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The Dragonslayer

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The day began just as any of the other 5000-plus days he had spent in Section One. A call from Madeline roused him from the first deep sleep he had had since he left Rene and Grace a week ago. Each day of his stay with them had been heaven, a heaven that he had despaired of ever feeling, given the hold that Section had on him. Each night, he had slept a deep, healing sleep, from which he awoke each morning knowing that the day would be spent with Rene, his son. He knew he was on borrowed time, that Madeline had betrayed her Section persona in allowing him to recuperate away from Medlab and Section. But he was grateful for the borrowed time because he knew the times with Rene would probably be few and far between for the remainder of his life, a life that could end from a sniper’s bullet, a terrorist’s bomb, or the capricious nature of his superiors when they needed a sacrifice.

He had healed in body, mind, and spirit in the two weeks that he had spent with them. Being with the child he thought he had lost forever made him feel immortal. Even if something happened to him, Michael, he knew that Rene would go on and with him the family that had been denied Michael. He knew now that Rene would remember him and in some small way, Michael was happy. That surprised him, because Michael couldn’t remember many happy times spent out of the presence of his son. There were a few times that he had been happy with Nikita, but those times were usually marred by the knowledge that he had hurt her more than he had made her happy.

The parting from Rene and Grace had been tearful, with Rene pleading with Michael to stay, but, in the end, Rene had finally understood why Michael had to leave. Grace was a godsend, comforting both Rene and Michael in their inconsolable sadness and grief at the leave-taking. Rene had said his good-byes, had embraced Michael and had turned away from him and run back to his room so his father would not see the rest of his tears. Michael was beside himself in his anguish over leaving Rene.

“Grace, I don’t know how to do this!” he said as he leaned into her embrace as Rene had leaned into Michael’s earlier. She held him and murmured softly and soothingly to him as she would to Rene.

“Michael, I don’t want you to leave either, but we both know why you must go. The world out there always has need of a dragonslayer. You and I both know that the evil queen will send her dark minions for you if you don’t return,” she said, smiling. Grace had told Michael how she had explained his and Simone’s absence and Simone’s subsequent death to Rene.

Michael laughed, feeling the tension of the moment lessen a little bit. “Well, the evil queen is the one who sent the banged up dragonslayer to you in the first place. I guess maybe a recuperating class five operative would have been underfoot at the lways efficient Section headquarters. Why waste Section resources when she can get someone else to do it.”

“Maybe the evil queen is not so evil as I once thought her,” Grace queried.

Michael and Grace looked at one another and laughed as both said in the same instant, “Nahhh.”

But both had to admit that the past two weeks had been a gift from Madeline even if a gift of borrowed time. Michael hefted his suitcase and opened the front door in preparation to leave.

Rene, in his room, picked himself up off of his bed at the sound of the door opening and sprinted down the hallway, shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

Michael, turning toward his son’s voice, dropped his suitcase and held his arms out, and caught his son as Rene launched himself at his father. Both held on to the other and hugged one last time. Michael grimaced as some of his ribs protested at the sudden pressure on them, but he accepted the pain because saying this last good-bye to Rene was worth whatever his body had to pay.

Rene felt Michael’s involuntary flinch and wiggled his way out of Michael’s bearhug. “Daddy, I’m hurting you! Put me down, please!”

“You could never hurt me, Rene. I’m just fine. My chest muscles are just a little tight from lack of exercise. I’m okay, really.” Michael sought Rene’s eyes to emphasize his words.

Rene looked at his father and accepted his explanation. “Daddy, I’m okay with you leaving, really I am. I’m just a little sad, that’s all,” he said, his eyes leaking a few glistening tears.

“You take good care of your Mom, okay?” Michael whispered into Rene’s ear as he gave him a last hug.

“Daddy, you know I will, but remember something, dragonslayers are pretty good at taking care of themselves.” He smiled widely at Michael and with that big smile burned into his brain, Michael hugged Grace and kissed her on the cheek. He turned from his family and walked out the door, heading for his second family, Section One and Nikita.

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

Michael walked into Madeline’s office and said, “You wanted to see me?” He stopped in front of her desk with his hands clasped in front of him and waited for her to speak.

“Have you seen this?” she asked as she threw a newspaper across her desk. It slid on the slick glass surface of the desk and Michael stopped its slide by picking it up. He unfolded it to see profile of himself in a picture below the middle fold of the paper. He felt the chill race up his spine. He looked at the masthead and found it was a Texas newspaper from the city where Grace lived. It was dated yesterday.

Michael looked questioningly at Madeline. “Someone did a bit of research and found that your team perhaps wasn’t from the FBI. We have since covered for you, but the picture might be enough to alert one of our enemies to the location of Grace and Rene. I thought you might want to check on them. I have Birkoff checking with Cooper, their Section shadow.” She stopped talking and looked at Michael. He was speechless with concern for Grace and Rene. He knew what could happen if someone unfriendly to Section found the two people that would make Section’s top operative vulnerable.

Birkoff’s voice broke the silence. “Madeline, I can’t raise Cooper. He isn’t answering his page.” Michael turned and moved quickly for the door, but not quickly enough. Madeline saw the look on his face. She knew he was terrified in his concern for Rene and Grace.

“Call Grace and tell her to get Rene out of the house now!” he shouted over his shoulder at Madeline, but she already had the phone in her hand dialing.

Within an hour, Michael was sitting in the backseat of a F-18 on his way to the airbase in Ft. Worth and by the third hour since he was called to Madeline’s office, he was on the ground speeding to Grace’s house in a rental car.

While still in the air, Michael had learned of Cooper’s continued silence as well as the fact that there had been no answer at Grace’s house or from the cell phone she kept in her car. Michael tried futilely to quiet the terror screaming in his heart. Not again, he thought, God, not again.

He tried to calm himself, telling himself that he would find them and they would all have a good laugh at this false alarm. Then, he thought, he would explain to them how it was necessary to move to a new city and make a new life for themselves. Grace and Rene would protest, but he knew he could make them understand.

He drove slowly down the street where Grace and Rene lived. He pulled into the driveway behind Grace’s car. As Michael walked slowly to the front door, he noticed the blue pickup truck parked down the street.

There was no one in the truck. As he continued his careful walk to Grace’s front door, he scanned the street and other houses on the block, looking for anything out of place. When he got to the front door, he saw that it was ajar and all the warning bells when off in his head. Dread filled his mind at what he feared he would find on the other side of the door. He pushed the door open with his foot and crouched down and slipped inside. On the wall to his left, was a bloody mark where someone had been slammed against the wall and had slid down the wall leaving the bloody trail.

“Grace,” he called out softly. “Rene?” he whispered.

The only answer was a groan and a weak voice calling out to him, “I’m over here....please help me.”

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

Michael quickly moved over to the source of the voice, stepping around several upended pieces of furniture. Behind the sofa, at the base of the bloody mark on the wall, Michael found the owner of the voice. He stared for a few minutes at the pale figure lying at his feet.

“Cooper,” he said, as he knelt down and examined the wound in the man’s midsection. Cooper attempted a smile, but his face spasmed in a fit of coughing that left him gasping in pain as he gulped for more air.

“I’m sorry, Michael, they took Grace and Rene. I couldn’t stop them,” Cooper stopped and closed his eyes for a few seconds before he continued. “They told me to tell you to meet them at this address.” He put a bloody piece of paper into Michael’s hand. “I tried to protect them, but there were too many of them.”

Michael pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Let me call someone to help you.”

Cooper grabbed Michael’s hand and said, “No one can help me now. Michael, we both know that.” Michael closed the phone and put it back in his pocket. He lifted Cooper’s upper body and cradled him in his arms.

“Tell me what happened,” Michael said, “I know who they really want. What did they say?”

“They want to sell you.....to Red Cell. The leader is Tillman. I think you know him. Michael, this is important. You have to get to them quickly. From what Tillman said, he will let Grace and Rene go if you turn yourself over to them. He has no stomach for turning over a woman and child to Red Cell. If you can get there before Red Cell arrives, I think he will let Grace and Rene go. If you don’t, you know what Red Cell will do.” Cooper stopped talking and started coughing again. With each cough, the flow of blood from his wound increased. “Go, Michael, go now. Leave me and go save your family.”

Cooper stared up at Michael. “Rene is such a wonderful child. You should be proud of him. I know you are.....he figured out that I was following them. One day last week, after you left them, he surprised me by walking up to my truck and handing me a baggy full of cookies. He said he thought I might be hungry and he wanted to thank me for calling you to save them at the bank. The peanut butter cookies were great. I wish I could have stopped them from being taken.” The coughing started again and Cooper grabbed the lapel of Michael’s jacket. “Go NOW.” His hand slipped from its grip on Michael’s jacket and his eyes grew opaque as the life slipped out of them. Michael brushed his fingers over Cooper’s eyes closing them as he laid Cooper down on the floor as gently as he could.

He looked at the paper that Cooper had given him. He stood slowly and walked toward the door, on his way to save his son and Grace and perhaps to lay down his life for those he loved. On his way out the door, he pulled his cell phone out and dialed Section. He wanted Madeline to know where he was going and why.

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

“Michael, you will stay there until we can get a backup team to you, do you understand me?” Madeline spoke urgently into to phone she held clenched tightly into her hand. She looked up at Operations who stood with both hands splayed out flat on the glass surface of her desk. He grabbed the phone from Madeline and spoke harshly to Michael.

“I know what you are thinking Michael and I don’t like it. Wait for backup!” He angrily dropped the phone handset on Madeline’s desk. “He hung up on me! Wait ‘til I get my hands on him!” He stopped abruptly, wondering if he would get a chance to put his hands on Michael. The chances for that happening didn’t look good at the moment. The young fool, he thought, and then his flashing eyes softened. What if it were his son? He worried for Michael and understood his decision, he just didn’t agree with it.

“Where is the backup team now?” Operations asked Madeline.

“Michael’s team is on a transport right now heading for Texas. Walter is with them. The team will go in for Michael when they locate him. Walter is there to take Grace and Rene out of harm’s way and to relocate them without Michael’s knowledge. He will be completely ours as long as he knows we have his family tucked safely away.” Madeline smiled up at Operations. “We will have him under control again.”

“We will have him only if he survives what Red Cell has planned for him. Keep me informed,” he said as he turned and walked out the door.

Madeline leaned back in her chair and sighed. Michael, what are you doing, she thought, but she knew what he was doing. He was intent on sacrificing himself, if that is what it took to save the lives of Grace and Rene. She hoped that his team could reach him before he handed himself over. If not, then Michael would be on his own with Red Cell. If that happened, she despaired of ever seeing Michael again.

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

Michael drove along the country road, carefully following the directions on the piece of paper that a dying Cooper had pushed into his hand. His mind whirled with plans for freeing first Grace and Rene from Tillman, and as a last resort, he made plans or his own escape if that was even possible. But, first things first. Making sure that Grace and Rene were safe became his life’s goal and he hoped fervently that he could attain that life goal, and he knew his life would be forfeit if that was what it took.

He turned off the main road and followed the gravel drive that led up to an old farmhouse in a dense grove of trees. The house must have been a beautiful house at one time, but now it was crumbling in disrepair and overgrown with weeds. He switched off the engine and coasted down the slight incline of a drive. Michael stopped the car, pocketed the keys and got out of the car. He scanned the area, looking for some sign of those who had taken Grace and Rene, but he detected nothing and no one. He walked up to the house and entered the unlocked front door. As he walked as quietly as possible across the large foyer, he heard Rene’s voice.

“You didn’t have to hurt my Mom!” he was shouting, “you didn’t have to shoot her!”

Michael stopped and closed his eyes tightly. God, no, let Grace be okay, he thought furiously. He opened his eyes and continued across the hallway to the half-closed door from which he heard his son’s frantic voice, now joined by a voice that he thought must be Tillman.

“Listen, kid, she was hit with a tranq dart. She will be okay, she’ll have a whopper of a headache, but she will be just fine.” Tillman was trying to reassure Rene. Michael suddenly felt much better. Grace would be all right. She would be able to drive herself and Rene away from this place. He heard a soft step behind him and turned just in time to see a rifle butt rushing toward his forehead, and then there was nothing but pain and blackness.

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

Michael was dragged from the darkness by the urgent and terrified voice of his son, as Rene wiped a wet cloth across his forehead. “Daddy, wake up, please, Daddy!” Michael opened his eyes to find Rene bending over him, sobbing in relief and love to see Michael awake. “Daddy, I was so scared, but you’re here now to take Mom and me away from this place and away from the four dragons, aren’t you Daddy?” Michael saw hope in his son’s green eyes. How could he tell his son that he would not be leaving this place with him?

“Rene, where is your Mom?” Michael asked as he sat up, surprised to find himself unbound. He used this respite from bindings to take Rene in his arms and to make sure that his son was unharmed. “Where is Grace?” He asked again, looking around the room and seeing several men with automatic weapons pointed at him and his son. “Slow movements only, okay,” he said, holding his hands out to his sides and nodding his head and, in return, watching the men nod theirs in a tacit agreement among professionals.

“Mom is in the other room on the bed. She isn’t feeling so good. They shot her. But the head dragon said it was only to make her sleep. Daddy, you should have seen her! When the dragons broke into our house, she picked up my aluminum baseball bat and had knocked two of them in the head before any of them knew what was happening. Daddy, they fell down and didn’t get up again. Their friends said that she fractured their skulls.” Rene giggled as he looked up at the shocked expression on Michael’s face. His giggle stopped abruptly and he said solemnly, “that was when they shot her.”

Michael took several deep breaths, trying to calm the emotions bubbling inside him. He hugged Rene again and whispered to him, “Rene, everything’s going to be okay. As soon as your Mom wakes up, the two of you are going to leave this place and go somewhere safe. It won’t be long now.”

Rene looked up at Michael with fear in his shimmering green eyes. “But what about you, Daddy? Aren’t you going with us?”

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

“Can we go into the other room where Grace is?” Michael asked his guards.

“No tricks,” one said harshly. “You know the kid is the first one we will target.”

“No tricks,” Michael confirmed. “I won’t try anything while my son is here.”

Slowly, Michael rose from his position on the floor and taking Rene by the hand walked into the next room where Grace was laying on the bed.

Her red hair was tousled and she looked like she was sleeping peacefully, except for the bruise on the right side of her forehead. Rene climbed up on the bed beside her and brushed the hair away from her forehead.

“Mom hit her head when they shot her with that tranq thingy,” he said as he looked up at Michael. “She’ll be okay, won’t she?” He waited for Michael to reassure him.

“She”ll be okay, Rene. She has to drive the two of you out of here.”

“Daddy, I’m not going anywhere unless you go with me.” Michael smiled sadly at the strength and conviction in his son’s voice. “You are going with us. Aren’t you?”

Michael clamped his eyes shut and prayed for the strength to say the right words to Rene, to make him understand why he and Grace had to go and not look behind them. He felt a hand grasp and hold his and he opened his eyes to see Grace staring at him.

“I want to know the answer to that question as well, Michael,” she whispered. The dazed look in her eyes from the tranquilizer slowly dissipating until her eyes held his with a sharpness that demanded an answer.

Michael squeezed her hand and looked first at her and then settled his gaze on Rene.

“Rene, remember the story your Mom told you? About how the prince...” He cringed at the use of the word prince to describe Grace’s view of him. “About how the prince had to focus on the fight with the dragons?”

“Yes, Daddy, I remember,” Rene said in a small, scared voice. He crawled across the bed and climbed into Michael’s lap, then he snuggled against Michael’s chest with Michael’s arms going around him and holding him tightly. “But the prince always fought off the dragons and killed them. What does that have to do with you not going away with us?”

God, Michael thought, give me strength. He smiled, that was twice in the last few minutes that he had prayed to someone he didn’t think he believed in anymore. Maybe his belief was being tested. Maybe the belief was just hidden deep in his soul and was just waiting to be rekindled. His soul.....did it even exist anymore? Then he looked at Rene. Could someone souless have helped give life to this precious child? Maybe his prayers would be answered. Maybe.....

“Michael, we are not leaving you!” Grace’s voice interrupted his reverie.

“Yes, Grace, you are!” Michael said forcefully before regaining control of himself. “Grace, Rene, let me explain.” He took a deep breath before continuing. I have to make them understand, he told himself. I have to make them want to leave me. He sighed and turned again to the two people he loved above all others...with one exception.

“Remember the story of the Dragonslayer, Rene?” Rene slowly nodded, wary of where this conversation was going. Michael marveled at the maturity he saw in his young son’s eyes. Rene was almost eight now, but he seemed older somehow. He seemed to understand things that were far beyond his years and Michael was sad also that he and his profession had most likely caused Rene to act older than he was. His childhood was being stolen from him. “Well, just like the Dragonslayer, I have to be able to concentrate on the dragons to be able to defeat them. If the two of you are here, it will be hard for me to concentrate on fighting the bad guys who are coming here for me. They will use you to hurt and defeat me. I will be stronger and be able to fight better if I know you are safe.”

Michael looked from Rene to Grace and back to Rene. “Do you understand?”

Rene spoke first. “ Yes, Daddy, I understand, I just don’t want anything to happen to you. I want to know that you will come back to me and Mom.” His eyes filled with tears as he put his head against Michael’s chest. His tears felt hot as they soaked through Michael’s shirt and seared his skin.

Michael stared mutely at Grace for her support. “I understand also, Michael. What do you want us to do?”

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

The guards in the other room watched carefully as the little family drew together in a group hug. They allowed it because Tillman had told them to allow it. They each felt sorry for the little boy. When this was over, he would probably have lost his father. Not many survived Red Cell interrogations and they all knew that this Michael was slated for interrogation by the best that Red Cell had to offer. So they left the family alone, even though they all thought that a plan was being hatched in that tightly-knit huddle.

And they were right, we were hatching a plan, but it was still a plan that still separated Rene and I from Michael.

“Grace, it’s the best I can do for now. You have to get Rene away from here before the others arrive. I can withstand anything as long as I know the two of you are safe. These men who are coming would not hesitate to hurt or even kill the both of you in front of me if it would get them what they want.” Michael spoke brusquely and with all the honestly he could muster. At least that’s what I thought I saw in his eyes. He wanted to get us on the move as soon as possible. “You can help me by leaving now. My team is on the way here now and if you meet them on the road, you can give them the intel they will need to get me out of here.”

Michael looked at Rene and I and saw the fear and abject horror on our faces at the prospect of leaving him, so I tried to put his mind at ease.

“Okay, Michael, what do we do?” Rene swung his troubled gaze to my face, surprised and upset at my capitulation to Michael’s wishes. I looked at him and watched the tears run down his face one by one. My heart sank, but I reminded him of what Michael had said.

“We have to give your father fighting room, Rene. If we stay here, we weaken him and we don’t want to do that, do we? We don’t want to give his enemies ammunition against him, do we?” I saw his father’s steel come back to those young and innocent eyes.

He nodded. “We have to go, Mom, I know we have to go, but I still don’t want to, but I will if it will make Daddy stronger.” He looked up at Michael and we all hugged each other even tighter.

“Now, this is what I want you to do....” and Michael told us his plan.

************ We didn’t want to let go of each other, but in the end, we did. Time was short and Michael hurried us out of the room. As he moved with us to the door of the old farmhouse, one of the guards moved up behind him quickly and used the butt of his rifle to strike Michael sharply behind his right knee. The blow caused Michael’s leg to buckle and he fell heavily to his knees. “Stay right where you are. Don’t move!” The guard growled and he pulled a pair of sturdy-looking handcuffs from his back pocket. He had one of Michael’s hand cuffed and was reaching for the other when Tillman came into the room.

“What are you doing? I told you none of that until the boy was gone!” Tillman’s voice boomed through the room and the guard dropped Michael’s hands and stepped backwards to his former position. Rene took this opportunity to run back into Michael’s arms.

“Daddy! Did he hurt you?!” Rene asked as he looked from Michael to Tillman and back to Michael. “If you hurt my Daddy again, I will find a way and I will kill you.” Rene fairly shivered with anger and Tillman looked like he might really be afraid that Rene would make good on his threat.

“I’m all right, Rene.” Michael said as he drew Rene close, the handcuffs dangling from one wrist, and whispered in his ear. “You must go now. Say nothing else until you are in the car and are driving away. It will be better for me that way. Remember always that I love you. Now go with Grace.” Michael pushed Rene towards me and he put Rene’s hand in mine.

Michael remained on his knees, so that I had to bend to embrace him and tell him goodbye for now. “I love you, Grace. Keep Rene safe and don’t let him forget me.” His voice broke on that last sentence, and I looked into his eyes and promised him that I would keep Rene safe until Michael saw him again. I could stand it no longer, so I told Michael that I loved him and let him go. I turned and walked out the front door. Looking back one last time, I closed my eyes at the sight of the guard coming up once more behind Michael, pushing him roughly to his stomach on the floor and kneeling with one knee on Michael’s back as he snapped the remaining cuff around Michael’s hand, then standing and giving a swift and painful kick to Michael’s freshly healed ribs. I saw the pain reflected in his eyes just before he closed them and laid his head on the floor.

I pulled Rene hurriedly to the car, unwilling for him to see Michael in that position. Tillman was true to his word, and we drove away free, leaving Michael behind....

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

As soon as we were back on the main road, I put my foot on the gas pedal and we fairly flew down the country road. As we sped along the country road, I noticed a black helicopter flying past us and going toward the old farmhouse. I pressed the accelerator harder to put as much distance between Rene and I and the farmhouse as possible. We were following Michael’s orders. Speaking of which, I turned to Rene and told him to open the glove compartment. He did and found the small box that Michael had told us about. Rene opened the box and he found the 2 small silver disks. He peeled one off of its backing, then unbuckled his seat belt, got on his knees in the car seat and with his hand, he brushed the hair back from my right ear. He carefully pressed the small disk to the skin behind my ear. He did the same with the other disk, only this time he pressed it behind his own ear.

“Mom, why did Daddy pull his silver disk off and swallow it?”

“Rene, he did that so that the bad guys couldn’t take it away from him. The people that your Daddy works for can track him by using that disk. They can find him wherever the bad guys take him.” Remembering Michael’s instructions, I tapped the silver disk behind my ear twice and said cautiously, “Birkoff, do you hear me?”

A young and agitated voice spoke back, “Who is this and what are you doing on this channel?”

My name is Grace King and I just left Michael with some very bad people...” I said urgently.

“Grace? Are you all right? Is Rene with you? What about Michael?” I could hear the agitation in Madeline’s voice as she seemed to cut in on the young male voice. She sounded genuinely concerned about us. I began to tell her about the last five hours of our day.

“Grace, we have Michael’s signal and are tracking him. He’ll be all right. His team is headed toward you as we speak. You should see them in just a few minutes. They are driving a black Suburban like the one they used at the bank.” Madeline continued to feed us instructions as I drove. “Walter will take you some place safe, Grace. When you meet Michael’s team, Walter will transfer to your car and he will drive you to the naval air station in Ft. Worth. From there, he will take you to your new home. I had it prepared as a contingency in case we had to move you and Rene quickly.”

“Madeline, Rene and I are not going anywhere until we see Michael.” I told her bluntly. “Walter isn’t taking us anywhere until I say he takes us!”

“You tell her, Mom!” Rene laughed as I could fairly hear the steam rising at the other end of the communications line. I also heard a faint snort of laughter over the line. Michael had told us about Birkoff’s sense of humor, and I think I had just heard it. I wondered if anyone had ever talked to Madeline as I just had. Well, I told myself, she had better get used to it.

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

Rene continued giggling about the exchange I was having with Madeline. Suddenly, he stopped giggling and started pointing at the horizon formed by the crest of a hill and the blue Texas sky ahead of us.

“Look, Mom, it’s them! It’s Daddy’s team!” I looked where he pointed and saw a large black vehicle approaching us. The Suburban dropped from our view as the road followed the contour of the hilly landscape, but reappeared quickly on the road in front of us. I pulled over to the side of the road and whoever was driving the other vehicle pulled over as well. The doors of the Suburban opened and Michael’s team climbed out. Rene had his door open and was running over to the team before I could switch off the engine. I saw him greet Carson, a huge man with long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. I climbed out of the car, only to be swept up in Walter’s arms.

“Gracie, I have missed you so much!” A tight hug later and I found myself still trapped in Walter’s embrace and also surrounded by Carson, Nikita, Porter and the rest of Michael’s team, all asking questions at once.

Carson, who was holding Rene in his arms as if he was weightless, whistled shrilly and instantly, everyone quieted. “One question at a time, please,” he requested.

Nikita asked the first question. “How was Michael when you left him?” She looked deep into my eyes for news of the man I knew she cared for deeply.

“The last time I saw him, he was lying on the floor of a farmhouse about five miles from here handcuffed with about four men with guns watching him. There was another man there named Tillman, he is their leader. They were all waiting on someone they said was from something called Red Cell. They plan to sell Michael to this Red Cell. Tillman let us go. He only wanted Michael.” I watched the looks shift from one team member to the other as an unspoken conversation was held in my presence. “Also, I don’t know if this means anything, but I saw a big black helicopter pass us on its way towards the farmhouse where they have Michael. Do you think......?”

Before I could finish my thought, Carson had handed Rene over to Walter and the team hurriedly started back toward their transport. Nikita hugged me and whispered into my ear, “we’ll find him and we’ll bring him back to you and Rene. I promise!” This last was said fiercely and when she made to pull away from me, I held her hands tightly. She glanced down at my hands and just before she tugged them from my grasp, I looked into her cerulean blue eyes and said, “I’m holding you to that promise, Nikita. Bring him back safe.”

She smiled, nodded and climbed into the Suburban and they were gone in a spinning of wheels and a cloud of Texas dust. I began to believe that they would bring Michael back safely to us. At least I hoped they would.

Walter had put Rene down on the ground and was using one of his ever-present bandanas to wipe his forehead. Michael’s son was almost eight now and was becoming a sturdy, well-built smaller version of his father, and Walter was not as young, or as strong as he liked to believe. The sweat on his face glistened in the Texas heat.

“He’s growing so fast, Grace. How much does he weigh now?” I laughed and hooked my arm through his as we walked back to the car where Rene had already climbed in and was bouncing on the back seat. His pent-up anxiety for his father making itself known in a display of hyperactivity.

“More than you can handle, Walter, more than you can handle.” I smiled into his twinkling blue eyes and said abruptly, “ now what is this crap about you taking us to our new home?”

He looked surprised, but I saw a wariness creep into those faded blue eyes of his. “What are you talking about, Grace?” Walter had long ago lost the ability to fool me with his words.

“Walter, Rene and I are not going anywhere until we know that Michael is safe and out of danger. And nothing and no one is going to persuade or force us to do otherwise. Understand?” I gave him no time to phrase a rebuttal to what I had just told him. “Now come on and drive us someplace so we can get out of this heat!” I settled myself into the passenger seat of the car and waited for Walter to get over his shock. It took him a few minutes to compose himself, no doubt using the time to think how he was going to explain this turn of events to Madeline. In the mean time, I contented myself with reassuring a worried Rene that his father would be just fine. I only hoped that I was telling the truth about Michael. Little did I know that back at the farmhouse, Michael was laying on the floor nursing another set of bruised ribs as well as some rather nasty cuts and bruises.

***********

Rene and I were safe with Walter, but I was worried about Michael. The last sight that I had of him still haunted me. I wondered what was happening to him now......

As soon as he had been securely handcuffed by Tillman’s guard, Michael had put his head down on the floor to gather his strength. He had to make sure that Grace and Rene were away from the farmhouse safely. He didn’t trust Tillman and his goons.

When Michael felt the guard stand and remove his knee from Michael’s back, he rolled over and somehow lurched to his knees and then to his feet in one fluid movement that surprised the guard. Before the guard could raise his gun, Michael had delivered a kick to his mid-section that knocked the guard to the floor.

Michael sprinted to the door of the farmhouse just in time to see his rental car with Grace and Rene inside go speeding down the country road. Then, hands grabbed him roughly from behind and threw him back down onto the floor. The guard that Michael had knocked down was intent on avenging his loss of face at being bested by a man in handcuffs. The guard started kicking him and Michael tried desperately to curl himself into a ball to protect himself as much as possible, but protection was hard to achieve when his hands were handcuffed behind his back. As the guard continued his assault, Michael rolled to try to evade the kicks that bruised his newly healed ribs. As he tried to absorb the pain that the guard was pounding into him, Michael heard Tillman shouting at the guard, “Stop it!! Red Cell wants him healthy! Stop it now or I’ll kill you myself.”

The guard finally stopped kicking Michael, but not before he delivered one last kick that connected with Michael’s right temple. It was a kick that sent Michael spiraling down into a vast, black pit. Michael slid into the black pit with the comforting thought that Grace and Rene had gotten away safely. No one had followed them down their path to freedom. Now, perhaps he could somehow find his own path to freedom.

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

“Noooooo!!” Rene wailed, “I’m not going anywhere until I see my Daddy!!” He fought Walter’s repeated attempts to pick him up. Just when Walter thought he had a good grip on Rene, Rene fooled him and pulled another trick out of his tried and true bag of tricks that always worked for seven-year-olds. Rene suddenly adopted the posture of a boneless and very slippery eel and managed to wriggle out of Walter’s grasp. Rene ran into my waiting arms.

“Please, Mom, don’t let him take us away from Daddy! I don’t want to go!!”

“Now calm down, Rene. Walter’s just trying to do his job. Aren’t you, Walter?” I said soothingly as I lifted Rene and put him down in the seat next to me.

Walter had driven us back to the airbase in Fort Worth where the team’s transport aircraft was sitting on a sparsely traveled stretch of concrete. His plan had been to keep us safe inside the aircraft until the plane that Madeline had rerouted to Fort Worth could arrive. His mistake had been in telling us about the plan before the plane had arrived. The result had been Rene’s ear-splitting tantrum.

When Walter told us what he expected us to do, I sat serenely by and let Rene vent his feelings. Rene and I knew that we were not going any place without seeing Michael and knowing that he was all right. Rene had tried to control his anxiety throughout the whole of our kidnapping ordeal. He had maintained his control long past the point that I thought he could. He had been strong for his father. But Michael was not here now and suddenly, all of Rene’s pent-up frustrations exploded and poor Walter received the full fury of an enraged Rene.

Rene was quiet now, and exhausted from his acting out. He sat quietly with a frown on his handsome little face, while I linked my arm in Walter’s and drew him away from Rene. “Walter, you can understand the Rene wants to make sure his father is okay. Can’t you? Please let us stay until the team gets back, please?”

I put my arms around him and gave him a hug. I ran my hands up and down his back and I felt him sigh and relax in my embrace. On one of the trips down his back, my hands found what I was looking for. I stepped back and out of the circle of Walter’s arms and pointed Walter’s own gun at him. He looked surprised as he blinked quickly. “Gracie, what are you doing?”

“Walter, you know that I know how to use this.” I told him. “What we are going to do is stay right here and wait for Michael and his team to get back.” Rene let out a whoop and started jumping up and down in the seat.

“Mom! You are the greatest! How did you do that?? That was really sneaky. Uncle Walter never saw that coming!!” Rene slowed his jumping and finally stopped and looked at Walter and then at me. “Now, when does Daddy get here?”

I looked at Walter and he just shrugged. “I don’t know. We just have to wait for a report from the team.” He eyed the gun in my hand.

“Gracie, be careful with that thing. It has a modified trigger.”

“I’ll be careful. I’ve handled one like this before. It’s very much like the one I used at the bank. You know, like the one you designed for Michael. It has a nice weight.” I smiled at Walter. “Why don’t you sit down over there and make yourself comfortable. We might have a long wait.” I sat down next to Rene and he snuggled up beside me, closed his tired eyes and was fast asleep in a few seconds.

Walter watched him and tried to reconcile himself to the sleeping child beside me and the enraged child of a few minutes ago. He smiled.

“Michael does that, you know, he can to go sleep anytime, anywhere. I’ve seen him do that when no one else can sleep. He just takes a few deep breaths, closes his eyes, and, boom, he’s asleep.” Walter caught my gaze and said reassuringly, “he will be okay, Grace. His team will bring him back. Now, come on, you don’t need that gun. Why don’t you give it to me?” He extended his out-stretched hand towards me.

“Not on your life, Walter. I’ll give this gun to Michael and no one else!” I put my arm around Rene and stretched him out on the aircraft seat, with his head resting in my lap. “We wait.”

I wondered again how Michael was doing and how close Nikita and Michael’s team was to him at this moment.....

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

The black helicopter that Grace had seen overhead landed in a clearing beside a small lake that was a few hundred feet behind the trees surrounding the farmhouse. Three men emerged from the aircraft, crouching down and running until they were safe from the slowing rotor blades of the helicopter.

The tallest of the three men, obviously the leader, stood still as Tillman approached him. “Budrevich, I have what you want.”

Tillman turned his head and indicated an unconscious Michael, who had been carried to the clearing by two of Tillman’s men. They unceremoniously dropped him at Budrevich’s feet. “Do you have what I want?” Tillman looked at the briefcase the Budrevich held in his left hand. “Is that mine?”

“What’s wrong with my merchandise?” Budrevich asking, using his foot to nudge an unmoving Michael. “Why is he damaged?”

Tillman stammered an excuse and explained the Michael had attempted to escape and was subdued by his guards. He nervously shifted from one foot to the other.

“I should kill you for mishandling my purchase here.” He again kicked at Michael’s body, eliciting a moan of pain from his new acquisition. Budrevich tossed the briefcase to Tillman and told the two men with him to put Michael in the helicopter. Just as they bent to pick him up, one of Tillman’s men came running from the farmhouse, yelling at the top of his lungs. “A Section team is on the way. Look!!” He pointed toward the road and they could all see the black Suburban coming down the road. They watched as the vehicle left the road and drove straight at them across the clearing.

Tillman and his men started running back toward the farmhouse, firing their weapons as they ran. Automatic weapons fire from the Suburban raked over them and they all fell to the accuracy of Nikita, Carson and the others of Michael’s team.

The firefight with Tillman and his men bought some time for Budrevich and his two-man team. They had reached the helicopter and had dumped the handcuffed and unconscious Michael on the floor of the aircraft. Budrevich and his pilot climbed into the front seats of the helicopter, while the third man laid down a heavy line of fire from the Uzi he had picked up after he put Michael into the helicopter.

Michael’s team was pinned down, sheltering themselves behind the reinforced metal in the doors of the Suburban. They watched bitter disappointment as the helicopter started to rise into the sky.

Budrevich shouted above the noise of the engine to the man in the back of the helicopter. “Use the rocket launcher! Take out that Section team!!” The pilot held his upward movement at 50 feet to give the man in the back a steady platform from which to fire the rocket launcher.

On the ground, Nikita could see the man in the back of the helicopter bending and reaching for something in a box on the floor of the helicopter. She also saw Michael’s still form laying on the floor behind the man who she could now tell had a rocket launcher on his shoulder.

She yelled at the team members, “Get out of the truck. Take cover!!”

Even as she yelled, Carson was grabbing her around the waist and pulling her away from her position behind the open door of the Suburban. She glanced again at the helicopter and saw Michael move on the floor. He rolled over on to his back and raised both feet together and kicked out at the man with the rocket launcher. Just before the man pulled the trigger, Michael’s feet hit the man in the back of his thighs. His blow sent the man to his knees, causing him to discharge the rocket prematurely as Michael kicked out once more and knocked the man out of the door of the helicopter. The rocket landed harmlessly in the grove of trees well clear of Michael’s team.

In the helicopter, Budrevich cursed Michael and drew his gun, but Michael was on his feet and kicked out at Budrevich as he swung the gun to target Michael. The gun fired, but instead of the bullet hitting Michael, it hit the pilot in the side of the head. The force of Michael’s kick had forced Budrevich’s hand away from himself and toward the pilot.

The pilot fell forward and his body pushed the controls forward. The helicopter nosed down in a sickening dive. Budrevich immediately dropped his gun, pushed the pilot back and took hold of the controls and pulled them back. In the nose-dive, Michael had fallen forward and unable to stop his fall because of the handcuffs restraining his hands, struck his head on the bulkhead in the helicopter. He bounced back, still on his feet but unable to see because of the blood from the cut flowing into his eye.

As Budrevich pulled back on the controls, the nose of the helicopter raised up at another extreme angle. Michael attempted to stay on his feet and took a few steps back, trying to keep his balance, as his world tilted crazily.

On the ground, Nikita and the others watched in horror as Michael stepped back in the helicopter. They saw the blood on his face and in his eyes, hands bound behind his back. He took one more step back........into thin air.

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

When he felt only thin air and nothing else beneath this foot, Michael tried to stop what he knew would probably be a fatal fall. His attempt to regain his balance and stay in the wildly tilting helicopter failed. With his hands cuffed behind him, it was impossible for him to grab on to anything to stop his fall.

Nikita saw Michael struggling to stop himself from falling. She screamed his name and started running. Budrevich finally lost control of the helicopter and it spiraled downward to crash with a huge explosion in the forest behind the lake. The explosion came as an afterthought to the Section operatives who watched in horror as their team leader plunged downward. As one, they started running toward the area where they knew Michael would fall. Each one entertained the idea they somehow if they could get underneath him, they could break Michael’s fall.

As if in slow motion, Michael felt himself falling and he felt a lifetime of regret for all the things he would lose....Rene, Grace and Nikita. He thought he heard himself praying and that surprised him. But then, the time was gone and he prepared himself to die.

Nikita and the team member’s mad dash to break Michael’s fall was doomed. They watched hopelessly from the shore of the lake as Michael hit the water in the middle of the small lake. He entered the water hard, landing on his left shoulder. His team saw him go under immediately. Nikita and Carson started pulling off their boots and kevlar vests, even as they saw Michael surface, his mouth wide open gasping for air. They dove into the water and starting swimming to him as he gulped what air he could before sinking once again into the cool, blue water of the lake. Michael was no where in sight when they reached the place where they had last seen him.

Both started diving beneath the surface of the water in an attempt to find Michael. Finally, there was a whoop and a cheer from the shore as Carson surfaced with the limp form of Michael. He started swimming strongly for the shore, yelling at Nikita to follow him. She cried out when she saw that Carson had Michael and followed him to the edge of the lake. Several team members waded into the lake to help Carson and Nikita pull Michael up on to the bank.

“He’s not breathing!” Nikita shouted breathlessly as she bent over Michael. Henley, the youngest member of the team, was busy unlocking the handcuffs with a key he had found on the body of one of Tillman’s men. As he freed one hand from the cuffs, he gently rolled Michael onto his back and, in tandem with Nikita, started CPR. He started the chest compressions as Nikita cleared Michael’s airway, wiped blood from his face and cupped her mouth over his and blew air into his lungs.

For an agonizing three minutes, they worked on Michael. Finally, Michael’s chest spasmed and he began to cough, water spewing out of his mouth with each cough. Henley turned Michael on his side to allow his coughing to push the water out of his lungs.

Nikita sat back on the ground exhausted and distraught. Michael was breathing on his own, but he was still unconscious. Porter, he team’s medic, pushed his way through to Michael and slipped a backboard under him as Henley rolled Michael onto his back on the backboard. Porter pulled an oxygen mask and a portable bottle of oxygen from his medical kit. Soon, with the mask over Michael’s nose and mouth and the valve turned to full oxygen, Porter began his examination of Michael. He wiped away the blood from Michael’s face and bandaged the cut over his right eye.

He’s going to need stitches to close that cut,” he said to himself as he ran his fingers over Michael’s head, checking for more injuries.

“Another lump, probably has a concussion, maybe even a hairline fracture of the skull.” His fingers continued their examination down Michael’s neck and shoulders. He stopped when he felt the unnatural contours in Michael’s shoulder and arm which elicited and moan from his still unconscious patient. “Hmmmm, dislocated shoulder,” Porter looked up and into Carson’s eyes.

“You’re going to have to help me. I’ve got to fix this now, before the joint starts go swell. You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” he asked. Carson nodded and leaned forward to help Porter manipulate Michael’s shoulder and arm. With a few minutes, Porter felt and heard the arm bone slide back into place in the socket. “Good thing he was out for that. It would have hurt like a son-of-a-bitch!” Porter looked up and smiled, but quickly saw that no one else on the team was in a smiling mood. He wiped the smile off of his lips and continued his examination.

When Porter was through, he had put a cervical collar on Michael and had strapped his head to the back board as well as the rest of his body. He was fairly certain that Michael had several broken ribs, a broken arm and some internal injuries, but he was mostly concerned about the head injury. Michael was still unconscious and all efforts to wake him had failed.

Two of Michael’s team bent and picked up the backboard and started toward the Suburban. Nikita had taken a hold on Michael’s hand and stayed with him.

“Carson,” she called to the big man with the long blond ponytail, “Call the plane, tell them we are on our way. I want the transport ready to take off as soon as we get there!”

“Yes, Sir,” Carson responded, deferring to Nikita, who had been accepted as a temporary replacement as team leader by the rest of Michael’s team.

As Nikita settled herself beside Michael inside of the Suburban, she wondered what she would say to Grace. She had promised Grace she would bring Michael back safe. She looked over at Michael and felt a tear run down her cheek.

“Wake up, Michael, please wake up.” I can’t lose you now....

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

The black Suburban raced along the narrow country road. Fortunately, there were no county sheriff’s deputies in the vicinity to give chase to the speeding vehicle.

Inside, Nikita still held Michael’s hand and the team members looked anxiously at each other and then glanced at their fallen leader. Each member felt a certain sense of pride at being on Michael’s team and each had, uncharacteristically for them, sent up a prayer that he would survive his current ordeal. Carson, who had been on Michael’s team longer than any of the others, had finally had enough of the gloom and doom that seemed to permeate the inside of the Suburban. “Michael will be okay, he’s not going to let a small thing like falling out of a helicopter get him down for too long. Don’t you all know that he is indestructible?”

Several team members laughed and they started telling stories about their own experiences with Michael, about stories that they had heard from others who had worked with Michael. The whole atmosphere seemed to change from one of apprehension to one of hopeful concern. Nikita listened to the stories they had to tell and watched Michael’s face for any sign of consciousness. He had been out too long, she knew. She looked up at Porter who was checking Michael’s vital signs. Her unasked questions clearly stated in her eyes. Porter looked at her and said softly, “He’s stable. If we can get him to Medical soon, I think he will be okay.”

Nikita smiled and called to Carson. “You heard the man! Call transport and tell them to rev up the engines, we will be at the base in 15 minutes.” Carson did as he was told.

“Nikita, Walter says all is in readiness. They are ready to take off as soon as we get there. It’s a three hour flight home.” Carson let out a sigh of relief.

“Wait a minute! Did you say Walter? He is supposed to be escorting Grace and Rene to their new home. What is he doing on the transport?” Nikita asked.

“He said he was held up. It seems as though Grace told him she and Rene were staying put until they knew Michael was safe. As we speak, she is holding Walter’s gun on him and waiting for our arrival.” He smiled, the mental image of Grace getting the better of Walter, their weapons master, a sight he would have liked to see.

Nikita smiled also, but for another reason. She bent low over Michael, gently whispering in his ear, “did you hear that, Michael, Rene and Grace are waiting for you. You aren’t going to disappoint them and leave us, are you? You can’t leave, you know that, don’t you? We would never forgive you. So fight, fight, dammit! You can’t disappoint those of us who love you!” She kissed his cheek and brushed the hair back from his face. There was a slight tremor in his features as if he was trying to make some response to her demand, but his eyes remained closed and he made no further movement. Nikita settled back to wait, his hand still held tightly in her own as she thought about how Grace and Rene would take this latest attack on their family.

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

Walter jumped when the com-unit beeped. “I have to answer that. It might be about Michael.” Grace gestured at him to answer by pointing his gun at the com-unit.

“Go ahead,” I said, “and find out if Michael is all right.”

As soon as Walter answered, I knew the news was not good. I could see the shock and concern in Walter’s face as he spoke into the com-unit.

“Carson,” he said in a tense voice, “how’s Michael?” I saw the worry lines on Walter’s forehead deepen and I felt a bit faint, and so I took a deep breath to steady myself. Walter and Carson spoke for a few more minutes and I turned my gaze away from them and watched Rene sleep on peacefully. When he woke, I would have to tell him about his father. I waited for Walter and Carson to finish, and told myself that I could take whatever the news was. Just let him be alive, I thought, I can take anything else, but just let Michael be alive!

I held my breath and waited for him to finish. I sat in my seat, Walter’s gun in one hand and with my other hand, I combed my fingers through Rene’s black hair. I was trying to think of a way to tell Rene about his father. In my heart, I knew Michael would be all right. He would survive his injuries. He had before and he would this time, I thought. He had to, for Rene’s sake.

Walter finished speaking to Carson and turned to me.

“I have to leave for a few minutes, Grace. I am going to borrow a doctor from our military friends here. The team will be here in thirty minutes. Hold down the fort while I am gone, okay?” He turned to head for the exit.

“Walter, wait,” I said quietly. “I have to prepare Rene. What did Carson say about Michael’s condition?”

He came over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Grace, there’s no easy way to say this. Red Cell already had him in their helicopter when the team arrived. They took off and was about to fire a rocket when Nikita saw Michael kick out at the man with the rocket launcher. It was enough to spoil his aim and knock him out of the helicopter. Then, Michael somehow caused the pilot to lose control of the helicopter. It crashed.” Walter saw the horror in my face, and gripped my shoulders tightly. “Michael wasn’t in the helicopter when it crashed.”

“Wasn’t in it.....Walter, I don’t understand!” I searched his faded blue eyes for an answer.

“He...he...fell out of the helicopter, Grace. He fell out, but landed in a small lake. The team was able to revive him, but he’s unconscious. They are on the way here now. I have to go find a doctor.” He let go of my shoulders and I slumped back in my seat.

“Walter, how is he? I need to know!” I grabbed his hand to stop him from turning away from me. “How badly injured is he?”

Walter stared hard into my eyes and let me have the information with no holds barred. “He had a dislocated shoulder that has been reset, a broken arm, broken ribs, and probably a concussion. Porter thinks he has internal injuries as well. Can I go now?” He pulled his hand from my grasp and headed for the door. “I’ll be right back!” and he was gone.

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

Rene stirred in his sleep as Walter left the plane, his boots clanging on the metal deck of the rear ramp of the transport plane. He opened his eyes and stared sleepily up at me. “Is Daddy here yet?” Rene sat up and looked around expectantly. “Where is he?”

“No, baby, he’s not here, yet.” I pulled Rene into my lap and hugged him. “Rene, we have to talk about your Daddy. He will be here soon.” Rene smiled and then frowned because he felt the tension in my body as I held him against me.

“Mom, tell me. What’s wrong. Is my Daddy hurt? Tell me!” Tears started collecting in his eyes and I could feel them forming in my own eyes as well. As a lone tear rolled down his cheek, I started to tell him what had happened after we left Michael at the farmhouse. The lone tear was soon followed by many others.

Walter soon returned with a young Navy captain in tow. The captain wore the white coat of a doctor with a name tag that proclaimed him as Dr. Williams, Internist and Surgeon. Walter was telling the doctor that he would be returned to Fort Worth as soon as the transport landed at its destination, and that the doctor should keep in mind that this was a top secret, highly classified operation. He was not allowed to speak of anything he saw or heard while in attendance on his patient. Things would not go well for him or his career if any information about this matter was leaked.

“I understand security and classified operations and you can count on my silence. Now, where’s my patient?” Dr. Williams set his medical bag down on one of the seats. “And where is this field hospital you told me about?” he looked around impatiently.

“Cool your heels, Doc,” Walter told him. “ Your patient is on the way. And follow me. I’ll show you your hospital.” Dr. Williams followed Walter toward the front of the plane. Neither of them paid Rene and me any attention, so focused on their task were they.

Rene reached up and touched my face, wiping at the tear tracks. “Is that the doctor who’s going to make Daddy better?”

“Yes, Rene, that’s him. And your Daddy will be here very soon.” I squeezed his hand. “I’m just really worried about Michael right now.”

He smiled at me and said, “It’s okay, Mom. Daddy will be okay. He’s the Dragonslayer. He indestructible, isn’t he?”

“I hope so, Rene, I hope so.” The com-unit that Walter had used earlier began to beep. Walter left the doctor and hurried back to the communications array. He spoke a few words and then waited for Carson to answer. I heard him say, “We’re ready. You are cleared through the main gate all the way to the flight line. Drive right up the ramp, secure the Suburban, unload Michael, and we will be in the air. Okay, I’ll see you in fifteen.” He turned to me. “You heard?” I nodded.

“Then give me my gun and sit down. You and Rene are about to meet Section One. I just hope you don’t regret your decision.” He pulled the gun from my hand and turned back to the com-unit. “Birkoff, get me Madeline. I have news for her and I don’t think she’s going to like it.”

***********

“Madeline,” Walter groused, “You are the one who started this four years ago when you stole Rene away from Michael and then made that deal with Grace. If you take Rene away again, you’ll lose Michael. My advice to you is to look at the facts and deal with it.” Walter pulled the com-link from his ear and threw it down on the communications table. “Well, I put my foot in the middle of this one.” He whispered to no one in particular, but I heard him just the same.

“Walter, thank you. And you are right about Michael. I don’t think he would last long without his relationship with Rene.” And I wouldn’t last long without the both of them, I told myself silently. The two of them, and Rene especially were my reason for being, and I wouldn’t want to go on without them.

Walter sniffed and turned around to face me. “I know where the bones are buried in Section, Gracie, and no one is going to come between Rene and Michael. I promise you that!” He said forcefully. Behind him, the com-unit beeped again. “Aw, hell! I hope it’s not her again.” He put the com-link back in his ear. I watched as he let out an audible sigh, and spoke, “Carson, how long? ....Good.....We’ll be ready, just drive up the back ramp and we will be ready to fly. How’s......yeah, the Doc is here and waiting. Gotcha.....Out!”

“Grace, get Rene and keep the both of you in your seats. They’ll be here in a few minutes. I’ve got some things to take care of and I don’t want either of you getting in the way. Just stay in your seats! Understand?” He spoke to me gruffly and I knew he was just as worried as I was for Michael, but still, his brusque manner caused tears to sting in my eyes. I quickly walked over to Rene to explain to him what was going to happen in the next few minutes. Walter hurried forward in the transport to alert both Dr. Williams and the pilots of the eminent arrival of the team and its precious cargo, at least the cargo was precious to Rene and I. I knew also that the cargo was precious to one of the team members as well.

Rene was excited and worried all at once. He stood in his seat and watched as Walter hurried around the plane checking and rechecking everything in sight. Suddenly, the entire plane shook as one by one the engines started up. Rene yelled above the roar of the engines, “Daddy’s coming, Daddy’s coming.” As gently as I could, I pulled Rene into my arms and started talking to him, giving him the instructions that Walter had given me. He listened wide-eyed, asking a question, here and there, accepting the fact that we would have to let the doctor be the first one to see Michael.

When the team arrived, everything started happening at once. The big, black Suburban roared up the ramp several airmen who had been waiting, locked the wheels to the metal deck of the plane. That done, they quickly exited down the ramp, just before the huge back door which had been the ramp started closing. I held Rene tightly as several team members got out and ran to the back of the truck and opened the back doors. As one, they carefully pulled out the backboard to which Michael was strapped. The only glimpse that Rene and I had of him was a fleeting glance of a pale face framed by curly dark hair, a big white cervical collar and a piece of sturdy webbing that held his head to the backboard. Rene against stood in his seat to watch as Michael’s team carried him forward to the hospital set up near the front of the plane.

Rene started to jump down out of his seat, but I stopped him and held him in my lap. “Not now, Rene. Let the doctor help your Daddy first. Remember what Uncle Walter said.”

I knew his little heart was breaking, but Michael was in good hands and we would know soon how he was.

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

The minutes dragged on. And we waited. In the field hospital in the front of the big transport aircraft, Dr. Williams continued his examination of Michael, commenting on the injuries and asking questions of Porter and Nikita, who had stubbornly refused to leave Michael’s side.

“He fell out of a helicopter?” he asked. “ Some of these injuries didn’t come from a fall, he was beaten, probably kicked. That’s what most of this bruising and the internal bleeding is from.”

“Grace told us that she saw them kick Michael after they handcuffed him, but she only saw them kick him once.” Nikita volunteered, reaching out to touch Michael’s face and push a curl back behind his ear. She was glad that he was letting his hair grow again after it had been cut short during his last medical emergency. Had it only been a little over three weeks ago? She smiled and decided that when he awoke, she would tell him he was going to have to be more careful.

“I’d say he was kicked 10 or 12 times, judging from the number of bruises on his chest and back, as well as this one on his right temple. This concussion was complicated by this blow over his eye.” Dr. Williams peeled the bandage from the cut over Michael’s right eye. “A few stitches and he won’t even have much of a scar. I just wish he would wake-up. It’s not good that he has been out so long.” The doctor frowned again and looked up at Porter. “How good are you as a surgical assistant.?”

Porter stared back at Dr. Williams. “I’ve done my share of surgical procedures. I was a surgical nurse before I was recruited for this outfit.”

“Good, good,” said the Navy doctor, “You’re about to add one more to the list. This is what I want you to do. And young lady, this time you will leave my operating theater. Understand?” He gave Nikita a hard stare and she brought Michael’s hand to her lips and placed it carefully on the gurney beside him as she reluctantly stepped away from Michael.

“And the same goes for the rest of you. Out of my operating room! Now!” The members of Michael’s team followed behind Nikita quietly as the doctor and Porter got to work.

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

I saw them all walking toward Rene and I, a worried look on each face. I stood and suddenly found Nikita in my arms. “Oh, Grace, I am so scared for him. The doctor is preparing him for surgery to stop the internal bleeding.”

“Shhhh, Nikita, we both know he’s going to be okay, don’t we? Rene says he is indestructible, and he is, isn’t he. He has to be, doesn’t he? We looked into each other’s eyes and found the strength to endure the next few hours. We sat down next to each other and each of us held the others hands and hoped, and prayed.

Rene had managed to slip by me while I was talking to Nikita. He thought that he was slipping by unnoticed by everyone, until Carson scooped him up and asked him where he was going. “I’m going to see my Daddy, that’s where I’m going. Let go of me!” He tried the slippery eel act with Carson, but it didn’t work. Carson was a lot bigger and a lot stronger than Walter and Rene stayed trapped in Carson’s arms. His wriggling soon stopped when he realized that he wasn’t going anywhere. “Rene, as soon as the doctor makes your Daddy better, I’ll be the first one to take you to see him, but for now we have to wait. Okay?”

Rene relented and calmed in Carson’s embrace. “Okay,” he said, “but I get to be the first to see him. Promise?”

Carson smiled at Rene, “Promise. Now come on and let me tell you how your Daddy brought down a flying dragon.” I was glad that Carson was taking charge of Rene, because I suddenly felt exhausted and drained of all energy. I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes, feeling safe and comforted by the hand of the woman my Michael loved sitting next to me.

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

It was over. I felt Nikita squeeze my hand and I awoke, startled to see Dr. Williams standing in front of me. “Where’s Rene?” I said quickly, and was relieved to see Carson coming towards me with a sleeping Rene cuddled in his arms.

“Doctor?” Nikita and I both said at the same time. “How is he?” I continued.

“If we can get him to wake up, I think he will be just fine. With the anesthetic from the surgery still sedating him, it should be a few hours before we can expect him to awaken. When it wears off, I would like to see those he cares about and who cared about him to be with him. I want you to talk to him, touch him, tell him how much you need him to be awake again. Can you do that?” The enthusiastic nodding of several heads greeted Dr. Williams’ words. He grinned. “Well, judging by the number of people who care about him, I would say Michael is a very lucky man.” We all laughed, and assured him that Michael was. We all cared about him.

The laughter awakened Rene. “Is my Daddy okay? Is that why everybody is happy?” He looked at each one of us and then at the doctor. “Can I see him now?”

“Yes, Rene, you can see him.” Dr. Williams said, an infectious grin lighting up his serious face. Carson turned and carried Rene in to see his father, again explaining to Rene was he could expect when he saw Michael. I sighed, feeling wistfully that Carson would have made a great father, and feeling very lucky that he had taken such a liking to Rene. I got up and followed Rene and Carson to the front of the plane. Nikita, her hand still in mine, came too.

As I passed Walter, I heard him talking to Dr. Williams and I stopped to add my comments. Nikita looked back at me, smiled and let go of my hand. She continued on to see Michael.

“Thank you for saving Michael’s life. You have made my son so happy. He was very scared about his father.” Dr. Williams grinned again and accepted my gratitude.

“I’m glad I could help. It’s what I do.” he glanced back at Walter. “And now, how about my ride home?” He and Walter walked away from me, so I continued my walk to the front of the plane to where Rene, Carson, Nikita and the rest of Michael’s team had gathered.

Michael lay pale and still on the small bed that was snugged into the corner of the field hospital. His face looked peaceful and I was gratified that even as we watched, the color seemed to be making its way back to his features. His face pinked up and each of us looked at the others, noticing the big goofy smiles that showed how glad we were to see this improvement. I searched Michael’s countenance and saw a huge bruise on his right temple, as well as a tow of tiny stitches over his right eye, which was swollen. His broken arm had been set and was encased in a cast and was wrapped tight against his chest to immobilize it because it was the same arm that had been dislocated from his shoulder. Porter told us that they had found that his collarbone had also been broken, but that the doctor had told him that everything was back in place and that he didn’t think there was any nerve damage. We all sighed in relief at the news. The internal bleeding had been stopped and the broken ribs had been wrapped.

Michael was on the mend, if only he would wake up.

Nikita reached out and, with her fingers combed the hair off of his forehead, careful not to touch the newly stitched 3-inch cut above his eye. He looked so young, I thought, so vulnerable. By brushing back his hair, Nikita had bared his face so that we could see every feature and expression. Even though we knew it was too early, we hoped as one that we would see a flicker of consciousness returning, but Michael slept on.

Carson had set Rene down on the side of Michael’s bed and Rene touched his father’s cheek. “Wake up, Daddy. We’re all here for you.” There were no tears this time, as he waited for the Dragonslayer to return to him.

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

But the Dragonslayer didn’t return.

Rene continued to sit quietly beside Michael, holding his hand and watched hopefully for any sign that he might be awakening. With Carson close by, watching over Rene as well as Michael, I had time to contemplate what the next few hours held for us. Rene and I were about to be taken into the bowels of Michael’s workplace, the dreaded Section One. After my blatant display of “I’m not going, and you can’t make me,” which ended it my relieving Walter of his gun, he told me what to expect during our entry into Section. Rene and I would both be blindfolded so that the location of Section would remain a mystery to us. That was fine with me as long as we were not separated from Michael.

I knew that I had made the right decision about my insistence on staying with Michael come hell or high water. Walter, once he had gotten over his ire about me stealing his gun, had reassured me that Rene and I would safe. He said he knew where the bones were buried, which led me to believe that Walter would make sure that Rene and I would once more see the light of day after our sojourn in the underground world that Michael knew as Section. Whatever the cost, I knew it was important for Rene to be with his father now.

My reverie was broken by the feel of Walter’s arm around my shoulder.

“Gracie, we are about to land. Take Rene back and make sure your seat belts are fastened. We will be touching down in fifteen minutes.”

Before I could reach for Rene, Carson had scooped him up off Michael’s bed, and was carrying him back to the seating area. Rene started to resist, but again, Carson whispered to him as Rene gazed over Carson’s shoulder, his eyes seeking Michael’s still form. After bending to kiss Michael’s forehead, I got up to follow Carson and Rene. Looking around, I saw that everyone, with the exception of Nikita had already moved back to belt themselves into their seats. She looked stubbornly at Walter, who was extending his hand to her.

“I’m staying right here with Michael,” she said fiercely, taking Rene’s spot on the bed beside her love. She took Michael’s hand and held it in both of hers. I smiled at her, pulling Walter away and putting my hand over his mouth as he opened it to tell his Sugar that Porter could take care of Michael during the landing.

I thought happily to myself that the Dragonslayer had found himself a worthy mate in Nikita.

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

Nikita stayed with Michael during the smooth landing of the huge transport plane.

I saw her briefly when I followed Carson, with Rene still snuggled in his arms, to the hospital area where Porter and Dr. Williams were preparing Michael for the journey to Section One. Nikita came over to me, her eyes seldom leaving Michael, and hugged me.

“Are you sure you want to do this, Grace? People have been known to enter Section and never leave.” She pulled her eyes away from Michael and looked long and hard at me. ”Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Nikita. Rene needs to be with his father. And I would do anything for Michael, anything!” I watched as she took a black cloth from Walter. I saw Carson reach for a similar cloth handed to him by Walter also. He held Rene with one arm and was explaining about the hood that he held in his other hand. Rene smiled eagerly and nodded his hand. It was all a special game that he and Carson were playing.

Carson carried Rene over to Michael and bent down so that Rene could place a kiss on Michael’s cheek.

“I’ll see you in a little while, Daddy. Sleep well.” Rene put his arm around Carson’s neck and hugged him. “I’m ready.”

I shuddered when I saw Carson drape the hood over Rene’s head as he continued to talk to him, even as they headed back to the Suburban to begin the journey back to Section. I walked over to Michael and touched his cheek, “The next time I see you, I hope you’re awake.” I turned back to Nikita, “I’m ready, too.”

Nikita raised the opaque material over my head and let it fall down to cover my face. My world was suddenly shrouded in blackness.

In my new world of darkness, hearing and touch became everything.

Walter took my arm and lead me to the back of the plane. He helped me into the Suburban and tightened the seat belt across my lap. I could hear the team loading Michael into the back on a stretcher. There was a bump against the back of the seat where I was sitting. Rene whimpered, and I instinctually turned to my left and found I was sitting next to Carson. “It’s okay, Rene.” Carson and I said at the same time. We laughed, but Rene did not.

“I want to ride next to my Daddy,” Rene said softly. “Please!” His voice held a plaintive note that touched me to the core of my being. “Walter, please!” I found and squeezed Walter’s hand, and heard Nikita’s voice from behind me, where she had stationed herself with Michael.

“Carson,” she said, “Bring him back here. He can sit in my lap and hold Michael’s hand.”

I felt Carson move out of the Suburban with Rene. Soon, I heard a rustle of material and heard Rene giggle as he settled in Nikita’s lap.

“Thanks, Nikita,” he said, “now where is my Daddy’s hand?” Nikita guided Rene’s hand home to Michael’s hand. Carson climbed back in beside me, closed the door and I felt the big vehicle start to back down the rear ramp of the transport plane.

I had a sudden thought. “Walter, what about Dr. Williams? Where is he?”

“He’s on his way back to Fort Worth as we speak, Gracie. He’s okay.”

“Good,” I said, “Good. I wanted him safe. He saved Michael’s life. Are Section doctors any good, Walter?

“They’re the best we can recruit, Gracie. Michael will be in good hands within the hour. I promise.” I sighed and settled back against the seat. Time will tell, I thought and started to prepare myself with my first meeting with Madeline since she had gifted me with my most precious possession all those months ago. Rene.....

***********

We had arrived.

With the hood still in place over my head, blocking sight but not sound, I felt and heard the difference in air pressure as we entered a tunnel, passed over a grate of some kind and stopped. There was a sudden sinking feeling in my stomach as what must have been a huge elevator whisked us and the Suburban we were in down, down, down.

Rene giggled again, the feeling of the elevator’s swift descent exciting him. Nikita must have hugged him to her, because I heard him say, “I’m not scared, and I’m not a baby, you don’t have to hug me so tight!”

Finally, the elevator stopped and I heard a whoosh as the doors opened. The Suburban moved forward a short way and stopped again. Carson, on my left got out and I heard him open the back doors of the black vehicle and say something to Rene.

“I’m okay, Carson and so is my Daddy. He’s still asleep though.” I felt a bounce of the vehicle as Nikita and Rene got out of the Suburban. Walter, in his turn, climbed out and carefully helped me out as well. There was a metallic scrape and snap as Michael’s team pulled the stretcher out of the back of the Suburban and snapped the wheeled legs into place. As one, we started the short walk into Section. Still blinded by the hood, I held onto Walter’s hand as he guided me forward.

“Mom?” Rene called. “Where are you?”

“Here, Rene,” I said as I felt Carson’s strong hand guide me to Rene so I could touch him and let him know that we were still okay. The was another whoosh of air as we entered what Walter told me was an airlock. We entered the airlock and the door behind us slammed shut. I felt the air pressure change again and then another door opened in front of us with a metallic clang.

We entered Section One and I could feel rather than see Michael’s team draw closer around Rene, Michael and me. My first steps into Section made me appreciate the camaraderie and closeness that his team extended to Rene and me.

Quite suddenly, a voice spoke authoritatively to us. It came from behind and above us. “Walter, take Grace and Rene to their quarters on Level 5.” The voice was commanding and I knew it well. Walter hesitated slightly and then moved to steer me away from the group.

Pulling my arm away from Walter, I turned toward the voice and in the same instant, I jerked the hood from over my head and replied to the voice.

“Rene and I are going with Michael. I’ll talk to you later!” I looked up and saw Madeline on a catwalk above us. She blinked rapidly a few times, but remained silent.

I felt a ripple of shock move through those around me and Walter said to me quietly, “Good God, Gracie!. What did you just do?” I felt a ripple of shock run through those around me and then I calmly turned to follow Michael’s stretcher as it was pulled along by people who I assumed were medical personnel. “I just kept my family together, Walter, that’s all.” A soft chuckle came from the other side of Michael’s stretcher and I saw Nikita cover her mouth to keep the chuckle from exploding loudly.

Rene, not one to be left out of anything, reached up and pulled off his own hood. Hanging over Carson’s shoulder, he stared upward at Madeline and pointed at her.

“Mom!” he said in a loud voice that brought outright laughter from Michael’s team. “Look! It’s the evil queen!!”

“Shhhhh, Rene, let’s not tempt fate too much.” I put my fingers over his mouth and gave him what he called a “Mommy look” while at the same time, smiling broadly at him. “Now, let’s go make sure your Daddy is settled into his room comfortably.” And so we continued to follow Michael to Section’s medical facility.

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

Michael’s team helped the nurses move him into a hospital bed in an alcove near the back of the Section infirmary. Rene and I watched as they settled him and immediately started a series of IVs and then attached several monitors to his body. I flinched when they inserted the IV needles into the back of his right hand, but Michael never moved.

Soon, a nurse approached our small group and told us we had to leave, that there were other patients who needed their care. She told us we were a distraction and she wanted us gone. Nobody moved until a young man appeared at the door to Medical and announced that Operations and Madeline wanted the team to debrief. He said this quietly while pointedly gazing past our small group to get a look at Michael.

“Is he going to be okay?” the young man identified to me as Birkoff said.

“Sure, he’s going to be okay. He just needs his rest. Come on, guys. Let’s go debrief. We can check on Michael later.” Carson said, as he put Rene down on the side of Michael’s bed. “I’ll be back after while. You’ll be all right here with your Daddy. Okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be okay. I want to be here when Daddy wakes up. It’s almost time for him to wake up, isn’t it?” He looked at the faces surrounding his father’s bed as if addressing the question to each one.

Everyone smiled at Rene and nodded. Then, one by one, Michael’s team reached out to touch Michael and quietly left the room to go and debrief.

Nikita stepped forward and brushed a kiss against Michael’s forehead and then leaned over to kiss Rene on the cheek. He ducked his head and giggled. “And I’ll be back soon, too.” She looked into Rene’s green eyes, smiled wistfully and told him to take care of his Daddy until she returned.

“You know I will, Nikita.” He promised her. Soon, only Walter, Rene and I were left in the room.

“Gracie, I have to go to, but as soon as I am finished with Ops and Madeline, I will be back!” He hugged me and ruffled Rene’s hair and was gone. Rene and I were left alone with Michael.

Rene picked up his father’s hand and started talking to him. Telling him all about what had happened since the day only a week ago when Michael had to leave us to return to Section. One of the nurses brought me a chair and I sat down, contentedly listening to Rene’s voice as he whispered to his father, and willed him to awaken.

I must have fallen asleep, because I was jolted awake at hearing Rene’s agitated voice. “Stop! What are you doing to my Daddy? You’re hurting him. Stop! MOM!!” I jumped to my feet to find one of the nurses struggling with Rene as a doctor was attempting to draw blood from Michael’s arm. Pushing the nurse away, I grabbed Rene’s hands to try and subdue him.

“Rene. Calm down. The doctor is not hurting your Daddy. He just needs to take some blood so he can do some tests. He only wants to help your Daddy. Right, Doctor?” The doctor turned to Rene and tried to reassure him.

“Rene, I’ve known your father for a long time and I just want to help him and make him better. I need the blood for testing, just like your Mom said. Okay?”

Rene stopped struggling and looked at the doctor. “You’re not hurting him?” The doctor shook his head and finished drawing the blood. Laying the vials of blood on a tray, he proceeded to examine Michael and nodded as he checked the bandages that were wrapped around Michael.

“Well, everything seems fine. We will know more when he wakes up. He hasn’t awakened at all since his injuries?” I shook my head. He tried to conceal his look of concern, but I saw the look flash across his face. “Keep talking to him and get anyone who comes to visit to do the same. I’ll be back soon to check on him.” The doctor left the room and once more Rene and I started to talk to Michael.

Soon, Rene began blinking his eyes sleepily and began to nod off. He had had a long day and was beginning to run out of energy. When one of the nurses came to check Michael’s vital signs, I asked her if there was a place where Rene could lay down. She glanced down at him curled up beside Michael and said, “Just a minute.” When she returned, she was carrying what looked like a folded up army cot. She put it down on the floor, unfolded it, and was soon covering it with sheets, a blanket and a pillow. I carefully picked Rene up, disentangled his fingers from Michael’s and laid him on the cot, stretching out his long legs and settling him more comfortably. There was a curtain hanging from a track attached to the ceiling and I pulled this around Rene's cot to shield him from the activity going on in the rest of the medical facility.

I turned back to Michael and saw him staring at me. I ran over and called his name, but there was no recognition in his gaze. Soon, he closed his eyes and once more lay still. I called a nurse over and told her what had happened. She smiled, patted my hand and said, “It looks like he is on his way back. Keep talking to him.”

***********

Rene was sleeping peacefully when Walter came back to Michael’s room. He told me that Nikita, Carson and the others had been sent on a mission and would not be back for a few hours.

“And you, young lady, need to come with me and get something to eat,” Walter said in a commanding tone. He put his arm around my waist and tried to pull me away from Michael’s beside.

“You and whose army are going to take me away from Michael?” I smiled at him sweetly, and stopped the forward motion he was attempting. “Walter, I don’t want to leave him,” I said urgently, all mirth drained from me.

“Gracie, you have been awake for almost twenty-four hours and you need food and rest, or you are not going to be any good to Michael when he wakes up. You know that, don’t you?” I had to admit he was right, I was exhausted.

“But what about Rene? He’s sleeping and I don’t want to wake him.”

“I’ll watch him.” A quiet voice said from behind me. I looked around and one of Michael’s nurses was standing there. “You go with Walter and get something to eat. You can even bring something back for Rene. I don’t think he will want to leave his father, so you bring him some breakfast and he can eat it here and still be with Michael.” Her eyes twinkled as she smiled and glanced back at Michael.

“All right, but just understand Walter, I don’t want to be away for very long.” I took his proffered arm and with a last quick look at Michael and Rene, I let Walter lead me out of the room and down the corridor. “Walter, are all the women here fascinated with Michael?”

“Just about, Gracie. All except the ones I have under my spell.” He grinned and patted my hand on his arm. And so I left Medical for a few minutes respite with my old friend Walter. I learned later that we were watched as we left Michael and his son, who were both peacefully sleeping not far from each other.

Rene stirred in his sleep. A voice pierced his slumber and he thought he heard someone talking to him. He opened his eyes, but no one was there. Then he heard the voice again. It was someone talking to his father. When he awoke, Rene had been facing the wall, so he turned over to his other side as quietly as possible so he could hear the voice more clearly. The voice was still talking to his father, but his father wasn’t answering. Daddy must still be asleep, he thought to himself. It must be one of Daddy’s friends, come to talk to him like the doctor said they should.

“Michael,” the voice was saying, “you have to wake up soon, or I will have to start making some decisions that I don’t want to make. You have always been such a fighter! This isn’t like you, Michael. Wake up! Please! And that is an order!”

Rene was intrigued by this unknown voice, so he got up off the bed, puzzling as he did as to how he got on the bed. The last thing he remembered was talking to Daddy and wanting him to wake up. Shaking that thought from his head, he crept on tippy toes over to the curtain and peeked through the slit he found there.

He saw a tall man there with gray hair and icy blue eyes.....

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

When Rene heard the man order his father to wake up, he giggled and quickly clapped his hand over his mouth. He knew that he was probably not supposed to hear what the man had said to his father. His Mom had told him it was not nice to secretly listen to the conversations of others. Rene quickly stepped back from the curtains and, in doing so, caused them to flutter.

A voice said sharply, “Who’s there? Come out so I can see you! NOW!”

Rene knew an “in charge” voice when he heard one. His Mom used that tone of voice when she wanted him to do something “right now.” He walked forward and parted the curtains to find the man towering over him and looking down at him. Rene had to lean his head way back to look up at the man’s face. He had large blue eyes, made even bigger by the glasses that he wore. The man looked annoyed that he had been overheard.

“And who, may I ask, are you?” The man continued to stare down at Rene.

“I’m Rene, and why did you ask that? I bet I’m the only little kid in this whole place. So who else would I be but Michael’s son? Have you brought any other kids into this place lately? You’re my Daddy’s boss, aren’t you? And what’s your real name? I heard them talking about Operations. That’s you, isn’t it? What kind of a name is that?” The words tumbled out of Rene’s mouth. He always talked a lot when he was nervous, and this man made him nervous. “And while I’m at it, why were you so mean to my Daddy?”

Operations was surprised by the emotion in the boy’s voice. So many questions thrown at him by so small a person made him take a step back from Rene. He didn’t know what to say to Michael’s son, but he recovered quickly.

“Mean? When have I been mean to your father? Even as he said it, Operations knew what Rene meant, but even so, he tried to cover for himself. “I happen to think very highly of your father, Rene. Sometimes he seems more of a son to me than my own son. Operations couldn’t believe what he had just admitted to Rene.

Rene put his hands on his slim hips and stared straight into the icy blue eyes staring down at him. “Would you try to make your own son think his son was dead? How would you feel if someone told you your son was dead. You must not love your son very much if you could do something like that to someone you say means as much to you as your own son!! Pausing for a breath, Rene continued his tirade. “If you are my Daddy’s boss, then you make things happen around here. Are you the one who told my Daddy that I was dead? I don’t know how you could do that to someone you say you care about! Well, are you the one?”

Rene’s green eyes were flashing with uncontrolled anger and Operations was amazed that he found himself speechless. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. It was the first time that he had been forced to think about the human side of what he and Madeline had done to Michael when they told him Rene had been killed by a hit and run driver.

“I...I...I...” was all he could force out of his mouth. Somehow, a nervous laugh passed his lips, which only incensed Rene even more. He thought Operations was laughing at him.

“You are an mean, evil man!! I hate you! I hate you! Don’t you dare laugh at me and my Daddy!!” Hot, angry tears pooled in Rene’s eyes and then overflowed. He lunged at Operations with small fists flailing at the powerful leader of Section One, who had quickly retreated from the enraged Rene. He took several steps back before he remembered who he was and where he was.

Rene continued his assault until Operations stooped over and picked Rene up, pinning his swinging arms with his own arms. “Rene, stop it! Rene, listen to me! Let me explain!!”

Rene quieted, the rush of adrenaline dissipated. He glowered at the man holding him captive.

“You know, Rene, you remind me a little of my own son. You two have the same spirit. Your Daddy is a very lucky man to have a son like you.”

“Then why did you take me away from him. How could you tell him I died three years ago?”

Operations glanced over at Michael’s still form. “That’s, that’s kind of hard to explain.”

“Try!!” Rene pierced a cold heart with his stare. “Try!!” he repeated.

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

“Try!” Rene demanded. Operations had said it was difficult to explain how he could have told Michael that Rene was dead, and Rene was not about to let it go. He wanted an answer and he wanted it NOW!

Operations acquiesced to Rene’s demand. “Okay, but let’s sit down. This could be a long story.” Operations carried a silent, but much calmer Rene over to a chair by Michael’s bed and sat down, settling the child into his lap. It had been years since he had held his child, or any child, in his arms. Somehow it felt comforting to him. They both unconsciously glanced at Michael, a silent sentinel to their approaching conversation.

Just as Operations was about to speak, Michael’s nurse walked up to Michael’s bed smiling, but came to a screeching halt when she saw who was sitting by his bed with Rene in his lap.

Operations just looked at her and said, “Some privacy, please?’ And she disappeared without a sound.

Rene blinked in surprise and asked, “Does everybody do what you tell them to do without even a word?”

“Ahhhh, yes. Most of the time,” Operation smiled down at Rene’s face, chuckling briefly to himself at Rene’s bemused expression. “People around here usually listen and do what I say.”

“That’s because they are scared of you. I’ve seen it in their eyes.” Rene said. “They listen to my Daddy because they respect him and they know that he won’t ask them to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. Do the people who work for you respect you like they respect my Daddy?”

Operations was dumbfounded at Rene’s question. Out of the mouths of babes, he thought. “You know, Rene, I don’t know the answer to that. I never really thought about it. I just expected their respect.”

Thinking back, Operations could only remember fear or indifference on the faces of those he commanded in Section. But respect.....he had to think hard on that, and he came up empty.

“What about your son, does he love and respect you like I love and respect my Daddy?” The sound of Rene’s voice brought Operations back from his thoughts of the past.

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “I haven’t seen him to talk to him since he was your age.”

Rene was shocked that a father wouldn’t want to see his son. “ How old is he now?”

“He’s almost your father’s age. I haven’t seen him for a long time.” Operations was somewhat ashamed of that admission.

“What kind of a Daddy are you?” Rene sputtered, astonished that a father could go so long without seeing his son. “My Daddy would never do that. We keep in touch even when we can’t be together. Look!” Rene held up his wrist to display the new watch that was a match, albeit child-sized, of the same watch that Michael wore. “It’s like my Daddy’s. The alarm goes off every day at 3:30, and we both stop and think of each other.” Operation’s eyes acquired a far-away look as he remembered a briefing just last week that was interrupted by the faint beeping of an alarm. He remembered giving Michael a disapproving look, only to find Michael in deep thought, his eyes momentarily closed, a slight smile on his face. Remembered also when he made a biting comment about operatives paying attention during the briefing, smiling to himself as he watched Michael snap back to reality and saw his secret smile disappear from his face, once again giving Operations his full and undivided concentration.

For some reason, Operations felt a pang of shame that he had destroyed the moment of time for Michael’s silent communion with Rene. Again, Rene’s voice drew him back in. Rene was saying, “It’s just a few seconds or minutes each day, but at least for that little bit of time, we each know we are loved by the other. How can you not see your son? Don’t you love him?”

“I do, very much, but he is safer not knowing me. People would try to use him against me, just like those bad men tried to use you to get to your father.” Operations felt awkward trying to justify himself. Answering a seven-year-old was a new experience for him.

“But my Daddy came and saved me. Wouldn’t you do that for your son?” Rene asked, tilting his head to look up at Operations.

Always the hard questions with this young one, Operations thought. “I have a lot of responsibilities here and I have to deal with a lot of really bad people. I’ve been fighting evil men since before your father was born. I wanted my son to be safe from all that.”

Rene stared at Operations with an expression that was something akin to awe. “You actually fought the bad guys yourself?” Operations nodded, and thought to himself, every day of my life. “Then you are a Dragonslayer too! Just like my Daddy, and even my Mom! Wow!”

“Dragonslayer? What do you mean, Rene?”

“My Mom says anyone who fights the bad guys is a Dragonslayer. She told me a story a long time ago. Wanna hear it?” Operations nodded and so, Rene began the story that helped him understand why he could no longer live with his parents.

He was just finishing the story when he felt Operations gently nudge him in the side and point toward Michael’s bed.

Rene’s eyes followed the pointing finger and let out an ear-shattering whoop that brought doctors, nurses, and Grace and Walter racing into Michael’s room at a dead-run.

Rene found himself staring into a pair of clear, green eyes just like his own. Michael smiled lovingly at Rene and held out his right arm, the left one still a prisoner in the bandages that bound it to his chest.

“DADDY! Rene yelled. “DADDY! He began to scramble from Operations lap, but Operations stood quickly and deposited Rene onto his father’s bed. Father and son embraced awkwardly, because of Michael’s bandages and because Rene didn’t want to cause his father pain. Grace, Walter, and even Operations gathered around the bed, each more than a little misty-eyed at the reunion taking place in front of them.

The Dragonslayer had awakened.

***********

“Daddy, I’m so glad you are awake. Did you hear my story? It was about you and how you fought the dragons, the bad guys. I think your boss, uhhh Operations, liked it,” this last breathless sentence was whispered into Michael’s ear. “Boy, do I have a lot to tell you! How are you feeling? I....” Michael brushed his fingers over Rene’s lips, quieting the words tumbling out of his son’s mouth in such a rush.

“Slow down, Rene. I can’t keep up,” he croaked, his voice raspy and rough-sounding. “May I have some water?” he whispered.

Operations turned quickly to find the nurse who had fled Michael’s room so quickly earlier standing behind him with a glass of water with a straw. “Oh, thank you!” he said, smiling at her and receiving a shocked expression from her in return. “Here, Michael.” He held the straw to Michael’s lips and Michael was able to quench the awful thirst with which he had awakened.

“Who died?” he asked as he looked around at the somber faces surrounding him.

“Not funny, Michael. We almost lost you again!” I said. “You gave us a huge scare. Oh, and by the way, please take a parachute with you the next time you decide to step out of a helicopter.” I reached out and smoothed back the hair on his forehead. “We were worried about you!”

“Grace!” Michael looked around as if finally realizing where he was. “What are you doing here?” A look of fear crossed his handsome features. “No...no... I don’t want you and Rene inside this place, inside my world. Please, no.” He turned his gaze to Operations as if to beseech his indulgence in sparing his family.

“It’s all right, Michael. They are okay here. I promise you that.” Michael looked skeptical of Operations’ assurance, as he continued to speak, “Rene and I have had a long talk and I promise you nothing will happen to them. We’ll make sure that they are safe and that they will have a new, secure place to live with new identities.” Operations put his hand on Michael’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. There were looks of astonishment on the faces of all who heard Operations’ words. “They...and you, have nothing to fear from me. Getting to know Rene has made me feel more human somehow.”

“What about Madeline?” I interjected into the discussion, suddenly wary that this unexpected ally might not support us if Madeline opposed it.

“Madeline will do what I tell her to do. She always has.” Operations looked into Rene’s eyes and I saw a flash of understanding between them. What did I miss, I thought to myself.

“Rene, it was my decision to separate you from your parents. I had the final say. I confess that I wanted your father more focused on his job, with no distractions. I was expecting him to do things I could not do. He was more focused for awhile because he immersed himself in his job to try and deal with your loss. Soon, we noticed that things were not going so well with him. His friendship with Nikita helped.” I felt Michael tense under my hand as Nikita was mentioned. “But she could never help him get over losing you. Then, suddenly, he started improving. That was when you went to live with Grace and Michael found you and started secretly visiting you. Madeline and I let it happen because the Michael we wanted was back. And he was back because he knew you were safe with Grace. We don’t want to change that.”

“You won’t separate us again?” Rene ventured to ask the question we were all dying to ask.

“No, Rene, I will not separate you again.” Both Rene and Michael let out a long sigh when they heard Operations make that admission. So did I. Walter grabbed my hand and squeezed it, giving me a big smile. I was feeling quite well at this moment in my life.

“But, in the end, I think my original decision was correct.” he said, deep in thought.

I stared at him, not believing my ears. Walter poked me in the ribs, and whispered to me, “Hear him out!” So I listened, I wanted to hear his reasoning.

“I didn’t handle the initial situation very well. I almost destroyed the both of you, but ultimately, I think it was best for you. You gained a stay-at-home Mom, which Simone could never have been. A Mom who loves you and will always be there for you.

I felt my righteous indignation rising in my throat to voice a protest to what he was saying, when Michael put his hand on my arm to silence me.

“No, Grace, he’s right.” Michael’s hand squeezed my arm and he slid his hand down to mine as he smiled that heart-rending secret smile of his up at me. My sudden anger started to melt as I looked into those magnificent green eyes. “I’ve often told you that I can’t imagine Rene being with anyone else if he can’t be with me. You’ve always been there when he needed you. One day, my luck may run out and with you, I know Rene will be safe.”

I could feel tears gathering in my eyes and I was greatly ashamed to admit to myself that I was glad Rene was with me, but that meant he wasn’t with Michael. I was glad that Rene was my son in every way except of my blood. I turned a guilty gaze to Michael and felt him look into my soul. He knew exactly what I was feeling and thinking.

“I know what you are thinking, Grace, and I want you to put that thought right out of your head.” Michael continued. “If I were to die tomorrow, I know you would never let Rene forget me, and that would be enough for me.”

In a small, teary voice, Rene said, “Daddy, please don’t talk that way. You aren’t going to die and I would never, ever forget you and how much you love me.”

By this time, Rene and I were both in tears, and we were both hugging Michael. Walter was rubbing his nose and sniffing while carefully studying the steel tips of his boots. Even Operations was clearing his throat and looking up at the ceiling.

Rene looked up as he caught a movement at the door. “Mom,” he said quietly, “even the evil queen has a heart.”

Madeline was standing in the doorway with that enigmatic look of hers as one perfect tear traced a path down her cheek.

“Well, I never thought I would see that!” Operations and Walter said at the same time. We all dissolved in nervous laughter, Madeline included.

She wiped at her eyes carefully to avoid smearing her makeup. “I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but...” Michael and Walter exchanged looks of amazement. “But we have incoming wounded. Michael, it’s your team.” Her gaze pierced Michael to his core.

He sagged back into his pillows, looking like someone had punched him in the mid-section.

“Oh, God, no. Nikita!” Michael whispered, closing his eyes.

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

Madeline sighed and said, “I’m sorry, but yes, the wounded include Nikita and Carson. Porter is dead. He died going in to help them.”

She walked over and placed her hand lightly on Michael’s shoulder. We stood there in stunned silence while all around us, medical personnel moved about quickly, getting ready to accept the incoming wounded and treat them. Michael looked up at Madeline with the question in his eyes.

“I don’t know yet how bad it is,” Madeline said, answering the unspoken question. “When Birkoff talked to them, it was still rather chaotic in the van. We’ll know more soon. I’ll let you know when I know anything.”

Michael sat up in bed slowly, and started to swing his legs over the side of the bed, but Operations stopped him. “Stay put Michael. You aren’t going anywhere!”

“I’m fine!” he hissed through clenched teeth. “I want to examine the mission profile to find out what went wrong.”

“Daddy, please! I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Please lay down,” Rene, sitting beside Michael on the bed held on to his father’s uninjured arm. “Daddy, Please!”

I could tell Michael was in pain. But I also knew that he felt strongly compelled to find out what happened, how Nikita and Carson were injured. I added my plea to Rene’s, “Michael, they will need you later, when you are stronger. You can’t help them if you are in pain. They won’t thank you for risking yourself this way.”

Finally, he accepted what we were saying and lay back against his pillows, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until he checked himself out of Medical. I sighed and settled down to await the inevitable. Rene lay down against Michael and snuggled into the cleft between Michael’s arm and his body and was soon asleep, confident that his father would rest as well. Worried though he was, Michael was also exhausted and deciding to conserve his energy, he let his eyes drift closed and joined his son in a restful slumber. I watched the two of them silently, thinking how perfectly matched they were. Thinking also of how precarious life was. If it were within my power, I would make sure that Rene would grow up to be as fine a man as his father.

Almost an hour had passed when I noticed that the level of activity had increased sharply. I heard the clicking of high heels on the tile floor and saw Madeline coming toward us. “The van is arriving now. Michael...” She stopped and her expression softened when she saw Michael and Rene together, peacefully sleeping. I watched her, interested that she betrayed her feelings so openly in front of me. As if hearing my thoughts, she took a deep breath through her nose and turned to me.

“Grace, you and I have to talk. But now, I think we need to wake Michael. Nikita and Carson will be brought in soon.” She moved closer to the bed.

“How bad, Madeline?” I asked, “Should we prepare Michael for the worst? You must know he loves her.”

“Yes, I know. That’s why I had her recruited. After Simone, we almost lost Michael. He needed someone to be responsible for. Rene was gone, so we gave him Nikita.” She looked over at me. “Does that shock you, Grace?”

I nodded. I didn’t know someone could have such a tender look for someone one moment and then turn icy the next moment and talk of gifting the person with another human being. “Michael never lied to her about his feelings for her, but she thought he did lie to her, and he didn’t tell her any different. I think he loved her from the beginning. Operations didn’t want a relationship between them, but I encouraged it. Michael needed something, someone to hold on to. I think Operations and I miscalculated Michael’s emotional strength when we took away Rene. And then when Simone was lost....I was sure we would lose him.” She smiled at me. “And then I found Nikita....and you. Two problems solved. You turned out to be more important than Nikita in my plan. I thought at first I could control Michael by using you and Rene, but then when he found out about you on his own, I had to alter my plan. But all in all, I think things have turned out just fine. When you have time, ask Walter to bring you to my office for our little discussion. All right?” she smiled that maddening Mona Lisa smile of hers and shook Michael’s shoulder, awakening him. He came awake, with a start. Remembering Rene curled up next to him, Michael controlled himself and slowly rubbed his hand over his eyes and came fully awake.

“Michael, your team is coming in. Their injuries are not life-threatening.” She smiled down at him, locking his eyes with her own. “Now, isn’t that great news?”

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

I sat back in my chair and watched Madeline speaking to Michael. Now what made me think of a spider dancing lightly around a fly wrapped in a filament of silk? And if the filament enmeshed Michael, what of Rene?

I rose quickly to my feet and moved to insinuate myself between the spider and the two most important people in my life. Could a dragonslayer, although a novice, squash a spider? For Michael and Rene, I would try....

“That’s wonderful news, Madeline, but I would appreciate it if I could speak with Michael....Alone, please?” I gave her a withering look that said “leave!” and to my surprise, she did leave.

“How did you do that?” Michael whispered. “Madeline rarely backs down from anyone. Grace, be careful!” He took my hand and brought it to his lips. “Rene and I need you. I don’t want you on Madeline’s hit list. Now, what did you need to talk to me about?”

“Nothing in particular. I just wanted her away from you. I didn’t like the possessive zeal I saw in her eyes when she looked at you. She reminded me of a spider spinning her web around you.” I shivered at the image. Michael laughed, a small quiet sound that was accompanied by a wince in his eyes. “Michael! What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Grace. My stitches are pulling a bit. Don’t make me laugh anymore.” He settled back and cradled a still sleeping Rene. “Grace, she said they were bringing Nikita and Carson in. Could you see if you could find anything out about their condition?”

“Of course, Michael. I’ll see what I can do.” I disengaged my hand from his and proceeded on my mission for Michael.

Just as I was about to ask a nurse about Nikita and Carson, medical personnel came flying through the sliding doors with two gurneys. I saw for myself the objects of Michael’s concern. Nikita was pale, her eyes glazed with pain, a bloody bandage around a wound in her left thigh. Carson was unconscious, with a bandage on his forehead and another bloody one wrapped around his knee. I looked back towards Michael’s room, knowing he could hear the doctors shouting instructions and the nurses hurrying to give attention to the wounded operatives. I stayed out of the way and watched and listened so I could tell Michael what I had learned.

Nikita had a in and out bullet wound in her thigh, which would heal cleanly. She had been sedated with painkillers and rolled into a cubicle where a doctor cleaned and sutured the wound. She would be okay. Carson, on the other hand, was being prepped for surgery. A bullet had shattered his kneecap and two doctors were studying X-rays with concerned looks on their faces. “This does not looks good for his status as an operative. I don’t think he will ever achieve full use of the knee again.” One doctor sighed and said, “But we will do what we can, but Operations will have to be notified about this. The head wound is superficial, I don’t think there will be any problems with that, but the knee is a different matter. Let’s get him to surgery!

Armed with this information, I walked slowly back to Michael, with good news and bad news.

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

Michael was waiting for me with a certain amount of anxiety, and I guess my body language told him that there was bad news. I could see his eyes grow wide as he saw me.

“Oh no, Grace. Madeline lied.....Nikita!” He said, his voice quavering with concern.

“Is okay,” I reassured him, “Nikita is going to be fine. She was hit in the thigh, an in and out wound with no severe muscle or bone damage.” I rushed to his side as he tried to sit up and watched his eyes spasm in pain at the quick movement. A movement which awoke Rene, who sleepily rubbed his eyes and looked around.

“I’m hungry,” he said, looking at me. “When’s lunch?” He had come awake at a bad time because I didn’t want to talk about Carson in front of him. The two had become so attached that I knew he would be upset at Carson being hurt. As if in answer to my plea for more time, Walter appeared, a smile on his face.

“My Sugar is going to be okay!” He beamed.

“I grabbed his arm and quickly asked him to take Rene for lunch. My eyes signaling him to say nothing else in front of Rene. Michael and I would do that later.

“Okay, Rene, what do you feel like eating? I feel like a could eat a bear. How about you?” Rene laughed as Walter reached for him and tickled him as he lifted him down from Michael’s bed.

“I’ll be right back. Okay, Daddy?” A slight frown creased his forehead, as if he sensed that Michael was holding something back from him, but Walter tickled him again and the two of them headed toward the cafeteria in search of food. I turned back to Michael.

“It’s Carson” I said. “His knee cap is shattered and I heard the doctors say he most likely would not get back the full use of it. They said that Operations would have to be notified. Michael, what does that mean? Tell me.” He began to speak, and I knew he was lying to me.

“Grace, Operations needs to know about Carson’s injury so he can take him off mission availability status. When missions are planned, he has to know who is available. That’s all.” He looked me at me while he was speaking, but then shifted his gaze from my eyes to a point behind me. The subtle shift caught and held my attention.

“Michael, you are not telling me the truth about Carson. Why did the doctors only mention Carson, and not Nikita, if all this is about mission availability?” I stood my ground with him, but he only stared back at me, his eyes blank.

“I’ve told you all I know, Grace.”

“I will find out the truth, Michael. I never thought you would lie to me.” He looked down and would not meet my eyes. I began to fear for Carson. I knew something bad was going to happen. Michael had never lied to me before. He had stretched the truth and had been guilty of omission, but this was an outright lie.

“I have to go see Madeline,” I told him. “I’ll be back later.” And I left him sitting alone in his bed.

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

I could feel the fear and anger rising in me as I walked briskly down the hall. I stopped in the center of a large room, and looked around.

I had no idea where to find Madeline. I had left Michael’s room abruptly and not bothered to ask anyone the way. Feeling rather foolish as I stood there, I saw the young man with glasses they had called Birkoff sitting at a computer. I walked over to him and introduced myself.

“Yeah, nice to meet you, Grace. Walter has nice things to say about you. Can I help you?” He smiled shyly at me and I immediately wanted to hug him. He looked too young to work in a place like Section.

Suppressing an urge to mother him, I told him I needed to talk to Madeline, and could he point me to her office.

“Just a minute,” he said as he punched a key on his keyboard.

“Madeline, Grace is here and wants to talk with you. Are you free?” There was a slight pause and then he nodded and stood up. “Come with me. I’ll take you to her.”

I followed along behind him and soon we came to a door with a keypad mounted beside it. Birkoff punched a code and the door slid open. “Good luck,” he said and turned back toward his work area.

I carefully stepped down into Madeline’s office and noted the austere look of the office that was interrupted only by a collection of bonsai trees on one lighted wall. Madeline stood up behind her desk and greeted me. I was surprised to see Operations there as well. This should be interesting, I thought, as I sat down in the chair she motioned me toward. Operations began to pace behind my chair.

“Would you mind not doing that?” I asked. “I like to see the people I am going to talk to. Why don’t you have a seat right here.” I patted the seat of the chair next to me. He stopped pacing and sat down. “Now, I think we have some things to talk about.”

Madeline and Operations looked at each other and then looked at me. Madeline was the one to start the conversation. “Actually, Grace, there are some things we need to discuss. We have a proposition for you.” An intense feeling of deja vu enveloped me as I remembered the last proposition with which Madeline had approached me. I remembered the night she offered me Rene.

They unfolded their plan for me and I was apprehensive at first, but then I began to think that it was all possible. Their plan covered several of the things that concerned me, first and foremost, how Michael and Rene could continue to see each other. If this plan made that possible, then anything they asked of me was worth it. I started to listen very carefully, asking questions and finally, making my own demands. They compromised on most points and ultimately, I won more points than I had thought possible. Some of my problems were taken care of and several of their problems were addressed as well. All in all, things seemed to be working out rather well for the good guys.

All that was left was to discuss the plan with Michael. In my excitement over the proposition I had been offered, I had forgotten that I was angry with him. He had lied to me, but now I knew why.

When I entered Medical, I noticed a flurry of activity in one corner across from Michael’s room. Curious, I walked over, only to be met by a gurney quickly being pushed from the area. One of the nurses saw me and told me what had happened. I barely heard her as I watched a prone and ashen-faced Michael being whisked by me on the gurney. Pulling my arm from the nurse’s grasp, I followed the gurney to an examining room and tried to follow it inside. The same nurse that had grabbed my arm again pulled me away from the door of the room where Michael was being examined by a doctor.

I finally turned to the nurse and looked at her, “What happened?”

And she began to explain.....

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

As soon as Grace turned her back on him, Michael felt lost and alone. He had lied to Grace because he knew what was probably going to happen to Carson. Carson was a good operative, loyal to Michael and the team, but he was really not prepared to fit into any other job at Section. His value to Section was his strength and skill in combat, and if he couldn’t perform with his former skill as a combat operative, then he was no longer of any value to Section. This was something Carson already knew and Michael wondered if he was wondering now about his future with Section. He had to be worried, Michael thought, and I can’t let him go through this alone. Observing no medical personnel in his vicinity, Michael threw the covers on his bed off his legs and swung one leg at a time over the side of the bed. The movement caused him to hiss with pain as the sutures in his stomach were pulled by his sudden movement. As he stood, Michael felt lightheaded, but he knew that was only because he had been in bed too long without moving around.

Gingerly, trying not to reawaken the pulled stitches in his mid-section, he pulled on the robe that had been laid across the end of his bed. It was awkward trying to put on the robe with only one hand and arm available. I'll be glad when I can unwrap my other arm, he thought. He hated being incapacitated for any reason, but being bandaged like this made him feel like a invalid. He longed to be able to stretch out both arms and give Rene a real hug. Thinking of Rene made him smile. And smiling, he remembered that he hadn’t seen Nikita today. Her room was on the way to Carson’s, so he would stop in to check on her as well. Focusing on Nikita, Michael failed to see the large food service cart moving toward him and was greatly surprised when he was knocked to the floor. His head made hard contact with the tile floor and the light blinked out for him. Nurses came running and the man pushing the food cart thought to himself, I’m dead now, I just ran down a class 5 operative. Then he chuckled to himself, I just did something no one else had done. Class 5 ops weren’t so tough.

His mirth was short-lived as one of the nurses commandeered him to help them lift Michael onto a gurney that had quickly been pulled up to where Michael lay on the floor. The smile still on his face faded instantly when he was confronted by a nurse who stepped right into his face and demanded to know what he was daydreaming about to have been stupid enough to run down one of her patients. He stammered an apology and took two steps back, then hurriedly turned and disappeared down the hall with his cart.

“Take him to examining room 1. Let’s see what the damage is this time.” The doctor on call grinned behind his hand, and wondered how to word his report on this one. Michael, a class 5 operative, received a trauma wound to the head and a possible reinjury of his shoulder when run down by a dangerous food service attendant. Injuries caused by large food service cart. The grin widened. Michael would never live this one down. Then he laughed outright, but who, he wondered, would ever kid him about it? Lost in his thoughts, the doctor went to tend to Michael’s newest injuries.

***********

Michael came back to consciousness slowly, sensing the small group of people around his hospital bed. “Wake up, Daddy. I know you’re in there.” He felt Rene’s hand on his face as the small hand lifted up one of his eyelids. “Come on, I saw you move. Wake up!” His son’s voice was commanding and he figured that he had better open his eyes and face the group. The first thing he saw was Rene bending over him, his son’s eyes shone with love and a touch of humor. Rene planted a kiss on his cheek. “Welcome back, Daddy!” Michael smiled into his son’s green eyes and then looked around to see who else was there to greet his return to consciousness. Lined up next to each other in wheelchairs were Nikita and Carson, each grinning from ear to ear.

Nikita was the first to speak. The words fairly burst from her lips, “So, Michael, just how hungry were you?” She dissolved in laughter that was echoed by the others clustered around him. Grace was there, and Walter, Birkoff, even Madeline and Operations, all grinning at him.

“Would someone please let me in on the joke?” he asked. The last thing he remembered was getting up to go see Carson and Nikita, and then being knocked out. Michael just wanted someone to tell him what happened and why his head ached so badly.

“Daddy,” Finally Rene could not stand to see his father’s confusion any longer. “You got run over by a big lunch cart. Don’t you remember?”

Another round of laughter at his expense erupted. “Don’t laugh at my Daddy!!” Rene shouted, laying his head on Michael’s shoulder as if to shield him from further attacks on his father’s dignity.

“Operations,” Michael said slowly and deliberately, looking at each face in the crowd around him, “Do I still have a license to cancel?”

“Oh, come on, Michael. You have to admit this is pretty funny.” Operations said. Michael was amazed and his faced showed it. He had never known Ops to have a sense of humor. Madeline came to his rescue.

“Michael needs his rest so he can heal, regardless of how he was injured. Michael thought to himself that this was the first time he was glad to see her Mona Lisa smile. His head fell back on the pillow and he closed his eyes.

A soft voice interrupted his thoughts. “I’m sorry you were hurt, Michael. I’m just glad to see you are okay. A hand touched his arm, and he heard Rene whisper in his ear.

“It’s Nikita, Daddy, and she really does look sorry to have laughed at you. And now that I know you are okay, Uncle Walter and Grace are taking me to get ice cream. Is that all right?”

Michael opened his eyes and touched Rene’s face. “That sounds like fun. Have an extra scoop for me.”

Rene scrambled off the bed and left Michael’s room walking between Grace and Walter. Michael let his gaze slide around the room and found that only Nikita was left at his bedside. He settled his eyes on her and let them drink their fill of her. She took his hand and smiled back at him. “I am sorry to have laughed at you, Michael, but it was just too priceless that after all you have been through to have been waylaid by a lunch cart.” Her grin threatened to explode into laughter again.

Michael could not allow that. “Nikita, allow me a little bit of dignity, please!” His wonderful eyes beseeched her cooperation and she controlled her glee in deference to his plea. His eyes grew serious.

“Have you talked to Carson about his knee? How is he taking it?” Michael took all humor out of the air with his questions. Nikita looked up at him from her wheelchair with tears in her eyes.

“He seems resigned to the fact that he won’t be going out on combat missions anymore. Other than that, he won’t talk about the future. He just says that he is ready for whatever happens. Oh, Michael, can’t you do something?” Tears rolled down her face and Michael was lost in her eyes. He would do whatever he could for Carson. He began to plan his strategy, all the while comforted by the slim hand that held onto his hand.

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

The time had come to tell Michael about the proposition that I had been offered by Operations and Madeline. I hoped he was sufficiently recovered to understand my decision. I had a feeling that, at first, he wouldn’t understand my choice and he might even oppose what I had decided without talking to him first. I did hope that he would come to understand it, but if he chose not to accept my decision, that was just too bad. I was trying to do what was best for Rene and what was best for Rene would, I thought, be best for Michael as well.

Michael’s encounter with the evil lunch cart had left both his ego and his body bruised. He had reinjured his shoulder and had had to go through the painful process of having the dislocated upper arm bone eased back into place in the shoulder joint. His head's contact with the hard tile floor had also resulted in another concussion, a mild one, but it would still add time on to his recovery. Operations was not happy about it, but as I told him, he would just have to get over it. I was continually amazed at just how much Operations, and Madeline, were taking from me. I kept thinking that one of these days that one of them would just explode at me, considering the way I talked to them. I had an inkling that their patience with me had a lot to do with Michael and Rene. My son had Operations wrapped around his little finger, as he had almost everyone else in Section. Madeline was the lone holdout. She liked him and deferred to him, but I sensed that she tolerated the both of us for Michael’s sake. There was something indefinable about the relationship between them, and one day, I would find out what it was.

The question was, did I really want to know?

I had left Rene with his “Uncle” Walter again, who was showing a delighted Rene the nooks, crannies and dark corners of Walter’s workspace. The talk that Michael and I had to have required privacy. As I neared Michael’s room, I heard voices, so I slowed down and waited for whoever was speaking with Michael to leave. I got close to the doorway and stopped. It was Operations, and they were talking about Carson. Michael was extolling Carson’s qualities, urging Operations to have Carson retrained.

“He’s too good an operative to lose,” Michael was saying. “We need someone with his strength of character. He can be trained in some other area where he can be useful. Please consider what I have said before you decide something you can’t undo. I think he can be useful in other areas besides combat and infiltration missions.”

I heard the urgency in Michael’s voice. Operations had remained silent while Michael talked. When Michael finally ended his plea, Operations spoke.

“You’re a little late, Michael. Carson has already been taken care of. You’ll have to find someone new for your team.”

I hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but I felt no qualms about doing it when someone I cared about was the topic. Michael was angry. His voice shook as he almost shouted, “You canceled him. Why didn’t you tell me! He was on my team. I should have been consulted before you killed him!”

I must have gasped at Michael’s last statement because Operations was suddenly aware of my presence outside the door. Now I understood that sometimes he could be really cruel. He was going to tell Michael about the agreement we had come to earlier, and he must have thought Michael’s outburst over Carson reason for humor. “I didn’t take care of Carson, Grace did. Grace, I know you are out there, come in here and tell Michael how you took care of our problem with Carson. Michael, meet our newest recruit.” I could hear the grin in his voice. He was enjoying Michael’s anguish.

I stepped into the room and said quickly to Michael as I grabbed his hand, “Michael, Carson is okay. He isn’t dead, he wasn’t canceled as you call it. He is going to be my chief of security.” Michael’s eyes bored through me.

“Grace, what have you agreed to?” He was beginning to look frightened.

So I began to explain.

“Yesterday, when I went to talk to Madeline, both she and Operations were waiting for me. They had already made plans and they presented me with a proposition. I don’t think I ever told you what I did to work my way through college and graduate school, but it was included in my background information when Madeline checked me out when she learned you and I were friends. I spent six years working at a rehab center. I started out as an aide, but had advanced through hard work and my determination to do a good job and help the patients that were assigned to me. I enjoyed the work and almost chose to stay with the rehab center instead of becoming a librarian, but my first love won out. When Madeline saw this, she filed the information away for future use.” I watched Michael digest all that I was telling him and saw understanding dawn in his eyes. He nodded at me to continue.

“She decided to use it when Operations told her to find something which would put Rene and me in close proximity to Section and would provide an opportunity to put us under a blanket of Section security. He didn’t forget his promise to Rene to not separate the two of you.” I looked over at Operations who was smiling his sly smile and went on with my explanation. “Madeline told me that she had been planning to separate Medical into two sections for a while. As need had demanded more space in Medical for treatment areas, she had decided to procure an offsite facility to handle the rehabilitation of injured operatives. A site was obtained and the conversion began. She just needed someone to supervise and run the facility. That was when she thought of me.” Operations interrupted me, and so I let him finish the story.

“Michael, it was the best we could do. Rene and Grace are going to need protection and this facility will have to have security to keep out the curious, as well as to watch the patients. We don’t want any operatives going AWOL, do we? This seemed to meet several needs. The rehab center is in a secluded area and it’s less than an hour from here. You’ll be able to visit Rene and Grace between missions and we can free up space here in Medical by sending some of the recuperating operatives to Grace. She did an admirable job with you when you were injured the last time, and she can do the same with those we send to her.” He grinned, “Of course, she made some demands of her own.”

“Carson.” Michael said. “Good job, Grace! What demands, besides Carson, did you make?” He was smiling at me now. I was relieved he wasn’t angry with me for making a deal with the devil, and proceeded to tell him what I had wrung out of Operations and Madeline.

***********

Two weeks later found Rene, Carson and I moving into a spacious house on the grounds of Crestwood Hospital. It was a former mental institution that sprawled across a green lawn and backed up to a beautiful lake.

The hospital itself was a one level facility that had been converted into a state of the art rehabilitation center where perhaps I could save a few Section operatives from cancellation. I shuddered to think about the shadow of that threat hanging over Michael, Nikita and the others, but there was little I could do to change Section. I chose to do what I could. I would fight the battles when they arose and would try to save the lives I could. For as long as I was allowed, I would keep Michael and Rene together.

And for now, that was enough. The Dragonslayer was our first patient, and he and his son finally had a home with each other.