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The Green-Eyed Monster

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Michael leaned back on his bed, thinking that he was fortunate that his recuperation and rehabilitation time at Grace’s rehab center was only just beginning. It had been just a week since he had unceremoniously stepped backward out of the Red Cell helicopter as well as his much-talked-about encounter with the Section lunch cart. He had never felt better than the time he had spent in Grace’s house with Rene. Grace had made sure that he was comfortable in her house instead of in the center itself. She had arranged it so that he could spend his every waking moment with Rene. When he had physical therapy at the center, Rene was there to encourage him and soon, Rene knew his therapy routines as well as he did, so even if Michael had wanted to go easy on himself, Rene would not let him forget or shirk even one of the routines. Michael’s son wanted his father to get better, even knowing that as soon as Michael was 100% that he would be leaving to return to his life at Section One.

For the first few days, Michael had been confined to bed, so that his concussion and wrenched shoulder, broken ribs and arm could begin to heal. He was awakened each morning by Rene, who carefully carried his breakfast tray in and sat on the bed as Michael ate his breakfast. If he failed to clean his plate, Rene watched in disapproval until every morsel was eaten. Only then did Rene smile and compliment his father on his appetite. Even one as young as Rene had noticed that Michael often didn’t eat enough, and Rene never hesitated to remind Michael that he needed to eat the right foods if he wanted to regain the strength that he had before his injuries. Michael had barely healed from the injuries he had sustained during the situation when Grace and Rene had been held hostage by a trio of bank robbers when he had again been injured when he had offered himself up to Red Cell to free Grace and Rene.

One set of injuries on top of the others had left Michael exhausted and in pain. So, when Operations had offered Grace the directorship of the new Section rehab center, it had only seemed logical that Michael should be Grace’s first patient. She had settled him in a room just down the hall from Rene’s, so father and son could be close to each other. Michael’s healing had progressed rapidly, aided by the presence of another who filled his nights with gentleness and ecstasy.

In another room down the hall, another occupant was awakening. Nikita stretched languidly and smiled, remembering the feel of Michael’s arms holding her tightly as they slept in the golden aftermath of their love-making. She smiled as she remembered Michael’s surprise as she had left his bed in the twilight just before dawn. He was puzzled, until she had reminded him that his son slept just down the hall, and explained that little boys often awoke early and what would he say if he found them together, naked and in each other’s arms. Did Michael want to have a birds and bees talk with a seven-year-old? Michael had laughed, actually laughed, and slipped his robe on to her shoulders and walked with her to the bathroom which joined their rooms. He had kissed her lightly and said goodnight before returning to his bed. Nikita had watched him from the doorway as he gingerly slipped back into his bed, his eyes wincing in pain as his body sought a more comfortable position before he closed his eyes for a few more hours of sleep. Even with his fresh injuries, loving Nikita had been a painful, yet satisfying experience. She couldn’t resist the temptation, so she ran back to him and kissed him quickly on the forehead as he fell asleep with a smile on his lips. Nikita turned and ran on tiptoes through the adjoining bathroom and snuggled into her own bed just as the sky started turning pink with the rising sun.

In two days, she would have to return to Section. Her leg wound was almost healed and there would be missions for her. But for now, she reveled in her closeness with Michael and remembered that she would always be grateful for the last few days with him. She told herself to remember also to thank Grace.

Grace had encouraged their deepening relationship when both Nikita and Michael had been sent to Grace at her newly established center to recover from their injuries. The few days had been glorious ones for Michael. Not only had he been with Rene, he had also had Nikita close to hand. And every minute not spent with Rene had been spent with Nikita. Grace saw to that when she had settled them in adjoining rooms in her home on the grounds of the sprawling estate that was the rehab center.

Michael smiled at the memory of Rene coming into his room early one morning and asking him with wide, innocent eyes, “Daddy, why does your room have a door into Nikita’s bathroom?”

Michael had stared at Rene for a few seconds before formulating a simple answer. “It’s my bathroom too,” he had explained. “Nikita and I are sharing it.”

“Oh!” Rene had accepted that simple explanation as children often did. Keep it simple. Don’t elaborate and just wait for the next question, Grace had told Michael. Rene is at that age when he was full of questions. If he asks you a question, answer the question succinctly and without embarrassment. He will accept your answer and he may or may not ask another question. Don’t give him long explanations. That will only bore him and it might even confuse him. Just keep it simple.

And so he had followed Grace’s instructions and so far, she had been right. Michael had settled into a comfortable relationship with Rene. Their days were spent at gentle endeavors that would allow Michael to continue to heal from the injuries he had received at the hands of Red Cell and the ominous lunch cart pusher at Section. A chuckle actually passed Michael’s lips as he told himself that he would have to seek out the lunch cart pusher and thank him for making possible the time he had with Rene and Nikita. Or maybe not, he reconsidered, he didn’t want to frightened the man. One of the nurses had mentioned to him that at first the man had been terrified that he would be canceled for running down a Class 5 Operative. No, perhaps he should just leave well enough alone.

His musings left him unprepared for Rene’s next question. “Daddy, did Nikita sleep with you last night? Isn’t this her T-shirt? I found it in your bed just now.”

Michael swallowed hard, and tried to remember Grace’s advice....keep it simple, and tell him the truth. “Ahhhh, yes, she did. We had a sleepover.”

“Oh. That sounds like fun. Can I come to your next sleepover?” Rene looked up at his father with his innocent green eyes.

“Well, I guess we will have to ask Nikita and make sure it is okay with her.” Michael stammered. This father stuff was getting complicated.

Rene nodded, turned and took off down the hallway, yelling Nikita’s name. Michael paled as he ran after Rene.

***********

I was sitting at the table in the breakfast room when Nikita came in and sat down beside me. She was smiling and greeted me warmly.

“Good morning, Grace,” she said, stretching, as I poured her a cup of tea.

She was radiant. Her love for Michael shone brightly. I was happy for the two of them. I knew their happiness couldn’t last, but I had kept her here as long as I could. She was scheduled to return to Section soon and there was nothing more I could do to prevent her separation from Michael. He had at least another six weeks of recuperation and rehabilitation here with Rene and I. Nikita had just finished telling me she wished she could stay and that she was trying not to be jealous of the time I would have with Michael and Rene.

We both turned our heads toward the hallway when we heard Rene calling Nikita’s name as he ran headlong down the hallway.

“Nikita!” he said breathlessly. “I need to ask you a question. Daddy said it was okay with him if is okay with you!” He took a deep breath.

“What is it, Rene?” she asked, smiling at my beautiful son.

“Daddy said I could come to the next sleepover that you and he had, but only if it was okay with you!”

Nikita and I both nearly dropped our teacups at his question and turned as one to pin Michael with our best stare as he arrived at the doorway on the heels of his son. The look on his face made me smile. I had never seen such a guilty look on Michael before.

“Well, can I?” he asked again, and then peered at us closely noting our shocked expressions. “What’s wrong? Did I say something wrong?” Rene walked up to Nikita and touched her arm. “Do you not want me to come to the sleepover? I know you like my Daddy. I thought you liked me too.” His little voice sounded so sad. Nikita drew him to her and pulled him into a fierce hug.

“Of course, you can come to our next sleepover. And Rene, I don’t just like you. I love you. You are very special to me.” As she reassured Rene, Nikita looked over his head and told Michael with her flashing blue eyes that they needed to talk. I watched as Michael gave her a shrug and a sheepish smile. I would love to hear that discussion, I thought. It was endearing to see Michael happily embarrassed.

As it turned out, I did get to hear part of that discussion. Rene had walked across the wide, green lawn later that morning to visit Carson, who was still confined to his bed in the infirmary until his knee had healed a bit more. The bond between the two of them was strengthening more each day. Rene genuinely liked Carson and enjoyed being with him and he was grateful for what Carson had done for his father. While Rene was with Carson, I busied myself with the personnel records of those who had passed muster with Madeline and had been hired to work at the rehab center. She had apparently done a good job with her selections. I had no problems with what I saw in the records before me or with the employees that I had met so far. Most seemed to be veterans of government hospitals. They understood security procedures and seemed for the most part to be used to asking no questions about their patients other than the purely medical questions. I would have to discuss them with Carson when he felt better. After all, he was my chief of security, and I was glad to have him here. I had yet to discuss with Michael my plan to move Carson into one of the spare bedrooms in my house. He would be more comfortable and he would be near Rene to protect him if the need arose. I hoped that the need would never arise, but with Section, who could tell.

Carson was still in a lot of pain from the several surgeries that he had had on his knee, and he faced at least two more surgeries. He would walk again, but he would always have a slight limp and would never run another Iron Man endurance race as he had in the past. Most likely though, he would be able to warn us of bad weather based on the discomfort he would feel in his knee with the changes in the weather.

I was so glad to have him here, but I knew that he would miss the camaraderie of being a member of Michael’s team. At least here, he would be safe, and he might even get to grow old, which was something I feared Michael would never get to do. I worried about Michael constantly. But, for now, Michael was safe, and I intended also to keep him happy. And he was happy, even though I could hear Nikita’s agitated voice raking him over the coals about what he had told Rene. They were walking together in the garden outside. I heard my name mentioned.

“But Grace told me not to lie and to keep it simple; So when he asked if you slept with me, I simply said, yes, and he accepted that. He didn’t ask anything about what we did in bed. You shouldn’t have left your T-shirt behind.” I could hear the amusement in Michael’s voice.

“So, you are saying this is my fault?” Nikita asked angrily.

“No, it is no one’s fault. If we are not upset about this, Rene will not be upset. We will have popcorn, watch a movie and have a great time having a sleep over with just the three of us. That sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Nikita, just go with the flow. If he asks awkward questions, I will deal with it. Don’t worry about it.”

I got up from my desk and walked over to the window and saw Michael bring his hand up to Nikita’s face and the look in his eyes was unmistakable as he gently touched her face. She closed her eyes and drank in the electric feel of his touch. I turned away to let them be alone in their moment. Would I ever feel an electric touch of my own?

I smiled and walked back to my desk. Yes, I thought, I would go to see Carson tomorrow and take these files with me. He would need to get started on his new job and life as soon as possible. I smiled as I thought of the man who would be in charge of security here at the rehab center. I knew that Michael had already talked to Carson and told him that his principal job was to keep Rene and me safe, and I knew that he would do exactly what Michael told him to do. For the first time in a long time, I felt safe, and I knew that Carson would give up his life to keep Rene safe as well.

**********

The sleepover was a bittersweet event. It marked Nikita’s last night in my home. The next day, she was scheduled to return to the Section. Her leg was healed and I could think of no medical reason to keep her any longer. Madeline had already called to ask about Nikita’s progress and I knew that she was expecting me to okay Nikita’s release. There was nothing more I could do. I knew that Nikita and Michael would have liked to spend the time left together, but they had both promised Rene a sleepover and they would not go back on their word.

So it was that on my way to bed that night, I heard Nikita’s raucous laughter, accompanied by Rene’s giggles coming from Michael’s room. They had carried the TV/VCR combo from Rene’s room into Michael’s larger room. I imagined them all piled on the bed, eating popcorn and enjoying the movie that Rene had picked out. It wasn’t hard to imagine Nikita and Rene laughing together, but I wondered what Michael was doing in there with the two of them. I soon had my answer as I heard another outloud laugh join the other two voices, and I knew that I had just heard something that I had not heard in a very long time. I heard Michael’s laughter. It was a sound I had not heard in over four years, not since before Simone had died. I blinked the tears back, realizing that once again, Michael was with the two people he loved most in the world. And tomorrow, he would lose one of them back to Section.

But, tonight was theirs and I wished them a good evening before going to my room to read.

Nikita told me the next morning that she had learned something interesting about Michael that night. Actually, it was Rene’s discovery. The three of them were laying on the bed on their stomachs, when Michael had carefully stretched, favoring his still tightly bound ribs. He sat up and leaned down to pull his shoes off, when his gasp of pain caught Rene’s attention.

“Let me do that, Daddy,” Rene said as he scrambled down the length of the bed on his hands and knees, to pull off his father’s shoes and socks. In the process of pulling off Michael’s socks, his fingers brushed the bottom of Michael’s foot. Rene grinned as he saw the involuntary flinch of his father’s foot away from his fingers. Rene glanced over at Nikita to see that she had observed the movement. She grinned back at Rene and dove for Michael’s legs and held them down.

Michael, uncharacteristically for him, yelled, “NO!!” as he saw their intentions. He tried unsuccessfully to pull his feet away from his attackers, but Nikita held him down while Rene giggled and tickled his father’s feet, sending Michael into gales of gasping laughter.

“Rene! Stop that! Listen to me. I’m your father. Stop it, I say. Merde! Nikita, please!” he laughed harder, struggling to draw his feet away from Rene and Nikita. “OWWWW! Stop it!!” He wrapped his free arm around his mid-section and tried to hold it tightly. His other arm was still trapped in its cast. “NOOO!” Michael howled. “You’re hurting me! OWWWWW!”

Rene looked up at Michael’s face horrified that he might have hurt his father. He stopped his tickling and tried to pull Nikita from his father’s legs. “Let him go, Nikita. We are hurting Daddy!” he shouted.

Nikita looked up at Michael and let go of his legs. Breathlessly, because she had been laughing as hard as Rene and Michael, she gasped, “Michael! Are you okay? I’m sorry! Are you all right?” Now it was Nikita’s turn to look worried.

“I’m fine.” he said, trying to wipe the tears of laughter from his eyes. “but it worked, didn’t it?” and ducked as two fluffy pillows came flying toward his head.

Soon, all was forgiven, and the three of them had settled down to watch the movie. After a while, it got very quiet and Nikita looked down at Rene, who was fast asleep. She shifted her eyes from Rene to his father.

“I think he has given up on the movie,” she whispered to Michael.

Michael smiled down at his son. “Yes, I guess so,” and he lifted his hand to draw two fingers across Nikita’s lips. “I’m sorry we didn’t have more time alone.,” he said wistfully.

“It’s okay,” she said in response. “After all, I am getting to spend time with my two favorite men. You know I love this little guy.” She gazed into Michael’s eyes. “And his Daddy is not so bad himself. I love him too.” She leaned over to kiss the top of Rene’s head, her nose wrinkling at his little boy scent. Then she stretched a bit further to plant a tender kiss on Rene’s Daddy’s lips.

Fingers entwined and resting on Rene’s back, Michael and Nikita closed their eyes and drifted off to sleep themselves.

Later on that night, I walked quietly to the door of Michael’s room. It was 1:00 in the morning. The TV was still on, displaying the blue screen that showed that the videocassette had finished, so when I opened the door, the soft light from the TV screen lit my way to the bed where Rene lay sleeping snuggled into the cocoon formed by Nikita and Michael. I touched Nikita on the shoulder and put my hand over her mouth. She awoke quickly and stared up at me.

“Let me take Rene to his bed. You and Michael need the time alone.” She smiled and carefully moved so that I could scoop Rene from his nesting place between the two of them. Michael’s eyes flashed open and tightened his embrace on Rene until he saw me. Understanding dawned in his eyes and he let Rene go so I could pick him up.

As I turned away from the bed, Nikita had already returned to the bed and Michael. I put Rene to bed in his room, and he slept on undisturbed. I would think later of what to tell him when he woke up without his father and Nikita. Or, I smiled, maybe I would let Michael handle that little discussion. Another lesson in Fatherhood 101 wouldn’t hurt him.

Silently, I went back to Michael’s room and pulled the door closed. As I did reached around and pushed in the lock on the doorknob to give them privacy, I heard Nikita’s low, throaty laugh of pleasure and the rustle of crisp sheets. I envied the closeness between her and Michael, but I was glad for them. These moments would be hard to come by in the future.

***********

And so, Nikita left us to go back to the Section. Walter came after her on his Harley and we had a chance to talk while Nikita and Michael said their good-byes in his room. Carson had come to my house to see Nikita off as well and now, he and Rene were out in the front yard talking about soccer, while waiting for the inevitable parting about to take place. No one was happy on this day. No one, except for Walter.

“I’ve met someone, Gracie. She’s great! Her name is Belinda, and Gracie, I love her. I’m sorry, Gracie. You will always be special to me, too.” he said this as he kissed me on the cheek.

“What do you have to be sorry about? I am so happy for you Walter. But what about the Section rules on relationships? How.....” I was concerned for him, for them both.

“Well, I’m not exactly a field operative anymore. What could it hurt? Belinda and I decided to grab all the time we have. Who knows what will happen tomorrow?” I squeezed his hand and told him to be happy, just a bit envious of all the love and commitment flowing around me at the moment. A movement caught my eye and I watched as Michael led Nikita by the hand down the front stairs and over to Walter’s Harley. They had eyes only for each other, not noticing that everyone else’s eyes were on them.

Rene ran over and hugged Nikita, and as she bent down to hug Rene back, she whispered something in his ear. He laughed and nodded, agreeing to whatever she asked of him. After hugs to me and Carson, who sat in the sun in his wheelchair, Nikita and Michael leaned on the Harley, deep in conversation. I knew that Michael was exacting a promise from Nikita to be careful until he could return to her. I saw her nod and kiss him, before she called to Walter.

“Okay, Walter, let’s get this show on the road!” she called out as she swung her leg over the Harley, settling herself behind Walter’s seat and pulling the helmet onto her head. She extended her hand to Michael and he held her hand until the motion of the Harley pulled it from his grasp. Rene walked up to his father and put his arms around his waist, “She told me to take care of you and to give you a tickle for her if you start feeling sad. Is that okay with you, Daddy?”

Michael sighed and knelt down to hug Rene. “That is just fine with me,” Michael whispered, blinking back tears and burying his face in Rene’s neck. “But it won’t be the same, without Nikita here to hold me down, will it?” I watched as Rene shook his head and saw a glistening tear slide down his cheek.

I found myself standing behind Carson’s wheelchair, with my hands resting on his strong shoulders. He looked up at me and put his hand on mine. “Is it okay if I envy Michael his son? That little guy is the closest I’ll ever get to having a son of my own. What shade of green am I, anyway?” He chuckled and squeezed my hand.

I answered him, “You are about the same shade of green as me. I think we are all suffering from one kind of envy or another today.” Now was as good a time as any to talk to him about my plans for his future. “Come with me, we need to talk.”

Within a few days, Carson had moved into the room next to Rene’s and across the hall from Michael. I often watched as the three of them talked and laughed together over the next few weeks, growing ever more comfortable with each other.

Michael had his laptop computer with him and he kept track of Nikita’s missions. From the little that he told me, Operations also had him profiling missions from our home. I knew that he wasn’t getting enough rest between his physical therapy sessions, his worry for Nikita and the profiling. I was due at Section soon for my first report to Madeline on the status of the rehab center, and I had resolved to confront her about Michael’s continued responsibilities, even while he was supposed to be recovering from serious injuries. He wouldn’t like my interference, but he could just get over it. I laughed. I was aware of his familiarity with that phrase from my talks with Nikita. We would see how he liked being on the receiving end of that comment.

***********

And he didn’t like it. Not one little bit. When I told him what I was going to do, he was quietly livid.

“Grace, you cannot talk to Madeline like that. She won’t stand for it. No one challenges her and gets away with it. Not even Operations.” he said, sighing, because he knew his protestations would not change my mind.

“Operations will support me in what I tell Madeline about your condition. Michael, you are exhausted and doing double-duty will not get you better. If Ops wants you back at 100%, something has to give, and it will just have to be Madeline. If he doesn’t want to support me, I will let Rene have a go at him. And you know who will win that go-around.” I was rewarded with a rare Michael smile. He knew as well as I did that Operations had a weakness that had been forged while Michael lay comatose after the Red Cell crisis. Rene had confronted Operations about his treatment of Michael and Operations had been lost the moment that Rene looked up at him from under those long lashes of his. The memory of Operations’ son had been evoked by Rene’s innocent anger on his father’s behalf, and from that moment on, Operations had been wrapped around Rene’s little finger. He had found a way to allow Rene and Michael to continue to know each other as Operations had not known his own son. The tough exterior had remained, but on this matter, his heart had definitely softened where Rene was concerned. I think he rather liked to think of Rene as the grandson he would probably never have or know, just as he thought in his more reflective moments of Michael as a son.

Madeline didn’t like what I had to say, but she understood why I said it. As I explained how worried I was about Michael’s exhaustion, a wistful expression softened her luminous dark eyes, and I wondered how I could ever have considered them cold eyes. There simmered in those eyes a fondness for Michael that I could not fathom, and I don’t think I wanted to know from where that fondness came. But, I did wonder where that fondness was when she had ripped his life apart when she had taken Rene from him, an action I felt, had contributed to Simone’s loss as well. Had time healed the coldness that I had sensed when she came to me all those years ago with her proposition that I raise Michael’s son? I knew I wasn’t the first to be nonplused by Madeline and I certainly would not be the last. Like Michael, she was an enigma.

In the end, I had her promise to lighten Michael’s workload. I think she understood that if she and Operations wanted him back at Section at his full capacity, she would have to give him the time he needed to heal and build back his former strength. And I also think she calculated that the more time he had with Rene, the more cemented would be his relationship with Rene and, hence, the easier he would be to control. Nothing escaped the notice of Madeline, nothing.

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

The end of November approached and it was almost time for Thanksgiving and it would be the first holiday that Rene and Michael had spent together since they had been reunited. That is, if Michael wasn’t called back. He had been with us for almost 2 months now and he seemed to have conquered his exhaustion and had achieved full range of motion in his injured arm and shoulder. His ribs had healed and he had been able to roughhouse with Rene on the lawn without pain lancing through his chest. He had even managed several games of one-on-one soccer with Rene. Carson had been on the sidelines coaching Rene and much to Michael’s chagrin, Rene had actually stolen the ball from Michael’s control more than once. The air outside was crisp with the promise of a chilly winter. The leaves had turned and once where green canopies shaded the front lawn, now a riot of red, brown and yellow leaves were falling to cover the lawn.

And each night, I prayed that the call wouldn’t come from Section. Please God, not tomorrow. And each day, my prayers were answered. Thanksgiving Day dawned and the morning was filled with activity and the smells of baking pies, turkey and laughter. There were just the four of us, Rene, Michael, Carson and me. Nikita had been sent off on a mission in Europe, so she wasn’t there to enjoy the holiday. And neither was Walter, as he was spending the day with Belinda. Tinges of green envy touched my heart as I thought of him being with someone he loved so much, but I pushed the envy away and concentrated on this day with those that I loved.

Soon, the table was set. The food had been carried in and we were all assembled. The sun streamed in through the windows and it was a glorious day. Michael was standing at one end of the table and I at the other end. Carson and Rene sat on either side. I had placed the golden brown turkey in front of Michael so he could carve it for us. He had made the first cut and was handing Rene his plate when the last sound any of us wanted to hear cut our happiness to ribbons. Michael’s cell phone rang.

The smile on Rene’s face as he looked at his father disappeared, and he stood, tears starting to gather in his eyes. “Nooooo, Daddy!” And then he turned and ran from the table. Michael slowly took the phone out of his pocket and answered it and, as I watched, he closed his eyes and listened to whoever was on the other end of the line.

“Hello? Yes....One hour? It will take me 2 hours to get there. It can’t be helped. Good-bye, Madeline.” He slipped the phone back in his pocket and sat down in his chair heavily and sighed. Looking at me, then Carson and then toward the hallway where Rene had run, he said “You heard. I have to go back.” He stood and walked slowly toward Rene’s room. He stopped, and without looking around, said quietly, “We knew this was coming. Carson, take care of them for me.” He then went to his son to explain a bit more about life and why he would be absent from Rene’s for the foreseeable future.

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

Michael found Rene stretched out, face down on his bed. He sat down next to his son and placed a hand on Rene’s back. His touch set off an explosion of emotion as Rene jumped up and flung his arms around Michael’s neck. Michael wrapped his own arms around his son and they held each other for what seemed an eternity.

“Rene, you know I have to go,” Michael said softly. Rene clung even tighter to Michael as if to stave off the inevitable, as if by holding on, he could keep Michael from leaving.

“Daddy, tell them you don’t want to work for them anymore! Tell them you won’t come back!” Rene pulled his head back and looked at his father. “Please, Daddy?”

Michael felt as if his heart was breaking. “Rene, you know there is nothing I want more in this world than to stay with you, but I have to go back. I’ll be back as soon as I can. You have to understand.”

“I don’t want to understand! I want you here with me and Mom! Quit your job. Tell them you don’t want to work for them any more!!” The threatening tears were now running down his cheeks, as he once again clung to Michael.

“Listen to me, Rene.” Michael pried his son’s arms from around his neck and settled him into his arms so that he could look down into Rene’s face. “There is something that I have to tell you. It will be hard for you to hear, but you have to know. It’s why I cannot quit my job like other fathers do. It’s why I will always work for the Section and why I always have to go back.” Michael drew a deep breath and wished that this conversation was not taking place. “A long time ago, when I was a young student at university, I did something very, very wrong. I was sent to prison. Because what I did was so terrible, they were never going to let me out of that prison.”

“Daddy, what did you do?” Rene’s eyes were wide with shock.

Michael sighed and knew he had to finish what he had started. “I helped someone build a bomb. We were students protesting what we felt was an injustice and we wanted to shock the government into listening to us. My friend told me he was planting the bomb in a place where no one would be hurt, but he lied to me. There were a lot of people where he planted the bomb and some of them were killed when the bomb exploded. I was caught and convicted and put in prison for life. And I stayed there until the Section stepped in and took me away from prison. They gave me another chance to live and they trained me to stop people like my friend and those who were much worse than my friend. That’s why I can never leave my job. It is my punishment for the bad things I did.” Michael kept hearing Grace’s voice in his head, just keep things simple. Don’t give long explanations. Just answer his questions simply and truthfully. He was shaken from his reverie by Rene’s voice.

“But Daddy, you didn’t mean for people to be killed. It wasn’t fair for them to give you all the blame and lock you up. Your friend wasn’t much of a friend if he let you take all of the blame. I hate him! What happened to him?” he asked, quickly becoming angry on his father’s behalf.

“He died,” Michael murmured, quickly deciding not to tell Rene that it was his namesake that had set Michael on his current path. Neither would he tell Rene that he had once been so tormented that he had almost allowed himself to die with Rene Dion. Only his light, Nikita, had saved him. Another reason to love his Nikita, she had saved him for his son, even though she didn’t know that at the time.

“Good!” Rene snapped, “I’m glad he got what he deserved.” The vehemence with which Rene spoke shook Michael. Rene felt awful for what had happened to his father. He reached up to touch Michael’s face and wipe away the tears that now streaked his father’s face. “Daddy, you are my hero, you will always be my hero, and nothing you do will ever stop me being proud of you. What you do now protects people, doesn’t it?” Michael was speechless. He could only nod, and accept his son’s embrace. “Well, then, you have an important job to do, and I will just have to accept that. Do you have to go right away?”

Michael nodded and hugged Rene tightly. Giving thanks that Rene understood, and still loved him. He also reflected upon the fact that it had been Rene Dion who had inadvertently set Michael on the path that had led to Section and his wife, Simone. So, in some small way, Rene’s namesake was responsible for giving him this warm, giving child he now held in his arms. With one last hug and kiss, Michael stood with Rene still in his arms and walked back out into the dining room where Grace and Carson waited to say good-bye.

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

The days passed quickly, and still we had no word from Michael. Then the phone rang and suddenly Rene was full of smiles. I saw him as he ran to the phone and watched as his face lit up. “Daddy! How are you, where are you. Are you coming home for Christmas?” I watched as disappointment filled my son’s face, and heard it in his voice, as he said sadly, “I understand.....really I do. You’ll try, won’t you? Okay ......just a minute. Mom, he wants to talk to you. Good-bye, Daddy, I love you, too! Here’s Mom.....” He handed me the phone and headed for his room. He passed Carson in the hallway and shook his head as Carson asked if he wanted to kick around the soccer ball. Carson let him pass and looked to me for an explanation.

“Hello, Michael,” I said. Carson nodded his understanding and turned back down the hallway to talk to Rene.

“Grace, I’m sorry. It’s been one mission after another. I know that Rene is disappointed. I had hoped to be able to visit, but it has been crazy here. Operations has not been a happy camper in weeks, and I can’t seem to do anything right in his eyes. He has even taken Nikita away from me. I am no longer her mentor. He told me I had to let go sometime. And I guess he felt this was the right time. I have barely seen her since I came back.” Michael stopped talking for a few moments.

“Michael?” I asked, “Is something wrong. Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m still here. That’s the problem. I’m here and Rene is there. I’m sorry I had to disappoint him, but I just don’t know when I will be back. I was hoping to spend Christmas with him, but now I don’t know where I will be. I’ll try to make it if I can.” Silence again.

“Rene is in a Christmas pageant next week on the 23rd. He’s playing a wise man. He was hoping you would be there,” I said.

“I want to be there, but if I’m not, I guess Carson will be there for him. He’s always there for Rene, isn’t he?” The anger in his voice surprised me.

I felt like scolding him, but instead, I said, “Carson will take us to the pageant, Michael, but only because you won’t be here. He will go with us because you told him to protect us and that is why he does it, not because he wants to take your place. Your place will always be here waiting for you. You know that! Now stop being a green-eyed monster about this. Get over the jealousy and try to work something out, so you can have Christmas with Rene!” Well, I thought, maybe I was scolding him. This sudden display of jealousy towards Carson was so unlike Michael, I thought, he must be under a lot of stress. “Michael,” I said soothingly, “Try to be here for Christmas, and bring Nikita and Walter if you can, and Birkoff too, that is, if they can also get away.”

His anger abated, Michael’s voice seemed calmer, “I’ll try my best.” he said. “And I will bring the others too. Oh, Grace, if Walter comes, don’t mention Belinda.”

“Why?” I asked, “Did that old man scare her off?” I laughed.

“No, Grace,” I stopped breathing when I heard the tone of his voice. “She’s gone. She was killed on a mission last week. They had just been married that morning before she left, and she didn’t come back from the mission. Walter was devastated, but Nikita and Birkoff were there for him. He took it pretty hard.”

“Oh, Michael! Tell him that I am so sorry. I know he loved her so much.” I felt awful for Walter. He had been so happy when he told me about Belinda. “It just isn’t fair!”

“You’re right, Grace. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t fair for Rene to be without his father at Christmas. We haven’t had a Christmas together since he was three. Please tell him I will be there if I can work it out. And tell him I love him. Take care, Grace. And tell Carson I said thanks for watching over you and Rene. I have to go. I have a briefing in 10 minutes. Good-bye, Grace. And have a Merry Christmas if I don’t see you before then. Good-bye.” And he broke the connection.

I sat down and cried. Life can be a real bitch sometimes, I thought. Hmmmm, I wondered, with the tears drying on my face, should I call Operations and wish him and Madeline a Merry Christmas? Couldn’t hurt, could it?

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

I don’t know how, when or why it happened. I just know that one day I was standing in the bay window at the front of my house, watching the two of them play rough and tumble on the front lawn that had just been dusted with a new layer of snow. They were laughing and having a wonderful time. I looked at him and thought to myself, I love him. I had known him a long time and he had been my friend from our first meeting, but now, I realized with startling clarity that I loved him. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. There was only one problem. I didn’t know how he felt about me. Oh, he loved me as a friend. I had known that for a long time. What I didn’t know was how he felt about me as a woman and as, potentially his life’s partner. I didn’t know that yet.

As I continued to watch, he must have felt my eyes on him. He looked up at me standing in the window and I saw his wonderful mouth smile at me. His lips moved, mouthing silent words to me. I took a step closer to the window and shrugged my shoulders, sending him the message that I did not understand what he was saying. He smiled at me and tried again, slowly mouthing I---L--O--V--E---Y--O--U. I smiled back and answered him with a big smile of my own and mouthed back the same message. He stood very still, causing my son to look up at him with a question in his green eyes. My new love smiled a thank you to me, and looked down at my son as Rene tugged on his sweater. He bent down and picked up my son, carrying him toward the house and deposited him on the porch as he continued into the house and into the room where I was waiting for him. He held out his arms and I ran to him, allowing myself to be enveloped in the warm circle of his arms. I sighed and said, “When did you know you loved me?”

“I think it started for me, when I found out what you had done for me. When you saved my life that day in Section. Grace, I will love you forever.”

“And I love you, Carson!”

A voice from the door interrupted our words of love to each other. “Well, it’s about time. I was beginning to think this would never happen.” These impatient words came from my son, Rene. “I thought you two were never going to tell each other how you felt. Now, Mom, what are you going to tell my Daddy about this?” He giggled the giggle of a very happy seven-year-old as he ran over to us. Carson scooped Rene up into his arms and we all joined together in a group hug. Maybe, there would be some happiness here after all, even if Michael didn’t make it home for Christmas.

I thought to myself, in this moment of total happiness, what, indeed, was I going to tell Michael? How would he take this information and how would it affect our friendship and the relationship between Michael and his son? Alex and Rene had become very close in the weeks that we had lived and worked here at the Section rehab center. Michael had been a patient here for a few weeks, but the one constant male presence in Rene’s life had been the big blond man who had somehow captured the heart of Rene’s Mom.

“So, when’s the first sleepover?” Carson and I turned stunned expressions to Rene who, in all innocence, stood there waiting for an answer. “Well?” he asked impatiently. “Daddy explained it all to me before he left. And I know I am not invited to the first one. So, is it tonight, or what?”

“Just what did Michael tell you, Rene?” I asked, interested to hear this story. Carson took my hand and led me and Rene over to the sofa. I was glad that he had the presence of mind to recognize that this was something that might be heard best if we were all sitting down.

“Rene?” I repeated. “What did your Daddy tell you?”

“Well, you know that morning when I woke up in my own bed, when I knew that I had gone to sleep in Daddy’s room with him and Nikita at the sleepover.” I nodded my head, “Well, you told me that he and Nikita needed some alone time because she was leaving and they wanted to say good-bye to each other. And you told me to ask Daddy about it later. Didn’t you? Well, I did ask him. And he told me that when two grownups fall in love with each other that they want to spend as much time as possible together, and that means that they stay with each other at night because sometimes they can’t be together all the time during the day. Right?”

This time, Carson and I looked at each other, then nodded to Rene. “That’s right, Rene.”

“So Daddy said that nighttime is a private time when grownups can enjoy each other’s company without interruptions. He said that was why he and Nikita had rooms connected by the bathroom, so they could be together without disturbing anyone else. He also said that when you and Carson finally decided that you loved each other, that it would be the same for the two of you. That you would want to be alone together at night, and that I was not to disturb you unless I was invited to a sleepover like Daddy and Nikita had.”

I felt the flaming blush rising from my throat and rushing into my face. How dare Michael.........but then I laughed and hugged my son. “Yes, Rene, your Daddy is exactly right. Sometimes grownups in love need their privacy. Your Daddy is very smart, isn’t he?”

Yes, I thought, Michael was right on the money. And today, without fail, I would call Operations and wish him a very Merry Christmas, and I hope, that he could be persuaded to give Michael a very special Christmas gift in return.

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

“I’ll try my best, Grace, really I will,” Operations gave me as close to a promise as he would allow himself to give. But even after a short talk with Rene, that was all he would give. Wherever Michael was, he wasn’t safe. I had gotten the distinct sensation of fear emanating from Operations. He truly didn’t know when Michael would be back, and he was worried. However, none of the fear I felt from him had transferred itself to Rene.

Rene was fairly dancing around the Christmas tree in anticipation of his father’s visit. I tried to calm him down. “But Ops said he would try his best to get Daddy here. He Promised!!” he shouted. “He promised.”

“I know Rene, but sometimes, promises can’t be kept. I want you to be prepared just in case Michael can’t make it back on time.” He looked at me with hurt eyes and turned away, putting his hands over his ears, not wanting to hear my words.

I sighed and hoped that Operations’ word was good and that Michael would be here for Christmas.

But the hours ticked away. We took Rene to his pageant performance and watched as he played the consummate Wise Man. His eyes always on the audience in hopes of catching a glimpse of his father, but Michael did not make an appearance. We returned home, and still received no word. Finally, when Rene could no longer keep his eyes open in vigil for his father, Carson and I tucked him into bed and kissed him goodnight. I retired to my room and had just slipped on a new white nightgown when I heard a quiet knock on my door. I turned toward the door to see Carson peek through the door opening. “Care for a sleepover?” he said smiling. “I brought food and champagne!”

I laughed a little nervously and walked over to take his hand and pull him inside, pushing in the lock on the doorknob. “Come in, please.” I whispered as I closed the door. “Put the basket down over there.” I pointed to a table in the sitting room area of my bedroom. “Carson, I ........” My words were drowned by his mouth on mine as he lifted me and carried me to my bed. I thought to myself, I hope this is like riding a bicycle. I hope I haven’t forgotten anything.

And to my delight as well as Carson’s, I discovered I hadn’t forgotten a thing. And I was happy to learn quite a few new things that night also. Carson was not my first lover, but I hoped he would be my last. I never wanted to leave his side again.

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

Christmas Eve dawned beautifully. I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was a golden head lying quietly on my breast. I brushed my fingers through the silky hair and smiled in remembrance of last night. Carson had taken me places that I had never been before, and I longed to return there, but first, I must face the day and figure out how to comfort Rene if Michael did not make an appearance. Suddenly, there was a soft rapping at my bedroom door. I eased out of bed and tiptoed to the door, slipping my nightgown over my head as I did so. I unlocked the door to find Rene standing there, with a food-laden bedtray at his feet.

“I brought you and Carson breakfast in bed. Can I come in?” He stretched a bit to peer into my bedroom. “He is in there, isn’t he? I checked his room. He’s not there, so he must be in here.”

I looked back toward my bed and was relieved to see Carson awake and pulling on the white T-shirt he had been dressed in last night. “Rene, that was so nice of you to bring us breakfast. Here, let me get that tray.” I said as I bent over to pick up the breakfast tray. I looked at Carson again and saw him whisk his jeans off the floor beside the bed and stuff them under the covers. Silently, I thanked him. No need to cause any other questions to pop into my seven-year-old’s head just now.

“I can get it, Mom!” Rene grumbled as he took the tray from my hands. “You get back in bed or this can’t be breakfast in bed.”

I obeyed my son and slid back under the covers as he carried the tray over to the bed. “Good morning, Carson!” Rene smiled as he handed me the tray, which I set down between Carson and myself. Rene was so proud of himself and both Carson and I praised him. He ducked his head and giggled a “Thanks!”

“Rene,” Carson said, “Will you join us for breakfast. There’s more than enough fruit, croissants and milk for all of us.”

Rene glanced up at us and shook his head. “No thanks, I still have to wrap the rest of Daddy’s Christmas presents. You two enjoy your breakfast alone. I’ll see you later.” He skipped from the room and locked the door on his way out.

“Are you sure that kid is only seven?” Carson asked as he kissed my neck and then fed me a grape that he held in his own mouth.

“Yes, his birth records show he is seven, but Carson, remember who his father is.” I reminded him.

Oh! Yes, I guess that explains it.” He smiled and this time, when his lips offered me a strawberry, I didn’t stop eating until I had devoured every last drop of juice from his lips and chin. What a feast we had that Christmas Eve morning!

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

Rene sat, glued to the front window, so that he could see any approaching vehicle.

I called him to lunch. He came to the table, but he didn’t eat much, so I told him he could take his plate back to the window. He resumed his vigil, but only played with the food on his plate. I collected his plate when he told me he didn’t feel like eating anything else. Carson tried to distract him with a favorite game, but he wouldn’t budge from the window seat.

I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I reached for the phone and dialed Operations private line.

“Hello?” Operations sounded impatient. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Grace,” I said, “you know why I am calling. Where’s Michael?” I waited for his answer, and waited.

“Uh, Grace, things are rather hectic here. Can I call you back?” I suddenly felt cold, something was very wrong.

“Paul,” I used his name to catch his attention. “Tell me. What’s wrong? Has Michael been hurt?” I looked toward the window seat to make sure Rene could not hear my conversation. I extended my hand and Carson was quickly at my side. “Tell me,” I said again.

“Grace, we just got word. Michael’s team was ambushed. Several were killed.....We don’t know who yet.” I looked up at Carson and realized that I was digging my fingernails into his flesh. He just held onto me and didn’t say a word. I suddenly handed him the phone and rushed to the bathroom. My lunch came up in a rush. I didn’t want to hear the rest of what Operations had to say.

I rinsed my mouth out and as I walked back into the kitchen, I watched Carson end the conversation with Operations. He was asking Operations to keep us informed. He said Thank You and hung up the phone. I rushed into his arms.

“He’ll call us when he has more information. Are you all right, Grace?” I nodded but didn’t trust my voice yet. We both looked into the living room at Rene and wondered what we were going to tell him.

I found my voice. “We tell him nothing until we know more. Okay?” Carson nodded and I was so glad to have his arms around me. The next hour was almost unbearable as I hoped and prayed that I would not have to tell Rene that his father was never coming home again. ************

It was just turning dark when the phone rang again.

“He’s alive,” Madeline’s voice told us. “He was shot and wounded, but he’s alive.” She sounded relieved, but worried. “He was hit in the head, but thanks to the hard head we both know he has, the bullet didn’t penetrate. Instead it ploughed a three-inch gash from the left side of his forehead to his left temple. The doctors say he has a concussion but he will recover. He is on his way home as we speak. Operations is delivering him personally. Take care of him, Grace. We will need him back in a week or two.” She paused, “And Grace, tell Rene to have a Merry Christmas. I’m glad he will be with Michael.” And she ended the call.

I slumped back into Carson’s arms, and said, “Let’s go talk to Rene. Michael’s on his way.” The tension of the last few hours was too much, and I turned in his arms and cried into his chest. He held me tightly until I had cried myself out, then he took me to the bathroom, washed my face and went with me to talk to Rene.

By the time we had explained Michael’s situation to Rene, there was a huge roaring sound outside. When we looked out of the window, we saw the snow swirling up in great drifts and a bright light arrowed down to the ground from above. Rene broke from us, grabbed his coat and was out of the door before we could move. Carson and I ran after him.

A Bell Ranger helicopter was just settling down on the wide expanse of lawn in front of the house. Rene had stopped on the lawn and was screaming into the maelstrom of the swirling snow. We caught up to him just as the side door of the helicopter slid open to reveal Walter and Birkoff with Michael supported between the two of them. Operations had jumped out of the helicopter and was guiding Michael down and out of the helicopter. Rene ran to his father and gently hugged him, looking worriedly at the white bandage that was wrapped securely around Michael’s head. Carson went over to Michael and picked him up bodily and walked back toward the house with him. I followed and, as I glanced back, I saw both Walter and Birkoff unloading several colorfully wrapped Christmas presents. I stopped and watched as Rene hugged Operations, and shouted something into his ear. Operations hugged Rene back and shook his head and then climbed back inside of the helicopter. Rene waved good-bye and then ran back to the house and followed me inside. We went immediately to Michael’s room where Carson had laid him on the bed and was gently pulling the layers of blankets and a heavy coat from his body. Michael was unconscious, and I marveled again at how young he looked like this. Soon, we had him tucked in bed and Rene took up vigil over his father, determined that he would not move until Michael opened his eyes.

I thought to myself, how many times does Rene have to see his father like this. It was the third time in as many months. But at least Michael was alive and as long as he was, he would always come back to his son.

I left Rene with Michael and went back to the living room to see to my other guests. Walter and Birkoff were shaking the snow off their coats when I greeted them with a “Merry Christmas!”

“Is Michael okay?” Birkoff asked, as he wiped foggy glasses on his shirt-tail.

“He will be, he’s sleeping now. Rene is with him.” I asked where Nikita was and Walter told me she was still out on a mission. She planned to drive up when she returned and finished debriefing. “Does she know about Michael?” Walter shook his head and Birkoff told me that Madeline would tell her when she got back. I hoped that Nikita would be here for Christmas, and for Michael.

“Well,” I said, “Let’s get the two of you situated for the night. Birkoff, you can have Nikita’s room. It’s next to Michael’s and Walter, you can stay in Carson’s room.”

“Uh, Gracie, where is Carson going to sleep?”

I smiled at him and said simply, “With me.”

Walter grinned and hugged me. “Congratulations, I thought I saw that coming.”

I held Walter tightly and whispered into his hear, “Walter, I was so sorry to hear about Belinda. You okay?”

He sniffed and said, “Yeah, I’ll be all right. But I am real happy for you and Carson.”

I looked in amazement at the stack of gifts on the floor. “Let’s get these under the tree.”

“Uh, Gracie, there’s one package that I have to take for a walk. He opened the top of a large box and the soft brown eyes of a golden retriever puppy gazed up at me. “How do you feel about a new family member? Michael got him for Rene just before this last mission. He made me promise to give it to Rene if he didn’t make it back in time.”

“Oh, Walter! He’s precious! I tell you what. Take him out for a walk and let me check to see if Michael is awake. I think this is one present that won’t make it until morning.” Walter nodded and he picked up the puppy while Birkoff pulled a leash out of his pocket and clipped it on to the puppy’s collar. He and Walter headed for the door with their precious bundle. I watched them leave, and then turned to walk down the hallway to check on the other men in my life.

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

When I walked into Michael’s room, he was struggling to sit up and Rene was adamant that he was not going to sit up. “Daddy, lay down! You need to rest. Please, Daddy.” Michael finally stopped struggling and laid down. His eyes locked on to Rene’s.

“I tried my best to get back here in time. Did I make it? What time is it?

Is it Christmas yet?”

I looked at my watch and said, “Yes, Michael, you made it. It’s 12:05. It’s Christmas Day.” I bent over him and whispered in his ear. “I’m glad you’re okay. Walter is out walking Rene’s present. Do you want to give it to him now?” His eyes still looked a bit unfocused, but he nodded yes, so I went to get the present, but not before giving Carson a kiss and telling him to keep Rene in the bedroom with Michael, as if anything could tear him away now.

When Walter, Birkoff and I walked into Michael’s room, Carson had helped Michael sit up, apparently over Rene’s objections, to judge by the frown on his face and the stiff body language as he sat on the bed with his arms crossed. But he smiled as he saw the huge box that Walter carried over to the bed and set down by Michael. “Is that for me?” he gasped.

“Yes! Merry Christmas, Rene! I hope you like it.” Michael smiled and said, “Go ahead, open it.”

With a delighted squeal, Rene pulled open the flaps of the box and his eyes went as round as silver dollars at what he saw. The puppy made a leap for freedom out of the box and landed in Rene’s arms, where he proceeded to thoroughly lick every inch of Rene’s face before looking around for another victim and descended on Michael, to give him the same treatment. Both father and son dissolved in laughter as the puppy couldn’t seem to get enough of either Rene or Michael. I felt Carson’s arms reach around me from the back and I leaned into him, watching the beginning of Rene’s best Christmas yet. And as I felt the strong arms around me, I decided this was my favorite Christmas as well.

Walter’s voice brought me back to my senses. “Well, kid, what are you going to name it?” Rene shrugged.

“I don’t know.” He sat in quiet thought for a few minutes. “Daddy, what’s my real name, you know, your last name. My adopted name is King, but what is my real name?”

Michael smiled a tired smile. “Samuelle, your real name is Samuelle.”

Rene returned his father’s smile, “Then, I guess his name is Samuelle, Sam for short! Okay, Sam?” He hugged the newest member of the family and was rewarded with another round of face washing from Sam.

Things were winding down for the night. Walter and Birkoff had drifted off to their rooms and I watched as Michael’s eyes kept closing and popping back open to drink in every second that Rene was near him. I finally ordered Rene to his room to get ready for bed with the promise that he could sleep tonight with Michael. While he was in his room, Carson left me for a few minutes with Michael. I put my hand on his forehead and was glad to feel no fever, only coolness. “You had us all terrified. I was worried about you. Don’t ever do that again. Now, take your pills and get some sleep. No arguments from you. Take them.” He took the pills I gave him with a sip of water and settled himself back on to the pillows, just as Rene came running back into the room in his jammies. Sam bounding along behind him. He quickly snuggled up to Michael and as I turned the lights out, both father and son were sound asleep with the newly christened Sam at the foot of the bed guarding his new master and his master’s Daddy.

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

I awoke again in Carson’s arms and was amazed at how lucky I was. I used to be so envious of women who strolled confidently down the street with an arm tucked through the arm of a man. I had begun to think that I would be alone for all of my life.

Then that momentous day had arrived when I watched Michael and his family come through the doors of my library. It seemed so long ago, and so much had happened since then. I had a son, great friends and a man who loved me. What more could I ask of life? I thought about that question. There were a lot of answers, world peace? an end to political scandals? These were lofty answers and probably unattainable.

So, I looked closer to home: a father who would stay alive for my son, someone to grow old with. One I had and the other I would fight for. I hoped that Michael would live to see Rene grow up, but the hard, cold truth was that he might not be allowed to do that, so I vowed to make the two of them as happy as they could be for as long as I could.

Today would be the first Christmas they had spent together since Rene was three. I wanted to make it a memorable one. It began badly, with a frightened Rene banging on my bedroom door. I wrapped my robe around myself and opened the door to find Rene launching himself at me and crying, “Something’s wrong with Daddy. Come help him Mom!!” He turned and ran back across the house to Michael’s room while I asked Carson to call Joe Lassiter, the staff doctor at the rehab center, and then I ran after Rene.

The sight that greeted me when I ran into Michael’s room was one of chaos. Sam was standing at the end of the bed, barking furiously and Walter was trying to hold down a panicky Michael, who was shouting something about Rene. “Don’t leave me. Stay Rene. Please!! NO Nikita, Simone, please don’t do that!!” In his thrashing about, he had somehow pulled the bandage from his head and the wound had reopened and was bleeding profusely. Carson soon arrived and called out to me that the doctor was on his way. Dr. Lassiter came flying into the room from the center where he lived a short distance away. He pulled open his medical bag and quickly drew fluid from a small bottle.

“This will relax him and then we can take a look at that wound.” He injected Michael and slowly, Michael’s frantic movements slowed down.

“Joe, what’s wrong!” I said, trying to staunch the flow of blood from Michael’s head wound. Joe Lassiter was checking Michael’s vital signs and didn’t seem worried by what he saw. “Does he often have nightmares? All his vital signs are okay. There’s no sign of fever. I think this was only a nightmare or a panic attack. Has he been under a great deal of stress lately.”

“Yes, he is subject to nightmares. And he is always under a lot of stress. You think this was a nightmare?” I said incredulously.

“Yes, I think so. Now, let me take a look at that wound.” In a few minutes, he had managed to stop the bleeding and had redressed the wound. Dr. Lassiter gave me two bottles of pills. “One is antibiotics and the others are for pain. The directions are on the bottle. Make sure he takes all of the antibiotics. The pain pills can be taken as indicated for any discomfort or headache that he has. I’ll check on him later this afternoon. Just get him cleaned up and keep him warm, and I think he will be okay.

Carson and Walter helped me clean up Michael and change the bloody sheets on his bed while Birkoff had pulled Rene away and asked him about the computer in his room. Rene sensed that the grownups needed to take care of his father, so he allowed himself to be drawn away from Michael. But as soon as we had Michael resettled in a clean bed, Rene was back anxiously holding his father’s hand.

When Michael finally opened his eyes, they grew wide as he looked around at all of us standing there in the room with him.

“What’s going on? Why are you all looking at me that way?” He squeezed Rene’s hand. “Rene, will you tell me what happened?”

“Daddy, you had a nightmare and scared everyone. You hurt your head again and you were bleeding all over everything. I ..... I thought you were dying, or something!” Rene buried his face in Michael’s shoulder and sobbed his relief that his father was all right.

Michael rubbed Rene’s back and murmured to him, “I’m okay, Rene, don’t be upset. I’m okay.” I could see the tears threatening in Michael’s eyes, so I began issuing orders to clear everyone from the room.

“Carson, you and Walter, go start breakfast. Birkoff, I think Sam needs to go for a walk. Hurry up!! It’s Christmas morning, and no presents get opened until after breakfast. Now get moving!” I looked over at Michael and his son.

Michael’s eyes were smiling through the tears glistening there. “Is she always this bossy?” he asked Rene.

“Yeah, but you should see her when she really gets mad. Carson and I have learned to keep her happy.....the hard way.” Rene giggled and the three of us had a good laugh, as the tension in the room dissipated.

Later that sunny, snowy Christmas morning, after breakfast had been eaten and the dishes washed and put away, the six of us sat in the living room opening presents. Michael had attempted to walk from his bedroom but his knees had buckled after two steps. Again, Carson had been there to scoop him up and carry him into the living room to deposit him on the sofa. Rene had spread a blanket over his legs and now sat on the floor beside him looking at a black case that he had just unwrapped. “What is it Daddy? It was in the package from Operations and Madeline.” Rene opened the case and discovered a hand held computer.

“Hey, I put that together. I thought Operations was going to use it. I’ll show you how to use is this afternoon, Rene. Cool, you can communicate with someone anywhere in the world with that baby.” He looked at Michael and then at Rene and grinned. “Cool!” he said again.

Michael was opening his last package when Rene stood to watch him. “That one’s from me, Daddy. I hope you like it.” He watched as Michael lifted a leathter-bound book from the red and green tissue paper. He smiled as he ran his hands over the smooth soft leather. “It’s wonderful, Rene. I will treasure it always.” He pulled Rene into a hug as if he never wanted to let go.

“Daddy,” he said, “Would you read to us from it. I’ve marked the place. Please?”

Michael glanced down at the book and then back to Rene. “Rene......I don’t know that I have the right to read from this book, after all the things I have done.” He bowed his head, as if ashamed to look at Rene.

“Daddy, you have just as much right as anyone. That’s why I got it for you. Please??”

“All right, Rene. Here, sit with me.” Michael pulled his son up into his lap, opened the book to where Rene had placed a bookmark, and started to read, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem... to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.

“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

“And, lo, he angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which Christ the Lord.

“And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Michael closed the Bible, so lovingly chosen for him by his son, and closed his eyes. He felt renewed, his soul cleansed, and he had love in his heart for those around him, especially for the bundle of life and joy that he held in his arms. This was truly the best Christmas of his life.

“Daddy,” his son whispered, “Daddy, look who is here. Look!”

Michael opened his tear-filled eyes and smiled. His Christmas just got better and better. For there before him, leaning in the doorway, listening to him read, was his light, Nikita.