"Everything," her captor says. She looks up at him for the first time since being forced down saying, "Be a little more specific." He gun whips her, saying, "I wouldn't be so smart if I were you." He leans over her. "We have your teammate. Helmsly is it? If you don't talk he watches you be broken, he is killed and then you are killed. Now, tell me…who else is here? What was your objective? Did you accomplish it?"

Walter's lips were surprisingly soft and firm, holding none of that paper-thin quality she associated with her grandmother, against the back of her hand. "Thanks, Sugar."

She shrugged. "Just don't get used to it."

*

Operations narrowed his eyes. "Tell me who that is."

Setting aside the panel she had been perusing, Madeline came to stand before the monitors set flush into the far wall of the Perch. Featured in them were the various areas of Section. There were sixteen monitors in all, each receiving a feed, in part, directly from cameras placed within Section. The same cameras also fed main security. Security kept a regular rotation of views on each of the sixteen monitors which could be further controlled from the Perch.

They were standing in front of monitor five, with Operations' hand was on the little button under the screen to keep the picture from changing. Hands clasped neatly together in front of her, Madeline appraised the picture, and the person in it, for a moment. Glancing at Operations, she tilted her head and said, "I believe that is Amana Reyes."

"The Field Op you want moved into Cold Op training. Wasn't there a…thing at her apartment last night? Something Walter instigated?" he asked, half turning toward her.

Watching the blue-tinted Amana juggle the things in her arms, Madeline nodded. "Dinner."

"Michael was there?" he asked as if he didn't know.

"Yes."

"And now she's standing outside the door to his office." Operations frowned. "To do what?"

"Deliver something, or so it would appear."

"Is Michael even in there?" He took a quick glance at the monitors in front of him. "Buzz his office. I want to know if he's in there," he said, still looking.

Eyebrows going up briefly, Madeline moved two steps to her right and lightly tapped out the code for Michael's office. There was a short trill on their end of the line that she knew was being echoed several halls away. "Michael?"

"Henh."

"What?"

"She jumped when you said his name."

Fingers still on the intercom to keep the line active, Madeline took a step back and searched the wall of monitors until she placed Amana's again. The field operative was crouching in front of the door, arranging her deliveries on the floor. Madeline leaned closer to the wall: "Michael?"

Amana fumbled with the things in her hands. Operations snorted. Satisfied, the field operative stood quickly and strode away even faster. She didn't look back.

Madeline let the line die.

"Guess that means he's not in his office."

When next Operations asked Madeline why she sometimes accused him of being a boy playing with his toy soldiers, she knew this moment would serve her well.

*

"Why don't you want to go into Cold Op training, Amana?" Elsa Perlov looked up from the pointed toes of her left foot to her material.

Material that was glaring at her. "Not you, too."

"You'd make a good leader. You are a good leader."

Rolling her eyes, Amana returned to their post-workout stretching. "One little incident and suddenly I'm a leader," she grumped as she extended her right leg. "I wasn't the only one in that group who was ready for an incident to happen to O'Brian," she reminded the older woman.

"But you took the initiative."

"Because I was his lead material at the time. Anything bad came down and it was gonna come down on my head first."

"The life expectancy of a Cold Op is much longer than that of a field op," Elsa reminded her.

"Not Level One. They go down like flies with the rest of us." Amana retracted her right leg and extended her left leg as Elsa mirrored her. "Look, I don't want to do it, Els, and there's nothing you or Michael or Madeline can do to make me do it. I've got nothing for you to hold over my head. I—"

Laughing, Elsa came up out of her stretch. "Amana…relax. We're not going to hold someone hostage to make you move up in the world."

A snort from Amana told her what the young woman thought of that.

"All right then, let me bring up something else," Elsa said as she brought her legs together and bent over them.

"Mmhmm…?"

"Remember our bet? About taking a day to train all the material on my roster?"

Amana's head shot up, a wary look on her face. "Yeah?"

"Well I heard a rumor that you swore a blue streak last night."

*

"Walter!"

Brow raised, Michael looked up from the active panel in his hand and across the hall. It was the high-pitched sound that drew his and everyone else's eyes in the near vicinity. Other than the weapons master's name, he couldn't make out whatever else Amana seamed to be fuming about to Elsa. He turned away from her angry gesticulation in the direction of his office.

Michael frowned at the package on the floor in front of the door. Inside his office he picked it apart and examined it. There were more documents concerning Simone's death: things he still needed to sign eight months later. It shouldn't have surprised him, though it continued to. He was intimately acquainted with death. But it no longer hurt. That was what he kept telling himself.

With the documents – which he quickly signed – were several active panels he had been expecting from intel, a panel from Section Three that had been misdirected to his office…and two long, rectangular plastic containers. While it was difficult to bring hazardous materials into Section One it was not impossible. He pulled off the note taped to the top. Flipped it open:

"You guys didn't take enough leftovers, and you didn't take any at all. If I remember right, this is stuff you liked. Hope it's enough. I'm not used to entertaining.

Reyes."

Michael looked up from the note and out his window.

*

"Okay boys and girls," Amana said, clapping her hands together as she shifted her weight on feet spread shoulder-width apart. "Let's get started."

"Heard ya lost a bet," a man behind her drawled. "Heard ya get ta be ev'ra-body's meat t'day."

Hands on her hips, Amana slowly turned on her heel. "You know how to fight, Savannah?"

"Name's Will—"

"Nuh uh. Pretty drawl like that… Your name's Savannah. Like I said, you know how to fight, Savannah?" she repeated, ignoring his scowl.

"Yeah. I can fight."

"Ever been locked up?"

He graced her and the ring of students with a cocky smile. "Ain't that how we all got here?"

Pretending he hadn't spoken, she asked her question again. The scowl returned and he nodded sharply. "Why ya wanna know?"

"Stand up, Savannah." And then when he had: "Let me see your hands." The request brought on an immediate caginess. "I'm not going to do anything," she said, managing not to roll her eyes. "I swear. I just want to see your hands."

Reluctantly he held his hands out for her. Amana took them with impersonal brusqueness, turning them over so that they were palm up for her. She ran her fingers over them. He giggled. "That tickles."

Taking her turn to scowl, she pushed his hands back at him. "You may know how to fight, Savannah, but it's been a while. I bet you were in a low security prison."

"Yeah what about—"

The class jumped as he suddenly dropped to one knee, doubled over in pain. As he spluttered in pain at her feet, Amana turned in a tight circle meeting each of student's eye in turn. "The first thing you do in a fight is act first. It's not about ego. It's not about showing off. A lot of times it's not even about who's better if you're first.

"And while you're busy being first, aim for the kidneys. Quick way to incapacitate your enemy. You can always go for the solar plexus but that's not usually as available…"

*

"This is what…a…shot to…the solar plex-…-us…looks…like." Amana had her hands braced on her bent knees as she tried to catch her breath.

Suddenly she lurched up, shoulder catching her opponent in the groin and tossing her over. The pale woman curled into a ball behind Amana. "And that's what…a shot to the groin…looks like." Amana coughed, still effected by the blow she'd received. "It's a dirty move, but as you can see, boy or girl, it hurts like hell if you hit'em right."

*

Flat on her back, hair curling and stuck to the sweat on her face and neck, willing her heart to stay behind her ribs, Amana wheezed, "And this is how you fall when you are severely outmatched but… want to live long enough to be debriefed in a room… and not the infirmary." She coughed and it felt like someone was scraping sandpaper across her lungs

A large hand came into view. Amana took it, but instead of pulling her up he said, "Tell me the inherent danger in what I am doing," with the tension tight in their joined arms.

"You're helping an enemy," someone called out.

"She could use your leverage against you and—"

"The last answer," he said, "how could she use my leverage against me?"

Someone else spoke up: "She could make you overbalance and pull you down as she gets up."

"Good. Anything else?"

"She could have a weapon and use it against you?"

"Yes."

"Michael, are you going to pull me up or what?" Amana demanded. With a gasp she was up on her feet, standing next to the senior op. "Thanks." She turned to the group, her fourth, standing and sitting just off the mat. "And that's the proper way to get beat up. Now pair up and lets see how well you can take a fall."

Those who had been sitting scrambled to their feet. They began pairing off. Giving them all a brief, humorless smile, she nodded at their initiative and turned to thank Michael for doing such a thorough job of trouncing her in front of Elsa's advanced class – people more used to being her classmates.

He was gone.

Shrugging, Amana stepped off the mat, and reached for her bottled water and hand towel. She took a healthy swallow then turned back to the grappling pairs. "Of course, as Els always tells us, sometimes the best thing to know is when to die. This is Section One, not some action-adventure movie. You don't always get saved in the end. We're all Field Ops. We're all expendable. There are ways to make your enemy kill you if you don't want to pull the trigger yourself…of if you don't want to wait to get cancelled.

"Luckily for you guys, we won't be learning that in this class. Elsa hasn't taught us that one yet and I'm not exactly eager to learn."

*

"Elena…? Adam…? Are you home?" Michael called out as he carefully placed his briefcase by the door. It took some maneuvering, but he got his coat off and kept the plastic containers in hand. "Elena…"

"In here, Michael."

He moved toward the kitchen, sunglasses still on his face. "Where is here?"

"In the living room with Adam. Join us?

"En momente... I need to put some things away."

He wasn't sure why, but he had brought his coat in with him. It slipped easily from his arm to drape over the back of a near chair. The rectangular containers never left his hand. "Are you hungry?" he called out as he took them to the counter beside the sink.

The rustle of socks against the hardwood warned him: "You're still wearing your sunglasses," Elena said as she stood on tiptoe and pushed them into his hair. She kissed his temple. "How are you? How was work?"

"Thank you. I am tired and work was…good."

"So the usual," she said with a smile.

"Yes," he said turning toward her to give her a better kiss. After a moment: "I thought you said you were in the living room with Adam."

Elena laughed lightly, tugging gently on his earlobe. "Don't worry, Michael, he's right here clutching my leg. Isn't that right sweetheart?" she said, picking up their son. Pointing with her chin, she asked, "What's that?"

"Remember the dinner party I was invited to last night?" At her affirmative, he pulled off the note that had been re-stuck to the plastic container's top and handed it to her. Taking advantage of the situation, he reached for and took Adam from her arms and nuzzled him. The evening spent at Amana's apartment had only brought home how close he had been to losing his precious son. The picture of a small boy with large brown eyes and an unruly mop of curling brown hair, tucked unobtrusively into a corner of her bookshelf reminded him how easy it still was.

"Well that was nice of her," Elena said. "You said it's just her? That she lives alone?" When Michael nodded, she did as well. "I remember when I lived on my own. It's hard cooking for one. No wonder she was miffed that you didn't take anything," she said, playfully swatting her husband's shoulder. "So tell me what it is."

"I haven't opened it."

"Michael… Just like a man." She began moving around Michael and Adam, smiling indulgently at them both, preparing to dish out the food. "Well what did you have last night? I hardly saw you at all when you came in."

Confident now that Elena thought nothing strange of the food gift, Michael took a seat and shifted his son in his lap. "There was mofongo, pernil…" Adam pulled the sunglasses out of his hair. "No, the mofongo burned."

"Oh?"

He nodded, placing his sunglasses on Adam's little face. "The arroz y habichuelas con pollo were saved…"

*

There are tears in her eyes. Whether from the gun-whipping or the threat he doesn't know. But it's too late to determine causes. He's already weighed the outcome and no one has won. Their life has a certain harsh economy that is undeniable, implacable and unforgiving.

"So congratulations are in order."

Amana turned from the window and watched Madeline climb the stairs into the Perch. "You just missed Operations. He— Well, you probably passed him the hall." She frowned. "And I would have assumed you knew I was being promoted."

Inclining her head in acknowledgment, Madeline joined Amana at the window. "That doesn't mean congratulations aren't in order," she said as the new Cold Op turned away. Cocking her head to one side, she studied the young woman standing next to her. Through Elsa she had the girl coaxed out of denim, t-shirts, sweaters and boots into slacks, camisoles, blazers and…boots.

Madeline followed Amana's gaze out onto the comm. floor. "You don't much like Michael, do you?"

Amana cut her eyes in the older woman's direction. There was a reason she was referred to as "The Den Mother." So long as she remembered that it was a viper's den, the moniker made sense. "I don't think I've ever made it a secret."

"May I ask why?"

"Why I don't like Michael?" Not waiting for an answer, she said, "I'd think that'd be obvious."

"Because he was instrumental in your beginning training as a Cold Op?"

Amana nodded.

"That hardly seems reasonable. Elsa also lobbied for your promotion. The two of you have always gotten along very well."

"Elsa…cares." Amana crossed her arms under her breasts. "She honestly felt like I was being wasted as a Field Op, that I'd do better and you'd get better out of me as a Cold Op."

"And Michael…?"

"And with Michael I'm just a number. A bunch of figures." She gestured to the comm. floor. Frowning, she drawled, "A statistic,"

Making a non-committal sound, Madeline turned just enough to see the op's profile. "Elsa was doing much the same."

Amana twisted around and graced Madeline with a wide smile. "Yeah, but she did it nicer. Even if it was a lie, Elsa made it seem like she was concerned about me personally and because of that I'd do anything for her. And she knows it. But Michael?" Her smile turned into a decided frown. She shook her head. "I bet you could not find one op, Cold, Field or otherwise, that would go out of their way for Michael. Not unless they were getting something out of it for themselves."

"That's more than enough for most people."

"Not when life and limb are at stake."

Madeline inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment. "So your problem with Michael is not related to your aversion to being promoted to Cold Op."

"Haven't exactly been keeping that secret either, have I?"

"Subtlety isn't one of your strong suits." Madeline smiled. "As Michael's material you'll have plenty of opportunity to work on that."

*

"Hey, look," Birkoff murmured, gesturing with his chin.

Michael pulled his gaze from sim results marching across the screen in front of him and turned his gaze toward the Perch where Madeline was holding court with Amana Reyes. His new material. It occurred to him to wonder how she felt about the change in their "relationship." She had, after all, been giving him a wide berth for the better part of two years.

"What do you think Madeline's telling her up there?" Birkoff asked.

Michael brought the weight of his stare to bear on young man beside him.

Coloring, Birkoff quickly returned to the date before them. "Right..."

*

Walter rounded the corner, a stack of inactive panels in his hand. "So I guess this means congratulations are in order."

"Oh don't even say that," Amana grumped, elbows on the high table in front of her. "Madeline used almost those exact same words about four hours ago." But behind her there were murmurs of assent. Someone even patted her back. Amana whipped around. "Eric Helmsly, don't you even start."

The lanky Field Op raised both hands, backing away slowly. "Haven't even been a Cold Op for one whole day and already you're giving orders."

"I'll show you orders," she smiled, an eyebrow cocked. Suddenly they were grappling, good-naturedly pushing each other across the white and gray workspace, Amana trying to hook a leg around his and bring him down, as the other members of that night's team cheered them on.

"What's going on?"

The calm voice cut through them all like ice water on a fire. Amana had her back to the entrance – A tactical error I bet I'll hear about later, she thought as she dropped Helmsly's hands – and so couldn't see Michael. She had, of course, heard him and opened her mouth to shoulder the blame.

"Don't worry 'bout it, Michael," Walter said before she could. "They're just horsin' around. I got everything under control."

Amana turned and stepped to one side so that Helmsly, behind her, could see. Everyone else in the weapons locker seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Would Michael report them to Madeline and have them all reprimanded or leave them to Walter. They watched as he collected his active panel and mission arms. When he turned, he met their eyes one by one: "Section One is not a schoolyard. Thinking otherwise puts more than your own life at risk."

They all started talking at once – murmuring in hushed tones – as soon as he was gone. Walter gestured to Amana. Rolling her eyes, she strode toward the table. "And I'm supposed to be his new material. I miss Elsa."

"Michael's good people, Amana."

"You've been saying that for three years, Walter. Are you even sure if that's true anymore."

He placed a warm, callused hand on her black sleeve. "Trust me. And you'll get used to him."

Raising her eyebrows, Amana let a sharp short breath. "I'm not sure about that."

*

They rocked with the van, despite its state-of-the-arts shocks. Michael glanced around the crowded interior: Amana was crouched on the floor handing up rifles from the weapons locker, Birkoff was using Thorne and Helmsly to test the comm., Shinn had turned Birkoff's laptop toward himself and was going over the mission spec with three other operatives, and Tissavel appeared to be sleeping but she took a rifle when Amana handed it to her.

Weapons handed out, she kneeled up and sat beside Michael. He studied her as she did her own appraisal of the operatives crowded into the mission van and saw none of that morning's immaturity.

"We're ready," she murmured.

He nodded.

A half-hour later they were silently spilling out the back of the van.

*

It is with half-dazed, half-crystalline vision that she sees the back of Helmsly's head explode in a cloud of red blood and fine bone and grey wet tissue. Then a line attached to her skull jerks her backwards.

Leaning back in his chair, Operations crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at Madeline standing in front of him. "Do you really think it's a good idea giving him new material?"

"You know as well as I do that Michael's become too insular. Dangerously so. He needs to be forced to interact with the world in a meaningful way."

Operations quirked an eyebrow at her. "And maybe we should just cut your prize boy loose."

"He's too valuable."

"Need I remind you that he shot his last material," he returned.

"Even Shinn said that there was an equal chance that Reyes had been compromised as not. I believe we agree that Shinn is an exemplary operative." Operations nodded, waving his hand as if to tell her to go on. "What Michael did, then," she continued smoothly, "was not unjustified."

"That may be true but another operative would have tried to retrieve Reyes and Helmsly."

Madeline inclined her head. "But you saw how affected Michael was by his decision."

Operations snorted.

"It's true that he didn't…break down," she acknowledged with a softly indulgent smile. "But it is the most emotive he's been since Simone's death. Which," she added quickly to stifle a retort, "would not be our concern but, as I told you before, an increasing number of reports show that it has begun to effect his relationship with Elena. He 'works' late more than ever and spends as little of his downtime with her as he can get away with. This in direct contrast to his behavior just before and just after Simone's death. Whatever comfort he found in Elena is no longer there for him. We can't afford for him to disengage. Not now.

"It bothered him, what happened with Reyes, if only because he felt personally responsible for her. He needs that level of personal involvement."

Operations' eyebrows went up. "And you're saying he doesn't have that with Elena and the boy."

"Clearly, at first, he did. But Elena and Adam don't need him as evidenced by Elena's early acceptance of his long absences. Nor can he share this aspect of his life with them, and thus he has pulled away. That issue would be moot with his material."

She smiled and tilted her head. "We've discussed this."

"At length."

"And has my argument suddenly become faulty?"

Their eyes met and held. Madeline blinked slowly and held her ground, her face a pleasant mask.

Operations smiled, slouching in his chair. "Of course not." Raising a hand to his chin, he asked, "So tell me who you've picked."

[in]Fin[ite]