the expression on Michael's face wasn't about to either. Thanks to Walter's stories and the rumors he himself had overheard since his induction into Section, Jason was still as afraid of Michael as Operations and Madeline. And since Michael was the immediate threat, he decided to keep his mouth shut.

"Charges set, interrogation completed, targets canceled." Nikita's voice came over the comm.

All of a sudden, Operations, remotely detonating the charges himself, broke into the communications, "Charges detonated, thirty seconds..."

As soon as Michael heard this he yelled at the team to evacuate and ran to the warehouse. Knowing exactly where Nikita was positioned he went right to her, mentally counting down the seconds. He knew there was little chance of getting out, but Michael didn't care. If Nikita died, then he would die with her.

********

"What's going on Jason?" Operations barked, standing next to Madeline at his customary perch atop the communications center at Section headquarters.

"We never went off-site...Michael went in to retrieve...the team." Jason replied Operations knew what Jason really meant, that Michael went in for Nikita. As he fell back into a nearby chair, Operations knew he made a fatal mistake. He should have known Michael would disobey orders and stick close to Nikita. Now he would lose them both.

The look of disappointment and guilt on his face at their miscalculation was actually mirrored on Madeline's, a rare occurrence at best.

"Go look for any survivors as soon as it's clear." Operations told Jason, turning back to the monitor. He knew there was no way to survive the blast but he had to be sure.

********

"Nikita, this way!" Michael yelled as he neared her. He grabbed her hand and ran to the nearest exit, all the while counting down in his head, 10...9...8...7...6...5(almost clear)...4...3...2. All of a sudden, only a few feet from the exit, Michael threw Nikita down to the floor and covered her body with his own, just as the place exploded.

Thanks to Michael, using his body to shield her, Nikita only sustained a few broken ribs and bones, but when she tried to get up a minute later, she realized that it was Michael's dead weight on top of her that prevented her from being able to move. She rolled him over gently and looked him over, he wasn't moving and had a nasty wound on the back of his head.

"Michael?" she whispered.

When she received no response, Nikita checked for a pulse and could not find one. She tried to revive him, but to no avail. She knew he was dead. Michael died the same way he had lived these last six and a half years - protecting her. Nikita sat there for a minute, rocking Michael gently back and forth until Jason showed up.

"Nikita, we have to go, the place is going to collapse."

"Not without Michael. We have to get him out, we can revive him." Nikita replied.

"I'm sorry Nikita, he's...gone." Jason said after checking Michael over, then added gently, "I'll come back for his...him as soon as I get you clear." Jason promised even though he had little doubt he would just be returning for a corpse.

Having no choice, she let herself be half-carried, half-dragged out by Jason, watching as the warehouse collapsed behind them, extinguishing any chance of Michael's retrieval or survival.

********

PRESENT:

"Nikita?"

'Great, now I'm hearing things,' Nikita thought as she peered around the dark room. 'I could swear I just heard Michael, again, like so many times these last few months.' All of a sudden the door burst open and in jumped Michael, looking unbelievably alive and fit. Nikita just lay there staring, she couldn't bring herself to believe that what she was seeing was real. Either he was a ghost or she must be hallucinating.

"Michael?!?"

"Yes, it's me. I'm really here."

"No! This has to be another trick, I saw you die!"

"You know it's me," Michael replied calmly as he drew closer.

"How do I know it's really you?" Nikita asked, clearly confused.

Instead of replying, Michael unstrapped Nikita's restraints, grabbed her shoulders and kissed her deeply, months of longing showing in his suddenly passionate green eyes.

"Michael! Oh my god, it *is* you!!!" Nikita breathed after Michael finally broke the kiss.

"But how?"

********

THREE MONTHS AGO:

As Duncan MacLeod drove by the deserted warehouse not fifteen minutes after it collapsed, he felt a familiar 'buzz.' While Duncan realized that it was a pre-immortal that he was feeling he drew his katana anyway as he came closer. It may have been a first death but that didn't mean whoever the 'newbie' was, they didn't know what they were or the rules of The Game. His latest student, Richie, certainly knew a lot about their kind before his first death.

Michael was lying under a pile of rubble, struggling to stay conscious and trying to figure out what had happened. The last thing he remembered was the explosion, then nothing until he saw Jason dragging Nikita to the Suburban and then the Suburban driving off. The fact that he was at all alive at this point was a testament to his physical strength and his uncanny ability to stoically and constantly withstand pain that would kill anyone else.

"Are you okay?" Duncan asked drawing near, for lack of better phrasing.

Michael tried to reach his gun to protect himself from the stranger, but found himself too weak to do so. In his dazed state he even tried to answer with his customary 'I'm fine,' but the only thing that came out was a whispered "No...Nikita," before he fell back into unconsciousness from the pain the rubble on top of him was causing him. His last thought before oblivion claimed him was a sense of relief that at least Nikita was safe.

"Now what?" Duncan muttered to himself looking around. "At least this place was finally leveled."

Deducing that bodies in black fatigues combined with standard issue firearms and high tech communications equipment strewn about from the explosion probably meant government infiltration, Duncan thought about the best way to proceed. He was sure that the man presently lying unconscious in front of him had been left for dead by the others reasoning correctly that no mortal could possibly survive the explosion and subsequent collapse.

Figuring that it was only a matter of time before a clean-up crew of some sort was going to show up, Duncan decided that his best course of action was to get himself and the as yet unknown immortal out of here as fast as possible. He realized that whoever this man was, he must be new because he didn't react to Duncan like an experienced immortal would, the man didn't even 'notice' his approach.

Duncan dug Michael out of the rubble, noticing by the sudden disappearance of the immortal buzz, that Michael was actually dead now, rather than just unconscious and carried him over his shoulder to his car. He hoped that this immortal was 'salvageable,' because he really didn't plan on taking any heads today, but just in case Duncan kept his sword close on the drive back to his dojo/home.

As they were driving away, Duncan heard a loud rumble and turned around and watched the final collapse of the structure, burying everyone and everything around.

********

Michael still hadn't woken up during the twenty minute drive from the abandoned docks where the now destroyed warehouse lay, his injuries too severe, his immortality too new. Once again, Duncan looked around to make sure no one was about, then took Michael out of the car and into the dojo.

"Richie?" Duncan called out, sensing another immortal's presence.

"Yeah Mac, it's me!" Richie answered quickly (to avoid getting beheaded by a sword), coming out of the office. "Hey, what's going on?" Richie asked watching Duncan drag Michael into the dojo.

"Help me get him upstairs." Duncan replied.

"Who is he?" Richie asked as he helped Duncan carry Michael's corpse to Duncan's loft upstairs.

Once they got Michael's body comfortably situated on the couch they sat down on the chairs by the coffee table. Duncan was telling Richie how he'd met the man on the couch and was just finishing when they both felt another immortal's buzz and heard Michael gasp and come to back to life.

"Welcome back to the world of the living." Duncan smirked, he and Richie turning almost simultaneously to look at Michael, Duncan feeling the 'vibes' a bit quicker.

"The world of the living...what are you talking about? Who are you? Where am I?" Michael asked in his softly accented English, struggling to sit up and focus.

"So, I was right, you don't know." Duncan stated knowingly.

"Know what?" Michael asked baffled, slowly sitting up. The pain was receding. All he felt now was a curious sensation in his head and a butterfly feeling in his stomach. When he first opened his eyes, Section training kicking in, he scanned his surroundings and found himself on a comfortable couch in what appeared to be the living room of a spacious loft. The two men sitting on the chairs across the coffee table did not look like interrogators or guards and weren't even armed. Even though he realized he was in no immediate danger, Michael did not lower his guard. He learned long ago that things were not always what they seemed.

Duncan and Richie just looked at each other. 'Here we go again,' thought Duncan. 'Another rookie. How the hell do they manage to find me?'

Aloud he said, "We need to talk, uh...what's your name?"

"Michael," He answered, unsure of why he trusted these two with even that much information "Who are you and what am I doing here?" Michael repeated.

********

"I am Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod and this is Richie Ryan." Duncan replied, the introduction he usually reserved for immortals slipping out.

"What do you mean, 'clan MacLeod'?" Michael asked, starting to get a bad feeling about his current situation.

"Sorry, force of habit." Duncan grimaced. "How do you feel, I mean, other than the buzzing in your head and butterflies in your stomach?" "How do you know about that?" Michael asked, startled that this man somehow knew what he was feeling. "Did you inject me with something to..."

"No," Duncan cut him off. "Richie and I feel it too. It's what all immortals feel when another is nearby. We also feel the seeds of immortality, that's how I found you in the rubble."

"Immortality? What are you talking about?" Michael asked stunned and half amused. They weren't the enemy after all, just insane. He wouldn't include them in his debrief, he decided. They might have been insane, but they were innocents. What Michael needed was to get out, get back to Section, debrief and check in on Nikita in Medlab, make sure her injuries weren't any worse than they looked.

Thoughts of Medlab stopped Michael cold. It finally hit him that he had been severely injured in the blast but after a quick inspection, borne out of years of practice, confirmed that there was not a mark on him. It also dawned on him that there was no retrieval team here yet. They would have surely tracked him here unless his implant went down, but the implant only goes down upon death. Realization sinking in, pragmatist Michael, never one for theatrics or hysterics, calmly accepted what was in front of him, as unreal as it seemed and concluded that a conversation with this Duncan MacLeod was probably a good idea.

"I know that this must be hard to believe, let alone accept, but it *is* true. I went through this myself only a few years back." Richie said after a minute, when it looked like Michael was ready to listen.

"You're both crazy, I'm going to leave now, don't try to stop me." Michael said, getting up quickly, to see what they would do.

Before Michael could do or say anything else, Duncan pulled out his sword from seemingly no where and held it to his throat. The move was so sudden and unexpected (a sword!?!) that Michael didn't even have a chance to counter.

"Listen," Duncan hissed. "The first thing you need to know is that the one thing that *can* kill you is a beheading, so sit down, shut up and listen." Needing answers, Michael realized he did not have much of a choice so he sat back down on the couch and softly whispered, "I'm listening."

********

"First thing's first." Duncan started. "Just to make sure you're a true believer..." Duncan drove his sword into Michael's upper left arm, surprising the level five operative. At first all Michael felt was extreme pain, so intense that he thought he was going to die. But that lasted only a few seconds. Then right before his eyes, his arm started to heal. What amazed him even more were the little flashes of electric/lightning bolts that hissed and shot up through the injured area, closing the wound in their wake. After a few otherwise silent moments, the wound and the pain were completely gone and no scarring remained, as if the injury never happened.

While Michael was still trying to process and absorb what was happening, Duncan and Richie exchanged brief glances then looked at Michael for a reaction. They'd both been through this, more times than either cared to count. For them it was second nature to accept the healing powers of their bodies, after all, immortality certainly had its advantages.

It took Michael a few minutes to recover, his eyes burning an intense green, but once he did his mercurial gaze turned back to its customary gray and he focused his penetrating gaze on Duncan.

"I'm listening." Michael finally repeated, in what many referred to as his 'machine mode.'

This change didn't go unnoticed by the two seasoned immortals. Duncan was already intrigued by this young man. He knew that Michael was not a criminal, at least not an ordinary one. He figured that Michael was some kind of covert operative, just which side he was on was still up for debate.

"What exactly were you doing at the warehouse?" Richie inquired suddenly, his curiosity piqued when he realized that was still an unknown.

"Does it matter?" Michael questioned, his countenance unchanged.

"If you want our help then we need to develop some kind of trust..." Duncan replied, starting to get irritated at Michael's 'attitude.'

"I can take care of myself, I don't need anyone's help." Michael replied, again ready to leave if too many questions were asked. The more they knew about him, the more dangerous it was for all of them, immortal or not.

"Really, that's why I was able to cut you with my sword so easily?" Duncan asked, arching an eyebrow.

"I was simply surprised, unprepared, it will not happen again." Michael stated standing up, anger at being taken by surprise flickering briefly in his eyes before he was able to shutter them again.

"You have no idea what you've gotten yourself into. If you want to survive you'll sit back down and listen."

"You said I'm immortal. Why do I need help to survive if nothing can kill me?" Michael asked genuinely puzzled. "Besides, why help? You've no idea who or what I am. Considering how you found me, I'm surprised you haven't asked the obvious questions."

********

"What questions? What were you doing there? Who do you work for? That's in the past, it doesn't matter anymore." Duncan explained. "What matters is what you do from here on in. Besides I know what was in that warehouse. If you were part of a team destroying it, well then you can't be so bad after all."

Michael didn't reply, logically he knew that none of this could be true, these people must be crazy, but the evidence was there, he knew a 'knife' wound when he felt it, saw it heal with his own eyes. Between that and the immortal buzz feeling that he was now starting to believe and accept as a normalcy, he felt that he had no choice but to listen.

"We'll start from the beginning." Duncan announced when he saw the acceptance in Michael's eyes. "Richie, do me a favor and get the training swords from storage, take my car, we won't be going anywhere for a while anyway." Duncan continued, reaching out to hand Richie the keys to his convertible and storage room.

When Richie had gone, Michael sat back on the couch and Duncan sat up straight in his chair and began.

"Let me finish, then you can ask any questions you have." Duncan said.

"Fine." Michael replied softly and nodded.

"As I said we are immortals, we can not die unless someone takes our head." Duncan started. "There are others out there like us, some good, some evil. In the end, there can be only one. The last one will have all the power, knowledge and skills of all those before them and will become mortal again, but with the ability to rule the world.

"There are those, like Richie and me, content with living out their years among mortals but there are also many who hunt, they play the 'game' to win the 'prize', to be *the one*. We carry swords and the like around with us at all times to defend against those who hunt. Once begun, a fight can not be interfered with and there can be no two on ones. Our only refuge is holy ground, be it a temple, church, cemetery, monastery, whatever. No one, not even the most evil of us, fights on holy ground. Of the rules of engagement, holy ground is the most serious, it can *never* be broken. The last time it happened...Well, remember Pompeii?" Duncan paused, making sure this was sinking in.

"Although many of us have no intention of hunting others for the prize, that doesn't mean we will be sitting ducks either. If challenged, you must answer, so obviously you need to be trained in sword fighting - unless you want to spend all your life in a monastery." Duncan joked. "Now any questions?" Duncan added facetiously, knowing full well that any normal person would probably have a million and one of them.

Michael just kept staring at the wall, his patented 'blank stare.' He didn't know where to begin. Michael knew it all sounded preposterous but yet, somehow, he believed. While Duncan was talking a part of Michael's mind was listening, but he had long ago learned how to listen and absorb while letting his mind wander at the same time. He thought about all the people he cared about, past and present. He thought about all the lives he could have saved, had he known about his immortality. That thought jolted him back, did he really believe what MacLeod was telling him, did he really believe in immortality and all its trappings so quickly?

"Is that it, may I go now?" Was all Michael said.

"Nice attitude." Duncan muttered, getting angry. "You know, I didn't have to help, I could have just left you to figure things out and try to survive on your own..."

"Why do you want to help me?" Michael interrupted, realizing the other man had never answered the question.

********

'Good question,' Duncan thought. 'Why *do* I care? Maybe it's all the pain and sorrow that shows in his eyes the few brief times his guard drops.' Duncan somehow knew that the young man in front of him had had a painful and tragic life, maybe in immortality he could find peace and joy. All he said though was, "Because us 'good guys' should stick together." Duncan smiled. "Besides I have a soft spot for hard luck cases."

"Hard luck cases?" Michael queried. "And how can you be sure that I'm one of the good guys?"

"I figure there's a long, sad story to explain why you were at that warehouse." Duncan replied, thinking it was a good thing he had immortal friends all over, including, of course, covert government agencies, who keep him up to date on what's new in the spy game. "And you don't come off as what I'd call evil. Cold and detached certainly, but not evil. Actually, I pegged you as a government agent of some sort, so which one is it? CIA? Interpol? Section One?..."

At the mention of Section One, Michael flinched, surprised at the other man's knowledge. The wince was slight, but enough for Duncan, who'd learned over his many years to read people, to confirm his suspicions and drop it for now. He was sure that Michael would tell him about his involvement with Section One when he was ready.

Michael's survival instincts were telling him to cancel Duncan and find his way back to Section. This whole scenario had an unreal, almost sci-fi quality to it.

Duncan saw that Michael looked like he was ready to bolt. He knew that if Michael left now, he would lose him for good. While he had no doubt that Michael was well trained in many areas, Duncan was sure that sword fighting was not one of the skills taught to government agents. While it was an unnecessary skill in the 'real' world, in the immortal world unless you knew how to handle a sword or the like you wouldn't last very long, regardless of any other skills possessed.

He didn't know why, but for some reason Duncan already cared about Michael. Maybe it was because he saw some of his own pain and loss reflected in Michael's gray-green eyes, maybe not. Whatever the reason, he wanted to help Michael survive his immortality for as long as possible. Duncan was not an arrogant man but he knew he was a damn good swordsman as his friend/watcher Joe Dawson, among others, kept reminding him. If, as Duncan suspected, Michael turned out to be a good pupil, he had no doubt that Michael would live a long and hopefully happy life.

"It's obvious you don't trust me, *yet*." Duncan said aloud. "Can't say that I blame you. I'd feel the same in your position. So, to make things easier and more comfortable, I'll start off by telling you about myself and then you can return the consideration."

"Fine, may I ask a question, though?" Michael inquired politely. At Duncan's nod he continued. "Does this 'buzz' ever go away and what is it exactly?"

"The 'buzz' is the reaction to the quickening inside you that is released only upon your beheading. So, it never goes away but you do get used to it and learn to appreciate it." Duncan answered. "We can't differentiate as to which immortal is present, only that one is near-by. Since we're not all as friendly as me, use it as a warning sign that one of us is near and be on your guard. Now that you've 'changed,' died your first death, you'll be able to feel the others. You'll also be able to feel the seeds of immortality in those of us who haven't changed yet. That's how I found you in the first place, I felt your presence/quickening even though you didn't feel mine."

"I see." Michael was beyond wanting to leave at this point. Even though rationally immortality and its trappings were impossible, all the evidence was dictating otherwise. He found to his continued astonishment (not that it showed on his as usually 'masked' face) that he truly believed and he was actually curious as to who Duncan is and why he's helping him.

"My mortal life really wasn't that important." Duncan started, hoping to impress upon Michael that regardless of what his life has been like, his immortality was giving him a chance to start over, with a clean slate. "Suffice it to say that I was born in 1592, in the Highlands of Scotland. I was mortally wounded in battle in the 1620's and 'became' an immortal. I didn't know what I was at first and wandered around a long time, cast aside by my clan as a demon, nearly going mad. But I got lucky, I found or should I say, was found, by several different older immortals who were willing to teach me their skills. I have learned from many over the past 350 plus years.

"Partly as pay back to my teachers and a sense of loyalty and duty to our 'race' and partly due to my generous nature," Duncan grinned, "I have at times returned the favor and tried to help new immortals learn how to fight and survive The Game. Richie is actually one of my 'students.' He first died four years ago, but I've known him a couple of years longer than that.

"Richie's story is his own to tell but basically, at the time we met I knew he was one of us, however, since he hadn't died his first death, he couldn't feel it yet and he didn't know what we are." Duncan paused, remembering. "Richie needed a push in the right direction, so to speak, so I took him in and taught him how to survive. Now, he's like a younger brother and he thinks of me as an older brother as well. Another thing you should know is that once you die your first death, you stay the way you are 'forever,' you don't ever look any older than you do now. You'll probably come across immortals who look like a kid, but don't be fooled, that kid could be hundreds or thousands of years old." Duncan finished.

"How is old is the oldest immortal?" Michael asked curiously.

Duncan paused for a moment before answering. It wasn't his place to tell Michael about Methos, his 5,000 plus year old friend. Methos was a legend, a myth to most, real only to those few he knew and trusted. Duncan was not about to break this trust.

Although Duncan's pause was slight, Michael's training and skills in reading people kicked in and he noticed it and filed it away for later, not pressing *for now.*

"There are some who are a couple thousand years old, but they are few. There are rumors of older ones but nobody really knows how old you are unless you tell them. Most of us don't go around bragging about our age." Duncan continued dodging the question without really lying, something Michael would no doubt appreciate. He purposely stressed 'us' and 'we,' making sure that Michael understood that he was a part of it now, that he was one of 'us.' "However, the older you are and the more heads you've taken, the stronger you and your quickening, your presence becomes. You'll be able to feel the difference between a young one and an old one. Sometimes the hunters go for the old ones for their strength *but* sometimes they go for the young ones," Duncan looked pointedly at Michael, "figuring it's an easy kill."

"The Game, the prize you talked about, is it real, I mean is it true?" Michael asked next.

"We believe it's true, yes. As I said before, most of us are not power hungry. Many of us are content to just live for as long as we can. Why, is that what you want? To hunt for the prize?" Duncan asked disappointedly.

"No, I'm not interested in ruling the world. I was just curious." Michael replied honestly.

"Well, what about you? What's your story?" Duncan queried, his own curiosity dictating the question.

Michael inexplicably found himself liking and trusting Duncan enough to open up to him. For a man who hadn't allowed himself to really trust anyone or anything, in a very long time, to say that this feeling of trust was remarkable was an understatement. Nevertheless, he found himself opening up to Duncan.

"My name is Michael Samuelle, I was born in Marseilles in 1965." Michael began quietly in his softly accented English. "My parents died when I was in my teens. After they died I took care of my much younger sister as there was no one else to raise us. Our parents left enough money to provide what we needed. My life changed when I went to University. I got involved with student activists and I did something that I will regret for the rest of my life, however long it will be." Michael paused, his eyes betraying the painful memories he was recalling. "I helped build a bomb that killed innocent people. The building was supposed to be empty at the time of the explosion, but there were several people inside and they were killed. I was caught and sent to prison." Michael had to stop again for a minute, as his suppressed pain and emotions surfaced again, overwhelming him momentarily.

"One night I was taken from my cell to a place called Section One." Michael continued, his gray-green eyes staring at nothing, his face back to its usual unreadable mask, his momentary 'weakness' gone. "They made it look like I committed suicide in my cell and I've been dead to the world since." 'Dead inside too,' Michael added silently to himself.

"Section One trained me to be an anti-terrorist operative." Michael continued in his monotone, as usual showing nothing. "We are a clandestine government agency who goes after the criminals that regular law enforcement agencies can't. We don't always play by the rules and we 'get our man' by any means necessary. The work we do is for the greater good and whatever has to be done to achieve our goals is. To paraphrase a... friend of mine, 'our ends are just, but our means are ruthless.' I've been in Section One for the last ten years."

As Michael was talking, Duncan noticed how he kept saying 'we' and 'us' as opposed to 'they' and 'them.' Duncan realized that Michael thought of *himself* as Section One. Michael didn't differentiate the two, as if they owned him, body and soul. Duncan had heard about Section One and their methods of recruitment and operation. To him, it looked like Michael had been indoctrinated into Section, the perfect operative, more machine than human. No wonder there was so much pain and self-loathing visible behind his mask. To a trained observer like Duncan, it was evident how much surviving almost half his life within and for Section must have cost Michael. Believing that whatever you did, no matter how horrific at times, was for the greater good and detaching yourself from your actions was the only way to survive that place. That and the belief that you deserve this fate as your punishment, that dying is too easy for your sins.

It was clear that Michael survived the Section by trying, to varying degrees of success, to become dead inside and accept his lot in life as his punishment for past transgressions, otherwise he would've swallowed a bullet and ended his misery a long time ago. Duncan realized that in order for Michael to 'live' again he would have to teach him how to forgive himself for both things he had control over and things he didn't and move on. The past was just that, the past and you couldn't change it, but you had to forgive yourself as well as others, accept it and move on. It seemed to Duncan that Michael was never able to forgive himself and move on, that was probably where most of his pain was coming from. It amazed Duncan how much self-loathing was expressed in Michael's eyes.

Michael had to get past it if he had any chance of living because if he felt that he deserved to die, then it was only a matter of time before he did, especially with so many hunters out there today. It seemed that there *was* something or perhaps, someone preventing Michael from swallowing a bullet, but Duncan had a strong suspicion that if Michael's attitude didn't change and soon, once that something was gone, he would probably just let the first immortal he encountered take his head and end his suffering. Duncan didn't think Michael would do it himself, but a beheading by another would suit his purpose. 'I wonder what Michael's whole story is, there's obviously a lot more to it than what Michael was telling,' Duncan mused silently, 'Maybe Joe could find out, he had a high placed connection in Section One, somebody all the way back from his days in Viet Nam, I'm pretty sure.'

Out loud, Duncan said, "You keep saying 'we' but you have to realize that you can't go back there, to them you're dead. You have to sever all the ties to your past and start over. If you were to go back, there would be too many questions that you couldn't answer. The 'real' world isn't ready for us, they wouldn't accept us, I've seen it first hand. If they found out about us, they would treat us much like the so-called witches that were hunted in the old days." Duncan finished, remembering Horton and his renegade watchers who eventually did more than observe, they started beheading all the immortals they encountered, believing them *all* to be evil. "They would hunt us down until we were all dead."

"I have to go back." Michael stated firmly.

"Why?" Duncan asked.

"I just have to. They'll find me eventually anyway, they'll know I survived the explosion and they won't stop looking for me. They have their ways. Escape is not an option." Michael tried to justify his return, resigned to going back, even though the opportunity of freedom being presented to him was strongly appealing.

"If they do find you, then what? How are you going to explain that you're alive. And if you manage to convince them that nothing's 'wrong,' what will happen the next time you get injured? You'll heal almost instantly, you won't have any scars, even your old ones have disappeared already. You'll always be in perfect health and you'll never look any older, how will you explain that?" Duncan questioned logically.

"I don't know. I'll think of something. But I have to go back for.." Michael paused, he was about to say 'for her, for Nikita' but stopped himself.

"For who? Nikita?" Duncan guessed.

"How do you know about her?" Michael's head snapped up, suspicion clearly showing in his expression.

"You called out her name before you died."

"She's my...partner, she won't...survive Section by herself. I have to go back to...protect her." Michael returned, omitting mention of Adam as he'd already said too much.

"Look," Duncan replied sadly, understanding and empathizing with Michael's situation. "I sympathize with your situation, but it's a really bad idea to go back, especially now. How will you explain your 'miraculous' reappearance and your perfect health? You're not in the least bit injured and even if you tried to injure yourself intentionally, you would just heal in a matter of minutes. They'd end up using you as a guinea pig, to see what makes you tick."

"Then I'll wait a few days. I'll tell them I got out but was too injured to make my way back right away." Michael said stubbornly.

"To completely recover from those injuries you'd need a couple of *months,* at least." Duncan paused. "Did anyone see you get hurt?"

"Yes, Nikita...and Jason, I'm sure they think I'm dead, otherwise she'd be looking for me." He hoped.

"Well, if there were witnesses, you can't show up without any injuries. Why don't you lay low for a couple of months, train to fight with a sword, then when enough time has elapsed and you've completed your training, if you still want to go back, well then, I guess I won't be able to stop you." Duncan said, hoping to buy him some time to convince Michael of the foolishness of his desire to try to go back to his old life.

"Fine." Michael agreed. "I guess I could learn what I need to survive as an immortal in the meantime. I might as well do something anyway."

"That's not the right attitude." Duncan replied, somewhat angrily. "You know, another thing to think about if you want to go back to that life is what you're going to do if you cross paths with another immortal while on a mission. You won't always be able to avoid a confrontation. How are you going to explain sword fighting and the release of a quickening to your bosses?"

"The release?" Michael asked.

"The quickening release is the end result of a duel between immortals. When you take another immortal's head, you take their quickening. Their strength, power, etc. and that of those whose heads *they've* taken will be 'transferred' to you..."

"Transferred? How?" Michael asked.

"Think of it as being the center, the rod, of a lightening storm. That's about as close a description as there is. The longevity of the 'storm' depends on the age and the strength of the immortal whose head you take. The older and/or stronger the immortal you behead, the longer and more intense the quickening."

"I can't just walk away from my past. I can't..." Michael didn't want to stay, he didn't want to abandon Nikita, he didn't think she would survive Section for very long without his protection. He couldn't just walk away to a new life and leave her behind. Adam wouldn't be in jeopardy. With Michael dead, there would be no reason to go after him. But Nikita was a different story, he had to go back for her.

"Listen, you can't do anything about it right now, you can't go back yet anyway." Duncan interrupted. "So learn how to survive in the immortal world, then, when the time is right you can decide what to do."

Seeing that he really had no choice, Michael agreed to train with Duncan, for now. He figured that Nikita would spend a few weeks in MedLab recovering from the injuries she sustained anyway. He just hoped that she would stay out of trouble after that until he came back.

********

TWO AND A HALF MONTHS LATER (OR ONE WEEK AGO):

Training had been going well, surprisingly well, Duncan thought as he watched Michael finish cooling down after his workout in the dojo. He was surprised and almost grudgingly admiring of Michael's progress. He was a quick study and in the short time he had been training him, Michael had learned more than any of his other students had with much more training. Even Joe, Duncan's part-time watcher/full-time friend, was amazed at Michael's progress. Richie wasn't surprised anymore because it only took Michael three weeks to surpass his skill level. Whatever else they had done to him, Section One at least trained him well in all aspects of combat.

During the past two and a half months Michael had opened up to Duncan. He told him more about his pre-Section past, how he got caught up in the mess that brought him into Section in the first place. Michael then went on to tell him about the hell that was Section One. He told him about his wife Simone, her supposed death almost six years ago and her real death three and a half years ago. Michael also told him all about Nikita and why he had to go back, for her sake. Duncan understood that Michael was in love with Nikita even though Michael still had a hard time admitting it to himself. Duncan realized that as much as he didn't want Michael to go back to his old life, he knew he couldn't stop him, wouldn't really try even. He would do the same, had done the same, in Michael's place.

Duncan also knew something that Michael hadn't told him. After Duncan had revealed that immortals couldn't have children, even before their first deaths, Michael briefly closed his eyes in pain and immediately changed the subject. While it may not have been much of a reaction from most, from Michael it was tantamount to an 'explosion.' He'd found out from Joe that Section One had made Michael believe he had a son as part of a mission. Duncan had already even had a heated discussion with an old friend about it after Joe informed him of that friend's connection to Section One.

Duncan didn't push the issue when he found out realizing how painful it must be to know the truth. He was disappointed that Michael hadn't confided in him, but he wasn't surprised. Duncan knew that Michael had already opened up to him more than he had to anyone, except for Nikita, in a very long time. He hoped in time, Michael would feel 'comfortable' enough to tell him more.

Michael felt Duncan watching him. He knew it was time to go, his training was over, he had learned as much from Duncan as he was going to. Enough time had passed anyway, and he was ready to go back to Section One.

Michael already had his cover story. He would tell Operations that his implant had gone off-line due to malfunction and he had been too severely injured to go back immediately. He wouldn't endanger Duncan by telling Operations about him. He would just say that he made it out of the warehouse on his own and found someplace to recuperate, his head injury temporarily delaying him. He'd already confirmed the necessary documentation for his cover story. Michael knew there would be dozens of questions, from both Operations and Madeline. But he was prepared to answer them satisfactorily because he knew his current life and more importantly, Nikita's entire life depended on his answers.

Michael had another reason to go back as well. He wanted answers about his 'son.' While he may have understood why they did it, he needed to know who 'they' were. Once he found out the truth though, even Michael wasn't sure what he would do about it.

********

"Congratulations," Duncan said as Michael came out of the shower, dressed and ready to leave. "I have to say I'm very impressed with how quickly you've learned. Richie won't train with you anymore, says you kicked his butt too many times."

"Section training does have its advantages." Michael replied modestly.

"Yeah, I guess it does." Duncan returned sadly then tried to lighten the mood. "Hell, at this rate, you'll only need two or three centuries to catch up to me."

"Thanks, Mac. But, I'd say more like one or two." Michael bantered smiling, while adjusting the sword Duncan had given him as a 'graduation' present in his jacket's lining.

It didn't escape either man's attention that Michael had smiled and lived more in the past couple of months than he had in the last fifteen years. Both men also realized that Michael's training was finished. Duncan had no more to teach him and it was time for Michael to go out on his own. Duncan wasn't too worried about it, he knew Michael had the skills to live a long immortal life.

The only thing that worried him at all was Michael going back to Section One. Duncan wasn't entirely convinced that Michael would pass their 'inspection' but he wasn't about to stop him. Besides, Duncan was going to appeal to Joe to ask his Section One friend to keep him posted on Michael's progress for the time being. He only hoped that Michael wouldn't stay there too long, for the longer he stayed the greater the chance that he would be found out.

"If you change your mind and need help getting out, just contact me here at the dojo."

"Thank you for the offer," Michael responded softly, "But I don't think so, not for a while anyway. They won't notice that anything is different, not until they realize I'm not aging. But that won't happen for a while. In the meantime, I always had a strong tolerance for pain and an aversion to MedLab, so there won't be any suspicions in that area. As long as they buy my story about my disappearance, everything should be fine."

"Goodbye then, Michael. Keep your head up." Duncan said, hoping to see Michael again in the future.

"Thanks, Mac. You too." Michael replied as he walked out of the dojo for the last time, a fully trained and very skilled immortal.

********

YESTERDAY:

"I found her." Jason shouted excitedly from Systems. He was glad that Michael was back. He still wasn't sure how he escaped the collapse, even Walter wasn't privy to that information and Jason certainly wasn't about to ask Operations or Madeline. The important thing was that Michael was back and if anyone could get Nikita out of Red Cell's 'clutches,' he could. Assuming Nikita was still alive of course, her implant having been disabled, the chip but no body found on site.

Unbeknownst to Jason, Michael who was coming to stand right behind Jason, was thinking along the same lines. He was worried that he came back too late to save Nikita.

As Jason typed furiously away Michael thought back to the previous day and his re-entry into Section One. Looking back it had been too easy, his story too easily bought. As his 'interrogation' by Madeline and Operations came to a close and Michael found out that he was in the clear, he immediately asked about Nikita. It was then that he knew why Operations had been so easy on him. Operations undoubtedly figured that with Nikita captured, probably dead, unreachable at the very least, Michael would go back to the way he was before, the way Operations envisioned him.

Michael knew what Operations wanted. He knew that the mission he 'died' on had been a set-up to cancel Nikita but he had no intention of letting Operations know that he knew. Michael also had no intention of losing Nikita, he would find her and get her out, regardless of what Operations wanted. Michael assumed Operations let him go on this rescue mission because he thought Nikita was probably already dead. Michael knew Nikita was alive, he would have felt it if she were dead. He always had a connection to her, he couldn't explain it himself but it was there. Nikita was alive, he was sure of it and he was right. The only thing Michael was wrong about was Operations' motives.

********

Looking down from his office, Operations watched as Michael and Jason finalized the mission profile. He thought he had lost Michael three months ago, he wouldn't make the same mistake again. Operations finally realized, hopefully not too late, that Michael was his best choice for Section's future. Any lingering doubts were laid to rest in the three months he was gone. Even though it was a 'surprise' and they didn't have satisfactory contingencies in place, the fact remained that while going through the lists of permanent replacements, suitable candidates were few and far between. No, Michael was still the best choice. And if he wanted Michael, he knew he needed Nikita as part of the package, for now at least.

When Michael returned yesterday, Operations was skeptical, even more so than Madeline had been. Two things changed his mind, the first being that if Michael had truly been planning an escape he surely would've taken Nikita with him. And second, more importantly, Operations had his own strong suspicions about Michael. When he and Madeline reviewed the tapes, it was obvious nobody could survive that explosion and subsequent collapse. Jason and Nikita's reports when they came back as well as Housekeeping's confirmation of the devastation were enough to make them believe that Michael was really dead. Michael always had an unusually high tolerance for pain and injury but that blast and the following collapse would have killed anyone, even him.

Michael's story *was* flimsy but when Madeline wanted to dig deeper, Operations stopped her. He was suspicious alright, but not of the same thing that Madeline was. Operations strongly suspected that Michael was an immortal. He had to be 'new' that was for sure. Recalling fairly recent injuries and the normal healing that took place afterwards, Operations concluded that this had to have been Michael's first death.

Oh yes, Operations knew all about immortals. He was still waiting for his old Viet Nam buddy, Joe Dawson to call him to double check his suspicions, even though at this point it was just a formality. Operations checked out Michael's jackets and coats while he had the younger man occupied elsewhere and found the telltale sword 'hiding' spot in the lining. Being one of the head watchers, Joe would be able to confirm for him if Michael was an immortal, not that he had really had any doubts, who else other than an immortal would need to carry a sword? Strange that his past was catching up to him.

Operations remembered his arguments with Joe in the old days. While he had never been a watcher, Operations was saved by the same man that Joe was and learned all about watchers and immortals as a consequence. They were to observe only and never to interfere. That was Operations' problem with his friend's job, the fact that he couldn't 'interfere.'

That 'problem' was what had made him such a good operative. Listening to Joe talk about some of the good ones being beheaded by evil immortals and hunters strengthened his resolve to make sure that the mortal good ones *would* have someone to run interference for them. Helping innocents was what he was about in the early years. It was only until the last few years that the line had blurred almost to beyond recognition.

Returning his thoughts to the present Operations found himself hoping that Michael was right, that Nikita was alive and that he'd be able to get her out.

The knock on the door ensured Operations thoughts remained in the present. "Come in."

Michael came in, dressed in his customary black field gear, obviously not wanting to waste any time, ready to go as soon as he got the go ahead. "The mission profile is ready."

"I know. I just read it. You really think it's a good idea to go in alone?"

"Yes." Michael replied with no hesitation. "It's the only way. The perimeter is too well guarded for a full assault, but I can slip in alone. Walter's new explosives will cover our egress."

"Fine. How soon can you leave?" Operations did not miss 'our' egress. He once again hoped that Michael's optimism of finding Nikita alive would be founded. He knew Michael was barely containing his urgency to go and he wasn't going to hold him back any longer.

"I'm ready now."

"Good. Go." Operations watched Michael leave, a thoughtful look on his face again.

********

PRESENT:

"I see Michael left several hours ago." Madeline stated, coming into the Perch.

"Yes, he should be on site by now."

"Do you really think it was wise to send him in alone and dark?" Madeline inquired. "I would have thought at least a comm unit or replacement of his implant to maintain some kind of contact."

"I trust Michael's tactical." Operations replied assertively. "Besides, what you're really worried about is his return."

"Yes, I'll admit that I still have some questions regarding Michael's 'miraculous escape,' subsequent return and now this solo mission."

"It's no longer your concern, I've verified his story myself. Michael's loyalty to Section is not in question."

"Are you certain?" Madeline inquired still suspicious, even more so because Operations wasn't elaborating.

"Yes, Madeline, I'm certain. Forget it, *we* have no problem with Michael." 'At least not one that I'm going to tell you about,' thought Operations.

"Very well. Please contact me as soon as they're out, I'll be in my office." Madeline replied and left.

When Madeline left, Operations breathed a sigh of a relief. He hoped that Madeline would drop the matter. He wouldn't allow her to dig any deeper and uncover the truth he had already learned from Joe Dawson. In fact, there was much that he needed to reconsider where Madeline was concerned.

Operations knew a lot about immortals, including the fact that they couldn't have children. He remembered Madeline's insistence on Michael fathering a child with Elena and his veto to that scenario. It had been memories of his own still painful 'abandonment' of his son Stephen that prohibited Operations from deliberately inflicting that kind of pain on his protégé. When Elena became pregnant 'accidentally' Operations chalked it up to chance and let the scenario play itself out.

Elena was a faithful wife, surveillance had confirmed it. Michael's immortality precluded him from being Adam's father so there was no way that the pregnancy was an accident. The only person he knew that was devious and cold enough to do such a thing was Madeline. Now that he knew the truth, Operations conceded that Madeline was perhaps becoming a liability. Besides going too far, she disobeyed his orders. God help them all, Madeline especially, when Michael confronted them.

Operations turned back to his phone willing it to ring with the news that both Michael and Nikita were safe and on their way back to Section One.

********

"Nikita?" Michael whispered through the bars, unable to suppress a smile at his recent discovery.

'Great, now I'm hearing things,' Nikita thought as she peered around the dark room. 'I could swear I just heard Michael, again, like so many times these last few months.' All of a sudden the door burst open and in jumped Michael, looking unbelievably alive and fit. Nikita just lay there staring, she couldn't bring herself to believe that what she was seeing was real. Either he was a ghost or she must be hallucinating.

"Michael?!?"

"Yes, it's me. I'm really here."

"No! This has to be another trick, I saw you die!"

"You know it's me," Michael replied calmly as he drew closer.

"How do I know it's really you?" Nikita asked, clearly confused.

Instead of replying, Michael unstrapped Nikita's restraints, grabbed her shoulders and kissed her deeply, months of longing showing in his suddenly passionate green eyes.

"Michael! Oh my god, it *is* you!!!" Nikita breathed after Michael finally broke the kiss.

"But how?"

"Later, Nikita. I promise I'll explain later. We have to get out now. Can you walk?" Michael asked worriedly.

"Yes, I think so." Nikita echoed Michael's words to her from when their situations had been reversed.

"Here." Michael handed a semi-automatic to Nikita. "Our egress isn't cleared yet."

"When is it ever?" Nikita smiled ruefully.

Side by side they ran out of the compound just before it exploded, shooting when necessary, Michael shielding Nikita's body with his own, just like old times.

********

"Target acquired, we're en route. Send housekeeping. ETA thirty minutes, have medical on standby for Nikita." Michael's voice came in loud and clear through the phone.

"Is she..."

"Nikita will be fine, her injuries are not life threatening." Michael replied, knowing what would be asked.

"Fine. Debrief in my office immediately upon return."

"Understood."

Operations sighed with relief, his best cold op and probable eventual successor was on his way back.