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The Gift

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I was simply, gloriously happy. Five years ago, I would never have imagined how much my life could have changed to what it was today.

Five years ago, I was ensconced in a career that I loved and from which I would retire when the time came. My life was ordered and complacent, ordinary....and, yes, boring. That was all before an enigmatic, beautiful man with green eyes had walked into my life.....along with his ill-fated wife, Simone, and their three-year-old giggling green-eyed son, Rene.

The three of them had come to the library where I worked and had become regulars at the Saturday afternoon story time, where I read to the children. Rene, their three-year-old, had quickly become a favorite of mine. I loved how he would snuggle up in my lap to hear me read the newest story. His parents, Michael and Simone, had become my friends, and we enjoyed each other’s company for late Saturday afternoon coffee when I finished my work at the library.

The first chink in my very complacent life had come when a month of Saturdays went by without Michael’s family showing up for storytime. When Michael finally did appear, it was to tell me that Rene had been struck by a car and had been killed. We shared our grief and then Michael disappeared from my life once more, only to reappear a few weeks later with the news that he had also lost Simone. This time, he was about to tell me what had happened when Walter, another friend I had met through Michael walked up and explained that Simone had died in a tragic traffic accident. I tried as much as I could to help Michael through his grief. He would often come to my library on Saturday afternoons to listen to me read stories to the children. An attempt, I thought, to maintain a tenuous link to the son that he had lost. This continued for a while until I told Michael about a dark-eyed woman that I had seen who was obviously following and watching him.

This news upset him and he staged an argument with me that he wanted this woman to observe, so she would think that Michael and I had made a permanent break with each other. I wept to think that I would never see Michael again. And I didn’t see him again for a very long time.

The dark-eyed woman came to my home late one evening with a proposition for me, one that I reluctantly accepted. It seemed that Michael was tied irrevocably to an anti-terrorist organization that wanted no distractions for him. A son and a wife were expendable distractions and so, they had been removed from his life, the wife more permanently removed than the child. I was also a distraction and the dark-eyed woman wanted me gone as well. A now six-year-old Rene was still alive, she told me and would remain so only if I accepted her proposition to take him far away from Michael. I agreed. My heart almost broke when I saw Rene come running to me at the airport, hugging me and asking where his Mommy and Daddy were. It fairly shattered when I caught a glance of Michael walking quickly away after watching our reunion. He knew.....

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

He knew I had Rene and that the two of us were starting a new life together far away from Michael and his secret life. Late one evening, I heard a voice in Rene’s room and when I investigated, I found Michael singing a soft, sweet lullaby to a restless Rene. Michael quieted a sleeping Rene and did not flinch when I laid my hand upon his shoulder.

We talked far into the night and I was comforted beyond words when Michael told me he approved of my adopting and raising Rene. “Grace, there is no one I would entrust Rene to, more than you,” he told me. By dawn, he was gone, and my new life with Rene continued happily.

>From that moment, to this, my life had never been the same. It had shattered into a million pieces, and then I had rebuilt it, with some reluctance, heartache, fear and finally, with an unsurpassing joy.

In the last five years, I had changed careers, thrown caution to the wind, adopted that giggling green-eyed wonder child as my own, and had fallen in love with a killer. The order and complacency of my former life had taken a back seat to the joy, fear and love that made up my present life. And I wouldn’t trade my life now with the my old, safe life for anything in this world. I like my new life, no, make that I love my new life. I love my eight-year-old son, I love his father as my most trusted friend, and, most of all, I love Alex Carson, former killer and former operative of Section One, the most covert anti-terrorist organization on the planet.

How I came to this point in my life is a long story, better told at another time. What concerns me now is the present. Carson and I were preparing for a visit to Section One headquarters. He was to be examined by a Section doctor, and hopefully, he would finally be officially released from Section Medical. The knee that had been shattered over a year ago by a terrorist’s bullet had been repaired as much as it could be and this exam would confirm that further surgeries would not be needed. He would always have a limp, but this meant that he would not be rejoining Section as an operative, and I was glad for that. The moment that he had been injured had been the moment that Section had deemed his life unnecessary for their use and he had been slated for medical cancellation. Carson had saved Michael’s life when Michael had offered his life in exchange for Rene and I . We had been kidnapped by a man who actually wanted Michael. Our cover was blown and I knew that meant another relocation for Rene and I. Michael’s sacrifice had freed us, but he had been badly injured and Carson had been the one to save his life. We had been brought back to Section headquarters so that Madeline could decide what to do with us. Rene and I were happy just to be with Michael. Carson had been sent out on another mission and his knee had been shattered by a terrorist’s bullet. I had been in Medical, waiting for an injured and comatose Michael to return to the land of the living when I had overhead Carson’s doctor discussing his condition and impending fate.

Never one to keep my feelings and opinions to myself, I had confronted Operations and Madeline about Carson and they had responded with some demands of their own. When I left Madeline’s office, a new career had been created for me, and I realized that I had saved Carson’s life. His life was now bound up with my new life, and I hoped he would accept this new fate for himself.

Accept his fate, he did. We immersed ourselves in our new careers. I, as chief administrator of the new Section Rehabilitation Center and he, as the new chief of security for the Center. At first, most of Carson’s duties were performed from a wheel chair, but gradually, he worked as hard at his own rehabilitation as did the various Section patients did, and soon he was on crutches and then, carefully, he was walking on his own.

Our first patient had been a recuperating Michael, who was assisted in his recovery by a very happy Rene, who reveled in being with his father again. We all settled in for a very comfortable life, but that was soon disrupted when I found I could no longer keep Michael and Rene together. Michael healed quickly and Section wanted him back.

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

And so, Michael went back, leaving a devastated but understanding Rene behind. Before he left, Michael had explained to Rene why he always had to go back to Section...why he couldn’t stay with Rene. Michael’s son understood what his father had told him, but the parting was still hard for the both of them.

Michael’s short visits were few, but he came home every chance he got, and sometimes he brought Nikita with him. And sometimes, they came not for a visit, but for the medical facilities to heal their various injuries and to rebuild their strength and endurance so that they could once again assume the role of operatives for Section One. Other operatives came to the Rehab Center as well. Most left in much better shape than when they had arrived. I sometimes had the awful feeling that I was repairing cannon fodder for Section, but then Carson would pull me into his arms and whisper to me that I made a difference. Without the Rehab Center, many of my patients would have ended as he almost did, a medical cancellation. I was sure I didn’t see the worst cases. I knew that some of the injured operatives never made it to the Center, that they were canceled before they got to me. I vowed to Carson that I would never send an operative back to Madeline for cancellation, NEVER. He would just hug me and attempt to distract my mind from such thoughts, and I admit that I almost always let his attempts succeed. My mind retreated to the warmth of Carson’s arms, his lips, and his caresses. I did not want to think about what I could not change.

In time, Carson and I were summoned to Section One. He for his medical evaluation follow-up on his knee and I for the first annual review of the Rehab Center.

I was nervous, and Carson noticed. “You’ll be okay. You know you have done a great job here, Grace,” he said as he kissed a path from my ear to my collarbone.

“Stop that!” I grumbled. “If you start that, we will never get to Section. Where’s Rene?”

“He’s in his room, and you know that. Now settle down! You need to relax,” he smiled and continued his kisses. I twisted out of his grasp and started gathering our jackets. I threw his at him and he caught it, laughing.

“I’ll relax when this review is over. Until then, no distractions. All right?” I looked over at him and he was still smiling at me. “Oh, Carson, you know just how to push my buttons, don’t you?” I went to him and put my arms around him. “You know, don’t you, that you are the center of my universe? You and Rene. Carson, what if today doesn’t go well? What if....” He silenced my doubts with a kiss that left my toes curling.

“I want you to concentrate on all the good things you have accomplished. We have covered all the bases. Michael helped you with this last week when he was here. You know that you have a success here. And Madeline will see that also. She is not going to be a problem. And neither will Ops. So, stop worrying!” He was beginning to be impatient with me and I knew it, so I tried to control my nervousness and concern.

“We had better get started, it’s a long drive.” I walked out of our bedroom retreat with Carson running up behind me and sweeping me off my feet and nibbling on my ear. I tried to be exasperated with him, but when he was so affectionate and endearing to me, I just gave up and went with the flow of emotions.

Rene was sitting in the living room waiting patiently for us. He smiled when he saw me in Carson’s arms and said teasingly, “Are you two at it again?” He sighed and rolled his eyes, “I’ll never understand grownups!”

Carson put me down and laughed. “You are only eight, little man. Wait a few years and you will understand it all better. Now, let’s get this show on the road.”

The three of us headed out the door to Section One. Rene was going with us in hopes that he would get to spend some time with Michael. He had also confided in me that he had “some work” to do on Operations. Rene had decided that his Daddy and Nikita needed a vacation and he planned to see that Operations felt that way too.

I smiled and thought to myself, Operations is not going to know what hit him. Rene was the most determined eight-year-old that I knew.

***********

The Land Rover that had been assigned to the Rehab Center by Section ate up the miles between the Center and our destination, Section One. I had been surprised that this type of vehicle had been given to us. I had expected one of the big Suburbans that had been used by teams on missions, but Operations had insisted that the Land Rover would be better for us and the Center. He said the Rover was much safer, and he wanted Rene to be safe. I suspected that under all the bluster that there was an old softy buried deep inside Operations. I know that he definitely had a soft spot for Rene somewhere in that cold heart he showed to everyone else. As long as that soft spot allowed Rene and Michael time together, I would do all I could to cultivate it. Keeping Operations happy was a priority in our household.

The Center was remote so we really didn’t have too much traffic in the area. The terrain around the Center was hilly and the three of us did like to go on outings, so the Land Rover served our purposes well. I was also glad that we weren’t assigned one of the Suburbans because I associated them with bad times for us. Twice the big black vehicles had carried an injured Michael. And I was not unpleased that we didn’t have a reminder of those terrifying times sitting in our driveway.

Carson and I talked about Center business as he drove and Rene was sitting in the back seat reading one of the several books he always carried in his backpack on our road trips. Like his father, he was a voracious reader, and I, with my background, did everything I could to encourage his love of books, reading and learning. With Rene, this was not a problem. Our biggest problem was finding enough bookshelves to house our burgeoning book collection. One of the extra bedrooms had already been outfitted with floor-to-ceiling shelves and we were well on our way to filling all of them. Each time that Michael visited us, he brought Rene several books that he thought Rene would enjoy, and Rene did enjoy them. For an eight-year-old, he was very well-read and he loved everything, science fiction, fantasy, biography, animal stories. If it had words, Rene would read it. He read cereal boxes, magazines, everything. Once he was helping me unpack some supplies for the Center and he discovered the packing material was newspaper, from New Mexico, of all places. He carefully straightened out each page and was soon telling us about a new art gallery and the local political situation in the city of Santa Fe.

We were getting closer to Section HQ, only a few more miles. The butterflies were stirring in my stomach again and I laughed at myself. When, I thought to myself, have I ever been afraid of Madeline? I had been afraid for Michael and Nikita and what she could do to them, but I had never really been afraid for myself. At least, not once I got to know her better. She intrigued me, with her Mona Lisa smile and her cunning ways. But sometimes, I caught a sad, wistful look on her face, and I wondered what her life must be like, and how she was before she came into Section.

Today, I was prepared to do battle with the cold-eyed one. There were several changes I wanted to make and if all went well, I would get my way, Madeline or no Madeline. The fluttering in my stomach continued, and I looked over at Carson to see him staring back at me, as if he was trying to read my thoughts. He extended his hand and smoothed down my hair. “It’s going to be okay, Grace, really it is.”

“How did I ever get to deserve someone like you to love me?” I asked him, tears starting to smart in my eyes.

“Just lucky, I guess. All you had to do was get held hostage by bank robbers and then, suddenly there I am. You get kidnapped by someone who wants to sell Michael to the highest bidder and there I am again. I finally decided that maybe we were being thrown together for a reason. Then I get shot and you rescue me from a death sentence. I don’t know, you think maybe we were fated to be together?” He grinned and let his hand continue its journey down my neck to my shoulder and arm until he grasped my hand. He brought it up to his mouth and placed a series of soft kisses across my fingers.

“Carson.....” I said. “You are starting something that can’t be finished here and now.” I closed my eyes and whispered to him, “let’s continue this when we get home. Right now, I have to focus on our future. And it’s only a few blocks away.” I slowly drew my fingers away, warming suddenly at the playful look still there in his eyes. Yes, I thought, hopefully when this review thing was over and done with, tonight would be one for celebration and tenderness.....

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

As we drew nearer and nearer Section, Rene looked up anxiously from his book. “Mom, do you think I will get to spend some time with Daddy today?”

I turned in my seat to look at him. The beautiful combination of Simone and Michael met in my son’s wonderful eyes. Green as his father’s were and slightly almond shaped from his mother gave Rene an exotic look, a melding of East and West. Some day, my son was going to be a real heart-breaker for the ladies. But now, he looked wistfully at me, hoping I could give him good news.

“Rene, I don’t know if your Daddy will even be there. I haven’t talked to him since you did and that was three days ago. He may be on a mission. You know that there is always that chance.” I saw the sad look invade his face and said, on a more hopeful note, “but you can never tell. He may be waiting for you to arrive as we speak.”

Rene smiled, and said quietly, “Yeah, maybe he is.....” and resumed his reading, no doubt imagining his reunion with his father.

But Michael wasn’t waiting for Rene to arrive. He stood at the entrance to van access, waiting for each member of his team to arrive and enter the van. Anticipating a quick in and out reconnaissance mission, Michael was hoping to be back in Section in a few hours. And, with just a little bit of luck, Rene would still be in Section, waiting for him.

Michael’s head snapped up and he stood away from the wall he had been leaning against.

The person coming slowly around the corner on a set of crutches was not his tardy team member, but Nikita, his light.

She made her way slowly down the hall toward Michael, favoring her right foot which was heavily bandaged up past her ankle. “Are you ready to go?” she asked.

“Just about, Henson is running a little bit late. What are you doing down here on that ankle. You should be in Medical,” he asked, concerned that Nikita would make her injury worse.

“It’s okay. I just wanted to see you off. I might not be here when you get back.” She looked down at her feet, and then slowly looked up into Michael’s face by moving only her eyes and not her head. His heart caught in his chest to see her gaze up at him through her long lashes. Her eyes held an unspoken question, and he, knowing her so well, answered it.

“Don’t worry, it’s only a short recon mission. I should be back in a few hours. Our target thinks he can move his operation onto our turf, and we have to convince him otherwise. It won’t take long.” Michael had a question of his own. “And why won’t you be here when I get back?” He was about to extend his hand and touch her cheek when the tardy team member came running down the hall.

‘Michael!” he said breathlessly, “sorry I’m late. My gun jammed in practice and Walter was repairing it, Are we ready to go...” He stopped talking, and looked from the stern stare on Michael’s face to the grin on Nikita’s and finally stammered, “Well, I, uhh, I’ll just go get in the van and wait for you, I mean, I...I don’t want to hurry you or anything....Aw Hell!” He shut his mouth on that last phrase and disappeared down the hallway to van access.

Nikita’s grin grew wider. “You scare him to death with your looks. Well, my wonderful friend,” and now it was she who took the initiative and reached out to touch Michael’s face. “The doctor says I will need a few days of physical therapy, so I thought I might catch a ride out to the Center with Grace when she, Rene and Carson drive back there this afternoon.” She drew her fingers down his cheek and then across his lips. “You will be a good boy while I am gone, won’t you?” she said teasingly. She turned to go, but then stopped. “Your know, Michael, this being a routine mission and all....you might think about tripping over something, pulling a muscle, injuring a shoulder....then perhaps we could both visit the Center for a few days together. She smiled a “come hither” smile and turned again to leave Michael at van access.

In a few steps, he caught her arm. He looked into her eyes, and said very quietly into her ear, “If I am going to spend any time with you, I want to be very healthy.” This time it was his turn to tease her. Michael very slowly traced her brow and cheek with his fingers. He brushed a kiss against her lips and turned away and disappeared through the van access door.

Nikita had been leaning into Michael’s warm presence and when he had abruptly turned from her, she had almost lost her balance. She winced as she caught herself from overbalancing by putting her weight on her injured ankle. Breath hissed through her teeth as she shifted most of the weight back on to the crutches, and turned to make her way back to Systems. Birkoff will have some munchies, she thought, and I need something right now to chew on.....especially since Michael was unavailable at the moment.

***********

The uneasiness that I had felt earlier had returned. Instead of a few flutterings as before, the butterflies I felt were now raging around my insides and I actually felt a bit nauseous with the nervousness and stress of my forthcoming meeting with Madeline. Carson noticed my fidgeting and turned kind eyes on me, smiling and taking my hand.

“You don’t listen to me,” he admonished me. “Everything is going to be just fine.”

He kept looking from the street ahead back to my face, his hand stroking the veins in the back of my hand. “I know,” I said. “I don’t know what is wrong with me. It’s just that so much is riding on this evaluation. The Center....us. This meeting has to go well.” I put my other hand on his and brought his hand up to my lips. “Please don’t laugh at me. I’m nervous enough as it is.”

He chuckled, and pulled his hand from my grasp to push a strand of my hair back into place. “I’m not laughing at you, I just find it amusing that one of the most self-assured women I have ever known is so jittery about this meeting.”

“Well, how would you feel about going into a meeting in which Madeline was going to evaluate everything you have done in the last year of your life?”

“Grace,” he said seriously. “A year ago, I was evaluated by Section One and they had decided to cancel me....until you came. I know nervous first hand. I thought I was going to be a dead man. I would have been without you.” His voice had grown husky and I knew that he was upset to see me so emotional. He liked me emotional, but he also wanted me prepared for this meeting. “Grace, just focus on all the great things we have accomplished this past year, on both a professional level as well as a personal level. Nothing can stop us, not even Madeline.”

“You’re right, I know you are right. It’s just that.....” I looked up at his blue eyes, and almost got lost it them. A blur of motion drew my attention past Carson’s dear face and I froze in horror at what I saw coming toward us. A pickup, black as night, was barreling toward the intersection we were about to cross. I knew we had the green light, but he wasn’t slowing down.

Carson saw the terror in my eyes and swung his gaze around for a split-second and then looked quickly back at me. Everything was being played out in slow-motion. Carson had just enough time to call out to me. “Grace, I love you....” And then the truck broadsided us, hitting the door on Carson’s side. I watched horrified as Carson was catapulted toward me and then everything went black......Rene! The thought screamed into the blackness that suddenly surrounded me.

***********

“Sir, I just got an emergency beacon from one of our vehicles. It has been compromised.” Birkoff’s disembodied voice interrupted Operations’ quiet reverie. He has thinking about his son, who had been lost to him these last 25 years. No, not lost, put aside. Put aside for the sake of saving the world, of working for an organization that asked more than he was willing to give sometimes. But gave he did, again and again.

“Who’s team, Birkoff!” He said gruffly, “and how was it compromised?”

“It....it’s not a team vehicle, Sir,” Birkoff told him. “It’s a Land Rover that was assigned to the Section Rehab Center. It’s the one that Grace and Carson uses. Sir, it’s been in a traffic accident, a bad one.”

“Who was in it, Birkoff?” Operations snapped. “I need details!”

“Sir, police reports that two adults and a child were in the Land Rover. It’s Grace, Carson and ....Rene.” Birkoff was sweating now and feeling a bit sick. He was scared for Grace and her family. He wanted them to be okay, but it didn’t look good.

Part of Operations’ brain was yelling No, not Rene, not Rene, but the Section part, the logical part was profiling a mission. “Listen carefully, Birkoff. Tell Housekeeping to meet me at van access in 5 minutes. I want them to use an ambulance. We will go retrieve Grace, Carson and Rene and bring them back here for treatment. Notify the police on the scene that a government ambulance is on the way to pick them up and transport them to a Trauma Center. Impress upon them that any emergency personnel on the scene will treat them but they are NOT to be transported by anyone except the special ambulance. Next, notify Madeline that I will be away from Section for a short period. Tell her why. Then, call in Nikita. I want her here when Michael gets back. She will know how to handle him. I am certain that he will be distraught at what has happened,”

“Sir,” Birkoff interrupted, “Nikita is already here. I just saw her.”

“Good!” Birkoff heard an audible sigh from Operations. “Good, tell her to meet me in van access. Now MOVE, Birkoff!” Birkoff had been leaning back in his chair watching Operations pace back and forth in his office as he barked orders. The young computer genius quickly started following his orders. The next time he looked up, Operations had disappeared from his office.

Operations was just entering van access when he saw Nikita moving down the hallway toward him as fast as she could on the awkward crutches. She stopped in front of him and said urgently, “How bad?”

“I don’t know. I’m going to get them and bring them here. Michael is due back in a few hours and I want you to be here to meet him. Nobody tells him what has happened until he gets back here. He trusts you and I know you can handle him. He will need someone to get him through this if the news is bad. I’ll see you when I get back.” That said, he turned and disappeared from her view.

She sighed and leaned back against the wall, trying to take the weight off her injured ankle. What could she possibly say to Michael to comfort him? Nothing, there is nothing you or anyone can say if Michael loses Rene or Grace, she told herself. Michael will be wild with grief if anything happens to either of them. Nikita prayed fervently that she would have good news for him when he returned. She didn’t even want to think about the alternative.

*********** When the Housekeeping ambulance finally pulled up to the scene of the accident, several emergency vehicles were already there. Operations, who was riding up front with the driver froze when he saw a black body bag lying on the concrete of the street. It was obviously occupied by a body. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out, when he realized the body was that of an adult. Relieved that the body could not have been Rene, he hurriedly jumped out of the ambulance and ran over to the mangled cars. A police officer tried to stop him from approaching any closer, and Operations tried to shove past the officer, who resolutely shoved back.

“Just a minute, Sir, you cannot go over there!”

Operations glared at the officer and put this hand inside his jacket and pulled out an ID badge which identified him as a member of the NSA. The officer’s jaw dropped as he examined the ID. “Right, Sir, right this way.....” The sight that greeted him when he walked around the side of what had been Grace’s Land Rover stopped him in his tracks.

Rene was struggling with one of the EMTs who was trying to hold him back from an unconscious Grace who was laying on a stretcher. Her face was ghostly pale except for several bruises and cuts. The EMT seemed to be on the losing end of the struggle as Rene yelled and kicked at him. “Let me go! That’s my Mom! She needs me! Let me go!” Rene finally wrenched his arm from the grasp of the man and ran over and fell to his knees beside Grace. Another EMT was taking Grace’s blood pressure and was quietly trying to explain to a distraught Rene what he was doing.

Operations called out Rene’s name and the boy’s head snapped up at the sound of Operation’s voice. “Make them help her and Carson! Make them help!” He yelled at Operations. “Make them help!”

Operations blinked at Rene’s anguish and finally came back to himself and started shouting instructions to his Housekeeping crew. The crew snapped to attention and started moving around the scene, cleaning out the Land Rover and removing any trace of who had been inside the vehicle. They carefully repacked Rene’s book bag and took Grace’s briefcase from the front seat. Two police officers tried to stop them, but a short rapid fire conversation with Operations made them step back from the Land Rover in awe of the powerful aura of the man before them. Operations was a leader and he knew how to handle a situation. And he was soon in complete control of this particular situation.

He stepped over a fire hose and knelt beside Rene. “Are you okay, little one? Let them help your Mom and Carson. They know what they are doing. They are trying to help them, Rene, but you need to listen to this young man here. He is trying to tell you what he is doing to help your Mom. Now, stop your shouting and let him work.” For the first time, Operations noted the tear-streaked face and the huge bruise on the left side of Rene’s face. He had a bloody nose and had tried to wipe his face. The resulting mess of smeared blood and tears produced a frightening appearance, but from experience, Operations could see that Rene was not badly hurt. He turned to the EMT who had been struggling with Rene. “Have you checked him over. Is he all right?”

“Yeah, he seems okay, but I still want a doctor to see him, just to make sure. Are you a police officer or a family member?” The EMT had seen the exchange between Operations and the police officers guarding the scene, and had decided that this man was someone he did not want to antagonize.

“A bit of both, actually.” he lied. “Rene’s parents work for me at the National Security Agency and I was called when the accident happened. I’m here to take them to a government trauma center. Where is the man? How is he?”

The EMT pulled on Operation’s arm, leading him away from Rene. “He is not so good, we have him stabilized for transport, but he has been injured very seriously.” He pointed at another EMT team who were working on a bloodied Carson. “Multiple broken bones, lacerations and I’m pretty sure he has internal injuries. They are just about ready to load him into an ambulance.”

Operations turned from the EMT and barked a few orders to some of his Housekeeping crew. The operatives moved swiftly and retrieved Carson and the stretcher he was on from the protesting EMTs. Operations walked over to them and flashed his badge. “We will take it here. He will be in the hands of the best doctors in just a few minutes. And is she ready for transport, too.?” He said, gesturing to Grace.

“Uh, yeah, she is....just who are you?”

“You don’t want to know that.” Operations said ominously, as he bent over and scooped up Rene from his place by Grace. “None of you want to know who I am.” And he hurried away, back to the Housekeeping ambulance. He climbed into the front seat with a still tearful Rene, turning to make sure that Grace and Carson were situated safely in the back. He fastened his steely gaze on the driver and said quietly, “do you know how to drive like a bat out of hell?”

The driver gulped and nodded.

“Then show me....NOW!

The ambulance screeched away from the scene and left behind several stunned police officers and emergency medical technicians.

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

Nikita and Walter waited anxiously in the hallway outside of van access. They had been waiting in van access, but the medical staff had pushed them out into the hall. Both Nikita and Walter went willingly because they understood that Grace and Carson would need immediate care and they didn’t want to be in the way.

Operations had called from the ambulance to make sure that everything was in place for emergency treatment for Grace and Carson, as well as for Rene. Even though Rene seemed fine, with just a few bruises, Operations had made it an imperative for a doctor to be there to check out the eight-year-old. He was taking no chances with the boy he loved like the grandchild he would never know.

Nikita heard the screeching of the elevator door in van access as it opened. The medical staff started moving to take charge of the injured Grace and Carson. Nikita stepped back into Walter’s arms as she tried to flatten herself against the wall of the hallway as the first stretcher was quickly wheeled out of van access. There was a doctor riding on top of the stretcher as he straddled Carson’s still form, delivering chest compressions, trying desperately to bring back a flatlining Carson. All Nikita could see was Carson’s pale and bloody face as he was whisked by her. She relaxed into Walter’s arms as he wrapped them around her.

“No.....no.....Oh, Walter, he’s got to be all right. He and Grace were so happy the last time I saw them.” Nikita felt the tears slipping down her face and she wiped the back of her hand over her eyes, just in time to see two of the medical staff push the stretcher with Grace by them.

One of the doctors noticed Nikita’s tears as he passed her and said urgently, “I think she will be all right. I think it is only a concussion. I’ll keep you posted.” And with those few hopeful words, he disappeared around the corner on his way to Medical.

Walter looked anxiously down the hallway into van access. “Where is Rene?” he said absently. “Where is my little guy?”

Almost, as if on cue, Operations appeared with a bruised and listless Rene cradled in his arms. “Where is that doctor?” he raged. “I told him to meet us here!”

“I’m here, Sir” a young female doctor stepped up to Operations and started checking Rene’s reflexes and eyes while he remained cuddled against Operations’ chest. Rene pulled away from the doctor’s touch and cried softly, “I want my Daddy. Where is he? And where did they take my Mom. I want to see her, too. Don’t touch me!” He pushed at the doctor’s hands and burrowed deeper into Operations’ embrace. “Leave me alone!!”

Operations murmured soothingly into Rene’s ear. “It’s okay, she’s just trying to make sure you are okay. Be still, little one, be still.”

“I don’t want to be still. I WANT MY DADDY AND MY MOM!!” Rene shouted, startling both Operations and the doctor.

Nikita stepped up to Rene and brushed the hair back from his forehead and started talking to him. “Hey, Rene,” she said, “That is gonna be one heck of a shiner you have there. I tell you what, why don’t you let Operations take you to Medical. That’s where your Mom and Carson are. And if you let the doctor check you out and make sure you are okay, I’ll check on your Daddy and see when he will be back. He had to take care of a few mean ol’ dragons, but he should be back soon.” She dipped her head so that she could look directly into Rene’s green eyes. “Will you do that for me, big guy? Will you?”

At this point, Walter spoke to Rene. “Come on, Rene, let’s get you to Medical. The quicker you get to feeling better, the quicker you will be ready to see Grace and your Daddy. Okay?”

Rene smiled slightly. “Okay. Nikita? You promise to let me know when Daddy will be here?” He reached out and brushed a tear from Nikita’s face. “Promise?”

Nikita thought her legs would buckle from Rene’s touch. It was a gesture so like one of his father’s. “I promise, honey. Now you go with Operations and Walter. I love you.”

Operations leaned over and whispered a few instructions into Nikita’s ear. “Go to Systems and check on Michael.. If you talk to him, tell him nothing of what has happened. He doesn’t need to know about something that he can’t do anything about.” That said, he turned, hugged Rene closer to his chest and hurried away down the hall. The young doctor following anxiously in his wake.

Walter turned to Nikita and hugged her. “Relax, Sugar. Everything is going to be okay. You’ll see. We have the best doctors, don’t we? I won’t leave Rene’s side and you know that Operations won’t either. He’s a real tiger protecting his cub, isn’t he?”

Nikita glared down the hallway at Operation’s back. “Yeah, a real tiger....with someone else’s cub.”

“Nikita, give him a break. He loves that little guy just as much as the rest of us do. Now, get your little behind to Systems and I’ll go check on Grace.” that said, Walter disappeared around the corner on his way to Medical.

Nikita turned and walked in the opposite direction on her way to Systems. What was she going to tell Michael.....

***********

Michael, at that same moment, was on a slight rise above the warehouse where his targets had taken up residence. His team was deployed at strategic points around the perimeter of the warehouse, poised to attack. The reconnaissance had been completed and per the profile, Michael’s team was ready to clean and sanitize the entire area.

“Set the charges,” Michael commanded. He watched and waited as his team moved silently into the warehouse. One by one, they contacted him through his commlink, “charges set, exiting the area,” they each whispered. Mentally, Michael ticked each operative off the list in his head. When the last voice whispered that he was clear, Michael pressed the detonator in his gloved hand. The resulting fireball consumed the entire warehouse. No dragon will leave this place in one piece, he thought, smiling that he unconsciously utilized the analogy that Grace had used with Rene to explain what Michael did when he was away on missions. Michael had been thinking a lot about Rene in the last few hours. He was sad that he had not been in Section when Rene, Grace and Carson were due there. Perhaps, he thought to himself, they will still be there when he returned. He fervently hoped so. Lately, he found himself craving more and more time with his son. Every minute spent with Rene was precious to him, and he knew that he was trying to make up for the lost years when he had thought Rene was dead and forever lost to him. He closed his eyes in sweet reverie, only to jerk them open as he heard his team returning to his position. Putting aside his reflections of his moments with Rene, Michael quietly stood and led his team back to the van. He waited at the side door of the van and watched as each team member took his or her place in the van before he told the driver to go. One more mission down, and how many left to go, he thought wearily. Please be there when I get back, Rene, please. He sat down and bowed his head, thinking once more of his son.

“Incoming message, Michael,” the operative in charge of communications called from her position. “Michael?” His head popped up to see the eyes of the team on him. He had zoned out on them, so focused was he on his contemplation of his son.

“Yes, I’m here,” he said. As soon as he heard Nikita’s voice on the commlink, he sat up straighter. Why would she be contacting him instead of Birkoff. “What is the matter, Nikita” he asked urgently. “Why are you on this line instead of Birkoff?’

“Birkoff is working on something for Operations,” she said as she looked down at Birkoff, his mouth opening to protest what she had just told Michael. He had been surprised when Nikita had suddenly appeared beside him and pulled the commlink from his ear. She laid her hand across Birkoff’s mouth and shook her head at him. He closed his mouth and stared at her, wondering what she was doing. He had heard about the accident and immediately knew what she was doing. She was preparing Michael for the news.

He didn’t envy Nikita this assignment.

*********** “How did the mission go?” she asked, wondering to herself how she was going to handle this. At first, she was angry with Operations for ordering her not to tell Michael about the accident, but now that she had had time to think, she agreed with his decision. If she told Michael about what had happened, he would worry about it all the way back to Section. This way, she could give him a few more minutes of respite from the pain that was to come. Even though Rene was okay, she knew Michael would worry for Grace and Carson. So she lied.

She told him to switch to channel C, so she could talk to him in private with out the other operatives listening in. “I just wanted to make sure that you were okay and that you were on your way back,” she smiled, even though she knew he couldn’t see her, but he could. He heard the smile in her voice and he pictured her standing there in Systems. He could see how she was probably tilting her head forward, her long silky hair hanging down and hiding her face from casual observers, giving her smile only to him and no one else. Michael confirmed that everyone was okay, none of his team members were injured or killed. “Good to hear that,” she said.

“Nikita, is Rene and Grace still at Section?,” he asked her hopefully. He waited for her answer, which took longer than it should have.

“Y..yes,” she said hesitantly. “They’re still here....” The small secret smile on Michael’s face disappeared.

“Nikita,” he demanded, “what is wrong?”

“It’s just...that Rene has been asking about you. He wants to see you, to talk to you. He misses you.” she said, trying to turn the conversation away from what was wrong. “How far away are you?”

“About an hour away. Nikita,” he persisted, “is something wrong? Is there something you are not telling me? You’re scaring me, Nikita. What is it?”

“Nothing,” she hated lying to him, but she didn’t want him worrying. But he was worried, and she could hear it in his voice as he spoke to her. “Just hurry back. I miss you.” She looked around, turning her back to the activity in Systems. “I love you,” she whispered, just for him. “I’ll see you when you get back. I’ll be waiting for you in van access. Until then, goodbye.”

And with those words to tantalize Michael, she broke the communication. She stood there, thinking about what she had done. Tears starting to sting her eyes. How was she going to tell him the rest. Birkoff stood up from his chair and walked around to face her. He tilted his head until he could look up into her face through the curtain of blond hair that hid her countenance from him. He saw the tears and raising a hand to her face, gently wiping a few away.

“Michael won’t blame you for not telling him the truth, Nikita.” he told her. “He will understand.”

“I’m not so sure of that, Birkoff. I’m not so sure about that.” She straightened up to her full height and put the palms of her hands over both eyes and massaged her eye sockets, and in the process, finished wiping the tears from her eyes. “I lied to him, and I don’t think he will forgive me for that.”

Birkoff looked at her and rolled his eyes and smiled, “Of course he will forgive you, Nikita, he loves you.” He put his hand on her arm and she looked at him and laughed.

“I don’t think that will be enough.” She started to walk away from Birkoff, but his hand on her arm tightened suddenly, stopping her forward movement.

“Nikita, he may be angry at first, but it won’t last for long. In the end, he will understand....where are you going?”

“I’m going to check on Rene, Grace and Carson. If I am going to have to meet Michael and tell him what has happened, I need to have as much information as I can. Now, let me go, I’ll be fine.” She laughed at herself. “Did you hear what I just said? She shook her head from side to side and walked away from Birkoff, raising her hands to her head and twisting her long hair into a messy knot at the back of her head.

Nikita’s first stop in Medical was to see Grace. As she stepped quietly into the room, she focused on the figure in the bed. Grace’s red hair was a spot of brilliant color on the white pillow and only made her face look paler. Nikita walked up to her bed and smoothed her hand over Grace’s forehead. She was so still and Nikita worried for her. She had been so happy the last time they had been together. They had talked all afternoon, watching as Michael and Carson had worked so hard to build a treehouse for Rene. The finished product was a tribute to Michael’s persistence and perfectionism. Rene loved it and had promptly furnished it with bedding, flashlight and food, declaring that he intended to sleep there that night and had inquired of Michael and Nikita if they were interested in a sleepover.

They had complied with Rene’s wishes and the next morning, Nikita had sought out Grace for a badly needed back rub. As Grace carefully, but firmly worked out the kinks from a night spent on a hard wooden floor, they had shared a round of laughter at Michael’s expense. They had watched as he gingerly climbed down from the treehouse and slowly worked his way through a series of warm-up exercises that ended with his going for a run around the perimeter of the Center. As they watched Michael slowly quicken his pace, Rene jumped down from the middle of the treehouse ladder and went running after Michael. He quickly caught up with Michael and soon had run past him, then as Michael continued to run, Rene literally started running circles around Michael as he ran, until finally Michael stopped and dropped down on the grass and hung his head. Rene continued running around him, laughing, until Michael reached out and grabbed Rene. They tumbled about on the grass, with Michael tickling Rene and Rene screaming in delight. Soon, Michael wrapped his arms around Rene and they sat there for the longest time just enjoying each other’s company.

Grace and Nikita sat at the kitchen table watching them from the window, the laughter gone now as they held each other’s hands and smiled warmly. The two women shared this moment between them and enjoyed the fact that Michael was happy, at least for a little while.

Nikita shook her head again, ending the happy reverie of everyone she cared about being happy for a little while. She touched Grace’s face one more time and then left the room, on her way to see Carson. And still she thought about what she was going to tell Michael......

************ Michael listened to the silence on the commlink and wondered what was going on. Everything was not all right as Nikita had told him. Something was wrong. For some reason, Nikita had lied to him. All kinds of scenarios buzzed through his brain. Was it Rene? She said he was still in Section, waiting for Michael’s return. Had Operations decided to separate father and son permanently? Surely, Nikita would have told him if it was something this serious. Surely.....

And so, Michael spent the rest of the hour-long ride back to Section thinking of the many possible things that could be wrong, and profiled the ways that he would use to make them right again. The hour-long trip seemed to take forever.

Back at Section, Nikita stood at the observation window watching as the doctors and nurses worked feverishly over Carson’s broken body. One of the doctors told her it was touch and go, that his injuries were serious, but not necessarily fatal. His will to live was strong, but perhaps not strong enough. The broken bones had been set and the internal injuries would be repaired during the upcoming surgery. The structural integrity and the Section-reinforced passenger cage of the Land Rover had saved Carson from certain death. The full impact of the pickup truck broadsiding the Land Rover had been diverted enough to keep the full force of the crash from crushing the cab of the Land Rover. If not for the reinforcement, all three of them, Carson, Rene and Grace, would have been killed. As it was, only the driver of the pickup had been killed.

Nikita splayed her fingers on the glass of the observation window and bowed her head in a quick prayer for her former team member and for the man who Grace loved. He had to survive. She took one last look at the activity in the room and turned to seek out the one thing that Michael loved above all others, even her. She was on her way to find Rene.

Her hunt for Rene had lasted until she had literally run into Walter as she rounded a corner heading for Munitions to see if Walter had any idea where Rene was. She had been through Medical and had not found him. Everyone in Medical had scurried away from her and would not meet her eyes as she had approached them. Nikita was about to lose the tenuous hold on her temper when the young doctor who had attended Rene in van access whispered to her to check with Walter. And so, she had bumped into him and found her self in his arms for the second time that day.

“Well, well, Sugar now this is where I want you all the time.” He laughed at the exasperated expression on her face. “And just who are you about to strangle?” he teased.

She was in no mood to trade quips with him, so she snapped at Walter. “YOU, that’s who, if you can’t tell me where Rene is. Michael is due back in less than thirty minutes and I can’t find Rene! Do you know where he is?”

“Look up there, Sugar, and you’ll find him.” Walter moved his head in an upward motion and as she followed his eyes, Nikita saw the object of her search. With a determined stride, she stalked across the wide expanse of floor between Walter’s lair and stairs up to Operations’ office perch. She entered his office without knocking, ready to do battle, but stopped with her mouth open when Operations pinned her with his icy blues. “Shhhhh, he’s asleep.” She found Rene, nestled under the covers of a bed that was tucked into a corner of Operations’ office. Operations approached her, with a finger laid across his lips, commanding her silence. “He’s been fretting and fidgeting, crying for Grace and Michael. I just got him to lay down and he fell asleep almost immediately. Is Michael back yet?”

“No, not yet. His transport is due back any minute. I just wanted to see how Rene was before I talked to Michael.” Nikita walked over to the make-do bed and knelt down, carefully examining Rene bruised face. From her position on the floor next to Rene, she looked over her shoulder at Operations. “Is he okay other than the bruise? What do I tell Michael?”

“The doctor said he was very lucky. Apparently, Grace had made sure that he was securely strapped in, and with the extra reinforcement in the Land Rover, he was saved from the full force of the impact. The Housekeeping crew told me that he was on the right side of the Land Rover, behind Grace and that the backseat was hardly damaged. He probably got the bruise and bloody nose from things flying around after the impact. He’s okay. The bruising and black eye will go away and he will be just fine. You can tell Michael that when he comes in. Prepare him for the way Rene looks before he sees him. I’ll let him sleep until Michael gets in and then I will take him to Michael’s office. Bring Michael there.” Operations eyes softened as he gazed down at Rene. He seemed so lost in his thoughts that when Birkoff’s voice broke the silence, he was startled. He blinked rapidly, and said quietly, “what is it, Birkoff?”

“Michael and his team are arriving now, I thought you would want to know.”

“Thank you, Mr. Birkoff.” He looked at Nikita. “I think you’d better go now. I’ll see you later in Michael’s office.

Nikita stood and headed for van access, but not before she had bestowed a kiss on Rene, who slept on undisturbed.

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

Michael’s transport was arriving at van access, and Nikita stood in the hallway, leaning against the wall. She had positioned herself directly across from the massive door through which Michael and his team would emerge. She watched as the red mission status display over the door changed. Michael was here.

Still, Nikita thought about what she would say. How was she going to tell Michael? As if mocking her indecision, the van access door began to swing open. Michael’s team appeared, weary and tired. They smiled at Nikita as each greeted her. She acknowledged them briefly, her eyes ever searching beyond them, looking for Michael. Finally, the moment she had been dreading arrived, as Michael stepped through the door. His eyes were tired-looking, but still, they blazed with concern, and a bit of fear.

The short conversation with Nikita earlier had served only to tantalize Michael and, now, his green eyes locked on her with their unspoken questions. He walked up to her and grabbed her arm with one hand. “You said Rene would be here, where is he? What is it that you wouldn’t tell me before? What happened?” he demanded.

“Michael, you’re hurting me! Let go of my arm!” Nikita fought for control. She took a deep breath, and wrenched her arm free of Michael’s grasp. He looked surprised at her reaction, and dropped his arms to his sides.

“Just tell me, quickly.” He pleaded. “Has something happened to Rene?” Nikita smiled at him and gently took his hand.

“Come with me. Rene is just fine. I’ll tell you what happened on the way to your office. Rene is there.” She continued to speak softly as she drew Michael down the hallway. His grip on her hand tightened as he began to listen to her. The eyes of those watched the two of the them as they walked across Section on their way to Michael’s office saw Michael suddenly stop and pull Nikita around to face him. They saw him question her and listen to her response, only to close his eyes, as if in pain. And they saw Nikita reach up to touch his face and speak gently and reassuringly to him. She again pulled him forward and led him to his office. They watched in silence as Nikita opened the door to Michael’s office. They gasped as they saw Operations greet Michael and put his hand on Michael’s shoulder and squeeze it. Operations nodded to Nikita, and walked out of the office toward the stairs to his office. Michael stopped in the doorway. They listened as they heard Michael give a short cry of relief as he saw his son.

Nikita guided him inside the room, and closed the door behind her. They watched as the blinds to his office closed, and, as one, they all let a sigh of relief leave their lips, in sympathy with a father’s concern for his son.

Inside Michael’s office, Michael walked swiftly over to the small bed that had been positioned against the far wall. He sank to his knees beside the bed and let his gaze flow over every inch of his sleeping son. He winced as he encountered the bruises on Rene’s face. He turned and looked over at Nikita, who had come to his side and knelt next to him. “Is he really okay?”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “He’s fine, Michael. He’s a strong little boy. There are the bruises you can see, and they will fade with time. I know you are worried about him, but he is okay. Right now, it’s Grace and Carson that we are worried about. The doctors say Grace will be fine, but they did seem concerned that she isn’t awake yet. And Carson is critical, but he is fighting. The doctors are being cautiously optimistic about his condition. Michael, why don’t you stay here with Rene, and I will go check on them. Okay?” She dipped her head to try and catch his eyes, but Michael continued to keep his eyes locked on Rene. Even as she watched, Michael shifted his weight so that he was sitting on the floor by Rene’s bed. Finally, he broke his gaze from Rene and met her eyes. “Yes,” he whispered, “please go and see how they are doing. I’ll just stay here for a little while.” His eyes slid from her, and back to Rene.

Nikita leaned over and gently kissed Michael’s temple and cheek. “I’ll be back soon,” she murmured into his ear. She slowly rose to her feet, her fingertips brushing Michael’s shoulders, she ran her fingers through his hair and quietly left his office bound for Medical.

As soon as Michael heard the door close behind her, he laid his head down on the bed next to Rene and let out a tortured sigh. “Oh, Rene, I’d die if anything happened to you.” Michael wept.

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

The sound of Michael’s tears awakened Rene. “Daddy!” he said sleepily. “You’re back! You’ll never believe what happened to me!” Rene’s eyes grew bright as he saw Michael’s distress. “Daddy, what’s wrong? What’s wrong? Did something happen to Mom or Carson? Oh, Daddy, they are still okay, aren’t they?” Rene burst into tears and wound his arms around Michael’s neck tightly. “Please tell me they are okay!”

“Shhhh, ma petite, shhhh,” Michael soothed. “As far as I know, both Carson and your Mom are okay. They are still in Medical. Nikita has gone to check on them for us. Don’t cry, Rene, please don’t cry. Are you okay?” Michael pulled back from Rene’s embrace and held Rene’s face in his hands. He used his thumbs to wipe away the tears streaming down Rene’s face.

Rene, mimicking his father, used the same gesture to wipe away Michael’s tears. “Yeah, Daddy, I’m okay. This big truck hit us and we all got knocked out. When I woke up, this fireman had me in his arms and laid me down on a stretcher. Somehow, something hit me in the face and I had a bloody nose. I bled all over the place! And I watched as the firemen and policemen peeled the roof off of our car to get Mom and Carson out of the Rover. I was scared, Daddy! And then, Operations got there and he was shouting orders all over the place. You know how he can be.” Rene lowered his eyes and giggled. “And, anyway, then he brought us back here.” Rene sought his father’s eyes again. “Daddy, they won’t let me see Mom and Carson. Why? Are they hurt real bad? Do you know?” Rene finally stopped talking and took a deep breath.

Michael marveled at the resiliency of his child. Words were still difficult for him, so he simply reached for Rene and enfolded him in his arms and held him there for a long time, grateful that he could do so. Rene was all right and Michael was happy...for now.

*********** Nikita returned from her mission to Medical, just in time to observe the tender moment between father and son. She was about to turn and leave before she interrupted when Rene glanced up from his comfy place in Michael’s arms.

“Daddy,” he whispered in Michael’s ear. “Nikita’s back.”

Michael turned towards Nikita at Rene’s words, with a question on his lips. “Nikita, how is.....” he stopped as he saw the expression on her face. She was worried, he thought, and a little scared. “Rene,” Michael said, “let me talk to Nikita for a few moments. You wait here for me. All right?” He lifted Rene from his lap and set him down on the bed. “I’ll be right back.”

“But, Daddy,” Rene protested. “I want to go see Mom and Carson. I need to know how they are!” He started to scramble off of the bed. Michael’s hand stopped him.

“Rene, I will take you to see Grace in a little while, but now I have to talk to Nikita. Stay here, please.” Rene huffed his displeasure at Michael’s request, but obediently resettled himself on the bed to wait. Michael swiftly rose and walked over to Nikita. He took her arm and guided her outside his office and shut the door behind him.

“Nikita, what is it? You look rather distressed. Has something happened to Grace or Carson?” His eyes held a look of alarm and he turned toward Medical. “No....oh no.....?” Nikita’s hand shot out and stopped him.

“Wait, Michael!” She pulled on Michael’s arm until he swung around to face her. “I just talked with Grace’s doctor. He told me he had found an anomaly in her blood work.”

“What.....what is it, Nikita? Tell me.!” Michael looked ready to collapse. He glanced over his shoulder and made sure the door to his office was shut securely. “Tell me...”

“I can’t tell you what is wrong. The doctor wouldn’t tell me and he says he needs to talk to the next of kin and since you are Rene’s father, then he wants to talk to you. He’s waiting for you in Medical. Go, I’ll keep Rene occupied.” Nikita let go of Michael’s arm and lightly touched his back as if she were trying to propel him towards Medical. “Go and find out what is wrong. I can’t stand the not knowing any longer. The sooner you do this, the sooner Rene can see his Mom.”

Michael started down the hall toward Medical. “You’ll see after Rene? I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He strode off down the hallway, his steps picking up momentum as he went. Nikita watched him go and thought of how like a panther he moved. She closed her eyes and smiled briefly, but soon opened her blue eyes and turned to open the door to Michael’s office. “Rene,” she said as she re-entered the room. “How about a visit with Uncle Walter, until it is time to visit your Mom? Okay?”

Michael entered Medical and as his eyes sought out the doctor caring for Grace, he mentally stiffened his reserve. He had to find out just what was wrong with Grace’s blood work. He called out when he saw the doctor he was looking for, “Doctor Jordan, I believe you wanted to speak to me about Grace.” The doctor, startled by Michael’s voice, turned toward Michael and with a sigh, started to tell Michael what he had found.....

***********

I awakened slowly, vaguely aware of someone holding my hand. I opened my eyes and immediately closed them again. Everything was so bright. I felt the hand holding mine tighten and I heard a softly accented voice call my name. I wanted the voice to belong to Carson, but when I opened my eyes again, it was to see Michael bending over me. Now, mind you, normally this would be a very pleasant way to awaken, with this quite beautiful male face looking down at me. But he wasn’t the love of my life. That title belonged to a man with gentle eyes and the most beautiful long, blond hair. My heart ached for him. But this was another man I loved, for his friendship and for the fact that he had entrusted his son to me to raise. Michael’s eyes flowed across my face, looking to see if all the parts were still there, I thought. Everything came back in a rush and I struggled to sit up. “Rene?” I croaked out of a dry throat, “ Carson?” Michael held a straw to my lips and I very gratefully took a long swallow of cool water to soothe my parched throat. I tried sitting up again and Michael turned quickly from putting the glass of water down on the bedside table to place his hands on my shoulders to gently lay me back down on the bed.

“Grace, don’t move too quickly. You have a concussion and moving too quickly will make you ill.” He gently, but firmly pushed me down again as I stubbornly tried to rise once more. The resulting tilt of the room and the wave of nausea that hit me convinced me to follow his instructions. I lay quietly and looked up at him with many questions. I said again, “Rene and Carson? The truth, Michael.”

He hesitated for a few seconds before answering. Was he about to impart news that I did not want to hear? “Michael, please! You are terrifying me with your silence.”

At last he spoke, “Rene is fine. He has a few bruises, but otherwise his only concern is to see you and Carson. He’s with Nikita right now and, no doubt, they are hovering around Walter’s lair at this very moment.” He squeezed my hand and looked away, as if he didn’t want to say what undoubtedly came next.

“Do I get the bad news now, Michael? Is it now that you tell me I have lost Carson. Is he dead? Did the accident do what I thought Section was going to do last year?” I knew that I didn’t want to live if I had lost Carson, but I knew that I would live. I still had Rene. “My God, Michael, just tell me quickly!”

Then he said the sweetest words that I could have heard. “Carson is alive and the doctors think he will be okay. That Land Rover you didn’t want Operations to give you probably saved his life as well as yours and Rene’s. I think you need to thank him for insisting that you take it.” Michael smiled and rubbed my arm. “See, it wasn’t all bad news. Carson’s injuries will take some time to heal, but eventually he will be his old self again, you’ll see.”

The he did something that he had never done before. He leaned over me and took me in his arms and hugged me tightly. “And the best news, Grace, is that the little one is just fine.” As he said this, he released me and smoothed his hand over my torso, from just under my breasts down to my stomach. It was a rather intimate touch and I looked up at Michael to discern his intent. He had never touched me like that before.

“What little one? You just told me that Rene was fine.” I gave him a puzzled look. “What are you talking about, Michael?”

His face was only inches from mine. He lowered his lips to my forehead. “The baby, Grace, the baby is going to be fine. It suffered no injuries in the accident.” Now it was his turn to look puzzled. “You don’t know, do you?” The look on his face was one of incredulous delight. “Grace,” he said, “You’re pregnant!”

I laughed into that beautiful face and spat out, “No, I’m not!!” I was flabbergasted at this outrageous statement of his.

He laughed back. “Yes, Grace, you are! The doctor says you are about eight weeks along. You didn’t suspect? I mean when you missed your....ah, your periods?”

“Michael, I can’t be pregnant. I’m 44 years old. I can’t be....I can’t be. I...I have an appointment next week with my gynecologist. I was going to talk to her about menopause. Oh, Michael,” I started crying, I couldn’t decide if I was happy or sad. His relevation had totally shocked me.

“Well, Grace, I hope your gynecologist is also an obstetrician, because you are going to need one for the next 7 or so months. Oh, Grace, I am so happy for you. This will be the most wonderful time of your life, waiting for the baby to come.” He stopped, as if caught in a rush of memories of his own. When he looked at me again, I could see the sheen of tears twinkling in his eyes.

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

In that moment, as I saw those tears shining in Michael’s green eyes, I knew that he was remembering Simone’s pregnancy and how happy they had been while waiting for Rene to make his appearance. I did something impulsive. I should have waited until I could talk about this with Carson. But in the end, I knew that he would be pleased with my decision and so I said to Michael, “Michael, you will be my baby’s godfather, won’t you?”

His eyes locked on mine, with a glimmer of confusion and hope. “Grace,” he said, “Are you sure about this? What about Carson? You need to talk to him about this.....” I could see his mind working, going through all the reasons why he should refuse my request. And these reasons fought with all the reasons that he should grant my request. “Grace, I can’t guarantee that I will always be around to fulfill my obligations. You know how my life is.”

“Yes, Michael, I know very well how your life is, and I also know that there is no one else that I would ask to take on this responsibility than my very best friend in this world. And that is you, of course. You trusted me with your son. Can I do any less with my own child?” I smiled at him and pulled his face down to gently kiss away his tears. “You’ll do this for me, won’t you? I know Carson would ask you if he were able.”

Michael closed his eyes and I watched as the corners of his lips curved upward. He opened his eyes then and I was rewarded with something I didn’t often see, a dazzling Michael smile. “Of course, Grace, I would be honored to be your child’s godfather.”

I sat up slowly and wrapped my arms around Michael, and whispered in his ear. “Thank you, Michael, thank you.” I felt his arms around me and knew that everything was going to be all right.

The door to my room opened and into the room came the whirlwind of black hair and green eyes, that was Rene. Michael disengaged himself from my arms long enough to scoop up Rene before the whirlwind could leap onto my bed. “Rene!” Michael admonished, “take it easy! Your Mom doesn’t feel so well. You mustn’t jostle her.” His eyes sought mine. “You want me to tell him?” he said in a low voice.

I shook my head. “I’ll do it.” Michael looked a bit crestfallen, so I added hurriedly. “We’ll do it together.”

“Tell me what!” Rene demanded. “What will you tell me together?” He looked from my face to Michael’s face and back to mine again. “Is it good or bad? I hope it is good, because I don’t want to hear anything bad.”

“It’s good news, Rene.” Michael said, “Now, listen to what Grace has to say.” He looked at me expectantly. No pun intended.....

Rene settled himself on the side of the bed and turned his rapt attention on me. “Mom?” he said as he patted my hand. I took his and started to speak.

“Remember earlier this year when your Daddy talked to you about how two people who love each other like to spend a lot of time together alone? And I told you that was why Carson moved into my room so we could be alone together sometimes?” Rene nodded, and giggled.

“Yeah, I remember, and Daddy said that was why he and Nikita had their rooms at our house next to each other. They love each other, too. They like to kiss and hug each other, like you and Carson do.” Michael looked at Rene with an amazed look on his face. Rene glanced at him and bent down to my ear and whispered, “They thought I was asleep at our sleepover. I wasn’t. I listened to them smooching.” He laughed at his father’s obvious discomfort.

Michael blushed and reached over to tickle Rene. “That, young man, was not a nice thing to have done. Listening in on private conversations is not a nice thing to do.”

Rene responded by grinning and telling his father. “It wasn’t private, you knew I was right there.”

At this point in the conversation, Nikita opened the door and looked in. “Is this a bad time, should I come back later.” I looked at Michael and he nodded his head.

“No, Nikita, come on in. I was just about to tell Rene some good news. That is, if he behaves himself. He is being a bit of a tease right now.” I had laid back down on my pillows and Rene had wiggled his ways out of Michael’s grasp and had laid down with his head on my shoulder.

“Mom,” he looked up at me with those big green eyes and I admit, I was lost. He had me. I loved him so and I could not be stern with him when he was in his charmer mode. So like his father was he that I just smiled at him. He called out to Nikita, “Nikita, I was just getting another birds and bees discussion, you know, like the one Daddy gave me last year. I was just telling them that I know why you and Daddy and Mom and Carson like to kiss and hug.”

Now it was Nikita’s turn to blush. She came up to stand by Michael and she took his hand in hers and with her other hand, she pinched Rene’s nose. “Now didn’t we talk about what you should talk about in public and what you could not talk about? Some things, especially family things, are private. You said you knew the difference and that you wouldn’t talk about Michael/Nikita things and Mom/Carson things to anyone, didn’t you say that?”

Rene looked down, and meekly said, “Yes, Nikita. I did say that.” He looked up at each of us and apologized for his teasing. “I only teased you because I love you all. I wouldn’t do that in front of anyone else, ever. I promise.” He flashed that charmer Rene smile at us and we fell back under his spell. “Now,” he said, “what were you going to tell me....?”

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

“Tell me, tell me, tell me,” Rene chanted. Not a patient child, my son. He started fidgeting and I stilled him by taking both his hands in mine.

“It’s a secret,” I whispered conspiratorially. He narrowed his green eyes and looked around at Michael and Nikita.

“Does my Daddy and Nikita know?” he whispered back.

“Just your Daddy. Nikita will find out when I tell you,” I watched as a big grin appeared on his face. Nikita’s head snapped around to fix Michael with a stare that said, and just what do you know that I don’t? He smiled and then adopted his patented blank stare. Nikita huffed in frustration, and turned a questioning gaze on me.

“Well?” Both Rene and Nikita spoke at the same time and both started laughing at the expectant look on each other’s faces.

“Should we tell them?” I asked Michael, “ or should we make them wait...?” Michael smiled his secret little smile, drawing out the moment of suspense. Rene and Nikita looked like they were about to explode. Their childish delight in our teasing was getting the best of them.

Rene grabbed me and Nikita grabbed Michael and they each shook us, “Tell, tell, tell!” they said in unison.

“So, I guess we should tell them.” I wrapped my arms around Rene, and simply said, “How would you like to have a little baby brother or sister of your very own?” Rene’s eyes suddenly got very big and very round. He looked stunned, as did Nikita. They both swung their eyes to meet Michael’s smiling ones.

“Daddy! You and Nikita are going to have a baby!? He threw his arms around a bewildered Michael’s neck and reached an arm out to include Nikita in the hug also. “WOW!!” He drew back to look at Michael. “But why doesn’t Nikita know?” Nikita was starting to breath hard, looking like a deer caught in the headlights.

I feared she would start to hyperventilate, so I said quickly. “No.....no, Rene. It’s not Nikita who is going to have the baby. It’s me!”

Nikita gave out a loud whoop and let go of Michael’s hand to enveloped me in a huge bear hug. In the meanwhile, my darling son looked back at me with a perplexed expression on his face, and said, “But Mom, you are too old to have a baby......, aren’t you?” My eyes teared up to hear this from my son and I was glad that Nikita’s arms were still wrapped around me in a sincere act of happiness for me and my condition.

Michael put his hands on either side of Rene’s face and gently turned him until he was on an eye level with Michael. “Son, we need to have another father-son talk. I tell you this now and don’t ever forget it. Never, never, speak of a lady’s age in front of her. This is another one of those things that is just NOT done.” He released Rene and drew him into his arms. “Now. Of course, your Mom is not too old. This is just a wonderful gift that God has given her and Carson because they have taken such good care of you for me. Apologize for what you said, and tell Grace how happy you are for her.” Michael spoke firmly, but with all the love he had for his son.

Rene ducked his head, and whispered ever so slightly, “Mom, I’m sorry I said that.” He looked up and grinned. “Will it be a boy or a girl, which do I get, a brother or a sister?” Nikita had stepped back and put her arm around Michael’s waist to draw him close. Rene took her place and gave me his best and tightest hug. “Mom, I am so happy. How long to we have to wait. Can I help name it? Hey, is Carson Carson’s last name or his first? What will the baby’s last name be? Carson or King, like our last name? Are you and Carson gonna get married? Gosh, what is Carson gonna think? Can we go tell him? What if.......?”

Michael clapped one hand over Rene’s mouth and said, “Rene, I think your Mom needs her rest. We are going to have to take really good care of her for the next seven months, so let’s start by letting her get some sleep. All right?”

“Okay, Daddy,” Michael helped Rene jump down from the side of my bed and he started to lead our talkative son from my room. “Mom,” he called out to me. “I’ll be back soon. Can I tell Uncle Walter and Birkoff and Operations and Madeline and....”

“NO, Rene. This is your Mom’s news to tell. I think Carson should be the next to know about this, don’t you?” A disappointed Rene reluctantly agreed with his father.

Nikita started to follow them from the room, but I asked her to stay a little while longer. I had something to ask of her. She returned to my bedside and took my hand. I squeezed it and looked into those brilliant blue eyes of hers. “I need a favor. Michael has agreed to be my baby’s godfather and I want you to be my baby’s godmother. How about it?”

“Oh, Grace.....are you sure? After all the things I have done....are you sure?”

“Yes, Nikita, I’m sure. Just as Michael is the only one I would ask to be godfather to my child, you are the only one I would ask to be godmother to it. Say you will, please?”

The tears that had poised themselves on her lashes, now ran down her cheeks. “Then, of course I will do it.....of course, I will.

*********** Nikita gave me one last tight hug, wiped her eyes and turned to leave. “Nikita?” I grabbed her hand and pulled her back to me. “Another favor, please?”

She smiled that brilliant smile of hers and said, simply, “Anything for you, Grace, anything...”

“Can you walk with me down to Carson’s room? I have to see for myself that he is okay.” I tossed back the blanket covering me and swung my legs over the side of the bed. As I sat up, the room and my head and stomach started spinning. Nikita caught me and tried to lay me back on the pillows.

“Whoa, there! You aren’t walking any place.” She bent down and picked my feet up and deposited them on the bed. “Grace, I don’t think you are ready for this. Please lay down and at least take a short nap. I’ll be back soon and I will personally take you to see Carson. Just, please get some more rest. I don’t want you passing out on the way to see your baby’s father.”

I had to admit that at the moment, I really did not feel like going anywhere. Maybe a short nap would help me, but I was determined to get to Carson. If resting would help these bouts of nausea, I would rest. “All right, Nikita, but promise you’ll be back in a little while?”

“You know I will be. And, Grace, expect to see a lot of me. I am going to take my duties as godmother very seriously. I want to make sure everything goes well for you. Now, get some sleep. I’ll be back shortly.”

“Nikita, thank you so much. I know you are going to be the best possible godmother. Oh! and Nikita,” She looked over her shoulder at me on her way to the door. “If Rene is bursting with the need to tell someone about the baby, tell him he can tell Walter and Birkoff, and even Operations and Madeline, but make sure everyone knows that I want to be the one to tell Carson about this. I’ll personally cancel anyone who messes this up for Carson. Okay?”

She smiled and nodded in understanding. “I will convey the message to everyone, medical staff included, and make sure that they comply upon pain of death. Now, go to sleep!” And then, she left me with my thoughts....

I suddenly found myself feeling decidedly weepy. Here I was, 44 years old, pregnant, unmarried, sitting in a hospital bed 500 feet underground in an ultra-covert quasi-governmental anti-terrorist organization. Could my life get any stranger? Stop right there, Grace, I told myself. This is Section. My life could get a lot stranger. I shivered, and closed my eyes. God, I was so tired....I felt myself drifting off to sleep. Yes, that’s it. I just need a few minutes of sleep. I decided to pull a Scarlett O’Hara. Tomorrow, I would think about all this tomorrow. I fell into a deep sleep.....

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

I awoke, as if from a dream. Eyes still closed, I slid my hand across the sheets, reaching for the warmth I knew as Carson. He wasn’t there, I thought. All I felt was the edge of the bed. Suddenly, two hands enveloped my searching hand. I smiled, then frowned. Warmth, but not Carson’s warmth. I tried to pull my hand away, but the hands clung to mine. A whiskey rough voice spoke to me.

“Gracie, I know you’re looking for Carson, but he’s not here. He’s okay, but he’s in his room down the hall. I’ll make sure you see him later. You just rest now. Okay?”

I opened my eyes to see twinkling, faded blue eyes looking down at me. “Walter, where am I? I remember......” and the events of the last 24 hours came rushing back at me. “Oh, God, Carson....Rene.” I started to sit up, but remembered the last time I tried that and I decided to stay where I was. Seeing me try to sit up sent Walter into mother hen mode. He hovered over me, fluffing my pillows and straightening the blankets on my bed. Then he asked what I think he had been dying to ask since the moment I had awakened. “Gracie, it is true what Rene told me. Are you having a little one? Are you really pregnant?” He sounded amazed, and that just ticked me off.

I spoke more harshly than I had intended. “Yes, Walter, I am. Do you think I am too old, too!”

He took a step back away from me, perplexed at my retort. “Uh, Gracie....I didn’t mean anything by that question. It’s just that I am so happy for you and Carson. I just didn’t think great things like this could happen in a place like this. I meant no disrespect to you, Gracie, you know I love you.”

Now I felt awful. “Walter, I’m sorry. I am just so worried about Carson and my emotions are a wreck. I didn’t mean to snap at you. Please forgive me.” He brought my hand up to his lips and kissed it.

“You’re forgiven. Now tell me all about this. Didn’t your mama ever tell you about birth control?

“Yes, she did, many years ago and I practice it faithfully, but you know Walter, I’m glad I messed up somewhere along the line and I’m also glad that the poor little rabbit died. Since Rene and then Carson, this is the most wonderful gift I have ever been given. Every once in a while, life just rears up and throws a lovely gift your way and mine was to conceive this child. This was the last thing I ever expected at my age.” I felt a wave of nausea flow over me. “Uh.... Walter, can you get me a nurse?”

“WHAT, what is it, Gracie! What can I do?” Walter held my hand and patted it.

“There isn’t anything you can do unless you want to help me to the bathroom. I feel sick.” Walter didn’t seem to have any problem with my statement. He gently helped me to sit up and was in the process of getting me on my feet when a smooth voice spoke to us from the doorway.

“Walter, a mission is loading and you are needed at your station. I can help Grace.” We both turned at the same instant to see who had spoken. Madeline swiftly crossed the space between the door and my bed. She took my arm from Walter and silently commanded him from my presence. “Walter, go to your post. Grace will be all right with me.” She guided me toward the bathroom, but not before Walter leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

“I’ll be back later, Gracie. I hope you feel better soon.” And he was gone.

After my first official bout of morning sickness, Madeline helped me back to bed and returned to the bathroom for a damp washcloth and gently washed my face. “Feel better?” she asked. I nodded.

“Grace, I think it’s time we had a little talk....

************ She stood there smiling at me, her hands clasped in front of her. We stared at each other. The seconds ticked by slowly. I decided to break the silence between us.

“So, Madeline, what did you want to talk about? It has to be fast though. I’m waiting for Nikita to come and take me to see Carson.” She continued to smile. I frowned. I didn’t like it much when she smiled. Madeline’s Mona Lisa smile usually meant she was working on her own agenda. It was the same smile she had on her face when she offered me the proposition that would supposedly have me taking Rene far away from Michael, but she was thwarted in that effort. Michael had found out about her machinations and had found us. She had seemed to take his discovery well and had even helped Michael when she had found out Rene and I had been in danger.

That smile, but this time there was something different about the smile. I stared at her for a few more minutes, and then, I knew what was different. The smile reached her eyes. She seemed genuinely happy. I shivered. What did a happy Madeline bode for me and mine?

“Grace,” she said finally. “I just wanted to tell you how pleased Operations and I are with the way you and Carson have been running the Rehab Center. You have returned all of the operatives that we sent you. They were all in excellent shape, and seem to have enjoyed their stay at the Center. While we did not send them to you for their own enjoyment, whatever you did for them renewed them. They came back healed and prepared for more field work. Thank you for that. Operations and I have found no reason not to continue your management of the Center.” She paused. I sucked in a long breath. Here it comes, I thought. “That is, if you still want to continue. I understand that you and Carson are expecting a baby. Are you sure that is wise, for a woman in your position?

“Excuse me, Madeline,” I fixed my best glare on her. “Just what do you mean by “a woman in my position?” She stopped smiling.

“Well, Grace, in your present condition, with a eight-year-old to take care of, a baby on the way and with Carson seriously injured and facing another long recuperation, I just thought it might be too much for you to handle. You know, of course, that at your age, a pregnancy might be a high-risk situation. I would hate to think that you might be jeopardizing your health trying to maintain the Center and all your other responsibilities. There are doctors here who can rectify your situation very quickly and quietly.”

I felt my mouth twist in disgust at what she was suggesting. I said curtly, “If any of your doctors come near me to “rectify my situation,” as you call it, you will have to find a new Medical staff because your old one will be dead by my own hand. I promise you that!” A new wave of nausea hit me had and before I knew what was happening, I was looking down in horror at the mess I had made of an expensive-looking pair of black leather heels. Madeline backstepped away from me, and slowly looked at her feet and then swung her eyes up to meet mine.

“Uhhh...Grace...remind me next time to stand across the room from you when I say something that upsets you.” And she burst out laughing, as did I. She went into the bathroom and I heard water running. When she came back to my bed, she was bare-footed and she had brought me another damp washcloth. In between the gales of laughter, we managed to get me cleaned up and settled once more in bed. At the height of our laughter, Nikita made an appearance with a wheelchair.

“Grace, are you ready to go see Carson? I brought this ........What?” she beheld us with a look of disbelief on her face. She looked from Madeline to me and then back to Madeline. “What is going on here? Uhh, Madeline, where are your shoes?”

The look on Nikita’s face was priceless. Madeline and I collapsed into another paroxysm of laughter, which sent tears rolling down our cheeks. Nonplused, Nikita took a few steps forward and sat down in the wheelchair, crossed her arms and her long legs and just stared at us. “Is someone going to tell me what is so funny?”

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

Madeline carefully wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes and admonished Nikita. “What are you doing walking on that ankle without your crutches. Are you trying to get assigned to the Rehab Center?” She put her hands on her hips and waited for an answer, her lips quivering as she tried to control a grin.

It was hard to take Madeline’s question seriously, after what Nikita had just witnessed. “My ankle is better and the crutches just got in the way. And I could use a couple of weeks at the Center. I think Grace is going to need some help. Don’t you think so?” Nikita ever so slightly pressed the advantage she saw in Madeline’s current state of suppressed mirth.

“Maybe Grace does need some help. Very well, consider yourself assigned to two, no, three weeks at the Rehab Center. And, Nikita, stay off that ankle as much as possible. You won’t be of much use to Grace, if you reinjure it.” Madeline walked to the door of my room. She turned her head slightly, and spoke over her shoulder. “You can ask Grace about what happened to my shoes.” That said, she left the room, her footfalls soft because of the absence of her shoes.

“Oh, I pity the poor Ops she meets on the way to her office. No clicking high heels to warn them of her approach. Nikita grinned and used the wheelchair to roll herself over to my bed. “Now tell me what happened to Maddy’s shoes.”

“Well, she made a very insensitive suggestion to me about my pregnancy at the same time that I had an attack of morning sickness, and I.....what is the term the Ops use? Oh yes, I hurled right on her expensive black shoes. I was never so pleased to have been sick in my entire life. She looked at her shoes and she looked at me, and then she lost it completely. You know, I don’t think I have ever seen Madeline laugh, have you?”

“No, that was a first for me too. I think we had better keep it between us. If news of this gets out, she may decide to cancel the both of us.” She stood up from the chair. “Ready to visit the father of your child? Here, let me help you.” She took hold of my arm and guided me to the wheelchair.

“All of you are going to have to rein yourselves in on this ‘taking care of Grace’ thing. I can take care of myself,” I groused, as I wisely allowed her to help me. I was still feeling a bit unsteady and dizzy, but at this moment the only thing I wanted to do was to see Carson. Nikita finally got me settled in the wheelchair and she started to push me from the room.

“Grace,” she asked, “You will let me know if you feel the urge to hurl again, won’t you?” I looked up at her and grinned.

“Why, are you wearing new shoes?” We laughed all the way down the hall. I stopped laughing abruptly as we neared Carson’s room. “Nikita, leave me alone with him. Okay?”

She nodded and opened the door and carefully pushed me inside the room. At my first sight of Carson, I drew in a quick breath and grabbed the hand that she had placed on my shoulder. There were tubes and IVs everywhere, and he seemed to be covered in bandages. Worse of all, his beautiful long blond hair was gone. Stitches raced in a jagged line from just above his left ear to the back of his head. Maybe, by the time the baby is born, I thought, his lovely blond hair will be just touching his shoulders once more. I closed my eyes and imagined my fingers running through those golden strands. Nikita squeezed my hand and said something. “What....what did you say?”

“I said, do you want me to stay here with you?” She peered into my face, trying to gage my emotional state.

“No, I’ll be fine. Carson and I have some things to talk about. Will you come back later to take me back to my room? Oh, and Nikita, will you check on Rene for me? I’m sure he’s okay. He’s probably with Michael, but I need to be sure.” Seeing Carson like this and knowing how close we all came to being killed had put my protective maternal instincts into overdrive.

“Of course, Grace, I’ll check on him. You and Carson have a nice talk. I’ll see you later.” She patted me on the shoulder and left me alone with my injured love.

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

“Carson, my love, you can wake up anytime now. I have something wonderful to tell you and you need to be awake to hear it.” Somehow I thought he would magically open his eyes and smile at me and everything would be all right. But he didn’t open his eyes, so I sat and held his hand and talked to him. The doctor came in and told me that Carson was doing well, but he was rather concerned that Carson had not yet awakened. All the necessary repairs had been made and that there was no reason he could find for the fact that Carson had not yet come back. He droned on about the various injuries and how long it should take before he was back to normal. Carson and I had a long road ahead of us and I would be there for him, whatever the outcome. The doctor finally asked me the question that enraged me and caused me to threaten his life. Lucky for him that Madeline chose to enter the room at the same time I was ready to jump to the attack. She saw the blood in my eyes and deftly removed the doctor from the room.

“What did he say to provoke you?” She asked me. I stared at her with undisguised loathing. Even though we had shared a moment of laughter, I had not forgotten her offer to make my “condition” go away.

“The bastard just asked me if you or Operations would be making the decision to cancel Carson. He seemed to think Carson’s injuries would take too long to heal and that he would be medically canceled. Did he get that idea from you, Madeline? Are you considering having the man I love and the father of my child murdered?” I looked deep into her eyes and waited for an answer.

She looked shocked that I should ask such a question. “Grace, I told you earlier that Operations and I were very pleased with what you and Carson were doing at the Center. There is no reason that we would cancel someone who is obviously an asset to Section. By canceling Carson, we would also be losing you and that is simply not an option that we are considering. The doctor was wrong and utterly stupid to have approached you with such a question. I will be having a serious talk with him later. Please know that whatever Carson needs to recover, he will have. And Grace, what I suggested earlier, I am sorry for that. I thought that perhaps you felt the baby might be a mistake and I was offering you a way out. I know now that suggestion was ill-conceived and I hope you will forgive me for it. “ She seemed so contrite and genuinely sorry for her earlier words that I decided to offer her my forgiveness.

“You are forgiven, Madeline, and I’m sorry for my outburst from earlier. I would never do anything to harm this precious gift I’m carrying. Thank you also for your support regarding Carson. I just couldn’t stand the thought of anything else happening to separate us. I just want to focus on him and our baby. I jumped to some conclusions and I should have talked to you first before I got so angry, but you must know how much your reputation has proceeded you. I didn’t expect your compassion. Where did that come from?” I stopped and waited for her to answer me. When the answer came, it was a surprise.

“Grace, my compassion has always been there, but it has been buried deep within me. It had no place in my job, and until recently, I had always made sure that my compassion would never see the light of day.” She walked over to me and stood quietly beside my chair. She put her hand on my shoulder and I looked up at her.

“What happened to make your compassion resurface?” I asked, curious to know her answer.

“It all started when I saw how much you loved Rene, and how hard you fought to keep Michael in his life.” She leaned forward, looking around to make certain she was not overheard, her mouth scant inches from my ear. “And Grace, like you, and even though it doesn’t seem so at times, I want what is best for Michael. I love him, too.”

Well, I thought, I never in a million years believed I would hear words like these coming from Madeline’s lips. Many questions leapt to my lips, but I kept them to myself.

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

My hand never lost contact with Carson’s. I needed to be near in case he stirred, but I was fascinated by what I was hearing. I think Madeline sensed that I would listen to her, but not betray her confidence. And, I guess, if the truth were to be told, I would not betray those confidences. I hadn’t with Michael, Nikita, Carson, and I wouldn’t with Madeline. She pulled a chair over and placed it as close to my wheelchair as she could. As she sat down, I had the acute urge to ask her not to tell me what she was about to tell me. I don’t think I wanted to know about her and Michael. But then she started talking, and heaven help me, I started listening.

She did care about Michael, even though some of his worst and most painful moments had been dealt to him from her own hands. Always, she did what she felt was best for him, never stopping to worry too much what his opinion might have been. Sometimes, her plans for him were thwarted by Operations, who sensed the regard in which she held Michael. Operations often reacted out of jealousy because of the intimate training sessions between his second-in-command and his top protege. Michael had been trained at first as a Valentine Op. But as his training with Madeline continued, she became more convinced that his talents would be wasted in Valentine operations. It had been her idea to widen his realm of training. Operations looked at Michael’s training record and concurred, and so, Section’s top Class Five Operative was born. More often than not, Madeline manipulated Operations into thinking her ideas and proposals were his own. Most of the time, the manipulations worked, sometimes they did not.

It was Operations who had planned the mission where Simone was lost. He felt she had become useless after the loss of Rene, and rather than cancel her outright, he allowed her to be lost on a mission. His plan had almost backfired, because he almost lost Michael as well. It had been Madeline who had found Michael’s light, Nikita.

Training her had brought Michael back from the abyss that he had stepped up to, and before he could take the fatal plunge, his heart had been captured by the light that was Nikita. To Madeline’s chagrin, Operations had taken an immediate dislike to Nikita. To Operations’ military eye, Nikita lacked military discipline. She questioned, she was insolent, she was emotional, all things that Operations had been as a young soldier. Things that had been beaten out of him in the prison camps of Vietnam. Madeline knew that the very qualities that Operations hated in Nikita were the very things that had kept him alive in the camps. He cared about his men in the camps and had steeled himself to step between his men and the prison guards. Unfortunately, for Operations, the seven years he spent in the camps had used up every ounce of those qualities he had possessed. And so, he had become the man who had come to Section and had ultimately wrested control of the organization from its founder. And he had molded it into the terrible force into which a young and idealistic Michael Saumuelle had been tossed. The unremitting brutality that had engulfed Michael had turned him from a youth into a man who was feared by almost everyone in Section. Operations was pleased with his creation and saw Simone and later Rene as distractions to his top Op, and so it fell to Madeline to “fix” the situation that so worried Operations. “Grace, you were a godsend,” she told me. “You loved little Rene and I knew you would take care of him. You were just the person I needed when Operations decided that I should find a more permanent solution for Michael’s son. You saved them both by taking me up on my proposal.”

Operations watched as Michael trained and protected Nikita, had told Michael that if she failed, he failed. Operations had been obstinate about canceling Nikita and Madeline had reluctantly set the profile for Michael to follow. She knew that he would work something out to save Nikita, but along with Michael, she had thought he had failed. She knew that the only thing that had saved Michael from harming himself had been Rene. I knew that as well. I had held Michael as he choked out his part in the conflagration that he worried had taken his Nikita from him. Rene was indeed the only reason Michael had not let himself be killed on any number of the missions he had been on since he thought he had lost Nikita.

I remember also the night Michael visited Rene and how exultant he was, telling me that he had found Nikita alive, and that she had saved his life, both figuratively and literally. Madeline had filled in the details surrounding those events. How she had tried unsuccessfully to talk to Michael about his grief and depression about losing Nikita and how, in the end, she had sent him to me and to Rene to remind him of a reason for him to live. She thanked me for making sure he found that reason in Rene. I deserved no thanks. Rene had only to show Michael his love for his father and that somehow was enough to cause Michael to make the effort to stay alive.

Madeline had again failed to manipulate Operations when Jurgen had been assigned to retrain Nikita. That had almost been a disaster for Michael until Madeline had used Nikita to betray Jurgen, a move that ultimately led to Jurgen sacrificing himself to complete the mission as well as to save Michael from certain death. Jurgen had also saved Michael for Nikita. It had taken a long time with pain for them both before Madeline had slowly pushed them back together. She had even convinced Operations that if he wanted to keep Michael as his top Operative, then he had also to keep Nikita. He didn’t like it, but he finally accepted it.

Madeline paused in her story and said softly to me, “Grace! Look!”

At that same moment, I felt a trembling in the hand that I held tightly in my own. I looked into Carson’s face and I saw his wonderful blue eyes gazing back at me. They were cloudy with pain, but the eyes that I so loved were alert and he smiled at me.

“My love,” I whispered, “welcome back.....I have a wonderful surprise for you.”

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

As I stood from my chair, I had completely forgotten that Madeline was still there beside me. Carson’s eyes shifted momentarily to her and then, with an expression of concern, sought out my eyes again.

“Shhhh,” I soothed, “let me get you some ice chips.” I heard the clicking of Madeline’s newly acquired shoes and turned my head to watch her leave, even as I held the cup to Carson’s lips. “Madeline,” I called to her, “what you told me....it’s safe with me.”

She stopped, turned her head slightly, never quite meeting my eyes. “Yes, Grace, I know. That’s one of the reasons I told you. Thank you.” And she left the room.

I felt my hand being tugged, and I turned my gaze back to my beloved’s face. His marvelous blue eyes were clearer now and still alert. Those eyes encouraged me to hope that all was going to be well with him.

“Where’s my surprise? You said you had a surprise for me.” He pulled my hand to his lips, and even as I watched, confusion clouded his face. “Wait, what happened? Where are we?” He noticed the Section medical gown and robe I wore and he glanced wildly around the room. “Grace!” he closed his eyes again and I knew he was remembering, “Oh God, Grace....where’s Rene? Is he all right? The truck....you looked terrified. Grace, please tell me he is okay! Michael will kill me if.....”

“Rene is just fine. You are the one who was hurt, but you’re going to be okay. You really messed up your left arm and leg, but we’ll take care of that. You’ll just set off security gates at every airport you go through now. The doctors had to do a lot of repair work with steel pins and rods, but everything is going to be just fine. In fact, things are going to be wonderful.” I took his hand in mine and pulled it toward me. He didn’t resist, but let me place it on my stomach. “Here is your surprise. The doctors bloodwork on me came back with a big surprise. How do you feel about an addition to our family?”

I watched as his eyebrows knitted together in puzzlement at my words. The puzzlement turned to confusion, which grew into a dawning comprehension as he stared first at my smile and then at his hand on my stomach. Then joy suffused his countenance and he broke into a broad grin.

“Really?? How, when, Grace! This is wonderful!” He winced as he pulled me down to him with his uninjured arm for a celebratory kiss. “God, why does being this happy have to hurt so much.” He drew in a hissed breath and hugged me tightly. “So, Grace, are Michael and Rene outside with a shotgun, waiting to force me to make an honest woman out of you?”

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

Rene sat with Nikita in Michael’s office. Michael had been called away for a briefing and most likely would be leaving on a mission within the hour.

Rene snuggled closer to Nikita and looked up at her with a question on his lips. “Nikita, do you think my Mom will love this new baby better than me?” Nikita hugged Rene and answered him as truthfully as she could.

“Rene, never doubt that Grace loves you. You are as much her son as if she had born you like she will give birth to this baby. A mother’s love is a constant, permanent thing.” She smiled wistfully, remembering how unloved she had felt as a child, and she was determined that Rene would feel as loved and cherished as was his due. “Sometimes it may seem like she loves the baby more, but she will love you just the same. The baby will take more of her time because it won’t be able to take care of itself like you are able to. Babies always require lots of love and care. You will have to help your Mom to take care of this little one even before it is born. Carson will take a long time to get back to his old self, so a lot of the responsibility of taking care of Grace and the baby will fall to you. Do you think you can handle that?” Nikita watched as Rene’s dark head bobbed up and down.

“Yeah, I can.....but Nikita, I don’t know anything about taking care of babies or Moms who are having babies! I mean, I’ll do my best but how do I learn all that stuff?” He said in a bewildered voice.

“You like to read, don’t you?” Rene nodded again. “Well, we’ll just have to find you the right books, and you can also talk to your Daddy. He was there when your mother was carrying you. I bet he can tell you all kinds of things.” She smiled down at Rene and hoped to be near when this father-son conversation took place.

“What kind of things can I tell Rene?” Both Rene and Nikita jumped at the sound of Michael’s voice intruding on their quiet little conversation. Rene jumped up an ran to his father, who was standing in the doorway.

“Nikita said you could tell me all about where babies come from and how to take care of Mom while she is carrying the new baby.” Michael pinned Nikita with his best stare and raised one finely arched eyebrow to question why she had told him all this. She only shrugged and smiled a brilliant smile back at him. He was momentarily lost in that smile, until Rene tugged on his sleeve to recover his father’s attention. “Well, Daddy, what was my Mother like when she was waiting for me to be born. How am I going to help Mom with this baby?” Rene stared at his father and wondered what that funny look on his face meant. “Daddy?” he asked again.

Michael smiled and simply said, “Come, Rene, I have a story to tell you.” He led Rene over to the bed that Operations had moved in for Rene and sat down next to Nikita. Both Rene and Nikita waited for Michael to begin the story.

“When your Mother was pregnant with you, I sometimes thought she hated me. But that was only because she was so uncomfortable most of the time. She had severe morning sickness and was sick to her stomach for the first few months after we found out about you.”

Rene listened with eyes wide open and suddenly very serious. “Daddy, did I make Mother sick? Did she not like having me?”

“No, no, Rene.” Michael reassured his son. “Morning sickness is something that effects almost all women who are pregnant. Their bodies are adjusting to the new life growing inside, and sometimes their bodies react making them feel sick. It soon passes. Your Mom will probably experience this....What, Nikita? Is there something you want to add?” Michael asked, rather annoyed at this interruption.

Nikita was sitting there, trying to stifle a laugh, trying to remain calm, but failing miserably on both counts. “Uh, sorry, Michael. It’s just that Grace is already experiencing morning sickness. This morning she got sick when Madeline was talking to her. Michael, have you happened to have noticed Madeline’s new shoes? It seems that Grace ruined her old shoes.” At this last statement, a laugh of pure, unadulterated glee burst from Nikita’s lips. Soon, Rene was giggling as well. Michael, ever the stoic, allowed only a small upturning of his the corners of his mouth, as he wished fervently that he could have seen the look on Madeline’s face.

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

“Carson, you don’t have to.....I don’t expect you to marry me. We are just fine as we are. You don’t have to make an ‘honest woman’ of me.” I stammered out the words, surprised by the implication of his comment. I still had a tight grip on his right hand and loosened my hold, thinking that I might be hurting him. I looked into his eyes and what I saw there made my knees weak. All the love he had for me was there for me to see. I also saw hurt there as well.

“You don’t want to marry me? Do you not want to marry a former Section killer? Is that it? Am I good enough for your bed, but not good enough to share the rest of your life with? Grace, I love you and I want to be with only you and our baby for the rest of my life. Don’t you want that too?”

“Of course, I want to be with you forever, but I am not asking for a commitment, just because I goofed up on my birth control. But.....” I stood there entranced by the look of love in his blue eyes. “But Carson, I am so much older than you. Are you sure?”

He gazed at me and then his head away from me. “Grace,” he whispered, and I leaned closer to hear what he was saying. He turned back to me and pierced my heart with his the expression in his eyes. “My mama always told me when I was growing up to seize life with both hands and hold on tight. If I could grab you with both of my hands, I would hold on to you and never let go, but since I seem to be a bit incapacitated right now, you just have to believe what I say. I don’t want to ever let go of you. I want to marry you and give our baby my name. Do you believe me when I say that?”

“Yes, Carson, I believe you,” I said, feeling the tears burning in my own eyes. I leaned over him and brushed my lips against his, reaching out my hand instinctively to run my fingers through his hair. My hand encountered a layer of fine stubble on his bald head, and I smiled at him. “Maybe by the time our wedding day arrives, you’ll have enough hair to comb.” I watched as he pulled his hand from mine and moved his uninjured arm upward, running his hand over his head.

“Grace, what happened.....why did they......” he stopped as his fingers traced the line of stitches from over his left ear toward the back of his head. “Wow, I bet that hurt like a son-of-a-bitch!” He grinned at me then and said softly. “I don’t want to wait another ten minutes to marry you. I want to you to be my wife now.”

“I am your wife in all the ways that count, Carson.” I said to him. “It’s only the legal part that can wait.” He started to shake his head, disagreeing with what I said, and gasped in pain.

“Ohhh, bad idea!” he hissed, through clenched teeth. “Grace, I don’t want to wait for the legal stuff. I want us married as soon as possible. I don’t want my child to have to explain why there was so much time difference between our date of marriage and his or her birthdate. If that sounds old-fashioned, then sue me. If I can’t marry you today, then I want it done tomorrow. Please say that you will marry me. Please, Grace.”

************* Madeline pressed a key on the keyboard in front of her, cutting off the audio/video transmission from Carson’s room. So they want to get married, do they, she thought. I wonder what Operations will think about that? She laughed to herself. He’ll think what I want him to think, of course.

She turned once more to her keyboard, profiling a very unusual mission for Section One. There wasn’t much time and she had a lot of work to do.

As Madeline settled down to work in her office, Michael sat in his office, shaking his head from side to side at two of the dearest people in his life. Nikita and Rene were still caught up in their shared mirth.

“Mom didn’t, did she?” Rene was asking of Nikita, in awe of what she had just told him and his father. “Mom spewed on Madeline’s shoes? I can’t believe it. Mom never gets sick.” The very idea that his Mom would do something so...so awful all over Madeline’s shoes was just too funny for words, and so he laughed. “Did Madeline send Mom to the white room for that,” he asked, and was startled when his father suddenly snapped at him.

“What do you know about the white room?” He didn’t want Rene learning about any more of the dark side of Section than he already knew, especially if it concerned the white room.

Rene, lips trembling, said quietly, “Nothing, Daddy, I just heard some people in the hall saying that Madeline enjoyed throwing people into the white room and that they never wanted to be on Madeline’s bad side. So when Nikita told me about what Mom did to Madeline, I just thought that would probably be enough to get on Madeline’s bad side. Did I say something wrong? I didn’t mean to, Daddy. Really, I didn’t.” He was shocked by his father’s reaction and tears had started to form in the corners of his eyes, but they disappeared when he was engulfed in his father’s arms.

“Shhhh, I am sorry Rene. I didn’t mean to scare you. The white room is not a very nice place to be and I didn’t know you knew about it. I’m sorry I snapped at you. Forgive me?” Michael soothed Rene and changed the subject quickly, and was happy to see Rene nod his head. “Rene, Nikita, it’s lunch time. How about us going outside for lunch? How does that sound? I know a place where they serve the best hamburgers in town. Okay?”

Rene grinned, looking to Nikita for her agreement. “Okay, Daddy, but can we go see Mom and Carson first? I have to make sure they are all right.” He jumped down from the bed and took both Michael’s and Nikita’s hands in his, and started pulling them to the door of Michael’s office. “Come on, let’s go see Mom, and watch out for your shoes!!”

Still chuckling to himself, Rene walked happily down the hallway between his father and Nikita, swinging their hands in his own as he went. Michael opened the door to Carson’s room just in time for Rene to hear Grace say, “Yes, of course!” as she started weeping.

Rene dropped both Michael’s and Nikita’s hands as he charged into the room yelling, “Leave my Mom alone! Why are you making her cry?”

***********

Rene rushed up to me and threw his arms around me. I slowly sat down in the wheelchair. Carson released my hands, understanding that I needed to reassure Rene that I was all right. My son buried his head against my shoulder and hugged me even tighter. “Mom, are you okay? Why did Carson make you cry?”

I smiled at my son’s attempt at defending me. “Rene, I’m okay. Carson didn’t hurt me. He has made me so very happy. He has asked me to marry him. What do you think about that?” Rene’s head popped up, his green eyes wide in surprise.

“Oh! Well! Did you say yes?” he grinned and allowed his gaze to slide over to Carson, whose blue eyes were fixed on Rene, awaiting his verdict. Nikita took the opportunity to wrap her arms around me from behind. I watched with a certain amount of sadness as she glanced up at Michael as she told me how happy she was for me. I knew that she was thinking that this was something she would probably never experience with the man she loved. I felt terrible that these two precious friends of mine would only find snippets of love and fulfillment in their lives together, and it made me even more determined to make sure that mine and Carson’s home would be a haven for them whenever we could arrange it for them. And then I refocused on what was happening before me.

Carson grinned back at Rene. “Of course she said Yes. Who could deny this handsome face?” Carson grimaced in pain as Rene scrambled up on the bed to hug him and whisper in his ear.

“You better take care of her and my baby brother or sister, or you will have to deal with me.” Michael walked over to the bed and put his arm around Rene’s waist to lift him from the bed. He had noted the flash of pain on Carson’s face as Rene had delivered his message. I laughed at the tableaux before me. Michael stood there with Rene under one arm, his arms and legs dangling, while he congratulated Carson and me.

Michael took Carson’s right hand and gently shook it. “I’m very happy for you and Grace, and I know you will be very happy together.” Michael then bent and kissed me on the cheek. “So when is the happy day? When will you be released from Medical?”

“Tomorrow is the happy day and we aren’t waiting for me to get out of here. I want Grace to marry me as soon as possible. I don’t want to live a day more without her as my wife.” I put my hand out and took Carson’s hand in my own.

I caught his eye and said carefully, “Well, Carson, my love, there is just one little problem....”

“Yeah, I’ve got a problem.” Rene struggled to catch his father’s attention. “Uh, Daddy, could you put me down? Please?” Michael looked down at Rene and smiled.

“Oh, sorry Rene.” Michael carefully deposited Rene on the floor beside me. He stepped over to Nikita and slipped his hand into hers. Their eyes met and they smiled at each other and then turned their joint gaze on me and Carson. “Grace, what kind of problem?” Michael asked softly.

“Well,” I said, caressing the warm hand in mine. “Just where are we going to find someone to marry us here? Does Section have a resident chaplain? Carson isn’t going anywhere for a couple of weeks. Who can perform the ceremony in this place?”

“I think I can solve that little problem,” said a voice from the doorway. We all looked toward the speaker and as one, we all gasped.

*********** Operations stood their bestowing his malevolent grin on us. He advanced into the room and I noticed that his normally lifeless, icy blue eyes were twinkling. Was that amusement that I saw in those eyes? “Madeline told me what you were planning, Grace.” He said sadly. “I thought you two would at least have sought my blessing on your upcoming union. It would have been nice to have been consulted on this matter. Such things usually require my stamp of approval. Michael could have told you this. Couldn’t you, Michael. You sought my permission when you wanted to marry Simone, Rene’s other mother.” I watched as Michael tensed and also I seethed, knowing that this man delighted in tormenting Michael. Was he so jealous of Michael’s deep connection with Rene that he needed to twist the knife at every opportunity, I thought to myself? As he came closer, our close-knit group seemed to take a collective step back from him. Only Rene stood his ground.

“How did you know my Mom and Carson wanted to get married? My Mom just now said yes to Carson.” He took a step toward Operations, put his little fists on his hips and glared up at the older man. “Well? How?” he demanded. Michael walked up behind his son and gently placed both his hands on Rene’s shoulders.

“Rene, every inch of this place is covered with surveillance equipment. Madeline was most probably watching what was happening here when Carson asked your Mom to marry him, and then, she told Operations,” Michael explained.

“Well, that was pretty rude of Madeline!” Rene insisted, still glowering up at the man who held all of our lives in his hands.

“Rene!” I scolded. “That is the ways things work around here. It’s standard operating procedure for Section.”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he apologized to me. “But that still doesn’t make it okay.” Rene once again pierced Operations with his flashing green eyes. “And I think you owe my Mom and Carson an apology of your own!”

We seemed to be witnessing a classic Mexican stand-off. I suddenly sat back in my wheelchair and smiled up at Carson as I once more caressed his hand. He tore his eyes away from the confrontation going on before our eyes and looked at me. “Watch this,” I whispered to him and as one, we swung our joint gaze to the small boy, arms akimbo staring up at the white-haired man.

Without warning, Operations leaned over and snatched a surprised Rene from his father’s grasp and swung him up into his arms. “You’re right, Rene. I do owe your Mom and Carson an apology.” He nodded to me and my betrothed, “Grace, Carson, I’m sorry if Section intruded on your private moment, but surveillance is routine in this place. You both know that.” He grinned up at Rene. “Did I do okay, Rene?”

“Yeah, for now, but just don’t let it happen again. All right?” He wriggled in Operations’ arms, signaling that he wanted down. Operations carefully set my son down on the floor. Rene immediately retreated to the protection of his father’s side, in the process taking hold of Michael’s hand as well as Nikita’s. From this safe haven, Rene queried Operations again. “What did you mean when you said that you could solve the problem of getting Grace and Carson married here in Section. Do you know someone here that can marry them?”

Out of the mouths of babes, I thought. What a treasure was my beautiful son, as beautiful and strong as his father. All of us waited patiently to hear Operations’ answer.

“Why, yes,” he said, “I do have someone in mind. And he is right here.” Operations gestured to the doorway behind him. We craned our necks to see who he was gesturing to and watched as Walter walked in the door.

“Ahhh, Gracie, Operations tells me that you and Carson need someone to perform a wedding ceremony. I can do that.” And he came forward to explain just how that was possible.

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

“Believe it or not, Gracie, I am an ordained minister. Almost thirty years ago now, when I got back from Vietnam, all I wanted to do was turn on, tune in, and drop out. And when I found the Rising Sun commune, that is just what I did.” Walter had come over to me and knelt in front of me to tell his story. Soon, everyone in the room had found a place to sit to listen to Walter. Rene leaned up against Michael, who sat on the floor next to Nikita, whose shoulder was in constant contact with Michael, irregardless of the presence of Operations who had settled onto a stool that he had moved in, so he could become a part of the group. And probably, I thought, Madeline is, no doubt, sitting in her office listening in as well. So be it, at least her shoes are safe this way. And then Walter continued with his tale....

“When I got back from Vietnam, I was just so sick and tired of being sick and tired. I had seen so much death, so much waste of human life. I just wanted some peace, somewhere to rest, somewhere that people didn’t know I was a vet. I had done what I thought was my duty to my country and I didn’t want to be jeered at, or spit upon. I drifted for awhile, trying to find some answers to my questions. And then I found the Rising Sun. They accepted me into their midst. They didn’t care where I had come from, or who I was. All that mattered was that I was one of them, just someone who wanted to work at being human. I found peace there. I found a family. Everyone had their place and they made a place for me among them. “ Walter’s voice had an oddly soothing effect on me, and I felt myself relaxing, the tension in my shoulders melting away, and I was glad that at this wondrous time of my life that I had my closest friends and family around me. Even if this was Section, I was at home because those I loved were here next to me. I felt my attention drifting. I was so very tired. Carson sensed that I was being lulled by Walter’s words, so he tenderly stroked the back of my hand with his thumb. I blinked and sat up a bit straighter and refocused my attention on Walter’s words.

I was with my friends at Rising Sun for almost four years. During that time, I spent a lot of my time with the spiritual leader of the commune. His name was Josiah and in the real world he had once been a high-powered attorney. At Rising Sun, he had used his knowledge to shape the community into a self-sufficient, thriving sanctuary for those of us who were world-weary and damaged. His leadership provided us with friendship, love, and a safe place to live. It was his idea to incorporate Rising Sun as a religious entity. Not only would that status help us financially, it would provide some protection from the government, who was just beginning to sniff around anything that seemed to have counterculture status. Josiah was almost eighty when I met him. After I had been his student for over a year, he asked me to become his assistant, to help him with the day-to-day tasks involved in keeping Rising Sun running smoothly. I accepted his suggestion and became, along with him, an ordained minister of the Rising Sun Church. I left the commune twenty-five years ago, right after he died, but the ordination was for life, so I still have the authority to preside at weddings. All these long years at Section hasn’t changed that, even if some of the things I have done in Section’s name hasn’t made me too proud of myself.” He fixed his questioning eyes on my face first, and then he glanced up at Carson. “Well, what do you two think? Would you want a tired old hippie like me to marry the two of you?”

My eyes sought Carson’s and we silently communicated our consent to each other. I turned back to Walter. “We wouldn’t allow anyone else to perform the ceremony, Walter, only you can do this for us.” I put my hand out and smoothed it over the bandana-clad head of the man that I thought once would be the one to love me. “You are the only one for us, Walter. Thank you!”

“Well, now that that is settled, Grace, you, Nikita and I have some work to do. Let’s get rid of these men and get to it!” commanded Madeline. How, I wondered had she managed to walk right up to us without our noticing?

“OH!” I said. “Yes, we do have a lot to do.” I rose from my chair and accepted embraces from Rene, Walter, Michael and even Operations as they all quietly left the room under the watchful eyes of Madeline. And even as she stood by, arms folded, impatiently tapping her barefoot against the floor, I took my time as I bent over Carson, kissing him breathless, and whispering what I was going to do to him when he had healed and I had him home in our bed.

“Is that a promise?” he whispered back.

“Absolutely, my love, absolutely,” I murmured quietly back. I kissed him one more time and told him I would see him tomorrow at whatever altar that Walter proposed. When he protested, I reminded him that it was bad luck for the groom to see the bride until the wedding ceremony began.

“Grace,” he grumbled, “Can’t you at least come back and tuck me in tonight?”

“All right, but only if you get some rest today. The last thing I want on my wedding night is an exhausted groom.” I rubbed the stubble on his head and kissed him one last time, and said “I’ll see you later. Sleep now, my love.” And as I backed away from his bed to sit again in the wheelchair that Nikita held for me, he closed his eyes, and I knew he was thinking of tomorrow, just as I was.

“Well, ladies! Let’s get this show on the road. Madeline, I heard that you have a huge wardrobe here in Section. Any wedding dresses that might fit me?” Nikita pushed my wheelchair from Carson’s room and I had to look back to make sure that Madeline was following us. “Uhhh, Madeline, I think my morning sickness is past for the day.” She padded along behind us, her barefeet making no sound at all.

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

“Wait!” I said, catching the wheels on my chair and causing Nikita to almost trip over me. I turned the chair and went back into Carson’s room. “Carson,” I called softly, “who do you want for your best man?”

“Ask Michael,” he said drowsily, raising his head from the pillow. “Ask Michael for me, please Grace....he’s the only one. And Grace,” he smiled at me sleepily. “Ask Rene to give the bride away. He’ll love that. It will make him feel so grown up. And it’s only fair. He did bring us together. He and Michael. Ask them....” And he closed his eyes, drifting off into a much needed sleep. Today had offered him too many exciting things and my poor, hurt love was exhausted. A good afternoon and evening sleep would make him feel so much better, and he would need all his strength for tomorrow’s events.

I glanced up at Nikita and said, “Well, that worked out just fine, because I plan on you being my maid of honor. You will won’t you? I can’t imagine anyone else standing up with me. Say yes?”

Her noisy agreement was followed by tears and hugs which Madeline watched with an exasperated and impatient expression on her face. “If we don’t get started soon, this wedding will be running very late. Can we go now?” Nikita and I laughed and hugged one more time and then attentively followed Madeline down the hall to her old office.

The three of us spent the next hour going through the extensive collection of clothing that was housed in Madeline’s old office. I sat on the lower level while Nikita and Madeline, on the upper level, ferreted out white dresses for my inspection. Nothing seemed right. They had started with some really beautiful long wedding dresses. I just could not imagine myself in those dresses. They were made for someone young, and, right now, I was feeling my age. I had only just started thinking about what the next few months held for me. More morning sickness, swollen ankles that I would soon not be able to see because I would be fat. No, I told myself, not fat, with child. Yes, that sounded much better. I would be with child. What a way to get a new wardrobe! I laughed to myself and looked up once again as Madeline pulled out a dress and displayed it for me. She saw the look on my face, sighed and put the dress back. Nikita had moved down to an area in the wardrobe racks where suits hung, arranged by gradations of color. I watched as she sifted through the garments, quickly pushing several aside until she stopped and looked longingly at one suit in particular.

“Did you find something, Nikita?” I called. She pulled out the suit on its hanger and walked close to the rail where she draped it over the edge.

“What do you think of this one, Grace? I like it and I think it’s your size.”

The suit was satin and cut very simply. No frou-frou frilliness, just elegant and completely unadorned. The jacket would fit snugly from shoulders to hips. The straight skirt was pegged and would also fit the curve from my hips down to my knees. With a plain lace camisole, it would be perfect. “Bring it closer. I think you have just found my wedding dress!” Madeline followed Nikita as she came down the stairs and brought the suit to me so I could get a closer look. It was even more beautiful than I had first thought. “Oh, it’s perfect, just perfect. Let me try it on.” In just a few seconds, Nikita had shown me a fitting room and stayed with me to help me dress. She had magically produced from a series of drawers under the stairs all the undergarments, including a lace camisole, that I would need to wear with the suit. Madeline had even found a pair of white satin pumps for me to wear.

Before she handed them to me, she asked quietly, “How do you feel, Grace. No nausea or anything?”

“I’m fine, Madeline. The shoes will be safe with me. In fact, I feel wonderful, even my pounding headache is gone. I think today and tomorrow are going to be the best days of my life. Now, how do I look?” I glanced up at Nikita and Madeline and saw satisfied smiles on their faces. “Then this is the one?” They both nodded in unison. Madeline walked over to another row of drawers and rummaged through them until she found what she wanted. What she produced was a dainty confection made of lace and crystal beads, which she carefully arranged in my hair, pulling it back over my left ear and securing it with the lace arrangement. She took me by the shoulders and turned me toward the mirror. Nikita came to my side and put her arm around me.

“Oh Grace, you make a beautiful bride.” She placed her cheek next to mine and I watched as tears gathering in her brilliant blue eyes. “I am so happy for you and Carson....I wish....” She closed her eyes, and achingly, I knew what she wished.

***********

Nikita’s touching gesture wishing me well on my upcoming marriage was almost my undoing. I felt tears spring to my eyes as I thought about what this might mean to her. She was wishing it was her and Michael exchanging vows tomorrow. I was torn, wanting this to be the happiest time of my life and feeling so sad that two of my very best friends might never have the same opportunity as I. I lifted my hand and touched Nikita’s cheek against mine. “Let me share the ceremony with you and Michael,” I whispered to her, trying to locate Madeline and finding her across the room, going through the drawers again, searching for the jewelry to complete my ensemble. “Even though it won’t be official, you and Michael can share the exchange of vows with us. Carson and I would love to have the two of you make a commitment along with us. Please, Nikita. No one but the four of us and maybe Walter would have to know. What do you think?”

Nikita turned her head to kiss me on the cheek. “Oh, Grace, if only we could.” She smiled conspiratorially, “You really want us to share?” I nodded and she bear hugged me and laughed softly, “Well, then, anything to make you happy. Now, if only Michael feels the same way.”

I returned her laugh and felt much, much better. “Now, Nikita,” I said so Madeline could hear me. Go find something for yourself. I want my maid of honor to be stunning tomorrow. Maybe something in pink, or blue to match your eyes. “ I made shooing motions with my hands, “Off with you, and don’t come back until you have something exquisite to show me!”

It didn’t take long before Nikita came running down the stairs with a wonderful light blue satin jacket, similar to mine, in one hand and a swingy, lightly beaded skirt of the same color. “Grace, look! What do you think? It’s beautiful, isn’t it!” Her youthful exuberance was infectious and I couldn’t help but love her.

“Try it on. I want to see that swingy skirt on you.” Madeline stood back, her head tilted to one side, taking it the scene before her.

“That’s going to look heavenly on you, Nikita,” she said. Nikita hurried into the dressing room and returned in a few minutes, in a swirl of blue. She twirled around and her hair lifted on the air stirred by her movement. She was a vision and I knew Michael would fall in love with her all over again.

“Oh, Nikita, it is just beautiful. You are beautiful.” And, I thought Michael will love it most of all. Another facet of his light, his beautiful Nikita.

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

I was exhausted from the afternoon’s activities, but the three of us girls had accomplished a lot. Nikita and I were outfitted for our wedding tomorrow and I had also picked out, with Madeline’s assistance, suits for Michael, Carson and even Rene. I didn’t even want to know why Section had child-sized clothes in their wardrobe collection. Better not to know the answer to that question.

When Nikita had left me after our adventurous afternoon, I asked her to send Michael to me. There were several things about which we needed to talk. “Just send him along, without Rene, after you two have a chat,” I told her quietly. Can you keep Rene occupied while we talk?”

“Of course, we’ll go see Birkoff. Rene loves those computers of Birkoff’s and he is also fond of Oreos. Don’t worry about him. I’ll bring him by your room later, after you and Michael have your discussion. And Grace,” she said lightly, “Thanks for your offer. It means the world to me that you want to include us in your special day, but I really do have to talk to Michael about it. He can tell you what we decide.” With that said, she glided out of my room.

Tired, I laid down on my bed and turned over on my side cradling my still flat abdomen with my hands. It was still so hard to believe that a new life was growing inside of me. This was a joy I never thought I would feel. My life, up until five years ago, had been a solitary one. Oh, there were boyfriends along the way, but never anyone that I considered close enough to have a child with. An unmarried friend of mine had the same feeling that I had, but she had done something about it. One day she had floated into my office at the library, looking supremely pleased with herself and calmly announced that she was pregnant. Astounded, because I didn’t know she was dating anyone, I had blurted out, “Who!” and she had laughed and told me that it was someone 6 feet tall, black hair, blue eyes and with an IQ of 160. Still not comprehending what she was saying, I asked if she was getting married. Traditionalist that I was so long ago, I was totally surprised when she burst out laughing and told me that she had been artificially inseminated with sperm from a sperm bank.

“Well, that doesn’t sound like very much fun,” I retorted. She had replied that no, it wasn’t any fun at all, but it had been effective and that her child would be born in the spring, and did I want the name of her doctor? I had briefly considered saying yes, but ultimately had decided against it. I just preferred the natural way and so, I had waited....and waited. I had never married. My relatives would pat my hand and shake their heads sadly, too particular, they would say. Your standards are just too high, they would say. They were all gone now. And the only family that I had now existed within these walls surrounding me and I wouldn’t trade them for anyone else I knew. I wondered briefly what my mother would think to see me now, 44 years old, pregnant, and getting married on the morrow to a man who had once been an assassin. I chuckled silently to myself as I felt myself drifting off and soon I was asleep.

I was roused from my nap by a soft kiss on my temple. I slowly opened my eyes to a pair of jade green ones gazing down into mine. “Michael,” I said, “if Carson weren’t the father of my baby, you would be in serious danger waking me up like this.” I glanced at his lips, which had the appearance of having just been kissed by someone wearing Nikita’s shade of lipstick and said, teasingly, “So, you’ve seen Nikita, I take it?”

The lips turned upward in a smile and then he spoke softly. “Yes, Grace, I could never hide anything from you.” He sat down in the chair beside my bed and took my hand. “How are you feeling? Well, I hope.”

“Michael, I am feeling better and better as each minute ticks away. Soon I’ll be Mrs. Carson and then I will feel complete, at last.” I sighed and smiled at him, “and how do you feel? Carson wants you to be his best man. You will do it, won’t you? Did Nikita tell you that she is my maid of honor?” The words tumbled out and I laughed and shut my mouth, waiting for his answer.

“I am fine, and yes, I will stand up with Carson...or, at least I will stand up next to him. He is marrying you from his bed in Medical, isn’t he. I heard the doctors tell him he was not to stand up. He argued, but they were adamant that he stay at still as possible. They don’t want him messing up their handiwork.”

“I don’t want him messing up their handiwork either. I want to be able to take my husband home with me next week. He will be bedridden for a few weeks, and I don’t want him to do anything to jeopardize his recovery. I don’t want my honeymoon delayed any more that it already has been.”

“Ahhh, Grace,” Michael said slowly, as he patted my mid-section. “I think you and Carson have already had your honeymoon, with a decidedly unexpected result.”

“True,” I agreed, “but if this is a honeymoon, I don’t want it to end. Now,” I pulled his hand up and gave it a quick kiss, “ what do you think of my shared vows idea? I know how you feel about Nikita. Is it a go?”

He smiled sadly, “Yes, I do love her, but I can’t give her much of anything of my love, not as Carson has given you by his gift of your child-yet-to-be. How can just my love be enough for her?”

“My God, Michael, for someone so smart, you can be agonizingly dumb sometimes. Don’t you understand that your love is all she cares about? Just knowing that you love her is enough in this crazy world we live in. I would love Carson just as much without this baby as with it. In the end, there is only the love you share between you. And she does love you, so much so that she glows with it. Haven’t you seen that? Haven’t you felt that?” I swore to myself, men could sometimes be so dense, and dashing hero that he was, Michael could sometimes be the most dense of all. “Michael, tomorrow, as Carson and I say our vows, just look into Nikita’s eyes and let your eyes tell her you love her. It’s just that easy!”

***********

The door to my room opened and Rene came running in. He stopped when he saw the serious looks on his father’s and my faces. “Is something wrong? Why do you two look that way?” He went to Michael and put his arms around him. “Daddy, you aren’t going away before the wedding, are you?” Rene’s somber expression made me want to hug him.

“Nothing is wrong, Rene. We were just talking about the wedding and things got a bit sad, but everything is okay now. We have everything straightened out now. Don’t we, Michael?” I sought Michael’s eyes and saw the happiness just beginning to appear in them.

“Yes, everything is a lot clearer now. Thank you, Grace.” He swung Rene up into his lap and groaned a bit. “Rene, you are growing up too fast. You are soon going to be too big for your aging father to lift.”

Rene giggled and said, “Yeah, but I’ll never be too big to do this and he wrapped his arms around Michael’s neck and held on tightly. “I’ll always love you, Daddy, no matter how big or how old I get.” I was so proud of my son and it goes without saying that Michael felt the same as I watched the tears well up in those wonderful green eyes of his. I blinked back my own tears and nodded to Michael.

“Rene, I have something very important to ask you.” He turned in Michael’s arms to peer at me. “This is something symbolic in the wedding and I need to know you will do it and understand what it means. Okay?” He nodded solemnly and I began to explain his part in the wedding ceremony. His eyes grew wide as he listened, and then he began to smile.

“I can do that, Mom. But you’ll still be my Mom, right. I won’t be giving you away forever, will I?” Michael lifted Rene into my arms and then I was the recipient of one of those marvelous Rene-style hugs.

“No, Rene, I’ll always be your Mom, forever and always, just like Michael will always be your Daddy. Nothing and no one will ever change that...ever.” My heart was fairly bursting with the love I felt for this wonderful child, I glanced up at Michael and saw the same expression on his face. I put my hand out and he took it and joined our son and me in an embrace.

I broke the embrace to wipe my eyes and to reluctantly send Michael and Rene away from me. “Tomorrow will be a long day and we all need some rest. Michael, will Rene be going home with you tonight? Is that okay with you?” I asked.

“Yes, he will be. We are having a little party to celebrate. Nikita may be coming with us for a sleepover. We haven’t had one of those in a long time, have we, Rene?” Rene shook his head and grinned.

“Those sleepovers are fun, but, you know, I always wake up in a different bed than the one I went to sleep in. Isn’t that weird?” He slitted his eyes and looked up at his father. “Do you know why that is, Daddy? Does it have anything to do with how much you love Nikita?” He laughed as Michael made a lunge at him and swung him over his shoulder. Rene dissolved in giggles and held on for dear life as Michael turned and brushed a goodnight kiss on my forehead.

“Grace, what have you been teaching this child?” he asked, trying to control Rene as he wiggled in Michael’s arms.

“Uhhh, Michael, I thought you were in charge of Fatherhood 101. That discussion is your territory, not mine.” I smiled smugly and told them that I had to go tuck in Carson and that they needed to be on their way and they would be sorry if they kept Nikita waiting any longer. I watched them as they headed out the door before I got up and started dressing in the comfortable sweats that had been left for me. “Hmmm, not very sexy for a goodnight kiss from Carson. Oh, well, he is already used to my brand of comfortable. He can deal with it.” I laughed to myself and started for Carson’s room.

I was unprepared for the noisy sounds and the sight of medical personnel running into his room. I rushed down the hall, calling his name, terrified that I might be losing him....

***********

One of the nurses grabbed me before I could enter the room, and held me back. I struggled with her, trying to pull my arm free. She told me I had to wait until the doctors were finished. “What happened?” I started yelling at her, too loudly I know, but I had to know what was happening to Carson. I had to be with him.

“I don’t know, I just came on duty. I just know that in your condition, you need to calm down. Getting upset is not a good thing right now. And you can’t go in there.”

“She’s right, you know,” A familiar voice said. “Grace, calm down. Sit down.” I felt the seat of a chair touch the back of my knees and gentle hands pushed on my shoulders. I sat. And looked up into Michael’s concerned face as I felt Rene slip into my arms and wrap his around me. Nikita took hold of my hands and caught my wild eyes with her own.

“Grace, let Michael see what he can find out,” she said as she slid her blue eyes to Michael. His hands left my shoulders and he strode purposely toward the door to Carson’s room. One of the med techs put a hand on his arm to hold him back, but he quickly darted a warning glance at the medtech who dropped the hold on Michael’s arm as if her fingers had been singed by the contact. Michael continued unrestrained into the room and I held onto Rene for dear life as he and Nikita tried to comfort me.

“Carson is okay, Mom, I just know it. He has to be.”

“Michael will find out what happened, Grace. Are you all right? Oh! That was a stupid question! Of course, you aren’t all right. Can I get you anything? Water?”

I shook my head and glanced over at her. “The only thing I want right now is for Michael to walk out of that room and tell me Carson is okay. That’s all I want.” As if he had heard my plea, Michael walked into the hall from Carson’s room. His face was blank as he made his way past the medtechs who had gathered in the hall. Many of them remembered Carson from his last stay in Medical and I guessed that they were there to find out his condition as well.

As soon as he had passed everyone in the hall, Michael’s face changed and I felt myself relax as I let out the breath I had been holding. He knelt in front of me and smiled. “He’s okay. The fool tried to get out of bed to try on his wedding clothes and lost his balance. He cracked the cast on his arm and bumped his head, but, Grace, he is okay. They are preparing him now to redo the cast. Do you want to see him for a few minutes first? He’s asking for you.” I nodded my head vigorously and Michael pulled me to my feet and led me down the hall. Several of the medtechs touched my arm and they all wished me and Carson well. I stepped through the door and was greeted by my wan and pale groom.

He attempted a grin, but it was instead a grimace of pain. I leaned over him and kissed him. Then, looking into his pain-filled eyes, I said very quietly. “If you try anything like that again before you heal, I will strangle you. I don’t care what condition you are in for our wedding, you just follow the doctor’s orders or you will answer to me.” I stopped and smiled into his blue eyes. “In fact, you answer to me now and I am telling you not to take any more chances with your health. I want you around for 3am feedings in a few months, so you had better take care of yourself or let others take care of you until I get you home. Understand?”

He closed his eyes, and said contritely, “Yes, Grace, I will follow orders. I was just feeling so much better. I thought it wouldn’t hurt,” he laughed, “but it did hurt, and it is still hurting. I’m sorry I scared you. But Grace, you have to do something for me....” I waited for him to continue, and was surprised by what he said next. “Grace, I heard you out in the hall. You were swearing like a sailor! I think you need to do some apologizing.” He grinned and watched the expression on my face.

“I did?” I was astounded, “I don’t remember what I said. I only wanted to get to you and they were holding me back, and you know what happens when I don’t get my way. Now cooperate with these nice doctors and I’ll see you before you go to sleep. We still have a wedding to go to. Do you still feel up to it?” He grinned as I realized what I had said.

“Grace, I will always be up for you and, yes, I will be ready to marry you tomorrow, no matter what the doctors say. But Grace, do I have to wear those clothes that Madeline sent?”

“No, my love, you can wear any thing you want, or nothing at all, as long as you marry me tomorrow. No more delays....” I gave him one more kiss and then they came to take him to redo his cast. My fingers left his as they lifted him onto a gurney and pushed him out the door. I followed along behind until I felt another hand pull me back, and into the safe harbor of his arms.

Michael murmured into my ear as he guided me down the hall. “Let’s get you back to your room. You need to rest. He’ll be okay, Grace, he has his orders and my team members always follow orders.”

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

Two lives, two hearts joined together in friendship united forever in love. It is with joy that we, Grace King and Alex Carson invite you to share in a celebration of love as we exchange marriage vows on Monday, the twenty-ninth of March, Nineteen hundred and ninety-nine at 8:00 in the evening in the Medical facility at Section One.

I awakened in the darkness of my room and switched on the light. I glared at the clock on the bedside table and saw that it was 6:00am. Fourteen hours until I would be joined forever, whatever might come, to my love, Carson....Alex. I had to remember to start calling him Alex, his real first name and not Carson. Carson was what Section called him, and I wanted to distance our new lives together from when they controlled him. Even though we still worked for Section, we had some degree of freedom and I wanted to maintain that, even if it was our illusion.

I sat up and stretched and immediately felt the now familiar churning in my stomach. I got up and hastened to the bathroom. Afterward, my stomach completely empty, I washed my face and brushed my teeth and proceeded to take a long, indulgent shower. I left the bathroom and found Nikita in my room, setting out a breakfast for the two of us.

“Good morning, Grace. Ready for the big day?” She came over and hugged me. “Are you not feeling well? You are very pale. Do you feel like eating? I have toast, jam, juice. Nothing really heavy. I thought you might want to eat light because of...well, because of the, ahh, morning sickness.”

I patted the arm she had placed around my shoulders, and told her that the breakfast that she had brought would be just right for my condition. “Thank you for being so thoughtful, Nikita. I don’t know what I would have done without you. And how are you feeling? This day will be special for you as well.”

Nikita sighed. “I don’t know how I feel, really. Elated, happy, a bit sad. Grace, I have known Michael for five years and in all that time, I have loved him, feared him, even hated him sometimes. He told me once that he lives his life split in two, and finally, finally I think I understand what he meant. For a long time, he only showed me the Section side of his life. He was training me and it was right that he should remain aloof from his material. Sometimes, I would catch him watching me with those changeable green eyes of his and I would just want to melt into him and become a part of him. But he wouldn’t let me. He would always do something to make me despise him, to drive me away.”

She moved over and sat down at the table where she had laid out our breakfast and rested her chin in her open hand and cast her gaze up at me. “Did Carson ever do that to you? Did he ever try and push you away?”

“No, Carson never had any reason to push me away.” I left the statement hanging in the air, and she immediately picked up on it.

“Meaning that Michael did have a reason for pushing me away?” Her head popped up and she sat up straight. “Spill, Grace, you have my attention.” She leaned forward, waiting for me to tell her what I knew.

“Never tell Michael I told you this...you already know some of it. Every minute of the five years you have been here, Michael has been protecting you. Not only on missions, but from a danger much closer. He has been protecting you from Operations. From the start, Operations didn’t like you, you lacked discipline, I think is the phrase he used. He told Michael that if you failed, he failed. Your performance affected Michael’s position here in Section. Fortunately, you have proved yourself over and over, and you have also had Madeline’s protection as well.”

Nikita snorted a laugh out. “Madeline! She has sent me on some of my toughest missions.”

“Listen to what I am telling you, Nikita!” I gave her a shake. “The only times that Madeline has failed you have been the times when her manipulations of Operations failed, like the Shays mission and when Jurgen was assigned to retrain you. If she protects you, then through you, she protects Michael. She cares for him, she always has. She knows that the two of you are the future of Section. So, sometimes, just cut her a bit of slack. She deserves it. You wouldn’t believe what she goes through to keep the two of you together. And lately, haven’t you noticed that Operations is becoming a little bit easier to live with? Madeline is slowly wearing him down. Her manipulations are starting to work. Why do you think Alex and I are being allowed to get married?” I nodded when her eyes questioned me. “Yes,” I said. “Madeline. And right now, she is probably having breakfast with Operations and working on him to allow Michael some downtime at the Center. She has already scheduled you to visit the Center for three weeks, hasn’t she? Well?”

Nikita was dumbfounded. She asked slowly, “Does she know about our part in your ceremony?”

“No, sweet one, she doesn’t. That is between you, me, Alex, and Michael. That is private among the four of us, although I think Walter suspects that something is going on. He wants his Sugar to be happy, too.”

“Oh, Grace, thank you for telling me this. Everything seems so much clearer now. I think Michael and I have loved each other since we met. We were just too stubborn to admit it. I was always too busy punishing him for his manipulations to see why he was trying to manipulate me. Now I know. I just hope Madeline is successful in getting Ops to give Michael some downtime.” She glanced down at the food on the table. “Now, eat up! We have things to do today!”

So we both settled down at the table and had a quiet little breakfast on this, the most important of days.

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

Six hours and counting....I was a nervous wreck. I wanted to see Alex, but both Madeline and Nikita said it would be bad luck. Rene was with him now, and by all reports, my husband-to-be was in good spirits. The cast that they had put him in held his arm out at a right angle to his body, not leaving him much mobility. This was supposed to be the best thing for him, since his tumble the day before. The portents for an interesting wedding night seemed correct.

There was an seemingly endless stream of well wishers, and I thanked them all for their thoughtfulness as each seemed to have a gift to leave with me. And all the while that I was accepting their gifts, I was cradling my own best gift under my folded hands. I looked forward to the day when Alex and I would feel the first stirrings of the new life that we had created.

After lunch, Madeline had had all of the gifts moved to her old office where we had more room. This was just as well because this was where we would dress when the time came.

Walter dropped by for a few minutes and it was while we were chatting about when we first met that I put my hands to my head and groaned loudly. “Oh no, Walter!”

“Gracie, what is it? Are you getting sick? Madeline, please, a glass of water!” Madeline quickly brought a bottle of water from the small refrigerator in the corner. She took a few steps back and along with Walter waited for me to answer his question.

“No, I feel fine except for feeling like an idiot! Rings, Walter, I forgot about the wedding rings. I don’t have any. How can we get married without rings?” In all the excitement, I had forgotten to ask Michael or Nikita to pick out a set of wedding rings for us. “What am I going to do?”

Walter chuckled and embraced me. “Gracie, don’t worry. We’ll think of something.”

“Oh, Walter, I am such a wreck. I can’t believe I forgot something so basic to a wedding.” I looked into a pair of faded blue eyes and saw Walter hesitate for a few seconds before he put his finger inside the collar of his T-shirt. He tugged on a chain and his fingers slipped around something shiny. Walter dipped his head as if to hide his eyes from me. “Gracie, if you want you and Carson can borrow these until you two can go and pick out some rings of your own. He quickly glanced up at me and I saw huge tears in his eyes. “These were mine and Belinda’s wedding rings. She left hers on her pillow with a note for me when she left on that last mission. She only got to wear them for a few hours before she left. It would make me very happy if you would use them in your wedding.” I leaned over and touched my forehead to his, old friends sharing a memory. I knew how much he had loved his wife, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity of his gesture.

“Walter, Alex and I would be very proud to affirm our love with these rings. I know how special they are to you. Thank you so much.” I pulled that gentle old soul to my heart and held him while his tears wet my shoulder, and my own soaked into his shirt.

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

Rene came exploding into Madeline’s old office. He was a bundle of energy and he was expending that energy by his hyperactivity. I laughed to myself, and sat back, remembering the first time I saw Rene. I had thought at the same thing at the time they came through the doors of my library so many years ago. I remember thinking that they had exploded through the doors. The three of them, Simone, Rene, and Michael had been laughing then. Rene laughing in delight at a new experience, coming to story hour at the library. Simone and Michael, laughing at their son’s exuberance. Such a happy time for them, and so much had happened in the intervening years.

But today, Rene and Michael were happy, for Alex and I as well as for Michael and Nikita. Today there would be pledges of commitment for all of us. In less than two hours, our lives would be joined forever. Mine and Alex’s in a legal and spiritual union and Michael and Nikita in a union of heart and spirit.

I was beginning to get nervous. I wanted everything to be just right and Madeline had assured me that everything would be. And who was going to say no to Madeline? She even had Operations under her thumb. She told me that he had orders not to approve any missions for Michael and Nikita until after the ceremony. Further, he was to immediately give Michael three weeks of downtime, because I couldn’t run the Center, take care of Alex and Rene and myself. He had acquiesced on every point. So, when I was allowed to take my new husband home in 10 days, everything would be ready for us at the Center, courtesy of Michael, Nikita and Rene. Smiling, I wondered just how many sleepovers the three of them could stand.

Rene had settled down enough to tell me all about the sleepover the previous night. “And you know, Mom, it happened again. I remember being with Daddy and Nikita when I went to sleep on the bed in his loft. But when I woke up this morning, I was on the couch. Daddy was still asleep in the bed, and Nikita was gone. Daddy said when I woke him up that she had come here to have breakfast with you.” I nodded in agreement and he went on to tell me just how Michael looked when Rene had awakened him. “Yeah, Mom, I watched him awhile before I got hungry and woke him up. He smiled in his sleep and called out for Nikita. I think he and Nikita like to be alone together like you and Carson.” Rene looked down at his hands and then back up at me. “Mom, my Daddy loves Nikita a lot, doesn’t he?”

“Yes, Rene, he does. Why do you ask?” He came over to me and put his arms around me. “Operations won’t ever let them be married like you and Carson, will he? It’s all part of what Daddy told me, isn’t it? That he will always have to work for Section. They won’t ever let him go will they? He won’t ever be a family with me and Nikita, will he?” He held on to me tightly and I could hear him sniffing, trying desperately not to cry for his father, and failing miserably.

“Rene, I don’t know the answers to your questions...I just don’t know.” My son and I spent the last remaining hour together, before he would lead me down to Alex’s room and give me away. In that last hour, we shared stories of our life together, happy ones, sad ones, and we shared many tears, some for ourselves, but most of them for Michael. He was so sorrowful for his father, so I told him a little secret. I told him about Alex and I sharing our wedding with Michael and Nikita and then, Rene’s tears were happy ones.

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

Nikita and I were dressed and ready. Rene was resplendent in his tuxedo. All was in readiness, when Madeline came flying into her old office in a rage.

“I swear, I am going to kill that man!!” The three of us shrank back from her fury.

“Uhhh, Madeline, who are you going to kill and why?” asked a frightened Rene. Trust my son to be the brave one.

“Operations, that’s who!” she snapped and then, immediately apologized to Rene when she saw him step protectively back into my arms. “I’m sorry, Rene. I thought I had everything under control. I miscalculated. I just didn’t have all the bases covered.”

“What’s wrong, Madeline? What has Operations done?” I asked. Whatever it was had to be big for her to be so incensed. I felt the dread creeping into my bones. “Madeline, what has he done?” I watched her face and I knew. “Michael. He sent Michael out on a mission, didn’t he?” That bastard, I thought when she met my eyes and nodded.

“Yes, he was supposed to have been back an hour ago....in plenty of time for the wedding, Operations said. But he isn’t back yet and Birkoff tells me that it might be another hour before he and his team return. Oh, I could just kill him!” she said again. “Oh, Grace, I’m sorry. I thought I had a lock on everything. What do you want to do. Do you want to go on with the ceremony or do you want to wait for Michael?’’

I glanced over to where Nikita and Rene were standing, hand in hand, tears threatening in their eyes. I turned back to Madeline. “We wait. I need to go and talk to Alex.”

“No, Grace!” The three of them, Madeline, Nikita and Rene all said at one time. “You can’t. It’s back luck!” Madeline stepped forward.

“It’s my mess. Let me go explain things to him.” She took my hand. “It will be all right, Grace. This time I promise.” I nodded my consent and she left the room.

I sat down and immediately I was surrounded by Nikita and Rene. Nikita was trying her best not to cry, “Grace, you didn’t have to delay the wedding, not for me and Michael. I’m so sorry.”

“I delayed it because I want ALL of my family there to witness the only marriage I am ever going to have. And yes, I want Michael there for you too, Nikita. I don’t mind waiting, really I don’t.”

A slight movement from Rene caught my attention. He pulled on his jacket, smoothing it down in a gesture so like his father that I smiled. “I will be right back,” he said.

“Where are you going, Rene?” I asked recognizing the beginnings of what I called Rene Rage. Sometimes he just got himself so worked up over something that he held his temper until he could hold it no longer, and then it would erupt into Rene Rage.

“Excuse me Mom and Nikita,” he said formally, “but I have to talk to someone right now.” And he left the room, striding forth to do battle with the orneriest old dragon of them all....Operations.

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

Rene returned a few minutes later, red-faced, but much calmer, his Rene Rage spent. “I feel much better.” he said and Nikita and I grinned at each other. Oh, I thought, to have a tape of that encounter, the young apprentice dragon eviscerating the old dragon, because I had no doubt that is what had happened. I knew my son well. I don’t think Operations will ever be the same. A smile lifted my lips.

“Nikita!” A disembodied voice said.

“Yes, Birkoff?” Nikita answered. “What is it?”

“Michael just arrived in van access. He is on his way. Get his clothes ready.”

“Thanks, Birkoff. You are coming to the wedding, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Wouldn’t miss it, babe. I’ll be there in five, as soon as Simon gets here.”

Nikita quickly went to the bathroom at the back of the room and started the shower. She then hurriedly plucked Michael’s tux from the clothes rack and took it into the bathroom. Everything was in readiness when Michael came bursting through the doors, shedding his shirt as he rushed in. He stopped briefly to kiss me on the cheek and to tousle Rene’s hair. “Sorry I’m late. I’ll be ready in a few minutes.” And he proceeded to shed his clothing while he headed for the shower Nikita had readied for him. She glanced back at us as she followed Michael into the bathroom. Smiling, she said, “I’ll just help him get dressed,” and she closed the door.

Rene grinned up at me. “See, I told you, just like you and Carson. She can’t keep her hands off of him!”

“Rene!!” I said, "watch your mouth, young man!” But I laughed with my son. The wedding was back on schedule.

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

Twenty minutes later, Michael left the room on his way to stand at Alex’s side. Madeline was back, adjusting the lacy confection in my hair and generally fussing around, making sure my day continued without a hitch. “Grace, you are radiant. You are positively glowing. You and your maid of honor make quite a pair. Now, where’s Rene.” She glanced around the room and found him combing his hair in front of a mirror. “Rene, no time for that. You look just fine. Come on! We have a wedding to go to!”

We stepped out of her old office and started down the hallway. Madeline sending Nikita ahead of us, and placing my arm around Rene’s. “Perfect! Now go.” She stood back and watched as we followed Nikita down the hallway. Ahead of us, I noticed Nikita hesitate as she turned a corner. She turned and looked back at us, beaming us a brilliant smile as she continued around the corner.

When we got to the hallway where we turned down toward Alex’s room, I saw why Nikita had hesitated. The entire hallway floor was covered with rose petals. I gasped and I teared up. Rene looked up at me and said slowly, “Aww, Mom. Don’t start crying yet.” He pulled on my arm and we continued down the hallway, walking on the petals as we went. Near the entrance to Alex’s room, I noticed two female operatives standing side by side. They were smiling at us and trying to hide baskets of rose petals behind them. I recognized them as operatives who were new to Michael’s team. I suddenly remembered their names, and I paused to thank them both. “This was so thoughtful of you two. Andie, Cyn, thank you so much for thinking of this wonderful touch. I appreciate it so very much.

“Oh, think nothing of it. We were glad to do it for you and Carson. Uhh, don’t you have to be somewhere else right now?” Cyn asked.

“Oh yes, thanks again.” And Rene led me into Alex’s room. There were flowers everywhere. And in the middle of this Section garden was my love, my Alex. Flanking him, at his bedside was Michael on one side and Nikita on the other. Walter stood at the end of the bed, waiting expectantly. My eyes were on Alex and I drank in the sight of him. It had been almost 24 hours since I had last seen him, so I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I knew there were other people in the room. Birkoff, Madeline, even a very contrite-looking Operations and I know Michael’s team was there as well. I knew them by their damp hair, a legacy of rapidly taken showers, like the one Michael had taken a few minutes ago.

Then, Walter cleared his throat and the ceremony began...

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

I looked at Alex and saw the same huge smile on his face that I knew was also on my face. He reached out his hand and took mine. We turned our eyes to Walter, who began to speak, “True matrimony is the holiest of all earthly relationships. It should be entered into reverently, thoughtfully, and with full understanding of its sacred nature. The life that each of you experience now, individually, will hereafter be inseparably united. I trust that you both understand this?” Alex and I looked deeply into each others eyes, and together we raised our eyes to Walter and nodded.

“Alex and Grace, it is this day you make a giant step of courage, of commitment, to communicate your love, to understand and grow. When a commitment this strong is made by two people, the force of that commitment, of that love, of that courage, reaches out and touches all of us around you, so that our lives are changed and we share a part of your love. Like a stone dropped in a still pond, the ripples of the love from this celebration extends and changes the world we live in. Now two of your closest friends wish to say a few words,” Walter said as he lifted his hand and gestured to Michael, who turned to Alex and I as he began to speak.

“I should like at this time, to try to speak of some of the things which many of us wish for the both of you. We wish for you a home, not a place of stone and wood, but an island of peace, a place from which you will receive strength and support that stays and carries with you throughout your daily lives. We hope that your home encompasses the beauty of nature, that has within it the elements of simplicity, beauty, silence, and color, in concordance with your dreams and aspirations. We wish for you a home of books, poetry and music, a home with all the things which represent the highest of both men and women. And we wish for you a warm, loving place where your children can grow up in happiness.” Michael smiled at us and Rene gently pulled his arm from mine and walked around the end of the bed to stand by his father, looking up at him and then over to Nikita, whose eyes were already glistening with unshed tears. Rene seemed to be communicating with the two of them as they both looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.

Then, it was Nikita’s turn to speak. “In our long history we have never discovered a better way of life than sharing it together in love in a lasting and responsible way. This arrangement seems to meet our deepest human needs for love and companionship, for someone with whom we can share in an intimate and trusting way all the hopes and joy and dreams of life. But real love, Alex and Grace, is something beyond the warmth and glow, the excitement and romance of being deeply in love. It is caring as much about the welfare and happiness of your marriage partner as about your own. Real love is not total absorption into each other, it is looking outward in the same direction together. Love makes burdens lighter because you divide them. It makes joys more intense because you share them. It makes you stronger, so you can be involved with life in ways you dare not risk alone, and now, you will never be alone, because you will always have each other.” Her tears flowed now and Michael pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her, his fingers briefly caressing hers. She smiled a thank you and we all tore our eyes away from them and refocused our attention on Walter.

“Happiness in marriage is not something that just happens. A good marriage must be created. In the Art of Marriage: The little things are the big things. It is never being too old to hold hands. It is remembering to say "I love you" at least once a day. It is never going to sleep angry. It is at no time taking the other for granted; the courtship should not end with the honeymoon, it should continue through all the years. It is having a mutual sense of values and common objectives. It is standing together facing the world. It is forming a circle of love that gathers in the whole family. It is doing things for each other, not in the attitude of duty or sacrifice, but in the spirit of joy. It is speaking words of appreciation and demonstrating gratitude in thoughtful ways. It is not expecting the husband to wear a halo or the wife to have wings of an angel. It is not looking for perfection in each other. It is cultivating flexibility, patience, understanding and a sense of humor. It is having the capacity to forgive and forget. It is giving each other an atmosphere in which each can grow. It is finding room for the things of the spirit. It is a common search for the good and the beautiful. It is establishing a relationship in which the independence is equal, dependence is mutual and the obligation is reciprocal. It is not only marrying the right partner, it is being the right partner.” Walter paused.

“Grace,” Alex said into the silence in the room, “ you are the right partner for me. Who else would put up with this?” He gestured at himself and I bent over him and kissed him. A ripple of quiet laughter moved through the room and Walter cleared his throat again.

“Alex, will thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony? Will thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; forsaking all others keep thee only unto her so long as you both shall live?”******

“Always, yes, I will!” Alex grinned and pulled my hand to his mouth for a resounding kiss. “I DO.”

“Grace, will thou have this man to be thy wedded husband, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony? Will thou love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; forsaking all others keep thee only unto him so long as you both shall live?”

“Yes,” I said, “I DO.” Alex, ever the irreverent one, intoned quietly, “Well, she had better. I can’t seem to take care of myself.” Another ripple of laughter. Alex seemed determined to keep the mood light, and I loved him for it. I turned my head slightly and caught movement on Nikita’s lips. She had pierced Michael’s heart with her soundless “I do too.”

“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” Walter voice cut through the gentle moment, and Rene, standing by his father, jumped and stepped behind Michael as if shielding himself from Walter’s inquiring stare.

“Uhh, I do,” he said shyly, and then grinned broadly, “My brother or sister yet-to-be and I do!” The ripple of laughter was gone. This elicited a full-out laugh from everyone in the room. Rene ducked his head, and cut his eyes up towards his father and laughed along with everyone else.

Walter’s weathered face was split by a wonderful grin as he glanced from me to Alex and then from Michael to Nikita. He knows, I thought, either that or he wishes what I am wishing right now. Then he did something that I did not expect. He asked the wedding party to join hands. Michael lifted Rene up to sit on the side of Alex’s bed and so he held on very gently to the fingers that peaked out of the cast on Alex’s arm. After we had all linked hands, Alex, me, Nikita, Walter, Michael, and Rene, and formed a tight little circle around Alex’s bed, Walter continued with the ceremony, turning his head from side to side watching those gathered in the room to observe our joining. The wily old fox, I thought, by having us join hands and form a circle, Walter had, in effect, closed ranks. Our backs were to most of the people in the room and this enabled us to see the faces of everyone in the circle, but it also shielded our faces from most of the observers. He was giving us all a few moments of privacy in a place where that was usually impossible. It would also allow Michael and Nikita to share our vows unseen by everyone else.

Walter spoke quietly. “Grace and Carson, er...Alex now wish to repeat their vows one to the other.

Alex took a tighter hold on my hand and began speaking, “Grace, with all my heart I take you to be my wife. I will love you through the good and the bad, through the joy and the sorrow. I will try to be understanding, and to trust in you completely. I will make you a part of me and in turn, become a part of you. Together we will face all of life's experiences and share one another’s dreams and goals. We will be equal partners in an open, honest relationship throughout the years.” He lifted my hand again and sealed his vow with a kiss, and then it was my turn. I felt Nikita squeeze my hand and I knew she was concentrating on Michael. They locked gazes with each other and as I repeated the vow that Alex had just made to me, and I knew that they were repeating silent vows to one another.

“Alex, with all my heart I take you to be my husband. I will love you through the good and the bad, through the joy and the sorrow. I will try to be understanding, and to trust in you completely. I will make you a part of me and in turn, become a part of you. Together we will face all of life's experiences and share one another’s dreams and goals. We will be equal partners in an open, honest relationship throughout the years.” I felt tears running down my cheeks, and Nikita slipped Michael’s handkerchief into my hand. Alex murmured softly to me, “Grace, it’s almost over. You’re almost mine.”

“I’ve always been yours, stupid!” and I landed a quick kiss on his lips.

Walter cleared his throat, and drew our attention back to him. “Who has the rings?” Both Nikita and Michael handed Walter the rings that he so cherished and had so lovingly loaned to us. He took them with trembling hands and with a husky voice spoke about the symbolism of the rings, the unending circle of life and love. He kissed the rings and handed one of the them to Alex, asking him to repeat his words.

“Grace, I give you this ring in token and pledge as a symbol of all that we share with my constant faith and abiding love.” He awkwardly slid the ring on my finger with his right hand. The ring, fortunately, was a bit too large, so it went on easily. Then, Walter handed the other ring to me and asked me to repeat after him.

“Alex, I give you this ring in token and pledge as a symbol of all that we share with my constant faith and abiding love.” I tried to put the ring on Alex’s left ring finger but his hand was swollen and the ring stopped stubbornly at his second knuckle. It would go no further. Walter took the opportunity to cover this little glitch by asking everyone to bow their heads for a prayer. I glanced over at Operations and the man had actually bowed his head and was waiting for Walter to continue. He suddenly looked up and caught me staring at him and totally surprised me by smiling at me. I think he might have even been happy for me. But then, Alex tugged on my hand and I returned my full focus back to him.

Walter bowed his head and softly spoke the words of the prayer. “Our Father, we come today asking Your blessing upon these two lives and this home being established. You made us so that we are incomplete without the other so that we yearn for someone we can love and whose love we can receive. Grant them patience, gentleness, and understanding. We ask for health, long life, for the fulfillment of every good dream. May their love continue through life and finally blend into the life eternal. Amen.”

“Now that you have joined yourselves in matrimony, may you strive always to meet this commitment with the same spirit you now exhibit. We all bear witness to this ceremony you have just performed and you may now call yourselves by those old and respected names, husband and wife. May God bless this union. You may kiss the bride.” To everyone’s delight, Walter wiped his brow with his hand and uttered a loud “Finally!”

Alex and I didn’t hear him. I barely felt the floor beneath my feet, as I was enveloped by Alex’s free arm and drawn down to the first soul-searing kiss of our marriage. It continued until Rene said, “Mom, if you two keep that up, Alex is gonna need oxygen!” Always the comedian, my son.

*********** Rene’s little comment and the applause of those gathered in the room finally broke through the cloud on which we were floating. Suddenly, I was pulled from Alex’s one-armed grasp and I found myself being hugged by half of Section. even Operations ventured through the crowd to put his arm around me and wish me well. “Grace, I just wanted you to know how happy I am for you and Carson.” This is just a small token of my esteem. I am very pleased with the way you and Carson have been running the Center.” Michael and Nikita waited until Operations had walked away before they came to me. “What did he give you, Grace?” Nikita was all nervous energy. She was having a great deal of trouble keeping her hands off of Michael. She was constantly touching him, brushing nonexistent lent off his suit. And Michael, well, Michael was in total control. His face was blank and unreadable, but after Nikita managed to glide her fingers down his neck as she straightened his collar, his reserve cracked a little. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply as if trying to memorize her touch. And I also sensed a very slight tremble run across his face. Ah, Michael, I thought, you’d better get her home before you explode.

“Grace! What’s in the envelope?! Open it!” Nikita was like a child, the suspense driving her hyper. Rene had quietly walked up and now stood at his father’s elbow.

“Yeah, Mom, what is it?”

“Let’s see, shall we?” I told him, as I ripped open the envelope and unfolded the document inside. “Oh! Michael, is this what I think it is? Tell me, please!” He took the paper from me and read over it. First, a look of concern as he lifted his eyes to mine, and then finally, a smile touched his lips.

“Yes, Grace, it’s an official letter from Operations setting Alex free of Section. It looks as though he is now all yours, no strings attached. He, like you, is now a civilian employee of Section One.” He handed the paper back to me as I stood before him, dumbfounded.

“Really?” I watched as Michael nodded and clasped my hand with both of his own.

“Really, Grace.” He smiled again, a bit wistfully and I could see in his eyes and Nikita’s eyes, genuine happiness for us. But at the same time I could see a look of sad regret that they would probably never receive a piece of paper like this one.

“Daddy, if Operations can free Carson, why can’t he free you and Nikita?” Rene asked, tears forming in his eyes. He tried to control his emotions, but my son was having a hard time of it. I knew that he was happy for Alex and me, but I also knew that his heart must be breaking as he asked that question.

Michael knelt beside him and embraced Rene. “My wonderful son, we have talked about this before and you know why. Nikita and I are still useful to Section and as long as we are, they will never let us go. I know this is hard for you to understand and accept, but you must. This is how we must live our lives. It is not what I want, but it is all we have.” Michael glanced up at me. “Grace, why don’t you go and share the good news with your new husband. I will stay with Rene. We have a lot to talk about.” My heart was breaking for them. I sank to my knees beside them and with most of Section watching, we had a few minutes of peace, just the three of us. Nikita looked on but did not join us. There were too many eyes.

Reluctantly, I stood and ruffled both Rene’s and Michael’s hair before going to Alex. “Michael,” I turned back to them. “Come say good-bye before the three of you head out for the Center.” They planned to leave tonight to oversee the management of the Center. Or, at least, that was the scenario that Madeline had set for them. Three weeks of down time for Nikita’s ankle to heal and for Michael to be with his son. Sometimes, just sometimes, I was tempted to like that woman.

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

I gradually became aware of the crowd of well-wishers in Alex’s room dwindling in number. It had been a momentous afternoon and early evening for the two of us and I could see the fatigue in my new husband’s eyes. After all, it had only been two days since he had turned to me in the split-second before that truck had hit us to tell me that he loved me. I remember thinking, he thinks we are going to die. But we didn’t, instead of our family losing a life, we had gained one. Alex’s precious gift was all the wedding gift I could ever want.

My eyes finally found a pair of chocolately brown ones across the room. Madeline was the reason that people were leaving. I could see her moving from one group to another, speaking in a low voice. People listened to her and started moving out of Alex’s room. She smiled slightly when she noticed my eyes following her. One thing that I had discerned about Madeline was that she was very economical in her actions. She never did anything to excess. Every move she made meant something or had some specific action in mind. As I continued to watch her moving around the room, I thought, she knows we are tired and she is making sure we have some time to ourselves to rest and be together tonight.

Soon we were alone in the room except for Madeline and Operations. They both came over to say goodnight. I made a point of thanking Operations for the letter freeing Alex from his operative status with Section One.

“You are very welcome, Grace, but please understand that no one is ever totally free of Section. The both of you are still obligated to Section. I hope that you will continue to do an excellent job out at the Center. Our operatives depend on the rehabilitation that you provide. You and Alex are literally life-savers for Section One.”

What an interesting compliment, I thought as I squeezed Alex’s hand. I could sense that he was about to make a retort to Operations’ comment on our obligation, and I felt that tonight was not the night to raise Operations’ ire. I think he truly felt that he had done something extraordinary in granting Alex’s freedom, even if it was exchanging one captivity for another form. At least, the threat of cancellation was now a memory. We were civilian employees and as such had much more freedom in our private life than Michael, Nikita or the other operatives of Section One would ever have.

Alex and I also thanked our wedding coordinator, Madeline, for her efforts on our part. “It was the least I could do, Grace. Over the last few years, I have come to look upon you as a friend, and I can’t say that about very many people. You are about the only one who will stand up to me and I have always found that refreshing, and I thank you for it.” She hugged me and smiled at Alex and I. “Now, don’t the two of you have a wedding night to tackle?” She put her hand on Operations’ arm and steered him toward the door. “Good evening,” she called over her shoulder.

Alex and I glanced at one another and we both grinned. “Did I hear her correctly?” he asked. I was just about to answer him when I heard a screech and the sound of a body hitting the floor hard. I hurried to the door to find Madeline sprawled on her derriere amid all of those still fragrant rose petals. Operations stood over her with his hand over his mouth, attempting and utterly failing at keeping a laugh from erupting from his mouth.

A furious Madeline was sitting there in the middle of the hall as the young female operative I knew as Andie was bent over trying to help Madeline to her feet. “And just whose brilliant idea was this to scatter rose petals all over the hall?” Madeline roared. Andie stepped back quickly as if expecting a cuff on the ear from the very agitated Madeline.

“Uhhh, actually, YOU DID, Madeline,” Andie offered quietly, as she backed away from the two Section leaders. Operations finally could hold it in no longer and the laughter burst from his lips. Madeline swung her furious eyes from Andie and pierced the icy blue eyes of Operations with her own liquid and angry brown ones. “Madeline, are you, er, is your, ahem, all right? You sat down so ...ungracefully.” He caught me watching and continued to laugh.

“I don’t remember asking for your opinion, Paul!!” Madeline blurted out, her characteristic cool totally lost. With Andie’s assistance, she regained her footing and marched off, carefully trying to keep from slipping again in the sea of rose petals.

I walked over to Operations and gave him some advice. “Unless you want half of Section canceled in the next few minutes, I suggest you get yourself under control and go smooth those ruffled feathers. And, Paul,” I said, “you might suggest she see a doctor. That was a hard fall. More than her pride might have been injured.” His laughter had fallen to a wide grin and he nodded in agreement.

“I’ll take care of her. It’s just...I’ve never seen her lose it before.” He laughed again and whispered to me conspiratorially, carefully not speaking loud enough for Andie or anyone else to hear, “almost makes you think she is human, doesn’t it?” That said, Operations went striding down the hall, only to slip and almost crash to the floor himself. I didn’t laugh, but I looked at Andie and saw her cover her mouth with both hands.

“I think you need to get someone up here to clean these rose petals out of the hall. They were wonderful as I walked on them to meet Alex, but I think they have outlived their usefulness.” I winked at Andie, and said, “besides, I don’t think I could handle those two at the Center.” We laughed together and she hurried away, murmuring something about hoping that she didn’t get the blame for this too.

Soon, Alex and I were laughing about the fiasco out in the hall. Alone, at last, we set about getting to know about each other again, now that we were husband and wife. Our explorations were interrupted by Rene, Michael and Nikita, coming to tell us goodbye. They were leaving for the Center.

I sat down in the chair by Alex’s bed, so I could be on eye level with my son. “Rene, you be a good boy and remember that sometimes, your Daddy and Nikita will need to be alone together, just like me and Alex. And also, you will not always be invited to their sleepovers.”

“I know, Mom, Daddy explained already. Sam and I can keep ourselves busy. We will all be okay. When will you and Alex be back home?” he asked.

“We should be home in about ten days. The doctors want to be sure that Alex is healing well before they release him. We’ll see you soon.” Rene gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear.

“You and Alex have a nice honeymoon sleepover tonight.” I tickled his tummy and he wiggled and giggled out of my grasp.

“Impudent boy!” I laughed and kissed him.

“Mom!” he stretched the word into at least three syllables, but returned my kiss. “See you soon!”

Hugs and kisses went all around as part of my family sailed out the door on their way to a few weeks of well-deserved happiness. “Michael, Nikita, don’t let him have his way all the time,” I called out to them. They answered with waves and smiles at they followed Rene. As for me, I turned to the newest member of my family and we lay quietly for a few minutes, cradling between us our most precious wedding gift, our child-yet-to-be.

“I want a girl,” I said, “Alexandria Michelle!”

“Nope, a boy,” Alex said, “Michael Grayson!”

We continued this loving banter for a few more minutes, before I locked the door and turned out the lights. You know, it’s rather awkward trying to complete a wedding night went the groom is all trussed up in casts and traction bars. But after a little while of warm caresses and even warmer kisses, we managed. We managed just fine.