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Ships Passing, Part I

Slight spoilers for Season 4….If you have seen the eps through Down a Crooked Path, you will be safe from spoilage.

It was the first free downtime he had had since his indoctrination into the world of Section. He didn't know what had drawn him to this part of the world. Perhaps it was the desire to be warm again. Since his entry into the cold world of Section, he had been chilled to the bone, mentally and physically. Even with people around him, he had felt like a ghost, never knowing the warmth of human contact except in the context of training exercises. And that contact had been harsh and brutal, something that he hated with every fiber of his being. He had felt better, warmer, since the moment he had stepped off the plane and lifted his face to the sun. Half a world away, at Section One, it was winter, but here the sun shone in all its fiery glory. He reveled in the warmth suffusing every pore of his body. He'd heard this place had the best beaches in the world and he intended to confirm this for himself. He picked up his bags from the baggage carousel and headed for the doors that would free him from the chilly air conditioning of the airport terminal. He grabbed the first taxi that he saw, rudely shouldering aside a tired businessman as if he wanted nothing placed between him and his sun-drenched goal of the perfect beach. He settled into the back seat of the cab and smiled as he heard the businessman yelling curses at him. The driver asked, "Where to, mate?"

He told him and was whisked away in seconds. After arriving at the hotel, the young man registered at the main desk and deftly took the room key that the desk manager was handing over to the bellman. The bellman resignedly looked after his departing tip as the young man scooped up his bags and hurried to the bank of elevators.

He instinctively sought the sunlight as soon as he entered his hotel room, dropped his bags, and threw open the doors to the balcony. With a sigh, he sunk into a chair on the balcony, leaned his head back and just sat there silently while the Australian sun warmed him. He was tired to the bone of everything that had happened to him in the last two and a-half years. He had been to hell and back several times on the various missions for Section. He had warred with his enemies and himself and had finally come to terms with who he was expected to be. He laughed to himself…as if he had a choice! He had left everything behind. Because of Section, he had lost everything he held dear. He truly was a ghost, one who was dead to the real world and who walked in a shadow world, fighting shadow wars. Free for a short respite from these shadow wars, the warrior relaxed and let the sun shine on him.

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

At the same moment that the young warrior was lifting his face to the sun on the balcony of his first-class hotel room, a young woman was basking in the bright sunlight on a beach near his hotel. She was dressed only in a tiny bikini, her other clothes tossed aside in her urgency to soak up the hot Australian sun. She had become a fixture on the beach. At first, the young lifeguards had tried to engage her in conversation, but they quickly learned that this beautiful girl, American to judge by her accent, had no interest in them. Indeed, she strongly discouraged their interest, opting for privacy at the extreme. She made it clear to them that she wanted, and needed, no male companionship. After a few futile attempts to change her mind, they finally left her alone with her books, tanning oil and oversized towels.

She smiled happily at her aloneness and was content to lay on her towel in the sand, reading from one of the stack of books she always had with her. The lifeguards looked at each other in puzzlement, frankly amazed that she was immune to their advances and overtures of friendliness. They continued to keep an eye on her, but she rarely ventured into the water, opting instead to work on her tan by turning herself over every fifteen minutes or so. She took very good care of herself and they openly admired her lean, tanned body stretched out on the huge towel that she had spread out about thirty feet from their guard tower. She knew the effect she had on them and took pleasure in the feeling of power that coursed through her. She was young, but she had a lot of life experiences. If she knew anything at all, she knew men and how to manipulate them. After all, one of those manipulations had resulted in the wild ride that had brought her from a small town in New England to the sunny beaches of Australia. She smiled wistfully at that thought. Of course, the wild ride had ended when she and her paramour had gotten drunk and had a mother of an argument. When she woke up the next morning, he was gone and so was her meal ticket. She had been able to make ends meet by picking up odd jobs here and there. Mostly, she laid in the sun during the day and worked as a waitress on the graveyard shift at night.

She had vowed never to allow a man to dominate her ever again. She turned over onto her stomach and resumed her reading. A shadow passed across her book and she glanced up to see a tall, beautifully proportioned young man dressed in black Speedos pass her on his way to where the surf crashed on the beach. Such broad shoulders, she noted, but he is so sad. She turned her head to one side to watch him more closely. His broad shoulders slumped dejectedly. He looks as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, she thought. She laid her book down and sat up, studying the young man, as he sat down in the sand a few feet from the water's edge and looked longingly out to sea.

The lifeguards watched the girl as she watched the yank. He was an American, they knew, because he had stopped at their tower and asked when they went off duty. Odd that, they thought. Why would he want to know when they left for the day? They continued to watch as the girl put her book down, stood up and started to walk toward the yank. They made a bet between themselves on whether or not the yank would get lucky and take the girl back to his hotel.

The girl walked quietly up behind the young man, who now sat on the warm sand with his legs drawn up against his chest. He had folded his arms across his drawn-up knees and now laid his head on his arms. As she approached, she saw the ripple of movement across his shoulders and she stopped about ten feet from him. He's crying, she thought sadly, as she saw the slight tremor in his shoulders.

She quickly made up her mind, straightened her own shoulders and walked over and plunked herself down next to him. She smiled at him, but the smile was wiped from her face when he whipped his head around to stare at her.

"Go away," he snapped from between clenched teeth. "Leave me alone!" His red-rimmed eyes glared at her intensely, before he buried his head in the nest of his arms once more.

"I don't think so," she whispered, reaching across the chasm between them to rest her hand on his still quivering shoulder. "As the song says, you need a friend. And I am here."

He jerked away from her touch as if it burned him. "Just go and mind your own business! I don't need a friend!"

"I think you do and I'm a good listener. I think I know what you must be going through and I really do want to help. Please, let me help you. You obviously need to talk to someone and I can be that someone. No strings. Just ships passing in the night. Tomorrow, we go our separate ways and we won't see each other again. Deal?" She smiled at him again and this time when he raised his eyes to her, he didn't glare balefully at her. He simply stared at her incredulously.

"You'd do that for me? Why?" he asked. " Why?"

"I don't really know, except that you seem so sad, so terribly sad. You look like you might have been ill. You obviously have not been out in the sun for a long time. You are so very pale. Someone helped me once by just listening to me. I can do that for you now. Please let me."

She stood and extended her hand to him. He hesitated, and looked from her hand back out to sea. It beckoned to him. "Why?" He didn't look at her as he asked one more time, considering her offer.

"Because sometimes, you just need someone to hold you," she said frankly. He glanced up at her and was captivated by her guileless smile. "The listening is free, so is the sex if that is what you need. Remember, ships passing in the night." She extended her hand once more and this time, he took it.

"Hi, my name is Paul." He managed a smile as he looked back at the sea one more time.

"Hi, Paul. My name is Roberta, Robbie for short." She took his hand and pulled him along behind her. He squeezed Robbie's hand, looked back again, smiled and chose life.

***********

Robbie, part II

Robbie screamed and screamed...She was 22 and she did not want to die. The intensity of the pain became her whole world and she cursed Paul. They had spent two nights together and had gone their separate way two days later. Paul had been reluctant to leave her. He had talked long into the night and had finally fallen asleep in her arms, exhausted from telling her of the terrors he had survived in Vietnam. He told her about his captivity by the Viet Cong and about how, just as he thought he was being rescued, he had been captured again...this time by his own people.

She puzzled at this statement and asked him to explain. He grinned and she felt a chill run up her spine when he told her that if he explained that, he would have to kill her. He tried to make it a joke, but she intuited the truth in his words. It terrified her. She was careful what she asked him about the next time.

He had not said much about his life before Vietnam, and she didn't press him about it. She was content to listen to him. He just needed to talk. Robbie had listened without judgment and he had begun to trust her. She could feel that he always held something back. He didn't tell her everything and she knew that there were many things that he would not and could not tell her. She accepted that.

"How did you know?" he asked, dipping his head low. Robbie put her hand under Paul's chin to raise his head so she could see his pale blue eyes.

"How did I know what...that you were waiting for the lifeguards to go off-duty so you could swim out to sea and drown yourself?" She said this coldly, like a slap in the face. Paul gazed into her eyes and flinched.

"You don't pull any punches, do you? Yes, how did you know?" Paul was curious about why this lovely young woman would spare him a second glance, much less offer her time to help him out of his desolation and depression.

"I knew because I heard you ask the lifeguards about when they went off-duty and I saw you, how you held yourself, how you looked so calm, so peaceful. Just like someone who had given up, who had come to terms with who he was and had decided how his life was going to end. I saw all that in your face when you passed me, and then, when you walked to the edge of the water and sat down. I knew you were just waiting for your chance. When I walked over to you, and you were weeping so silently, I felt that perhaps you weren't 100% sure about your course. That's why I made the effort to talk to you. I felt that you needed to talk to someone to clarify your reasons for sitting there on the edge of life. I didn't think you were ready to take that last step. I felt there might be a greater purpose for your life that the end you were seeking. So, I touched your shoulder and here we are. If you had been ready to kill yourself, you wouldn't have come with me. You would have swum out and then let the waves drag you down, but you weren't ready to die, even if you thought you were." Robbie drew Paul into a hug and again felt hot tears against her skin. She just held him as he worked through his pain, and listened again as he began to talk about what he had been forced to leave behind after Vietnam....his wife, his son, his former life.

Paul had been told that his family thought him dead. He had become, for his wife and son, a war hero who had sacrificed himself for his men in a prison camp in Vietnam. He hadn't seen his family in almost five years. When he was captured by the Viet Cong, he had been less than two months away from the end of his third tour of duty. By the time the camp was liberated by a platoon of American soldiers, Paul Wolfe, as a newly-promoted Army captain, was the ranking officer who had managed to hold fourteen men together through almost a month of repeated beatings, torture and threats of beheading. When Paul had heard those glorious American voices above him as he lay in the stinking pit that had been his home for so many days, he had rejoiced that he had been spared. Seeing his men pulled out of the pit ahead of him had made him want to hug the GI who was hurriedly pushing the men up the ladder.

When Paul had pulled himself to his feet to join the others, the GI had turned toward him, raised his gun and had shot Paul point blank...."Why!?" was his last thought until he had awakened hours, or days, later in a sterile white-paneled room.

A man with a gravelly voice welcomed him to Section One. "We saw potential in you. We want you to train with us, work for us. War makes our recruitment process so easy. Soldiers, good and bad, are always dying for their country and we can use that to take the best. And that is what you are, Paul...one of the best. Even before you were captured, we had our eye on you as a potential operative. Through your three tours of duty, you have proved yourself to be an outstanding leader of men. You've accomplished quite a bit in your rather short military career. You will accomplish even more in your career here."

Paul found his voice at this point and interjected a question, "What makes you think that I want to work for you? What if I refuse?" He lifted his chin in a defiant gesture that made the other man smile.

"We thought of that. That is why if you refuse us, if you run away back to your old life, that you will find your old life shattered. Your wife and son, Corinne and Stephen will have a terrible accident, tragically just before your triumphant arrival home from your latest tour of duty. You see, Paul, we offer great incentives for your decision to work for us. I think that ultimately, you will find the work we do here meaningful, rewarding, and worth your sacrifice. Are the lives of your wife and son worth it?" Paul glared at the man before bowing his head and breaking eye contact with him.

"My family, they will be safe, protected, if I decide to work for you?" He looked hard at the man who had just destroyed his life. "Will they?"

"Of course, Paul, your family will be safe for as long as you work for us. Then, we have an agreement?" He smiled and held out his hand to Paul. Section's newest recruit stared at the hand and then focused on the man's face.

"Surely you must be joking to think I would shake your hand on this deal from Hell," he asked incredulously.

"Ah, well, I guess I can understand that." The man turned and headed for the door. "Oh, by the way, your training starts tomorrow morning at five. If you have any questions between now and then, just ask for me....My name is George."

*******

"Paul, how awful for you!" Robbie sat there stunned, unbelieving that such a thing could happen to anyone. She had heard of such things at the college she had attended before comimg to Australia. Some of her friends had been wannabe student radicals on campus and she had listened to their outrageous tales of the evils of the CIA, how they dredged campuses looking for likely recruits, and also how they also instigated most of the trouble in Vietnam that led to U.S. involvement there. Her friends had tried to join the Weather Underground, but had been rejected. She had never taken their stories of political intrigue seriously. But after hearing Paul's story, she thought she might have to rethink her opinions.

Robbie found herself stroking Paul's hair, which was cut short, military-style. He put his arms around her and sighed into her long brown hair. "Robbie, you are my guardian angel...thank you for listening, but I must warn you that you can never tell anyone what I have said. The people I work for would kill us both in a heartbeat. Do you understand?"

Robbie's eyes were huge and dark and she looked scared. Then her eyes changed, they became softer, liquid almost as she gazed into Paul's tortured blue eyes. "I want to stay with you tonight. Okay?" She smiled up at him and he nodded, grateful for her friendship and compassion.

Paul looked shy, but that did not stop him from kissing her as he fumbled with the buttons of the shirt she wore over her bikini. Robbie helped his clumsy fingers as she kissed him back more urgently, settling into his arms.

All Paul could think of was that he was in the arms of an angel.

They stayed together for two wonderful days, laughing in each other's arms, making love like there was no tomorrow, which was essentially true for them. On the morning of the third day since he had known her, Paul woke up to find her gone from his side. He sat up in bed and looked around the room. All of her things were gone. He fell back against the pillows, distraught at her loss. He missed her already, as he realized with a start that he didn't know her last name. That would make it difficult to find her, he thought.

Then he smiled and remembered their agreement. Just ships passing in the night, he thought. She was just keeping her end of their bargain. And now, it was up to him to keep his end. Paul threw back the covers and walked into the bathroom to take a shower, and there, propped up against his cologne bottle, was a note from her.

"Remember our agreement. I enjoyed our time together and I will remember what you said about what you told me. It will forever be just between us. I know now that you will go back to that horrible place where you work, and you will do the best job that you can. You will keep us all safe because of what you, and others like you, do. I will think of you when I see a beautiful sandy beach, or when I see a man with clear blue eyes like yours. Keep yourself safe and alive. I will be very angry if you let yourself get killed. Live for me, but mostly, Paul, live for yourself." Robbie

Paul sat down on the bathroom floor and held the note to his bare chest. After a few minutes, he got up from the floor and mechanically moved through his morning ablutions. When he had showered and dressed, Paul packed his bags and called for a bellboy to come and collect them. He called to arrange his return flight to Paris and Section One. Then he went out to the balcony to soak in the sun until it was time to go. He closed his eyes and thought of Robbie.

*********

Robbie continued screaming until the doctor told her to push and then, after a few minutes of almost unbearable pain, she heard the doctor say, "It's a girl. Robbie, you did a fine job! She's beautiful...What are you going to name this little Sheila?"

Robbie gazed down on the little wrinkled piece of her and Paul. She stroked the thick blond fuzz that covered her baby's head and said, "Nikita, her name is Nikita!"

Paul, Part III

Paul had often thought of Robbie in the last twenty years. He wondered if she had found someone to love her as much as he had. And he knew now, even so many years later that he had, indeed, loved her. He knew, of course, that he could never have stayed with her. His life in Section had precluded any kind of enduring, loving relationship. He had been forced to let Corinne and Stephen go and he had let Robbie go. He had never tried to find her, although there had been many times when he desperately longed for her. A few times, he had gone so far as to begin a computer check on her, only to stop it and remember their agreement. Perhaps, she would not want to see him. After all, it had been Robbie who had left him that morning in Australia. Paul would have been content to spend the rest of his downtime with her, reveling in the touch and feel of her body next to his, and her soft voice as she commented quietly about what he told her about himself.

Paul laughed and shook his head. He had to put a stop to these silly daydreams. He looked down from his aerie, watching again as Michael took his new material through her paces. Her insolent manner in dealing with Michael made Paul smile, but inside he seethed that this new recruit had no manners and was severely lacking in any kind of military discipline. She just didn't get it. He made a mental note to tell Michael that this girl was wasting his time. She would never make the Section grade. He had questioned Madeline's decision to recruit this cop killer. What could she have been thinking? Normally, Madeline would never have looked twice at this girl. Yes, she was beautiful, and given time, she might become a low level valentine op, but he doubted it. Madeline would have the very devil of a time training the swagger out of her walk and the "go to hell" look that she graced everyone with. Well, everyone but Walter. From the first, she had captivated the old man. And Walter was a goner from the first time he had seen her, as she slouched along behind Michael as he took her to her first visit with Madeline. The old man had probably had a terminal hard-on from that first moment.

Frankly, he didn't see what anyone saw in her. Even Michael, who had been a block of ice since losing Simone, seemed taken with her. And Birkoff, who never looked at girls, even the ones working for him who always seemed to be bringing him some treat or another, was smitten. As Paul looked down from his office, he saw Birkoff fawning over this girl. Always bending over her and pointing to the monitor as he taught her about Comm and Systems. That observation put another thought in his head. Why was his chief computer expert training a recruit? True, Michael was training her, but that was because Madeline had insisted. Michael had not yet achieved 100% since losing Simone. Paul was about to lose his patience with his top op when Madeline had intervened and suggested that they give Michael someone to train, and then transition him back into his previous level of mission frequency. They had pulled him off some important missions, because they couldn't trust him to come back alive from them, so damaged had he been by Simone's loss. Even then, Paul had been grooming Michael for bigger and better things. Madeline had convinced him to go easy on Michael to avoid losing someone on whom they had lavished the best training Section had available. And so, Paul had concurred and allowed Michael to waste his time training this blond. But soon, the moment of truth would arrive and he would have to tell Michael to cancel her, this...this....what was her name? Ah, yes, Nikita.

First Encounter, Part IV

What WAS I thinking, thought Madeline. She put her head into her hands, her elbows on the hard surface of her desk. She massaged her temples, seeking to ease the headache that threatened to take off the top of her head. When the throbbing continued, she opened her desk drawer and took out a bottle and shook two tablets out of it. Not wanting to waste the effort of walking across the room to get a glass of water, she popped the tablets into her mouth and swallowed them dry.

She laid her head down on her desk and waited for the tablets to work. Sometimes she wished she had never heard the name Robbie, or Nikita, for that matter. It had all been such a long time ago...

When she had been recruited into Section, Paul was already their top operative. He was ruthless, cunning, and a master at everything he attempted. He was Adrian's pride and joy. Madeline was halfway through her training when she came to his attention. He was observing the recruit training session in which she was involved.

Before her turn on the mat, Madeline had been surreptitiously observing the man everyone said would be the next leader of Section. Adrian was getting on in years, and this vigorous man was the one that the whispered rumors in Section said would take over when Adrian retired. A smile curved her lips slightly at the thought that had been forming in her mind since her first days at Section. She had decided that she was not going to die on some mission in some dirty corner of the globe. She was going to hitch her star to another star, preferably one that was going to shoot to the top echelons of power in Section.

Now, here in the training room, she was being given her first chance to catch his attention and begin the process that would draw this shooting star into the web she had been planning for him, ever since she had learned who he was. She smiled again as her name was called to step out onto the mat for her session. The sensei that she bowed to was known for his stoicism and his absolute ability to take down anyone who opposed him. Madeline bowed to him and the training match started. He threw her each time she approached him, and as she started to circle him once more, she blinked her eyes and smiled at him. Momentarily taken aback at this recruit's new strategy, the sensei blinked back and proceeded to throw her on the mat once again. Madeline finally succeeded in getting close enough to him to grab the lapels of his garment and pulled forcefully on them until the sensei was right in her face. Smiling at him again, she thrust her face forward and locked her lips on his. The sensei's concentration and focus was completely broken and he was unceremoniously thrown over Madeline's hip to land hard at Paul's feet. Madeline made short work of him as she hit him on the side of the neck, stunning him. She got to her feet, bowed to the man on the floor and raised her eyes to behold a bewildered Paul staring back into her liquid brown eyes, his eyes dropped to her lips and he blinked as he took in the enigmatic smile on her face.

He had seen that smile before on a face in a painting at the Louvre. From that moment on, whenever Paul saw Madeline smile, he would always think of it as her Mona Lisa smile. He swallowed hard and pulled his gaze away from her as he bent down and helped the sensei to his feet.

"Matsuo, please report to Medical. That blow you took to your neck should be checked out." The sensei started to protest, but Paul raised a hand and the protest died on the man's lips. He bowed to Paul and left the training area on his way to Medical. Madeline had humiliated him, and he knew she had done it on purpose to bring herself to Paul's attention. Matsuo prayed fervently that Paul would not be taken in by her sensuous manner and those brown eyes that should have been warm, but were unaccountably cold.

At soon as Paul was back in his office, just off the training area, he accessed the files on this recruit, Madeline. What he saw chilled and yet fascinated him. As he read, he made a mental note to never take this one for granted. She was deadly. Madeline had been convicted of murdering one of her college professors. She claimed that he had shot himself in front of her, a suicide, not murder. But as the facts came to light, the authorities ceased to believe the compelling and beautiful nineteen-year-old.

The police were amazed when so many of her classmates came forward to tell them that she had openly seduced the psychology professor who was more than twice her age. When confronted with these accusations, Madeline had calmly admitted her seduction.

"I wanted the A," she said simply, and smiled at the detectives questioning her.

After Wanting the A..., Part V

I wanted the A....I thought I was so smart, so witty, Madeline thought. How stupid could I have been? With that statement, I convicted myself in the eyes of everyone who mattered. Madeline continued to press her overwarm cheek to the cool glasstop of her desk. Her thoughts went back to that fateful time in her life when one phase of her life ended and another one began.

Her parents seemed somewhat relieved to suddenly find themselves free of the creature that they had feared, and yes, loathed, even though she was their own daughter. They hired the best lawyer they could afford, but in the end, she was still sentenced to twenty-five years to life for a murder which she did not commit. Absolutely no one believed her. How could I have been so stupid, she thought once again. How did I know that idiot professor would have scruples...that he would balk at simply giving her the A when she threatened to tell his wife about what an enthusiastic, if bumbling, lover he had been to her. She remembered looking down her nose at him, as he cowered before her as she berated him and gave a very uncomplimentary critique of his sexual techniques. She knew she had gone too far when she watched amazed as he took the gun out of his briefcase and pointed it at her. Madeline had been dumbfounded, and then had enough sense to be afraid.

"Go ahead, pull the trigger," she heard herself saying. Was she an idiot as well, she thought.

The professor simply grinned at her as he whispered, "I'm going to fix your wagon but GOOD, Madeline." Then he had stood up, walked over to her and quickly brought the gun up to his temple. That was when she noticed that the handle had been wrapped with adhesive tape. He noticed her eyes on the gun handle and grinned again. "Something I learned from a movie....they can't lift prints from this handle, so they won't find my prints on the gun....Goodbye, Madeline. I hope you get the death penalty for this."

Before she could do anything, he pressed the barrel of the gun to his temple, yelled "No, Madeline, please no!" at the top of his lungs and pulled the trigger. A fine spray of blood covered Madeline's face and shoulders and she started screaming. She kept on screaming until someone outside called campus security. Her idiot professor had fixed her, but good. Her lawyer, her youth and her cool non-verbal manipulation of two of the male jurors were the only things that saved her from the death penalty.

Paul pulled her close and hugged her as she told him her life story. Of course, the episode with her sister, she carefully glossed over as an unfortunate accident. She and Paul had become lovers not long after the training room incident in which she had bested the sensei with her very unorthodox maneuver. Madeline had not been removed from missions as she had hoped. Indeed, after her two-year training period was over, Adrian had begun assigning her to seduction missions and Madeline had excelled at this type of profile. Her first such mission had gone live on Valentine's Day. She had received roses from Paul that morning, and had received the attentions of a swarthy pig of a man that evening. She had dubbed the mission a Valentine operation because of the timing, not because she enjoyed prostituting herself for Section. She did, however, enjoy disposing of the dirty pig after he had whispered what she wanted to hear into her ear as he had rutted away on top of her. Madeline had taken great pleasure in caressing the man's neck and finding just the right vertebrae before plunging the stiletto into the space that would end both his life and Madeline's first "Valentine" mission.

She had flippantly mentioned the phrase to a few fellow operatives and so, it wasn't long before the new phrase was accepted into the Section vernacular as a legitimate description of what had been called a seduction mission. Madeline liked the new phrase, so much nicer that the old phrase.

Paul didn't like it when Madeline was assigned to these so-called Valentine missions and he tried, when he could, to keep her out of the profile. Adrian saw what he was doing and often modified the profile. Madeline was soon her best operative when it came to this type of mission. Soon, after Madeline had only been out in the field for less than three years, Adrian promoted her to Level 3 operative and moved her into a new position. Madeline had also shown great promise as a mission profiler, so in the end, it was Adrian who took Madeline off the missions, not Paul. Madeline was assigned to train new "Valentine" operatives, both men and women, and she was also being trained herself to profile missions and to work in Tactical.

Madeline was happy...She had gotten what she wanted, but she wasn't through yet. She had a new position within Section, she had the grudging, yet wary, respect of Adrian, and she had Paul. But what she really needed was the handle that would solidify her position. She needed insurance. One night while Paul slept peacefully in her arms, he had sighed deeply and pulled her close and whispered gently into her ear, "Robbie, I love you." He never knew that he had given her a powerful weapon over him. Madeline memorized this tidbit of information, and instead of being jealous of being called by another woman's name, she told herself that tomorrow she would begin pumping Paul about his past, because she had done her homework and she knew that Paul's wife's name was NOT Robbie.

Distractions, Part VI

"Robbie" had alluded Madeline for several years. She found Paul reluctant to talk about the young woman for whom he obviously had deep feelings. Try as she might, Madeline could not pry any information out of the man she gave her body to whenever he chose to partake of it. And still, occasionally, in the afterglow of their coupling, Paul would lay in her arms and murmur longingly...."Robbie." Lately, these occasions were less and less frequent, because Paul was often distracted by the added responsibilities that Adrian had begun transferring to him. Again, the rumor mill was running at full steam...It was whispered that soon, Paul would be in charge. Adrian was slowing down, and considering retirement, that she had a lover who had risen up through the ranks and that he wanted her to be with him at Oversight. Each day, there was a new story making the rounds of the Section gossips....lower level worker bees who flitted from station to station furtively dropping a comment here and there. Madeline had her own pipeline to Section gossip. The simpering fool from Comm would scurry into Madeline's office and deliver to her everything he had heard. To do otherwise would be to invite an assignment to the abeyance pool, and that was one swim that the little man did not want to make. So he told Madeline all, including who said what and when.

Madeline leaned back into the chair in her office and closed her eyes. She was a Section profiler, so she did what she did best. She planned a mission. She carefully sorted out what she did know about this Robbie. This...woman had been living in Australia the last time Paul had seen her. Her real name was Roberta, no last name. She had helped Paul when he desperately needed someone. She had left him two days after their tryst and he hadn't seen her in at least ten years, since around 1975, a couple of years after he had been recruited into Section from the military. All of this information, thin as it was, had been all Madeline had managed to wring out of Paul in the last few years. Madeline huffed and crossed her arms. The man was just too close-mouthed. She thought by now, he would have trusted her enough to have talked more openly about this waif he had somehow come to think of as his savior. Madeline laughed derisively, a two-night roll in the hay and Paul thinks somehow that this Robbie woman saved his life. She had just been a ship passing in the night.

In the meantime, Madeline busied herself with reapplying her lipstick. She had a new Valentine Op to welcome to Section One. Dropping the tube of lipstick into her desk drawer, she called the operative's file up on her computer. Hmmmm, she thought, what a nice diversion from Paul's attentions. She shivered at the prospect of making sure this beautiful young man had her own brand of Valentine training. Madeline would enjoy instructing her new creature in the finer arts of seduction...She just loved hands-on training. And, she thought as she sighed heavily....what nice green eyes he had.

Better Than This, Part VII

Madeline breathlessly threw herself back on the pillows, and looked over at her newest protege, who was still breathing hard from his exertions. He had rolled over on his side and now faced away from her. His hair was in disarray from their most current "training" session. She found him to be utterly enchanting and physically beautiful. He was absolutely perfect in technique and completion. And not for the first time, Madeline also felt an aura of pain and longing emanating from him that literally ripped the heart out of her... Strange, she thought, I didn't think anyone had the power to do that to me anymore. Her interludes with Paul, while sexually satisfying to her, left her with no roaring desire to sojourn with him and lay in his arms like she did with her protege. Of course, she did linger with Paul because that was when he was the most vulnerable and most liable to talk about his lost love, Robbie.

Madeline propped herself up on an arm and let her gaze drift down the fine lines of the body of the young man next to her. She smiled as she thought of the pleasure that he had given her. Her sensual thoughts of their time together were interrupted by his quiet, smooth voice. "I'm better than this," he said as he turned toward her with sad eyes and gestured at their bodies, which were covered to the waist by a soft, white sheet. "You know I am better than this."

His luminous green eyes, just lately glazed with passion, bored into her own brown eyes. She knew he wasn't talking about the "training" session they had just completed. Madeline sighed, knowing that the conversation they were about to have would definitely take the glow off of what she was feeling. She reached out to him and tucked an errant strand of hair back behind his ear. He pulled his eyes away from hers and focused on a point just beyond her right ear and continued to speak, so quietly, that Madeline had to strain to make sure she heard every word. Most of the time, they did not talk when they were together. The visual, aural and sensual communication and stimulation was all she really cared about. Rarely, did she pay any attention to what he wanted or felt. This young man was there for her gratification, for her evaluation of him....she really didn't care what he felt for her....at least not in the beginning.

"They told me at Section Two where I trained, that I would be given a second chance...that I would be able to redeem myself for what they thought..." He stopped, closed his eyes, and then continued, "for what I did. And yet, four years after Section rescued me from what I tried to do to myself in prison, I am still a kept man, just like in prison. I am still someone's prize stud." He let his gaze come back to her appraising eyes. "I am your prize stud."

Madeline gasped, as the self-hatred and loathing in his voice lashed out at her. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she knew, in that moment, that she couldn't let their relationship go on any longer. She had always known that he was better than the role to which Section had assigned him. He had moved far beyond the skills level of his current Valentine Op status. Her careful study of his training and mission records had shown her that. Jurgen, a long-time Special Op, had personally told her that. This tragic young man who had been betrayed by a friend, brutalized while in prison, and then snatched by Section from a suicidal bid for the only freedom available to him, was nearing the end of his rope for a second time in his short life.

Madeline recognized something then, in herself that she had thought lost to her many years ago...she recognized her forgotten compassion. She sat up in her bed, and put her hand on the young man's arm. He jumped at her touch, beginning to pull away. Madeline tightened her grip on his arm and pulled him toward her. He closed his eyes and accepted what he thought was going to be another "training" session, but instead of the controlling person he was used to, Madeline surprised him with a tenderness he told himself he did not deserve.

He let her pull him into her arms. And then, when he let her cradle his head on her shoulder and startto rock him, he hugged her back and felt tears start in his eyes as she whispered into his ear, "I know you are better that this, Michael, and tomorrow your training will enter a new phase. You deserve better than to be a Valentine Op. I see greater things for you here at Section One, much better things."

Back to the Game, Part VIII

A lot had changed in the year or so since Madeline had decided to change the direction of Michael's training. He had not disappointed her or Operations, who had questioned her decision regarding Michael. Paul, of course, knew about her "hands-on" approach in training her corps of Valentine Ops. He didn't like it, but Madeline always got positive results from those that she sent into the field....Her profiles were always successful.

Michael was shaping up into the best cold op that Paul had ever seen. He knew that Michael's feeling of guilt was the driving force behind the young man's incentive to make his every mission picture perfect. He was turning out to be a master of strategy, tactics and just about everything else he attempted. Operations was about to do something that had never been done in Section. He was about to bestow Level 5 status upon Michael. Raising someone to this status with just five and a half years experience was unheard of in Section, but Operations knew that Michael deserved this rank.

Since his ascension to the leadership of Section One after Adrian's tragic stroke the year before, Operations, with Madeline's staunch support, had quickly solidified their power. Oversight had just as quickly confirmed this power. International terrorism was on the rise and a united front was necessary to curtail or destroy the various factions responsible for the acts of violence being perpetrated around the world in the name of political expediency.

Michael's single-minded dedication to the cause impressed Operations. He liked and respected the young man, and saw in him the leadership potential that one day might rival or even surpass his own abilities, so Operations kept Michael on a short leash. Everything in Michael's life became a test. If Michael suspected that he was being groomed for even greater things, he gave no hint of it. Michael, as always, just did the job.

With Operations thus occupied in watching over and continually testing his best operative, Madeline stepped up her search for the elusive Robbie. Finally, after so many years of searching for Operation's soft spot, Madeline found Robbie, and what she found surprised even Madeline.

Operation's lady love, the one he yearned for even while he was in Madeline's arms, was a drug addict who lived an uncertain life. She was a mere shadow of who must have been a real beauty at one time. The years had not been kind to Roberta. For some reason, Madeline could not bring herself to call this creature Robbie. She had pictured Paul's Robbie as a free spirit, someone who drifted through life rescuing life's strays. What Madeline had found was one of life's strays herself. The most interesting thing about Roberta was the daughter that she dragged from city to city.

Intel showed that the daughter was born in 1976, approximately nine months after Paul's encounter with Robbie....Roberta. Madeline smiled to herself as she realized just how much hold she would have over Paul...a child....how ironic that Paul had two children that he had left behind. One he knew about, Stephen, and one that he did not know about, Nikita.

Madeline arranged an ever-rotating cadre of operatives who, isolated from each other, kept tabs on Roberta and her daughter. They reported back to Madeline periodically, never knowing that they were one of several watchers. Soon, with so much intel from so many people, Madeline began to feel as if she knew the mother and daughter. It was totally unlike her to be this interested in someone outside of Section, but she continued to read the reports that were sent to her computer terminal from the watchers.

She knew, for instance, when a boyfriend, someone Robbie had attached herself to, had gotten angry at Robbie for buying the wrong beer and beaten her senseless. Madeline watched with horror as one of the watchers filmed the same boyfriend taking out his rage on a fifteen-year-old Nikita by pushing the young girl down a short flight of stairs in front of the brownstone where they lived. The operative doing the surveillance had rushed over to help Nikita and the camera he was wearing showed Madeline a beautiful girl with huge blue eyes that filled with tears as the girl accepted the comfort of a stranger. The operative had taken Nikita to a nearby diner and bought her dinner and pointed her to a restroom where she could wash her face and clean her scraped knees and elbows.

Madeline made a note to commend the operative for his up-close surveillance, even as she also made another note to admonish him to keep his distance from the girl. Madeline smirked to herself as she thought about the emotions that the girl, Nikita, evoked in the operatives and herself as well. What was it about that girl?

As she continued to keep tabs on Roberta and Nikita, Madeline wondered whether or not she should intervene in the progressively downward spiral that Roberta seemed bent on following. Did she not realize what she was doing to herself and her beautiful daughter?

Months passed and then one day, Madeline received an urgent message from a female operative, concerning Nikita. The operative told Madeline that she thought that the current live-in boyfriend had been molesting Nikita. The girl had been observed struggling with the boyfriend in an upstairs window. Soon Nikita had come flying out of the brownstone, pulling at her clothes in an effort to straighten them. "Please," the operative had begged, "let me get that girl out of that environment. Or, at least, let me call Child Protective Services." Madeline had curtly told her to maintain her cover and make no move to interfere with either Nikita or her mother. She could hear and feel the strong emotions of the operative and made a note to rotate the watchers.

The next report that Madeline received told her that there had been a loud shouting match that had ended when Nikita had appeared at the door of the brownstone, her mother right behind her yelling at Nikita to get out of her sight. Nikita carried a small canvas bag over her shoulder and was crying and pleading with her mother to listen to her. Roberta was in no mood to listen to her 16-year-old daughter. She shouted at Nikita once again and then slammed the door in her weeping daughter's face. Nikita was last observed walking aimlessly down the street with her shoulders hunched over as if the weight of the world laid across those slim shoulders.

When Paul questioned Madeline about the operative she had just put into abeyance, Madeline had calmly told him that the operative had made a serious mistake on a surveillance he was working and had lost the mark he was supposed to have been following. Paul had simply shrugged his shoulders and went on to the next subject at hand. He wanted to know why Michael was spending so much time with Simone, an accomplished cold op who had just transferred in from the Asian Section.

Madeline, who seemed preoccupied with other thoughts, dismissed his concern with a flick of her wrist and told him not to worry about it, that she would take care of it.

Little did she know that her preoccupation with Roberta's and Paul's daughter would cause her to forget to have that little talk with Michael and his growing affection for Simone. Not that she thought that Paul should be so worried about his new Level 5 Op. Michael was always so focused and level-headed. He wouldn't do anything so stupid, as to annoy Operations....

Finding Nikita, Part IX

Madeline's headache continued to plague her as she remembered her fury at the unlucky operative who had lost surveillance on Nikita when the hapless girl had been cruelly thrown out of her house by her incoherent lush of a mother...Roberta.

Madeline was furious. She had lost Nikita. Correction....Simpson, that idiot, had lost her. His nervous explanation that he had thought she wanted him to shadow the mother had fallen on deaf ears. He was still trying to explain even as Madeline flicked her manicured nails over the keys on her computer which would banish Simpson to the abeyance pool.

"Get out of my sight....and try very hard not to call my attention to you. It will not be pretty if I see you again." Simpson bowed his head, turned and hurried out of Madeline's office, wondering how long he would last now that he had displeased her. Simpson would have been relieved had he known that as soon as he was out of her sight, he was also out of her thoughts. Madeline was already thinking about what she could do to find the young girl who had become such an integral part of her plan for the future. But first, she had to find this Nikita, and then, she had to find a way to protect her.

With limitless assets at her fingertips, Madeline was confident that she would find Nikita quickly. I have to be careful, she told herself, not a whiff of this search can be discovered. As before when she was searching for Roberta, Madeline organized her searchers into cells which would effectively keep each searcher isolated and unaware of the other searchers. This organization worked flawlessly. What did not work so well was the closed ranks that Madeline and her searchers found when they started searching for one young girl in a growing sea of the forgotten...the street people of a huge modern city like Toronto.

**********

After two failed marriages and a succession of abusive relationships, Roberta and her daughter had ended up in Toronto. Nikita had not wanted to leave her native Australia, but 10-year-old children did not have the option of staying behind when a parent wanted to leave the country for her native land. And so, Nikita found herself moving from one city to another as Roberta worked her way across the United States and then northward into Canada.

Roberta always seemed to find someone to house her and her daughter for a few days or a few weeks. Sometimes, when they were lucky, they actually stayed in one place for several months. Those were the times when Nikita was able to go to school. School was a place to feel safe and to learn, something for which she discovered she had a talent. Nikita was a fast learner. She had to be. She was like a sponge. She soaked up information and facts as fast as she could because Nikita never knew when she would be yanked out of one school, or indeed, when she would be allowed enroll in another school, given her mother's wanderlust.

By the time her mother had attached herself to Joseph Henry, the man who decided he liked the daughter Wirth better than he did the mother Wirth, Nikita was sixteen and quite a beauty for her age. When Joseph had made his intentions clear to Nikita, she was enrolled in the local high school and was enjoying her time there. She would often volunteer to help various of her teachers after school to avoid having to go home. She tried to keep out of Joseph's path as much as she could. Nikita had also taken to staying out late and gathering with her friends out on the street. So when the explosion of emotions had occurred when her mother had found Joseph pawing Nikita and had unceremoniously kicked her sixteen-year-old daughter out of Joseph's house, Nikita knew the streets in her neighborhood. She knew where to hide. She had done it enough times before when Joseph had forced himself upon her.

Nikita's street friends hid her, and when Madeline's searchers came around asking questions, they were all effectively stonewalled by the street people who looked them in the eye and lied that they had never seen or heard of the young girl, Nikita Wirth. The street people of Toronto protected their own. Nikita was safe, at least for a while.

It took Madeline almost a year before she was able to track down Nikita. Madeline had given up her cadre of searchers in favor of someone from the abeyance pool. Doris Sakowski was nearing the end of her usefulness to Section. She was aging and slowing down. Her physical evaluations were not as good as they used to be and there were too many that were younger, faster and fitter than she was. She wasn't surprised when she learned that she had been dropped into the abeyance pool, but she was surprised when she received a summons to Madeline's office.

Doris was immediately buzzed into Madeline's office and sat down where her superior indicated that she should sit. Doris nervously looked around the office and noted with some surprise the plants that were displayed in the office. This was the first time she had been summoned by Section's second-in-command. She also thought that this would also be her last time as well.

"Doris, I see by your record here," Madeline tapped the screen of her monitor. "I see that you have a spotless record here in Section, but as happens when we grow older, your numbers have been suffering..."

Doris nodded mutely, her eyes riveted on Madeline's cold, serene face. Madeline glanced over at the operative and smiled. "I have an assignment for you. If you complete it successfully, I think I can find you something a bit....less strenuous, a position that would take you out of the field, and out of the abeyance pool. Of course, this new assignment would be dependent on how discreet you can be." Madeline raised her chin and waited to see if Doris had any questions.

Doris bowed her head and then her eyes rose to meet Madeline's. "I can be discreet, especially when it concerns my life. I am yours, Madeline. What do you want me to do?"

Madeline smiled and used one finger to slide a photo across the slick surface of her desk. "I want you to find this girl and establish a surveillance routine on her. She has caught the attention of Section and we want to know her every move. We also want you to protect her with your life if it comes to that. She is important to Section."

Doris picked up the picture and smiled at what she saw. "She is so young. What could Section want with one so young?" The smiled disappeared from Doris' face as she saw the expression on Madeline's face. "I understand...no questions, just results. I can do that."

"Good! All available information is on this panel." Madeline stood and handed Doris a PDA. I will update it as I see fit to do so...until further notice, you will speak of this assignment to no one. If you do, I'll know and the punishment will not be pleasant. Do we understand each other?"

"Yes, of course. I understand. I will not disappoint you, Madeline."

Madeline smiled. "See that you don't. I will expect daily reports. That's all."

Doris stood and quietly left Madeline's office. Madeline sighed heavily and dropped down into her chair.

In the following weeks, Doris dutifully reported to Madeline. She had equipped herself for a life on the streets because she knew that the street people who were protecting her target would not talk to an outsider. Doris slowly became one of them....and about six months after her immersion into Toronto street life, she found Nikita.

Madeline was delighted with Doris, and told her so. Doris happily proceeded with the profile that Madeline had established. She befriended the girl, and after an initial period of suspicion and uncertainty, Nikita softened toward her, and then seemed to acquire a genuine affection for Doris. Soon, they were fast friends. Doris became a mother figure to Nikita and Nikita reveled in their closeness. Doris was everything that Roberta had not been....sober, loving and, most of all, protecting. Doris watched her back when Nikita did smash and grab robberies to feed them, and Nikita watched Doris' back when she used their meager savings to make her mysterious weekly phone calls. All Doris told her about the calls was that they were made to her family. When Nikita asked her why she lived on the streets and not with her family, all Doris would say was that she liked life on the streets. She couldn't live all cooped up in a house. She liked being free.

Doris and Nikita lived hand to mouth for two more years, until Doris began to notice someone watching them from the shadows. At first, she thought it was just her paranoia, but then when she started watching more closely, she knew it was a surveillance team. Had Madeline lost confidence in her abilities to protect Nikita?

The next time she reported in to Madeline, Doris asked boldly, "Madeline, do you not trust me anymore?"

Madeline was surprised by her question. "Doris, you've been doing an outstanding job. Why would you ask that?"

Doris was silent for a few seconds, and then asked carefully, "Then why would there be another surveillance team watching Nikita?"

Michael, Part X

Michael and Simone had begun spending all their downtime together several months ago. Both had been surprised that they had yet to be called into Madeline's office about their relationship. Perhaps, Madeline would continue to overlook what was happening between the After all, Paul Wolfe's ascension to his current post as Operations was still new to all of the operatives of Section One and some things were still in flux. Most areas of Section One had settled back into a daily routine and the changes that had come about as a result in the change of command had largely been accepted by everyone from the lowliest recruit to the most senior of all Section One personnel.

Michael's transfer to Section One had occurred shortly after Adrian's fall from power, as had Simone's transfer. As Michael had settled into the routine at Section One, he listened carefully to the rumors and stories surrounding the shift in power. Paul Wolfe, or Operations, as he was now called, seemed to have the support of almost everyone. There were rumors of a few cancellations, mostly of older operatives who resisted the change from Adrian to Paul Wolfe. Michael carefully filed away the rumors and the facts and concentrated on his new assignments, the ones he liked and the ones he didn't.

He knew, for instance, of the rumors about Madeline. And if he were to judge by her actions, he tended to place those rumors into his fact file. Shortly before his transfer, he had been informed that he would be training at Section One under Madeline's tutelage for a few weeks. Michael still smiled at the choice of words. At the time, he had felt honored to be assigned to Section One and to have been chosen by the second-in-command for specialized training. What he received in the way of specialized training had not been what he had expected. He had expected further training in Psych Ops as he had been led to believe, and to some extent, he did receive lessons in psychological warfare. He had excelled at his former assignment in profiling and tactical operations as well as field operations, and so he looked forward to extending his skills through his training at Section One.

Even after his experiences in prison, he had regained a certain amount of his self-respect and he had gained the respect of his peers and his trainers at Section Two. Even with someone so focused and brutal as Jurgen as his mentor and trainer, Michael felt that he was destined for better things and more challenging assignments when he was told that he was being transferred to Section One. He knew that only the best were assigned there.

Jurgen had tried to warn him, but Michael wasn't listening. He had been so ambitious and so young...he just knew he could achieve great things at One.

That first day, when he had been called up to the Perch to find both Operations and Madeline waiting for him, he had been eager to hear their plans for him. Michael was young and full of himself. He was already a Level 3 operative and was ready to take on the best that the covert world could throw at him. Little did he know that his good looks, his male beauty, the very things that had caused his pain and debasement in prison was about to be used against him once more.

He heard the words that Operations was saying to him, but they roared in his head, and his mind reeled at their import.

"So, you see, don't you Michael, that someone with your looks, who can kill like you have been trained to do will be very useful to us as a Valentine operative. Madeline here, will instruct you and will evaluate your effectiveness before you are sent out on your first mission." Operations smirked, and then looked to Madeline to finish the indoctrination of their newest transfer. All Michael heard was that they weren't going to use the skills he had acquired in his brutal and exacting training period with Jurgen or the talents he had honed to a razor's edge in his years as an operative at Section Two. What he heard was that he was about to be trained to perform on demand as Section One's newest whore.

He was dismissed after being told to report to Madeline that evening at 8:00 p.m. for his orientation session with her. Michael, his pride in tatters, his shoulders drooping, left the Perch and walked slowly across the center of Section, not really seeing where he was going. He was aware of eyes on him and when he glanced up, he saw a group of cold ops who seemed to be discussing him among themselves, Michael straightened his shoulders and gave them a cold stare even as they laughed with each other and looked away from him. Did everyone know what had just happened up there, he thought to himself.

"Hey, Kid! Over here!" Michael let his icy stare search out the voice that beckoned to him and his eyes came to rest on an old man, who stood there grinning as he worked on broken down gun in his hands. "Yeah, you, green eyes! Come on over. I need to talk to you. Hi, I'm Walter." The old man stuck out his hand, and frowned as Michael ignored the extended hand, but continued to talk. "Hey, kid, why the long face?" Walter leaned closer to Michael in a conspiratorial manner. "I know what they are doing to you, but let me tell you one thing about this place. It's all a test, every day, every hour, they'll be testing you. I've heard about you, and you are one of the special ones. Just look at this as one more assignment."

Walter put his arm around Michael's shoulder and tightened his grip when Michael tried to pull away from him. "Listen to me, Kid. You are a real good-looking kid. You'd have to go through this training even if you weren't destined for the fast track. They're going to put you through the wringer here. They have to be sure of you. If you can't take whatever they decide to do to you, then it's better to end it all now." Michael watched as Walter pushed a small Beretta across the table until it rested against his fingertips which were gripping the edge of the table.

Michael looked into Walter's blue eyes and Walter took a step back as he was trapped in the lonely blank look in the young man's jade green eyes. "They won't break me, Walter. I can take anything that they throw at me...Anything!"

"Well, then!! Welcome to my 5 per cent club." Walter clapped his hand on Michael's back and smiled his warmth into Micheal's cold eyes. This kid is gonna need more than me to survive this place, he thought, a whole lot more. At that moment, Walter eyes strayed from Michael's face to a petite figure walking into Comm. She was new, he thought, and she takes no nonsense and suffers no fools. She's perfect. "Michael, come on over here. There's someone I want you to meet. Her name is Simone.

Above in the Perch, Operations and Madeline watched as Walter slapped Michael on the back and proceeded to draw the young man into conversation.

"Do you think he will work out here? Was it worth what we had to trade to get him away from Section Two? Jurgen didn't want to let him go." Operations continued to watch Michael, but when he heard no answer from Madeline, he raised his head and locked his gaze on her.

She drew in a deep breath and focused her dark eyes on him, and said simply, "Yes, Paul, he's worth everything we had to give up and then some." Madeline smiled at him, and Operations' eyes narrowed. He knew of her predatory needs and he smiled coldly.

"Madeline, he is the finest specimen we have had in here for a long time. I hope you know what you are doing. We can't afford to ruin this one...He's the future of Section One."

Madeline turned to go and whispered to Paul, "Oh, I won't ruin him. He just needs to be taken down a peg or two. He's very full of himself right now, and pride goeth before a fall. And we don't want him falling. We need him too much. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a lot of work to do before our orientation session tonight." She touched his arm lightly and left him alone in the Perch.

"Ah, Madeline, I can already see it...I'll have to make sure you don't get too attached to your material....He is too important, and so are you." Operations turned back to the window in front of him and once more looked down to see that Michael was still standing at Walter's worktable. He'd have to remember to tell Walter not to coddle Michael too much. The old man was like that. He was always taking an operative under his wing, trying to protect and teach him, or her, the ropes here at Section. This young one would need to be watched, and if need be, toughened up a bit. Operations liked his operatives cold and hard. He turned away from the window just at that moment, so he didn't see Walter draw Michael over to meet Simone. He didn't see the slight smile that touched Michael's lips as he shook hands with the Asian beauty with the long black hair.

Walter just stood back and grinned at his handiwork. Section wasn't going to get this young man's soul...not if he could help it.

Simone, Part XI

Months later, as Simone held her tiny newborn to her breast and attempted to feed him, she thought back on that momentous first meeting with Michael. She laughed quietly, sadly, at the memory. Rene suckled noisily at her breast and Simone watched and finally accepted the fact that she was not going to be able to breast-feed little Rene. She knew that she couldn't provide enough milk. The doctor had told her that. She also knew that her activities as a Section One operative would not allow her to feed Rene as she and Michael had wanted.

They had wanted so much for the child she held in her arms. Simone mused once again as she remembered Walter coming up behind her and cupping her elbow. She had turned and come face to face with one of the most beautiful male faces she had ever seen. It was only later that she learned that this young man was as beautiful on the inside as he was on the outside. But at that first meeting, her breath had left her in a huff and she had blinked a few times before she could focus on what Walter was saying...."This is Michael. He's new to Section One also....Michael, this is Simone. She just transferred in from Hong Kong." Walter looked from Simone to Michael and grinned at the look on their faces. Michael was staring at Simone like he had finally found the answer to his prayers, but the young man had quickly shuttered his expression and shifted his eyes away from Simone's face. Simone just as quickly looked down at the floor, but then lifted her chin and defiantly snapped her eyes back to Michael's face as he swung his hot gaze back to hers. Walter continued to grin and thought to himself that the both of them looked as if they had just been pole-axed.

As attracted as she had been to Michael that first day, Simone had avoided him like the plague when she heard that he was to be trained as a Valentine Op by Madeline herself. Even as she had warmed up to him after Walter's introduction, she remembered the snickering that she had overheard in the women's locker room earlier that day. A small group of female ops were discussing the newest addition to Section One. Their discussion centered on Michael's physical attributes, of which there were many. And then, one of their number dropped the bomb..."But don't you know? He's slated to undergo Valentine training with Madeline."

"Oh no," one groaned. "She always gets the good ones. Well, that means he is hands-off territory to all of us peons. Nobody messes with Madeline's material. That is, unless you want to live dangerously." Everyone laughed. "Yeah, I know. We all live dangerously enough as it is....I, for one, have no desire to be on the receiving end in the white room. Even as desirable as the delicious stone-faced Michael is, until Madeline tires of him, he is off-limits to all of us." The group laughed together and then dispersed without realizing that their conversation had been overheard.

Michael made a few attempts to draw Simone into conversation, but finally gave up when he realized that she wanted no part of him. His training sessions with Madeline continued, and he began to feel more and more discouraged and despaired of ever being useful to Section.

And then came the day when Michael could no longer take his status, real or perceived, as Madeline's prize stud. "I'm better than this," he told her.

"I know," she said. The next day, Michael was banished from Madeline's bed and he found himself at his first mission briefing. After a few missions, Michael was made team leader and more often than not, he chose Simone for his team. Many began to notice that when they worked in tandem, their missions almost always succeeded with little personnel loss. Other operatives began to covet assignments to Michael's team. They knew that they had a better than even chance of returning alive from a mission when Michael was in charge. In time, Michael became the undisputed tactical expert at Section. His confidence completely regained, Michael started to work on improving other aspects of his life.

This time, when he sought out Simone, it was for something other that a Section mission. This time, the mission was purely personal. He excelled at those types of missions as well, and his success with his personal missions was 100 percent. Within a few months, his humiliation as Madeline's material was forgotten and his relationship with Simone was a tactical success. Soon they were living together and by the time that Simone tearfully confessed to Michael that she was pregnant, Michael's place at the center of Section One was assured. He used his success as leverage to convince Operations and Madeline that two operatives who happened to be married was not such a bad thing. Two married operatives who happened to be expecting a baby was a bit harder to explain or justify, but together, Michael and Simone weathered the blistering fury of Operations and the cold, analytical questioning of Madeline. What would happen after the baby was born was yet to be discussed.

Michael and Simone continued in their happiness and a heavily pregnant Simone was eventually put to work in Comm. She also ran mission tactical from Section. She wasn't physically by Michael's side on his missions, but she was with him in spirit and on the commlinks. They were still the most formidable team that Section had ever produced, and this was something that even Operations and Madeline noticed and made note of when decisions had to be made.

Simone sighed and lowered her lips to her baby's head to kiss him gently. She wondered how long she and Michael would be allowed to keep him. Even as she shivered at the prospect of having her son ripped from her arms, she heard the front door open. Michael was home. He had been away for a week and would be anxious to spend time with his new son. Somehow, he had managed to get to her in time to be with her during the delivery.

They had had only a few hours together before he was called away for another mission briefing. Since Rene's birth three weeks ago, they had only been together for a few days. Operations had seemed bent on keeping them apart. It was almost as if he didn't want father and son to bond. The head ofSection One had not been happy when he had learned of the impending birth of a son to his top Level Five Operative. Michael had, at 25, become the youngest operative to have earned his Level Five status in the history of Section One. Simone had earned her Level Four status at 30 that same year. She was Michael's senior in years, but his subordinate in Section.

In his ire over the situation, Operations had created a new policy. Henceforth, Section One would have a strict non-fraternization policy. Operatives were not permitted to have serious relationships with one another. The lone exception was Michael and Simone. They both knew that Operations recognized the fact that separating them at this point would be counterproductive to Section One's best interests, but he also wanted to drive a wedge of resentment between Michael and the other cold ops. He didn't want any of his operatives to become too popular with the others. Operations commanded from a position of strength and, to some extent, intimidation, and he had observed the growing regard with which the other operatives held Michael and Simone. So, he sought to sow a few seeds of resentment towards Michael, just to keep things interesting and to keep everyone a bit off balance.

Simone smiled up at Michael as he entered the nursery. "How's my big boy?" He carefully took Rene from Simone's arms and held him close, even as he kissed Simone lightly on her lips. He frowned slightly as he watched Simone button her blouse. "Any success?" he asked.

Simone brushed away the tears that glistened in her eyes. "No," she whispered. "Michael, I'm sorry...The doctor says it would be best if we bottle-feed Rene. I just can't produce enough breast milk for him...I'm so sorry." Dejectedly, Simone broke down and wept bitterly. Michael knelt beside her chair and cradled her in his arm as he held Rene snuggly against his chest.

"It doesn't matter, Simone. Our boy will grow big and strong just the same on formula. You'll see. Please, don't cry. I can't stand it when you cry." He kissed her tenderly while wiping away her tears with his thumb. Slowly, he stood and carried Rene over to his crib. After lovingly tucking in the baby, he returned to Simone and swept her into his arms. "Come, my love, let us go and fix our big, strong son a bottle. And while we are at it, we can also fix his Daddy something to eat as well. I've had a hard day at the office and I'm tired and hungry!" Michael squeezed Simone to his chest and she laughed, forgetting for a few moments about how sad she was. Michael smiled and tugged her towards the kitchen, happy to see her beautiful smile.

Despite Simone's inability to breast-feed little Rene, the days and months that followed Rene's birth were happy ones for Michael and Simone. With the exception of the times that the phone rang summoning them back to Section, they were never apart from their son. Shortly after Rene's one month birthday, something happened that would change the course of the family's life together. Michael was badly injured on a mission. Section lost the services of its top operative for two months. But after Michael's two-week stay in Medical recovering from the worst of his injuries, Rene gained a stay-at-home Daddy for the remainder of his two months of recuperation. Michael's injuries did what Operations had tried to stop. Michael bonded very deeply with his son.

Even as Michael became more and more involved with his son, he watched helplessly as Simone began to draw away from Rene. If was almost as if she had already accepted the fact that one day their child would be taken away from them, and as a defense mechanism against that unendurable pain, she had decided to shield her heart from bonding too closely with her own child. Michael was bereft on Simone's behalf, but he hugged his son more closely, vowing never to lose him.

Rene, Part XII

Under Michael's loving care, Rene grew into a quiet, happy baby. Simone assisted in raising her son, but more often than not, Michael was the primary caregiver, and he reveled in his role as Rene's father. The time that he had spent recuperating from the injuries he suffered on his last mission had been well-spent in bonding strongly with his son. His absence from Section had meant more frequent missions for Simone as Section resources were reallocated to make up for Michael's temporary loss. So, as Michael's attachment to his son was strengthened, Simone's bond with Rene was eroded. She was a dutiful, if not totally involved mother. She loved her son, but in a detached sort of way, not the all-consuming way that Michael loved Rene. She despaired of the effect on Michael if, no...when, Section made the decision to remove Rene from their lives. She told herself she could handle it when the day came. She was not so sure Michael would be able to handle the loss.

The first few months of the family's life together went well, but Michael's return to full status as an operative began to cause problems for Rene's care. Operations was not amenable to scheduling missions around the family's welfare. It soon became necessary to find a nanny for Rene. Fortune smiled on Michael and Simone in the form of an elderly neighbor who lived in the same building as they did.

Colette Pasquale loved children and after raising four of her own and watching them move to the four corners of the world, she yearned for something or someone to keep her busy and fill her lonely days. The sixty-five-year-old woman had observed the small family's comings and goings, so when the opportunity presented itself for her to meet and talk to Michael and Simone, she took it.

One bright sunny day, Michael and Simone were walking in the park across from their apartment in a secluded street not far from Section. Colette was sitting on a bench basking in the sun, but also waiting for her encounter with the family who lived just upstairs from her. She knew that they often took a quiet stroll with their son on their free afternoons, so she had come to the park to wait for their appearance. Colette waited patiently for them to come down the walkway leading to her bench. While she waited, she watched Michael carefully, noting the smooth grace of his walk, how his ever-alert eyes were constantly moving, observing every movement in his vicinity. Simone was the same, always watching, waiting, as if expecting a threat.

Colette closed her eyes and remembered her father. Her memory took her back many years, to the dark days when the Germans had occupied her homeland during the second World War. Her father, and many of his friends, had been Maqui...resistance fighters who tirelessly sabotaged and harassed the Germans in an effort to damage and distract them until the imminent Allied invasion would come to drive them out of France. She smiled as she remembered the same concentrated expression on her father's face as she saw on Michael's. Her eyes popped open as the realization came to her that Michael was a fighter like her father had been. The Germans had finally caught her father and shot him only a few weeks before the Americans had driven their tanks down the boulevards of Paris, liberating the city.

This Michael and his wife Simone, were not the quiet and unassuming husband and wife that they pretended to be. She smiled to herself. Colette, you old fool, such an imagination you have! These two handsome young people are what they are, loving parents with a new baby, trying to make ends meet by the both of them working. Still, she thought, I can still see my father in Michael, brave and strong. I can see him stalking and eliminating the enemy, only for him, the enemy would be international terrorists, not unlike the Nazis of my father's time. Colette crossed herself, laid her hand on her heart and said a prayer for her father's soul, and added a prayer for Michael and Simone as well.

They were almost even with where she was sitting on her bench. She raised her head and smiled at them. She had met them a few times in the lobby of their apartment building, so she spoke to them. "What a nice day for a stroll in the park, non?" She stood and stepped lightly over to the carriage to peer down at Rene. "How is the little one today? Ahhhh, so big a smile he has." After seeking and being granted the permission to approach the baby carriage, she extended her hand to the gurgling, smiling child in the baby carriage. Rene clinched one of his tiny hands around one of Colette's fingers and tried to pull it into his mouth. Colette gently disengaged her finger from the beautiful dark-haired baby and smiled up at Michael and Simone and gestured to her bench. "Would you care to sit with me for awhile...We live in the same building and we have so little chance to talk as neighbors should do."

Michael, ever wary, evaluated her request and smiled back at her. "Of course, but only for a few minutes. Simone?" He took Simone's hand, led her to the bench and sat down beside her and Colette, all the while keeping Rene's baby carriage by his side.

Before they left the bench that day, Colette had made her offer to care for Rene in their absences from home, and Michael, with Simone's assent, had tentatively agreed to Colette's offer. He promised her that he and Simone would give her an answer the next day, after they had had a chance to talk it over between them, and Michael thought, after I have a chance to run a background check on her through Section's resources.

Colette passed Michael's background check with flying colors. So sad, Michael thought, that Colette had lost her father when she was teenager growing up in the midst of war. He mused sadly that one day Rene might lose his father to the vagaries of fate and a terrorist's bullet. Michael vowed to stave that day off for as long as he could, knowing that it might not be in his power to do so.

Since being recruited into Section, Michael had always lived in the moment, never knowing when his last moment might come. With Rene's birth, new momentum was thrust into Michael's life and he began to plan how he and Simone might survive long enough to see Rene grow up. But, in the meantime, Michael and Simone were confident that little Rene would be well-taken care of by their new friend, Colette.

Michael's family settled into a comfortable and mutually beneficial relationship. Colette showered her love on Rene and was rewarded by the devotion of his family. She never asked questions about what Rene's parents did for a living to supply them with such a fine apartment as they had. Colette knew that they would never answer her questions. She knew without being told that what they did was dangerous and secret. She took care of them when either Michael or Simone appeared with unexplained injuries, and she took care of Rene when the couple was absent for days at a time. Both Michael and Simone were grateful for her uncomplicated, loving friendship to them and for her obvious hopeless infatuation with their son, Rene. Michael often joked with her, accusing her of relentlessly spoiling Rene, while she laughingly chided him for spoiling her with his and his family's caring.

One day, just after Rene's second birthday, Simone woke to a frantic knocking on their apartment door. She opened it to find a worried Colette standing there wringing her hands, with tears running down her face. "I'm sorry...I'm sorry," Colette was saying. "I must go away for a few days. My youngest son is ill. His wife just called. I must go. Could Michael take me to the airport? I must fly to Malta immediately!" Simone pulled Colette into the apartment and called for Michael, who came running out of the bedroom with a squirming Rene in his arms.

Simone explained what the problem was and Michael handed Rene to Simone and rushed back into the bedroom to dress. Colette reached her hands up to Rene, who reached back to her without hesitation, as if he could feel that she needed him in her arms at that moment. "Tante?" Rene wrapped his arms around Colette's neck and hugged her, murmuring in his baby voice, "Tante.....Tante.....Tante...." as if his name for her would calm her fears and make her feel better.

She answered him with her soft voice, soothing his fears for her. "Mon petite, mon bebe" Rocking the child seem to quiet her anxiety and it was with a sigh that she watched Michael hurry out of the bedroom, pulling on a jacket and cupping his hand under Colette's elbow to help her up. Simone took a now whimpering Rene from her and held him close.

"Everything will be fine, Colette. I'm sure your son will be alright. You'll see for yourself soon." Michael hustled her out the door, turning his head to Simone and telling her he would be back soon. Simone simply nodded and turned her head to begin to sing a lullaby to Rene in hopes that he would settle down and go back to sleep.

The call from Section came only a few minutes before Michael returned from the airport, where he had made sure that Colette was comfortable in the first class cabin of the jet before leaving her. She was admonishing him for spending so much of his own money for the first-class ticket to Malta. He had kissed her on both cheeks and told her she was worth whatever he could do to make her comfortable. He had sat quietly with her holding her hand and trying to reassure her until the flight attendant had placed her hand on his shoulder and told him that the jet was ready to depart. A last kiss on Colette's forehead and Michael left her, once again telling her that everything would be fine.

Michael returned to the apartment to find Simone dressed and holding a fretting Rene. "Michael, they want us both in. What are we going to do with Rene?"

Michael took Rene from Simone and the baby quieted immediately in his father's arms. "Let me make a call." Turning to the phone, he quickly dialed and spoke softly into the reciever when a gruff voice answered. "I know your shift is almost over, but we have both been called in.....It will be for just a little while....It's the Frankfurt mission....only a day or so. Alright. We'll be there shortly. Thanks, Walter!" Michael smiled at Simone. "We're taking Rene with us. Walter goes off duty in a hour and he will take care of Rene until we get back. Rene will be fine with him."

Simone looked doubtful, but she stood on her tiptoes to kiss Michael and then went in search of the things Walter would need for Rene. "I hope you're right, Michael!" Simone didn't like taking her son into the bowels of Section, but told herself it would only be for an hour or so.....

Uncle Walter, Part XIII

Walter sat in the back of his work area sorting out the newly-arrived supplies. What was I thinking, he asked himself, to have told Michael that I would baby-sit little Rene. What do I know about little kids....babies, even? Walter had visited Michael and Simone several times and had gotten along famously with their young son. He smiled at the memory of holding that tiny bundle of the joy of Michael's existence....Michael's and Simone's existence, he corrected himself. Walter had noticed the difference between the attention that Michael gave to his son and the attention that Simone paid to the child. Michael's joy in his son radiated from him, while Simone was somewhat detached. Walter chided himself for such uncharitable thoughts toward Simone. He knew she loved Rene. He saw it each time she held the child, but her love was not all-consuming the way Michael's was.

Walter hurried with his task, so that he would be ready to leave at the end of his shift. He didn't want to keep Rene in the belly of the beast any longer than he had to, and he especially didn't want to draw Operations' or Madeline's ire for having the child in Section. Those predators would probably serve the kid up for supper. He smiled grimly. Well, maybe not supper, but Rene would make a tasty snack for the two of them. Walter shuddered at his imagery. He would take the child and quickly be on his way. Where were those two kids, he thought impatiently....Their briefing was only minutes away.

Walter slowly shook his head from side to side....remembering...Michael had just been elevated to Level 5. Walter had passed him in the hall, had stopped and slapped him on the back. "Congratulations, Kid! I just heard the good news. Level 5! You deserve it." Michael had smiled shyly, and his green eyes had twinkled a bit. Walter knew that Michael had worked very hard and had endured much to achieve his new status. As quickly as the smile appeared, it disappeared.

"Walter, a favor, please?" Michael spoke quietly, not wishing for passersby to hear what he was saying to Walter.

"Yeah, Kid. What is it? What do I have to do to ingratiate myself with Section's newest Level 5 operative?" He said, grinning.

Michael leaned toward Walter and made his request. "In future, please do not call me Kid in the presence of others. Please?" Walter looked a bit surprised and his expression drifted from grin to frown and back to a big, beaming smile.

Just as Michael had done earlier, he leaned in, so as not to be overheard and said seriously, "Sure, Michael, I understand perfectly. No more 'Hey, kid!'"

The only expression Michael allowed was a quick quirk of the corner of his mouth. He bowed his head to Walter and continued down the hall on the way to the new office that was befitting of his new status. Walter grabbed his arm and pulled him back. "But Michael...between friends, you'll always be my kid!" Michael raised one eyebrow and grinned at Walter.

"Okay, but just between us...I must maintain my dignity in front of the others." From that day on, Walter never again called Michael "Kid" in front of others in Section. But when it was just the two of them or in front of Simone, Michael would forever be "Kid" to Walter.

Walter's musings were interrupted by a babyish giggle and he looked up to see Michael hurrying in with one arm wrapped around a smiling Rene and with a portable playpen hanging off the other arm. Simone followed behind him with Rene's gear.

"Moving in, are we, Kid? Here, let me take that." Walter relieved Simone of the duffel bag she carried and he also took the portable playpen from Michael. "This is quite a roadshow you have here!"

An apologetic Michael quickly explained their dilemma more fully than he had on the phone. Walter took Rene from Michael's arms and the two-year-old wrapped his pudgy arms around the old man's neck. "Unca Walwal" Rene murmured into Walter's ear. A beatific smile broke upon Walter's face and he gave Rene a big hug.

"And how is my little man today?" Rene giggled and buried his head against Walter's chest, and hugged Walter back. "We are going to have a lot of fun while you two are working. I'll take good care of him."

Michael put his hand on Walter's arm and gave it a squeeze. "Of course you will, Walter. Thanks for helping us out." He glanced at his watch and then at Simone. "We'd better hurry. The briefing is starting in a few minutes." Michael leaned over and kissed Rene on the forehead. "You be a good boy. Daddy and Mommy will see you when we get back."

Rene disengaged his arms from around Walter's neck and extended his arms toward Michael. "Daddeeeee.....stay!" His little fingers opened and closed repeatedly as he reached for his father. Michael's heart just about melted as he beheld his son. "Daddeeeee.....!" Michael took Rene from Walter's arms and gave him a hug.

"Rene, my little one, you must stay with Uncle Walter. Mommy and I will be back soon. I promise." He watched disheartened as big baby tears started to run down Rene's face. Michael hugged him one more time and gently thrust him back into Walter's arms. Simone stepped up into the space vacated by Michael who took a few steps back from Walter. She hugged and kissed Rene and then turned away to follow Michael. Rene sniffled for a few seconds as he watched his parents walk away from him. Then he once again buried his head against Walter's chest and began to play with the turquoise necklace that hung around Walter's neck.

"Come on, little man, let's see what kind of mischief we can get into while Mommy and Daddy are working." He carried the toddler back into his work area and attempted to set up the playpen one-handed. Frustrated, he sat Rene down in the floor and finished setting up the playpen. Scooping Rene up, Walter set him down inside the playpen and went to finish up what he was working on, so that he and Rene could leave Section.

Rene sat in the middle of his playpen and began playing with his teddy as he carefully observed Walter's movements. He smiled as he thought that it might be fun to climb out of his playpen and explore this interesting new world in which he found himself....

The Adventurer, Part XIV

Rene, at two years and seven months, was an adventurous child. He loved climbing. His parents and Colette had to watch him very closely because they never knew when he would indulge in his favorite pastime. Michael had come home one day and found Rene sitting on top of the dining room table. Alarmed, Rene's father had scooped him up and called out for Rene's mother. She had come running when she heard her husband's voice, and was amazed when he very curtly told her where he had found Rene.

"But...but I had left the room for only a few seconds. How did he get up there so fast?" She was nonplused and a bit upset at the caustic nature of Michael's criticism. Simone had teared up and tried hard not to cry. Michael had instantly encircled her with one of his arms and pulled her into a tight hug with Rene in the center.

"I'm sorry, my love, I spoke too harshly. We'll just have to watch him more closely...I must say, though, that he comes by the climbing honestly. My mother once told me that I did the same thing. I climbed on everything. She said that one day she found me sitting on top of the cook stove. Fortunately, she hadn't been cooking, so it was cool. My backside was not so cool after she swatted it a few times. I soon learned what I should NOT climb on." Michael smiled at the distant memory and looked down at his wife. He leaned down and kissed her, hoping that he had not hurt her feelings too badly with his thoughtless words.

Michael was sitting in the Section van on his way to a mission when he remembered that he had forgotten to warn Walter about Rene's proclivity to climb out of or into almost anything. He leaned his head back and sighed. He hoped that Walter was watching Rene in case his adventurous son decided to start exploring. Michael looked at his watch. At least, he thought, Walter and Rene were most likely at Walter's apartment at this very moment.

In fact, Walter and Rene were not at his apartment. A flash mission had been profiled and Walter's departure had been delayed. He had just given Rene his bottle and put him down for a nap when he got the call from Madeline that he would be needed. Walter knew he couldn't wriggle out of this one, so he stayed with Rene until the child obediently went to sleep, his teddy by his side.

When he was sure that Rene was asleep, Walter walked quietly away from the playpen and started assembling the equipment required for the flash mission team. He worked quickly, in a hurry to finish so he could take Michael's son away from the purgatory in which the child's parents worked. Rene slept on peacefully, until a woman's voice interrupted his slumber.

"Walter," the disembodied voice said, "I know you are in a hurry to go home, but could you please attend the briefing for this mission? We need your expertise."

Rene's eyes popped open when he heard the woman say his Uncle Walter's name. Using both fists to rub his eyes, Rene lay silently for a few seconds, taking in all the strange sights around him. The tall metal shelves with different sized boxes stacked on them caught his eye. He liked boxes, even though his mother had scolded him when she had found him sitting in the middle of kitchen playing with the things he had carefully removed from the big boxes that slid out from the cabinets. Everything was shiny, and Rene liked shiny. He liked looking at himself in the shiny objects, and was fascinated by the green eyes that looked back at him from the shiny things.

Slowly, Rene sat up in his playpen and looked for his Daddy or his Mommy. He couldn't find them and then he remembered that they had gone away with promises to be back soon. They had left him with Uncle Walter because Tante Colette had gone away and he couldn't stay with her. Rene liked Uncle Walter. He was funny and made Rene laugh. He let Rene play with things that his parents kept away from him, and he always had something around his neck or in his pockets with which Rene could play. Rene craned his neck looking around for his Uncle Walter. He began to fret a bit, because he didn't like to be left alone, and he especially didn't like being away from his Daddy. His Daddy smelled good and he liked the way his Daddy held him and sang him little songs. His Daddy had the nicest voice and Rene smiled as he thought about how his Daddy would murmur and sing to him when he couldn't go to sleep. Just his Daddy's voice was enough to soothe him to sleep...that and the closeness of his father's caress.

Rene knew how much his both of his parents loved him, but he had always preferred the arms of his father curled around him more than his mother's. His Mommy almost seemed afraid of him. She cuddled him, but it just wasn't the same as how his Daddy cuddled him. He always felt safest in his Daddy's arms.

Even as he craved the safety of his father's arms, little Rene was scrambling to his feet in the middle of the playpen and he quickly grasped the siderail of his playpen as he stuck his toes into the mesh of the sides of the playpen and began to climb. Very carefully, Rene put his chubby little leg over the side of the playpen and made sure his toes were curled in the mesh of the outside of the playpen before he pulled his other leg over the side and proceeded to climb down. Soon his bare feet found the cool concrete floor and he let go of the mesh of the playpen. Rene sat down with a plop, his thick diaper absorbing most of the shock of hitting the ground He was fairly new to this walking thing and he wanted to decide what looked the most interesting before he started exploring. He didn't see Uncle Walter anywhere.

He grinned to himself. This was going to be a great adventure! His wide green eyes took in his surroundings as he tried to decide which way looked the most enticing. Rene was sitting in the storage area of Walter's station, away from the main area of Section, so all he could hear was the sound of the voices coming from Comm. Being shy, but with an adventurous nature, Rene pulled himself up to his feet and took a few baby steps toward the voices, but at the last minute, changed his mind and scurried down the aisle that led further back into Walter's storage area. He rather liked the look of all those nifty boxes. Rene couldn't wait to find out what was in them.

Several minutes later, Rene sat happily amid the contents of the one box that he was able to pry the lid off of with his baby strength. He was playfully unwinding all of the colored wire from the many spools that he had found inside the box. Rene was totally unaware of the figure that walked swiftly and silently up behind him. Michael's son yelped loudly as two hands grabbed him under the arms and he felt his stomach do flip-flops as he was lifted quickly into the air and held out at arms length, legs dangling in mid-air, by the person who had scooped him up.

Rene screamed in fright as he stared into eyes that seemed to flash with anger and tenderness all at the same time. "What the...the....hell!" stammered the man as he tried frantically to quieten the frightened screams of the child who never should have happened......

The Baby-Sitter, Part XV

Rene continued screaming as the man holding him finally came to his senses and attempted to cradle the frightened child against his chest. Rene fought him every step of the way, slinging his little fists every which way. When one of the fists connected with the man's nose, he yelled and caught the child's hand in his own.

"Young man, THIS MUST STOP!!" His voice held so much authority that Rene abruptly stopped his screaming and looked at Operations with wide, frightened green eyes. "That's much better. I can't imagine your father would be happy with the way you have been acting. Now, what is a little one like yourself doing here all alone? I'll bet that Walter got drafted to do a bit of baby-sitting. He's not doing a very good job, is he?"

Rene gazed up at Operations with eyes that were beginning to lose their fearfulness as sleepiness began to make them droop. This man had a powerful presence just like his Daddy, but his Daddy never yelled at him. He just quietly and firmly told Rene what was right and what was wrong, and Rene responded to that. He never wanted to disappoint his Daddy. This man was gruff and a bit scary, but Rene sensed that he was safe in this man's arms. He had held a child before. Rene was comfortable in his arms. He began to play with a shiny pin that was attached to the man's coat. Rene liked shiny things. The surface of the pin was smooth, and as he touched the shiny pin, his eyes began to close and soon, Rene was fast asleep in the arms of the man who held the lives of Rene's parents in his hands even as he held their son. When Rene was sound asleep, exhausted from his frantic cries and struggles of earlier, Operations stood there looking down at the beautiful child that his top operative had produced against all odds in the dark world of Section One.

As he gently rocked Rene in his arms, Operations began to wonder what he was supposed to do now. He looked around where he was standing in the middle of Walter's munitions storage area and tried to think of what to do next. A lone cold op sauntered up to Walter's work table, his mission gear dangling from his hand. As he swung the gear up onto the table, he spied Operations standing back in the storage area and stopped in his tracks. "Uh, Sir, can I help you with something?" The words were out of his mouth before it registered with him what, or rather whom, Operations was rocking in his arms.

The steely, silver-blue eyes lasered in and Operations looked hard at the man, before he snapped, "Yes, Jacobs, you can do something for me." Gesturing at the playpen and the bag on the floor next to him, Operations ordered sharply, "bring those things up to my office and set up the playpen there." He noticed Jacob's slight smile, and added, "and Jacobs, I would look on any gossip arising from this situation as a black mark on your record." Operations smiled, "and you wouldn't want that, would you, Jacobs?"

Jacob's smile dissipated quickly, and anxious to stay in Operations' good graces, he scrambled for the items he had been directed to take to Operation's office and swiftly departed, but not before Operations growled at him, "And don't forget the teddy bear!"

Operations walked stiffly across Comm on his way to the perch, stopping briefly to tell a passing operative that he required a rocking chair in his office immediately. The sandy-haired operative hurried off, wondering where in Section he was going to find a rocking chair, of all things. Operations continued on his way, cradling the sleeping child as half of Section watched silently, some with their mouths open in shock.

Finished with the briefing in Madeline's office, Walter hurried back to check on Rene before he gathered everything up in preparation to leave for the night. He stopped short when he found the tangled jumble of colored wire from the open container in his storage area, but he found no Rene....

Walter hunted frantically in the back of his storage area, and then ran to his worktable and wondered what could have happened to his young charge. He walked quickly through Comm, searching, and then he went back to his work area. He stopped and slowly turned and let his gaze drift upwards, until he was staring at the perch.

"Oh, Shit!" he muttered to himself. "I am a dead man, two times over." He watched as the young sandy-haired operative named Sean carried a rocking chair across the perch and sat it down in front of Operations, who still held a sleeping Rene in his arms. "Michael will kill me for not taking good enough care of Rene, and Operations will kill me for having the kid here at all." He sighed and tried to think what he would tell Michael. Even as he sighed, Walter's breath caught in his throat as he watched Madeline enter the perch and walk over to where Operations sat in the rocking chair, gently rocking his precious bundle of two-year-old Rene. Walter began to breathe again as he watched Madeline bend slightly and run her fingers down Rene's cheek and smile. And then he thought that it wasn't always a good thing when Madeline smiled. He comforted himself as he thought that this particular Madeline smile was pleasant, not at all like the smile that everyone referred to as the Mona Lisa smile. THAT smile made everyone nervous because usually, nothing good came with that smile.

Walter was on his way across the main floor to confront the old dragon in his lair when he was hailed by someone in Comm. "Walter! I just heard....Michael's team is in van access." Ellen, the analyst who had called to him, glanced up at the perch. "I thought you might want to meet him and warn him about...you know what. Good Luck!"

Walter threw Ellen a kiss and rushed off down the hallway to van access. He arrived just in time to hear Chuck needling a tired Michael. "Hey, Mikey, way to go, man!" Walter saw Chuck slap Michael on the back and say, "when you need a baby-sitter, you go right to the top of the heap, don't you?" Michael had his back to Chuck and was giving some instructions to one of his team. Simone stood off to the side and watched with wide eyes as she saw Walter who was NOT supposed to be in Section at this time of night. He's supposed to be home with Rene, she thought, and then, My God, where is Rene?

Her eyes strayed over to Michael who slowly and deliberately turned to face a grinning Chuck. "What do you mean, Chuck?" His voice was smooth, quiet and deadly, as he stood motionless and stared at Chuck.

Chuck continued to grin, not taking Michael's stare or tone of voice seriously. Only he could get away with treating Michael this way. Besides Walter and Simone, Chuck was the only other operative who was not in awe of or afraid of Michael. He continued to grin, and finally said, just as Michael spied Walter standing behind Chuck.

"Well, Man, who else but you could get Operations to baby-sit Rene?" Michael stared at Chuck and then at Walter, before swiftly pushing by both of them and gliding down the corridor like a panther on the scent of its first kill of the day. His green eyes flashed at Walter as he passed him. Simone ran up to Walter and demanded to know what had happened as they both raced down the corridor after Michael.

They both stopped on the main floor of Section and stood with mouths agape as they watched Michael stalk into the perch and come to stand before Operations as he sat in the rocking chair, Rene snuggled in his arms.

"I've come for my son," Michael said simply as he held out his arms. Operations looked up at Michael, but made no move to relinquish the priceless burden cradled in his arms.

"You know, Michael, Rene is a beautiful child. You should keep him safe always." Operations held the sleeping child out to his father. Michael took Rene from Operations and Rene stirred and then awoke as he was returned to the safest place he knew...his father's arms.

"Daddeeee!" Rene shouted as he threw his arms around his father's neck and hugged him tightly. Michael lost the rigidity of his posture as he accepted and returned Rene's hugs. Rene looked back at Operations and then whispered in Michael's ear. "Daddy, he scared me, but he's nice now. Can we go home?"

"Of course, my little one, we can go now." Michael sent a questioning look in Operation's direction.

"You and Simone can debrief tomorrow when you come in. Leave that," said Operations as Michael bent to retrieve the bag. At Operations' words, his grasp shifted and he scooped up Rene's teddy instead. He handed the bear to Rene who laughed and crushed the bear to his little chest. "I'll have it sent over to your apartment tomorrow. Colette will be there, won't she? Oh, that's right. She had to go see to her son in Malta, didn't she? I think we can arrange to take Simone off active status for a few days until Colette returns, can't we, Madeline." Madeline stepped out of the shadows at the back of the perch and came to stand by Operations' chair.

She smiled, "Of course, Simone won't be needed unless there is an emergency."

Michael let his green gaze drift over both Operations and Madeline. "Of course....Thank you." was all he said as he turned and left the presence of the two people who would determine the course of the rest of his life. They watched as Michael and Rene joined Simone and Walter on the main floor. Walter was beside himself, trying to apologize for the mess he felt he had caused. Michael held Rene in one arm and clapped Walter with his other hand, apparently absolving the old man of any guilt in the matter just concluded.

Walter smiled gratefully and put his hand on Rene's head and tousled his black hair. Rene clung to his father and smiled broadly at his Uncle Walter. Michael put his arm around Simone and the small family walked out of the belly of the beast.

Up in the perch, Operations smiled sadly, remembering his own son who he had not seen in so many years. "Madeline, this cannot go on for much longer. We know this, and I think Michael knows it, too. Put together a profile. We need 100% of Michael's focus, Madeline. 100%. Fix it, and soon." Madeline smiled her own sad smile and left the perch for her office. This was one profile she didn't want to write. Michael would never be the same after this profile went live.

Loss, Part XVI

Time passed.

Rene turned three and the family celebrated by taking Rene on his first visit to a small library Michael had found in their neighborhood. Michael read to Rene often and the small child loved snuggling in his father's arms and listening to his father's voice as it lulled him to slumber, or sometimes fired his imagination at all the excitement he heard in Michael's voice as he read fantastic adventures to his son.

Michael had scouted the library and found out that every Saturday afternoon, an expatriate American woman named Grace read stories to the children that gathered at the library. It was perfect, so when the day of Rene's birthday arrived, Michael and Simone took their giggling son to the library for storytime. They met Grace, and Rene immediately attached himself to her and remained with her for the rest of the afternoon, sitting in her lap and listening wide-eyed as she read story after story. It was a cranky Rene who did not want to leave as storytime ended. Michael promised him another Saturday visit and after assurances from Grace that she would indeed read him more stories on his next visit, Rene stopped his fretting and left the library with his mother and father.

Grace, the library and storytime was all Rene could talk about for the next few days. He often asked Simone, "Is it Saturday yet?" Simone would smile and tell him not yet. He continued to ask several times each day, and Simone would continue to answer him in the same way she had each time he asked.

Michael, in his customary thoroughness, used Section resources to check out Grace King, the librarian who seemed to have captured his son's heart. She had lived all her life in Texas as a librarian in the public library in her small hometown. Grace had dutifully settled in her hometown after college and then graduate school, and had taken care of her parents until, one by one, they had passed away.

She had then surprised everyone who knew her by selling almost everything she had and buying an airline ticket to Paris, France. Her friends thought her crazy for quitting a good job and moving to a foreign country to live. After a few weeks of traveling and getting to know her new home, Grace took the job offered to her at the small library in a quiet Paris street. She found a small apartment on the second floor of an old townhouse near Notre Dame and began her new life. Little did she know that the chance encounter with the Samuelle family would change her life forever, opening up avenues of great pain and even greater happiness and joy.

Colette came back to Paris after a few weeks away, and she resumed her days, and sometimes her nights, taking care of little Rene in the absence of his parents. Her son's health had improved, but still she worried about him and longed to be with him again. She loved the time she spent with Rene. His cherubic little face with his green eyes reminded her of her own children when they were small. She ached to be with her son, and slowly, she built her resolve to tell Michael and Simone that soon, she would no longer be available to care for Rene when they were working.

Colette decided that she would stay another six months in Paris and then she would go to live with her son and his wife in Malta. She agonized over how to tell Michael and Simone what she knew would be disturbing news to them. She didn't want to leave what she had begun to think of as "her second family."

They had all settled into a quiet routine that benefited both Colette and Michael's small family. Colette was there whenever Michael or Simone called her. Sometimes, their jobs called them away in the middle of the night. Michael would carry a sleeping Rene to Colette's apartment and place him lovingly in her arms. He would linger over his son, caressing the child's head, finally leaving him with a sad look and a tender kiss on Rene's forehead.

Colette wondered at each of these leave-takings, just what was going on in Michael's mind. Sometimes, the look in Michael's eyes scared her. It was a look that she remembered seeing in her father's eyes when he left on a sabotage mission against the Germans during the last world war. It was the look of a man who didn't know if or when he would ever see his family again. It was a look of despair, a look of loss. What could he be thinking? And Simone, she was positively unreadable.

Colette saw only a blankness now in Simone's face when she took leave of her son. It was almost as if she had already said goodbye to him. These past few weeks, Colette had watched both parents with their son. Michael, as always, took such joy in everything that Rene did. Simone, in contrast, had little to do with Rene, except the necessities of the care he needed as a small child. Colette began to worry about Simone's state of mind.

She had detached herself from Rene. It was as if she knew that something bad was coming....something inevitable. Simone carefully kept her feelings of doom to herself. Michael would never accept what Madeline and Ops had planned for him.

And so, Simone waited for the summons she knew would soon come from Madeline. She prepared her family, choosing to build a relationship with Grace, who she knew would help Michael when he lost his son, not trusting herself to help him. Simone sensed that the caring nature of Grace would surround Michael in the bleak days ahead, and she knew that somehow Michael would seek out Grace's motherly ministrations as he searched for a way to maintain a connection with Rene. The library had become a safe haven for the Samuelle family and Simone knew that Michael would need something on which to focus when he lost his son. Simone had also begun the process of detachment from Michael because she knew she would never be able to console his grief. She knew he would never forgive her if he found out that she had felt all along that Rene would be taken from them and she had not told him. Simone was older than Michael, in real years and in Section years. She knew the way of the world in Section, but she let Michael believe as long as she could that he would always have his son.

Simone also encouraged and strengthened the bond between Michael and Walter. Michael would need someone inside of Section, just as he would need Grace on the outside.

And so the days passed, and the bond between the Samuelle family and Grace King deepened. Michael knew their friendship was progressing to the point where Grace could be endangered. She was asking questions that he couldn't, wouldn't answer. Then, as if she sensed that he couldn't answer, she stopped asking questions about his and Simone's work. Grace simply accepted what he told her and concentrated on being a friend who knew when not to question. She just accepted the situation and became a caring friend who happened to love Michael's son and through him, his parents.

There were Saturdays when either one or both parents were called away on Section missions. Those were the Saturdays when Uncle Walter would be called in to take an impatient and eager Rene to Grace's storytimes. The old man was always glad when Michael would ask him to take Rene to the library. Walter liked Grace. He liked her saucy manner towards him, how she never let him shock her with this endless innuendoes. He liked how she always had a comeback for anything he said to her. Walter knew he couldn't get away with anything with Grace. The old man reveled in her company and her friendship.

And then the day came when Simone was hit from both sides with unwelcome news. Colette told her that she could no longer take care of Rene. She was moving to Malta to live with her son and his wife. She would be gone in two weeks.

The other bit of bad news came to her in Section where she received the ominous summons to Madeline's office. The world as she knew it was coming to an end...

Grief, Part XVII

The mission had been long and arduous. Michael was anxious to get back home to Simone and Rene. This mission had dragged on for three weeks and he was cold, dirty and exhausted. It was also the longest time he had ever been away from his son and he wanted to reassure himself that everything was all right at home. For the last five days, he had had a feeling that something was not right. He had tried to control the rising tide of fear that gripped his insides and wouldn't let go. His requests for information about his family had been met with a huge stone wall and his suppressed terror was like a cold, hard rock in the pit of his stomach. Something was wrong and they wouldn't tell him what. Focusing on the mission was more important than anything else. This he understood, but all he had wanted was a bit of reassurance and Section had refused that to him.

Michael checked his watch. God, he thought, another thirty minutes...how can I stand it?

Back at Section, Simone sat calmly in the only chair available in Operations' perch. Odd, she thought, they seemed so solicitous of her comfort as they waited for her to perform the most difficult mission of her life. Operations and Madeline stood quietly at the perch window, looking down on their domain and speaking in muted voices, completely ignoring the woman who sat listlessly behind them awaiting Michael's return.

Simone was going over her next mission, trying to find the strength she knew it would take to get through the next few moments of her life. If she failed, she would lose everything and everyone dear to her. If she succeeded, she would lose only one thing dear to her, but she would succeed. She had prepared herself well. She could do the job.

Michael had arrived in van access. The minute he walked through the door, Birkoff met him, but Michael kept on walking, ignoring the young man. Birkoff followed nervously. The teenager's youthful voice quivered on the first words out of his mouth. He was still fairly new to his job in Comm and was still very nervous about talking to anyone in Section. He was terrified to be talking to the infamous Michael, and absolutely petrified to be giving him direct orders from Operations. "Umm...Michael?"

Michael stopped and turned around, his impatience glowing brightly in his eyes. "Yes, Birkoff, what do you want?"

"Uhhhh....Operations wants to see you immediately. You are to report directly to his office." Michael stared at Birkoff until the younger man dropped his eyes. Birkoff knew what was coming and he didn't want to answer any of the questions that he knew were hovering on the tip of Michael's tongue. Michael turned abruptly and continued down the hall on his way to the perch.

Walter was checking his inventory in preparation for a new mission when he glanced up to see Michael stalking across the main floor on his way to the perch. He met Michael's eyes and quickly glanced back down at the panel in his hands. He sniffed when he felt a tear roll down his cheek and splash down onto the panel on which he was trying to concentrate. He heard Michael's footsteps speed up and Walter lifted his eyes to watch the level five operative hurry onward, never lifting his eyes upwards to the perch. The old man shook his head slowly from side to side, knowing that what Michael was about to hear would devastate him. From his place in Munitions, Walter could see Operations and Madeline standing in the perch with their faces turned towards the stairway up to the perch. Simone sat quietly in a chair, head downcast and wringing her hands, waiting for Michael. As he watched, Operations activated the control that blacked out the windows in the perch. Even as he was glad that the kid would get a bit of privacy, Walter thought bitterly that the next few moments could very well destroy the best operative that Section One had ever known. He said a few prayers then, for Michael and Simone, but mostly for little Rene and for the repose of the baby's soul. Walter turned back to the work that he knew had to be finished within the next few minutes. He had a feeling that Michael and Simone would need him soon, and he did not intend to fail either of them.

At the bottom of the stairs leading up to the perch Michael paused, drawing in a deep breath to try and calm his rapidly beating heart. He felt fear for the first time in years. He knew from the surreptitious glances, the eyes that tried not to meet his, and the quiver in Birkoff's young voice, that he was about to receive bad news. Madeline and Operations often ordered him to the perch for an immediate debrief...he expected that. What he did not expect were the expressions on the faces of the operatives that he met on the way to the perch. He suddenly knew that Madeline and Operations was going to tell him that someone he loved, someone he cared about was dead. They were going to tell him that Simone had been killed on a mission.

Michael squared his shoulders and, with another deep breath, he started up the stairs, trying to figure out how he would tell Rene about his mother. He slowed near the top of the stairs. He could see the two of them, turned toward the stairway, waiting for him, waiting to tell him the awful news. He reached the landing at the top of the stairs and stood quietly, facing them.

"Yes, Sir?" Michael felt all the breath leave him as he heard a quiet sob coming from behind Operations, who suddenly stepped to one side so that Michael could see Simone. Michael's beloved wife sat there, bent over and sobbing into her hands. He rushed to her and knelt in front of her. "Oh, God! Simone, I thought they were going to tell me you were dead!" He took her into his arms, and asked quietly, "what is it? What's wrong? Is it Colette? Rene? What is happening!!" She pulled back, away from his embrace and locked eyes with him and murmured the words that no parent should ever have to say or hear.

"It's Rene, Michael! He's gone! Our baby is dead!" And again, she dissolved into tears.

The roaring in his ears began then, and kept getting louder and louder as he felt Operations' strong grip on his shoulder and then heard the older man's voice as it said something about Rene's being killed instantly by a hit and run driver. The child had pulled his hand out of Simone's and run toward an ice cream street vendor across the street. The car had hit him and had not stopped. "We'll find him Michael...I promise." The roaring threatened to drown out all other sounds as Michael put his hands on the arms of the chair in which Simone sat. She was trying to say something to him, but he couldn't understand her words. He pushed himself upwards and the chair arms rocked and almost caused him to lose his balance. Michael realized then that Simone was sitting in the rocking chair where he had found his son, his dear Rene, in the arms of the man who was, even now, trying to explain what had happened to his son.

Michael pushed himself to his feet and took a step back, even as Simone put out her hands to hold him. He was vaguely aware of Madeline speaking to him, asking him if there was anything she could do to help him. He knew she was offering him the oblivion of drugs, but he shook his head at the thought. He wanted to forget nothing. He knew that he had to deal with the pain in his own way. Michael stiffened his back and took one step back and then made a perfectly choreographed turn that put him squarely into Operations' path. Operations put his hand on Michael's shoulder and said something. Michael was beyond communication at this point. His eyes darted around the room, blinking rapidly, focusing on nothing.

He heard a voice say, "Will that be all, Sir?" He thought that the voice was his own, but in any case, Michael started moving away from all of the hands that reached out to him. Simone's sobs lessened as she watched him walk across the perch to the stairs. She called to him but he did not react to her voice. She glanced nervously at Operations, as if to ask permission to leave to go after Michael. Operations nodded and she was out of the chair and running to catch up with her husband.

"Have we done the right thing, Madeline? Or have we just lost our best operative?" Operations turned worried eyes to his second-in-command, who gave him a small smile.

"He'll be in pain for awhile, but ultimately he will recover. We'll have to watch him for awhile. Perhaps we will even have to induce him, but he'll be fine, he'll be just fine in a few months. If I have learned anything at all about Michael over these last few years, I've learned that he is a survivor. Michael will survive anything we throw at him. He'll do what he has to do."

"I hope you are right, Madeline, for all our sakes." Operations whispered as he lit a cigarette and remembered the day he had been told he would never see his own son ever again. He mourned right along with Michael. He knew what it was like to lose a son, but at least he knew his son was alive.

Walter was waiting when he saw Michael exit the stairway alone. As Michael walked resolutely across the commons area of Section, Walter could see the haunted look in the young man's eyes. Walter started towards Michael just as he saw Simone come into view. She had run down the stairs, but slowed to a walk so as to not draw anyone's attention. She continued following Michael and she joined Walter as they both pursued Michael into his office. Michael walked over to the far side of his desk and stood there with one hand resting on the edge of the desk. Simone walked up behind Michael and put her arms around him. Walter walked over to the windows and drew the blinds to block any curious eyes from observing what he thought was about to happen. The old man then stepped behind Michael's desk, pulled out the pad and pushed the keys that blocked the surveillance in Michael's office. No one sees this, he thought to himself. Tonight, the kid will have a little bit of privacy, even from those two.

Michael seemed to come back to himself for a few moments and turned pain-glazed eyes to Walter. "Thanks, Walter," and then the stiffness left his body and his knees started to buckle. Simone couldn't hold him and he pulled out of her arms and collapsed onto his knees on the cold, hard concrete floor. With both arms wrapped around his mid-section, Michael began to rock backwards and forwards, trying to contain his grief over the loss of his son. Finally, he lost the battle. Michael threw his head back, opened his mouth and screamed soundlessly for Rene. Exhausted, he bent over again and his forehead hit the floor and he tried to let the cool concrete of the floor soothe his fevered brow, but it didn't help. He had lost the will to fight the battle. He had lost the will to go on in this bleak world called Section, and even the sympathetic words of his wife and his old mentor could not call him back from the brink.

Both Simone and Walter tried to comfort Michael in his torment, but he shoved them both away and curled up on the floor. He was lost in a world without his son and he wanted no comfort. He knew that he deserved the pain he was feeling, so he let it flow over and through him.

***********

Mourning, Part XVIII

Michael was inconsolable.

Nothing that Simone, Walter or anyone else could say or do made a dent in the wall Michael had built around himself. He closed himself off and would not allow anyone to comfort him. Simone and Walter had finally convinced him to leave Section and go home, but "home" was an apartment that everywhere Michael looked, he saw Rene....Rene's teddy bear, his blanket, his toys. Michael's heart broke again and again as he walked through the apartment that had once been a happy home.

Michael fled into the bedroom and when Simone ventured into the room, she found Michael standing in front of the doors that led to balcony that overlooked a small park. He held Rene's teddy bear in his arms and his fingers played listlessly with the red ribbon tied around its neck, as he stared out into the night. He looked up as Simone walked up behind him and encircled him with her arms.

Michael sighed heavily and spoke softly. "I knew it wouldn't last. I was too happy being a father. I knew he would be taken away, but I always thought it would be Section that took him away.....I never prepared myself for his death. I had only thought to make preparations for my own death. I always thought that if something.....if something should happen to us that perhaps Colette would raise Rene. But now that Colette has gone to live with her son and Rene is gone, it doesn't matter anymore. So, fate has taken care of our Rene for us. Oh, Simone, I don't know how to do this! Perhaps if I knew he was alive somewhere, it would be easier. But this, his death, it's just too much!" Simone embraced her husband even tighter and held him tenderly as he wept silently. Oh, God! What have I done, she thought as her tears wet the material of Michael's sweater. What have I done?

Simone awakened the next morning to find Michael's side of the bed empty. She had finally persuaded him to go to bed in the last hours before dawn. He had been exhausted and she thought he would sleep for longer than he did. She sat up in bed when she heard a clatter of hangers in the closet and the sight that greeted her as she peered inside the closet terrified her.

Michael was pulling all of his clothes off the hangers and was throwing them into a pile on the floor of the closet. The only clothes left hanging in the closet or lining the shelves were black, the unrelieved color of mourning.

"Michael! What are you doing?" Simone jumped out of bed and pulled Michael out of the closet. At first, he resisted her, but then he just collapsed on the bed, shoulders bowed and head hung low.

After a few minutes, he gestured at the clothes on the floor, "These all remind me of a time I spent with him. I can't seem to cope with remembering my son when he was alive and happy. I know I can't do my job at Section if I am thinking of Rene." Michael looked at his wife and sighed. "As if I can ever go back to that job." He laughed bitterly. "Perhaps I should do us all a favor and just walk in front of a bullet....maybe then I could be with Rene."

Before Simone could stop to think about what she was doing, she drew back her hand and backhanded her husband with a slap that sent him crashing to the floor. He looked up at her with incredulous eyes, his hand on his face where the force of her blow had left the red imprint of her hand. She was down on her knees in an instant thrusting her face aggressively right into his.

"Michael Samuelle, you are not the only one in pain here! I lost a son, too! So don't go all maudlin on me! Our lives are never going to be perfect. Section will always come first. You should've learned that by now!! So, get up off your ass, and clean up this mess!" Simone stood and grabbed a jacket from the chair beside the bed and stomped out of the apartment, slamming the door behind her.

Michael sat there on the floor rubbing his cheek, and then slowly got up and starting gathering up the clothes and stuffing them into the garbage sacks he had brought in from the kitchen. Within a few minutes, he heard the front door open. Simone came back into the bedroom with a sheepish smile on her face. She peeked into the closet. "Oh, good. You've picked everything up. Ummm...I decided to come back when I figured out that I left here in my gown."

She looked down at herself and Michael's eyes were drawn to her slim legs and the thigh- length nightshirt that barely covered them. He smiled ruefully and opened his arms to her and she gratefully ran to him and let herself be enclosed in his warm embrace. Husband and wife took comfort from each other, the memory of their lost son forever between them.

Early the next morning, Michael made a phone call to the L'Armee du Salut, the Salvation Army, to arrange for them to pick up the garbage bags full of his unwanted clothes. He had made a vow to himself that for the rest of his life, he would wear the color of mourning for his lost son, for Rene. Michael left his home that day dressed in unrelieved black from his black sunglasses down to his black boots. Gone forever were the soft blues and greens he had favored when Rene was alive. But try as he might, Michael couldn't, and probably would never be without the pain of loss. He had an errand to run today, one that he knew would be difficult. He carried with him a stack of library books that Rene had checked out of the library where his friend, Grace, worked. Michael was trying to find a way to tell Grace about Rene, but he had no plan, no profile, as to how he was going to accomplish this very difficult mission. Grace loved little Rene, and Michael didn't know how to break the news gently.

He entered the library and put the overdue books on the circulation desk. Michael sensed movement behind him and he turned swiftly to come face to face with Grace. He could see the anxiety and worry in her face. He heard himself saying something about being sorry about the overdue books, and wanting to keep something Rene loved close to him. Grace stopped him by grabbing his arm and leading him over to a sofa and plopping him down as she sat down beside him. Michael found himself blurting out the facts of Rene's death as they had been told to him, knowing that he was shocking Grace with his words. She probed him for more information, commiserating with him and trying to comfort him when he knew she was hurting as well. They both wept a few more tears.

Grace was a godsend. She gave all the comfort she could to Michael. She had loved his child as well and Grace tried her best to give Michael a reason to go on living, even if it meant a life without his son.

He left her that day, but in the weeks that followed, he returned again and again to sit and listen to her read stories to the other children. Each time Michael appeared at the library, he was dressed in black. Grace somehow knew that he would wear black the rest of his life, because she also knew that Michael would forever mourn the passing of his son.

Michael knew that the other parents were curious about him. Michael also knew that Grace must have told them what had happened to Rene because he caught the sympathetic glances they gave him. And when a few of the parents stopped by the table where he sat, he was amazed that they would go out of their way to offer words of comfort for the loss of his son. Michael was moved to tears by the way they sought to try and make him feel better. This was something that few people in his life had ever attempted. He blinked back the tears and smiled and shook the offered hands and accepted the condolences of the parents who hugged their children to them a bit more closely as they walked away from him.

Michael was still trying to cope with a life that no longer included Rene when another event rocked his world.

He lost Simone on what was supposed to be a routine mission, and it was all his fault. Simone had pushed him out of the way of a bullet meant for him. He had been wounded, and when he awoke in Medical back at Section, Madeline had quietly told him that Simone had been killed getting him back to the van. Her body had been left behind. Michael rolled over in his bed, refusing to look at anyone who came to visit him. He accepted comfort from no one, not even Walter who came looking for him as soon as he had heard about Simone. It saddened Walter to know that what had once been a happy, loving family was now just one man who was determined to close out anyone who cared for him.

It was all his fault. Simone had asked for backup, but Michael had refused, deeming it unnecessary on such a low priority mission. He had been wrong. Once more, someone Michael loved beyond all reason was snatched away from him.

As soon as he could, he fled back to his last remaining refuge...Grace's library. Michael broke down when Grace gathered him into her arms and held him like a child...like she had held little Rene. They shared their tears as Michael began to tell her that Simone was dead because of him. His confession to Grace was interrupted when Walter walked up and took over the telling. Michael immediately realized that Walter had saved Grace's life with his interruption. He knew Grace sensed that there was a lot more to the story, but she wisely let it go.

Michael was grateful for her comfort in his time of need and for her friendship. He knew he had to let her go. So, when he left her that day, he resolved to never come back to his sanctuary...to Grace. He left her that day, knowing that he didn't deserve sanctuary...he knew this was his punishment, for daring to attempt happiness within the confines of Section. It would be a year and more before he would see Grace again, and Michael's life would undergo another change, one of the many life changes ahead of him. For the time being, he accepted the life that fate had dealt out to him. For the foreseeable future, he would be the man in black, the man without friends, without family, without hope.

A Little Help from My Friends, Part XIX

The gunfire was intense as men ran from cover to cover trying to survive the withering fire that the Red Cell mercenaries were laying down around them. The number of combatants now attempting to decimate the team of Section operatives was double what the intel had indicated. The toll in Section casualties was forcing Michael to do some on-the-spot tactical planning to extricate his team from what was rapidly becoming an untenable situation.

He had Operations yelling in his ear to "just get the job done" while he could hear Madeline's calm, measured voice trying to soothe Operations near hysteria. Michael smiled grimly. Always the same with these two, he thought. Madeline the planner, the brilliant profiler, the consummate Section second-in-command. And then there was Operations...the merciless military man, the one who demanded the best they had to give and then demanded even more, the man who believed that the end justified the means, even at the cost of lives needlessly wasted.

Michael had spent almost a third of his life continually trying to live up to the harsh expectations that both of his superiors had heaped on him. All he had received in return for his efforts was a son lost to him forever and the memory of a wife whom he had failed and lost on a Section mission.

Enough, he told himself. I've done enough for them. It stops here. I can't endure it any longer. His decision made, Michael ordered the remaining Section operatives into a retreat from their positions. As each one of the operatives passed him, he encouraged their flight to the safety of the van, glancing briefly at each one and nodding to them. Chuck came last and as always, he crouched at Michael's side, silently waiting for Michael to move toward the van. Chuck always covered Michael. This time Michael's eyes locked on Chuck's blue ones and he ordered him to retreat further.

"This time, Chuck, I will cover you!" Michael cocked his head toward the van. "Get to the van...Now!!" Seeing the beginnings of a negative retort from Chuck, Michael snapped at the operative, "NOW, I said. No arguments!"

Startled at the rough manner of Michael's orders, Chuck started to run toward the van, staying as close to the ground as he could. He heard the rapid chatter of automatic weapons fire from Red Cell, and quickly glancing over his shoulder, Chuck was horrified to see Michael stand straight up, and start to fire his weapon at the advancing forces.

Chuck stopped dead in his tracks and spun around, shouting for Snow to cover him. He sprinted back toward Michael, just in time to see his friend and team leader fall backwards onto the lip of one of the shell craters that had been made from earlier mortar fire. Hearing Snow yell for other operatives to help him, Chuck dove into the crater and managed to grab Michael's jacket and drag him further down into the crater.

Fighting with renewed zeal as they watched Chuck dragging Michael's still form out of the line of fire, the remaining Section operatives, all veterans of Michael's team, fought even harder to drive back the Red Cell forces. One of the operatives, a recruit just given full operative status and on his second mission with Michael's team, emerged from the van with a rocket launcher in place on his shoulder. He pointed it at the Red Cell operatives and pulled the trigger. The blast was sufficient to knock a huge hole in the advancing line and send the others scurrying to the relative safety of anything they could find to hide behind. The young operative looked around for another rocket and found himself looking at a female operative who swiftly picked up a rocket and loaded the launcher. She lightly tapped him on the head to signal that the rocket launcher was ready for another shot. The recruit wasted no time in aiming and pulling the trigger. This rocket not only took out a few more Red Cell ops, but sent the rest of them into a full retreat. The Section operatives, sensing that their retreat had turned into a victory, grinned at each other and as one, they moved forward to cover Chuck, who had swung an unconscious Michael over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and was moving as fast as he could back toward the van.

The grins faded as they silently watched Chuck carry his burden into the van. They were all grim-faced as they followed their team leader's unconscious body into the van. As soon as the door was slammed shut and they were seated, the van lurched forward on the return trip to the airstrip where their transport waited.

Chuck busied himself with tearing open Michael's jacket and kevlar vest. He sat back on his heels and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Michael, you are one lucky son-of-a-bitch! I would have killed you myself if you had gotten yourself hurt covering my sorry backside!"

The operatives sitting across from where Chuck had laid Michael craned their necks to see how badly Michael was hurt. When they saw no blood and only a stitching of bullet holes in their team leader's jacket and the marks of the bullets' impact on his vest, they sat back and grinned at their luck. Michael would live to lead them again.

That is, if Michael escaped Chuck's wrath.

Michael was just starting to struggle back to consciousness when he felt someone grab the lapels of his jacket and forcefully pull him up off of the seat he was laying across. His head snapped up and Michael found himself looking into Chuck's angry gaze.

"You crazy son-of-a-bitch! You almost got yourself killed back there! What were you thinking, standing up like that?" Chuck was yelling and shaking Michael back and forth.

"Chuck, that is quite enough. Stop...NOW!" Chuck stopped shaking Michael as he felt the business end of Michael's gun touch the soft underside of his chin.

"Uh, sure, Michael. Anything you say, Michael. How are you feeling? Are those ribs painful? I'm sorry I shook you so violently. Nasty headache now?" Chuck grinned and endured Michael's intense stare.

"I'm fine. Let me go, please?"

"You had me scared there for a few minutes, Michael." Chuck stared back at Michael, trying to read the inscrutable expression in the green eyes that gazed back at him. "If I didn't know better, my friend, I might have thought you were trying to get yourself killed. But then, you wouldn't do that to us, would you? .......Would you, Michael?"

Michael chose that minute to look away from Chuck's intense stare. Chuck reached out and took a firm grip on Michael's chin. "Because if that was what you were trying....Know this: We...," He glanced around at the other operatives who were watching this exchange in silence, "We would have something to say about that, Michael. We are not going to let you go gently into that good night. We like our lives, such as they are. When you lead us, we come back alive. And if we have anything to say about it, you are always going to come back alive with us. Any questions?" Chuck smiled when Michael bowed his head in acquiescence. "Good! Then that is settled."

Michael heard a collective sigh from the others in the van, and feeling awkward and more than a little humbled from Chuck's dressing down in front of the other men and women in the van, Michael pulled Chuck's hands from his lapels and laid back on the seat. In a few minutes, he was sound asleep.

Chuck looked up at the other operatives and asked them quietly. "I hope you are all behind me on this. You are, aren't you?" He grinned as he saw each of the ops nod in agreement. He placed his hand on Michael's ruined kevlar vest. "This man is our best hope of surviving in Section. Let's make sure to keep him healthy. Okay?"

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

Madeline watched the tape from the mission van as she leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers under her chin. So, she thought, they are willing to protect him. She smiled. Operatives after my own heart. I want to protect you as well, Michael. I misread you badly when I decided to take Rene away from you. I wanted to focus all your attention on the job, but I miscalculated. I should not have used Rene's "death." That was a mistake. You would have understood eventually if I had just removed him from your life, but you think he is dead, and now, you want to die, too.

I can't allow that. Chuck and the others will keep you with us for now, but I need to think of something else...something to make you want to live. Madeline sighed heavily and turned back to her computer and began typing a new query.

Learning to Live Again, Part XX

A mission was going out in an hour and operatives hurried to Walter's area to pick up their gear. Snow, Carson and Chuck stopped dead in their tracks and watched in astonishment as Walter grabbed Michael's arm and dragged him into the enclosed storage area behind his worktable.

In the next few minutes, the three men took over Walter's position and made sure the rest of the teams that were going out got the gear they needed. No one even questioned that the three had taken Walter's place. Chuck extricated himself from the activity around Walter's worktable and walked slowly over to the old man who had his arm around Michael's shoulders, his head bent close to Michael's bowed head. They were deep in a quiet conversation and Chuck was reluctant to interrupt. Both Snow and Carson watched for anyone not picking up supplies and carefully, but firmly warned away anyone else who approached.

Walter glanced up briefly at Chuck and beckoned to him with a slight movement of his head. Chuck, acknowledging the summons, took the last few steps that brought him to Michael's side. He was just in time to hear Michael's whispered words to Walter. "I'll be running the mission from the van. I don't need to wear a vest!"

"Look, kid, we both know if you think you need to, you'll change the profile of this mission in a New York minute and will hightail it out into the field. You ARE wearing this vest!" Walter tightened his grip on Michael's arm to emphasize his point.

Michael tried to shrug out of the hold Walter had on his arm and bumped into Chuck, who spoke quietly with a firm voice into Michael's ear. "Yeah, Mikey, you'll wear the vest or I'll have Snow and Carson sit on you while I strap it on you myself." He smiled widely and looked deep into his team leader's eyes. "And you know I mean what I say."

Michael's shoulders drooped in defeat. He quickly took off his jacket and allowed both Walter and Chuck to settle the vest on him and securely close all of the Velcro fittings on the vest.

"I told you, Michael, that us lowly ops come back alive when you lead the missions...so get used to living again!" Chuck clapped Michael on the shoulder and nodded to the two silent men who had been standing sentinel duty at Walter's station. Carson lifted his eyes up towards the perch.

"Oh, Shit!" Walter had followed Chuck's gaze up to the perch, where he saw Madeline talking to Operations whose back was turned to the floor below. Madeline continued talking, but her eyes were riveted on the tableaux that had just played out under her watchful eyes.

"Yep," Walter growled. "I think I may be getting a call from Iron Maiden any time now."

Michael had also noticed Madeline's attention and sighed. Pulling on his jacket, he decided to ignore her and focus on his mission. Silently, he walked away from Walter, knowing that Chuck, Snow and Carson would follow him to van access.

Another day of existence loomed before him. How many more would he have to endure before they stopped watching him long enough so he could find peace for himself and his son. Michael sighed. They couldn't watch every minute....His time would come.

********

Madeline was reviewing the surveillance tapes of Michael's last few missions when Walter reported to her office. He always felt like he was entering the dragon's lair when he was summoned to her cavernous rock-lined office.

"What's all this about, Madeline? I have several missions to outfit today."

"Nothing's going out for at least two hours, Walter. You have the time. Please sit down." She turned back to her computer monitor and gestured to the screen. "I've just been reviewing some of Michael's missions, as well as the surveillance tapes of your little talk with him this morning. Walter, is Michael trying to get himself killed?" She sat back and waited for Walter to answer.

His face remained expressionless and he leaned back in the chair and looked at the ceiling. "Well, Madeline, let's see...The man has lost the son that he loved more than life itself; he's lost his wife and he blames himself for it, and he's lost a friend who could have possibly helped him through it all..." He dropped his eyes down from the ceiling to stare into Madeline's limpid brown eyes. "Yes, that might make some men suicidal, but Madeline, this is Michael we are talking about. He's a little lost and confused right now, but he'll pull himself out of this. He just needs a bit more time."

Madeline smiled. "Walter, you are the eternal optimist. Michael's numbers are as high as they have ever been, but Operations is concerned about what he calls "Michael's recklessness." Simone and Rene have been gone almost a year now. Michael has had time to grieve and readjust."

Walter scowled. "Sometimes, Madeline, a year isn't enough. Sometimes, it takes longer. Michael isn't a robot or a machine. Regardless of what you and Operations think, he is only human after all. How long did it take you to get over your sister's death , Madeline?" Walter sat back and watched with satisfaction as his little arrow hit home. He grinned at first, but then felt the shiver of apprehension as Madeline's eyes narrowed and turned hard. She leaned forward and his heart skipped a beat when she spoke.

"This friend of Michael's that you mentioned...Are you talking about Colette?" Walter collapsed against the back of his chair in relief as he mentally berated himself for even referring to Michael's friends. His breath caught in his throat at Madeline's next comment. "Or, did you mean Grace King, that rather mousy red-headed librarian?"

Madeline grinned evilly. "Did you and Michael really think we didn't know about her?" She paused for effect, and then stood and leaned across her desk, balancing herself on her fingertips. "Now, listen to me carefully, Walter. This is what you are going to do. You will follow my instructions to the letter. Operations and I have plans for Michael and those plans do not include his sudden and tragic demise."

When Walter started to protest, Madeline held up her hand to silence him. "But Walter, our plans might include the sudden and tragic demise of a certain red-headed librarian if you decide not to cooperate. Understand?"

Walter nodded slowly and suddenly felt a lot older than he really was. He began to listen attentively as Madeline spun her web.

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

Madeline sat back and reviewed her profile. It had been easier than she had expected to acquire Walter's cooperation. Apparently, he cared for this Grace person as much as Michael did. They would both want to protect her and that was exactly what Madeline wanted them to do. Grace would be an important part of the rest of Madeline's plan.

Her thoughts were noisily interrupted by the shrill ring of her phone. "Yes?" Madeline rubbed her eyes wearily and listened to the voice on the other end of the line.

Doris asked boldly, "Madeline, do you not trust me anymore?"

Madeline was surprised by her question. "Doris, you've been doing an outstanding job. Why would you ask that?"

Doris was silent for a few seconds, and then asked carefully, "Then why would there be another surveillance team watching Nikita?"

"Another team? What makes you think there is another surveillance team?" Madeline said carefully, expertly masking her surprise at Doris' question. She forced her voice to sound nonchalant, as she furiously tried to figure out the import of Doris' inquiry. What was going on?

"Madeline...I am a surveillance specialist, trained by Section One....I think I know a surveillance team when I see one. The pattern is familiar. It's an old Section pattern that we haven't used in years. It was one of the first I learned. Why is Nikita important to someone else besides you? She's just a street kid, isn't she?" Doris Sakowski was not an excitable operative, but Madeline could tell this situation had the veteran operative spooked. She tried to calm her.

"Doris, listen to me! Think this through. You say it's an old pattern. Whose pattern? Who developed it?"

Doris fought to calm herself. She and Nikita lived hand to mouth for more than two years, until Doris began to notice someone watching them from the shadows. At first, she thought it was just her paranoia, but then when she started watching more closely, she knew it was a surveillance team. Her first thought had been to ask herself it Madeline had lost confidence in her ability to watch and protect Nikita. Now that she had confirmation that the team was not one of Madeline's, she began to calm down and think about whose team it could be. The answer, when it came to her confounded her.

"Madeline, I know this pattern. It's an old one, but I recognize it. It's one of Adrian's. Madeline? Are you still there? Madeline?"

Madeline was fascinated at this turn of events. Who on earth would be using one of Adrian's old surveillance patterns? The only answer that made sense was one she couldn't believe. Was Adrian active again and training her own ops? And, if so, why was she watching a street urchin like Nikita? Did she know who Nikita's father was? Things were getting too complicated and she needed some time to think.

"Doris, I need you to buy me some time to figure out to whom this surveillance team belongs. Take Nikita and disappear. When you get away and settled, call me. I want to know where you are at all times. Do you understand?"

Doris understood. She knew she and her charge were caught in something bad and she was more than willing to disappear for awhile. Doris had made the mistake of starting to care for her charge and the distinctly motherly feelings she had for the young girl kicked out on the street by a slut of a mother was more than enough to motivate her to take Nikita and run. "Of course, I understand, Madeline. I'll call in tomorrow. I'll keep Nikita safe. Don't worry!"

"I'm not worried, Doris," Madeline lied. "I know I can trust you to do your job. I'll be waiting for your call." Madeline disconnected and began working on how to find out who was shadowing Nikita.

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

It didn't take Madeline long to work out solutions to her problems. She was pleased with herself because a few of the problems could be worked out with a common solution. It seemed a given that the young woman, Nikita, should be recruited into Section One. What better place to bring her to keep an eye on her and her father than here in Section? The girl was a bit wild and needed to be tamed. She would be a handful for Michael, but would certainly draw the Section's top operative out of the deep depression that he was in. Madeline smiled to herself. Michael would not know what had hit him. That coupled with the orders she had given Walter would serve to ground Michael and set him back on the right track. Madeline vowed not to mishandle Michael so badly again.

Doris would strongly protest Nikita's recruitment profile. Madeline searched the other Sections for a suitable new posting for the veteran surveillance operative and found something in the substation in New York. Doris' promotion to surveillance trainer would keep her so busy that she wouldn't have time to grieve over her loss of Nikita. A few veiled threats to Nikita's safety would also keep Doris quiet about the shadow surveillance team that she had observed.

Madeline knew she would have to go to Operations with this information about Adrian's possible re-emergence, but she could handle Paul. She had always been able to manipulate him into pursuing whatever path she wanted him to follow.

And finally, Madeline planned the future of Grace King. Her orders to Walter to encourage Michael to rekindle his friendship with Grace would eventually lead to the final dispensation of Madeline's last little problem. After a few months of Grace's tender loving care, Michael would be extricated from her life and his son would be introduced into Grace's life. Madeline now understood that Michael had always expected to have his son taken from him. Madeline's original ruse of faking the child's death with the help of his mother, Simone, had been heavy-handed and ultimately a stupid mistake.

She also knew that the foster parents that were currently caring for the child were not suitable for the long term, but she did know that Grace King would do very well as little Rene's new mother. A few threats to Michael and the child and Madeline knew that Grace would quickly acquiesce to adopting Michael's child. She smiled, knowing that a last glimpse of his son going off into the sunset with his good friend, Grace, would be enough of a fix to keep Section's top op from doing anything stupid. Occasional tantalizing glances of his son would keep Michael in focus.

Madeline remembered the surveillance tapes she had listened to when Michael had confessed his feelings to Simone after Rene's "death." What she heard had convinced her that she had handled that whole scenario so stupidly. She had heard Michael sigh heavily and his words to Simone had almost broken her own hardened heart: "I knew it wouldn't last. I was too happy being a father. I knew he would be taken away, but I always thought it would be Section that took him away.....I never prepared myself for his death." Those few sentences had persuaded Madeline on her current course of action.

She had only to make her proposal to Grace. She was sure that Grace would accept the proposal. All Madeline had to do then was to drop a few hints to get Michael to follow her to the airport so he could see his precious son safe in the arms of his friend, Grace. Knowing his son was alive and loved and cared for should be enough for Michael.

Madeline smiled. Her profiles were always brilliant.