Title: Watching From the Wall
Series: One Line (5/26)
Character(s): Michael Samuelle, OC, Madeline, Jurgen
Length: ~9100 words
Rating: PG-13, edging into R
Disclaimer: I don't know you. You don't know me. Let's keep it that way.
Summary: Michael has mandatory downtime, but he doesn't want to take it.
Notes: This story is pre-S1. Written for fanfic100 challenge on livejournal.
AN2: The One Line series is in progress (I swear!), although this story is complete. The series and accompanying stories all get their titles from PJ Harvey's "One Line".
Watching From the Wall
Part five in the One Line series.
She tilted her head first one way. Then the other. Left. Then Right.
There was amusement in Madeline's voice when the older woman, standing beside her, asked, "Is he to your liking, then?"
She stopped her examination, half turning. "I have a choice?"
Madeline knew that she herself had been speaking rhetorically. But… "This time."
This time. An entire existence, pastpresentfuture, summed up in two pregnant words. This time.
"Knowing nothing about him other than he looks just as awful all bruised up as any other body, I suppose he does."
"Good." Madeline had thought he would. "In that case, I see no reason why we should linger. We have some time before your voice lessons. If we can get the last of the fittings done with now then you can have the afternoon to yourself."
He stiffened. The operative he was talking to wordlessly slipped away. Michael turned. "Jurgen."
"Walk with me a minute?"
Michael wondered why Jurgen bothered making it a question. But that, he had quickly learned, was the nature of Section. Once upon a time, under different tutelage, he would have voiced his opinion. And once upon a time he would have gotten an answer, though it wasn't always a satisfactory one. He had gotten the impression that Elsa only tolerated his questioning, would have preferred that he kept them to himself, but found them amusing all the same. Jurgen did not.
The two men turned away from the comm. floor, following one of the corridors that wound around it. Michael recognized the route they were following as they passed the training rooms. It wasn't how he would have gotten to Jurgen's office and wondered why his mentor had taken them this way. "You've been under a lot of stress lately, Michael."
Not a question this time. Michael took a stab at silence. It was Jurgen's favorite tactic against Madeline and Operations, particularly Madeline. Simone had suggested it after watching another one-sided shouting match between him and Jurgen. "Notice anything about all these fights you two get into? Other than the crowd you attract?"
"That he always knows just where to push me?"
"Yeah. Do you know how he knows just how to push you?"
"He…reads my profile. He's been doing this for years. He…he has experience."
"All true. But you also hand yourself over to him on a silver platter! You're busy shouting your hot French head off, all social protest, and all you're doing is exposing yourself. He prods and you react. He prods and you react. You don't think you're not hitting any points with him?"
"How can I? He never—"
Walter had come out then, wanting to know who was making the ruckus outside his space. "Oh…it's you two. Look, Simone, sugar, if you're gonna get him goin' again at least switch to a language I don't know so I can tune ya out."
Michael had since been working on maintaining his composure to mixed success. Even when they weren't at odds, he never had and doubted he ever would like his mentor. Of course, as the man himself had pointed out that first day, circling Michael in White Room, they didn't have to get along. They just had to work together.
Jurgen took Michael's current silence in stride, though he caught Jurgen glancing in his direction. "Operations and Madeline have been pleased with your continued performance."
They passed through one of the open doorways into the hall where Jurgen's office was located. His was the last door, the furthest out. They stopped outside. "Madeline suggested that you have some down time." He handed Michael a file. "It's yours to take as you will. Let me know if you have any questions."
The dismissal was plain in his voice. That and, when he looked up from the file in his hands, Michael was suddenly staring at a closed door.
Truthfully they – the ubiquitous They – had been running Michael into the ground. He was sure it was a test of some sort, some more longsighted version of the ordeal he had had to go through before officially passing his training. But if it was such, he didn't know how much longer he could go before the stress of constant missions with little, if any, down time got to him. If he were his teammates he wouldn't want to go out with someone in his state. Unfortunately Level One and Field Ops had little say in who comprised their teams – or whether they themselves were fit to be on a team at all. It wasn't the kind of admission you wanted to make, even to yourself.
He'd taken a more direct route back to his quarters and regretted it. Michael no longer knew what he had thought the file would say. He had been expecting a dossier of some kind, yes. He had been surprised to be handed a paper file, and now he understood why. Or he thought he did. Elsa had used paper files, despite the heavy lean to make the entire system el—
Michael stood up and paced his tiny room. Why was he avoiding this? If he had been handed the profile of a professional prostitute five years ago and been told "It's yours to take as you will" he would have spent an hour telling every one he knew, male and female alike just to see, to hear, the reaction. Even if he never followed through with it – and he couldn't say anymore whether he would or wouldn't have – the discussion it would have inspired would have been worth it. Something for his friends to use against him when he brought around his girlfriend. His wife.
He stopped pacing and stared at nothing. He turned to the dossier, the manila a splash of color on the white bed.
Five years ago he wouldn't have believed it was real.
"Waiting is difficult, isn't it?"
"It may not happen, you know."
"I…hadn't considered that."
"It's not likely but it is possible. A possibility that is built into the spec of your mission."
"…so there's a backup plan."
"Do we need one now?"
"Give it a little time. Patience is key. If you learn nothing else from this, take that away with you. You will need it later."
Michael winced as the doctor pulled the bandage around ribs tight. "That's it, I'm putting you in for mandatory R&R. You're not fit to go out unless you've done something to get you on the abeyance list." He looked at Michael expectantly.
"Not as far as I know," he felt compelled to admit.
"Then downtime. Starting as soon as you get—"
"I already have down time."
The doctor, a middle-aged man who, with his unlined face, seemed to have gone prematurely gray stared at him. "Say that again, son."
"I…already have down time?"
"Then what in the— What're you doing going out on missions?" he demanded, his voice gone hard and cold and incensed.
"I was told I could take it as I will," Michael said as calmly as possible, not used to even leashed emotion from superiors.
"When was your last mental evaluation?" he asked Michael, already reaching for the active tablet on the rolling cart by the medical bed. "You performed exceedingly well. Have you recently been knocked in the head? Concussed?" he asked, still reading the tablet.
"No," the doctor repeated. He looked up. "Then what in God's name is wrong with you? Someone gives you down time, tells you to take it whenever, and you go on another half dozen missions? You're taking that down time, the minute you get out of here, then you're up for another mental eval. Now get out."
Michael slipped off the medical bed. He reached for his shirt and stifled a grunt of pain. He could hear the doctor, who had taken his tablet and rolling cart down the aisle to another bed, muttering to himself about not caring how superb Michael's results were, clearly something was wrong.
As luck would have it he ran into her in the hall, coming out of a room in the living quarters. She closed a door and turned in his direction.
The picture didn't do her justice. Rather like the universally wretched passport photo, she had appeared washed out and sallow in her standard profile picture, her hair a corkscrew cloud around her head. She was a much healthier shade of olive-tan in person and her hair was straight as a pin. It still looked soft.
Michael shook himself at the sound of her accented voice. Most people in Section, it seemed, were American, Canadian or Latin American with a handful of other, mostly European, nations thrown in. The English were almost conspicuously absent.
She smiled at him. "And you're Michael. I was starting to think you would never come."
"I've been busy," he felt compelled to explain.
She raised a shoulder. "That's all right. I'm on your schedule, not the other way around. So…you've come looking for me then?"
Not precisely. "Yes. Were you leaving your room?" he asked suddenly.
She smiled at him again. "I'm not working down here, if that's what you are trying to get at. You are my sole assignment. I must say, it's been a nice three week vacation."
Heat burned at the edges of Michael's face, tempered only by her obvious good humor.
"Do you know where the Tower is?"
Michael blinked at her.
"I'll take that as a no. The Tower is where we will be…I believe for the better part of the week if I remember right. Not that you're obligated of course."
He started. "I have a choice."
"Curious feeling, isn't it. But, yes, in this matter you do. One of us will have to file something official, otherwise I can't be released from your profile and there'll be an inquiry. I can file it, so you needn't worry about that."
He blinked again, wondering if he should thank her. Wondering if she could file that something official now – until he remembered he was now under doctor's orders to take the down time that already been given to him, and immediately.
"Take this will you?" she said handing him a stack of tablets, only one active, that he hadn't noticed she was holding. Curious, he skimmed the contents of the active tablet. It was a schedule including French and German lessons, vocal classes and a list of songs he hadn't heard of since before his parents had died.
Walking with a long, easy stride she quickly outpaced him and his bruises so that she was at least four steps ahead. Michael found that he could balance the tablets and admire the view with little difficulty so long as he didn't have to maneuver around another operative. She led him beyond the active areas to one that clearly saw very little traffic. "I apologize, there isn't a lift up to the Tower. It's stairs only. If you go straight up and say your name and let your thumbprint be read you'll be let right in. I'll be there in a moment. I have to turn these in," she said taking the tablets back from him. Then she handed him the active one. "Actually if you could put this on the kitchen table it would be greatly appreciated."
When she reached up to lightly brush her lips against his cheek, Michael surprised himself by leaning down and returning the gesture. It seemed like the most natural thing.
With her gone, Michael considered going back the way they'd come and getting straight in his bed. But he was now twice under orders and Cerise had mentioned that there was paperwork that would have to be filed… Michael shook his head. Only in Section could he find himself in such a situation, or so he hoped.
He began climbing.
She surprised him with a hand in his hair, curling briefly around his nape. Engrossed in perusing her active tablet, he hadn't heard her enter. The burn at the edges of his face was back as she gently plucked it from his hands. "I can only imagine you didn't have such a crazed schedule when you were training."
"No," he said, turning on the little ottoman to watch her as she moved around the space that served as both kitchen, dining and living rooms, his features shuttered.
"You mean no dress fittings for you, Michael? Lucky boy." She smiled softly and closed-lipped at him as she pulled one of the spindly black chairs from the table and brought it to where he was. "You should have been facing the door, you know."
He did know, but it wasn't what he had expected to be brought up short on.
"So…Michael…you don't want to be here."
"Don't look so not-surprised. A man is told he has access to…" She looked off over his left shoulder. "…a courtesan, for lack of a less derogatory term, for any seven days of his choosing and he doesn't even bother to make introductions or try her…services…for three weeks? If we knew each other I'd say you didn't like me. Do you find what I do distasteful?"
Yes. But since Simone's just-shut-up-and-wait-it-out advice seemed to be working here just as well as it did with Jurgen, he decided to stay with that.
"I see. Well…you can't get out of tonight. Or this morning as the case may be. I read your updated status. Forty-eight hours mandatory downtime. Did you know that?"
He hadn't. "No."
"And according to standing orders, part of them must be spent with me. But, luckily for us, no one specified how they need be spent. So…you look rather tired. There is a very large, very comfortable bed which would be happy to have you as its sole occupant if you so choose. Or I could send for something to eat, or we could talk. Or," and wide smile blossomed on her face that made him think of someone else entirely for a brief, disorienting moment, "we could sit here and stare at each other." She planted her elbows on her knees and her chin on her upturned fists. "What do you say?"
He stared at her. She stared back.
She reached across and brushed hair away from his forehead. "Stare?"
"That's not exactly how I would have done it. You've potentially lost yourself a day."
"I know but he'd already waited three weeks. Clearly he either doesn't trust me or doesn't want to have anything to do with me."
Madeline smiled. "In other circumstances I'm sure he'd be very interested in having everything to do with you."
"How am I supposed to take that?"
"However you choose. Now, you have less than six days to achieve your objective."
"What if he decides to defer?"
"It was your decision to present that option to him—"
"In an effort to gain his trust."
"Be that as it may, you presented the option to him and so now it is up to you to see that he either doesn't take it or that you complete your objective before he does. You still have six days."
She nodded, the cloud of hair swaying as if in a breeze. "Yes, Madeline."
"You should go back before he wakes up."
Michael woke in stages when he was used to waking all at once. It was his injuries. Taking too deep a breath still hurt and probably would for a little while if past experience served. The warmth at his back helped, even if it was unwanted.
"You said just sleep."
"And I meant just sleep," she assured him, leaning up behind him so that her chin was on his shoulder. A hand gingerly assessed the bandages under the shirt she had helped him into. "Does that hurt?"
Michael grabbed her hand and forced her back, hissing under his breath. "It still hurts. All of it."
"All right then. If you would like to go back to your rooms, that's fine, but have some breakfast before you go. Or lunch, rather."
Michael sat up and quickly regretted it.
"Let me help you," she said, slipping off the rather large bed. She came around to his side. "It's what I'm here for."
"I thought you were here for other things." The words slipped out of his mouth. He cursed himself. He hadn't meant to say anything.
Kneeling down to eye-level, she smiled at him again, in a way that reminded him of someone else completely. "I am here for your pleasure, Michael. Whatever that is. Ostensibly that pleasure would be sex but you aren't so inclined. At the moment I think you just want to get out of this bed, and probably these rooms, as quickly and in as little pain as possible. And have something to eat."
"How do you know I'm hungry?"
"I felt your stomach grumble. Come. Up with you."
An hour later he was watching her put away the dishes. He'd offered to help clean up after their meal, but she'd ignored him like he wasn't there. So Michael hovered over his coffee and watched her lift and stretch and bend…but not talk. They'd talked over the meal, but she was silent from the moment she stood up and took their empty plates.
Michael started at the hand in the hair at his nape. "How do you do that?" he asked abruptly.
Scratching lightly at the back of neck, he felt her shrug. Her thumb moved into the hollow of his skull. "I don't do anything. You do."
"You are a charming fellow, Michael, or so I've read. Very subtle. But you don't…take to it as well. Subtlety. It… I don't know what it does to you. Maybe nothing. Maybe you're just thrown by me, and what I am and what I do." She shrugged again, withdrawing her hand from his hair. "Haven't you had Valentine training?"
"Then this kind of the thing shouldn't effect you. A pretty whore is a silly liability for a good Cold Op."
He caught her hand and pressed it to his lips.
"No. None of that from you. I'm working, you're relaxing. And you wanted to go to your room," she said, tugging at her hand. "I mean it, Michael. There's no point to prove with me. Let me go, hmm?"
He stood as her hand slipped from his. "What if seducing you is what I want to do?"
"But it's clear that it's not." Only an inch or two shorter than Michael, she placed her hands on his shoulders. "You're stiff and awkward. Your stance is too wide and your focus is intense but…not on me." She searched his eyes and brought up a hand to touch his face. But stopped. Her hand dropped. "You're angry."
She took a step back. "You're going to have to learn how to hide that." She took another step backward. Then another. And another. Then she turned and disappeared behind the bedroom door.
"Michael! What can I do ya for, Kid?" Walter cleared a space to lean over the high metal table between them. "Heard ya got some mandatory downtime. Didn't I tell you you've been pushin' yourself too hard? Here, siddown."
"Walter am I…"
"Are ya what?"
"Nothing." Michael stood to leave.
With a speed that belied the gray in his hair, Walter reached across the table and pulled Michael back into his seat. "Tell me what's on your mind, Kid. I'll listen."
"I don't know."
"That last fight with Jurgen gettin' ya down? You were doing pretty good there at keepin' your cool. Guess he just got the right combination of buttons, huh?"
"Am I frightening, Walter?"
The old man stared at him. "Now where'd that come from?"
"Just…tell me. Do I ever make you want to…back away from me?"
"Naw, Kid. Sure ya got a temper like pinched hornet, but I know ya wouldn't do nothin' to your friends. Now for someone who doesn't know ya too well, maybe." He slapped Michael's arm, chuckling. "Oh don't look so upset. Just think of it as something else ya gotta work on. Hey…ya hungry? Wanna get somethin' to eat?"
Michael rose slowly, shaking his head. "I've eaten."
The warm hand in her scalp woke her. Michael watched as her face came alive, and felt the moment when she noticed him. She stiffened then relaxed. Her eyes opened. They stared at each other for a long moment. Michael's hand moved in her hair.
"Are you comfortable sitting like that?" she asked softly. Her voice was rough with disuse.
"Did you sleep well?"
A small smile tugged at her lips. "Have I been asleep for a very long time?"
"A few hours."
She cleared her throat. "You haven't been sitting here this whole time?"
"No." He withdrew his hand from her hair and she relaxed more.
"Do you want to join me?" she asked, scooting backward on the bed.
He shook his head, standing. "No. Do you want to eat?"
Bemused, she studied him for a moment before nodding. "All right. The fridge is stocked, but the kitchen will send something if you call down."
He gave her a nod that could have been a slight bow, then left.
When a page brought up their dinner he went back into the room and found her studying her active panel. She followed him out into the small kitchen and let him serve since that seemed to be what he wanted to do. He sat down across from her, a glass of wine on his otherwise empty place-setting. "Are you sure you don't want to eat?" she asked him again.
"No. I don't want food."
A slow smile spread across her face. "Is it me you want then?"
He watched the smile blossom. "I think I would have been surprised if it was. So you're content to just sit there and watch me eat, is that it?"
"I think so."
"All right then." And she did eat. Slowly. He wondered what she was thinking, but was afraid to ask. He wondered if she was lying – lying with her body, pretending to be at ease when she was not.
She stood up to take her dirty plate into the kitchen.
"I'll do that."
Cerise tried to wave him off. "No it's fine." But he found it easy to slide the plate out of her hands. She wandered back toward her seat. "I'm surprised you came back, Michael."
He was too.
"So what do you want to do? If you don't want me."
He was drying her glass, and was thus facing the wall, but he was sure she was smiling. Just a small one. She found him amusing.
She found the situation amusing. You're so freaking tight, Michael. Ligh-ten up.
Simone. She had a habit of hitting him and telling him to loosen up, be less intense. Dude, the fast track will get you killed before your time. This isn't exactly Corporate America.
Cerise was standing next to him. "I'd have accepted a head shake. No need to ignore me completely. They'll know if you just…sit here," she murmured.
"My report. This is, however less than sophisticated, my job afterall. I have to make a report."
Michael forced himself to remain relaxed.
"Very utilitarian, if that makes you feel better." Her voice was soft as she reached around him to retrieve the glass he'd put in the drain. "I'm not required to say where and how often and how, but there is a place for listing the activities we participated in. Dinner's fine. As a start."
"Sleeping." He turned towards her in time to catch a wide grin.
"Yes, and sleeping. Conversation?"
"Is that an option?"
"Some men don't want to talk. To converse."
"They would rather sit and stare?"
She blanked on that for a moment. Then she remembered and the grin returned. "That is, surprisingly, the least chosen option. At least when the option is 'Staring at Each Other.' Men seem to not mind staring at me."
Though softly spoken, the invitation was so clear that Michael took a half step to the side so that he could see her better. Straight brown hair that he knew was naturally curly, clear olive skin, wide and intensely dark brown eyes that disappeared when she gave him a true smile, and a long shapely figure sheathed in satin…he could see the appeal. She was softer than most women in Section, he thought, but wiser than any woman not in it. She was someone you could tell—
Michael turned away from her, turned toward the area that was the living room. "Do you tell your superiors what you do?"
He could hear her moving around the kitchen. "No. As I said, my reports are very utilitarian. It would be hard for someone to relax if they thought every word he said was going to somehow make its way back to Operations."
What better reason, then, to lie and say that it wouldn't?
"Would you like to see the report? I had begun to fill it out before I fell asleep. The panel is out there somewhere."
He had it in his hand. There was his name, the time they had met, his apparent state of wellbeing at that time along with a place for her to list activities participated in, the time and date of the end of their "session" as it was called on the form, and his state of wellbeing at that time. No more. Pulling the stylus out of the back, he clicked on the little plus symbol next to Activities, drawing up a very long checklist that ended, invariably, with Other. There was a plus symbol next to Sex when he scrolled past it. He touched it. The ensuing descriptions tended to be emotional in nature: Angry. Affectionate. Perfunctory. Passionate. Further down was the same symbol next to Sleep: Restless. Calm. Contentious. Unwilling.
Sleep was checked off. None of it's qualifiers were.
"Do you want more wine?"
Michael looked up. She was looking at him. There were two glasses in her hand. One was empty.
Cerise pushed her hair behind her ears then reached blindly for a glass of wine. She looked up when she felt that it was empty. Michael held up the bottle. "Empty. I'll get more."
"You trust me to make an honest move while you're in the kitchen?" She watched him stand.
"I trust you not to make up your mind before I return."
That earned him a chuckle. They'd started playing chess some hours ago but were only on to their second game due, in no small part, to her inability to decide where to move any given piece. "Part of it is that I haven't played in so long."
"You can stop apologizing." She watched him set the glasses down on the kitchen countertop.
"You've been very patient. It makes me feel obligated to apologize."
Something about what she said made him pause in his trying to get the cork out of the bottle, but she couldn't imagine what. She'd bring it up later. After. It wasn't long before he was returning with fresh glasses and a new bottle of wine.
She took the bottle from him as soon as he was near enough. "I don't know that I should let you drink any more seeing as you haven't eaten. At all."
"I'm not hungry."
"No, you may not be, but your body doesn't know that. Either make yourself something from what's in the kitchen or you are abstaining for the rest of the night."
His hand came down to cover the top of the bottle, resting near her on the table next to the chess set. "You would stop me?"
She looked up at him with the sure knowledge that she could, that she had ways and means he was completely ignorant of. And that if she couldn't—then that was a lesson in itself. "Yes."
"Does this count as conversation?"
Not sure if he was meaning to be funny or not, she decided to take be amused anyway. "Sure. Why not? Who's to stop us?"
"Except you, of course."
"Have you made up your mind about where to make your next move?"
Yes. She had.
"No! You made me forget, wretched man. I'd be better at this if I played more than once every three months."
"None of your clients like to play chess?"
She glanced up at him. "I'm sure they do, they just don't like playing it with me." Her knight finally inched across the board. "The only person who plays with me with any sort of regularity is Jurgen."
"You know Jurgen?"
Sitting back in her chair she focused her attention on him. "Yes I do. I see him in the cafeteria sometimes and we play. You know Jurgen?"
There was a moment of hesitation before he answered, "Yes."
"And do the two of you play?"
"We didn't used to…" His lips quirked into a strange sort of smile as he moved a bishop. Clearly she was done for. "…but we are starting to." His eyes met hers. "Your turn."
"He's always been very kind to me. He's doesn't mind that it takes me forever to make up my mind and he's always willing to remind me of the rules when I forget."
Fingers laced together over his stomach as he slouched in his chair, Michael nodded. "Yes. That sounds like him."
Jurgen had also always been scrupulously honest with her without being mean. Sometimes a little cold, but not callous. He was one of the few people she interacted with in a non-professional way and she enjoyed their very brief time together. Michael, she felt, could be the same. If what she was doing now didn't ruin it all.
When she looked up to apologize for woolgathering, she found that she wasn't the only one who had drifted off. It was hard to blame him, though, considering her playing style. "I'm not very good, am I?"
She could see him bring himself back from whatever thoughts he had been entertaining. His lips almost turned up into a smile. It was all she could do not to grin, but that would be counterproductive. Michael shook his head. "I have seen worse."
"Not much worse, I imagine." She finally moved her last pawn, almost sure that she was about to sacrifice it needlessly.
"Not much," he agreed, capturing the pawn. But, unless she was greatly mistaken, he could have taken her knight instead.
He captured her hand on his shoulder. "What are you doing?"
"You're not very relaxed, Michael."
"What were you trying to do?"
"Just a neck massage. You're very tense. And you're hands are very tight on mine."
He didn't release her. He didn't loosen his grip.
"You're fully dressed. I'm fully dressed. We both have on several layers."
Michael thought of the long nightgown she was wearing, slit up to her knees on both sides. She'd changed into it when he'd gone, but hadn't changed again after he woke her. "We seem to have different definitions of layers."
"All right, you're wearing layers. I am wearing full underwear. And I have a kimono I could put on. I also have a rather shapeless and frumpy robe I like more for its warmth than it's beauty. Would they make you feel better?"
He didn't want her touching him. That would make him feel better. He opened his mouth to tell her.
"Would it make you let go of my hands?"
He released her, but she didn't retreat.
"Do I really bother you so much?"
Show weakness and your enemy will know what to exploit. It was never easy admitting that Jurgen was good at what he did. "I released your hands. Why are you still standing there?"
"Is it my fault you have such nice hair? I meant it when I said I was just going to give you a massage, but now all I want to do is run my fingers through your hair."
Michael pushed himself out of the chair, letting the book he had been reading fall to the floor. When he turned he found Cerise smiling at him, her eyes laughing at him.
"I would tell you to cut it, but your neck is rather appealing as well."
He turned and walked away.
"Michael! Wait. I'm sorry."
He continued walking toward the bedroom—the only other "room" in the suite. Her bare feet whispered on the plush carpet as she followed him. "Michael!"
Hiding just inside the door, he caught her by the shoulders and spun her around. Something he did with her feet tangled them. Brought them down on the large bed. But Michael controlled the fall so that he landed over her, still holding her shoulders, pushing her into the mattress.
Face flushed, she stared up at him as emotions chased themselves on her face—anger, annoyance, worry—until only calm remained.
He pushed harder. "Is this what you wanted?"
Then he felt the knee against his lower stomach, as if she'd meant to use it to lever him off her.
Not quite defenseless, but not fast enough either. Jurgen, he thought, wouldn't approve.
"I want it to be what you want, Michael." She carefully, slowly, drew her leg down, removing the barrier between them. He hadn't realized how much of his weight she had been holding as he felt himself put more of it on his arms…on her shoulders. "Is this it?"
Michael rolled to his right, off her. "I want to be alone."
"Can't do that." She hadn't moved.
"I want to sleep."
She was silent for a long time. And she still hadn't moved.
"I'm sorry. Still can't do that." Then she levered herself to her feet, got off the bed and left the room.
If only she could be sure that Michael was going to sleep. She needed help, she needed to talk, as much as she didn't want to admit defeat. But she was almost positive that he wasn't going to sleep, and so she couldn't leave. He might fall asleep, but that wasn't good enough. There was no way of telling how long he would be out, and it was too late to give him something.
Alternating between rubbing one shoulder then the other, she searched the titles on the bookshelf. If she was going to be up here again, she thought, she was going to have to request a greater diversity of book to read. Of course the room wasn't meant to be a study. Not really. She should have brought her own. Still, Cerise chose one and went back into the bedroom. She'd chosen something boring—and quite literally heavy. But Michael didn't stir, not when she entered, not when she sat on the bed. Not even when, later, she carded her fingers through the curls in his hair.
He was sitting against the headboard, reading, when he felt her stir against his thigh. At some point after he'd woken up she'd shifted closer and closer until she was using him as a pillow. Her grip on him tightened briefly, and then she tried to turn over.
Hair obscured her face. Michael cleared it. The book in his other hand closed with a soft thump. Frowning, Cerise's eyes rolled up to look at what he had been reading. "That thing, really?"
"It was the only one close to hand."
She yawned. "For which I must apologize. That is a truly awful book. I know. I've had the misfortune of teaching it."
"You were a teacher?"
"Before I killed my husband and sister, yes."
"Is that how you came to be in Section?"
She nodded, her head moving against his thigh. "Basically. There are more details, of course." She sighed sleepily, her eyes drifting closed. "You're not helping me to wake up."
Michael realized then that not only had his hand not left her hair, but he was slowly and rhythmically pulling at it. "Perhaps I don't want you to."
"As long as you don't mind me using you as a pillow." She turned away from him again.
"I don't mind."
She chuckled, lightly squeezing his knee then seemed to settle herself.
He made it two pages before the words came up out of him: "I'm…sorry. For before."
"And that's why you're letting me use you as a pillow?"
Michael thought about it. "Perhaps."
"You're time together is almost done."
"You've had more than a week."
"I'll be rather disappointed in you if you should fail. Do you understand?"
"We will debrief in a few hours. Let's say four."
Michael braced himself for the embrace he was sure to come. His hair was still wet from his shower and water periodically dripped down his collar.
"Take a towel."
Turning, he found that Cerise's hair was also damp, her natural curls hanging limply. "Take this one if you want. It's not dry, but at the very least it will keep the water from running down your back."
"That's all right."
"You're taking this stoic thing much too far, Michael. I know you refused to dance with me, but it's been five days—"
"Six," he reminded her.
"Six days then. I still can't get a smile out of you?" She cocked her head to one side. "Not even a little one?"
Reaching out, Michael grasped her by the elbows and gently pulled her in. Holding on to his forearms, she offered him first one cheek then the other. "Not even a little one."
She smiled at him, for him, and offered up her cheek. He bypassed it. The grip on his forearms tightened as their kiss deepened.
There was something pleasing about the lack of surety in her eyes when he released her. After a week of watching her ride every obstinate wave he'd thrown at her, including subtly convincing him every day that it was in his best interest to stay, it was satisfying to know that she had drowned—even if for a moment.
"If you wanted to stay until the evening," she said, quickly regaining her composure, "you could have just said so."
"I don't want to stay."
Her brows furrowed. "Then…why? What's the point?"
She smiled. "That's a curious way to thank someone, though not unpleasant." She released his forearms to pluck at his collar. "I'd have been just as happy knowing that our time together had left you more relaxed."
"Then you didn't have to kiss me. I wasn't looking for you to."
"I wanted to."
He watched the emotions play over her face and found that there were a few he couldn't name. Of the ones he could, not all of them made sense. Filing that away for later, Michael pulled out of Cerise's light grasp. "I should go."
"You don't have to. Not yet."
"I want to."
"Are you proud of yourself? You managed to realize your mission goal. Your first mission."
"I thought it was a training."
Madeline inclined her head. "A little more than training and a little less than a mission."
"Thank you then."
"Of course it was only just. You waited to the very last moment. Or should I say he did."
"Yes. I know. I didn't think it was going to happen either."
Madeline thought she was hiding something, despite the honest admission of a less than perfect performance. "Fortunately for you the better part of Valentine training is luck, chance and perseverance," she continued. "Certainly you have excelled in matters of perseverance. That you were able to convince Michael to stay for the entire week after giving him a way of escape so early on was a pleasant surprise."
"The profile you gave me was immensely helpful."
"Your work was based on more than just a profile. Your instinct has improved immensely."
Which received another head bob. "Thank you. Might I return to my rooms now?"
"You'll find that you no longer have access." Madeline noted the quick play of emotion on her material's face and wondered what she thought the pronouncement meant for her future. Madeline was almost sure she knew. "You're being transferred to an apartment outside Section. It's not very far from here. You aren't quite ready for outside interaction yet, but you have proved yourself to be further along than I think either of us had expected. There is no need to concern yourself with the things left in the Tower. It will be reset by housekeeping. You've come a long way in two years."
"Thank you, Madeline."
The last time Michael had felt this way he was just back to University after an extended holiday. Nothing had felt real or certain, and he had very much wished he'd gone to bed earlier or been able to sleep for another hour. Ever conscientious, Cerise had made certain that he slept well and woke up at his accustomed time while they were together. There was no reason for him to be so restless. Except that to meet with Jurgen to report on his downtime was the very last thing he wanted to do.
"Michael. Please. Have a seat," Jurgen said, his eyes on the active panel in his hands.
Seating himself he waited for his mentor to recognize him. Sometimes he wondered if Jurgen used the waiting to test him. He heard Simone in his head, mocking him, "Oh, you think?"
He'd never been able to keep still in Elsa's presence. She hadn't expected it. Seated behind her desk, her small room crowded with agitated Field Ops off a mission, she had been the one to be still. She had been the eye in their storm. And they had revolved around her, going wherever she directed.
Michael's thoughts came back to the here and now when he heard the panel touch the glass covered desk. Jurgen's eyes met his from behind square glasses. "Enjoy your downtime?"
Ruthlessly pushing down his anger, Michael nodded slowly. It was a reasonable question—all things considered. "Yes."
Jurgen returned the gesture. "It's true, of course, that you were assigned mandatory downtime, but you should always be aware of your objective."
Michael frowned. What was the objective of downtime if not to be as far away from thoughts of Section as possible?
"Madeline had some points that she thought would be better for me to bring up and review. If you will take this panel…"
Feeling as if he were looking at the world through a haze induced by the throbbing in his temples, Michael watched in a detached way as his left hand reached for the panel pushed in his direction. He had no idea how he was going to make it through this…debriefing. He couldn't hear over the blood pounding in his ears.
A touch to his shoulder had him pulling the arm it was attached to forward. A swift pivot on his heel had him facing his opponent's back, their arm hitched up high behind them. Her.
Michael gasped as his feet were suddenly out from under him and he was falling. And elbow got him in the side. Surprise made him let go of the arm.
Simone immediately rolled off him and into a fighting stance. "What is wrong with you, Michael?" she demanded, her face flushed and her long hair half out of its ponytail. "There are no bad guys in here, remember?"
Feeling like a complete buffoon, Michael opted to remain on the floor, throwing an arm over his eyes. He waited for Simone to leave him to his miserable stupidity but didn't hear her move. Finally her steps shifted on the blue training mat, but towards and not away. She nudged his side with her toe.
When he pulled his arm away from his eyes he saw that her hands were still raised, ready, though she was otherwise relaxed. "I'm sorry."
"You had better be." Dropping her pose, she bent at the waist and offered him a hand up. "I hope I'm the only person you've done that to today. Sensei would beat you black and blue if you tried that on him."
Michael had no doubt that their mixed-martial arts teacher would indeed use him as an example of, perhaps, proper paranoia mixed with poor focus. He took her hand and let her help him up. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, I get that. You're forgiven. Though if you ever pull something like that on me again I'm putting my foot in your throat."
And crushing his windpipe, though she didn't say it.
"I received downtime."
"Stop. You've lost me."
Frowning, Michael shook his head. "I received downtime and I took it. But it was all a mission."
He thought for a moment as he went to the place where he had put his towel and water. "Not a mission exactly. More like—"
"Training," she supplied.
He nodded, then flipped the top of his water bottle and took a long pull. It felt like heat was radiated from him waves.
"And that pisses you off. Or pissed you off."
"You wanna go into it? No. Forget it," she said putting her hands up as if to stop him. "I'd rather have my arm nearly dislocated again, thanks."
Shaking her head, Simone said, "When are you gonna get it, Michael? This whole place is about head games. All the time. There is no down time, there are no vacations. You are living under a microscope where everything you do is being watched and analyzed." Hands on her narrow hips she seemed much taller than she was, when he knew that her head didn't quite come to his shoulder. Even her skewed ponytail was of no account. "Either you live with it, deal with it, or you get cancelled. Because, believe me buddy, it's gonna be you getting yourself cancelled."
There was a line in the middle of her forehead that hadn't been there before. Michael stopped himself from crossing the small distance between them and smoothing it with his finger. He didn't want her to think… He didn't want anyone to think…
"Are you listening to me? Because otherwise all of my sage advice is wasted."
"I am. Listening to you. But your sage advice may still be wasted."
Simone grinned, dropping her hands from her hips and walking up to him. "That is very true. But, seriously, whatever it is about all this that you're not telling me, because it's pretty obvious that there's more, just deal with it. Okay? Make your mental peace, go talk to Jurgen in a civilized manner, play that monster bass you have…whatever. If you don't, it's you who's going to pay the price. You and your teammates.
"Now for the real reason I'm here! Walter's invited a few of us for dinner…"
Cerise frowned. She hadn't expected to see Michael again so soon, if at all. Though Madeline's profile had shown that he was an operative of great, even spectacular, promise, the life of an operative was a volatile one. Still carefully holding her gun, she checked the peephole, wishing that the camera system had been installed. Putting her eye to a fish-eye lens didn't seem particularly wise.
She let him in, carefully standing behind the door. He walked in purposefully, as if it weren't his first time in an apartment she'd only had for two months, though he looked around as if it were new. Finally he spotted her behind the door and smiled. She smiled back as she moved to close it.
Cerise glanced down at the weight in her hands. "Oh, well, after you've had Madeline attack you in your own home with a knee to your back and gun to your head, you begin to take home security much more seriously."
He snorted softly. It sounded like he'd had a similar experience. She wondered if he'd found it nearly as surprising. Madeline didn't look dangerous, but she was fast and she liked to drive her point home. Or into the kidneys.
"Why don't you have a seat. Or are you here on business?" she added somewhat belatedly.
"Ah, yes, that. I'm afraid your two weeks are up, Michael. We can be social but…nothing else. I'm not even sure how long you can stay."
"Under surveillance?" he asked as he gave himself the grand tour.
Cerise nodded. "Isn't everyone?" she said conversationally as she followed him with her eyes. "Making yourself at home?"
Half turning, he looked her from over his shoulder then went back to her half-full bookshelf. "What if I am?"
"Doubtful. My purpose is…" She could almost see Madeline standing just before her, silently admonishing her to keep her thoughts to herself. "Specific."
Michael brought himself back to her side. "Ah."
"Mmmhmm. And what of your purpose? You seem…directionless. Was there something I can help you with?"
That seemed to stop him for a moment as if he hadn't really considered why he had come or what he would want when he got there. He had to have gone to some trouble to find out where she lived. It couldn't be for no reason at all.
"Isn't there anything? Anything at all?"
His hand rose between them, fingers curled. Cerise stepped closer, leaning forward to place her cheek against his fingers. His hand opened and she brushed her cheek on his palm. Michael took a step closer.
"I can't," she told him.
"Can't what?" he pressed.
Cerise covered his hand with her own, pressing it closer to her cheek before pulling him away. "I would have liked for us to be friends, strange though that may sound. I don't think I'll be around enough for that to happen however. So I'd like to end…pleasantly. Cordially."
"You can't stay, Michael. You may have already stayed too long." She took the last step into his personal space and wrapped her arms around him. He was stiff and unyielding until she pressed her face into his neck, then he relaxed. She pressed a kiss into the juncture of his neck and collarbone. He brought his arms up to hold her.
"I haven't told anyone about her."
They tightened across her back.
"Whoever she is." Cerise pressed another kiss into his skin, moving up the column of his neck.
He loosened his grip.
"But you're going to have make a decision soon." Another kiss also higher. "Or it will distract you too much." She placed her lips at the edge of his jaw, resting her forehead against the side of his face. "Just let it go," she whispered. "Please. I don't want to lose the only other friend I've got."
Michael brought a hand up to cradle her head, gently maneuvering her until their foreheads touched. His lips brushed hers. "I can't."
Cerise jerked away. She backed up two steps before turning completely. "I'm sorry, Michael. You have to go. I can't— It's not allowed. It was only…"
Suddenly he seemed to remembered why he was there. "It was only what?" he pressed. Cerise could feel his eyes on her as she moved through the Spartan kitchen. She bit her lip. Surely he knew already that it had just been a training with him. But maybe not.
She turned to face him but wouldn't look him in the eye. "It was just a mission. A training. Now please…leave."
When he didn't move she raised her eyes and met his. He turned for the door.
It took her much longer than it should have to cross the tiny kitchen and walk the five steps of the hall to lock the door behind him.
He turned at the sound of Operations' voice. "Yes, sir."
"Let me be the first to congratulate you."
He had no idea what the older man was referring to and so maintained the blank façade that was becoming almost normal.
"Welcome to Level Three."