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Destiny

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June 21, 1999
Note: This begins the seventh installment of my Library series. Since I began this series before the Season 3 Arc, I have decided to ignore the arc. In my series, Michael’s son with Simone, Rene, was taken from him and Michael was told that the child died. Rene was instead given to a friend, Grace, to raise without Michael’s knowledge. He later finds Rene and reestablishes his relationship with his son. If you would like to read the previous installments in my series, you will find them archived at Ranma’s Archive and at Debris’ Arx site. And now, on with the story....

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

Prologue

Michael was exhausted. He had been called away from Rene on a mission and had not slept in over 30 hours. There had been so much turbulence on the return flight that he had been unable to get any rest at all. The last three weeks at Grace’s house had been wonderful except for the 3 times he had been summoned back to Section for flash missions. This last one had been particularly grueling and in addition, Rene had been so disappointed that the mission would mean that for another year, they would miss spending Father’s Day together. Michael and Rene had not spent a Father’s Day together since Rene was three, and too young to remember. Michael had described the day to Rene, but Rene had been too young to appreciate the day. This year, both Michael and Rene had looked forward to Father’s Day and now it was ruined.

Rene had put on a strong face for his eight years and had told Michael that he was fine and that there was always next year. Michael knew that Rene hated the fact that he was leaving and not returning until at least the Monday after Father’s Day. Thankfully, the mission was a short one and even Madeline had apologized for taking Michael away from Rene on what she knew was going to be a special day for father and son.

“I’m sorry, Michael, but this can’t be put off. We need you now.” Her phone call had been short and to the point. “Nikita can stay there with Rene. She won’t be needed on this mission.” Michael ended the call and turned to face Rene. The tears were already gathering in his son’s eyes, and Michael held out his arms for Rene who rushed to him and buried his face against Michael’s chest.

“Daddy, do you have to go?” he asked, already knowing the answer to his question. He and Michael had long ago come to an understanding about Michael’s work. Rene knew that when Section called, his father could not say no. They owned his father, body and soul and Section did not hesitate to use both whenever they were needed for missions. “Does Nikita have to go too? Who’s going to be here with me? Mom and Alex aren’t due back for another three days.” Rene pulled away from Michael’s embrace and looked up at his father.

“Nikita does not have to go in. She will stay here with you. You’ll like that, won’t you?” Michael put the fingers of his right hand under Rene’s chin and lifted his son’s tear-stained face up to gaze into the eyes that were so much like his own. “Rene, I would not go if I didn’t have to. You know that, don’t you?”

Rene nodded and smiled up at Michael. “I know, Daddy, but I still don’t have to like it. You’ll be back soon?” he asked hopefully.

“Yes, I should be back on Monday. I’m sorry about Father’s Day. Can we celebrate on Monday?” Michael felt relieved to see the smile on his son’s face broaden.

Nikita was upset when they told her that Michael had been called in yet again, but she made the best of the situation and took Rene into her arms and assured him that they would find something fun to do until Michael could return. She smiled at Michael and lifted a hand to trace the sad smile on his face. “Come back safe. All right?”

Michael took one last look at Rene and Nikita, and walked out the door to drive back to Section.

And now he was back at Grace’s house. It was just before dawn on Monday morning and the house was quiet. Sam, the golden retriever that Michael had given Rene for Christmas, came padding silently down the hall from Rene’s room. The dog stopped when he saw Michael and satisfied that Michael belonged, Sam nudged Michael’s hand. Michael dropped to his knees and gave the dog several friendly pats and was rewarded by joyous licks as he hugged the dog wearily. Michael then stood and trudged down the hallway to the bedroom directly across the hall from Rene’s.

He glanced in through the open door and saw Rene’s still form tangled in the sheets on his bed. Michael stood there for a few minutes, drinking in the sight of his sleeping son and marveled again at the fact that he had regained a son that he at one point had thought dead. He would never knowingly give him up again. No one or nothing would ever separate them again. He had long ago accepted that Rene could not live with him. Michael’s job made that impossible, but he spent as much time as the job and Section allowed him with Rene. Grace had been a godsend when she had reluctantly accepted Madeline’s offer to take and raise Rene as her own son. He could think of no one that he could entrust his son to other than Grace. Now, she had married Alex Carson and was expecting a child of her own. But Michael knew that she loved Rene as much as if he was born of her body and that she would keep him safe and secure.

Michael sighed and turned from his reverie over Rene and quietly walked into his room. He took off his jacket, shirt and shoes and went into the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth. These tasks completed, he opened the door across from the one leading to his bedroom, and looked into the next room. Nikita lay sleeping sprawled across the bed, her blond hair spread out around her head, like a halo. Michael resisted the strong urge he felt to climb into the bed next to her because he didn’t want to wake her, and if the truth were told, he was so tired, he could hardly hold his eyes open. He turned silently and when back to his own room. He started to turn back the covers of his bed and noticed a folded paper laying on the pillow. Picking it up and unfolding it, he turned on the bedside light and lay down on his back in the bed to read it.

“Dear Daddy,” the letter began.....

Happy Father’s Day!! I’m sorry we could not be together today, but I wanted to tell you how proud I am to be your son. I know you can’t be with me as much as other fathers can be with their sons, but I know you try to be with me as much as you can, and I love you for that. In fact, Daddy, I love you so much that I just don’t think I can put that much love into words.

Nikita helped me with this letter, so if you feel some extra love in this letter, you’ll know why. I talked and she wrote it down for me. Daddy, does she cry a lot around you? She cried buckets of tears as she was writing this down. “Oh, Rene!” she kept saying, “this is so beautiful!” Then she would drop her pen and hug me. She gives great hugs, Daddy, but then, I guess you know that, don’t you?

Remember, I have seen you two at our sleepovers and I have also seen how Alex and Mom are with each other. You have all shown me what love is, and I know that when I grow up and find someone to love that I will know how to do it right because I have seen how you and Nikita and Alex and Mom love each other.

No kid could have better parents and role models than I do. Also, you and Alex have taught me how to be a good man, even though it will be a while before I grow up. I want to be just like you when I grow up. Daddy, you are the best man I know. I am so very lucky to have a father like you and an assistant father like Alex.

Daddy, don’t you think it is great that now Alex is going to be a real Daddy too? That was such a surprise, that Mom could have a baby! I thought for a while that she might love the new baby more than me, but Nikita explained about Moms and how they can never stop loving their children, natural or adopted, you know, like me. Nikita got really sad when she talked about Moms. I think that maybe she misses her Mom. I miss my real Mother sometimes. I don’t remember much about her, just what you and Mom have told me. I wish I could have known her better. Uh oh, Nikita is hugging me again. She is so nice, Daddy, I am glad that you two love each other. It’s nice for me too. It’s kind of like...having three Moms. I’m pretty special, aren’t I....three Moms and two Dads. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll always be my first and most important Daddy. Alex is great, too, but he just isn’t you.

Well, Nikita is yawning and so am I, so I guess it’s time to end this letter and go to bed. I hope you’ll be home when I get up tomorrow morning. Daddy, I love you so much, but then, you know that, don’t you, Daddy....”

Love you always,

Rene

Michael smiled and blinked back the tears glistening in his green eyes. “Yes, Rene, I know that.” He read the letter twice more before he hugged it to his chest and let his eyes drop closed and he slept a healing sleep, happy that he had a son like Rene.

The light was filtering through the sheer curtains fluttering at the half open windows. Michael blinked as the light assaulted his senses and he opened them quickly when he felt the warm little body cuddled up next to him. Rene had snuggled close and slept soundly next to Michael. And next to Rene, laying on her side, staring at him with those huge blue eyes that he loved so much, was Nikita.

She brought her fingertips to her mouth and pressed a kiss on them. Then she extended her hand and brushed Michael’s finely shaped lips with those same fingertips. She smiled...“Welcome home, Daddy, and Happy Father’s Day.”

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

Michael lay there gazing into Nikita’s eyes and wishing that things could stay this way forever, that he could always have his son and the woman he loved this close to him. But Michael was a realist and he knew how the real world worked. He would just have to grab as much of this time as he could. He reached over and pushed a few errant strands of hair back behind Nikita’s ear and she turned her cheek so that more of her skin touched Michael’s hand. She reveled in the tactile sensation of her cheek touching his hand. She smiled and kissed his palm.

“I love you,” she whispered.

Michael smiled. “ I know. And I love you, too. How did you get into my bed?”

“It was just about dawn when I heard something that woke me up. I got up and walked into your room just in time to see a small, sleepy figure scurrying across the room toward you. You know that I always watch your back, so I watched him crawl into your bed and snuggle up to you. Not to be outdone, I decided to join you two. The two of you looked so....at home with each other. I wanted to be a part of that home. Sorry, I couldn’t resist the urge.”

“I am glad you joined us. You are a part of my home, here with Rene and wherever I am. You are my home, my love, my life.”

“Oh, Michael, you always know how to make me feel loved....promise to never change, okay?” She shifted her weight on the bed, so that she could kiss him and was startled when Rene gave a yelp and started wiggling. Nikita had forgotten about the small body separating her and Michael.

“Hey, are you trying to squish me or what!” Nikita pulled back quickly and both she and Michael laughed as Rene sat up and looked first at Nikita and then at Michael. “Well? What did I miss? This is different from how it usually works! Usually, when I go to sleep with you two, I wake up someplace else. This time it’s just the opposite. Here I am between the two of you!” He grinned widely. “I like this way much better!” He threw his arms around Michael’s neck. “Welcome home, Daddy! I am so glad you’re home! Did you get my letter?”

“Yes, Rene, your letter was wonderful. You are the best son a father could ever have. Do you know how much I love you?”

With his arms still entwined around Michael’s neck and his face inches from his father’s face, Rene shyly looked toward Nikita and then peered up at Michael through his long lashes. “How much, Daddy?”

Michael grinned and extended his arms out to his sides to their full length, “This much!” he said, and then swiftly brought his arms down and wrapped them tightly around a laughing Rene. Their embrace lasted until Nikita, feeling rather left out of things asked quietly, “What about me?”

Father and son turned as one and pierced her with their green eyes. As if they had communicated their intentions to each other silently, both Rene and Michael pounced on Nikita with hugs and kisses. “And we love you this much too!”

Taken by surprise, Nikita jumped back. And in a jumble of arms, legs and tangled bedclothes, all three of them tumbled off the bed, laughing as they landed on the floor with a thud. They continued to wrestle with each other. Finally, Rene and Nikita had a breathless and laughing Michael pinned to the floor, raining kisses on his upturned face. So intent upon their task were they that they didn’t hear the doorknob turning or the door opening. They were all lost in their morning play until a voice from the bedroom door demanded, “And WHAT, may I ask, is going on here!!”

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

The three of them stopped their morning play and looked up at me guiltily. “Uhhh, Grace, good morning. How are you feeling? How is Alex, and the ....baby?” Michael, always one to land on his feet, at least most of the time, asked this series of questions while sitting there on the floor between Rene and Nikita in a tangle of sheets. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into laughter myself. My three loves, I thought, they never get to play together like this. I was almost sorry to have interrupted, but I needed their help.

“Well,” I answered, “ I’m fine. Alex is waiting outside to be unloaded from the new Land Rover, and the baby is making itself nauseously well-known about now, so if you will excuse me.....” I made a mad dash for Michael’s bathroom and the porcelain throne. I bent over and worshipped. I heard someone come in behind me and open the linen closet, and then turn on the water. Presently, I felt Nikita’s gentle hand on my back as she wet a washcloth in the sink.

“Oh, Grace, I’m so sorry. It the morning sickness bad?” She turned off the water, wrung out the washcloth, and wiped my face when I stood up and flushed the contents of my stomach away with a swirl of water.

“Thank you, Nikita. It’s not too bad, just a bit disconcerting and embarrassing. It has definitely been a conversation ender in the last few weeks, but the doctor at Section said that it shouldn’t last much longer. I’m sorry I interrupted your morning fun. At least I didn’t ruin your shoes.” I smiled feebly at the joke I tried to make. Nikita took pity on me and forced a laugh.

“Grace, I’m not wearing any shoes.” She hugged me and smiled. “Now, I think that we had better get you in bed and retrieve Alex from outside. Come on, Grace.” She pulled on my arm and I let her lead me back into Michael’s bedroom. Rene sat quietly in Michael’s lap on the bed.

“Mom, are you okay?” he asked with wide eyes as he jumped down from his father’s lap and hurried over to me to throw his arms around me. “Daddy explained to me about morning sickness, but are you sure you are okay?” It felt so good to be back in the arms of my family. I knew what I must look like after my bout with the bowl, but I managed to hug Rene and reassure him that I was all right.

“I’m just fine, Rene. I am not ill, just pregnant. Now,” I said, “why don’t you go help your father and Nikita bring Alex inside? I’ll go and fix his bed in our bedroom.”

As they hurried to do my bidding, I headed toward my bedroom to turn down the bed for Alex. He was not going to like being put to bed, but he would just have to get used to it. He was not yet sufficiently recovered from the injuries he received in the traffic accident three and a half weeks ago to be very mobile as yet. The accident, I thought. It had brought pain to my family, but it had also brought great happiness and a chance for Michael, Rene and Nikita to be together, if only for a short time. I thought back...

Madeline had allowed Michael and Nikita to bring Rene home during Alex’s recuperation at Section. Originally, the doctors had said we could come home ten days after the accident, but Alex and I had conspired to draw out his recuperation to a full three weeks. We had agreed that we would carve out as much time as we could for Michael and Nikita to spend with Rene. Alex would complain about pain from his broken arm and leg or from his head injury and I would positively swoon from my pregnancy and morning sickness. It had been during an examination just after the accident that Alex, Rene and I had been in that my pregnancy of two months had been discovered. I think that Madeline and the doctors had finally caught on to the deception planned and carried out by me and Alex by the end of the second week, but they allowed us an extra week before Madeline had ultimately called me into her office and told me that it was time to take Alex home.

“Grace,” she said apologetically, “I know what you are trying to do, but I am sorry, we need Michael and Nikita back here full-time. We have made do with using them on short flash missions, but I cannot justify that anymore. Their time with Rene has to come to an end. It’s time that you and Alex take up your duties back at the Rehab Center. You are needed there, and Michael and Nikita are needed back here.” She looked up at me from behind her desk and smiled a sad smile. “I wish Michael and Rene had more time together, but it has to end here and now.”

I nodded and turned to leave. “We’ll leave tomorrow.” I turned back to her. “Thank you for planning my wedding, and for giving them three weeks.” She raised her head, accepting my thanks, and then turned back to her computer, acutely dismissing me from her presence. As I emerged from her office, I ran into Walter.

“Gracie, how ya’ doin’?” He greeted me with a kiss on my cheek. When he pulled away, he frowned at the pinched expression on my face. “What did she say to you? I’ll......” I caught and held his arm, stopping his forward motion.

“No, Walter! She just gave me and Alex our marching orders. We are going home tomorrow. Michael and Nikita are needed back here.” He embraced me and patted me on the back, trying to soothe the tears that had sprung to my eyes.

“Awww, Gracie, don’t cry. You stole as much time as you could for them. You know that they had to come back eventually. Michael always has to come back here. I’m sorry, Gracie.”

“I’m sorry, Grace,” Nikita was saying. I blinked and shook my head, tossing the scene from Section back into my memory. Nikita was talking to me. “You seemed a thousand miles away. Are you sure you are all right?” she said as she peered anxiously into my eyes. Alex was sitting in a wheelchair being pushed by Michael, and they were both staring at me with concerned eyes.

“Don’t look at me that way, I’m FINE! I was just daydreaming. It’s good to be back home.” I put on what I hoped was a radiant smile and settled to the task of getting Alex put to bed comfortably. Michael and Nikita helped me, all the while watching me for any sign that I was not all right.

All I could think of was that for Michael, Nikita and Rene....that their time together was almost at an end.

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

We waited for the phone to ring, for the call that would command Michael and Nikita back to Section. Michael, Rene and Nikita were awaiting the call in Rene’s treehouse, spending their last few minutes and hours together. Amidst the waiting, I fluffed Alex’s pillows. He was weary after the long drive home. And we talked quietly, just he and I laying on our bed next to each other, regaining the physical closeness that had been missing during our weeks at Section. Medical at Section doesn’t have facilities for cohabitation, especially when one is injured and being visited by his pregnant spouse. For the first time since we had been together, Alex and I spent our nights in different beds. The best they could manage were two hospital beds pushed together, and that wasn’t close enough for newlyweds like us. But, being two very inventive people, we managed quite well.

Still, it was glorious to be back home. I pushed all the bad thoughts of the coming separation of my son and his father, and on our first sleepy afternoon at home, I held Alex and thought about the drive home....

“We’re almost home, Alex. It won’t be long now. How are you feeling?” I leaned over and kissed my husband, smoothing my hand over the newly sprouting blond hairs covering his head, only now beginning to hide the scars from the accident that had almost taken him from me.

“I’m fine, but I’ll be better when we are home.” He smiled at me sleepily, giving himself up once more to the sedatives that the doctors had given him to control the pain from his injuries as he was transported from Section One to our home.

Madeline had made sure that the doctors knew to make him as comfortable as possible on the ride. She had been such a good friend to us since the accident. She had soothed my fears about Alex’s condition, she had held my head as I suffered through the first bouts of morning sickness when I had found out that I was expecting Alex’s child, she had even organized our wedding inside Section. Madeline had my friendship and a grudging respect that I never thought I would feel for her. When we had first met, I felt nothing but fear and contempt for her. After all, she had taken Rene from his father, Michael, and given him to me to raise. She had threatened me and terrified me and she had also given me the joy of my life, Rene.

Through the years, she had protected me and Rene, even as she manipulated Michael. She had wanted Michael’s absolute focus to be on the Section and its work, so she took away his son. When he had turned to me for a friend’s comfort, she had taken me away by bribing me with Michael’s child, who I had thought was dead and lost to us. I allowed the bribery, thinking that at least Rene would be with someone he knew and who loved him. Michael focused, but was never the same after losing Rene. And then, Michael found us.

I found him in Rene’s room one night, softly singing his fretful child to a more restful sleep. From that day to this, Madeline had made sure that Michael and Rene remained in touch. She sent Michael after us when we were in danger and allowed us to stay with Michael when he was injured on a mission trying to save us. And when one of Michael’s team was slated for cancellation because he was no longer useful to Section, Madeline had given him over to me and somehow, Alex and I had connected, had become more than just work partners. We had become life partners, and now, we shared another life between us....our child.

Yes, Madeline had changed the course of my life and I had eventually thanked her for it as she had thanked me. She thanked me for standing up to her when no one else would, and she thanked me for caring for Rene and Michael, as much as she did. She could be one cold, hard, manipulative woman when her job called for it, but she could also be a friend. She continually amazed and surprised me. If not for her, I would still be snuggled into my former safe, routine world, far away from those that I love, and those who love me in return.

And now I waited for her to once more take Michael away from his son. Such was destiny.

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

The waiting continued all through the night and into the next day. I used the time to set up an appointment with my OB/GYN. She was so surprised at my news that she told me to come on in, that she had an open spot for me. I laughed and told her I would see her in an hour. Alex didn’t want me to go alone, so Nikita volunteered to drive me into town. “Look, the call hasn’t come yet, so there is no use for us to sit around feeling down. Let me go with you.” She took my hand and tugged. “We’ll take you to the doctor and Michael and Rene can show Alex how well he is doing with his soccer moves. Rene wants Alex to know that he hasn’t been shirking his practice while Alex has been gone. If Section calls, they call, we don’t have to wait in quiet desperation. Come on, Grace.”

And so, we traveled the ten miles into town to the Medical Center where my OB/GYN had her office. We didn’t have to wait long to see her. Dr. Bonniere’s nurse whisked me through the required blood tests and soon Nikita and I were deposited in the exam room. Dr. Bonniere came in snapping on a pair of surgical gloves. “Now, what have we here?” she asked. Nikita looked a bit ill as she watched the exam proceed.

Dr. Bonniere finished her exam and placed her stethoscope on my abdomen, listening intently. “Well, well, this is interesting.” She observed.

“What is interesting?” Nikita and I said at the same time, looking at one another with concern.

“Here,” she said, motioning Nikita forward while I looked on, puzzled. She put the ear pieces of her stethoscope into Nikita’s ears. “Now, listen.” Nikita bit her bottom lip and suddenly her eyes lit up in surprised wonder.

“Is that the baby?” she asked, breaking into a radiant smile. “Oh, Grace. It’s heart is beating so strongly! This is wonderful!”

Dr. Bonniere readjusted the flat of the stethoscope on the other side of my abdomen and told Nikita to listen carefully once more. “Nikita, do you hear it?

Nikita looked confused and then looked at me. “Grace, listen!” She handed me the earpieces. I did what she told me, and heard the strong beat of my baby’s heart.

My doctor then moved the stethoscope back to its original position. Again, I heard the heartbeat. I listened for several seconds and turned my eyes first to Nikita’s excited smile and shining eyes, then I looked at Dr. Bonniere. “Nicole,” I said, worriedly. “Why do I hear two heartbeats? There’s one here.” I pointed to one point on my abdomen, “and one over here.” I pointed to where she still held the stethoscope. “What’s going on?”

“Grace,” Dr. Bonniere said, smiling broadly. “Do you have any twins in your family?”

I squeezed Nikita’s hand and answered her. “Ummm, yes, my mother was a twin, as was her father. Why?” I smiled, because I knew what her answer was going to be.

***********

“Oh my God, Grace! Twins!! Two babies, twice the fun. Grace!!” Nikita was practically jumping up and down. “Alex is going to faint and Rene....Rene is going to be so happy! And I can’t wait to see the look on Michael’s face. We are going to have two godchildren....I love it, and I love you. Oh, Grace....TWO!” She wrapped her arms around me and gave me the biggest bear hug I have ever had. I think she was more excited than me. “I can’t wait to get home, and see the looks on everyone’s faces. When can you feel the babies move? How soon will that be?” Nikita inquired ecstatically.

“Oh, that won’t be for another six or so weeks, I will most likely feel movement in the fifth month during the middle of the second trimester. I am just now at the end of my first trimester. It will be a while yet.” I patted her hand and beamed at her. “Nikita, thank you for being here with me. I’m glad you got to hear my babies’ heartbeats. You are their godmother, after all.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it. That was the first time I have ever experienced hearing an unborn child’s heartbeat,” she sniffed, the tears were hovering on her eyelashes, waiting for a blink to start them on the journey down her cheeks. “Grace, I know that I will never experience what you are experiencing for myself. Not as long as Michael and I are in Section. May I share as much as possible with you? I promise not to be greedy or get in the way.” She blinked and the torrent of tears rushed down her face.

I simply didn’t know what to do but to pull her into my arms and murmur comforting words to her. “Of course, you can share, Nikita, you are their godmother, and I am going to need all the help I can get. Alex will be a while in getting up and around, so of course you can help me.” Dr. Bonniere peeked inside the exam room and took in the tableaux before her. She quietly closed the door and left me to comfort and reassure Nikita, who had become like a daughter to me. I despaired for her, knowing that she would probably never experience motherhood for herself, no matter how much she loved Michael. As long as Section owned the two of them, parenthood was lost to her. So, I would make sure that she experienced as much of my motherhood as she could.

I dried her tears and she helped me get dressed and we set off for the pharmacy to pick up the various vitamins and anti-morning sickness pills before we headed back home. Little did I know what we would find when we returned there late in the afternoon.

As we drove up to the house, I noticed that Rene was sitting in his treehouse, with his legs dangling from the doorway. He was swinging his legs back and forth aimlessly, his head bowed as if he was deep in thought. I looked up at my house and saw no one on the porch. Usually if Rene was out playing, I knew Michael would be out with him or he would be sitting on the porch watching Rene. Nikita had noticed the same thing that I did. Michael was no where to be seen.

As soon as the Land Rover stopped, she threw the gearstick into park and was out of the car and running toward the house. Rene had apparently noticed our approach, and without raising his head, he called out to Nikita. “My daddy isn’t in the house.” Nikita stopped abruptly and redirected her steps to Rene. I followed her.

“Rene, what’s wrong? Where is your father?” I asked as Nikita stopped at the bottom of the treehouse ladder and grasped a rung at chest-height and started to climb up to Rene. “Rene?” I knew he was upset and I could guess why. Michael was gone.

He glanced at us and returned his head to its bowed position. “They called Daddy back in. He’s gone.” He spoke to Nikita. “Daddy said that they would pick you up on the way out. He said that he would bring you your mission gear and that you were to be ready when the helicopter arrived. He will brief you on the way. Mom, Daddy said we were to stay inside the house and away from the windows when we heard the helicopter.” He looked up and I saw the tears in his green eyes. “Daddy said he was sorry he had to leave, but they wanted him back....Mom, why do they always win? All I want is my Daddy! I know what my Daddy told me, but why can’t I have him with me all the time?” Nikita had reached the top of the ladder and put her arms around him, drawing him close to her.

“Rene, we don’t always like what we have to do, but sometimes your Daddy and I are able to do some good in this world of ours. Yes, it’s dangerous, but your Daddy does it because, just maybe, the world will be a little bit safer for you when you grow up. And Rene, you know your Daddy would do anything to make you safe, don’t you?”

I watched in wonder as Rene brushed his arm across his eyes, drying his tears as he locked eyes with Nikita. “Yeah, I know that. So I just have to be strong and make sure my Daddy knows how proud I am of him, don’t I? And Nikita, I am proud of you too. You love my Daddy and I know you will always make sure he is safe so he can come back to me.” He hugged her as she closed her eyes and made her promise to Rene.

“Yes, Rene. I will keep your Daddy safe so he always comes back to you...I promise!”

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

The helicopter carrying Michael and Nikita to their mission lifted off the ground and was gone in seconds. As instructed, Rene and I kept away from the windows. In fact, we were in the back of the house in the bedroom that Alex and I shared. My husband was wide awake, the sedatives that had kept him quiet and out of pain during the trip back home long gone from his system. Rene and I sat on the bed on either side of Alex, who was happily planted firmly in the middle of our bed.

Rene was sitting there, absently running the fringe on the edge of the bedspread idly through his fingers. I was watching him intently because I knew there were torrents of questions gathering in his head. He parted his lips as if about to speak and then clamped them shut again. I had seen Michael do that on many occasions. He was choosing his words carefully.

“Mom, why wouldn’t they let me see Daddy just now when he was here. Why did we have to stay inside?” He looked up expectantly and waited for me to answer. Alex answered for me.

“Rene, I can only answer you from my point of view as someone who has gone on missions with your father in the past. When you are an operative, you have to mentally prepare yourself for whatever might be ahead for you. You can’t let anything get in your way, mentally or physically. You have to focus on the goal of the missions and personal feelings can get in the way. I think that Michael was focused and seeing and maybe be talking to you might have caused that focus to shift a little bit, and he could not allow that.”

“Alex, are you saying that my Daddy didn’t want to see me? But he loves me, why wouldn’t he want to see me?” Rene appeared to be on the edge of tears and Alex quickly continued with his answer.

“Rene, I am sure that your Daddy wanted to see you, but he was on his way to something that could be very dangerous and for his sake and the sake of Nikita and the rest of the team, he could not lose focus on the mission. It’s like the prince in the story Grace told you so long ago. Your Daddy has to be single-minded in what he does so he can always come back to you. Remember?” Alex turned his gaze to me as if he was asking, Did I say the right thing? Do you think he understood? We both turned our eyes back to Rene.

“Yeah, Alex. I remember and now I understand about Daddy. He is trying his best to do what is right so he can come see me again.” He smiled and made as if to hop down off the bed. “I’m gonna go take my bath and go to bed.”

“Rene, wait!” I reached over Alex and grabbed his hand, stopping him from leaving. “I have something to tell the both of you about my visit with Dr. Bonniere today.

They both looked at me. “There’s nothing wrong with the baby, is there?” Alex asked anxiously as he clutched both my hands tightly. Rene had taken on an expression of fright.

I laughed and relieved their fears quickly. “Ummm...how do you two feel about twins?”

Whatever Alex had thought to say to me would have to wait until later as the entire bed shook as Rene gave a whoop of pure glee and start jumping up and down on the bed. He was soon followed by Sam, who until he had heard his small master’s shout of delight, had been snoozing on the floor beside the bed. Sam now joined us on the bed, adding his loud barks to the celebration of life.

***********

The fourth month of my pregnancy passed without any excitement. Rene tended to hover, always near to see if I needed anything. He was feeling very much the man of the house, with Alex spending so much time in physical therapy. It was almost time for the casts to come off of his arm and leg and he had been exercising as much as he could. He was so excited about the babies and he also hovered, especially in the evenings just before our bedtime. Alex made sure that I got plenty of rest. He insisted on our being in bed by 10:00 each evening.

If Alex was in protective mode in the evenings, Rene took over the mantle during the day. When most eight-year-olds were outdoors for most of the day, Rene spent most of his time inside with me. He was there when I came out of my bedroom in the morning, and at first, he insisted that I sit down at the breakfast table while he fixed breakfast for both Alex and I. After a week of Fruit Loops and orange juice, I finally put my foot down and gently chased both Rene and Alex out of my kitchen.

The next morning, over a hot breakfast of eggs, sausage and pancakes, I laid down the ground rules for the next five months. Alex and Rene shoveled the food into their mouths as I told them that I was healthy and did not need to be watched and coddled...that women expecting children worked and took care of their families everyday without help, and that our family was going to do the same thing. Alex, Rene and I worked out our household duties, with the understanding that these duties would be modified as Alex healed and as I got more heavily pregnant. The physical changes in the both of us would determine how much we could do each day. We all agreed that we would be considerate of each others’ feelings and would do the best we could.

And so, we settled into our daily routines and everyone was happy with our situation.

Well....as happy as we could be, because we hadn't seen Michael or Nikita since they had left us over a month ago. Michael had talked to Rene twice on the phone and had left several emails for him, but it just wasn't the same as Michael being there to hold Rene and to tuck him into bed at night.

I knew the separation was affecting Rene. He was still excited about the twins and he still hovered protectively near me, but he didn't laugh as often as he did when Michael was here. I worried about him and decided to speak to Michael about this the next time he called. I knew that he didn't have control over when he had free time. Section always got the time that it demanded from Michael. And at this point, Section was being a very demanding taskmaster.

If Section was demanding all of Michael's time, it was being a bit more lenient with Nikita. One morning, at the beginning of my fifth month, we were just finishing breakfast when we heard the sound of a car screeching to a halt outside the backdoor.

Rene had perked up when he heard the car and made a mad dash out the backdoor, only to halt abruptly at the top of the porch steps. I heard his disappointed voice call out, "Oh...Hi, Nikita, where's Daddy?"

"Hey, Rene, don't I get a hug?" I walked to the door just in time to see Rene wrap his arms around Nikita's neck as she bent over to embrace him, as she said, "I'm sorry, Rene, your Daddy is still at Section. He's profiling a big mission. Things have been so crazy at work. He would be here if he could. You know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, I know...I'm just a little disappointed." But then the big smile was back, and he was pulling Nikita inside the kitchen. "Are you hungry? There's lots of food left. Sit down and I will fix you a plate." There was a twinkle in his eyes. He slid a chair under her and she sat down and smiled at Alex and I.

"And just how are the kiddies?" She beamed at me and reached toward me, stopping as she met my eyes and said, "May I?"

“Of course, Nikita. I haven’t felt any movement yet, though. I am going to ask Dr. Bonniere about that next week when I see her. OH!” I jumped back from Nikita’s touch and she jerked her hand back as if I had burned her. “Alex,” I said quickly, “give me your hand. Someone or two want to kick you.” I took his extended hand and drew him over to me. The questioning look in his blue eyes quickly turned to wonder and then joy as he felt the tiny pulses of movement as he touched my abdomen with his free hand.

At my exclamation, Rene had rocketed to his feet and flew around the table to stop in front of me. He watched Alex’s face in awe at the delight he saw there. Then he looked up at me. “Mom, can I feel your tummy, too?”

I pulled him close and placed his hand on the last place I had felt the ripple of movement. His smile was radiant. It was at that moment that I turned my head and saw Nikita’s lips quivering as if she was about to cry. “Well, Nikita, there is still a little patch of tummy left. Want to say hello to your godchildren?” I smiled at her as she dropped to her knees beside me and bit her lower lip as she extended her hand to gently brush it across the surface of my ever expanding belly. “No, try over here.” I took her hand and moved it. She was quiet for a few seconds, intently concentrating on locating another movement.

I knew the exact moment when one of her godchildren moved against her hand. She laughed up at me with blue eyes that were shiny with unshed tears. “Oh, Grace, this is wonderful. I can’t wait for you to tell Michael about the twins....he will be so happy about this. I wish he were here right now! It is so hard to talk to him about you and not be able to tell him about the twins.” I had forgotten her promise to me, that she would not talk to Michael about the twins until I had a chance to tell him myself. “But it won’t be long. The mission he is profiling is supposed to be a short one. I know we will have some downtime after the mission and then we will both be back to feel your tummy and say hello to our godchildren.” Nikita was positively beaming when she finally stood and sat back down at the breakfast table. “Rene, honey, I thought you were going to get me a plate.....I’m starved!”

Breakfast continued. We all sat there and happily devoured mounds of pancakes and bacon. In between mouthfuls, Nikita and I discussed decorating the nursery. I couldn’t wait to show her what Madeline had given us as a baby gift. It was magnificent. As we talked, I glanced over at Alex. He was watching me with a rapturous expression on his face. Yep, I thought to myself, that man really loves me, almost as much as I love him.

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

After breakfast, I took Nikita to show her Madeline’s gift to Alex and I for the baby. I hadn’t told Madeline about the twins, but somehow I think she had found it out, based on the scale of her generous gift. Nikita was stunned, to say the least. “Madeline is responsible for this?” She was standing in the middle of a twelve by twenty foot nursery addition to our house. Madeline’s gift had arrived in the form of a construction crew, complete with blueprints and a truck full of men, supplies, and materials to build the huge addition on to our house. It had only taken them two weeks to build and flawlessly attach the new room on to the end of the house where our bedroom was. The addition, which included a big bathroom, had been finished just a few days when Nikita arrived. Madeline had also given me a list of stores at which she had established untraceable lines of credit for me, so that I could decorate and furnish the new nursery.

“Yes, she is responsible. Isn’t it fantastic! You will help me to decorate it, won’t you? Michael is always telling me that you are great with colors.” I put my arm around her and hugged her close. I heard her sniffing and caught the sheen of tears as I glanced at her. “You know, Nikita, with all the emotional tears you have been shedding lately, I think you may be taking this sharing thing we have much too seriously. If we aren’t careful, when I go into labor, you might just experience sympathy pains.” She blinked the tears away and put her head on my shoulder.

“Oh, Grace,” she said quietly, “if I only could, I wish I could feel those pains for real. All of Michael’s children would be as beautiful as he is. Wouldn’t they? I wish.....”

I held her for a few more minutes as she wept for what could not be and then I whispered in her ear. “Enough of tears, my sweet. Let’s go spend some of Madeline’s money on paint and furniture. What colors to you recommend?” I pulled her from her sad reverie and we went to check on Alex and Rene before heading for town.

Hours later, we returned, having picked out a color palette for the nursery and arranged with the paint store for them to send painters out the next day. Nikita would supervise them while I coordinated the furniture delivery. I just hoped that everything that we had selected would fit into the nursery since we had to have two of practically everything.

Alex found us sitting in the middle of the floor of the nursery working on the floor plan to make sure that everything was perfectly placed. “Isn’t it a bit early to be organizing all of this? The babies aren’t due for another few months.” Nikita and I looked up at him aghast.

“MEN!!” she huffed. “The babies will be here before you know it. We have to get all of this sorted out, so that Grace can enjoy the last few months of her pregnancy.”

She bit her bottom lip and sighed. “Besides, I just don’t know when I can get back here, and I don’t want to miss anything!” Alex smiled sadly and nodded his head.

“Then does that mean that Rene and I get peanut butter sandwiches again tonight? Ladies,” he said, glancing at his watch. “It’s after 7:00. Aren’t either of you hungry? After all, Grace, you are eating for three.” I grinned up at him and held my hands up to his.

“Well, I can’t cook down here. Give me a boost.” Nikita jumped to her feet and between the two of them, they got me up and moving toward the kitchen. I reflected silently that Alex had better get his strength back very fast because he was going to need it to deal with my burgeoning waistline. The next few months were going to be eventful ones. I could just feel it....

Later that night as I lay in bed with Alex’s head on my stomach, he laughed in pure delight at the soccer match going on inside my tummy. “My love, I think they are both boys. They are so active.”

I brushed my hand over his head. “Alex, haven’t you been watching TV lately? Girls play great soccer too. These two little ones could just as well be of the female persuasion. I think I might like girls. I would have someone to help me keep you and Rene in line....yes, two little girls would be very nice.” He turned his face toward mine.

“How about a compromise? A boy and a girl?”

I shook my head as I gazed at the father of my children, “somehow, Alex, I think that decision is already out of our hands. Do you really want to know? I have an appointment with Dr. Bonniere next week. She said she wants to do a sonogram to check their position and she also said she would probably be able to tell me the sex of the babies.” Alex looked serious for a few seconds.

“Do you want to know?” he asked, smiling. “I want to know.....”

“Well, I guess so. From a practical point of view, knowing would make it easier to stock the nursery with clothes and such.” I laughed as Alex looked shocked at my matter of fact discussion of his babies. “Of course I want to know. The suspense is driving me insane. Besides, we could start deciding on names if we know. Now, won’t that be fun?”

Alex struggled to sit up and maneuver his body up next to mine. The casts were heavy and awkward to move. “I have some good news of my own. Dr. Lassister said he would be removing these damn casts tomorrow. What say we make an early evening of it tomorrow night and have us a little honeymoon. Interested, Grace?”

I pouted. “You mean you didn’t enjoy the honeymoon we had on our wedding night?”

“No, no, it’s not that, Grace,” he stammered. “It’s just that...that this time I’ll be a fully functioning husband with both arms and legs to love you with!”

I stared at him in disbelief for a few seconds. “I seem to remember you being fully functional on our wedding night...Did I miss something?”

He laughed outloud, and proceeded to function fully for me once more.

After midnight, while we were laying exhausted in each other’s arms, or arm in Alex’s case, I asked him a question that had been weighing heavily on my mind lately. “Do you mind terribly that I share so much of our lives with Michael and Nikita?” Alex stiffened in my arms and rolled over to look at me, as if searching my face for the reason for my question.

“No, Grace, I don’t mind sharing our lives with Michael and Nikita. They are our family...Rene’s family. I could never not share you and Rene with them.” His eyes held a question for me. “Why are you asking this question?” When I didn’t answer right away, he kissed me and asked again, “Why?”

I reached out and placed both my hands on my husband’s chest, and I could feel his heart beating strongly at my touch. I slowly slid one hand up his chest and neck to tangle in the soft short hair at the back of his head. I felt the muscles contract under my fingers as he relaxed at my caress. The blond hair had grown out in the two months that we had been married and once again, I could run my fingers through it, even if it was still much shorter than he usually wore it . Alex sighed heavily and took my face in his large, wonderful hands.

“Grace, I know why you are sharing our lives with them, just as you shared our wedding day with them. Sharing our lives...and Rene’s life with them just feels so right to me. I just wish they could be here more often than they are.” It had been two months since Michael’s last visit. Even though Nikita was with us for now, we both knew that she was due back at Section in two days.

Operations had kept them busy with mission after mission. I was terrified that something bad was going to happen if Michael didn’t get some downtime soon. The last time I had talked with Michael, he had sounded so exhausted, and for him to have allowed me to hear the exhaustion in his voice meant that he was almost at the end of his endurance. I worried about the both of them constantly. Often, Alex would try to distract me with talk of our babies who would be born in a few months, but still, I worried.

“Are you upset that I invited Nikita to help with the nursery?” I stared into his blue eyes and saw a smile there.

“Grace,” he said, exasperated with my questions. “Have I ever failed to tell you exactly what I think about things? Well, have I?” He grinned and took my breath away once more with his kisses.

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

The next few days were a whirlwind of painters and frazzled nerves for all of us. And Alex missed most of the chaos. He was over at the Rehab Center getting the casts removed from his arm and leg. I was able to be there with him because Nikita had shooed me out of the nursery early that morning. “I can deal with all of this,” she said waving her hands at the painters. “Besides by the time you two finish over at the center, most of the work will be done. Now get out of here and go be with Alex.”

Grateful for her warm presence, I left her to supervise painting, while I went back to my bedroom to help Alex get ready for his appointment to be freed from the casts in which he had been imprisoned for the last 6 weeks. Today, we could finally put to rest the memories of the horrible car crash that had almost taken him from me. He was dressing when I walked into our bedroom. He had become rather adept at negotiating the jeans with the ripped out seam to accommodate his leg cast. Seeing him struggle to pull the jeans on reminded me of the day he had attempted to dress himself in the wedding clothes that Madeline had picked out for him. He had ended up falling and cracking not only the cast on his arm but had also struck his head on the bedside table as he fell. I was terrified for him, but the Section medical personnel had quickly and efficiently repaired the cast and bandaged his head. He had sheepishly asked me if he had to wear Madeline’s hand-picked wedding apparel and I had told him he could wear anything he wanted as long as he married me the next day. He happily agreed and when I followed my maid of honor, Nikita, into his room the next day, there he sat in his hospital bed dressed in a comfortable white T-shirt, white shorts and, in a tribute to Madeline’s sartorial efforts, a formal white bowtie tied around his neck. He looked gorgeous to me.

And he looked gorgeous to me today as he pulled the teal blue T-shirt over his head. I stepped up behind him and helped him smooth the shirt down over his broad shoulders and back. H hugged him and reached around in front of him and buttoned his jeans. “

There you go, all ready to see the doctor. I can’t wait to see you dressed in those tight black jeans of yours again. I so miss your rear view.” He turned awkwardly with the cast on his leg and pulled me close to him.

“I am just glad that the casts are coming off now. Soon it will be harder to pull you this close. The babies are growing fast and you are growing faster,” he said as he caressed the roundness of my mid-section. “I never want to be apart from you and our children.” He embraced me and started to pull me to our bed. I grinned and stopped our progress.

“This will be a lot more fun if the casts are removed first. Let’s go over to see Dr. Lassiter first and then come back here.” Alex let the disappointment show in his eyes for a few seconds before he smiled and acquiesced.

“Then, by all means, let’s get this show on the road. Where’s Rene?”

“I think he is planning to stay here with Nikita. He said that he wanted to make sure that the painters got the colors just right, but I really think he wants to talk to Nikita about Michael. He misses Michael so much. Oh, Alex, I worry about Rene so much. What would happen if anything ever happens to Michael?” I leaned back into his arms and felt him pause, as if he was thinking of what he could say to reassure me. His good arm held me tightly and he whispered into my ear.

“Rene would grieve as would we all, but we would be here to hold him, to help him through the pain. He would never forget Michael, none of us would, but he would go on to grow up and make a life for himself, and he would be richer for having had Michael as his father, and....for having you as his mother.” He sighed heavily. “Grace, life is always uncertain. Rene may not have to face this for many years. Michael is good at what he does, the best in fact. He doesn’t make many mistakes. Please don’t worry about this. It’s not good for you or for our babies.” He sighed heavily and turned me around to face him. He kissed me. “Now let’s go get these god-awful casts removed. I have a big evening planned for us.”

And so, we made our way slowly across the lawn separating our house from the Center. I had looked in on Nikita and Rene before we left. They were sitting in a corner of the nursery where the painters were not working. Rene was curled up next to Nikita and she was showing him our plans for the nursery and explaining to him where everything would be. He smiled up at her and I felt a momentary pang that he was giving her that adoring look and not me. And then I felt guilty for that thought. She had so little while I had so much. Mentally berating myself for my jealousy, I turned from the sight of my son sitting there with the light of his father’s life and went back to Alex, the light of my life.

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

Nikita was with us until the paint dried and the furniture arrived. She was there to make sure that the deliverymen carefully uncrated each piece and set it exactly where we wanted it. Both Nikita and I had no intention of letting Alex move a stick of any of the furniture. He was just out of the confining casts and we didn’t want him reinjurying himself by shifting furniture. He seemed content enough to supervise everything from the doorway of our bedroom. The nursery had two entrances, one led into our bedroom and the other led into a hallway which connected with the kitchen. When the perspiring deliverymen were finished placing the furniture, Alex tipped them generously and they beat a hasty retreat to forestall any more orders from what I am sure they thought were two demanding females. Alex stood there, leaning against the doorway, grinning while Nikita and I put the finishing touches on the nursery. Putting linens on the cribs could wait until the room’s future occupants arrived. Finally, we stood back next to Alex with folded arms surveying the room.

Rene sat on the floor against one wall and was drawing on the wainscoting. Normally this childish action would have elicited adult rebukes, but what he was drawing on was blackboard material that had been installed along one side of the room for future use. Rene was drawing a picture in pastel chalk for his new siblings. This was his way of putting his mark on the design of the room. The pastels he used were echoed in the rest of the room. Soft blues, yellows, pinks and greens were everywhere: on the walls, on the furniture and in the mobiles and lamps and the other accessories that we had picked out. I turned to Nikita and hugged her. “You’ve done a wonderful job coordinating all of this. It’s beautiful!”

She laughed. “Well, only the best for my godchildren! Grace, Alex, this was a pleasure. I’m glad I could help. I just wish I could stay longer. I know they will be calling me in soon. Several missions should be going live in the next few days. Those are the ones that they have had Michael profiling. They have been driving him unmercifully. I worry about him so.” She stood there with us for a few more minutes and then, sighing, excused herself to go and take a shower. I leaned back against Alex and watched Rene as he concentrated on his artwork.

“I think we have a budding artist on our hands. You know, Madeline once told me that Michael had studied art at the university and was very talented. Perhaps Rene has inherited his father’s artistic prowess. He does want to be like his father.”

“Grace, he already has many of his father’s traits, he is focused, he is tenacious, he is committed and have you seen those flashing green eyes of his. There is a lot of Michael in that little one over there. Whatever happens, he is going to grow up to be a magnificent young man. And he will be what Michael was never given a chance to be. He’ll be free to become whatever he wants to be. We will see to that, won’t we, my love?”

“Thank you, Alex!” I buried my face against his chest and this time he was able to enfold me in both of his arms. It felt wonderful to have all of him in contact with me once more.

Nikita walked quietly up to us as we stood there admiring her handiwork. She touched my shoulder and smiled sadly. I noticed that she had her cellphone in her other hand. “I have to go...I’m sorry.” She left us and went over to Rene. Kneeling down beside him, she handed him the phone. “Your Daddy wants to talk to you, Rene.”

I saw his eyes light up and then he looked down, realizing what the phone call meant. He straightened his back and took the phone from Nikita, who had put her arms around him. Rene put the phone to his ear and from somewhere within himself mustered a smile for his father. “Hi, Daddy! How are you....I miss you....”

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

Rene told Michael all about the nursery addition and how Nikita had decorated it. He kept on talking, trying to keep Michael on the line as long as possible. Finally, with tears in his eyes he told Michael goodbye, trying his best to keep those same tears out of his voice not wanting to worry Michael. He thrust the phone at Nikita and fled from her. He stopped when he got to Alex and I. “Daddy says he is fine, that it has been busy at Section.” He peered up at Alex. “Alex, you know what it is like when things are busy at Section. That means a lot of missions, doesn’t it? Please tell me the truth.”

Alex bent down so that he was on eye level with Rene, and took Michael’s son by the shoulders. “Yes, Rene, that is what it means. But I want you to remember just how smart your Daddy is. Nothing is going to happen to him. He will be back here before you know it. He just has to take care of his responsibilities at Section and then he will be back here with you. You believe that, don’t you?”

Rene did something then that reminded me so much of his father. He looked deep into Alex’s eyes and then shifted his gaze to the left for a few seconds and then looked back at Alex. “Of course, Alex, I know that Daddy will be here as soon as he can...as soon as THEY let him come be with me.” That said, Rene pulled himself free of Alex’s hands and bolted from the room. Running, I knew, for the privacy of his room, so he could pour out his grief alone.

Alex put his hand on my arm, stopping me from following Rene. “Grace, love, give him a few minutes. He’s not a baby anymore. Let him get himself under control first. Why don’t we go help Nikita get ready to leave.” He gestured across the nursery where Nikita still sat on the floor with the cell phone pressed to her ear. As we watched, we saw her lips form the words, I Love You, just before she pressed the disconnect button and flipped the phone closed.

“I have a briefing in three hours, so I had better get going.” She hugged both of us and told us to take care. “Let me know what flavor my godchildren are going to be when you find out next week. I have to know what colors I need to buy for them. I am going to be a really obnoxious godmother and Michael will be an adoring godfather.” She laughed and left us to go pack.

Within the hour, Nikita was packed and had detailed a composed and calm Rene to carry her bag out to the car. He was growing more and more like his father everyday. The cute chubbiness of his childhood was melting away and I could see that he would be slim and tall, just like Michael. He met us on the porch. “I stowed your bag in the back seat Nikita. You will drive safely, won’t you?”

“Of course, Rene. You know what a safe driver I am!” They laughed and embraced one another.

“Sure, I know. That’s why I asked you to drive safely....Bring my Daddy back next time?” She looked up at me with sad eyes, as she blinked back her tears.

“I’ll bring him back to you, Rene, just as soon as I can. You know I will. Now, let me go. You don’t want me to get scolded by Operations, do you?” She held him at arms length from her and grinned at Rene. “You know what an old poop he can be sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Rene said. “If he gives you a hard time, tell him he will have to answer to me. I don’t like people who yell at my friends.”

“Oh, I will remember to tell him that. You will have him shaking in his boots.”

Alex, Rene and I stood on the back porch and watched her get in her car and drive away. We waved until she was out of sight. It would be another two months and more before we saw her again. And she would break her promise to Rene. She wouldn’t bring Michael with her.

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

Michael crouched silently behind a pile of crates in the abandoned factory, waiting for guards to finish their rounds. The rest of his team had already exited the building and now he was about to make his exit. Only the guards were in his way, so he waited for them to pass his position. He felt a small vibration on his arm and looked down at his wrist. He pulled back the sleeve of his jacket to peer closely at one of the two watches that he wore on his left wrist.

The watch, a larger twin to the one that Rene wore was set to 3:30, and was gently pulsing an alarm. He smiled and thought of Rene. Everyday at 3:30, he and Rene stopped what they were doing and silently thought about each other. No matter where he was in the world, on a mission or at the briefing table with Operations glaring at him, at 3:30 Michael thought of his son. It had been four and a half long months since Michael had held his son in his arms, and Michael missed Rene. The short phone calls and emails did not suffice for father and son, but Section demanded Michael’s focus and he willingly gave them his time and attention so that maybe, just maybe he would be able to spend some real time with Rene.

So intent was he on his thoughts of Rene that Michael missed the first sound of someone moving behind him. When he finally did hear the stealthy footsteps moving across the floor toward him, it was almost too late. He felt the first impact on his vest and stumbled as he sprung up and ran for the door nearest to him. Another impact sent him sprawling on the floor, but somehow he managed to lurch to his feet and make it out the door.

In the van, Birkoff was calmly asking Nikita if either she or Ken Stillman could see Michael. “Nikita, his comm unit just went dead. I can’t tell if he is being jammed or if it was damaged. Can you see him? Is he in your line of sight?”

“No, Birkoff, I can’t see him. We’re waiting for him to exit the building. Just a minute. Let me go to the top of the embankment to see if I can find him.” Concerned about the lack of response from Michael when she tried to contact him on her comm unit, Nikita scrambled up the embankment and withdrew her field glasses to survey the area below. Ken Stillman had followed her. “Look, Nikita, down there.” Ken tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to a door in the side of the factory. It was just turning dusk and there was mist rising from the ground down below where the old factory stood. “There he is!”

She swung her field glasses to where Ken pointed and smiled when she saw Michael come out of the door. The smile quickly turned to a frown as she watched him take a few staggering steps, his arms swinging wildly for balance. In the split second before he fell to his knees, Nikita stood up and yelled his name. Hearing someone yell at him, he turned in the direction of her voice and raised his hand as if to wave at her. Then he fell again. It was then that Nikita noticed that Michael had no weapon in his hand. And she watched in horror as he wearily got to his feet one more time and taking one last look at Nikita standing on the top of the embankment, bravely turned to face whatever was coming at him from inside the building. She saw him pull himself to his full height and raise his chin in defiance just before she saw the red laser sights mark Michael’s chest and then move inexorably up his chest and target his head. The red line stood out eerily in the mist swirling around Michael.

Unbelieving at what she saw next, Nikita screamed as she saw Michael’s head snap back as the bullet found its’ mark. In an instant, she had thrown down the field glasses and was running and slipping down the steep embankment. When she was halfway down, the building exploded. The shock wave knocked her off her feet, but then she was up and running again. Behind her, Stillman shook his head and watched as the sides of the building collapsed and covered what remained of Section’s top operative. Then, he found himself bolting down the hill after Nikita. He was still sliding down the embankment when he saw her throw herself on the huge mound of bricks and rubble and begin to try and dig through what he now knew was Michael’s grave.

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

When Ken finally got to the bottom of the embankment, he ran over to where Nikita was working feverishly to clear a path to Michael’s body. He cringed when he realized what he had just thought....Michael’s body, not Michael, Michael’s body. The implication of his thoughts stunned him. Whatever was buried under the heavy pile of rubble wasn’t Michael anymore. It was just a shell that had encased a spirit that was finally, irrevocably free. No longer bound to Section or anything else. Ken was aware of a voice in his head, asking him what was going on. Where was Michael? Birkoff was questioning him and Ken just stood there watching Nikita tear at the mountain of brick and mortar. He couldn’t move. Ken had known Michael for years, ever since he, Ken, had been brought into the Section. Michael was a rock, nothing could hurt Michael, but the inevitable had happened and Ken had seen it happen. He knew that Nikita’s efforts were all in vain. Michael was not here any more. He had left her. Ken was brought back to himself by Nikita’s persistent screams for his attention.

“Help me, Ken! Help me. I’ve got to find Michael...I have to find him. I promised Rene I would bring his father back to him. Help me....” She paused in her frantic digging and sobbed. “Oh God, please....Michael, stay with me. Don’t leave me!” She turned a tear-streaked face to Ken and yelled at him. “Ken, help me!!”

“Nikita, he’s gone and we can’t help him. You have to know that.” Ken bent down and began to pull on Nikita’s arm, to try and take her away from this place of death. She turned on him and fought him like a woman possessed. She knocked him down and again attacked the rubble. Another team member had approached and Mentz bent down to help Ken to his feet. He looked at Ken and was struck by the sadness in Ken’s eyes. They watched Nikita as she bloodied her hands on the bricks covering what had been her love. They all knew how the two felt about each other and they now wondered what Nikita would do without Michael.

“You bastards,” she screamed. “Help me, help me!”

Ken shook himself again and made a decision. “Everyone back to the van. We’re going home.” As he said this, he nodded to Mentz and together they went over to Nikita and grabbed her arms, even as they heard distant sirens approaching them. She fought them every inch of the way and was about to reach for her gun when she collapsed in their arms. Surprised Ken and Mentz looked at each other and then to the figure drawing near them through the mist.

“Tranq dart. She would have killed you before she would have let you take her away from Michael. Come on. We have to get out of here.” Birkoff, now holding the gun down at his side, watched quietly as Ken gathered an unconscious Nikita into his arms and began the long walk back to the van, with Mentz following. The other team members who had followed Birkoff when he left the van formed a sort of guantlet through which Ken carried Nikita. As one they looked back at the collapsed building, said their goodbyes to their team leader and traipsed back to the van, wondering what could possibly happen next that would rock their world as much as this had.

Birkoff stood where he was for a few seconds, saying a silent prayer for Michael before he too turned and left Michael behind.

Birkoff had listened in abject shock as he heard Nikita screaming Michael’s name. Oh, God, he thought, this can’t be happening. He had watched on his computer monitor as the live feed from the scene was fed to him by the field glasses that Nikita had used to watch Michael. Even when Nikita had thrown the glasses down, Birkoff could still see what was happening, even if at an odd angle. He watched as Ken tried to pull Nikita away the first time, only for her to attack Ken.

It was then that Birkoff decided what had to be done, so he had retrieved the gun from the compartment in the floor, had loaded a clip of tranquilizer darts and had stalked out of the van. Returning operatives passed him and watched in amazement as the slight figure pushed past them with the gun in his hand. They too had heard what had happened, and they stood at the door of the van unsure of whether to go inside and wait for the return of the rest of the team or to follow Birkoff as backup. In an unspoken agreement, some turned and followed him. Others stayed with the van, securing the area and holding position until everyone else returned. They blinked almost in unison as if they had each finally recognized at once that everyone on the team wouldn’t be coming back. Michael......

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

Ken stepped into the van still holding Nikita tightly in his arms. He collapsed onto the padded bench by Birkoff’s comm station and watched as the other operatives filed in silently and sat down, all eyes on the pale figure in his arms. Birkoff entered last and stopped when he saw Ken and Nikita. He slowly walked over to the partition separating the passenger compartment from the driver and gave one sharp, hard blow to the wall. “Let’s go!” he said and then sat down and slumped into his chair. “Damn!” His expletive surprised those around him. They had never known Birkoff to swear, but then they had never returned from a mission without Michael either.

Birkoff extended his fingers to glide through the strands of Nikita’s hair as it flowed over Ken’s arm. “What’s going to happen now, Birky?” Ken asked, catching the hint of moisture gathering in Birkoff’s eyes.

“It’s Birkoff, dammit, and now I report to Operations and Madeline,” sighing, Birkoff turned from his contemplation of Nikita’s dirty face and bloody hands back to face his computer. With one glance over the rim of his glasses at the other operative’s who sat staring at him, Birkoff opened a communications channel to Section and began to speak.

The tension of the last half-hour was starting to show in Ken Stillman....the muscles in his arms were starting to cramp and his arms were beginning to tremble. He closed his eyes, willing the cramps to subside, but eventually he knew he was going to have to shift Nikita and give his arms some rest. Motioning to the operative sitting next to him, Ken indicated that the operative, Andie, should move down the bench. Slowly, Ken rose from his position next to Birkoff and very gently laid Nikita down on the seat, cushioning her head in Andie’s lap. He straightened up and began to pace in the small area of the van around Birkoff’s station. Suddenly, without warning, Ken turned quickly and rammed his fist into the side of the van and in the next instant he let loose a string of obscenities that turned the air blue.

When he got himself under control, he looked at the other operatives and apologized for his actions. “I’m sorry, I just had to do something.” They all nodded in understanding. Ken walked back over to where Andie was cradling Nikita and reached into one of the storage compartments for a first aid kit. Methodically and as gently as possible, he began to wash the blood from Nikita’s hands. That task done, he applied antibiotic ointment to the scrapes and abrasions, and finally, wrapped her hands with sterile bandages. Satisfied with his handiwork, Ken sat down on the floor of the van and hoped that the three hours trip back to Section went by quickly. As he sat there next to Nikita, he wondered who was going to tell Michael’s son that his father wasn’t coming back.

********

“Mom, has Daddy called?” Rene peered at me through the back door. I looked up from the kitchen counter where I was getting ready to prepare dinner.

“No, Rene, no one has called. Why do you ask?” I looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was just after 3:30, Rene and Michael’s agreed-upon time to stop and think of each other.

“Ah, nothing. I just had a feeling that he wanted to talk to me, and I thought he might have called...I guess he is too busy right now.” He turned and I watched him as he walked unhurriedly down the stairs and across the back lawn to his treehouse. That treehouse had become a haven to him. If I couldn’t find him anywhere else, I knew he would be there. He felt close to Michael there because the two of them had built it together. And whenever he was feeling blue or was missing Michael, he always went to the treehouse.

“He’s okay, just a little sad and he misses Michael.” I smiled to feel Alex’s arms reaching around my waist. I leaned back against him.

“That’s getting harder and harder to do, isn’t it?” I said, “Your arms are not going to make it around me soon.”

“Well, I’ll just have to do this,” and he slid his hands from their place where they were massaging the huge balloon of my abdomen, up to continue the massage on my breasts.

“Alex,” I laughed and covered his hands with my own. “This used to be one of your favorite things.”

“Grace, it is still my one of my favorite things, and they’re more of a handful than they used to be. Mmmmmm!”

“I should hope so. You are going to have to learn how to share soon. Our babies will be competing with you in a few weeks. Now, here, peel these potatoes for me. How does potato soup sound for tonight?” Alex made the appropriate sounds of approval and started peeling. I stretched a little and rubbed my back. The next few weeks were going to be uncomfortable ones. But for my little ones, I was willing to endure anything to make sure they were safely delivered. I walked over to the back door and looked out into the sun-drenched yard. There was Rene, sitting in the doorway of his treehouse, swinging his feet and looking rather pensive. Thinking about his father, no doubt. Ah, Michael, what a beautiful son we have....

***********

A Medical team met the returning operatives with a gurney for Nikita. Ken led the team he had inherited from Michael back into Section through van access. He very gently lay Nikita on the gurney and watched at one of the med-techs covered her with a light blanket. Walter was by her side in an instant, frowning at one of the techs and silently admonishing her to not push him away. Ken watched as the old man took her hand in his and patted it. “You’re going to be okay, Sugar.” Walter looked up at Ken with a question in his eyes.

“I tranqed her, Walter. She wasn’t going to leave Michael. I had to...” Birkoff had walked up to the gurney where Nikita lay. Walter could see a shininess in Birkoff’s eyes. “She’ll be okay, Walter.” And then he asked the question that was on the minds of almost everyone standing in van access. “What is she going to do with him, Walter? What’s going to happen now?” The plaintive note is his voice haunted Walter as he grasped Nikita’s hand even tighter and moved off with her as the medical team began their journey to MedLab.

Birkoff heard Walter’s answer as it echoed down the hallway. “I don’t know, kid, I just don’t know.” And then they were gone around the corner. Birkoff heard steps behind him and pivoted on his right foot to see Operations approaching him, with Madeline at his side.

“Just what happened here!” he shouted at Ken and Birkoff. “What went wrong?” he demanded.

At that moment, something snapped in Birkoff and before Ken could say a word, Birkoff found himself standing on his toes and glaring into the steely blue eyes of his superior. Ken put his hand on Birkoff’s arm and tried to calm him down, but Birkoff snatched his arm away and shouted right back at Operations.

“What happened!! What happened was just what she told you would happen. I heard her!” Birkoff nodded toward Madeline. “She told you that you were pushing Michael too hard. You sent him on mission after mission, not giving him even a few days off. If he ever got more than a few hours off, it was because she distracted you so Michael could get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep! I was right, you know, you are a bastard! Oh, and who is going to tell Michael’s son that his father is dead? Are you going to do that or are you going to make Madeline do that little bit of dirty work, like you usually do?” There was a collective inhalation of air from everyone present. The deep breath taken by the operatives seemed also to be held until they heard Operations’ response to Birkoff’s short tirade.

His only response was to clamp his mouth shut, as it had been hanging open in shock at Birkoff’s words. Then Operations straightened his back, glanced over at Madeline who looked as shocked as he did, turned, and stalked off down the hallway. The swoosh of air being exhaled from those witnessing this unprecedented scene was audible.

Birkoff blinked a few times behind the tinted lenses in his glasses and looked over at Madeline. “Uhhh, did I just get myself canceled?” he asked, his knees feeling rather weak from the sudden absence of the adrenaline that had been coursing through his system.

Madeline looked around at those watching and with a slight tilting of her head dismissed everyone. She called out after them, “Debriefing in one hour!” Then when she was sure that they were alone, leaned over and whispered in Birkoff’s ear, “Bravo!! And no, you are not canceled. I’ll cool him down. He knows what he did wrong. It’s going to be very hard for him to handle knowing that he is responsible for losing Michael.” Birkoff gazed at her in amazement, but nodded and started to walk away. “Birkoff, please go and check on Nikita for me, please?” He stared at her as she turned and slowly walked down the hall on her way to talk to Operations. When she left his sight, Birkoff turned and hurried in the other direction, toward Medlab.

***********

“Michael!!” Nikita came out of unconsciousness quickly, sitting up in bed and looking around wildly. Suddenly she smiled as she saw Walter. She shook her head. “Walter, I had the worst nightmare. Michael.....” she stopped and took in her surroundings. “Medlab? What am I .....Oh, nooooooo,” she wailed. “Oh, God! Walter, please tell me it isn’t real. Where’s Michael?” She collapsed into Walter’s arms, sobbing brokenly. The reality of her situation almost strangling her. Walter held her and rocked her gently.

“Shhhh, Sugar. I know it hurts like a son-of-a-bitch, but you have to handle this. Michael wouldn’t want you to go to pieces like this.” The old man wished he could take away her pain, but he knew from experience that life didn’t work like that. So he just gave her his love and support and understanding.

“But I left him there. I tried to get to him, to bring him out, to get him help. Oh, Walter. He’ll be so cold there. He hates the cold. Why wouldn’t they let me get to him?” Nikita held onto Walter for dear life and she knew that the aching in her heart would never go away. She had failed so completely. She had promised Rene that she would always watch his father’s back, that she would always bring Michael home to him. And now, she would have to tell Rene how she had broken her promise to him. “What am I going to tell Rene and Grace?” She looked into Walter’s eyes and pleaded for an answer, and she couldn’t find one in those beautiful old eyes that had seen so much hurt and pain.

Walter choked back his tears and cleared his throat before he began to speak. When he began to talk, his whiskey-soft voice took on a soothing quality that began to lull Nikita’s anguish. Walter moved to sit on the bed with Nikita so he could cradle her in his arms. She continued to cry softly against his chest as he rocked her back and forth. “Nikita, listen to me. You are so concerned with where Michael is. Look at your hands. You cut them on the rocks trying to get to Michael. I think you knew deep in your heart while you were digging that Michael wasn’t there anymore. You saw him die. The rubble only covered the shell that he used to be. The hurt that you are feeling will always be a part of you, but Michael will also be a part of you. He’s right here.” Walter laid his hand over Nikita’s heart. “ And he will always be right here, inside you, always a part of you.”

At that moment, someone pushed open the door to Nikita’s room and Operations entered silently. The strain in his face evident, he walked over to where Nikita lay in Walter’s arms. If looks could have killed, Operations would have been long cold in his grave by now. As if unable to hold his eyes, Nikita turned her head and buried it in Walter’s neck.

“What are you doing here?” Walter growled. “You want to gloat over destroying the best team Section has ever had? Paul, I thought I knew you....but then, maybe I do. This shouldn’t surprise me.” Walter drew Nikita closer, as if to protect her from the icy-blue gaze of the man standing in front of them. As he stared harder at the head of Section, Walter could see differences in Operations. The lines around his eyes and mouth were deeper somehow. Deeper in grief. So, he thought, the old wolf has a few feelings after all. He missed Michael, too. “Nikita,” Operations said, as he reached out a hand tentatively to touch her on the shoulder. She shrank back from it as if his slightest touch would burn her skin. “Please....I regret his loss, but life goes on...”

“Life goes on!! For you, maybe! What about Michael?? What about his life? You held it in your hands and you discarded it like some smelly refuse. You are the one who sent him to that ... that place where I had to leave him! You knew he was exhausted, yet you sent him anyway. Get out of my sight! I can’t stand to look at Michael’s executioner!” Again she turned her face into Walter’s chest, and her body shook with the force of her sobs.

Walter glared at his superior and with his wizened old eyes commanded him to leave. Operations turned, stopped and looked over his shoulder at the two grieving people. “Madeline is going to call Grace and tell her what has happened. As of now, I’m giving the two of you a few days off. Use the days to go to Grace and Rene, I think it will help all of you to get over this. I’ll need you both back here soon.”

Before he could stop her, Nikita had launched herself at Operations and grabbing him by the lapels of his jacket, shoved him until his back hit the wall. “You tell Madeline not to call Grace and Rene. I’ll tell them myself. How would you like it to hear that Stephen was dead like that?” She stepped back in astonishment when Operations seemed to wilt in front of her. He slid to the floor and put his head into his hands.

“I did hear about Stephen’s death that way. I understand more than you know...and I heard about Michael’s death that way, too. I’ve lost the son of my body and the son of my heart....” He looked up at a stunned Nikita. “I know how much you miss him. I miss him too, Nikita.”

Quieted by this turn of events, Nikita knelt down and took Operations’ hand. “I’m sorry about Stephen. I liked him, and he loved you, even though he had lost you all those years ago. He never stopped hoping that one day he would find you. I’m so sorry...” An amazed Walter watched as Nikita put her arms around Operations and they grieved together for all that they had lost.

***********

The first inkling I had that something was wrong came just after I heard the car drive up. I knew by the sound of the engine that it was Nikita’s car. I looked out the kitchen window as I dried my hands. I had been canning tomatoes from the garden when I saw the car pull up and stop in the driveway. The next thing I saw was Rene leaping out of his treehouse and running towards the car. He had seen as I had the two figures inside the car. He stopped half way when he saw Nikita and Walter climb out of the car and turn to him. My son slowly started walking to them.

My heart started beating faster. Why was Walter here? Where was Michael? I didn’t like the thoughts that were beginning to invade my brain. “Alex!” I think I shouted. “Alex!” I heard his footsteps come running up behind me as my knees started to give way. He caught me, he always catches me. My hands were still gripping the edge of the kitchen counter and I wouldn’t allow him to pull me away.

“Grace, are you all right? Is it the babies...it’s much too early!” I could hear the fear and concern in his voice. But I was intent on the scene playing out in front of my eyes and I shook my head at Alex.

“No, not the babies....out there...Nikita and Rene. Oh, Alex, I think we have lost Michael....” From that point on, we watched as Nikita took Rene by the shoulders and talked to him. His eyes flew wide in horror at what she was telling him. He began shaking his head from side to side, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Finally, he broke away from her, yelling.

“You’re a liar....I don’t want to hear that! You broke your promise! You promised you would bring my Daddy back to me!” He broke away from her and put his hands over his ears. “I am not listening to you any more!! You’re lying to me....!!” And then he said the words that I knew were coming, “My Daddy isn’t dead, he isn’t and you can’t tell me he is!! I hate you, Nikita, I HATE you!!” Hurling those hurtful words at Nikita, Rene pushed her away from him and ran to his treehouse. We saw Nikita drop to the grass and bury her face in her hands. Walter hurried over to her and enfolded her in his arms. We could see his lips moving as he ran his hand over her head again and again. My heart clenched inside of my chest and I took my own turn at weeping into Alex’s chest. He held me tightly and I never wanted him to let me go. But I had to think of Rene. Oh, my poor son, to lose his father, as young as he was.

“I have to go to him, Alex, please help me.” Alex led me over to the table and pulled one of the chairs out and sat me down.

“Grace, you are not going to climb up in that treehouse in your condition. I don’t think you would fit.” His lame excuse for levity failed miserably when I pinned him with a baleful stare. “Grace, I’m sorry. I just want you to calm yourself before you go out to him. Okay?” I nodded and took his hand and together we walked out to comfort Michael’s son.

**********

Just twenty miles away, a man sat hands and feet bound to a chair, his eyes locked on a monitor where a scene played over and over before him. He looked away occasionally, only to have his face slapped and his head turned once more toward the screen.

A dark figure stood beside him and spoke quietly, “You know, I really should have taken that beauty as well. She would have been useful. She is quite in love with what she thinks is buried beneath all that rubble...And I will admit, that young man was quite the spitting image of you. And so brave. Did you notice how straight and tall he stood right there at the last. He thought it was all a joke.” The figure laughed cruelly. “Well, the joke was most definitely on him. I wonder what he thought as that bullet entered his brain. What would you have thought, if the bullet had entered your brain.” The figure came out of the darkness surrounding the man in the chair. He leaned down, blocking the view of the monitor, his eyes boring into the green eyes of the man bound to the chair. Would you have felt anything, or being the stone-cold killer that you are, would you have just stood there and taken it? Are you thinking that she will come for you?” He laughed his maniacal laugh again. “They think you are dead. No one will come for you, to rescue you or to kill you. YOU are mine, now and forever, and you will know nothing but pain for as long as I choose to keep you alive. You’ve been the thorn in our side for so long, you have cost us so much and now we have you, now we have the Angel of Death, we have you, Michael....

**********

I stood at the bottom of the ladder to Rene’s treehouse, wondering what I could possibly say to make the pain of his loss lessen. I knew his pain would never go away, just as the pain I felt would never ever truly pass from me.

His quiet little voice pierced my thoughts. “What did you say, Rene?” I had almost missed it, so deep in thought was I. Alex stood nearby, but away. He knew Rene and I needed to talk.

“I said, Nikita is wrong. My Daddy isn’t dead. I don’t know who she saw killed, but it wasn’t my Daddy. He’s still alive” I looked up and saw Rene’s head sticking out of the door of his treehouse. He was smiling. I thought I would die from looking at that sweet face, angelic in his faith, steely in its determination.

“Rene,” I began. Rene leapt to his feet and climbed down from his treehouse. He looked over at Alex and smiled at him and then he turned his green eyes back to me.

“It’s true, Mom. I know he’s alive.” By this time, Nikita and Walter had walked over to the treehouse, and tears streaming down her face, Nikita spoke to Rene.

“Honey, I am so sorry that I couldn’t save Michael. I’m so sorry, but your Daddy is gone. I can’t ever bring him back to you. Please, Rene, you have to accept it...please?” Once again, Rene pulled himself from Nikita’s grasp.

“Nobody ever listens to little kids.” he huffed, exasperated with the adults standing around him. “Don’t any of you feel it? I would know if my Daddy was dead! I would feel it! Right here!!” He yelled this last at us, defiant in his conviction, as he pounded the place on his chest which lay over his heart. “I would feel it here, inside of me, but all I feel is my Daddy’s love and I’m telling you that he isn’t dead!!!” Angry tears sprung to his eyes as he realized that it was going to take more that a son’s feeling for his father to convince us that what he said was true. And even as I watched my son, I could see the essence of his father boiling up inside of him to turn each of us to his way of thinking. My son, the leader...

Night was falling and the five of us had moved inside to the family room. No one felt much like eating and so dinner stayed in the refrigerator and went unprepared. We sat quietly, each lost in our individual thoughts of Michael. I remembered the first time I saw Michael, when he and Simone had brought a three-year-old Rene to storytime. Rene was been a chubby bundle of giggles, such a happy child and his father had been so proud of him. Michael’s eyes had shone at every glance he took of his son. Then, there had been those horrible days and weeks when the little family I had begun to think of as mine had failed to show up for Saturday storytimes. I had been breathless with relief when I saw Michael walk into the library to return the books I had picked out for Rene. He was dressed in all black, a color I had never seen him wear before. He told me that Rene was dead, struck by a car and killed as Simone had looked on in horror. We grieved together, and then a few weeks later, he came again to me for comfort, telling me that Simone was gone too. How much could one man take, I thought, first his child and then, his wife. I didn’t know about Section then, about how they callously could strip a child from his parents or a wife from her husband, just so the father could be made to be more focused on his job. He disappeared from my life for a while when he found out that Madeline had been following him and watching him when he came to see me. I thought that I would never see him again...

Madeline had then brought Rene to me and persuaded me to take Michael’s child to raise as my own. The price....Michael’s and Rene’s safety. I came back to the present as I felt Rene laying his head in my lap, actually he laid his head on my leg because at this point, my lap was a thing of the past. He laid there for a few seconds and then he looked up at me in wonder. “They’re kicking me again. How do they always know when I’m here?” Rene smiled. “Mom, you never told Daddy about the twins, did you? He still doesn’t know, does he?” His use of the present tense to refer to Michael tore at me.

I brushed my fingers through the thick black hair so much like his mother’s hair. “No Rene, I didn’t tell him. Does that make you sad?” He looked puzzled.

“No, why should that make me sad. I’ll just tell him when he comes home the next time.” He sat up and looked at each of us, frustrated by the expressions of grief on each or our faces. “My Daddy’s alive and he IS coming home soon. Why can’t you believe that like I do?” I put my arm around him and he laid his head on the wide expanse of my pregnancy. “You two believe me, don’t you. I can wait for you to meet my Daddy. He’s going to be your godfather. You’ll like him. He has green eyes, like me!”

***********

Meanwhile, at the Red Cell compound, Michael was ending a day of pain, with the knowledge that an evening of pain was about to begin. He had been dragged to a room and his wrists had been locked in a pair of sheepskin-lined manacles and he had been hoisted upward, so that his feet were just off the ground. Trying to take some of the pressure off of his arms, he had gripped the chain suspending him, but after an hour of methodical beating by first one and then another Red Cell operative, he had hung limply, grateful for the sheepskin lining of his manacles. The skin on his wrists was still intact. They had let him hang there the rest of the day, if the dwindling light from the boarded up window was any indication. It had been sunny when they had taken him. Now it was almost dark.

He lay where they had dropped him, his arms and legs useless and pale. He could feel them beginning to wake up and he knew that soon he would begin to feel the pins and needle pain as the blood started to surge through his vessels once again. A small pain really, in the larger scheme of things, Michael thought. There are worse things. He took a mental survey of his injuries and decided that nothing had been broken today. That was good, he thought, but then there was tomorrow. The Red Cell leader had harangued him about Section’s sins as well as Michael’s own against Red Cell. His set up and betrayal of both Philo and then Zalman had not exactly endeared him to Red Cell. The leader, who said his name was Hugo, came in to watch as Michael was beaten. And when he had ordered the beating stopped, Hugo had watched in satisfaction as Michael had hung there gasping for each breath. He had walked over and put his fingers in Michael’s hair to pull his head up, so that he could look into Michael’s eyes. “It’s only beginning for you, my friend, are you ready for tomorrow? It only gets worse.” He removed his hands from Michael’s sweat-drenched hair and wiped his hand up and down the side of his pants. As he turned to go, he casually gave orders to Michael’s tormentor. “And, you idiot, remember to immobilize his legs and feet tomorrow. He could kill you with those feet.” Hugo turned back to Michael and struck him across the face with the back of his hand. “And that reminds me. That’s for depleting my forces of our best and brightest during our little war a couple of years ago. Thanks to you, I have to make due with this rabble.” He gestured to the tormentor, and then hit Michael again. “You really do annoy me. Don’t you ever give into the pain.” It was all Michael could do to raise his head and stare silently back at Hugo.

“Two hours tomorrow, nothing permanent, and don’t forget what I said about his feet.” Hugo walked slowly out of the door and Michael’s tormentor sneered at him, just before Michael wrapped his legs around the man’s neck and, with a slight jerk, he smiled when he heard the crunching of bones. The man dropped like a stone. Michael’s satisfaction of what he had done lasted only until another guard came in and found the body. The last thing that Michael remembered was the butt of the guard’s gun rushing at his head, and then, nothing but darkness.

**********

It had been close to midnight when they had all decided to try and get some sleep. I had tucked Rene in and sat on the side of his bed and he sleepily looked up at me. “Mom, why does everyone, even you, think I’m crazy for trying to tell you my Daddy is alive?” I didn’t know what to tell him, so I leaned over, kissed him, and tried to say something that made sense.

“It’s a defense mechanism of the body, Rene. When something so awful happens, like what happened to your Daddy, your brain just doesn’t want to accept it, so to help you deal with it, it tries to protect you and so you end up thinking it’s all just got to be a lie, or a bad dream. I know it’s hard for you to accept, but no one thinks you’re crazy. You just love your Daddy so much that your brain is trying to give you a little time to learn to deal with what you lost. Does that make any sense at all? Rene, not one of us wants to believe that Michael is gone. We ache for him and want him back with us, but sometimes we have to accept and deal with the unacceptable.”

“But Mom, I do ache for Daddy, but it’s not a sad ache, it’s a happy, I’ll-be seeing-you-soon ache. I think my heart would hurt if I knew Daddy was never coming back, but it doesn’t hurt that way. It’s telling me to hold on and wait and not give up on him. I can’t accept what my heart tells me is not true. Daddy is still alive!” I smoothed the covers on his bed and kissed him goodnight.

“We’ll talk more tomorrow, Rene. Now, get some sleep.” He smiled and closed his eyes and I sat with him until his breathing evened out and I only left his side when I was sure he was asleep. Alex was waiting for me in the doorway and put his arms around me when I came to him. “Alex, what are we going to do? He seems so sure of himself. I can’t stand this, and the kiddies are kicking up a storm. Do you think that they are trying to tell us to listen to Rene?” We stood there a few minutes with our eyes closed, feeling the tremors raging across my belly.

“No, Grace. I think it’s just soccer practice.” He held me and kissed my forehead. “Let’s take our family to bed.”

***********

Rene awoke in a panic just before dawn. “They’re hurting my Daddy!” He yelled. “They’re beating him! Make them stop....make them stop!” Walter was the first to reach him, closely followed by Nikita. They sat on his bed and together, they tried to quiet him, but nothing seemed to help. Rene tossed and turned fighting something that wasn’t there. He kept yelling for someone to help his father, for someone to help Michael.

Finally, Walter took the initiative, closed his eyes for a few seconds and quickly and sharply slapped Rene once. He quieted immediately and collapsed into Nikita’s arms, crying softly.

“Hey, kid,” Walter said soothingly, “I’m sorry I had to do that.”

Rene peered up at Walter through the curtain of Nikita’s blond hair. “It’s okay, Uncle Walter, but can’t you please help my Daddy. The dragons are beating on him, and he is hurting a lot. Please, Uncle Walter!”

Walter stared at the child, unable to do anything to stop his anguish. He looked at Nikita who holding Rene in her arms and rocking him, consumed by her own grief.

“How do I convince you that my Daddy is alive?” he shouted at them through his tears. “How...how?” Rene suddenly sat up, and grabbed Nikita’s hands. “Nikita, tell me everything that you saw that made you think whoever got killed was my Daddy! How do you know it was him?”

Incredulous that Rene would ask for such details of his father’s death, Nikita simply said, “Rene, I saw it happen. I saw Michael die. And, I am not going to do a blow-by-blow account, not even for you. You don’t need those images in your head. No one your age should even know about the details of someone’s death. No, I won’t do it. Don’t ask me to relive those last moments.....Please!” She pulled her hands away from Rene’s grasp and covered her face with them. “Please, Rene, I can’t!”

“Nikita, I don’t want to hurt you, really I don’t, but I have to know. I have to....” In the end, Rene’s persistence paid off. When I walked into Rene’s room to check on him, I heard Nikita telling my son how his father had died.

**********

Michael began his third day with Red Cell by being kicked awake. He knew that this time their would be broken ribs to add to the extensive bruising on his torso. He tried to tighten his stomach to lessen the impact of the multiple blows but after a while, he no longer was aware of the beating he was taking.

Hugo looked on with a smile on his face. It was gratifying to watch Section’s best suffer. Philo had been his mentor, so watching the man who had delivered Philo to Section being punished was a pleasure to him. When he observed that Michael was unconscious, he again stopped the beating. The burly guard was sweating profusely and was glad to stop kicking the man on the floor, but he also derived a certain amount of satisfaction to have been the one chosen to deliver the punishment. This man had killed a friend of his and this beating had been payback for his friend. He looked at Hugo for further instructions.

“Let him lay there for a couple of hours and then come back and hang him up for a bit. I’ll let you know what to do next. Oh, and don’t make the same mistake your buddy did. Anchor his feet so he can’t kick out at you. Your predecessor is dead because he was stupid. Listen to me and maybe you will live longer than he did.” As soon as Hugo left the room, the guard spat at where Hugo had stood. He treats us all like stupid buffoons, the guard thought, I’ll show him. He turned dark eyes toward Michael’s inert form lying face down on the floor.

“He doesn’t want you kicking anyone, does he? Well, I can fix you so you won’t be kicking anyone for quite awhile.” He grinned malevolently as he put the tip of his boot under Michael and flipped him over onto his back, then he picked up his rifle where he had left in by the door. Turning the rifle in his hands, so that he held the barrel, he raised the rifle over his head, club-fashion, and then brought in down with such force onto Michael’s legs that he laughed when he heard the bones in each of Michael’s legs break. “You won’t be going anywhere for a long time.” Pleased at what he had just done, he followed his instructions and manacled Michael’s ankles in shackles and attached a length of rope first to the shackles and then to an iron ring that had been imbedded in the stone floor. Throwing an “I’ll be back!” over his shoulder, he left the room whistling.

**********

When Michael awoke, he groaned. Every inch of his body cried out in agony. He attempted to roll over onto his stomach to push himself up to a sitting position, and almost screamed out at the paroxysm of pain that gripped him. As quickly as he could, he resumed the position in which he had awakened. The pain lessened only slightly. He took several deep breaths to try and calm the throbbing and fiery pain in his legs. Michael didn’t remember being kicked hard enough this morning to have suffered broken legs. Sighing, he dropped his head to the cold stone of the floor. He didn’t know how much more he could take, and tried to face his immediate, very bleak future.

***********

“My God, Nikita, what are you doing?!” I had just heard her telling Rene that she had watched as Michael had come stumbling out of the abandoned building and had raised his hand to her when he heard her yell his name. The three of them, Rene, Nikita and Walter, looked startled when they heard my voice from the door of Rene’s room. “What are you telling my son? He’s a child, he doesn’t need to hear this!” I was appalled that Nikita was describing to Rene the last seconds of his father’s life.

Rene regarded me with huge eyes, red from weeping. “Mom, I asked her to tell me and, at first, she wouldn’t tell me. I begged her, Mom. Please don’t be mad at me...Please!” He jumped off the bed and ran over to me, grabbing my hand and pulling me further into the room. He led me to a chair next to his bed and gestured for me to sit down. As I sat down, I remembered that this same chair had been the one that Michael had been sitting in when I discovered him over two years ago and an ocean away, sitting next to a six-year-old Rene and singing the restless child back to sleep. That had been the first time I had seen Michael since Madeline had given Rene to me and sent me far away from Michael. I had thought I would never see Michael again. Yet, he had found us and had quieted his son’s bad dreams that night, and reestablished his relationship with a son that we both had thought lost to Michael.

And here I sat, in the chair that Michael had used to sing a lullaby to his newly-found son. I wished he was here now, to quiet Rene’s fears once again, but I knew that was impossible. I looked into my son’s eyes and saw that his fears were for his father’s safety, and not the grief of a son who had lost his father to death. His green eyes were shining with the fervor of one who knew he was right, a child who knew his father was still alive somewhere out there. Was it possible? No, of course not. Nikita had seen Michael die.....or had she?

“Mom, I have to know. You know that I have to hear it, don’t you?” He still held my hand, and I turned my face to him and away from my gloomy thoughts.

“Yes, Rene, I know.” I pulled him into my arms and hugged him, and then looked over to where Nikita sat, with Walter’s arm around her. She was beautiful, even with her face streaked with tears of sorrow and heartache. “Nikita, go on, tell us and don’t leave out any details.”

She looked from me to Rene and started from the beginning....

*******

Hugo returned to Michael, grinning at the thought of his continued suffering. With no major injuries to Michael, Hugo knew he could take a long time in exacting his revenge for the losses to himself and his organization. He really wasn’t interested in any of the intel that Michael possessed. Although it would be a bonus, if he could glean any information from the Section operative. Hugo smiled as he unbolted the door and walked into Michael’s cell.

Strange, he thought, the target of his hatred was still laying where he had been when Hugo had left him a few hours ago. At least that oaf of a guard had secured Michael’s feet. It rankled Hugo that even here, Michael could still manage to take out one of his men. Hugo walked up to the still form on the floor and used his foot to nudge one of Michael’s legs. He started in surprise when instead of the defiant look he had expected from Michael, he heard a groan emanating from Michael’s lips, and saw a grimace of pain in the man’s pale face. Hugo bent down and touched Michael’s forehead, and felt the hot dry skin. He straightened up and looked down at Michael’s leg and took a step back when he noticed the unnatural angle of the lower limb.

In a rage, he marched to the door and called for the guard. No one damaged his property unless he ordered it.

***********

Alex had joined us in Rene’s room by the time that Nikita had told her story for the second time. He had very carefully lowered himself to sit on the floor by my chair, and listened intently to all the details as Nikita related again what happened. He stopped her a few times to ask questions to clarify what she had said. Alex was puzzled that whoever had shot Michael did not follow him out of the building. Why had they stayed inside? And who had given the order to detonate the explosives? That was Michael’s order to give. This and many other anomalies were slowly making skeptics of all of us. Rene’s eyes glimmered with rays of hope. He knew he was winning us over to his way of thinking. He smiled a secret little smile and I began to believe....

“Nikita!” Rene shouted suddenly. “Tell me. When that man raised his hand to you, which hand was it?” He waited as she closed her eyes and thought about his question. She unconsciously raised her right hand slightly and then put it down in her lap and quickly raised her left hand.

“Left,” she said. “He raised his left hand, “up high, like this.” She copied the gesture from her memory. She opened her eyes and peered at Rene. “Why?”

“Okay,” he whispered, excitement held on a tight rein, his body trembling with it. “Did you see his watch?” She again turned her thoughts inward, thinking back. Her eyes flew wide. “I don’t remember seeing a watch...but, but Michael wears two watches on his left wrist! Oh, Rene!! There wasn’t a watch, there wasn’t a watch!!” The two of them, Rene and Nikita, met in the middle of his room, hugging and laughing and finally collapsing on to the floor. The rest of us, stared at them in amazement, beginning to understand the revelation that had come to them. Sam, Rene’s dog, had joined the pile on the floor, and he was gifting both Nikita and Rene with copious face washing, doggy style.

Walter was grinning from ear to ear, happy to see the joy in his Sugar’s eyes. He almost hated to burst the bubble of happiness permeating the room. I happened to glance over at Walter and saw the smile fade from his face. I gripped Alex’s hand tighter and he looked up at me, and seeing the direction of my gaze, followed it.

“Walter, what are you thinking? Tell us.” Alex said, his voice piercing the happy noise in the room. Nikita stopped her play with Rene and sat up, looking toward Walter and holding Rene in her arms, trying to still him, as she tried to decipher the serious look on his face.

“Well, if we believe that Michael is alive, then we have to ask the next most obvious question. Why would someone go to so much trouble to make us think he is dead? What do they want with Michael? I’m sorry, folks, but we aren’t out of the woods on this thing yet.” He paused, his old blue eyes glancing at each of us. “We have to contact Section. We need their help.”

I looked at Alex and I could see his mind working. I knew what he was thinking. Michael was a treasure chest of information about Section. If Section knew Michael had been compromised and taken by an unknown group, they just might decide to cut their losses and the mission to rescue him could just as well be a mission to silence him. I knew that this was what Walter was thinking as well, and now I could see the apprehension growing on Nikita’s face as well. Alone, Rene grinned up at us, confident that his father would soon be back with us.

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

Alone once more in his cell, Michael pondered his fate. He was feverish and felt hot, even though the cold from the stone floor should have helped to cool him down. Images swirled in his mind and he wondered how long he had lain where he was. He knew he was drifting in and out of consciousness, and in one of his wakeful moments, he had heard yelling outside the door to his cell. Hugo was the one doing the yelling and then he heard someone, the guard, he thought, pleading with Hugo. Michael was brought full awake when he heard the sharp, loud report of a gunshot, and the pleading voice of the guard stopped. Good, he thought, one more down. Michael let his head fall to the right, his cheek seeking the coolness of the stone, and his last conscious thought was of Rene. He wondered if Section would still protect Rene, Grace and Alex when they learned of his death. He longed to shift his weigh, but any movement caused him pain. He smiled then, knowing the darkness he was surrendering to would take away his pain.

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

“Just do it, Birkoff! I don’t care what they think. Now, check the mission video and tell me whether or not Michael was wearing two watches just before the explosion. Also get a close-up on his face and enhance it. I need to know if it matches what we have on file of Michael.” Nikita sat in the floor with Rene’s head propped in her lap. The excitement of the last hour had been too much for him and after listening to the adults talking over the details, Rene eyes had started to droop. As exhilarated as he was, he just could not stay awake and had laid down, still listening to our discussion of the whys and hows of what must have happened to Michael. Soon, he was fast asleep with his head in Nikita’s lap.

Our discussion went on but we lowered our voices for his sake. Alex spoke quietly, “The most plausible cause for Michael’s staged death and kidnapping is so the enemy can interrogate at will and extract information. The longer they have him, the more likely they are to break and compromise him. We need to get to him as soon as we can.”

“WE, read you, are not going to get anyone. You are not strong enough and, Alex, you are not going anywhere without me! Do you understand me?” I had decided that, God help me, Alex was more important to me and our babies, and I was not going to let him go anywhere without me. I didn’t know at the time just how many of my words I was going to have thrown back in my face.

Alex dipped his head and took my hand. “I realize that I am no longer a cold op, Grace. But I know how missions work and I can help plan this one, can’t I?” I sniffed and shook my head.

“Alex Carson, what AM I going to do with you?” I brought his hand up to my lips and kissed it. Still seated on the floor, he slid closer to me and settled into the vee formed by my legs and leaned back against my tummy. He closed his eyes and smiled, then opened them and leaned his head as far back as he could so he could look up at me.

“Grace, my love, I think that whatever is to be done has been done already and the proof of it is lying here between us.....See, they agree!” He laughed up at me and leaned back once more so that he could feel his children moving inside of me. I kissed the top of his blond head and admonished him.

“All right, Alex, but planning only! Don’t even think about going on a mission, even if it is to save Michael. He wouldn’t thank you to know that you risked his godchildren’s father.” I looked up to find both Walter and Nikita regarding us with broad smiles on their faces.

“Nice, huh, Sugar?” Nikita ducked her head to keep us from seeing the tears that were threatening in her blue eyes.

“Yeah, Walter, nice.” I knew she was thinking about Michael....

***********

At that same moment, Hugo sat in his makeshift office, not knowing that the key to Michael’s secrets and his lifeblood was a scant half-hour’s travel away. He was deep in thought, contemplating his next move. The stupid guard that he had killed had injured his captive far worse than he had intended. And now, Michael was burning up with fever and in far more pain that even Hugo had planned for him. The man at the dusty table that served as his desk laughed, and thought to himself, that Section bastard deserved whatever pain he was feeling. Philo had been his mentor and he mourned the loss of the man who had been like a father to him. Hugo had looked forward to many days of tormenting the man who had delivered Philo to the bowels of Section and he didn’t want to be deprived of his cold vengeance. The fever that burned within Michael would probably kill the Section operative and take away Hugo’s fun. He had to figure a way out of this that would save Michael for the hell that Hugo had charted for him.

***********

“Nikita?” Nikita’s head jerked up when she heard Birkoff’s voice in the cell phone.

“Yes, Birkoff? What do you have?” she demanded.

“Well, I have an anomaly here. I....I don’t understand. Just a minute....” He went off-line and Nikita jerked the phone away from her ear and stared at it as if it had offended her. Then, huffing a sigh, she put it back to her ear and was surprised to hear Madeline’s voice instead of Birkoff’s.

“Nikita, who is there with you?” Madeline asked smoothly, but Nikita could hear a faint agitation in Madeline’s voice. “Is everyone there with you?”

“Yes, Madeline, everyone is here with me.” Nikita said clearly and slowly, catching the eye of everyone in the room. She looked down at the angelic child who was still sleeping, still oblivious to the words being spoken over him. My breath caught in my throat and I suddenly realized just how tightly I was gripping Alex’s hand when I felt him cover my hand with his other hand. The tension in the room was growing to unbearable heights. Nikita listened to what Madeline was saying, her face beaming with unrestrained joy and then darkening with concern, and a touch of fear. “I understand, but why......yes, I’ll tell them. We’ll be on our way within the hour.” She paused, pulling her eyebrows together in another frown. “I’ll do it.....I know that Madeline, but I’m here....now! Yes, of course, I’ll be careful. Just a minute.” She took the phone from her ear and turned to Walter. “Walter, do you have a PDA with you?” Walter pulled an electronic gadget of some kind out of his pocket and waved it at her. “Yes, Madeline, Walter has his pad....All right. I understand, I’ll be careful. Goodbye.” She pressed the End button on the phone and leaned over and kissed Rene on his head and threw back her own head and laughed. “It’s confirmed. Whoever it was that I saw killed, it wasn’t Michael! Birkoff opened Michael’s file. He had closed it without looking at it when he got back from the mission. When he opened it and checked his tracker, he saw that it had moved away from the area of the explosion.”

“His tracker? I don’t understand.” I was puzzled. Alex turned and kissed the bulge of our babies, and then explained things to me.

“Grace, each operative has a tracker implanted inside their bodies. It ceases operation when the operative dies. It helps us locate the ops that go missing. If Michael’s tracker moved after Nikita saw him killed, then that means that it wasn’t Michael that died.” Alex swung his head back toward Nikita. “Tell us the rest....what did you mean when you said that we would be on our way within the hour? And what is Madeline transmitting to Walter’s pad?”

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

“Tell us, Nikita....” Alex persisted, wanting Nikita to tell us what Madeline had told her about Michael and his location.

“Alex, Birkoff pinpointed Michael’s tracker. That is why she wants you, Grace and Rene to go to Section for a few days.” She paused and we leaned forward expectantly, waiting for her to continue. She watched us, trying to gauge the impact of her next words. Birkoff established that Michael had been moved a considerable distance from the location from where he was taken. “At this moment, Michael is less than a half-hour’s travel from us.”

Nikita’s bombshell of information left us stunned. “He is in a small village about twenty miles from here, in what we think is a small compound that was purchased by a holding company controlled by Red Cell. Madeline thinks he is being kept there for preliminary interrogation. A profile is being planned as we speak. Walter and I are going to do a little reconnaissance in advance of a team being sent in.” Nikita stopped and smiled a little.

“What is it? What are you thinking?” I asked, curious at the cause for that sweet, sad smile. I knew it concerned Michael.

“It’s nothing, really,” she answered. “I was just thinking of how much I loved hearing Michael’s voice. I love his accent, and the way he pronounced ‘reconnaissance’ used to make my spine tingle.” She sniffed and I watched as her eyes started to tear up once more. “I just hope I get to hear his beautiful voice again.”

Rene was still asleep, with his head in her lap. She leaned down and kissed him on the temple, as if contact with Michael’s son would transmit her love and concern for Rene’s father across the twenty miles to him. I looked around the room and caught tears glistening in both Walter’s eyes as well as Alex’s. I resolved at that moment that I would storm the gates of hell if it would bring Michael back to the embrace of his family.

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

Twenty miles away, Hugo made a decision. He picked up the hand radio, keyed it to speak and barked out an order. “Red, bring your buddy and meet me in the hallway outside Michael’s cell. I have a job for you...and bring your bag with you.

Five minutes later, Hugo was pacing back and forth outside the cell where a feverish and ill Michael lay. Hugo could hear the short shallow breaths coming from the man inside the room, and he raged inside of himself. He hated this man, wanted him to suffer even more than he was now, and here he was stomping around outside Michael’s cell waiting for someone who might just give him his wish. Two figures appeared at the end of the hall. They walked in tandem, each taking surprisingly long strides.

“Red, finally. I have been waiting for you. I have a job for the two of you.” They nodded and looked at Hugo eagerly. Red and her friend, Psycho, were Hugo’s top interrogation specialists and they carried out any task he gave them enthusiastically and efficiently. Red and Psycho prided themselves on delivering on any instructions given to them by Hugo.

“Is it our turn with the famous Michael?” Red asked.

“Do we get to work our wonders on him?” asked Psycho, unconsciously rubbing her hands together.

Hugo smiled at their eagerness to practice their talents on his prisoner. “Yes, I would like it very much for you to work your wonders on him. But not just yet. I want the two of you to take a look at him first. One of my....former employees damaged him a bit more than I had planned. I want your opinion of his condition. He has a fever and I want to know how long he will last. I have plans for our Michael, and those plans call for him to be healthy enough for his punishment to last a long time.” Hugo laughed. “Check him out and let me know what you think.” With that said, he turned and walked away from the two women.

Red looked at Psycho and silently they entered the unlocked door of the cell. They were surprised that the door was unlocked. Red and Psycho had heard many stories about the legendary Michael, and couldn’t imagine keeping him in an unlocked cell. The sight that greeted them as they entered the dark room where Michael lay so still made them understand very quickly why a locked door was so unnecessary to imprison the formidable Michael of Section One.

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

Both Nikita and Alex tried to calm me down. To know that Michael was so close, yet so far away worried me. Also, the fact that Red Cell was in such close proximity to Rene set me to packing quickly. Clothes were literally thrown into bags. I moved as quickly as my heavily pregnant body could. To get in my path meant to be run down by a juggernaut Mom concerned for the safety of her family. Nikita followed me around trying to tell me that it was probably just a coincidence that the Red Cell base was so close to us. For once, no one was getting an argument from me about going back to Section. If running kept my son, my unborn babies and my husband safe, then I was all for running. “Calm down, Grace! Everything is going to be all right. We will get Michael out. He will be okay.”

I stopped what I was doing to stare at her. “Nikita, I know you will get Michael out if you can. That’s not what is driving me. I know that Red Cell probably doesn’t even know that Rene exists, but do you know what Red Cell would do if they got their hands on Rene? Michael and Section will be an open book to them, and you know they would do anything to Rene to get Michael to talk. I’m not taking a chance with Rene’s life. I know that I am panicking, but I can’t help it. I want to get him somewhere safe, and right now the safest place I can think of is Section.” Nikita tried her best at calming my fears and finally gave up. She had a mission to prepare. She and Walter were going to do the preliminary on-site reconnaissance in advance of the Section team that was now being prepared.

Alex was issuing orders to his second in command to secure the grounds of the Center while I packed for our hopefully short stay at Section. A shocked Rene was silently gathering Sam’s food and water bowls into a carrier. He also dragged a sizable bag of dog food into the kitchen. I took a minute to reflect on the effect that Sam, a rambunctious young Golden Retriever, was going to have on Section. I knew we should leave him here with the Center staff, but the next few hours and days might be hard on Rene and he might need a friend. So, Sam was going to be introduced to Operations and Madeline. If they didn’t like it, they could just get over it.

************** Red and Psycho moved quietly into the cell, observing as they went the ashen face of Section’s most deadly Angel of Death. “He doesn’t look like the stuff of legend, does he,” whispered Psycho. Red knelt by the man on the floor of the cell and carefully placed her hand on his forehead. When he moaned slightly and moved his head under her hand, she snatched it away. Red looked up at Psycho and said urgently, “He’s burning up with fever.” Then quietly, she commented to her partner...”He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” Again she reached out and touched his forehead, combing her hand through his hair. Psycho threw a puzzled look at Red and knelt down by Michael, brushing the backs of her fingers down his cheek. “Yes,” she replied feeling the hot, dry skin, “so beautiful, but so sick.” She moved down to Michael’s legs and ran her hand down first his right leg, feeling the break about mid way between his knee and his foot. At her touch, Michael inhaled involuntarily, the sound echoing in the cell, his breath hissing from between his clenched teeth. “So much pain...” she said to herself. She continued her examination, moving to the left leg and finding an edge of broken bone puncturing the skin of his leg. The wound was infected and the flesh around the protruding end of bone was red and angry-looking. “Oh, Red,” she said, “setting this is going to be very painful. And he needs more than us to help him recover from the fever. He needs to be in a hospital, under a doctor’s care.”

Red sighed, knowing Hugo wasn’t going to like hearing that. Purposefully, she arose from her kneeling position beside Michael, and went to where she had put her bag on the floor next to the door. Bringing it back to Michael, she set it down next to him and opened it. Looking behind her at the door to make sure that Hugo was still pacing outside, Red silently removed a black case and opened it. Psycho blinked as she saw what her partner was doing. “But Hugo wants him to suffer. Red, you can’t do that!” She moved to stop Red from taking the syringe out of the case.

Red glared at her friend. “He will still hurt, just not as much. Hugo will still get his pound of flesh.”

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

Hugo spun around at the hoarse shout of pain that came from Michael’s cell. He ran to the door and found himself wincing at the scene before him. Odd, he thought, why am I feeling sorry for this man? Hugo watched as the two women worked over Michael, one holding Michael down and the other pulling on his right leg to straighten and set the broken bone. Michael’s face was contorted in pain, but after his initial outcry of pain, he had somehow calmed himself and turned his head to regard Hugo blankly, with pain glittering in his green eyes, and again Hugo felt a rush of pity for the pain that Michael was experiencing. I’m getting soft, Hugo told himself. I should be happy that he is suffering. What was it about this man, that Hugo should sense this uncharacteristic sympathy for one who had been responsible for the deaths of Philo, Zalman, two of his men and countless other Red Cell operatives? As Hugo watched, Red and Psycho continued their work and after a few strenuous minutes, they had straightened and set Michael’s other leg. He noticed that there was also a clean bandage wrapped around Michael’s left shin, where the bone had protruded through his flesh. Bile worked in his throat and he swallowed hard, furious with himself for what he was feeling. Now, as Psycho continued to hold a weakly struggling Michael down, Red applied splints to both legs and immobilized them as much as she could. She looked up at Hugo and used one hand to brush back her hair, damp with perspiration and sticking to her forehead.

“This is all we can do for him. He needs a doctor. We don’t have the antibiotics that he needs to fight the fever. If you don’t get him to a doctor, he’ll die and you will lose your punching bag.

Hugo stared down at the two women and took a deep breath. “I’ll see what I can do. I don’t want to lose my prize just yet.” And as if he had to prove that he had no feelings for the suffering of the man on the floor, Hugo flippantly walked over and nudged Michael with his foot. “Is he still experiencing pain? You didn’t give him anything, did you?”

“No, of course not, we followed your instructions to the letter. He continues to suffer, he just knows how to control the pain.” Red gestured at the manacles still tightly locked around Michael’s wrists. “Are these really necessary? This man is going nowhere in his condition.” Psycho glanced up at her partner, trying to decide what was going on in her head. She had never seen Red show such concern for one of their charges. Why was she so worried about this man, as beautiful as he was or not?

“Leave them on. He is very unpredictable. He could kill the two of you before you could react. In the meantime, watch him. I don’t want him dying on me yet.” With that said, Hugo looked down his nose at Michael once more and then turned and left the cell.

As Red and Psycho watched, Michael shivered and set his green gaze on them. “Why?” was all he asked. The two women looked at each other and then back at him.

“I don’t know....maybe after all I have done and seen, I just don’t want to cause anyone any more pain. I’m only 32 and I feel like I’m ancient.” Red hung her head and sighed. Psycho, feeling sympathy for her partner, squeezed her arm, but looked puzzled at Red’s words. But even as Red reached into the black bag beside her to prepare another injection, Psycho said nothing, and only nodded as Red questioned her with a look that asked, are you okay with what I am doing?

When the needle slid into his arm, Michael felt the lethargic sensation overtake him and as he allowed himself to drift off into the velvety darkness of a respite from the pain and fever, he heard himself whisper, “Thank you, Red.....” And was surprised to feel a soothing touch glide across his forehead.

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

Nikita and Walter surveyed the small village from their vantage point just inside the tree line outside of the village. They crouched behind a thick stand of brush and reread the information transmitted to them on Walter’s PDA. Nikita closed her eyes and remembered the pained expression in Rene’s eyes when she buckled him into the back seat of the Land Rover. “You’ll find my Daddy, won’t you, Nikita?” She kissed him on his forehead and made another promise...

“Of course, I will find him, Rene. I want him back as much as you do.....Tell you what! When I get Michael back, we’ll have another sleepover. How about that?” Nikita ruffled his black hair and lifted his chin to look into the green eyes so like Michael’s. “You believe me, don’t you?”

Rene raised his child’s trusting eyes and smiled at Nikita. “Sure! I know how much you love my Daddy, Nikita. I know you will bring him back to me!” Nikita blinked back the tears that stung her eyes and hoped with all her might that she was not telling another lie to Michael’s son. She would bring Michael back to Rene, or she would die trying. She felt a hand on her arm and lifted her glistening eyes to see Grace leaning over the front seat back. Grace was smiling.

“Nikita, we know you will do your best. Be careful. We want you back too.” Nikita grinned back at Grace and kissed her hand.

“Grace, if he goes, I go...I won’t come back without him. I love him too much.” Grace eyes flew wide at Nikita’s comment. She knew what Nikita meant by her words.

“Nikita, wait for the team. You can’t do it all yourself. Don’t take any chances with yourself or with Michael...He won’t thank you for risking yourself for him....!”

“Grace, I’ll be careful...I intend to spend the rest of my life with Michael, however long, or short, it may be....and I want it to be as long as possible.” She pulled her hand from Grace’s tight grasp and kissed Rene one last time. “I’m going to find your Daddy, now. Wish me luck, Rene!” She hugged him tightly, closed the back door to the Land Rover and watched as Alex started the engine and pulled out of the driveway. She waved at Rene and kept waving until he and the Land Rover were out of sight. With a heavy sigh, she walked over to where Walter had assembled their gear. Some of it came from the back of Walter’s car and the rest of it came from the small arsenal that Alex kept in the basement of the Rehab Center. Nikita shook her head at the collection of materiel. Alex must have been a boy scout in his former life, his motto must be ‘Always prepared.’ They had enough supplies and firepower to fight a small army. She hoped it didn’t come to that.

Nikita unclenched her hands and focused on the PDA. It indicated that a small cluster of buildings on the west side of the village was the most likely place where Michael was being held. Nothing in this village had changed hands in years, except for the small compound on the village’s west side. Intel also indicated that the villagers shunned whoever had purchased the compound. They didn’t like change, so they pretended that the buildings were no longer a part of their village. Reports to regional authorities from some of the villagers reported strange sounds in the night, but no one had investigated. Everyone kept to themselves. They didn’t pry into the affairs of the new owners of the buildings on the west side of their homes.

Nikita intended to pry and to pry aggressively. Walter clapped his hand over her forearm as she rose and started forward. “Nikita, remember that this is a recon mission. No contact. Just see what is what and come back here. If Michael is there, leave him and wait for the team. Don’t try anything, Sugar. I want both of you back. You know this is the way Michael would do it. Wait...for...the...team. Okay?” Walter’s faded blue eyes stared relentlessly into Nikita’s bright blue ones. “Okay?” he repeated, his grip tightening painfully on her arm.

She tugged at her arm and gazed balefully at Walter. “If I can’t get him out, I will, Walter. You know I won’t take any chances with his life. Now, let go of me!!” Finally, he opened his fingers and let go of her arm. “If I have bruises, I’m going to tell Michael on you!” She grinned and leaned over to kiss Walter on the cheek. “I’ll be careful. You know me!”

“Yeah, Sugar. I know you...that’s why I am telling you to be careful.” He grinned and watched as she moved stealthily through the darkness. It had been difficult for Walter to persuade her to wait for the sun to set, but eventually she listened to him, knowing he was right in his plan for the recon mission. Stubborn, she was, he thought, bull-headed also, but he had never known a better person that his Sugar, Nikita. Walter settled down to wait. It was going to be a long night. The team was on its way, but he didn’t expect them for another hour, maybe more. By that time, Nikita should be back with the lay of the land. Again, he hoped she would be careful, and then, he smiled to himself. Yeah, sure, she would be.

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

Nikita used the shadows to move. She watched the guards on their rounds and knew that they didn’t expect any trouble. They were lax, and not very observant of what was going on around them. They were more interested in smoking and talking than they were watching. Good, she thought, that would help her to find Michael.

She found him in the second building she checked. Nikita heard voices, and fled into the dark shadows and listened. A man and two women were arguing outside of a small building that looked as if it had once been a stable.

One of the women was arguing vehemently with the man. “Hugo, I am telling you that if you don’t get a doctor for him soon, he will die. His fever is raging and he is dehydrated. At least let me give him water. I know you want him to suffer, but he has to be alive to do that!” The three of them walked toward a building across the compound from the stable, the man saying something that Nikita couldn’t hear, but it must have been something that the woman wanted to hear because she quit talking and Nikita saw her turn to the other woman and nod. They disappeared into the other building and Nikita used the shadows once more to glide unseen into the stables. She found Michael in what must have once been the tack room. No bridles or other tack hung in the room, but Nikita heard a sound and looked up at the ceiling of the room. A chain hung there from some sort of pulley, and it clanked at it swayed to and fro. Curious at what caused the movement, her eyes followed the chain down, and there, on the floor, she saw that the chain ended with a set of manacles. And then she saw the hands, encased in the sheepskin lined manacles. The hands had been pulled over his head and lay on the floor, unmoving. Her gaze slid down the arms and her stomach seemed to clench as she saw Michael’s face, one temple encrusted with dried blood. She gave a small cry and ran over to him and dropped to her knees on the hard stone floor. She didn’t feel a thing as her knees connected with the floor. She carefully pulled his arms from their position over his head, grateful for the extra length of the chain that imprisoned them, and gently laid his bound hands on his chest. She watched as his mouth tightened in pain and then, fearful that she would cause him more pain, Nikita cautiously pulled Michael into her arms and murmured his name.....and then, in anguish, she said outloud...”My God, Michael, what have they done to you?” Some of her tears splashed onto his face and, as if recognizing where the tears had come from, Michael opened his pain-glazed eyes and said her name, “Nikita.”

Chapter 28

Nikita let out the sob she had been holding in when she heard Michael say her name. “Michael...Michael,” she said, over and over again, as if repeating his name would bring him back to her. He was looking at her, but it was as if he didn’t see her, his eyes seemed to be unfocused, and dark with fever and pain.

“Nikita? Where are you? Why did you leave me?” Michael’s face contorted in pain and he closed his eyes. Nikita bend over him and kissed his eyes, his lips and then, his forehead. The words that she had heard spoken outside came back to her full force when she pressed her lips to Michael’s forehead.

“...he will die. His fever is raging...” the woman had said. Nikita’s hand replaced her lips as she felt the hot, dry skin of Michael’s face.

“Oh, Michael, you’re burning up!” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a bottle of water which she opened and very carefully brought to Michael’s lips. He drank eagerly and she saw him smile slightly when she pulled the bottle back, concerned that he might start to choke.

“May I have more if I’m a good boy?” he said, “I’m so thirsty....please, may I have more...?” She poured some of the cool water on his forehead and watched as it ran down the sides of his face and into his hair. He smiled again, and once more opened his eyes. This time they focused on her face so close to his own. “Nikita? What are you doing here?” She let out the breath she had been holding, and kissed him again.

“Thank God, Michael....we have to get out of here...come on.” She froze in her effort to pull him up as he cried out in pain and collapsed into her arms. Terrified that she had hurt him, Nikita did a quick survey of his chest, running her fingers lightly over the mission T-shirt and for the first time felt the broken ribs and looking down the length of his body, saw the splints on his legs. The sight chilled her to the bone. How was she going to get him out of here with his broken legs? Nikita looked into Michael’s face and she saw in his eyes the answer, even as she heard it from his lips.

“You can’t get me out of here, Nikita. You have to leave me and go. I can’t walk and you can’t carry me. Leave me, Nikita. You have to...” Michael lifted his manacled hands and wiped a few of her tears from her face. “I will always love you. Will you tell Rene that I loved him to the end? Please?”

“No, Michael. I won’t tell him that because I am going to get you out of here. We are going home. I’ll figure out a way. I have to....I have to.” Nikita looked around the room, as if she could find something to help her get Michael on his feet, but she didn’t find anything and then she knew that what he said was true...She couldn’t get him out, not by herself. She laid her cheek against his forehead, felt the heat there and wept in her frustration. “I’m not going anywhere, love. I’m staying right here with you.” She held him to her more fiercely, rocking him back and forth, vowing to herself to never let him go again.

“Please, Nikita. I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you. You can’t let them take you. You know they will use you against me. I can take anything they do to me, but I can’t take what they would do to you. Please, Nikita, you have to go and leave me. Now!” Michael pressed his face into her breast and seemed to find some short respite from the pain. He kept repeating, Please, Nikita, please. And Nikita thought her heart would break if he said it one more time.

“I don’t want to leave you, Michael. Please don’t make me.” Even as she said it, Nikita knew she would leave him. She didn’t want to, but she knew he was right. She couldn’t carry him. She had to get out and go get the team. That was the only way. Nikita leaned down and kissed Michael’s too warm lips and cried again at the thought of leaving him. “I’ll be back, Michael. I promise. I promised Rene I would bring you back to him. Don’t make me a liar, Michael. Promise me you will hold on. You have to promise me.” She pulled his face from its resting place against her chest and looked into his fever bright eyes. “Promise me!”

“I promise,” he said. “I’ll hold on as long as I can. Now go! They cannot find you here.” As gently as she could, Nikita raised Michael from her lap and laid him back on the cold stone floor. Michael closed his eyes and felt Nikita’s kisses rain down upon his face. He smiled, glad that he was lucid enough to have known that she was with him one last time. “I love you, always.”

“And I love you, forever and always.” Nikita felt as if her heart was breaking. She steeled herself for the leave-taking, and as she bent over him to press her cheek against his face, she heard a footstep behind her and someone spoke.

“Well, well, well, this is touching...And you must be the fair Nikita....”

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

“Well, well, well, this is touching...And you must be the fair Nikita....”

Nikita whirled around at the sound of the voice and drew her gun from the thigh holster, but the figure at the door was able to kick it out of her hand before she could bring it up to fire. As soon as she saw that the gun in the woman’s hand was pointed at her and Michael, Nikita spread her arms and shielded Michael as much as she could. She waited...the shot she expected never came. Another figure appeared at the door and pushed the gun down so that it pointed toward the floor. Psycho resisted Red’s hand on her gun and then acquiesced to her partner’s will when she saw the determined look on Red’s face. “What do you think you are doing, Red? She’s Section, like him.” Psycho gestured at Michael with her gun hand and Nikita moved to keep herself in the line of fire, protecting Michael. Psycho grinned at Nikita’s movement. “Don’t worry, Nikita. If anyone gets shot here tonight, it’ll be you, not him...He’s too valuable.”

“Good,” Nikita said, raising her chin defiantly, signaling to her captors that she wasn’t afraid of them. “But for someone who is so valuable, you don’t take very good care of him!” Not caring what the two women would do next, Nikita turned her back to them and again, bent over Michael. “Do you have more water? He’s burning up. Please?” Nikita hated having to ask her captors for anything, but then, she would do anything to lessen Michael’s suffering. She said again, “Please, some water?” And was surprised to find a large bottle of water being thrust into her hand by the woman called Red.

“Here, don’t let him drink too quickly. Make him drink slowly. Yes, that’s good...that’s fine.” Nikita pulled her eyes from Michael’s face to look at the woman who had knelt next to her. Red glanced at Nikita quickly and then away, and then returned her gaze to Nikita’s clothing. “Have you got any medicine on you...any antibiotics?”

“Yeah, I do, but not anything like he needs. I’ve just got simple stuff.” She took a chance. “Can you help me get him out of here? You seem...different from her.” Nikita raised her head and indicated Psycho, who was still standing in the door, holding a gun on her.

“No, I can’t help you. He’s can’t be tugged and pulled on, and he certainly can’t walk on his own. What were you thinking about, coming in here by yourself? You must have known you couldn’t get him out alone.” Red regarded the tearstains on Nikita’s face. “You’re the woman in the tape. You’re the one Hugo fooled with the fake Michael. That kid was good, wasn’t he? You really thought it was Michael. You thought you had lost him, didn’t you? You thought he was dead. What gave us away?” The woman actually seemed to want to know how Nikita knew Michael was alive.

“A tracker...Michael has been transmitting all along. We always knew where he was,” she lied. “See.” She reached behind Michael’s ear and peeled away the comm link she had placed there moments ago when she had last kissed him, and showed it to Red. Better to give this one up than to reveal the one embedded in his body, she thought, that one could go on transmitting to Birkoff. “What happens now?”

“You get the hell out of here and leave Michael behind!” Red said quickly. Psycho started to protest and Red shut her up with a withering glance backward.

Nikita stared at her, unbelieving, and then, knowing she could do no more for Michael at this point, Nikita bent over Michael’s prone form one last time and brushed her lips against his and whispered into his ear, “I’ll be back and next time, we will leave here together.” His fevered eyes opened and as if he knew she was leaving him, he smiled sadly at her and said, simply, “Godspeed, Nikita. I love you.” His eyes drifted closed, and Nikita bowed her head and said a prayer for him.

“And I, you.” Nikita kissed him and rose to her feet slowly and turned to face the two women. “Why are you letting me leave and what happens to Michael?”

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

Psycho laughed evilly and turned her feral eyes to Nikita. “Please, honey, drop the blonde moments and think rationally here. Red is letting you leave. Personally, I would serve you up on a platter to Hugo. He has already told us that he wished he had taken you along with Michael. He thought it would have been fun to work on you in front of Michael. Hugo was impressed when he saw the depth of your feeling for Michael when you went wild trying to dig our ringer out of the rubble. I think he imagined Michael in that kind of anguish as he watched me and Red take you apart.” She took a step toward Nikita and again found Red’s hand on her arm. Psycho’s gaze snapped from Red’s hand to Red’s eyes. “Why are you going to all this trouble for these two? I don’t understand you anymore.” Psycho shook off Red’s hand and walked over to where Michael lay and glared down at him. “What is it about him that you find so appealing, Nikita. Anyone who has been in Section as long as he has must have lost his soul long ago.” Psycho looked Nikita straight in the eye, waiting for an answer.

Nikita matched Psycho’s glare and took a deep breath. “Michael has been in Section a long time, and when I first met him, I thought he had indeed lost his soul. But after I got to know him, I found out his secret...he had learned to live his life split in two. To everyone at Section, he was machine Michael, the perfect operative. I was lucky enough to discover his deeply hidden other side and over the years, I learned to love that side. I haven’t always liked him. In fact, sometimes I hated him, but I was never indifferent to him. I think I have always loved him. And I know now that my life is entwined with his. Once, when I was a little girl, my mother sent me to Sunday school. And I heard the story of Ruth, and even though the story was about two women, I have always remembered the story about how Ruth told her friend that wherever she went that Ruth would also go. I have wanted to love someone like that and now I do and he is right here with me. Wherever Michael goes, so go I. If he dies, then so do I. Have you ever known anyone you can say that about?” Nikita challenged Psycho, and was surprised to see tears appearing in the other woman’s eyes.

Psycho shifted her teary gaze to Red and whispered fervently, “Yes, Nikita, yes, I have.”

As if to deflect any discussion of how she and Psycho had met each other, Red said urgently, “ We have no time for this. Hugo will be here soon and Nikita, you have to be gone. For Michael’s sake, he cannot know you were here.” She hurried over to Nikita and began pulling on her arm.

Not to be drawn away from Michael until she was ready, Nikita yanked her arm from Red’s grasp and knelt by Michael’s side. She ran her fingers through his tangled hair and looked thoughtfully into his sweet face. His eyes were closed and he moved his head from side to side restlessly. “I’ll be back for you, my love, stay alive for me.” She rose resolutely and faced the other two women. “What does this Hugo have planned for Michael? I won’t leave until you tell me.” The firm set of her mouth told Red and Psycho that they were staring at an immovable object.

Red spoke first. “Hugo wants Michael to survive so he can visit his revenge upon Michael. He is taking him to a doctor friend of his for treatment. I convinced him that Michael will die otherwise.” She grinned. “I did lay it on rather thickly. Michael is very sick, but I think the fever will run its course. He does need medical attention, but I think he will be all right. You have a team on the way, don’t you?” The widening of Nikita’s eyes gave her the answer she sought. “You need to stop them. Michael will be heavily guarded in the transport. Any attempt to rescue him will bring about his swift death. Track him to the doctor’s location....I know you must have another tracker on him. The one you showed me isn’t the only one, is it? I thought not....I could see it in your expression. I would tell you if I knew where Hugo was taking him, but he wouldn’t tell me. Track Michael and take him when he reaches the doctor. Now, you have to go. Hugo will be here soon.”

With a last look back at Michael, Nikita bit her lip and followed Red from the room, once again, leaving Michael behind....

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

Walter was waiting for Nikita when she returned. As she ran from shadow to shadow, she managed to reign in the despair she felt at leaving Michael behind. At least, this time she knew he was alive, if badly hurt. She had bitten her lip hard to keep herself from crying and giving away her location. Be strong, she thought, I will get Michael back....I will get him back. And as much as she tried to tell herself that she had done the right thing in leaving Michael, she was furious that she hadn’t been able to carry him out. The logical side of her knew she was right to have left him. They would have a better chance of bringing him out alive with a full team. But, the side that loved Michael told her she should have stayed with him to the end. She smiled through her tears, as she heard Michael’s voice telling her that she had done her best and that he loved her for it.

Suddenly, a hand gripped her around the waist as another hand covered her mouth. She was about to deliver a killing blow to her captor’s face when she heard Walter’s whiskey smooth voice in her ear....”Well, Sugar, it certainly took you long enough. What did you find? Did you see Michael?”

Nikita took a series of deep breaths to calm her jangled nerves from the ordeal of the last few minutes and from the fact that she had almost killed Walter. She turned on him angrily and gave him a tongue-lashing about sneaking up on her like he did. It was exactly the kind of tongue-lashing he would have wanted from her, but he understood her and lowered his gaze, trying his best to look contrite. “Geez, Sugar,” he said finally. “I sorry I scared you. I didn’t mean to do that.”

Nikita looked at Walter’s downcast eyes and hugged him fiercely. “Oh, Walter!! I’m so sorry. I wasn’t expecting you and I....I....almost killed you. I couldn’t have taken it if I had hurt you.” All of a sudden, the stress and mental anguish of the last few hours, if not days, struck Nikita full force and she dropped to the ground beside Walter, hitting hard on her backside. Walter sat down beside her and cradled her in his arms. He murmured soothingly to her as her shoulders shook with the force of her sobs.

She gasped as she tried to curtail her weeping. “I’m sorry, Walter,” she said over and over. Then, she told him all that had happened on her reconnaissance of the compound where Michael was being held, where she had left him so sick with pain and fever. “I couldn’t get him out. They hurt him, Walter...they broke his legs...I couldn’t carry him out! I left him, Walter! I left him again!” She continued to hold on to Walter as his hand smoothed her hair from the top of her head down her back. His heart was breaking for her. He comforted her as best as he could. He knew it wasn’t enough.

“Shhhhh, Sugar, shhhhhh. Don’t think about it. You can’t do everything yourself. We’ll get him when the team gets here. He’ll be okay.” She sat up quickly and wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands.

“No! We have to stop the team. Hugo, the leader, is moving Michael. The intel I gathered indicates that Michael won’t be there for much longer. I heard Hugo say he was taking Michael to a doctor for treatment,” she lied. After all that Red had done for her and for Michael, she would not betray her, not even to Walter. “He will be too heavily guarded on the trip. We have to get Birkoff to track him and then retrieve him from wherever they take him.”

Walter was watching Nikita work through her profile for the mission to rescue Michael. He grinned as he saw her agonized tears dry and the bright gleam of determination light her blue eyes. Even in the darkness hiding them in the treeline above the small village, Walter could see that the old Nikita was back. She allowed Walter to help her to her feet. He noticed that she had a certain set to her jaw that told him that she was through with her emotional fragility. The strong forceful young woman that Michael had trained was back. And this time around, she was taking no prisoners in her quest to bring Michael back to her and to Rene.

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

Meanwhile, in the compound below, Hugo supervised as two of his men roughly picked up a delirious Michael and carried him to a covered truck waiting outside. The two men started to toss Michael into the truck, but Red appeared and directed them to carefully lay him inside on the floor of the truck. After making sure that Michael was secured and would not be jostled on the trip to the doctor, she joined a grim-faced Psycho and spoke briefly to Hugo before he climbed into the front of the truck. The two men who had carried Michael to the truck took seats along the inside of the truck, their guns trained on the man at their feet who so obviously did not pose a threat to them. One of the men nudged Michael in the side and elicited a moan of pain as broken and bruised ribs protested. The men grinned at each other and settled back for the long ride to the clinic where Hugo was headed to get help for their prisoner. As the truck pulled away from the compound, two dark figures emerged from one of the buildings and got into a car. The engine roared to life and Red and Psycho headed in the opposite direction from the truck. Inside the car, Psycho glanced over at Red, who was driving and asked, “Where are we going? “

“Anywhere but here,” Red replied, “we have plenty of money, thanks to Hugo, and we can just disappear for awhile. We can find a new line of work. I can’t do this anymore. How about you?” she asked a pensive Psycho.

“Fine with me,” she said. “Whither thou goest, so also shall I go. Let’s blow this pop stand. I feel like sunshine and sand for a while. What do you think, Mom?” Red smiled at her daughter and pressed her foot firmly to the floor and decided to find out just how fast her Jaguar could take them away from this place of pain and darkness. They never looked back.

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

Nikita and Walter had driven back to Section in silence. After warning off the team, they had taken their time, stopping for coffee at a little bistro on the outskirts of the city. Walter watched Nikita for signs of her earlier despair and found not a whit of that feeling of helplessness he had detected as she told him how she had had to leave Michael. In its place was a firmness of mind that reminded him of Michael. When Michael put his mind to something, the thing would be done, no questions. Walter smiled to himself. He remembered that day long ago when he had passed Michael in the hall at Section. Michael had barreled by him, not noticing Walter, so focused was he on his errand. “Whoa, Michael! Where’s the fire, kid?”

Michael had stopped a few paces past Walter. He did that step back maneuver that eventually turned him to face Walter. “Excuse me?”

Walter had always liked the “kid.” He had called Michael “kid” when he was young and in training. When Michael had reached Class 5 status, he had quietly walked up to Walter and asked very politely if Walter could call him Michael and not “kid” anymore. That time in the hallway was the first time in many years that Walter had slipped and called him “kid.”

“Oh, nothing, Michael. I just wondered where you were going in such a hurry?”

“New recruit....a cop killer,” he had answered and then turned and continued on his way. Walter had seen him soon after he had encountered Nikita for the first time. Walter had seen him leaving after the first session with her. Michael was using both hands to smooth back the hair that had fallen over his ears. A small smile was lifting the corners of his finely shaped lips. Walter remembered thinking that he wanted to see whoever had brought that rare smile to Michael’s lips. He had seen her the next day, and Walter had been dumbstruck with the young woman he now called his Sugar.

A passing truck with glaring headlights snapped Walter back from his reminisces. He looked over at Nikita in the passenger seat. “Why so quiet, Sugar? We’ll get him back. Don’t worry.”

I’m not worried about getting him back. I know we will do that. I’m trying to think of what I am going to tell Rene. I promised him I would bring his father back to him, and here I am....empty-handed yet again.” She put her hand under her chin and slumped down even further into her seat. “He’s going to think I am nothing but a liar.”

“Sugar, he will understand. He knows you would bring Michael back to him if you could. Believe me, he’ll understand...he is Michael’s son.” Nikita turned to look at Walter’s profile, lit only by the lights of the car’s instrument panel and the headlights of passing cars. She smiled, and Walter felt warmed by her kind regard.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Like father, like son. God, Walter, I miss him. I miss Michael.” She was quiet then and when he glanced over at her a few minutes later, he was glad to see that she was asleep. The next few hours, if not days, would be hard on her.

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

Everyone seemed to be hanging around Birkoff’s station. When Alex and I joined the growing crowd, Birkoff got up and gave me his chair. I sat down heavily. This pregnancy thing was making my body swell into the most interesting shape. I felt like a huge basketball.

I sighed as I sat down and Alex dropped casually to the floor beside me. “I’ll be glad when I can do that again!” I said. He smiled up at me and took my hand.”

“I’ll be glad when you can do one or two other things.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me and I laughed at him and agreed whole-heartedly with him. Birkoff’s surrender of his rolling chair seemed to set off a chain reaction. I laughed to myself as I saw several of the young people working for Birkoff get up and slide their chairs toward him. He grinned sheepishly at the collection of chairs surrounding his knees, before taking a chair from a young man with multiple body-piercings. Birkoff lost no time in propelling himself back to his position, from which he could watch several monitors. One beeped, and everyone sat up straight. I gripped Alex’s hand and looked around for Rene.

Birkoff nearly jumped out of his skin as Rene poked his head out from under Birkoff’s table. “Is that my Daddy?” Rene shouted excitedly. He scrambled out from his hiding place and peered closely at Birkoff, waiting for an answer. “Well?”

“Geez, Rene. You almost gave me a heart attack. What would have happened if I had keeled over? Who would answer this message?” Birkoff grinned and reached out to tousle Rene’s straight black hair.

Not understanding the rhetorical question, Rene looked around and said simply, “I bet one of them could do it.” There was a general rumble of amusement at his words, and he glanced around and gave everyone a big grin before again focusing on Birkoff. “Ummm, Birkoff, who is the beep?” Birkoff blinked and bent over his monitor.

“It’s Nikita and Walter!” Birkoff smiled broadly and then the smile vanished from his face. “Oh no....they had to leave Michael behind.” Suddenly mindful of what he had just said, Birkoff whirled around in his chair to face Rene, whose face had begun to crumble at Birkoff’s words. Birkoff stretched out his arm and pulled Rene into a one-armed awkward hug. “Hey, that’s not necessarily bad news. We still have a tracker on your Daddy. He’ll be fine.” Over Rene’s head, Birkoff made eye contact with me and I knew the news was not all good. I squeezed Alex’s hand and he arose from his place beside me and scooped Rene up into his strong arms.

“Hey, kiddo, let’s go get something to eat! How about it?” He hefted Rene up onto his shoulders and turned toward the cafeteria. As they left Birkoff’s station, I heard Rene huff. “I’m getting stuffed! Every time the grownups want to talk, I get sent to get something to eat! Alex, you aren’t really hungry, are you?”

As they disappeared down the hallway, I heard my beloved’s laughter as he asked my son a single question. “Rene, are you going to say NO to your Mom when she asks you to do something?” A pause and then, “I thought not.”

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

I listened with my eyes closed. Birkoff relayed the information transmitted from Walter’s PDA. Nikita was able to get in and speak to Michael. “He’s badly hurt, broken legs and a fever. She couldn’t get him out. We’re still tracking him. Two hostiles turned to our side and helped Michael. They set and splinted his legs, gave him something for the pain....even lied about the seriousness of his condition to fool the leader, a man called Hugo, to get further medical attention for Michael. Hugo wants Michael healthy enough to endure punishments for trapping Philo and Zalman. Hugo is Red Cell, and apparently is more interested in revenge on Michael than he is gathering intel for Red Cell. Nikita has rejoined Walter and they are on their way back. Red Team has been recalled.” Birkoff sat back in his chair and exhaled heavily. “That’s all I have for now. We’ll get more when Nikita and Walter debrief.” He swiveled his chair and looked at me over his glasses which had slid down his nose slightly. “I’m sorry the news isn’t better, Grace.”

I sighed and smiled at Birkoff. “It’s okay, Birkoff, at least we know for certain that he is alive. I started to get up and suddenly, the young man with the pierced...everything was at my side helping me by taking my arm and pulling. “Thanks...,” I said, feeling awkward for not knowing his name.

He smiled back. “Pierce,” he said, grinning widely when he saw the incredulous expression on my face. He whispered gently, “Pierce, my name is Pierce.”

“Oh,” I stammered, “Oh, thank you, Pierce.” I smiled and patted his hand. “Birkoff, will you call me when Nikita and Walter return? I’ll be in my room. Also, if you would, could you let Alex know where I am? I need to talk to him and Rene.”

“Sure, Grace.” He spun in his chair when a series of beeps sounded at his console. “Michael is on the move again. He glanced over his shoulder. “I know, Grace. I’ll let you know when we have any more information. Now, go get some rest. Your babies’ Mom needs her rest.” I could feel everyone’s eyes on me as Pierce held my arm and led me out of Systems and down the hall to the quarters that had been assigned to Alex, Rene and me. As we left Systems, I raised my eyes to Operations’ aerie and saw that he and Madeline were deep in conversation. Madeline moved her eyes to lock with mine and she smiled at me. I know that most people would have been chilled to the bone to be the recipient of a Madeline smile, but at this moment in time, I felt warmed by her smile, as if she was saying to me, we know where he is and I will make sure he is all right, trust me. And for some reason, I did trust her. I knew that she, like Nikita, would always try to protect Michael.

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

Michael roused from his feverish unconsciousness as he felt himself being lifted from the back of the truck onto something softer than the bed of the truck. Anything was better than the bruising he felt forming from the hour or more of bouncing around in the truck. Every inch of Michael hurt for some reason. His legs ached and he could feel pain radiating from each of them. He wondered if he had been damaged beyond repair. Michael remembered the discussion about Alex Carson when he had been shot and his knee shattered. Was a medical cancellation in his future? Could Grace save him as she had saved Alex. He smiled. He probably would never see the inside of Section again. Hugo would tire of tormenting him and would most likely put a bullet in his brain. At least it would be over if it came to that. He would regret only one thing, not seeing Rene and Nikita once more. He knew Grace and Alex would raise his son into the kind of man Michael would liked to have been. But he did worry about Nikita...what would become of her? Thinking of Nikita jogged his memory. Had he imagined awakening to her kisses and caresses just an hour or so earlier, or had that been a cruel dream, a nightmare caused by the fever that ravaged him now. No, he distinctly remembered her lips on his, her hands on his body. She had been there in the cell with him. He remembered her tears when she realized that she couldn’t get him out, and her anguish when he had finally convinced her that she had to go, that he could withstand anything that Hugo did to him. Anything but seeing her tortured or killed. Michael had asked her to tell Rene that he loved him.....loved him until the end.

Michael gasped in pain, as the gurney he was on slammed into the wall. A voice, one that he did not recognize, scolded one of the guards that had ridden in the truck with him. “Don’t do that again! This man is my patient now and I will not have you taking out you petty frustrations on him or my clinic walls!” The guard grumbled something, but the words were lost on Michael, who had slipped back into the pain-free darkness.

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

“Nikita, Uncle Walter!!” Rene shouted and ran to the two as they came through van access. Nikita dropped to her knees and accepted the hug from Rene. He didn’t question her about where his father was. I could see that surprised Nikita, then she looked up from the hug and saw me standing behind Rene leaning heavily on Alex’s arm. She smiled wearily and closed her eyes, intent on taking comfort from the small arms encircling her.

“I’m sorry I didn’t bring your Daddy back this time, Rene. I promise you that the next time I won’t come back without him.” she whispered into my son’s ear.

“I know, Nikita. Mom explained everything to me. You were alone and my Daddy weighs too much for you to carry him. Is he hurt very bad, Nikita? Tell me. I can take it. I won’t cry, I promise.” He lifted his chin bravely and peered closely at Nikita. Tell him the truth, I thought, he can take. He is his father’s son.

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

Louis, the attendant pushing Michael’s stretcher down the hall to the elevator, was very careful. He did not want to anger Dr. Sorenson again. He wondered why Dr. Sorenson had ordered him to take this patient down to the basement, but he had long ago learned not to question his employer. He knew that the doctor worked off the clock for some rather unsavory characters and the man that had brought in this man on the stretcher was one of those scary characters. The men with Hugo were rough, coarse and cruel men. They had handled Dr. Sorenson’s new patient as if they didn’t care what happened to him. Dr. Sorenson had thrown a fit and berated the men in front of Hugo, who just stood there and laughed. He had a cruel, evil laugh and Louis wanted nothing to do with Hugo. He would just do his job, keep his mouth shut and go home with the extra cash that Dr. Sorenson would pay him.

The man on the stretcher was tossing his head back and forth. His splinted legs were strapped down on the stretcher and his wrists were firmly buckled into restraints on the side of the stretcher. He seemed caught up in a nightmare of some kind. Louis had felt of his forehead and knew that a fever raged inside of the man. The elevator doors clanked open and Louis pushed the stretcher inside to begin the ride down two floors to the room he had prepared earlier in the day at Dr. Sorenson’s instructions. The sound of the metal doors closing seemed to terrify the man on the stretcher. He began struggling and trying to pull his hands from the restraints, and he started yelling something. At first it was unintelligible and then Louis could make out his words.

“Please, no, no....don’t hurt me....PLEASE!!!” A fever-wracked Michael writhed and tried to pull his hands free, but they were bound tightly and other hands held him as he was beaten into submission. His police guards had told him this would happen to him. They had laughed as they told him what to expect on his first night in prison. It was what he deserved, they said, after what he had done. Michel’s first week in prison had been a week of unremitting brutality and sexual assault as the inmates took their turns with him. He began hoping that they would kill him, so it would be over, but they were careful to keep him alive. And always the assaults took place in the dark recesses of the shower room, where overhead the pipes clinked and clanked. The inmates took turns keeping watch for the prison guards, so that they could have the privacy needed to partake of this beautiful new nineteen year old convict.

Louis felt sorry for the young man on the stretcher. So, he had been in prison and had suffered greatly for it. It was none of Louis’ business, so he continued to push the stretcher to the secluded room. The pipes in the basement clanked and sang and Michel began screaming in the terror of his delirium. Louis tried to muffle the terrible sounds coming from the man on the stretcher. “Merde,” he thought, “he’ll wake the dead!” As fast as he could, Louis finally reached the room where he had been told to leave the young man. Dr. Sorenson had directed Louis to sedate the man, so Louis quickly pulled out the syringe and injected Michael with the sedative. He was still screaming, but slowly, his frantic movements calmed and the screaming stopped. Michael quieted, but in his mind, he struggled on. The groping hands of the inmates were pulled away from him and he could only feel the hands of one man, Jean-Jacques, a seasoned convict who all the other inmates deferred to without question. Jean-Jacques calmly whispered into Michel’s ear that he now belonged to Jean-Jacques, that he would service only Jean-Jacques and no one else, or Michel would die, horribly. So, Michel chose to live horribly instead. His third week in prison found Michel calmly tearing his blanket into strips, which he patiently wove into a rope. He had decided to escape the hell he found himself in. Carefully, he tied one end of the rope to the bars of the window just above the top bunk in his and Jean-Jacques’ cell. Michel tied the other end around his own neck. He had made sure the rope was not too long. He had measured it carefully. When he was ready to escape, Michel laid down on the top bunk and said his prayers, asking God to watch over his sister. Tears of anger, pain and regret gathered in his eyes and he closed them one last time, squeezing the tears from his eyes. Michel took a deep breath and turned over and rolled off the bunk. The rope pulled tight. Michel struggled for breath and when it wouldn’t come, the light in his eyes blinked out, and when he opened his eyes the next time, he awoke in another hell. A big man named Jurgen welcomed Michel to Section....

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

It was a rather unusual family gathering in the Section briefing room. A patriarchal Operations stood at the head of the table with his remote control held lightly in his hand. He surveyed his domain and took in each face that stared at him from around the table. Madeline’s warm eyes held his and he almost smiled, but he controlled his emotional response to her.

The next pair of eyes did cause him to smile. Rene glanced up at him from beneath his long dark lashes, his father’s green eyes so brilliant in his child’s face. It was chilling to see Michael’s son sitting so quietly in the chair usually occupied by Michael. Operations knew that he would do anything, say anything, risk anything to keep Rene’s good opinion of him. Michael’s rescue had become Operations’ primary mission since he had learned that Michael, his top operative, was still alive and in the hands of an old nemesis, Hugo. Somehow, Hugo had escaped the web woven by Operations and Michael when they had netted Philo. This time, Operations vowed to himself, he would not escape and Hugo would not take Michael with him.

Nikita, as always, glared at him from her position in the middle chair she sat in, next to Rene who had started to fidget nervously, swinging his father’s chair from side to side. Operations spared not one sympathetic glance her way. She still had the power to infuriate him, even when she kept her mouth shut, which seemed very unlikely today. The others ranged around the table included Walter, Birkoff, Davenport and at the end of the table next to Madeline sat Grace and Alex.

Strange, Operations thought, the friendship of those two. They were close in age and seemed to genuinely like each other, interesting when one thought of what had brought them together. Madeline had bartered Grace’s cooperation with young Rene. Grace had accepted the child when it became clear that it was the only way to ensure both the child’s safety as well as Michael’s. Madeline had won a point there, because Michael had never really been in danger as Grace had thought. He had not known that Rene was still alive until he had followed Madeline to the airport where she met Grace and had handed over Rene. Michael had been watching from the shadows, and had quietly watched his son leave with Grace. Operations had had Michael followed. His top op had been behaving strangely and Operations had wanted to know why. His informant had related Michael’s every move and reported back in detail Michael’s heart-breaking good-bye to his son and Grace, whispering to them to “go with God.” Operations had marveled that Michael had let them go so calmly, but then he knew the strong reserve of power and control that distinguished the man that he had often thought of as a son, even when he sent him into the face of death on so many missions. Operations had always known Michael would come back. This time when Birkoff had brought back a distraught Nikita and had described to him and showed him the video of Michael’s last moments, Operations had been shaken. The Michael he knew was indestructible...he couldn’t die. Operations had willed it not to be true and then, miraculously, Rene had stubbornly been proved correct. Michael was alive. Now, Operations began to speak, outlining the mission to bring Michael back to his family and back to Section.

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

Michael’s demons continued to haunt him. Louis looked on in amazement as the young man that he had sedated and moved to the hospital bed in the basement room, tossed and turned in agony. Louis was terrified that the man would tear loose the restraints tightly encircling his hands. Finally, the young man seemed to collapse in on himself. He violently threw his head backward into the pillow until Louis thought he would choke. The cords and veins in his neck stretched taut and then suddenly, the man on the bed went limp. Louis hurried over to check his pulse. He lay so still that Louis feared that the last paroxysm had killed him.

Louis exhaled noisily. The prisoner was still alive, at least for now.

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

Birkoff had tracked Michael to the outskirts of the city and had then lost the signal. “Sir,” he addressed a pacing Operations. “I lost the signal. It looks like electronic shielding of some kind, but I was able to pinpoint the area. Here, see?” Birkoff pointed to the monitor screen as Operations leaned over to look also.

“What’s there?” he asked, glancing down at Birkoff. “Landmarks, buildings?”

“Well, that is what is weird, Sir. The signal disappeared right in front of a hospital. Would they be that obvious? We know Michael is hurt and that Hugo was going to get medical treatment for him.”

“Who knows what Hugo would do? Why are you smiling, Birkoff? Do you find this situation funny?” Operations demanded testily. He was finding this entire situation extremely frustrating. Birkoff looked up into Operations icy blue eyes and faltered in his next words.

“Ah...uh...I....well, sir, the hospital....it’s....” Operations grabbed the back of Birkoff’s chair and spun it around. Birkoff almost fell out of the wildly spinning chair.

“Well!! What is it about the hospital? What is so damned funny to you.” Birkoff cringed under Operations’ malevolent stare.

“Sir, it’s a women’s hospital....wouldn’t Michael be rather conspicuous if he was taken there?” Despite his fear of the man standing over him, Birkoff grinned.

Operations stared back at him balefully. “Get this information to a profiler. I want Michael found and retrieved as soon as possible!”

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

‘Hmmmm, I just see one problem with your profile.” Grace spoke from her place at the opposite end of the table. She faced down Operations as he glowered at her criticism of the profile to rescue Michael. Rene bristled at the look on Operations’ face. Alex sat up straighter in his chair also, ready to speak up on his wife’s behalf. He had the feeling that Operations was not pleased to be questioned by someone who disagreed with him. That was nothing new. Rene spoke before Alex could protest.

“Don’t you frown at my Mom like that! She is in a delicate condition. That is what her doctor told her. And, I don’t think you should scold her like you do everyone else around here. I won’t stand for it and I don’t think my Daddy would either. And he will be back here soon!” Rene glared back at Operations, challenging him to rebuke Grace’s comment. The boy crossed his arms and settled back in his chair. There was a slight rustling of movement as others at the table moved around in an attempt to cover their smiles at Rene’s defiance. Nikita could not contain herself and laughed out loud. Operations shifted his glance down and to his side, and then brought his chin up and said as calmly as he could. “And what is your problem with this profile, Grace? It was worked out by our best profilers.”

***********

I sat up in my chair and leaned forward. “First of all, Hugo is not going to have Michael in plain sight in this hospital, even if Birkoff is correct and he is there. And second, you can’t just send operatives into this hospital to search it. They would be spotted in a New York minute. They wouldn’t exactly blend in.” I sat back and let this sink into the stubborn brain of Operations’. I knew he would do anything to get Michael back, if not for Section, then for Rene. He had a very soft spot in his heart for Rene and I encouraged it. Operations knew I knew that and yet he allowed it. The bond he had with Rene had only increased in its intensity since Paul’s own son had been killed several months ago. It was probably cold and calculating of me to try to use his emotions against him, but if it helped keep Michael and Rene together, it was worth it. I could rationalize just about anything that concerned Michael and Rene.

“Well, then, Grace. What would you do?” Operations stared down the table at me, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. The old wolf, I thought, he has me all figured out.

I took a deep breath and held on to Alex’s hand under the table. “I would send in someone with a perfect cover. Someone who couldn’t be found out to be in disguise. Can any of your other operatives pass muster as a pregnant lady? Who would suspect me? I could go in with whatever electronics gizmos that could pinpoint Michael’s location and then, you could send in a retrieval team.” Almost immediately, there were protests from all around the table.

“No way are you going in there!” Alex swung his chair around and gripped my arms, his eyes wild. “NO WAY!!”

Nikita reacted in much the same way as Walter and Birkoff. They sat forward in their chairs and protested my suggestion. Walter even sprang up out of his chair and yelled at me. “NO, Gracie! It will be over my dead body!” I felt myself starting to tear up at the concern shown for me. My family was definitely here around this table. Alex drew me into his arms and whispered frantically in my ear.

“Please, Grace. Don’t do this. I can’t lose you and our babies. This is foolish of you. Michael will hate it that you risk yourself so for him.” I kissed Alex and hugged him back. He knew me so well. I could feel that he had already accepted that I would have my way with this. He knew he came first in my life, but he also knew how stubborn I could be. It ran in my family.

I think I took even Madeline by surprise. She turned warm brown eyes to mine and said simply and calmly, “Grace, you are not an operative. You are not trained for this kind of thing. Think of your babies...” I listened to all of the protesting and reasons why I shouldn’t, couldn’t do this and then I looked down the table at my son, at Rene. He was sitting there in his father’s chair looking back at me with a smile in those green eyes of his.

When he spoke, everything came to a standstill in the room. “Yeah, she is thinking about them and about me....she wants my Daddy back for me and she wants a godfather for my little sisters. Isn’t that right, Mom?”

I was proud of my son, of Michael’s son. “Exactly, Rene. I won’t be in much danger...Alex will be with me and Nikita could go in as my loving daughter. We are the rights ages. These,” I said laying my hands on my basketball of a stomach, “are my late-in-life gifts.” I lifted my chin and waited for Operations to speak. All eyes shifted from me to him. “Well?” I said, challenging him to disagree with my reasoning.

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

Michael fought the doctor when he came in to examine his patient. The sedative had worn off and Michael was conscious but still in the grip of his delirium. Louis was there to assist Dr. Sorenson. Within an hour, the two of them had taken X-rays of Michael’s legs and chest with a portable X-ray machine and the doctor had sent Louis to get the necessary supplies to put casts on Michael’s legs and to wrap his broken and bruised ribs. Dr. Sorenson sat down and made notes as Hugo looked on.

“Well?” queried Hugo. “What is his condition? Will he live?”

Dr. Sorenson regarded Hugo with a disdainful glance and returned to his notes. “I am not in the habit of losing my patients.” He grinned at the double meaning of his words, pleased at his wit. “He will be all right eventually. His fever is still too high, but the drugs I will be administering should effectively knock that out.” He stopped writing and used his pen to point to Michael’s legs. “Who straightened and splinted the legs? They did a good job on that. Surely, if they had enough medical skill to do that, they could have figured out something to do for his fever. Why take the chance to bring him here? You have exposed yourself needlessly.” Sorenson glanced again at Hugo, waiting for an answer to his question.

“My medic said she didn’t have the medicine he needed. She said he would die without proper treatment. That is why I brought him to you. How long will the treatment take?” Hugo grimaced at the moans coming from the man on the bed. “I thought you gave him something to quiet him. Is he suffering much?”

Sorenson grinned. “Louis gave him enough to quiet a horse, but this young man is fighting the sedative. He probably is suffering, though not from physical pain. No, I’d say he is suffering greatly from a fever-induced delirium. He is punishing himself instead of giving himself up to the oblivion of the sedative. You wanted that, did you not? You enjoy his suffering? Did he do something so bad that you want to prolong what you have already done to him?” The doctor once again flicked his pen at Michael, who was again tossing and turning, his wrists chaffed and bleeding as he strained at the padded restraints.

Sorenson made a note to remember to bandage Michael’s wrists, and looked at his watch. “Louis will be back soon with the supplies and drugs that I need.” He arose from his chair and started for the door. “Why don’t you sit down and enjoy your handiwork. I’ll be back in a few minutes to continue my work on him. Are you sure you want me to break his fever? That will only give him relief. But then, I suppose you will think of something else to do to him when I make him healthy again, won’t you.” With one last contemptuous glance at Hugo, Dr. Sorenson turned and left the room.

Hugo sat down and peered into Michael’s face. He reached over and gripped Michael’s chin and pulled it roughly towards him. “What is it about you that makes people want to help you.” He pushed Michael’s face away from him violently and leaned back in the chair. What indeed, he asked himself, and then he wondered what was going on in Michael’s head that tormented him so. He was murmuring something that was unintelligible to Hugo, who leaned forward and tried to make out what Michael was saying.

“I won’t tell you, I won’t! I can’t tell you!” The twenty-year-old Section recruit hung his head down because he was just too exhausted to do anything else. He was enduring another long interrogation session with his trainer, Jurgen. The tall blond man was attempting to train Michael how to respond while being interrogated.

“You do not say anything to them. Be silent. Do....you....understand....me....?” Jurgen punctuated each word in the sentence with punishing blows to Michael’s mid-section. With the last bit of strength he had, Michael raised his head and Jurgen saw death in Michael’s eyes. He stepped back from where Michael hung with his hands and arms extended over his head and locked in chains attached to the ceiling of the white room. The look of death in Michael’s eyes quietly terrified Jurgen as he nodded his approval at Michael. The blank stare had been born of the pain and abuse visited on Michael by his trainer, Jurgen. “Good job, Michael! That will be all for today.”

Jurgen signaled his assistant with a quick flick of his head and the assistant released the mechanism which had been holding the chain taut over Michael’s head. The sudden release of his chains caused Michael to collapse on the floor. His legs had long ago become numb and useless to support him. The assistant then walked over and unlocked the manacles imprisoning Michael’s hands. He started to rub Michael’s arms to restore the circulation when Jurgen spoke to him curtly, dismissing him. He stared up at the older man and stood slowly, looked down at Michael with something akin to pity and left the room.

“I trust you can make it to Medlab on your own? Get yourself fixed up and I’ll see you at 5am tomorrow. We start all over again.” With those parting words, Jurgen pulled open the heavy door and walked out the door. On the floor, his hands and arms now wrapped around his mid-section, Michael knelt over until his head touched the cool floor. I can’t do this anymore, he told himself, I can’t. Then he remembered the last few cruel punches from Jurgen, and he raised his head to stare at the door. The look of pain dissolved from his green eyes and it was replaced by a blank stare as Michael got painfully to his feet and trudged out the door and down the corridor to Medlab. Jurgen would never again see a look of fear on his face, he vowed, and no one else would either.

Hugo stood and looked down into Michael’s face. He was quiet now and Hugo was curious as to what had brought on the change. Even as he stared down at Michael, Michael opened his eyes, and Hugo hurriedly stepped back. All Hugo saw in Michael’s blank green eyes was death.

***********

Hugo stumbled back from Michael’s bedside after seeing his own death in Michael’s eyes. He was startled when he backed directly into Dr. Sorenson, who has a IV bag in his hands with a collection of clear IV tubing and needles. Sorenson cursed and asked Hugo what he thought he was doing.

Hugo stared at him with eyes wide. He stammered, “He’s awake! He was staring at me....!”

The contempt that Sorenson had for Hugo was evident in his glance and in his words. “He couldn’t have stared at you. I told you Louis gave him enough sedative to floor a horse. And why are you so frightened. He’s strapped down. He couldn’t hurt you if he tried.” The doctor shouldered his way past Hugo and laid the medical supplies on the bed. “Louis will be here shortly and I will apply the plaster to his legs, but right now, I need to get these antibiotics and fluids nto him. Now, get out of my way, will you?” he spoke sharply because Hugo had come up behind him and was peering over Sorenson’s shoulder at Michael, whose eyes were once again closed. He was no longer restlessly, but lay there quietly, his face flushed from the fever.

As Sorenson busied himself with tying rubber tubing around Michael’s right arm and then searching for a vein into which he could insert the IV needle, Hugo stepped back and watched from the door. “When can I take him out of here?”

“Now, if you want to kill him. In a few days if you want him to live. I have to build his fluid level up and get some nutrients into him. You’ve already starved him and he is dehydrated. That alone could kill him, even if he didn’t have this fever. You are one piece of work, Hugo....I wouldn’t want to be on your bad list. Ahhh, got it!” His final attempt at finding a vein in Michael’s right hand met with success and he attached the tubing and made adjustments on the pump that would sent fluids, nutrients and antibiotics into his patient at just the right drip. He stepped back and smiled. “Well., young man, we may save you yet. What is his name, Hugo.” When Hugo told him that his patient’s name was Michael, the doctor put his cool hand on Michael’s brow and let his fingers glide down the side of Michael’s face. “He quite beautiful, isn’t he?’

Sorenson turned around and smiled at Hugo. “Why do you hate him so much, and why do you fear him even when you have brought him so low?” Sorenson waited a few seconds for an answer and when he saw that Hugo was going to ignore him, Sorenson shrugged his shoulders and left the room, telling Hugo he would return shortly.

Hugo approached Michael once more and stared down at him. He was still rattled by the last time he had looked at Michael and found him staring back. Michael’s eyes were closed and Hugo took a step back and sat down in the chair, never taking his eyes from Michael’s still form. Hugo watched the slow drip, drip, drip of the fluids from the IV bags as the life-saving solutions flowed into Michael’s veins.

Hugo resolved that if Michael survived, he would never again have the power to intimidate Hugo...never again. Hugo would kill him first....

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

Rene watched the world of Section revolve from his cubby hole beneath Walter’s work table. The caged-in area afforded him a comfy place from which he could watch the activity that hummed through Section. Every time the grownups wanted to discuss the rescue of his father, they sent him to go eat, or to stay with his Uncle Walter. He liked the second thing best. There were ALL sorts of things to play with at Uncle Walter’s workstation....

Later, Walter told him, they would go and load the mission van with the supplies that would be needed according to the profile to be used to rescue his father. Rene could help, Walter had also said. Rene was proud that he would get to help in some small way to aid in his father’s rescue. He pulled his knees up to his chin and laid his arms across his knees, sighing, and wishing that his Daddy was with him right now.

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

Deep in the basement of St. Michael’s Hospital for Women, Michael lay quietly. His face was no longer flushed, and a fine sheen of sweat now covered his face. The IV solutions had been refilled twice since they had been started and the antibiotics were beginning to work. Michael’s fever had peaked and he was more comfortable now. The delirium has passed and he had fallen into a restorative sleep, but the dreams and nightmares had not gone the way of the fever.

His bed was positioned directly under the air conditioning vents and the sounds from the nursery were carried along the length of the duct work. The life-affirming sounds made their way to Michael’s subconscious. Somewhere in his mind, Michael heard babies crying, and he thought of that wonderful day when he had seen his son for the first time. He had been on a tough mission and had been worried about Simone. The baby was a week overdue and she was miserable. She just couldn’t get comfortable and it pained him to think that she might deliver when he wasn’t there to be with her. He had been denied any information about her during the mission. Madeline and Operations had not wanted him distracted and so, they had instructed Comm to deny any of his requests regarding Simone.

When he had returned from the mission, Walter had been waiting for him at van access. A nervous Walter had quickly told him to get to Medlab, that Simone had been in labor for the past 4 hours and was close to delivering. Michael had pushed by both Operations and Madeline as they had approached him. It was the first time Michael had ignored their commands. Well, almost the first time. They had not been pleased when he had informed them of his and Simone’s marriage. He had been new to Section One, having been transferred there from Section Four, based on his newly acquired status as a level four operative and the reports of his prowess in the field in leading flawless missions.

He and Simone had been paired on several missions and Michael had fallen hard for her toughness, charm and sense of humor. He had been so overshadowed by the constant presence at Section Four of his former trainer and mentor, Jurgen, that his first months at Section One had seemed like heaven and a rebirth of his freedom. Michael blossomed under Simone’s caring and love. They were as happy as two people could be in Section. Their growing attachment and commitment to one another had concerned Operations and Madeline to the point that they had considered separating them permanently, and had even run a trial mission to test the waters. What they had found that separating Michael and Simone had resulted in a drop in the efficiency and focus of both operatives, so Madeline had suggested leaving them together.

It wasn’t long before Michael and Simone were sharing a home together, and then came the day when a tearful Simone had confided in Michael that she thought she was pregnant. Michael was supremely elated, for about five minutes. And then he began to think about this wonderful news in Section terms.

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

In the end, Michael and Simone had opted to get married outside of Section. Michael had found a parish priest to perform the simple ceremony and they had walked out of the church as husband and wife.

They first thing they did when they returned to Section was to go to Madeline and tell her what they had done. She had surprised them with her reaction. She had smiled that smile of hers and had told them that she would inform Operations, and that they should expect some anger on his part. Don’t worry, she told them, I will smooth the waters. She had been less happy about the news of Simone’s pregnancy, even going as far as suggesting an abortion. Simone had told her she would die first, and Michael had calmly made it known to Madeline that if anything happened to Simone, that Section would have to cancel him, because he would not go on without her. He had risen from his chair and quietly guided Simone out of Madeline’s office, leaving behind a perplexed Madeline. Michael smiled at Simone when they had walked out, clearly communicating to her that wherever she went, he would follow. And so, the two of them were allowed to watch their baby grow inside Simone. Operations had been angry at first, but had relented when told of Michael’s challenge. He had even smiled a bit at Michael’s attitude. He probably would have done the same thing. Michael was only a few years older than his own son, and Operations knew he would never know his own grandchildren, so he allowed the man who he knew would soon be his top operative his little corner of happiness. Then the smile turned grim. The happiness would last only as long as Michael’s efficiency lasted. Punishments and rewards, he thought, rewards and punishments....

Michael dreamed on. He had been in time to see his son emerge into the cold, hard world, the little boy was a bundle of screaming life. He had thick, black hair like his mother and his mouth was definitely his father’s. It would take a bit longer to know what color his eyes would be. At birth, they were that dark, dark blue that would shortly clear into his father’s beautiful green eyes. Michael took the newly cleaned baby from the nurse and laid him on Simone’s stomach. He looked into her eyes and saw his home. “I want to name him Rene. How does that sound to you?” he asked.

“Only if we also add your name to his....Rene Michel Samuelle.” She smiled up at him. He kissed her damp forehead.

“Well, only if you insist, ma cher.” The Section medical staff looked on for a few seconds and then left the small family alone together.

The surveillance cameras in MedLab sent the clear images of the happy family back to Operations’ eyrie where he and Madeline glanced at one another and hoped that this could continue, while knowing the odds were against it.

The crying of the babies in the nursery continued to lull Michael into a restful sleep, and as he slept, Hugo crept back into the room and once more watched Michael. The bain of Hugo’s existence lay there on that bed and slept on unaware of the cold eyes that watched him.

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

Rene opened his eyes slowly. I must have fallen asleep, he thought. He sat up quickly, concerned that he might have missed helping Walter load the van for the mission to rescue his father. All he succeeded in doing was bumping his head, yelping at the sudden pain, and alerting Birkoff to where he had been hiding.

“Rene? Is that you hiding down there?” Rene stuck his head out of his cubby-hole and came face to face with Birkoff. “Your Mom has been looking all over for you. She wants to see you before she and Alex leave.” Rene scrambled out of his hiding place and ran several steps before stopping and turning back to Birkoff.

“Uhhh, where is she, Birkoff?” Rene asked, blushing at being caught off-guard. This would never have happened to his Daddy, he told himself.

Birkoff smiled and told him that Grace was in their quarters. Rene beamed at him and took off running, only to skid to a stop and turn once more to Birkoff. “Thanks! And would you tell Walter I will be right back to help him load the van!” Rene waited for Birkoff to nod his assurance that the message would be delivered.

When Birkoff nodded, Rene took off running at full speed again. He ran into Walter, who caught him with both hands. “Hey, where’s the fire, young man?”

“Walter. I’ve got to go see Mom! I’ll be right back. Don’t load the van without me!!” And he was off running again.

Walter grinned as he walked up to Birkoff. “He never stops, does he?”

Birkoff laughed. “Not where his Mom is concerned. He knows that when she says Now, she means NOW!

The two men, young and old, leaned against each other as friends are apt to do and looked toward the corner that young Rene had just rounded at top speed.

Rene slid to an abrupt stop outside the quarters that had been assigned to him, his Mom and Alex. He quietly opened the door and peeked inside. His Mom was laying on the bed asleep, with Alex beside her. Rene started to leave when Alex’s deep voice called out to him. “Rene, come on in. We need to talk.” Rene closed the door silently and tiptoed over to Alex’s side of the bed. “I need to know that you know what is going to happen later on today when your Mom and I leave Section. You know I will take care of her, don’t you? I won’t let anything happen to her or to the babies. I promise you that. At the first sign of trouble, I will take her out of there. You trust me, don’t you?” Alex seemed to take comfort from the vigorous nodding of Rene’s head.

“I trust you almost as much as I trust my Daddy. I know how much you love my Mom, Alex. Is she okay? Are you sure she can do this?” Rene had carefully climbed up on the bed and sat cross-legged at the end of the bed, watching his adoptive mother sleep. Alex nodded and told Rene that his Mom could do anything once she set her mind to it. Rene grinned in agreement with Alex. His Mom could do anything. He certainly believed that. The roundness of her belly fascinated him. He had always wondered how the two babies could live inside of her without air to breath. Grace had explained it to him, but he still had a hard time understanding it. But his Mom and Alex had assured him that the babies were okay and he trusted their word.

“Have you and Mom decided what you are going to name the babies?” Rene asked with his head down, hiding the longing in his eyes. He would like to help name his new sisters, but as yet, his Mom and Alex had not asked his opinion.

“Actually, yes, we have decided to ask you what you want to name them.” Alex smiled at the surprise in Rene’s eyes as his head popped up to stare at Alex. That’s when he also saw me smiling sleepily at him from my place in Alex’s arms.

“Well, Rene, do you have any ideas?’ I asked my son. He laughed and bounced up to wriggle in between me and Alex, his small perfect hands on my belly, with fingers splayed out as if to have the most contact with his sisters inside of me.

He turned brilliant green eyes on first me and then Alex. “How about Alexis and Michelle? After my two favorite Daddys?” I heard a sound beside me and I turned just in time to see the tears gathering in Alex’s blue eyes.

Rene saw them too and he hugged Alex and said simply, “I love you, Alex. If I wasn’t my Daddy’s son, I would want to be yours. So, do you like my name choices? I DO! I guess you and Mom get to choose the middle names. I can’t hog all the name choices!” Rene wriggled a little bit more and soon he was tucked securely between me and his stepfather. Our little family group lay close together for a few more minutes until we were interrupted by Madeline’s disembodied voice, telling us that the mission to retrieve Michael was loading and would leave in one hour. Rene scrambled out from between us and jumped off the bed. “I gotta go help Walter! He told me I could help load the van!” Rene stopped at the door and ran back to the bed, stretching up to kiss me on the cheek. “I’ll see you before you leave, Mom! I love you! And you too, Alex!” Alex got up and walked around the foot of the bed and scooped Rene up into his arms.

He hugged Rene tightly and told him to be careful and not drop anything on Walter’s toes. Then he put Rene down and watched as Rene took off like a rocket intent on making sure that everything that was needed to rescue his father was in place. Little did we know just what he had in his mind when he left us....

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

Rene ran down the corridor and took a left that he knew would lead him to Walter’s workstation and was blind-sided as he rounded the corner at full-speed. The heavily muscled legs that he made contact with would have knocked him down but for two equally muscled arms that grabbed him and swung him up into the air.

“Put me down, put me down!!” he yelled, futilely squirming to free himself of the strong arms that held him tight.

“Calm down,” a deep voice said, “I’m not going to hurt you. Where are you going in such a rush?” Rene quit struggling and listened to the voice even as he looked into a familiar face. The kind dark eyes that stared back at him held a hint of amusement.

“Hey, you’re Davenport, aren’t you? You were at the briefing today. You’re a friend of my Daddy’s, aren’t you?” The dark eyes blinked, as if surprised to be accorded the honor of being taken for a friend of Michael’s. Rene smiled when the big man smiled at him. “You’re on the team to get my Daddy back, aren’t you?” Chris Davenport flinched at Rene’s statement.

‘Yes,” he said, “I’m on the retrieval team.” Chris also had orders to cancel Michael if he could not be retrieved, some thing he did not want to do, if it came to it. Trying to distract Rene from any more probing questions, Chris asked Rene again where he was going.

Davenport did not want to think about his second set of orders from Operations. He knew it was standard operating procedure when an operative was captured, but he could not even think of canceling Michael. Especially after he had gotten to know Michael in the last few months. When Ops had allowed himself to be drugged on the mission to lure Philo out of hiding so he could be captured, Davenport had been one of the first operatives to cross the line to Michael’s side when Michael had so publicly removed Ops from power. He knew he would follow Michael into the jaws of death if that happened to be Michael’s path. The quiet man in black inspired that kind of loyalty. He led by example, not by edict as Operations often did. Davenport knew that most of the other operatives would follow Michael at the drop of a hat. Michael was just that kind of leader. Ruthless and cunning yes, but also not one to waste lives as other team leaders had been wont to do.

Rene preened and said proudly, “I’m going to help Walter load the van. He said I could. Would you mind putting me down? I really have to go. The mission leaves in an hour.....oh, but you know that, don’t you?” Davenport gently set Rene down on his feet.

“Watch those corners,” he called to Rene as the little tornado whirled and disappeared down the hallway leading to Walter’s workstation. Davenport continued on his way to the ready room. Sleep, he thought, I need some sleep. This mission could turn out to be the toughest of his career. He didn’t want to be the one to cancel a friend. It won’t come to that, he vowed. I’ll find a way....I have to find a way.

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

“Hey,” Walter called to his assistant. “Have you seen that Beretta that was laying here a few minutes ago?” He ran his hand over his head, smoothing his thinning hair back and tucking a few errant strands back under his ever present bandanna. “I could have sworn it was here a few minutes ago.” He kept looking around, as if expecting the small handgun to magically appear.

“Maybe one of the Ops going out on the retrieval mission picked it up.” Walter’s assistant surmised.

“Yeah, maybe so, but I could have sworn it was just here. The extra clip is gone too. I must be getting old.” Walter laughed and put the missing gun and clip out of his mind. He would check on it later. He still had to make one more trip to the van before it left.

“Rene, are you hiding again? Come on out.” Walter bent over and peered under his work table. “We have one more thing to check in the van, and then you have to skedaddle off to see your Mom and Alex before they leave. Now, come on out of there, we’re burning daylight!” Rene came out of his hidey-hole under Walters’ worktable and carefully pulled down and smoothed the front of the sweater he was wearing. When Walter called to him, Rene quietly followed Walter who was headed down the hallway toward Van Access. About halfway there, Rene suddenly stopped and told Walter that he wanted to talk to his Mom and Alex. Walter nodded and continued on his way. Rene grinned mischievously and headed for Grace’s quarters. He wanted to see his Mom before she, Alex and Nikita left for the hospital. And then, he had things to do and places to go.

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

Michael could feel himself getting better. His fever had broken during the night and he had broken out in a sweat that Louis had gently wiped away. Louis had been with Michael throughout his delirium, often listening aghast at the tortuous path of Michael’s life. This man has suffered enough, he thought, but what could he do about it? Nothing. He could do nothing for this young man. He was the sole support of his family and the extra francs that Dr. Sorenson paid him for his off-the-clock work helped to make the ends meet. No, he told himself, as much as he wanted to help this sick young man, he could do nothing to jeopardize his job. So, he continued to gently bath Michael’s face and attend to his personal needs, just as he had for the last two days. He knew now that Michael would survive and that soon, Hugo, evil man that he was, would eventually take Michael away. Louis feared that when he did take Michael away that the young man would soon once again need medical treatment. Hugo was a madman....

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

Rene had come to me again and snuggled up to me and told me he loved me and his baby sisters. He seemed reluctant to let me go. I knew he was worried about me and his father, but I knew he would be in good hands here in Section until Alex, Nikita and I returned with Michael. I had absolutely no doubt that I could do what was needed on this mission. It was simple, really. Alex, Nikita and I would frantically enter the hospital. I would be faking Braxton-Hicks, or false labor pains. My worried husband and grown daughter would hover protectively while I played my part. Actually I would be carrying a device that would pick up Michael’s tracker if it was in the hospital. The electronic scrambling that had stopped Birkoff would not stop me, since I was already inside the hospital’s perimeter. I should be able to pick up the signal. Once the signal was located, Davenport and a small Section team would locate Michael and take him out of the hospital and back to the van, where a doctor would be waiting to check his injuries.

In the meantime, Nikita, Alex and I would slip out of the hospital, my labor pains having mysteriously stopped. The doctors would diagnose Braxton-Hicks and we would be home free, and so would Michael be.....home free.

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

Rene told me he loved me and would be waiting for me when Alex, Nikita and I returned with Michael. I knew he was concerned and frightened for us, but I had no idea what he was planning. No one did. Rene kept his own counsel this time. When I found out what he had done, I thought that I would shake his eyeteeth out when I got my hands on him. What he did was reckless and dangerous, but when I was cooler, I knew he did what he did for his father. I understood, but I didn’t like it.

Alex, Nikita and I arrived at the hospital in a car assigned to us by Section. I went into my routine, complaining of pain. Alex and Nikita hovered, the worried husband and daughter. The nurses and doctor assigned to me were quite nice and very efficient. The nurses quickly ushered Alex out of the examining room, but no amount of urging or threats of calling security would move Nikita. Because she was so persistent, they finally relented and she held my hand as the examination began. I smiled up at her, and thought, no Section op could pass muster on this type of undercover mission.

Meanwhile, out in the parking lot of the hospital’s emergency room where we were, the Section van sat seemingly empty of occupants. In the back of the van, the small team of operatives were checking their gear and adjusting their undercover clothes. The two men and two women were dressed in civilian clothes, and looked like ordinary couples who might be visiting friends at the hospital or awaiting medical attention. It was fortunate that the night outside was chilly, because the jackets which hid their guns would not look out of place. At the insistence of both Grace and Nikita, their guns were loaded with tranq darts. Madeline and Operations had, in the end, reluctantly agreed that no live ammo would be taken into St. Michael’s Hospital for Women, which was a legitimate hospital filled with patients and newborns. The operatives were also relieved that they carried the tranqs. The last thing that any of them wanted was to hit an innocent. The tranqs would bring down a hostile just as well as a real bullet, and housekeeping could pick up the garbage for interrogation.

Besides the team and Birkoff, one other person was in the van. Shana, a young doctor, was included on the mission to assess and treat Michael’s injuries. Even though intel indicated that Michael was to receive treatment at the hospital, Madeline had, to Nikita’s relief, included the doctor. This was Shana’s first field assignment and she was nervous. She sat quietly near Birkoff, who glanced up and caught her eye. He noted her nervousness and shyly smiled at her.

“You’ll be just fine. They get all the fun stuff to do, and we just get to watch.” He used a nod of his head to point to the ops who were getting ready to leave the van. Chris Davenport looked up at Birkoff’s words and grinned.

“If Michael’s in there, we are bringing him out, one way or another,” he said grimly. “No one gets left behind this time, especially not Michael.” Birkoff quit smiling and ducked his head, suddenly engrossed in something on his monitor screen. Davenport realized what he had said, and quickly uttered an apology to Birkoff. “I’m sorry, Birky. We all thought we had lost Michael last time. No offense meant. Okay?”

“O..o...okay, no offense taken,” Birkoff said, tugging at a patch of hair on his forehead, “but I still should have noticed that his tracker was still live. I missed that, after I thought I saw him take that headshot.”

“Well, we will get him this time. Everybody goes home this time.” Davenport rose and slapped Birkoff’s shoulder as he passed him on his way to the door. “Coming, my love?” He extended his hand to the female op behind him. Andie, her short, blond hair gleaming even in the fluorescent lights in the van, took his hand and preceded him out the door. Snow, watching Davenport’s style, turned back and offered his hand to Nessa, a new recruit on her second live mission. She looked down at her padded tummy and then smiled a brilliant smile and took Snow’s hand. They followed Davenport and Andie out the door of the van, leaving Shana and Birkoff alone together. Feeling awkward, Birkoff sought refuge in his computer and Shana leaned back, content to watch Birkoff monitor the team as well as Grace, Alex and Nikita.

“Listen to this!” Birkoff turned on the speakers, and Shana sat forward on her seat, listening with a growing smile as Nikita refused to leave the examining room, boldly telling the medical staff that she wasn’t about to leave her “mother.” Shana laughed and said that hospital protocol was being breached by Nikita staying in the room with Grace. Birkoff looked at her as if she were crazy. “You don’t know Nikita and Grace very well, do you? Nikita would not leave Grace for one second. It’s not going to happen.” And it didn’t happen. So, while Alex gratefully sat out in the hall while Grace was examined, Nikita stubbornly stayed with her “Mom.”

Birkoff chuckled and continued to listen, but he soon lost interest as the doctor started to talk about what he found as the examination went on. Shana listened with professional interest and Birkoff started blushing. The flush of color started at his throat and worked its way slowly up until the tops of his ears were a fiery red. When he chanced an appreciative glance toward Shana, he was appalled to find her staring at him, trying to repress a giggle. He felt the flush and turned even redder.

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

Walter hurried up to the door of Madeline’s office and punched in the access code. The door slide open silently and Walter practically jumped down the few stairs.

“I think we have a problem, a big problem!” He stopped in front of her desk and waited impatiently for Madeline to face him. When she finally turned to him from her monitor, she smiled sedately.

“What is it Walter?” She leaned back in her chair and was suddenly alert to how hard he was breathing and how disheveled he looked. She leaned forward and said softly, “Walter, what is it?” He had her complete attention now.

“It’s Rene! I can’t find him anywhere! He was with me, helping me load the van and then he told me he wanted to go say goodbye to Grace and Alex. He left and didn’t return. I didn’t think anything about it. I thought that he probably stayed in their quarters, after they left. But when I went to find him, he wasn’t there. I have looked all over. No one has seen him since before the van left. I even went down to van access, and that’s where I found this canister. Walter held up the storage bin and looked at Madeline.

“And what is that?” she asked.

“I loaded this myself, just before the mission left. It was stowed in the cabinet behind the communications array, just behind Birkoff’s station. Madeline, I think we may have a stowaway on the mission to retrieve Michael. I think Rene is hiding in the van! Grace is gonna kill me and then if there is anything left, Michael and Nikita will have a go at me... I’m dead meat, either way. How could I have been so careless, to have lost Rene.” Walter collapsed backward into one of the chairs in front of Madeline’s desk. “My God, and I haven’t even thought what you and Operations will do to me.” He put his head in his hands and bent over. Walter was being harder on himself that anyone else would have been.

Madeline got up and walked around the edge of her desk and put one hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Walter. I’m sure he will be okay. He is just probably hiding somewhere here in Section. We’ll find him.” She pressed a few keys on her keyboard and authorized a full search of Section for Rene. She didn’t let Walter see the worried look on her face as she comforted the old man, who suddenly looked every one of his sixty years.

“We’ll find him, Walter.”

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

Rene was getting hot where he was and for a few seconds, he heartily wished he hadn’t hidden himself away where he had. He was uncomfortable and he wanted out, but when he tried to open the door from inside, he quickly realized that the cabinet he was in didn’t have any latches on the inside. It was getting hard to breathe, too. What was he going to do now?

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

“He WHAT!!” Operations bellowed so loudly that operatives and techies all over Section looked up to the eyrie in shock. What they saw was an enraged and somewhat frightening Operations. They quickly looked away and found someplace else to be, rather than take the chance of becoming the object of the Section leader’s rage.

Madeline stood quietly while Operations fought to gain control of himself. Only a few days ago, he thought he had lost his top operative, only to find out that Red Cell had set up the entire scenario so that one man, Hugo, could kidnap Michael and exact a harsh revenge upon him for having the skill and audacity to trap two of Red Cell’s most valuable players, first Philo and then their Section mole, Zalman. Now, as Operations continued to shake with fear and rage, Michael’s son, Rene, had gone missing.

“Get me, Birkoff. NOW!!” he turned, shouting at Madeline. She smiled slightly and tapped a few keys on the keyboard. Operations had almost lost Michael, still could, but he had made up his mind. He was not going to lose Michael’s son as well.

“Birkoff here, Sir.” Operations almost ran over to the comm unit in his office.

“Birkoff, I want you to listen very carefully. Failure is NOT an option here. Do you understand!” In the mission van, Birkoff sat up ramrod straight, his every nerve ending tingling. Shana, sitting next to him, involuntarily snapped to attention as well, acutely aware of Birkoff’s tension, even though she could not hear Operations’ voice. Birkoff turned to her, fear plainly showing on his face and pressed a key that put Operations on the speaker. Shana looked into Birkoff’s eyes, eager to let him know that he wasn’t alone.

He spoke slowly, “I understand, Sir. What can I do for you?”

Operations swiftly told Birkoff what had happened and ordered him to search the van thoroughly. “Don’t leave even one inch of that van unsearched. If he is there, you find him. DO IT NOW!”

Birkoff jumped at the last command and stammered, “Right away, Sir!”

Inside the cabinet, Operations’ booming voice on the speaker was muffled. A very drowsy Rene sat up hastily and bumped his head on the top of the cabinet that he was inside. Gosh, he thought, how did Operations get inside the van? He rubbed his eyes sleepily and tried to listen to the muffled voice. “DO IT NOW” was all he heard from Operations and then he heard Birkoff talking to someone. He sounded scared and was banging around the van. Uh oh, thought Rene, I think he is looking for me. I better get ready for when he opens this cabinet. It might be my last chance.

Shana was helping Birkoff search the van. They had opened every drawer, bin and cabinet in the van except the one just behind Birkoff’s seat. Birkoff glanced at Shana and moved his lips silently, pointing and telling her that Rene had to be in that cabinet. He crept quietly over to the cabinet and carefully put his hand on the latch and turned the handle. A force on the other side of the cabinet door pushed hard as the latch turned and with a loud yell, Rene erupted from the cabinet. Birkoff was so startled at this tumultuous exit, that he took a step back and promptly tripped over his chair and unceremoniously landed hard on his back side. He made a valiant lunge at the escaping Rene, but all he received for his trouble was a lap full of computer equipment as Rene pushed over the communications desk in his bid for freedom. Shana ran for the door, but all she saw was Rene disappearing through the hospital emergency doors.

Birkoff sat on the floor of the van, with his head in his hands. “Oh, God,” he said, “I’m a dead man when Operations hears about this. I am dead!”

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

As Rene barreled through the doors of the emergency room, he almost collided with three women who were standing near the entrance. One of the women reached out and snagged the back of his shirt as he attempted to pass her.

“Just hold on here, young man, just where do you think you are going in such a hurry?” She stopped his forward progress abruptly, causing him to come to a halt that caused his arms to cartwheel in an attempt to keep his balance. The two other women standing next to Rene’s captor seemed to find his antics comical. They both laughed and for that, earned a frown from Rene. He was on a serious mission and did not have time to be the butt of someone’s joke.

“I have to find my father. He’s here in the hospital!” The words came out in a breathless gush from his mouth. “Please let me go so I can find him!” He tried to pull away from the woman, but she held the collar of his shirt firmly.

“Well, I am sure your father would not be pleased to hear that you almost ran down three fellow countrymen of yours. You are American, are you not? I detect an American accent, do I not?” She peered down at Rene and he looked guiltily up at her.

“I’m sorry I almost ran into you, but I am in a hurry to find my father. And no, he would not be pleased. He has taught me to be a gentleman and to be kind to ladies such as yourself and your friends. I am sorry if I have been rude.” Rene fidgeted and once again tried to pull out of the woman’s grasp. “What happened to you? Were you in an accident? Your face seems swollen. Does that hurt much?” Rene smiled up at the woman and tried a bit of charm. It always seemed to work on his Mother and Nikita.

She touched her face with the hand not holding Rene captive. “No, it doesn’t hurt much. I just had some oral surgery.” She bent down and grinned back at Rene. “The doctors here have wonderful medicine to make the pain go away. You are a very nice young man. Is your mother a patient here? Are you expecting a baby brother or sister?” Rene sighed and resigned himself to answering her questions, waiting for the opportunity to make his escape and find his father.

“Please, may I go now. My mother is here having my twin sisters. I really do have to find my father. Pleeeeease?”

“Twins? How wonderful!” The woman smiled again and let her hand drop from Rene’s collar as she turned to her friends to comment on what a charming child Rene was, and how nice that it was that he was going to have twins in his family. “Patty, Ursula, isn’t he the cu

test little ...... “ and before she could finish her sentence, Rene had once again performed his disappearing act. Pam looked down the hall and saw him disappear around a corner. “Well, girls,” she said, looking puzzled at how quickly he moved. “We have some more sight-seeing to do and I think I need some more ice cream. Shall we go?”

Hurrying down the hall, Rene skidded to a halt and expeditiously changed his direction. He had spied Davenport and Andie sitting in a waiting area up ahead. He would not get past them, and he couldn’t go back the way he came because he didn’t want to chance running into the American tourist ladies again. He quickly looked around and saw a door leading to the stairs. He slipped through the doorway, just as Birkoff put out a directive to the operatives inside the hospital to be on the lookout for Rene. Davenport, Andie, Snow and Nessa unobtrusively scanned the immediate area around them and then slowly got up and spread out to search more thoroughly, always listening for further instructions from Birkoff. Rene had made good his escape, now, he thought, if he could only do the same for his father.

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

Nikita bent down and whispered in my ear. “Our little Rene is starting to scare me. He reminds me too much of his father. Birkoff just told me that Rene stowed away in the van and just made a break for it. He’s here in the hospital somewhere.” She grabbed my shoulder as I tried to get up. “Now, Mother, you can’t get up yet. You’re not well. Remember......” Nikita hissed the last word through her teeth. “Come on, lay back down. Remember the twins, won’t you?”

“Nikita, my darling daughter. If Rene is lost, we need to find him as soon as possible. I don’t want him running into that horrid man who has Michael. I couldn’t handle it if something happened to Rene.” I felt the fear and the tears starting to overwhelm me. I felt so vulnerable here, all trussed up with my feet in the air and the rest of me so....exposed. “Nikita, find him, please?”

She clasped my hand and said quietly, trying her best to control her voice and keep from being overheard by the medical staff in the room. “Grace, we will find him. My team is searching for him now. They won’t let anything happen to him. I promise.” She squeezed my hand and kissed my forehead and said outloud. “Mom, I’m going to get Alex in here for you. Calm down. Everything is going to be all right.” And then to me again, “Alex should be finished scanning now. I’ll go see if he has transmitted to Birkoff yet. We will get a fix on Michael and then we will be out of here.” She pulled her hand from mine and left the room to look for Alex.

While Nikita and I were talking, Rene had accomplished what we had not. He had found his father.

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

Rene crouched behind a stack of boxed medical supplies when he heard the two men talking. After he had dashed through the door to the stairs, he noticed that the stairs led down to the basement floors. Weird, he thought, there is more than one basement. He had quickly walked around the first level and found out that it was a parking garage. The next level was also. But on the third level, he found storage areas and lots of mechanical equipment. Wow! he thought, this must be where all the electrical stuff and air conditioning stuff must be. As he walked, he thought he could hear faint voices. If someone wanted to hide a man in a woman’s hospital, this basement far below the hospital might be the place. Rene continued to walk in the direction from which the voices came.

Suddenly, one of the voices rose sharply. Someone was arguing with someone else. “I don’t care how much you are paying me, you can’t work on him here! He is not healthy enough yet and I can’t take the chance that he will be discovered down here. What you propose is not exactly quiet work.” Rene carefully inched his way forward, trying to peek around the boxes without being seen. He saw two men standing outside of an open door. One was dressed in the white coat of a doctor, the other man wore dark clothes and had a red scarf tied around his neck. This grim-faced man must be the one who had kidnapped his father. He looked mean and Rene told himself that he had better be really careful not to get caught by that bad, bad man.

They continued to argue, the “mean” man saying something about electro-shock or something like that. Rene grimaced as he came to the conclusion that the grim-faced man wanted to hurt his Daddy. No way, Rene thought, I have to think of something to help my Daddy.

“I thought you brought him here for me to “fix” him after the last session you had with him. I’ve done what you asked. He is better than he was when you brought him in! And now, you want to damage him again. No, I won’t have it! Not here!” The doctor was really angry and Rene smiled. Fight for my Daddy, doctor! Then, in dismay, Rene watched as the doctor threw up his hands and turned to leave, apparently giving in to the man in the dark clothes. Hugo, the doctor had called him. “I give up! If you want to do this, I will have nothing more to do with you or that one!” The doctor pointed to the room by raising his chin. “What?” he asked.

Hugo asked his question again, “Where is the equipment that I require?”

Disgusted, the doctor called to someone in the room. “Louis! Take Hugo and show him where to find what he wants. After you help him, leave him and our ex-patient and come to find me. I’ll pay you in my office.” The doctor glanced back inside the room and said, “Poor bastard!” and then left, walking toward Rene’s position. Rene backed as quietly as he could into the darkness behind the crates and waited until the sounds of the doctor’s footsteps died away. He crept slowly forward and peered once again around the edge of the crate. As he watched, another man came out of the room and motioned to Hugo to follow him. As Louis trudged down the hallway, Rene heard him ask Hugo a question.

“Why do you want to torment Michael? Hasn’t he suffered enough at your hands?” Hugo’s answer made Rene’s blood run cold.

“No, he hasn’t suffered nearly enough for me, but he will. Yes, soon he will be begging me to kill him!”

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

Rene waited until the two men disappeared down the hallway, and then he tiptoed to the doorway of the room where the men had been. Tears sprang to his eyes when he hurried into the room. “Daddy, Daddy!” he called.

He ran over to the bed and grabbed Michael’s hand which was strapped to the bed rail, but he got no response from his father. Rene shook his father’s arm, trying to wake him. Slowly, agonizingly, Michael opened his pain-ravaged eyes, and then squeezed them shut again. He opened them once more and groaned. “Merde!” he said, “I thought that when the fever passed, the dreams would also.” Wearily, he let his eyes drift closed again, and was shaken vigorously by a frantic Rene.

“Daddy, I’m not a dream...I’m not! I’m real! We have to get you out of here. Can you get up?” Even as he asked the question, Rene looked down at his father’s legs and saw them encased in plaster casts. He knew that he and his father were going nowhere by themselves. His hands shaking, he fumbled with the restraints binding his father’s hands to the side rails of the bed. Freeing one hand, he moved to the other side of the bed and unbuckled the other restraint. Michael watched in shocked disbelief. His son was right there with him. “Rene,” he rasped, his throat dry and scratchy, “What are you doing here...how did you....”

“Shhhhh, Daddy, your team is upstairs. We’ll get you out. Gosh! I almost forgot!” Rene reached up and tapped the comm unit that he had stolen from Walter and placed behind his ear. As he called out Birkoff’s name, he continued to walk around the bed, unbuckling the straps that held down Michael’s legs and chest He stopped and looked at his father, finding joy in the fact that he could do so. Father and son smiled at each other.

“Yes, it’s me, Birkoff. I found my Daddy! We are three floors down inside the hospital. Could you send someone to help us? Tell Davenport to take the stairs close to the waiting room where he was sitting with Andie. My Daddy is hurt and can’t get up. We need help, and we need it now! Also, can you please tell Alex to get my Mom out of here. I want her safe. Please hurry and get someone down here. The dragons....the bad guys will be back soon. Hurry!” He was back at Michael’s side. He smiled at his father and stood on tiptoes to hug him, his youthful confidence and his love for this father plain for anyone to see. “I’m so glad to see you, Daddy. They’ll be here soon. Nikita is upstairs and so is Davenport and some others. Are you hurt bad, Daddy? I love you so much, and I was so scared....”

A deep voice interrupted the father-son reunion. “My, my....how very touching. Tell me Michael. How much do you love your son? Enough to die for him?”

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

Rene did not turn around when he heard the man’s voice behind him. He only took one step back from Michael’s bed, and with his upper arms and elbows held stiffly against his sides, he put his hands on his chest and stared hard into his father’s eyes. Please understand me, Daddy....Watch me....look at me, he thought desperately. Michael’s eyes were on the man in the doorway, but something...a feeling, a deep-seated need made him shift his eyes to his son. When his eyes met Rene’s, he saw a plea for understanding in those green eyes so like his own. Rene glanced down toward his chest and Michael’s gaze followed his and riveted on Rene’s hands. Very carefully, Rene was pulling up his sweater. Inch by slow inch, the hem of the sweater moved up. When Michael saw the butt of the black Beretta that was snugly tucked into the waistband of Rene’s jeans, he almost choked. Covering his reaction with a cough and a moan of pain, Michael communicated with Rene with an almost imperceptive nod of his head. He knew what Rene was trying to tell him.

Unfettered by the restraints, Michael sat up for the first time in days and felt the world tilt. Hugo grinned evilly when he saw how disoriented Michael seemed. “Well, would you? You know, die for him” Hugo raised the gun he had in his hand. “Well?”

“I would, if this was my son. But, you see, this is not my son. My son is dead. You read my file yourself. My son died five years ago.” Michael stared hard at Hugo. “This child wandered down here looking for his Daddy. We’ve just been having a nice talk, haven’t we, young man?” He put his newly freed arm around Rene, who took the opportunity to look over his right shoulder at Hugo, who was looking a bit confused at Michael’s statement denying his fatherhood.

Rene saw Hugo let the barrel of the gun drop and felt Michael draw the gun from its place in Rene’s waistband. And then, before he knew what was happening, his father flung him away and there were explosions of noise that left his ears ringing. When he fell to the floor, Rene bumped his head and when he looked up at the scene before him, it seemed as if everything was happening in slow motion.

There was a movement behind Hugo and he saw someone, Louis, the doctor’s helper push Hugo’s gun hand. He saw the gun in his father’s hand erupt once, twice, and saw Hugo shudder from the impact of the two bullets as they hit him in the chest. Hugo’s hand spasmed and the gun in his hand fired as he fell. Rene looked back to his father and watched in abject horror as Michael’s right shoulder was pushed backward and down, as if someone or something had hit him....My Daddy’s been shot, Rene’s mind screamed. Michael’s body moved with the momentum of the bullet that hit him in the right shoulder and he began to fall backward, his hands grasping for something with which he could stop himself from falling. All his hands grabbed was a handful of cotton bed sheets and he continued to fall back and then off the hospital bed. Michael landed with a crash on the floor and suddenly everything started moving faster.

Louis stepped over Hugo’s still body, rushed to Michael’s side and attempted to stop the flow of blood that was blossoming on his shoulder. Michael, eyes wide and wild, was searching for any sight of his son. “Rene.....Rene, where are you?” he called. Frantically pushing at Louis hands, Michael was trying to reach Rene. Where was his son? His head ached from its impact with the hard tile floor and he felt himself starting to drift, but he fought to stay conscious. He had to know Rene was all right.

Rene got to his knees and then quickly got to his feet and made a mad dash to his father’s side. He had seen his father injured before, but he hadn’t seen him with so much blood coming out of him before. He turned anguished eyes to Louis, who was finally able to press a wad of sheet against Michael’s shoulder to try and stop the bleeding. Michael had stopped fighting him when Rene had knelt by his side and taken his father’s hands in his own. Michael was focused on Rene, so Louis did what he could for Michael.

Louis looked up in alarm when he heard footsteps echoing down the hallway toward the room that they were in. “Hugo’s men!” he gasped.

“No!” Rene said confidently. “My Daddy’s team!”

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

Davenport burst through the door of the room where Michael lay in Rene’s arms. Louis shrank back, fearing the gun in Davenport’s hand. Rene looked from his father, to Davenport and then to Louis.

“It’s okay, Chris. This man is helping my Daddy. Aren’t you, sir?” Louis smiled encouragingly at Rene and nodded.

He looked up at Davenport and asked if he could get up and find some bandages. At Davenport’s curt nod, Louis got up and scurried across the room to a cabinet and started rummaging through it, pulling several bundles out of the cabinet. Andie came into the room, closely followed by a wild-eyed Nikita.

“Michael?” She tossed a questioning glance at Davenport who indicated with a raised chin where she could find him. She quickly joined Rene on the floor and bent to plant a kiss on Michael’s lips. “I thought I had lost you.” They both smiled sadly and laughed together, at the private joke.

Michael grimaced in pain and said briefly, “Don’t make me laugh, it hurts!” She kissed him again and looked up at Davenport.

“Help me get him on the bed. We have to get the bleeding controlled.” Davenport glanced at Andie who was covering the room with her gun, her eyes roving, expecting to meet trouble from wherever it came. Davenport shoved his gun into his waistband and walked over to where Michael lay. He bent and carefully lifted Michael, his strong arms supporting Michael’s back and shoulders while Nikita and Louis lifted his legs and laid Michael back on the hospital bed. Louis tore open the bundles he had dropped on the bed and began pressing thick bandages onto Michael’s wound. With Nikita’s help, he then taped the bandages in place. Louis watched in confusion as the tall blond woman started talking to someone he couldn’t see.

“Birkoff, get the van ready. We are coming in hot. Michael has a shoulder wound. Is Shana ready?” She listened for a few seconds, nodded and said, “Yes, we have Michael and Rene. Get ready for us. We will be there in five.”

Rene, who had stood and who still had his father’s hand clenched tightly in his own, said quietly, “Nikita, where is my Mom and Alex? Are they okay? And the babies?” Michael missed the reference to “babies” and asked the obvious. “Grace and Alex are here? What are they doing here? She’s got to be almost eight months along. What idiot let her come along on this mission?” he demanded to know. Nikita placed her fingers on his lips and shushed him, telling that she would explain everything later.

“Rene, she and Alex are fine. They were leaving with Snow and Nessa when we came down here. They should be safely in the van by now. Davenport, are we clear to move?” She stopped, and looked down at Michael. How were they going to move him? She looked up at Davenport with the question in her eyes. He smiled and moved over to the bed.

“Nikita, tell Birkoff to meet us in the parking garage, level two. I’ll carry him to the freight elevator Andie found. And and tell him to find a backboard or something we can lay him on in the van. Chris Davenport swiftly took over from Nikita, who proceeded to follow his orders. He gave additional orders to Andie and soon, they were on the move. He turned to Louis as he walked over to the bed to pick up Michael. “I’m sorry. Thanks for helping our friend, but you can’t go with us.” Before anyone could react to his words, Davenport glanced at Andie, who raised her gun and shot Louis. As he crumpled to the floor, Rene screamed at Davenport.

“NOOO!! He helped my Daddy. What did you do that for!” Michael’s held on tightly to Rene’s hand as he struggled to free himself and launch an attack on Davenport. Michael lifted his eyes to Chris’ and asked a question.

“Tranq?” As Davenport nodded, Michael pulled on Rene’s hand and tried to calm him. “Rene, listen to me, listen to me. He’s all right! Chris just put him to sleep. He is okay, understand?”

Rene quieted at his father’s voice and said simply, “Really? He’s okay?” Reassured by Michael, Rene smiled and said, “Well then, let’s get out of here!”

He watched as Davenport carefully lifted his father and carried him out of the room. Michael cried out only once as one of his legs hit the door facing. “Careful, Davenport,” he hissed in pain, and then grinned. “You don’t want me to send my son after you, do you?”

Davenport looked from father to son, and said somberly, “Michael, I don’t ever want to be on your bad side. But even more, I don’t want to be on your son’s bad side. He is one tough little guy. Now let’s get you to the van so you can get some medical attention.” Michael put his good arm around Davenport’s neck and Nikita took Rene’s hand and they all followed Andie who was on point. They were going home.

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

Everything happened so fast. One minute I was laying on the exam table and the next minute Alex was helping me off the table and back into my clothes. “We found Michael, actually...” He took me in his arms as if what he said next would scare me, and it did scare me. “Actually, Rene found Michael.” That got my attention and I felt my knees start to buckle.

“Where are they? Tell me, Alex! Tell me!” Alex was practically carrying me out of the examination room. We met Snow and Nessa in the hallway and they ranged themselves so that Snow led the way out and Nessa covered our backs. Alex seemed to take this all in stride, but I was not taking it so well. I wanted to know where my son and Michael were. I stopped and planted myself firmly in the middle of the hallway. Nessa almost ran into us before she stopped. Alex looked flustered at my recalcitrant nature and decided that he had better explain if he wanted us out of the hospital. “Where are they and where is Nikita? I want to know now!” Snow had returned to us and spoke to Alex urgently.

“Tell her, Alex! We need to move. Shots have been fired!” I looked at Snow in surprise. I had never heard him speak so many words in all the time I had known him.

Alex looked into my fear-filled eyes and said plainly, “They are downstairs. Davenport, Nikita and Andie are going after them. Now, come on, Grace, we need to get to the van.” We started moving again, and Snow’s last words finally registered in my brain...shots have been fired. Please, God, I prayed. Let Rene and Michael be all right, please!

We hurried into the night and as we left the hospital, I heard a nurse calling after us, “Madame, M’seiur, you must not leave. Come back, come back.” We didn’t look back. The dark gray van opened up and swallowed us. Birkoff glanced up at me and ducked his head, avoiding my eyes.

“Birkoff, what’s wrong? What has happened? Tell me, please?” He looked at me and lowered his eyes once more.

“Uhhh, Grace, we are meeting the rest of the team in the parking garage. Davenport was able to take out Hugo’s guards on the way in. Michael was able to get a gun and he shot Hugo, but Hugo was able to get off a shot, and......” He stopped and looked from me to Alex as if to tell Alex the news was not good. Alex tightened his arms around me and we both looked at Birkoff for the rest of the news. “Michael was shot. Hugo is dead. Apparently, when Rene stowed away in the van, he had the gun with him. That’s how Michael was able to take Hugo down before he could hurt Rene.” All the tension in my body dissipated when I heard this last.

“Then Rene is all right? How badly was Michael injured? Will he be all right?” A soft hand laid itself on my arm. I looked up into the kind eyes of the young doctor I met moments before we left for the hospital to retrieve Michael. Shana reassured me that Michael would be just fine. She would see to it. A shoulder wound, she said, routine for Michael, she said. I smiled up at her. Not routine for me, it was never routine for me when someone I loved was hurt. I would worry until I saw for myself that Rene and Michael were all right.

The van stopped and the side door was flung open. Shana had a back board ready on the floor of the van and Snow helped Davenport ease Michael into the van and onto the board. As soon as he was secured on to the back board, Snow, Andie, and Nessa left the van to go get the car that Alex, Nikita and I had driven to the hospital. They would return to Section in that car. Nikita appeared in the doorway of the van with Rene and he scrambled across to give me a hug before turning to make sure that his father was safe. My son was safe and all was almost right with the world. Michael lay at my feet while Shana cut away the bloody T-shirt and attended to his wound. She looked up into several anxious faces and told us that Michael would be fine. Nikita had plunked herself down on the floor by Michael’s side and gave every indication that she was staying there for the hour long ride back to Section. Shana told us that she would examine Michael more closely when we arrived back at Section, but for now she had started new IVs and had dressed his shoulder wound and that he would be just fine. She seemed to approve of the work done on Michael by Hugo’s doctor, but commented that she wouldn’t be happy until she had x-rayed Michael’s legs and chest to check the damage and repairs for herself. We all settled down for the duration of the journey back to Section.

I sighed and leaned back against Alex. I was tired, excited, and scared to death, but everyone I loved was okay. Suddenly, I felt a twinge of pain and the seat underneath me was inexplicably wet. Rene jumped up from where he sat beside me in the van. “MOM, what is that? Why is the seat wet? YUCK! What is happening?”

I looked at Alex and I saw he was beaming down at me. “Is it time?” he said. I smiled at him and nodded. He hugged me closer to him. “Oh, Grace, I love you so!”

Every eye in the van was on me. I looked at Shana as she knelt by Michael, who was gazing up at me with pain-filled eyes filled with confusion. “Shana,” I said. “Do you have any experience delivering babies...actually, have you ever delivered twins?” I glanced first at Nikita who was grinning from ear to ear, and then to Michael who now was simply staring at me with a question on his lips.

“Twins!?” he croaked and then repeated, “Twins?”

I smiled, “Yes, twins....surprise?”

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

I was excited that all the months of waiting were about to pay off, that Alex and I were about to meet our new babies. I was also apprehensive. Could I pull this off? I was early by six weeks and that scared me. My OB/GYN, Dr. Bonniere, had told me that I could possibly deliver early because I was having twins. Twins often came early. I was also 44 years old and my pregnancy was high-risk, but my doctor kept a careful watch on my condition and she didn’t think there would be any problems. Of course, she didn’t know I would plop myself in the middle of a Section rescue mission either.

Stubborness and a head-strong nature ran in the women in my family. I was no exception. I rarely let anyone tell me what to do and I did pretty much what I wanted to do, and I had wanted to see Michael safely back with his son. So I took the chance to go on the rescue mission and the chance had paid off. Michael was safe, injured, but safe all the same. I had gotten what I wanted.

Now, here I sat, safely surrounded by those I loved and I was about to do something else I had wanted ever since finding the love of my life, Alex Carson. I was having his children. I smiled at him as pain started rippling thru me. My first contractions, I thought, and so it starts. Alex gripped my hands and tightened the warm circle of his arms around me. “Grace? Are you okay? Do you want to lay down?” he asked, a look of concern in his wonderful blue eyes.

“No, I’m fine right here beside you. Besides, if I tried to lay down on this skinny seat, I’d likely roll off and squash Michael down there. This comment elicited a laugh from everyone in the van, even from Michael who put a hand up to support his battered ribcage.

“Grace, please, no laughter, it hurts too much.” Rene who had been watching me wide-eyed since jumping up to escape the wet seat when my water broke, had sat down on the floor of the van and was brushing the errant curls of sweat-dampened hair from his father’s forehead.

“Daddy, you didn’t know about the twins, did you? You haven’t been home in such a long time. Mom and I wanted to tell you in person. It was a big surprise, wasn’t it? You’re going to be godfather to my little sisters. Can you believe it? Girls! Mom says it won’t be so bad. I’ll have to take care of them as they grow up. I can teach them a lot. You had a little sister, didn’t you? Did you like having a little sister? You’ll have to teach me how to take care of them. I don’t know anything about little girls.”

Michael smiled up at his son and told him quietly that he would teach him all he knew about taking care of little sisters. He closed his eyes then, surrendering finally to the sedatives and pain-killers that Shana had injected into his IV. Rene leaned down and kissed Michael’s forehead and then sat peacefully by his father continuing to run his fingers through his father’s hair, glad that he had this time with Michael.

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

By the time we arrived back at Section, my contractions were getting stronger and were about ten minutes apart. Birkoff had called ahead and two medical teams met us, one for Michael and one for me. Madeline and Operations were also there to meet us. They stood quietly, observing as an unconscious Michael was whisked away to Medlab. Madeline fell in step beside me as I was lifted onto a gurney and pushed down the hallway behind Michael. “Grace, you always make such memorable entrances into Section. Very dramatic, this one. Are you all right?”

“As well as I can be, Madeline. It’s a good thing you weren’t with us in the van, you would have squishy shoes now.” She laughed and took my left hand, my right hand was securely tucked in Alex’s hands.

We were two old friends, near each other in age, but far apart in many other ways. We shared friendship and those that we loved. I looked up at her and told her calmly, “Rene and I get him for a long time this time.” I glanced down the long hallway where the gurney carrying Michael had just rounded the corner. “A long time...”

“Yes, Grace, this time, I think you and Rene will have him for several months, depending on what the doctors find.” She said this sadly, as if she would miss having him in Section. She shook her head slightly, as if banishing her thoughts to a place far removed from the present. “Now, let’s get you to Medlab too. You and Alex have an interesting day ahead of you.”

The day was indeed interesting. It had dawned as we had entered Section. As the morning lengthened, I found myself in hard labor. I was so tired, but both Alex and Nikita were there murmuring comforting words to me between and during the contractions that were now about five minutes apart and lasting about a minute each. Nothing seemed to be happening but the unending bouts of contractions, a few minutes of rest and then the pain again. I felt overwhelmed and discouraged that my babies would ever be born. I know that I must have come close to fracturing Nikita’s hands. I squeezed her hands unmercifully. Alex’s too, but he just grinned and continued to encourage me. I asked about Michael and they told me that he was in surgery to reset and repair his breaks. Good, I told them, he was going to be with Rene for a long recovery.

As noon approached, I grew cranky. Nothing Alex could do for me was enough. The contractions were lasting longer now and they were getting closer together. I heard one of the nurses, Raven I think her name was, say that I had dilated to six centimeters. I remembered the long thick black braid down her back....and wished I had hair that thick and beautiful. I asked about Michael again and was reminded that he was still in surgery. Oh, I thought, and drifted on a cloud of pain and nausea. I felt so sick. Nikita was there still with a cool, damp cloth to bathe my face. I trembled and Alex kissed my forehead and told me I was doing a good job. I wanted to slap him! He was so cool and calm and pain-free. What did he know about what a good job I was doing?

The day wore on and I kept feeling like I wanted to push, but they told me it wasn’t time yet. I felt like cursing them, but I remembered what Alex had told me when he was here in Medlab after the traffic accident that had almost killed him. He said he heard me cursing like a sailor when they wouldn’t let me in to see him. I kept my mouth shut during my contractions and made sure I didn’t embarrass him again. I clenched my teeth and tried to remember how I was supposed to breath. Control, I thought, control.

Around 2pm, suddenly my contractions were further apart. This scared me. I asked the doctor about it and he said that was okay. Then the contractions became stronger than ever and Raven bent over and whispered into my ear that it wouldn’t be long now and I had dilated to over 10 centimeters. The babies were moving into the birth canal. She also told me if I needed to yell, that I should yell. I think I took her advice. I also think that I pulled Alex’s hair because I felt something in my hand and when I looked to see what it was, there were short blond strands between my fingers. Nikita left at some point because I noticed she wasn’t there. “Alex, where’s Nikita? I want her here when the babies come. Where is she? Is something wrong with Michael? Alex!!” Then came a respite between contractions and Alex explained that Michael was in recovery, that he was going to be okay. Nikita came back and told me that both Michael and Rene as well as everyone else wanted to know if I was all right.

“Look at me! I yelled. “Do I look all right?” Then the contractions started again and Alex continued to coach me, making sure I breathed just the way I should. The pain increased and then, finally, the doctor started telling me to push and I felt incredible pain and pressure and I pushed as hard as I could. Soon, I heard the first of my daughters cry. She has her mother’s yell, I thought. Raven took her away for a few seconds to clean out her breathing passage and then brought her back to me and laid her on my stomach. Alex and I counted all the fingers and toes. She was perfect. We both turned to Nikita, who was standing there in green scrubs with tears streaming down her face. Looking into my tired eyes for approval, Alex picked up Michelle Nikita Carson and gently placed her in her godmother’s arms. Nikita cradled my first daughter in her arms and retreated to a corner of the makeshift delivery room and sat down in a chair, cooing and murmuring to my little girl. Michelle had her first of many intimate conversations with her godmother.

Alex and I turned back to the situation at hand as I started to push again. Michelle’s little sister was insistent on following her into the world. Alexis Grace arrived three minutes later and had a wail louder than either Michelle or her mother. Alexis curled up in my arms and I sighed in contentment. My babies were beautiful and they were in the arms of those who loved them. I couldn’t wait to introduce them to their big brother, Rene, and their godfather, Michael.

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

Too soon, Raven and another nurse came and took my babies from me and Nikita. They would be cleaned up and bathed and would be brought back to us soon. The doctor spoke quietly to Alex and asked him if he would like to go outside into the corridor and tell everyone the good news. Alex had been a rock for me to cling to all through the delivery, and I encouraged him to leave. He stubbornly refused and I loved him for insisting on staying with me throughout the final stages of the delivery. The doctor began pressing on my abdomen to complete the delivery process. I knew what he was doing and I thought Alex did too. The first indication that I had that Alex was not going to make it through to the end was when I felt his hand start to slip from mine. Then I heard quick exhalation of breath and he slowly crumpled to the floor.

“Another father bites the dust.” The doctor chuckled and called two orderlies to come and pick up my brave and selfless husband. My formidable former Section One operative had been felled by the sight of the placenta which had nurtured his daughters. Ahhhh, men, I thought to myself. Foremost in battle, but on the floor in the delivery room. With the delivery process complete, Raven told me that I had done a beautiful job and arranged to have me taken to my room. Alex slowly came back to me with a sheepish look on his face.

“Did I miss anything?” he asked as he once again took hold of my hand. As the nurses helped me into a wheelchair, our little girls were returned to us and the doors of the makeshift delivery room opened outward . Alex, Nikita, our girls and I were greeted by an unbelievable sight. Gathered there in the hallway was just about everyone who worked in Section. Madeline and Operations were there at the doors, since they were at the top of the pecking order. Alex had a wide-awake Michelle in his arms and Alexis was all snuggled up, asleep in my arms. Nikita, ever the mother hen, was making sure that no one got too close to her charges. She hovered protectively, not even allowing her superiors to get to close to her godchildren. There was a quiet round of applause at our appearance and I smiled at everyone I saw. It seemed strange to think of it, but these people were my extended family. Alex and I knew almost everyone there. He had worked with them on missions when he was still an operative and many of them were former patients of my rehab. Still others, I had got to know on my visits to Section over the years since I had taken over the Section Rehab Center. There were smiles and laughter all around for me, Alex and our girls.

The crowd in the hall parted and Rene came running up to us and peered carefully, first at Alexis and then at Michelle. “They’re tiny! Are they okay?” he asked as he examined each little face carefully. Alexis awoke and Rene extended a finger and touched a tiny hand which instinctively clenched his finger. Rene giggled and looked at me. “She’s a strong one, isn’t she? Mom! Can we take them to Daddy so he can see them? He’s awake. He’d love it! Please?”

Alex and I looked at each other and laughed. Who could resist this beautiful child before us? We nodded and Rene turned and led us down the corridor to his father’s room.

He pushed the door to Michael’s room open and marched in proudly. “Daddy, look who I found out in the hall. I want you to meet my new baby sisters! Mom has Miss Alexis Grace Carson and Alex has your and Nikita’s namesake, Miss Michelle Nikita Carson. Aren’t they just beautiful?”

“Beautiful, both of them.” He raised his hand, extending it toward Alex and Michelle, a look of awe on his face. “My namesake?” He seemed overcome with emotion, tears glistening in his eyes. Alex leaned over and gently laid Michelle in the curve of his uninjured arm. “My God,” he said, “She is so wonderful! Grace, Alex, thank you so much for naming her after me and Nikita...I don’t deserve such an honor.” He bowed his head and tenderly pressed his lips to Michelle’s fuzz-covered head. He glanced up at Nikita and they shared a affectionate and poignant moment together. I had to look away because the longing that I saw in both of them was so painful to behold. Nikita moved closer to Michael’s bed and touched her own lips to the spot where Michael had kissed Michelle. “Daddy, I helped name them! Do you like my choices? I do!” Rene broke the sadness of the moment with his ebullience. Both Michael and Nikita smiled sadly and caressed him with their eyes, happy for the respite from their shared reverie of what, for them, could never be.

************ As if by some unspoken agreement, when we had entered Michael’s room, everyone else stayed out in the corridor, including Operations and Madeline who had followed us through the gentle gauntlet of Section personnel who had lined the hallway outside of Medlab to get their first glimpse of Michelle and Alexis. Our small family group only had a few minutes together, before Madeline opened the door.

“I’m sorry for interrupting, but the doctor wants you in bed, Grace. And Michael’s doctor is insisting that he get some rest as well. You’ll have plenty of time together later, but for now, I think you need to listen to the doctors. All of you need to get some sleep.” With that said, she proceeded to usher everyone but Nikita out of Michael’s room. Alex carefully retrieved Michelle from Michael’s arms and Madeline pushed my wheelchair from the room. One look back before the door closed revealed a weeping Nikita wrapping a tired, exhausted Michael into her warm embrace.

Without Nikita’s protective presence, those still standing in the hall took the opportunity to wish us well. I’ve never seen so many big, strong men and mission-toughened women touch our babies so gently. It was almost as if touching someone so innocent might in some small way redeem them and by so doing, make what they did on a daily basis have some meaning. Chris Davenport, Andie, Snow and Nessa were standing near the end of the gauntlet and Alex and I stopped in front of them to thank them again for bringing Michael, Rene and us back safely.

“We were glad to be the ones to do it.” Chris said. “We would do anything for Michael and his family.” The others nodded in agreement. Andie stepped closer and asked quietly, almost whispering, “May I.....hold one of your daughters?”

I smiled and lifted Alexis for her to take. Andie had been there for Alex and I on our wedding day and it seemed right to grant her this request. Alexis moved restlessly for a few seconds in Andie’s arms and then settled down and fit herself into the cradle of Andie’s embrace. “She looks like she belongs there,” Nessa told Andie. She shifted her eyes to look into mine with her own request, and I nodded. Andie slowly transferred Alexis into Nessa’s arms. Snow looked over Nessa’s shoulder and smiled that tiny little smile I had seen only a few times before. He had once spent two weeks at the Rehab Center and I had noticed a gentleness in him that belied his Section training. He noticed the wistfullness in Nessa’s eyes as she gazed down at Alexis and he took my child from Nessa regretfully and returned her to me. The ops lining the hall started moving away and soon the hall was empty. Madeline waited until I was resettled into my wheelchair with Alexis once again nestled against my breast and then she pushed me down the hallway to my room. Correction, our room. When she guided the chair into the room, I gasped at what I saw. There was a real queen-sized bed waiting for us, not the hospital bed I had expected. And beside the bed, were two identical bassinets for Alexis and Michelle. Alex came into the room and was also stunned at what he saw.

“Madeline, thank you! I wasn’t expecting this.” He delicately laid Michelle down in her bed and then turned back to me to take Alexis. Madeline had beat him to it. She held out her arms and I again lifted my daughter up to give her into someone else’s arms. Michelle fussed a little, and then waving her tiny fists around a bit, quieted and accepted Madeline’s touch.

I saw something then that would surprise most of the people in Section. A few beautiful, perfect tears ran down Madeline’s face as she lovingly held Michelle close to her, then kissed her and laid her down in the bassinet.

“Paul said that I shouldn’t get too attached.” She looked from Michelle to me and Alex. “It’s already too late.”

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

All the visitors had left, but I was sure they would be back tomorrow. My little girls seemed to be quite the novelty here in Section. At one point in the evening, I had thought the downy soft hair on their heads would be worn away by all the hands that sought them out for the gentlest caresses. These strong men and women had all laid their hands on Michelle and Alexis as if the touch would be a good luck charm for whatever was facing them on the next mission. Alex allowed it because he understood the uncertainty that they lived with every day of their lives.

Later, he told me that almost all of those visiting us had paid Michael a visit as well. He said it was as if they had to reassure themselves that Michael had indeed survived. If he could be lost on a mission and return from the dead, then perhaps they could make it through another day, another week also. My Alex knew their thoughts and fears, and so he permitted his daughters to become their good luck talisman for the time being. I think that sometimes, just sometimes, Alex felt a bit guilty that he no longer had to put himself at risk each day as they did. He had a family and that was something the operatives of Section One would never have. So Alex shared a little bit of his family with them. Was it any wonder why I loved this man so very much?

When he saw my eyes start to droop sleepily, he began to usher people out the door. Madeline and Operations were the last to go. They had spent most of their time by the bassinets stealing glances at Michelle and Alexis. She and Operations came over to me and they both bent to hug me. “Why did you wait until everyone was gone to do that, you old softy?” I looked up into those icy blue eyes of his and waited for Paul to answer.

“Careful, Grace, Rene is the only one with the finger that I willingly wrap myself around. Everyone else has to do what I say and dance to my drummer.” He actually smiled as he whispered this in my ear. “And, these two beautiful girls aren’t old enough to do that yet.”

“Of course, they aren’t.” I said, knowing very well that each of my children had a generous ring of Operations’ heart wrapped around their little fingers. He straightened and held out his arm, inviting Madeline to take it. She wrapped her arm around his and together they left the room. Alex and I were finally alone with our daughters

Interesting concept, breast feeding. It made me feel all warm inside, to feel their soft little mouths nuzzling to drink as much as their little tummies would hold. Alexis was definitely the more aggressive of the two. Just like her Daddy, I thought to myself. I wondered what it would feel like when their teeth started coming in. Ouch! Alex spent the whole of the first feeding sitting at my feet, watching in awe as his daughters nursed. He had folded his arms on my knees and propped his chin on his arms. He gazed up at me as first Michelle and then Alexis suckled their fill. “You’ll get your turn. Don’t worry,” I whispered to him.

He smiled then, a beautiful smile that told of his love for me and his daughters. I knew he was thinking that there was definitely a secondary benefit in this breast-feeding thing for him.

Rene chose that moment to come into our room. His eyes grew wide as he watched his new sisters nurse. “Uhhhh....maybe I better come back later. I’m gonna stay in Daddy’s room tonight. The nurse brought me a cot to sleep on.” He quickly turned to leave and I called out to him.

“Rene, come back, please. You need to get used to seeing this....it’s the most natural thing in the world. Please don’t be embarrassed.” I didn’t want him to feel an outsider, I never wanted him to feel that. He took one step back and turned back to come and stand next to my chair. He looked down at Michelle and then he raised his green eyes to mine.

“I’m not embarrassed, Mom. I just thought you and Alex would want to be alone with Michelle and Alexis, that’s all.” Rene dropped his eyes to the floor and I reached out to him. “Don’t go yet, Rene. Please? You are as much a part of this family as anyone here. Stay awhile and talk. Okay? Your Daddy is sleeping now and I know you must be brimming over with questions. You know you can ask Alex and I anything, don’t you?” My son smiled a positively luminous smile and settled himself on the floor beside Alex. It was late into the night when our family talk ended with Alex carrying a happily sleeping Rene into Michael’s room.

I was waiting for Alex when he returned. He quickly shed his clothes and climbed into the bed and snuggled up next to me. He grinned when I gave him a curious look. “I know, Love, I know it will be a few weeks yet, but we can just sleep in each other’s arms, can’t we?” I nodded and we drifted off to sleep, awaiting the first cry of a hungry child in the night.....

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

Michael awoke slowly, gradually becoming aware of the warm body sleeping cozily next to him. He opened his eyes and smiled, and then winced as he tried to roll over on to his side. Bad decision, he thought. And then he remembered the surgery that had been necessary to repair his legs. The doctors had told him that he would fully recover the use of his legs, but that it would be a long, arduous process requiring a long period of rehabilitation. At first, Michael was concerned that Section would not give him the time that would be needed to heal and rehabilitate. He found himself in the same place that Alex had been in over a year ago when he had been injured by a terrorist’s bullet and had faced medical cancellation. But Grace had come to his rescue and now she and Alex had two beautiful baby daughters. And Madeline had come to his rescue. She had come to his room last night to tell him that as soon as the doctors released him, that he would have the time needed to rebuild his strength. He would also have uninterrupted time with Rene.

Michael looked down into the face of the only child he would ever have, and smiled as he thought of everything he had missed in his son’s life. He determined he would miss as little as possible of the rest of Rene’s life. For at least the next six months, he would be with Rene everyday, and he would make the most of that time. Rene would soon be nine, and Michael had missed much of the last five and a half years of his son’s life. The pain and damage that Hugo had rained down on him was almost worth it to have the next half year with his son.

Rene stirred in his sleep, and Michael was reminded of Simone. His son’s dark hair and delicate features reminded him so much of the first woman he had ever truly loved. She was lost to him now, and he solemnly said another sad goodbye to his lost love as the last woman he would ever love pushed open the door to his room and quietly walked over to his bed. Nikita bent over and nibbled at his lips, reveling in the warm acceptance and love that she found there.

“Good morning, my love. How are you feeling today?” She whispered to him and stole another series of kisses. Michael was now wide awake and he made sure he didn’t miss anything Nikita was offering. He knew he was in no condition to go further than a few long, slow kisses, so he made do with what Nikita so lovingly offered him.

“How are the new members of the family doing this morning?” he asked her.

She straightened up and ran her fingers through his hair. Michael closed his eyes at her touch and sighed contentedly. “Michelle and Alexis are astounding their doctors. They are a few weeks early and healthy as young horses. They have great lungs which they used very early this morning to rouse Grace and Alex for a feeding. Grace fed each of them and I caught Alex looking on in envy.” She giggled, and then sighed heavily. “Too bad I didn’t give birth. My bustline could use a little bit of help.”

Michael pulled her closer. “Your bustline is just fine with me. You fit me perfectly.” He nuzzled her ear, and she shivered in pure delight as his lips played with her ear. She jumped back from Michael’s touch as Rene sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Daddy, you and Nikita are as bad as Grace and Alex. They are always nibbling on each other.” He grinned at his father and Nikita. “But I guess that is one of those grownup things you are always telling me that I will understand when I am older, isn’t it?”

“Rene, you understand love and commitment between two people because you have seen it on a daily basis with Grace and Alex. When two people love each other, they want to be together as much as they can be. Sometimes,” Michael gazed deeply into Nikita’s eyes and she caught her breath at the passion she saw in his eyes, “sometimes, when two people can’t be together as much as they would like to be, the times they are together are more important.”

Rene regarded his father and Nikita carefully before he spoke. “I know, Daddy, like you and Nikita. I know how much you love each other and how much you want to be together. Maybe I can do something about that...” He hopped off the bed and picked up his small suitcase and carried it into the bathroom to clean up and dress. As he walked away from his father, he casually looked over his shoulder and said impertinently and grinning widely, “Well, go back to what you were doing. I’ll be a few minutes, at least. I bet you two will think of something to keep yourselves occupied.” He shut the door firmly behind him, and Michael and Nikita did find something to keep them busy for the next few minutes.....

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

Rene had dressed quickly and had tiptoed out of his father’s room as quietly as possible. He liked seeing his Daddy and Nikita together, like they were now. Laying side by side in that hospital bed didn’t look too comfortable, but he knew that his Daddy was comfortable wherever his Nikita was. They were both sleeping when Rene left to seek out his target of the day.

“Rene, my boy, it’s good to see you. How are those beautiful sisters of yours?” Operations greeted Rene, took him by the hand and led him up the stairs to his office. “Your father seems to be doing better as well. It looks like you will have him with you for quite a while this time.

Rene glanced shyly up at the man he was about to work his wiles upon. “You mean you’re going to let my Daddy heal and get well? You aren’t going to cancel him because he got hurt so badly?” Rene managed to squeeze a tear out of his eye and he blinked so the tear would roll slowly down his cheek. Both the man and the boy knew that Rene had a lot of influence on Operations. Rene didn’t abuse his power and Operations allowed the power as long as it was not abused.

“Rene, I would never do that to you and you know it, you little scamp. Now, how are those sisters of yours.?”

Rene smiled and proceeded with his plan. “Michelle and Alexis are fine. I think they are tiring Mom out though. She’s always so tired after she feeds them. Have you seen how much they can eat?” Rene grinned as the tops of Operations’ ears turned red. That old fox, Rene thought to himself as he giggled at Operations’ discomfiture. He’s been watching them on the surveillance tapes. Walter had showed him how everything and everyone in Section was constantly monitored. One more thing I have on him. This is going to be fun, he told himself.

“I’ll bet they are quite a handful now, and they will be for, oh....say the next eighteen years or so.” Operations smiled widely at his weakness, who was embodied in this compact little package of green eyes and black hair standing before him. Rene had the tenacity and commitment of his father and the humor and vivacious nature of his mother. Grace’s stubbornness had rubbed off on him as well. Operations wondered if he would ever be able to deny this child anything for which he might ask. As soon as he thought it, he knew the answer to his own question.

“Yeah, Mom is going to have both her hands full with the babies and running the Center AND taking care of Daddy. He’s gonna be staying in our house and he’s gonna have to have a lot of help as long as those big casts are on his legs. I don’t know if Mom can handle all of us. Alex and I will be there to help...” Rene looked up at Operations from under his thick eyelashes and made a point of taking the opportunity to climb up into Operations’ lap. He snuggled into the crook of his arm and sighed, “I hope Mom doesn’t get too tired. She won’t be happy if she can’t take care of all of us the way she wants to. You know how she is....”

Operations hugged the child and sighed along with Rene. Capitulation stared up at him with green eyes, and he smiled down at Rene. “Okay, Rene. Tell me what you really want.”

Rene stifled a laugh behind his hand and had the grace to not ask for too much. “I want Nikita to come home with us for a while. She can help Mom with the babies, Daddy and me. My Daddy will get better a lot faster if he is with Nikita. It’s one of those grownup things that I’m not supposed to know about yet. I know she can’t be there with us for the whole time Daddy is, but you can arrange her missions so that she will have several days at a time with us, can’t you?” Rene looked up at Operations expectantly, and grinned when he saw the older man nod and grin back at him. The boy reprised his “through the lashes” look and could see almost immediately that he was about to win the prize. “That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

Operations stood up with Rene still in his arms. Rene was growing fast and he wouldn’t be able to do this much longer. “Well,” Operations said, “shall we go tell your Daddy and Nikita the good news?” Rene rewarded him with a loud whoop and a huge Rene embrace. Operation beamed in the glow of Rene’s happiness and wondered what Madeline would say to his giving in once again to his weakness. She’ll think what I tell her to think, and he laughed. Yeah, sure......

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

Madeline was nowhere to be found. Operations stalked away from her office on his way to Comm. Perhaps Birkoff would know where she was. As he approached Birkoff, Operations smiled and then quickly wiped the smile from his expression. Rene was standing next to Birkoff as the young man apparently showed Michael’s son something about his computer system. Operations slowed and watched the two of them. Rene was listening intently as Birkoff explained something to him. Rene asked a question, and then another. Birkoff’s face registered surprise and then he nodded, grinning and ruffling Rene’s hair. “Good job, Rene.” Rene’s sparkled as he dipped his head and received Birkoff’s compliment.

Operations walked up to the two of them and put his hand on the shoulder of each. They both jumped. Neither of them had heard Operations’ come up behind them. “Is Birkoff teaching you how he runs things around here?” Birkoff’s head swung around to regard Operations in amazement. Had he just heard what he thought he did? Birkoff decided he really liked having Rene here in Section. He certainly had a calming effect on Operations. “If he teaches you well, we may just have to recruit you to help Birkoff here.”

Rene jerked his shoulder from Operations’ grasp, took two steps back and almost shouted. “No! I won’t ever do anything to get recruited to this place. My Daddy did and now he says that he can’t ever leave. He always has to come back here. That’s why he can’t stay with me! He says that it is his penance. I don’t ever want to have to be enslaved like my Daddy, ‘cause that’s what you have done to him! It’s all your fault that I can’t live with my Daddy! It’s all your fault.” Rene shouted this last and sent a knife-like pain through Operations’ chest. Then, he turned, and evading Operations’ attempts to stop him, ran out of Comm like the hounds of hell were after him.

Birkoff stared after Rene and finally remembered to close his mouth, as it had been hanging open as he listened to Rene’s tirade. Operations’ shoulders slumped visibly and he looked down at the astonishment on Birkoff’s face. “What did I say?” he asked, bewildered by Rene’s outburst. He thought he had Rene’s trust, but trust was a fragile and easily broken thing in this place called Section.

Birkoff ventured out to answer Operations’ question. “Sir, I think when you mentioning recruiting him into Section....I think that is what upset him. I was watching him and what you said, frightened him, I think.” He ventured even further, by saying, “I know you didn’t mean it. You didn’t mean it, did you?” Operations pinned Birkoff with a withering stare.

“Of course, I didn’t mean it. What kind of man do you think I am? To take a boy and put him in this place?” He stopped, and stared intently at Birkoff, who averted his eyes when he felt tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. He had only been fourteen when he was ripped from his home for hacking into Section’s encrypted files, and put to work here in Section. Operations realized what he had said, and abruptly changed the subject. “Where is Madeline?” he demanded.

“Uhhh, she’s in Grace’s room, Sir. Will that be all, Sir?” He took Operations’ cold silence as an assent and returned to his work, only moving as he heard his superior leave Comm, on his way to find Madeline. Operations also wanted to find and reassure Rene that he didn’t mean it about recruiting the child. He would never do anything to hurt the child he loved as the grandchild that he would never have, now that he had lost his only son.

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

When Rene ran from Operations, he sought a hiding place where he could think and not be bothered by well-meaning adults. When he had a few minutes to think about it, he knew that he would understand that Operations was just making a joke. But it wasn’t funny to Rene. His various shows of bravado were just that, shows. Most of the time, the show made everyone think he was strong. He wanted to be strong, and he wanted his Daddy to always be proud of him, but sometimes he just wanted to be a little boy who loved his Daddy. Sometimes he just wanted to be cuddled and taken care of. It had scared him to no end when Operations made the comment about recruiting him into Section. He knew how tormented his Daddy was about always having to leave him and go back to his bondage in Section, and he never wanted to feel that anguish. It was more than he could handle sometimes to have to say good-bye to Michael and watch as he returned to Section. Rene was always terrified that some day his Daddy would leave and never come back to him. This last time he had come so close to never seeing his Daddy again.

This was definitely one of those times when he needed to be cuddled, so he ran to someone where he knew he would find unconditional love and support. Rene didn’t run to Grace or his father because he knew they were otherwise occupied. His Mom and Alex had the twins and his father had his own pain to deal with. So Rene ran to his Uncle Walter, where he knew he would find a strong and well-used shoulder to cry on. When Rene arrived in Walter’s work space, the old man was nowhere to be found. So, Rene climbed into the area under Walter’s work table which was enclosed on three and a half sides with wire mesh. He would wait in his hiding place until Walter returned from wherever he was, hidden from prying eyes that would ask why he was crying.

Rene nestled into the space and laid down. He used his sleeve to wipe the tears from his face, and unable to keep his eyes open, he let them drift closed and he went to sleep, not knowing the furor that his little nap was going to cause.

Operations first stop was at the quarters assigned to Alex and I. As he knocked and stepped inside the room, he stopped and smiled nervously at me. He looked away, as if embarrassed. “Oh, come on, Paul, surely you have seen a woman nursing her child, haven’t you? If you’re looking for Madeline, she just left.” I gestured for him to come over and sit in the rocker beside me. “Sit down here, I need some help.” As he walked over and sat down mutely, I stood and deposited a tiny Michelle into his awkward arms. I smiled at his nervousness and then watched as he gently held my daughter, as she stretched and then settled down against his chest. “You’ve done this before,” I commented.

He looked up at me and smiled tenderly. “Grace, I haven’t held a child this young in thirty years. The last time was when I held my son Stephen.” His eyes misted slightly and I had the distinct impression that he was going to cry.

Quickly, I asked what had prompted his visit. I did not want a teary-eyed Operations on my hands. “Oh, then do you remember how to burp a baby? I just finished feeding her and now it is Alexis turn. Well, do you?” I said this last as I was getting a pad ready to lay over his shoulder.

“Y...Y...Yes, I think I remember that,” and just as he was about to lift Michelle up to his shoulder to pat her on the back, my daughter chose that moment to erupt. White fluid dribbled from her mouth down the length of Paul’s expensive suit. “My God,” he shouted, holding her under the arms and away from him, “Is she all right? Did I do something wrong?” I used the pad to blot the stains from his jacket and then dropped it into his lap and took my dangling daughter from his hands. He sat back in the chair and continued to wipe at the baby burp on his suit.

“Sorry for that.” I said, grinning inwardly at the tradition my family seemed to be setting with the leaders of Section. I cradled Michelle in my arms and said quietly. “You had better get that jacket to the cleaners as soon as possible if you ever want to wear it again.”

Paul lifted his blue eyes to mine and said quickly, “That’s okay. Have you seen Rene? I was looking for him when I came in here. I need to talk to him. I think I may have scared him and I didn’t mean to, really I didn’t.” Before my eyes, the all-powerful Operations of Section begged for my forbearance.

I narrowed my eyes and the mother lion in me went on alert. “What,” I demanded, “did you say to my son?

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

I wrung every detail from Operations about what he had said to Rene. He told me as he sat there, quietly rocking Michelle. I had busied myself with picking up Alexis and then nursing her right there in front of him as he explained himself. Alex had come in and, taking his cue from me, stood quietly with his hands on my shoulders and listened to what Operations was saying.

“How could you say that to him, even in jest? You must know how he feels about Section. Rene thinks Section has robbed him of his father. Michael explained to him why he always has to go back, why he couldn’t be with Rene on a regular basis.” I sighed angrily. “What were you thinking??”

“Grace, that is the problem. I wasn’t thinking. I know how Rene feels about his fathers’ servitude in Section, I just didn’t think the joke would scare him like it did. He has always been such a strong little guy. You know I would never knowingly do anything to hurt him. I love him, too. He is the grandson of my heart...the grandson I will never have.” He looked down at the sleeping baby in his arms. “Never...” He bowed his head and I felt my heart go out to him. Was I truly feeling sorry for this man?

Alex had just told me that he was going to look for Rene, when a wild-eyed Nikita came bursting into the room. “Grace...oh Grace!” She dropped like a rock next to my rocker and laid her head in my lap. Alex quickly took Alexis from my arms and I reached out and took Nikita’s chin in my hand and raised her red-rimmed eyes to mine.

“Nikita, what’s wrong? What has happened? Is it Michael?” I said with growing alarm. Operations had stopped rocking and leaned forward to hear her response. She glanced over at him and then locked eyes with me.

“They are taking Michael to surgery again. I was just with him, helping him get ready for bed, when he asked me to cover up his feet. He said his left foot was cold. I looked down and his feet were already covered with a thick blanket. That worried me, so I went to the end of the bed and put my hand under the covers. His left foot and leg was icy cold to the touch, but his right foot was warm.” She again glanced over at Operations, really seeing him for the first time, I think. She swallowed hard and turned back to me. “I settled Michael and went to find a doctor. Shana was there in the hallway and she frowned at what I told her about his foot and leg. Oh, Grace, I’m so scared. She went in and examined his leg. Then she got on the phone and started ordering tests and a surgical suite. She says she thinks Michael has a blood clot in his leg, and that she had to get him into surgery as soon as possible.” The tears were flowing now and she said in a frightened, shaky voice. “People die from blood clots, don’t they?” She put her hands to her face and wept openly, not trying to hide her fear from Operations. I put my arms around her and tried to comfort her, but she was inconsolable.

Operations stood then and did something totally out of character for him. There was no blustering or berating of Nikita for her emotional outburst, but as gently as he could, he spoke to her. “Nikita, you know Michael is a fighter, and you also know that Shana and the other doctors here are the best. Michael will be all right, and right now, he needs for you to be all right. Here....” He knelt with my daughter, Michelle Nikita, in his arms and extended his arms, offering to Nikita the small bundle of baby. “I think your namesake needs her godmother. Take her and I’ll see what I can find out about Michael.” He rose slowly, never taking his eyes off of the distraught woman on the floor beside my chair. Before he left, he bent and embraced me. “Michael will be all right. I’ll see to it!” There was steel in his voice. “Alex, come on. I want you to find Rene. He can’t hear about this from anyone else, not in his state of mind.” Alex’s eyes flashed as he handed Alexis to me and those wonderful blue eyes that I loved so much, assured me that he would find my son. He left with a determined Operations and that night, two teams worked urgently. Alex led one team as they searched every nook and cranny for Rene, and Shana led the other team, her surgery team, as they worked feverishly to save Michael’s leg and possibly his life.

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

Nikita had calmed down after Operations and Alex left. I think it had a lot to do with the child she held so lovingly in her arms. I could see her imagination hard at work, pretending that the baby she held was hers and Michael’s child. I also knew that Michelle was probably as close as Nikita would ever get to having her own child. Alex and I had talked of this late into the night on the day our children were born. We had both seen the preference that Nikita and Michael had shown for their namesake. The bond had been immediate. They didn’t have a chance, and I realized that we had started the process when Michelle had been laid in Nikita’s arms still warm from her nestling place in my womb. But, as with so many other things in our marriage and family, Alex and I knowingly shared our beautiful daughter with our closest friends, Michael and Nikita.

Nikita had gracefully risen from her place on the floor by my chair where she had deposited herself when she came to tell us about Michael. She settled in the rocker where Operations had sat with Michelle before he left to check on Michael. The exhaustion was plain for all to see on her face. She had gotten very little sleep over the past few nights. If she hadn’t been with me and the babies, she had been keeping watch over Michael. I could see her eyelids dropping closed and then popping back open as she rocked Michelle. When I tried to lift Michelle from her arms, she blinked away the sleep that hovered so close to her and she gripped Michelle tightly and whispered, “No, please, Grace.”

“Nikita,” I said firmly, “you are exhausted and you need some sleep. Let me take Michelle and you go over there and lay down for a while.” Frightened blue eyes stared up at me, “but...but Michael?”

“Michael is going to need you when he comes out of surgery. You can’t help him in your present condition. So, I want you to go over there, crawl into my bed and get some sleep. Things will be much better after you sleep. And then, you can see Michael. All right?” She closed her eyes and nodded. I took Michelle from her arms and laid my child in her bed. Then, I guided a wobbly Nikita to the bed, where I tucked her in as if she were my child. Almost immediately, her eyes drifted shut and she fell into a deep sleep.

A few minutes later, I was on the phone to the one person that I knew would jump at the chance to do a little bit of baby-sitting. “Madeline, I have a favor to ask....”

Ten minutes later, after giving Madeline a few instructions in the art of baby and Nikita-sitting, I was on my way to Michael’s room. The closer I got to his room, the more clearly I could hear angry voices coming from the room. I listened for a few seconds and then pushed the door opened and walked into the middle of a heated conversation between Operations, Shana and a very pale Michael. Shana seemed to be caught in the middle, trying to calm an agitated Michael who was railing weakly at a defensive Operations. I ended the current discussion by clamping my hands on Operations’ arm and tugging until he reluctantly stopped haranguing Michael on what a young fool he was, and followed me out into the hallway.

“Are you trying to kill your top op and Rene’s father. What would Rene think if he walked in on that?” I said in a low voice. “What is wrong with you? Do you want to drive his blood pressure up and dislodge that blood clot? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be around this place if the word gets out that you were responsible for killing Michael. You know as well as I do that you would probably have a mutiny on your hands. Now, why don’t you get a hold on yourself and go find Rene. He needs to know about his father. And, I would imagine that Michael will want to see him before he goes into surgery. So, get over your snit and go find him!” I finally took a deep breath and gave my best Mom stare at the leader of Section. “Well?”

Operations grinned and looked first at the floor and then raised his eyes to meet mine. “Grace, no one has talked to me like that since the last time my mother chewed my butt out.” He leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Thanks for reminding me of what is important.” He turned away from me, only to stop and pivot on one foot to face me again. “And by the way, Michael and I were arguing because he was refusing the surgery until he could see Rene. I was attempting to order him into surgery. He is a very stubborn young fool.”

I smiled, knowing full well just how stubborn Michael could be. “Isn’t he though? Let me see what I can do while you go and find Rene.” He nodded and shoving his hands in his pants pockets, he walked swiftly down the hall towards Comm.

I reentered Michael’s room and fixed my eyes on his face. “NOW, what’s this I hear about you refusing this surgery? Who are you to risk the life of Rene’s father?” Michael laid there, pale, exhausted and his green eyes still blazing from his argument with Operations.

“Oh, Grace,” he said tiredly, “not you too....”

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

Rene slept on peacefully, completely unaware of the hustle and bustle going on around him. He dreamed of living with his Daddy full-time, instead of the intermittent and hurried visits that had characterized their relationship over the past few months. In truth, father and son had only been together for three short weeks just after Grace had become pregnant. A wistful smile crossed Rene’s face as he dreamed of his baby sisters...his Daddy had told him that he would teach Rene all about being a big brother. His Daddy knew about being a big brother because he had a sister of his own, Rene wondered what the aunt that he had never met was like. He didn’t know very much about her. His Daddy didn’t like to talk about her much because it made him really sad. Rene could understand this because thinking about his Daddy made him sad when his Daddy wasn’t there. He had missed him so much over the past few months.

As if answering an unheard summons to him, Rene began to rouse from his sound sleep. At first, he felt cramped and wanted to stretch, but as he came out of his long nap, he heard voices. He stopped the almost involuntary stretch that his body ached for. The voices, Walter’s and Alex’s, were discussing his Daddy. Rene froze and listened, his conscience admonishing him that he was not supposed to listen in on other people’s conversation. He told his conscience to shut up. The voices were saying something about something being wrong with his Daddy.

“How is Michael doing?” Walter asked. “Is he still being the stubborn young fool that Operations was muttering about a few minutes ago?”

“Yeah, he is.” Alex admitted. He never thought that he would be agreeing with Operations on Michael being a ‘stubborn young fool.’ “He is refusing to have the surgery until he talks to Rene. I think he is afraid that he won’t make it. He wants to see Rene one more time in case something happens. I can understand what he is doing, emotionally. I just don’t understand why he is risking his life like this.”

Rene sat up quickly when he heard this last statement. All he succeeded in doing was bumping his head and giving away his hiding place. He rubbed the sore spot on his head and opened his eyes, which he had squeezed shut when he hit his head. When he opened them, he found two sets of eyes staring back at him. Walter and Alex had both bent over to investigate the clunk that they heard from beneath Walter’s work table.

“What’s wrong with my Daddy?” Rene demanded as he scrambled out of the wire mesh enclosure under the table. “What happened to him?” His frightened concern for his father gave his face a pinched expression.

“Have you been under there all this time, young man?” Walter inquired. He spoke a bit more harshly than he meant to, because he had been so worried about Michael and his not being able to find Rene. Rene’s face crumpled and he looked like he was going to cry.

“Uncle Walter, Alex, I’m sorry you couldn’t find me. I was waiting here because I needed to talk to you about something Operations said to me. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble. I heard what you said about my Daddy. Please...please tell me what happened to him. What surgery are you talking about?” Alex grabbed Rene’s hand and started to pull him toward the hallway leading to Medlab. “Alex, please tell me!” Rene tried to pull his hand from Alex’s, but Alex simply stopped and scooped Rene off his feet and started running down the hallway. There was no time to waste.

“I’ll explain on the way, Rene. Your Daddy wants to see you right now!”

********

I had just spent the last half hour trying to talk Michael into letting Shana take him into surgery. He still stubbornly refused. Exasperated, I had finally threatened to carry him there myself. He grinned weakly at me and said, “You and what army, Grace?”

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

“Daddy! That wasn’t a very nice thing to say to Mom. She cares about you and was only trying to help you. You shouldn’t talk to her that way. Anyway, this is all my fault. I shouldn’t have hidden from everyone.” Rene’s scolding voice caught Michael by surprise. Michael swung his stubborn gaze from me to his son. I watched as his face blanked from the recalcitrant expression he gave to me and then softened as he beheld Rene.

“Rene, thank God! Where have you been?” I asked, relieved that my son had been found, and that meant that Shana could now perhaps coax Michael into the surgery that he so desperately needed. But even as I processed this new circumstance, I heard Michael speaking.

“Could you all leave us for a few minutes? I need to talk to my son.” He looked at us expectantly, waiting for us to accede to his request. When we didn’t move, his mouth tightened into a hard line. The Level 5 operative in front of us was decidedly unhappy. Michael was used to being obeyed. Shana spoke first.

“Only if you promise to let me take you to surgery when you are finished.” She firmly stood her ground, crossing her arms and tapping her foot impatiently. “Promise?”

Favoring the shoulder injured by Hugo’s bullet, Michael gave Rene a one-armed embrace as Alex deposited Rene on the bed beside Michael. Rene clamped his arms around his father’s neck and looked back at us. “He promises. Don’t you, Daddy?” Father and son regarded each other closely for a few seconds and then Michael conceded defeat. He could refuse his son nothing.

“I promise. Now, please?” His clear green eyes indicated the door. We kept our end of the bargain, and left.

Once out in the hallway, Shana pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and started issuing rapid-fire instructions to her surgical nurse. She left me breathless with the way she commanded her forces. I had no doubt but that Michael would come through the surgery with flying colors. Michael, on the other hand, did have doubts, and he was discussing this with Rene as Alex and I stood out in the hallway wrapped in each other’s arms. He walked me slowly back to our room. I wanted to check on Alexis and Michelle, but most of all, I wanted to make sure that Madeline was still functioning.

As we entered our room, Madeline was doing quite well. She was rocking a restless Alexis, and Michelle was sleeping peacefully in her bassinet. As Alex and I approached her bed, she stretched a huge baby stretch and settled back down, her lips moving as if nursing. It was an endearing sight. Alex hugged me from behind and whispered into my ear. “God, Grace, how did I get so lucky? To have found you and survived Section, and now, to have these two exquisite daughters....” I answered him with a contented smile.

“Destiny, it was just your Destiny and mine, my love.”

As if she heard us, Nikita sat up in bed and called out, “Michael?” Her searching eyes found us and she said it again, worry evident in her tone of voice, “Michael...how is he? Grace....he’s okay, isn’t he? How long did I sleep?” She flung the covers from her body and swung her feet to the floor. “I have to go to him.”

I caught her arm as she moved past us. “Not yet, Nikita. Michael is having a father-son talk with Rene. As soon as they are finished, Shana is taking Michael to surgery. We couldn’t find Rene at first and Michael stubbornly refused to be taken to surgery until he was found.”

She asked again, “How is he? This waiting can’t have done him any good.” Nikita jumped as Madeline spoke from behind her.

“Michael will be just fine. Operations and I will allow nothing else.” Alexis had quieted in her arms and as one, the three of us turned to look at her. She sat there, looking serenely confident that what she had just said was gospel. “Don’t worry. The doctors have been given their instructions. I told them personally that I would accept nothing less than a perfect surgery from them. And, as I am accustomed to being obeyed, I can assure you that Michael will come through all this intact and ready to go to your house, Grace, for at least six months of rehabilitation and visiting Rene.” She continued rocking Alexis, who was now fast asleep in her arms. “Nikita, I can also assure you that you have at least two months of downtime coming to you. You decide how to use it, but I suggest stretching it out over Michael’s six months at Grace’s.

Nikita stuttered, amazed at what she had just heard from Madeline. “But...but, won’t Operations object?” Madeline looked up from up her reverie of watching Alexis sleep.

“No, I will persuade him that it is the best thing. Hopefully, I can get you some more time when I suggest you as Michael’s trainer to get him back up to Section standards after he heals. You can’t very well train him from here, so you will have to have an extended stay as Grace’s, so you can work with your material.”

“M...my m...material,” Nikita whispered, the reality of what Madeline was saying, finally sinking into her consciousness.

“Yes,” Madeline smiled. “Your material....Michael. Payback can be so satisfying. You do want the assignment, don’t you?”

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

While Alex and I listened to Madeline discuss Michael’s future, Rene and Michael were doing the same thing in Michael’s room in Medlab. Rene had some very important questions to ask his father, before they came in to take Michael to surgery, but he didn’t know how to start.

The two of them lay there, side by side, on Michael’s bed. Rene was snuggled into the space between Michael’s good arm and his side, with his hand on his fathers’ chest. Rene could feel Michael’s heart pumping strongly. He looked up at his father’s face, trying to read his thoughts.

Michael knew what he was facing, but his expression was serene. What more could I ask for, he thought, I have my son here with me and whatever happens, he knows I love him. Michael smiled down at his son, his love reflected in his green eyes. Rene smiled back, but he couldn’t force the words from his mouth. He sat up and said abruptly, “Daddy, can I sign your cast?”

Baffled by this rapid change of pace, Michael said, “Of course, child, here,” and he handed Rene a marker that someone had left on the bedside stand. “I’m sorry, but you won’t be the first. Others have trooped in here, wanting to sign it as well. I don’t think the doctors were too amused at having all this graffiti mar their plasterwork. Wait, Rene, sign the left one. The right one will be removed for the surgery.” Rene’s head jerked up at the mention of surgery. He quickly looked back down and started to print his message very carefully on his father’s plaster-encased left leg.

Michael gazed at his son’s face and wondered if this might be the last time he saw it. He was fully aware of the risks of the type of surgery he was about to undergo. He smiled as he watched the look of concentration deepened on Rene’s face. His nose was about ten inches from the cast and as Michael watched, Rene’s tongue snaked out of his mouth only to be trapped by his lips and teeth as he licked at his lower lip. Suddenly, the tongue disappeared back into his mouth as he lifted his green eyes to Michael’s. He hesitated slightly as if unsure of what he wanted to say, and then the words tumbled out of his mouth. “Daddy, are you going to leave me?”

“Rene, what do you mean?” Michael asked slowly.

Rene stared into his father’s eyes, intent on finding the truth. “Daddy, are you going to die and leave me all alone?” Through tear-filled eyes, Rene could see that his father didn’t know how to answer him. “Are you, Daddy? ‘Cause if you are, I want to know.”

Michael didn’t know how to answer his son, so he answered as truthfully as he could. “Rene, you know I would never knowingly leave you all alone. If...if something....bad...happens today during my surgery, I want you to know how proud I have been to have been your father. You know how much I love you.” It was at this point that Rene tossed the marker over his shoulder and scrambled back up to throw his arms around his Daddy’s neck. As careful as he was to avoid jarring anything that hurt on his Daddy’s body, he did squeeze Michael’s wounded shoulder a bit too much. The pain screamed its way into Michael’s consciousness, but he refused to yield to it and hugged his son as hard as he could. He looked over Rene’s shoulder and chanced to see Nikita standing just inside the door, her hand clutched over her mouth, her eyes as full of tears as Rene’s. Michael raised one hand from Rene’s back and motioned for Nikita to join him and his son. She did so carefully and soon the small family were embracing each other as it there was no tomorrow.

Shana entered the room to give Michael the injection that would start the surgical process in readying him for the surgery. Michael’s destiny lay now in her hands. She had her orders and she intended to follow them.

Death would hold no dominion over Michael Samuelle, not if she had anything to do with it.

***********

During the first hour of Michael’s surgery, Nikita had paced the hallway outside the operating room like a restless lioness pining for her mate. She had walked up the hall and twisted her hair into a knot on the top of her head, then she had stalked down the hall and shook her hair out again, running her fingers through it to comb it smooth. Michael likes my hair down on my shoulders, she told herself. He likes to run his fingers through it and then grab handfuls of it as we make love. Her face crumpled at the thought of her and Michael together as one, and she sat down in the hallway and buried her face in her hands. Walter knelt beside her and put his arms around her. She collapsed for a moment in his fatherly embrace and wept quietly. Then, just as quickly as she had wept, she pushed her way from Walter’s arms and got up to start pacing again, wiping the tears from her eyes with the palms of her hands.

The surgery entered its second hour with me sitting in the hallway with Rene, Nikita and Walter. Alex was watching the twins back in our Section-assigned quarters. It was almost feeding time and then Alex would take my place at the vigil for Michael.

Rene sat in the chair next to me and watched the time click by on the digital time display on the wall above the operating room doors. He also watched Nikita pacing, back and forth, back and forth. He sat in the chair with his legs drawn up under him, his elbows propped on his knees and his chin in his hands. Rene was trying to index all the best times in his life with his father. He remembered laughing with his father as they played soccer together. He remembered running rings around his father as Michael jogged on the grounds at the rehab center. Rene smiled. That was the day after he and Michael and Nikita had had a sleepover in his treehouse. His Daddy had been stiff from his night on the hard floor. Rene had delighted in outrunning his Daddy, but he had always known deep down that often Michael let him win.

Rene shifted in his chair and got up to walk around. He watched Nikita, who had gotten up and started pacing again. He caught hold of Nikita’s hand and pulled her to a stop. She bent down to kiss him on the top of his head. “Nikita,” he said firmly to her. “My Daddy is gonna be all right. I was right about him being alive when everyone else thought he was dead. I know I am right about this. You have to believe in him like I do.” Nikita sat down in the chair by me, and hugged Rene.

“I know, Rene, but that doesn’t keep me from worrying about him. I do believe your Daddy will be okay. It’s just the waiting that I don’t like.” She smiled at him. “You know how impatient I can be.”

Rene leaned into her embrace. They drew comfort from each other and Rene whispered into her ear. “I can’t wait until our next sleepover. I like being with you and Daddy.” Nikita dropped her gaze to the floor and then looked back up at Rene.

“Same here,” she said.

And the third hour of the surgery came and passed.

The hallway grew crowded with operatives gleaning news about Michael. Rene talked with each one, drawing strength with each encounter. Now he knew that he wasn’t the only one who cared about his father. Each man and woman who came to Rene had a story to relate about his Daddy. Some were funny, some sad, some were awe-inspiring and with each one, Rene gave as much as he was given. Each operative touched him physically as well as emotionally. They ruffled his hair, or tweaked his nose, or gave him a gentle punch on the arm. One operative even kissed him on the forehead.

And the fourth hour of his father’s surgery came and passed.

Alex came to relieve me so I could go and feed the babies. After a few minutes of cajoling, I convinced Nikita to come with me to help me with the babies. When we left, Operations had come to sit with Alex and Walter. He and Rene were talking quietly when Nikita and I left to check on Alexis and Michelle. When I looked back at them, Paul had drawn Rene up into his lap and they talked on.

I had just finished feeding both of my daughters when we got the news. Nikita was gently rocking Michelle, her unabashed favorite, when Rene came bursting into the room. “Mom! Nikita! Daddy’s out of surgery! Shana said that he is gonna be okay! I told you Nikita! I told you! His noisy entrance and shouted good tidings about Michael woke the babies and they sent up a loud double cry. Soon, the rest of us were crying along with them. We made quite a sight, Nikita, Rene and I crying tears of joy at Michael’s heralded recovery and my daughters were just howling because their nap had been so rudely interrupted. Alex, Walter and Operations had followed Rene’s rocket trail into the room and the three of them wore big goofy smiles for those of us that they loved best. They enjoyed seeing us so happy about the one we all loved. Michael was going to be just fine. Such was our Destiny.