Shadows Into Demons
by Abi Z.

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Marin Rosenthal. She lived in a studio apartment in Portland, Oregon, and she did network security for an internet provider. She had a boyfriend, almost fiancé, named Robert and a cat named Nickel. Her parents were Casper and Eliana Rosenthal, and she had been named Marin for the county of her birth and for her grandmother, Marina Einhorn, who had come over from Poland at age fifteen. Marin had a brother named Nikolai who was three years younger than she was and who lived with his own boyfriend on an island in Puget Sound.

Marin liked to hike in the Cascades, to sail in the Pacific, and to find things on computers. Finding things, she called it, not hacking: she wanted to see what was there, the same little girl who had climbed high trees so that she could see for miles. A way to know her world.

She got the tip from an acquaintance in South America--there's supposed to be some crazy shit in here, but if you get caught they'll kill you. You ever seen it, Marin asked. I'm not that dumb, the acquaintance said. But you said you wanted to try everything, so here it is.

Marin let it lie for a few days, and then she tried it, and then she died.


I know this because I remember. I remember that I am Marin Shoshana Rosenthal, who was born and lived and lives still. I remember despite this black hole that I'm in, despite the electrical shocks that paralyzed me for days, despite the hunger and thirst and time without sleep that make hours into years and shadows into demons.

I remember my grandmother's white hair. Snow on April Fool's Day. Where the knots form in Robert's back. The sun on the floor of my kitchen at three in the afternoon on a Saturday. Accidentally saying "shit" when I messed up on the Torah reading at my bat mitzvah.

I remember it all. If they kill me, my memories die, but as long as I live, I remember it all.


They redyed the black in my hair, which had faded from the weeks of recruitment to its natural unextraordinary brown. Outside the room, the cell, that morning were new clothes, tasteful and tailored for my body. After I put them on, two men took me to show me where I would live. It turned out to be a pretty one-bedroom apartment near a park in the city, across the street from a school, in a quiet building with trees and a courtyard.

The rental papers were clean, and they even gave me a copy of the lease: it was rented to Isabel Dauphin, whose driver's license, birth certificate, and passport all lay in the file cabinet next to the desk. The picture looked like me, though it wasn't my old Oregon license picture or the passport photo I'd had taken when I was nineteen for my college trip to France. It might well have been me, taken from some obscure file somewhere, or it might have been doctored up with an image editor. There was a wallet in the dresser in the bedroom, and I put the license inside along with the money that was already there. There were some other cards in the wallet as well: Isabel Dauphin held a Visa card (with, I discovered when I found the paperwork, a very generous credit limit) as well as membership at a chain of video rental stores and the local library.

I couldn't figure it out at first, and I stood there stunned for several minutes after the men left. But then I got it: if I lost hope, if I died or killed myself, my training would be wasted, and I would be useless to them. Section had an end of the bargain to hold up, too.


Michael I'd trained with during my recruitment, and it was Madeline who had taught me to replace my inborn Pacific Northwest candor with the manners and subtlety of an operative. Operations and Walter I'd also met, albeit briefly. Though I'd heard about Birkoff since the first days--if I lived through recruitment, we would work together--so far I'd never seen him. I wondered if they'd even told Birkoff, whoever he was, to expect a partner.

He showed no reaction when we were introduced. "We brought you a playmate," Madeline said. "Birkoff, this is Marin Rosenthal."

"What's she for?" He keyed in a code, unsuccessfully.

"I'd try going in through the patch in the Korn shell," I suggested. "Another one of those and they'll figure out you're here."

Still not an upward glance, but a pause. "You think I didn't try that?"

"I think you didn't try hard enough. You could drive a truck through the security holes in this version."

Madeline smiled. "I'll have you two alone. I'm sure you have a lot to talk about." She left, pointedly ignoring whatever it was that Birkoff muttered under his breath.

"So how would you do it?" he asked once she was out of the room, his eyes behind their tinted frames still focused on the screen in front of him.

"The last time I cracked something like this, there were a couple of things I did. It'd be easier to show you than to tell you."

He moved over enough for me to pull up a chair and take the keyboard. "They'll roll over and play dead," I told him, "if you do it like this."


It wasn't a bad living, being dead, and one day I bought myself a silver hairclip at a jewelry store near my apartment. The barrette was shiny sterling with a round lapis inset. In my old life, I would have feared losing something so expensive. Now I didn't care.

In the midst of surveillance on an egregiously flagrant double agent--I wasn't sure what the point of watching was, since everyone knew he'd just fuck up like he always did--I took out the clip, twisted my hair, and pinned it to the back of my head. Then I went back to spying--although given the target's stupidity, we probably could have sat next to him with video cameras and microphones and he wouldn't have noticed.

"I don't get it, Rosenthal," Birkoff said after a moment. His voice startled me; we'd both been engrossed in our ridiculous target. "How do women do that?"

"Do what?"

"That defying-gravity-with-your-hair thing. It's like a bumblebee flying. It shouldn't happen. There's all that hair and only one piece of metal. Nikita can do it, too, and I never figured out how."

"For one thing, your hair's too short."

"Didn't used to be. Went down past my shoulder blades at one point."

It was hard to imagine; his hair was so short I wasn't even sure what color it was. "When did you cut it?"

"A few years back. I shaved my whole head."

"How monastic of you. Any particular reason?"

"The person with long hair is dead," Birkoff said, and turned back to his monitor.

I reached behind my head and took the clip out, shaking my hair down around my shoulders. This move was the main reason I kept my hair dyed: it was a lot more impressive with ebony than with mouse-brown. "I'm not dead," I pointed out.

"You're as dead as I am. Shave your head and get it over with."

One keystroke by me and his screen froze. Take that, geek boy.

"What the fuck was that?" he demanded, voice rising; it was the first time I had heard him swear. He didn't have a screen to bury himself in, and so he looked at me.

"You know that Holocaust museum they built in Washington, DC?" I said. "My fucking grandmother's in there, Birkoff, with all her hair shaved off. They put her in Treblinka, tattooed numbers on her arm, and told her she was dead. Well, now she lives in Miami, she raised five Jewish children, and she has white hair down to her ass. She married a man who fled Russia to escape Stalin's purges, who walked across Europe and snuck onto a boat bound for New York just so he could stay alive. The shit they put me through to recruit me was nothing compared to what my grandmother saw in the camps, and she's still alive and so am I. So they may try to tell you that you're dead, Birkoff, and you may even believe it, but if you do, you're no better than they are."

I was out of breath, so I unfroze his screen--really a simple trick, I was surprised he didn't know it--and started to go back to work. I didn't hear Birkoff turn, though, and after a moment he said quietly, "My grandparents were in the purges. One side was Jews and the other side was anarchists, so they were fucked either way."


"Yeah. Why do you think I'm so good at this? I was raised by people who collected bomb recipes."

"Remember any?"

"Nothing that would do much damage. They were trying to raise me to stay out of trouble."

"Fat lot of good that did."

"They were old-school anarchists. Didn't figure you could do much damage with a computer. By the time I was thirteen, I was doing more damage than they ever did."

"You get caught cracking the wrong system, too?"

"For my fourteenth birthday, a friend of mine gave me a way into the CIA mainframe. I got in without any trouble--their security's laughable now, but it was worse then--and started to dig. I found a file on Section and then waltzed into their system like I owned the place. It looked easy at the time, but they came for me the next day. I left that morning for school and never came back."

Birkoff couldn't have been much older than twenty, although his small frame and soft features would probably always make him look younger than he was. "How long have you been here, Birkoff?" I asked.

"A third of my life, more or less."

"You've been here seven years?"

"Give or take a month."

I thought of my brother at fourteen: carrying a skateboard, trying to be a man but still wanting Mom to make lasagna for him, still having nightmares that required Dad to sit in his room until he fell asleep again. Fourteen wasn't an age for hunger, thirst, torture, sitting in a dark cell for days to weeks while Section tried to convince you that you were dead. "No wonder you believe them," I said after a moment. It began as a thought until I realized that I'd said it out loud.

"Believe what?"

"That you're dead."

He shrugged. "I was raised dead."

In a moment his keyboard began to click again, and work resumed.


It was a long night, and not even half over. Part surveillance and part legendary hack, we'd worked through the day and into the dark. Birkoff had been drinking coffee like water and popping caffeine pills along with his ubiquitous Oreos, but it had stopped working. I was feeling slightly more awake, so I kept an eye on a prostitute who was in the midst of stealing documents from a diplomat while I also persisted at my system crack and tried to eat a salad, my only food that day, with my fingers.

There was a loud thump, and my zone was broken. I started, turned, and saw Birkoff lying sprawled on the floor. "Make sure the woman gets out," he rasped. "Give up on the hack. We'll finish it tomorrow."

"What are you going to do, sleep there?"

"My back feels like I got hit by a truck. The likelihood of my getting up and making it to my room is minimal."

I watched the girl put the papers in her bustier and make her rendezvous with Nikita. Thank God. The hired girl had performed well. I wondered if she would live to see the morning.

"That's all, folks," Nikita said quietly into her wire after the girl left. "We're done."

"Good job," I answered. "I'll maintain the uplink until you're back in the building." Nikita and Michael would meet with Operations and turn over whatever it was that they had; as for Birkoff and myself, as long as they got home safely, our job was done. The crack was just icing; I really could finish it tomorrow.

The sounds that followed were normal--the van door, the terse conversation with Michael--and I tuned them out to look at Birkoff. "Ever done shiatsu?"

"Is that something you eat?"

"It's a kind of massage. My boyfriend and I used to do it."

"You had a boyfriend, Rosenthal?"

"The element of surprise in your voice is not welcome, my friend. We were both coders and we had messed-up backs, so we learned shiatsu to fix them. Turn on your stomach and stretch out your arms."

"Do you know what happened the last time a woman offered me a massage?"

"I have a feeling you're going to tell me."

"I got seduced by an evil alternate Nikita, caused a security breach, and generally made an ass out of myself."

"All because of shiatsu?"

"I don't know if it was shiatsu. But it felt really good."

"I'm not offering you sex, Birkoff. You're too young for me, and some strange part of my brain still believes that I have a boyfriend. So you can either take me up on completely nonsexual shiatsu, or you can lie there and be miserable."

"I love it when you take charge, honey."

"Don't fuck with a good thing, Birkoff. Roll over."

He did, and I sank my fingers into his back. His bones betrayed that he was bigger than he presented himself: taller, his ribcage wider, his back long. The knots were in the same places that Robert's had always been, and my hands rediscovered familiar ground as I poked and prodded. "What do you think?"

"Mnr. Rnh. Mmm. Grmp."

This had usually reduced Robert to speechlessness as well. I worked my fingers into the bony joints that connected Birkoff's skull and spine, rubbing the soft triangle at the top of his spinal column where vertebrae met cranium. His shoulder blades crackled in relief as I eased them back into place. I'd usually done this to Robert when he was shirtless, but I didn't think Birkoff would respond well to a request to disrobe. Despite the barrier between fingers and skin, I could count his ribs beneath the cloth, could feel the gentle indentation where they ended. Birkoff started when I worked my way outward from the base of his spine, towards the points of his hips. "What are you doing?"

"Finishing. I'm not pulling an evil clone trick here. I'll stop if you want."

"No. It's... it's OK."

I finished with his back and gently massaged each of his arms, my hands meeting skin where his black T-shirt ended. His skin was warm, as soft and pale as a baby's from the lack of exposure to sun. The fine hairs were a light honey brown, about the same color as what I could see of the hair on his head.

"God," he said as I pressed circles into his forearms. "What the hell are you doing? Are you sure this isn't an evil clone trick?"

"People who do computer work usually have very sensitive forearms. Do you want me to stop?"

"Hell no."

I pressed the joints in his hands between the pads of my fingers, feeling the tightness give way. Then I let him go, patted his back, and stood up. "You're done. Go get some sleep."

"Slept here before," Birkoff answered, his voice muffled in the floor. "Can sleep here again."

I took the liberty of rubbing his shorn hair under my hand, feeling it bristle. "I'll finish the hack, then."

He didn't respond. In five minutes, I was eating a tomato slice and sliding into the foreign mainframe. Birkoff was asleep, his breathing shallow and even.


Some weeks passed, and I learned Section just as Section learned me. Nikita began to smile at me instead of giving her usual expressionless stare, and Walter started calling me "darlin'." I would have preferred to be at home in Portland, but I would survive here. Unless I got killed first.

I walked in one morning to find Birkoff setting the machines on autorun. "We've got a briefing in ten minutes. Come on."

"What's it about?"

"They're finally going into that building we've been getting intel on. Don't worry, we won't have to talk."

I followed him to a long narrow room where the rest of our team was gathered. Operations was standing in the front next to a holographic projector. He waited until everyone was seated, and then began. "Thanks to bribery and some good intel, we've finally gotten enough information to send a mission into the Wallenberg Building, where we have known for some time that Dieu et Pays has an operations center. We have complete plans of the building, and we've narrowed their location down to two floors. We will have the building surrounded by a large team; however, we will only be sending two operatives inside. Michael, I want you to lead the team and go into the building. Birkoff, due to Nikita's recent injuries, you will take her place. You know the building better than anyone except perhaps Marin, and you will be able to lead Michael through it."

I could tell that Birkoff was about to argue, but a look from Michael shut him up. "Yes, sir."

"The team will assemble at the west exit in one hour. Marin, you're to stay here and provide support to the site team. Dismissed."

Everyone got up to leave, and I went back to the main floor to start setting up. Birkoff appeared in a few minutes. "You know how to run this, right?"

"Backwards, forwards, and sideways."

"Are you sure? It's complicated."

"Birkoff, I set up most of it. I'll be fine."

"You're sure you're sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure I'm sure. And even if I weren't, I don't think Operations is about to change his mind. What made him put you on this mission?"

"I don't know. I don't know what the hell he's thinking. There's got to be someone else they could have found. I hate missions."

"Maybe he's trying to train you out of the fear."

"It's not fear."

"OK, out of hating missions, then. Whatever."

"I can't believe he's sending me in. Leaving you here on your own."

"Before I came along, you always did this on your own."

"That was different. I'd been here a long time. You just started."

"Maybe he's testing me, too," I said gently. "Think about it: every other time, I've had you to back me up. They probably want to see if I can do it on my own. It'll be OK, Birkoff. Really. Remember, you said yesterday that it was going to be routine. We know where everything is. Just go in, do what Michael tells you, and get the job done."

"Right. I'll do that." He let out a long breath. "See you in a few hours."


Four vans went out, each taking a different route. By the time they arrived at the building, I had everything I needed in front of me. Michael and Birkoff both connected to the radios at the same time. "We're here," Michael said. "Are you ready?"

"When you are."

The surrounding team went out first, encircling the building and disposing of anyone who shouldn't have been there. This was routine. "Commence stage two," Michael said, and I watched the orange dot that was him and the blue dot that was Birkoff enter the outline of the building.

"First location is second floor, north wing," I told them. "Intel shows that you're alone in the building."

"I know where we're going," Birkoff said.

"I'll stand by." I watched the dots make their way through the halls. "Team captains, tell me your status."

"All clear on the north," red captain answered.

"All clear on the south," said blue team captain.

"All clear on the east," said green team captain.

"All clear on the--" And then the signal was gone.

"Yellow team captain, give me your status!"

Nothing. And then, one floor down from Michael and Birkoff, an army of black dots appeared.

"Operatives, we have visitors. At least twenty of them, approaching from first floor west."

"It isn't here," Birkoff said.

"Second location is between tenth and eleventh floor, north end of the building. Recommend going up north stairs and then through the heating duct in the hallway. Remember that only one person can fit in the duct."

Five minutes later, they were at the duct. "Birkoff, you go in," Michael ordered. "I'll stand guard."

A breath from Birkoff, and then his wire showed that he was in, crawling slowly through the duct. I directed him as calmly as I could. "It's about an eight-foot drop to the safe," I said when he was almost there. "Don't jump too heavily or you'll go through the ceiling."

"That's encouraging, Rosenthal."

"Just hurry. They're going to know where you are soon."

"I'm down," Birkoff said after a moment. Silence as he entered the combination, replayed the false voiceprint we'd given the team, put containers inside his clothing to take back. A grunt, and then he was back up in the duct, making his way back to Michael.

"Jesus!" came the shout. "Someone fucking shot at me!"

The cameras showed nothing; motion scans of the rooms were equally silent. "They're somewhere in the ducts, Birkoff."

"Get me the fuck out of here, Rosenthal."

"Michael, I'm taking him out the back way. There's ten of them headed up the stairs towards you. Get out."

"We'll meet at the van," he said.

"Birkoff, I want you to go back to the room with the safe," I said. "This time, jump as hard as you can. You're going to go through the ceiling to the tenth floor."

Running, and then crashing, and then panting. "I'm on the tenth floor."

"Agents coming your way from the south. There should be a duct in the north corner of the room. Get into it and take a right. You're going to wind up at the elevator shaft."

Michael's dot was out of the building; Birkoff's wound its way through the ducts and then came to the main shaft. "You're going to climb down the shaft and open the doors at the second floor."

"Jesus Christ. OK."

Down, down, down, the dot made its way. "Birkoff, they've figured out where you are. Hurry."

I heard gunfire just as I heard Birkoff kicking the doors open. "I'm here."

"Good. Go down the service stairs on the south end and out through the kitchen."

"Christ, Rosenthal, there's more fucking gunfire than I've ever seen. I'm at the kitchen. There's the door."

And then Michael's quiet voice, "Operative is out and target is being terminated." Which meant that the red team had detonated its bomb.

I breathed. Breathed again. Birkoff and Michael were safe. "Good work, gang. See you back at the ranch."


Madeline, however, sent me home well before the team arrived back at Section. Too tired to argue, I stopped by Nikita's recovery room on my way out to let her know that Michael was alright. She was too drugged to have much of a reaction, but she smiled. "Heard you got Birkoff out, too."

"He got himself out."

Another smile, her eyes beginning to close. "He needs help getting himself out sometimes." Then she was asleep again, her sun-streaked hair falling across her face.

At home, I made myself tea and curled up under a blanket on the couch, shaking. They're OK, I repeated to myself. Michael wasn't hurt; Birkoff got out; they're OK. But even though I knew this, I still sat staring at the wall until a knock disturbed me some time later.

I was going to chastise Birkoff for not being at home asleep, or maybe yell at him for almost getting himself killed, but that all suddenly became secondary to wrapping my arms around him and feeling him breathe. We held each other in my doorway for long minutes, my forehead against his collarbone. "Come in," I said after a while. "I'll pour you some tea."

The green eyes regarded me. "This was a pretty mild one, you know."

"I know. Sometimes someone gets captured, or sometimes someone dies. That didn't happen this time."

"No one died," Birkoff said.

"No, no one died."

The mug was warm in my hands, and I slowly began to convince myself that everything was alright. Birkoff was sitting on my sofa with his knees against his chest; I had some tea; maybe everything would be OK.

"You're still scared," he said.

"I'm not in the habit of listening as my friends get shot at and talking people out of mousetraps. I design computer networks, not military intelligence. Of course I'm scared. I've never had lives depend on whether I could hack something or not."

"I knew you'd been good at this." Birkoff's eyes were focused on the other side of the room. "I was the one who caught you in the system. Operations was going to have you killed, but I talked him out of it. I said it would be a waste of a damn good hacker. I convinced him you could help us. And you did."

"I guess that means you saved my life, then."

"If you call this life." Birkoff paused. "I heard that if you save someone's life, part of them belongs to you forever."

"So that means we're both free now."

"That, or we belong to each other." Birkoff's eyes still weren't on me. "Madeline and Ops almost changed their minds once they found out more about you. You had a good life; there wasn't necessarily a reason for you to prefer being in Section to being dead."

"I'm from a family of survivors. We do whatever it takes. What about you? You were fourteen. How could you possibly have wanted to stay here? Your life was hacking, baseball cards, and eighth-grade girls."

"Yes, I was fourteen. And my father was an abusive bastard and my mother was a drunk. Section meant no parents and all the computers I wanted."

"I remember my brother when he was fourteen, and it's not that easy."

"Your brother hasn't been through recruitment."

"I've been through recruitment, and I was a lot older than you, and I still miss my life sometimes."

"That's it right there. That's why Operations didn't want to bring you in. You have something to want to go back to."

"If I go back, I die, Birkoff, and the people I contact would probably die, too. I'm not that much of an asshole."

"No, Rosenthal, you're not."

"Thanks for convincing them," I said after a moment. "I'd rather be alive than dead."

"Me, too, Rosenthal. Most of the time."

"I have a first name, you know. A middle name, too. You can start using either one at your convenience."

"Marin Shoshana. You're about as Jewish as the day is long."

"Yeah, well, I wouldn't talk, Seymour. If you hadn't been a hacker, you would have been an podiatrist."

"You know, you're a cold bitch, Rosenthal. Besides, I called my last partner by her first name. I figure this is a good way to get a fresh start."

"Gail," I said. "Heard she was your girlfriend."

"In a manner of speaking, I guess. Who was that Robert guy?"

"Robert Marcavelian. He ran Portland State's Unix systems."

"Did you love him?"

"I was going to marry him."

"But did you love him?"

"Buy a brain, Birkoff. Of course I did."

"People don't always marry for love."

"I do." I took another drink of tea and stretched my legs out on the couch. I'd put on comfort clothes: flannel pajamas, a Polartec sweatshirt, and wool socks. Despite Madeline's best efforts, I'd stayed a crunchy Oregonian at least in matters of dress. "So you knew about me before I came in. What did you know?"

"At first, not much. That you were in Oregon, and that you somehow romped your way into a Section computer. Later they told me you were female, a little older than me."

"So why did you act like you didn't know why I'd been brought in?"

"Didn't want you to get to cocky. It wouldn't have done you any good to know that you were specially requested." The same smile. "Oh, and I knew your hacker name: North Star. Not very aggressive-sounding."

"I wasn't a very aggressive hacker. There wasn't much I wanted to fuck up. Except the time I got into the accounting division at Microsoft."

"Nikita argued for you, too." Birkoff's voice had become slower and sleepier, and he stretched his legs out alongside mine. "She was mad about the system break, but mostly at me for not having better security in place. She told Operations he'd be a fool if he had you killed. She said I needed someone to back me up. She was even more adamant when she found out you were a woman."

"Feminism in Section?"

"I don't think that was exactly her motive." Birkoff's head had fallen to the side; he would be asleep soon.

I pulled my blanket closer around me. "Thanks for arguing for me."

His hand settled on my foot. "No problem."


When I woke the next morning, the sun was shining pale yellow around the room. Birkoff's arm was slung across my lower legs. Asleep, his face was years younger, more a boy than a man. He slept with sprawled limbs: one arm across me, the other across the back of the couch, his legs tumbling over mine. It was the same way Robert had slept, like an amoeba engulfing the bed.

I sat up, and Birkoff's eyes blinked open. "Is it morning yet?"

"Nine-thirty. Go back to sleep."

Birkoff rubbed his eyes. "Once I'm awake I stay that way. I don't think I've slept this late in years. Usually I'm busily hacking at this hour."

"Well, if Section wants either of us, presumably they know where to look."

"Hell, Madeline's probably watching right now."

"Yuck, Birkoff."

He swung his legs off the couch and got up. Still a little clumsy from sleep, Birkoff wandered into the kitchen. "There's juice in the refrigerator if you want some," I called.

"Your apartment's so cute, Rosenthal." I couldn't tell if he was saying it with distaste or admiration. "Have you seen Nikita's?"

"Yeah, Nikita and I have girls' night every Friday at her place."

"You do?" He wandered back into the living room and saw my smile. "No, you don't. Anyway, hers is all postmodern and black and white. Elegant, but you feel a little on edge inside."

"And when have you been in Nikita's apartment, Birkoff?"

"Not under the circumstances I'd like, I can tell you that. Just a couple of times, and only in emergencies." He leaned on the frame of the arch between kitchen and living room. "It really is cute in here. Near a school. Who are your neighbors?"

"No one I know very well. There are a couple of art students downstairs and a family across the hall with a new baby."

"I bet they think of you as that sweet girl with the pretty black hair. She's almost never home, though. She probably has a boyfriend somewhere. Wonder what she does for a living: maybe a teacher?"

"I actually have a teaching certificate, not that I can use it now."

"What are you certified in?"

"High school math. I was planning to quit my tech job and teach after Robert and I got married."

Birkoff laughed delightedly. "Rosenthal, the schoolmarm. Can I take you up on the juice offer?"

"Sure. Pour me some, too. Glasses are above the dishwasher."

Birkoff returned with two glasses of orange juice and made himself comfortable on the sofa again. "So did they just give you your apartment?"

"Basically. The day my recruitment ended, they gave me clean clothes and took me here. Everything I needed was all set up, even the silverware. It's nicer stuff than I've ever owned. Everything in my old apartment was either a hand-me-down from my parents or something I bought at a garage sale."

"That's what they did for Nikita, too."

"How come you still live in Section?"

"I came in before I hit puberty, remember. You can't exactly give a pre-adolescent boy his own apartment. It's not bad; it's just that there's no privacy. Whenever I walk into my room, I feel like I should wave hello to Madeline on the closed-circuit."

"I'm not sure it's any different here."

"But at least it feels like it has some kind of distance."

"That's true. When they let me leave, I can go home."

"Can I see the rest of it?"

"There's not much, but go ahead."

Birkoff stuck his head into my bedroom, but seemed nervous and didn't go in. He called from the bathroom, "You've got fish on your shower curtain!"

"I like fish!"

"So do I," he said, returning, "but not enough to look at them when I'm naked." Birkoff took another swallow of juice and studied me. "Polartec, flannel, and fish. You're a nice girl, Rosenthal. Probably the only nice girl in Section."

Nikita was friendly, but I knew what he meant. "I think I'm destined to be the nice girl everywhere I go. Even if I'm doing covert extralegal intelligence operations."

"Well, no one said that Section changes your personality. I'm sure Madeline was a scary bitch even before she was recruited." He glanced up at an imaginary--or maybe not imaginary--camera. "Hear that, Madeline?" Birkoff refocused his attention on me. "Nice apartment, nice girl. I could get used to this."


A few days later, I had a debriefing scheduled for 0930. For some reason, though, the door had remained shut even past 0945, with no explanation at all. I leaned against the wall and waited, wondering what was taking so long, hoping they weren't killing anyone while I was standing outside.

To my surprise, when the door slid open, Birkoff came out, Madeline behind him. "I must tell you that I think this is a terrible idea," she said, voice even as always but her forehead tight with just the tiniest skein of tension.

"I've been here seven years. I want to be on the outside."

"Marin, please excuse us for another moment," Madeline said, and the door slid shut again.

What the hell, I thought. He wants to be on the outside? Does that mean he's leaving Section? Impossible: you only leave this place in a body bag. But what in the world could be taking so long? And what could make Madeline run late?

Ten minutes later, the door opened again and Birkoff walked out without looking at me. "Marin," Madeline said as if nothing were unusual, motioning me inside where Operations was waiting.

Playing along, I sat down across from them and set my folder on Madeline's desk. "Here's the profile I have so far. Joanne Lucey began her career as an IRA sniper before being recruited by Red Cell...."


An hour later, when I returned to my workstation, Birkoff was plugged in, apparently oblivious to the world. I logged in and started the second part of my profile. After a moment, a small message box popped up on the lower corner of my screen: // Have something to tell you later. // // Care to enlighten me? // // Not now. Later. //

His face was expressionless. I could have shot him. But I forbore, and kept working. Two hours later, I was close to finishing, and another message flashed on my monitor: // Level three. Twenty minutes. // // What is this, James Bond? // // You'll see. //

"Bastard," I said under my breath, and kept working. Fifteen minutes later, I rose and went upstairs; Birkoff followed me. We found an unoccupied room and closed the door. "What's this all about?" I asked.

"What are you doing tomorrow night?"

"I hadn't thought that far in advance. What's going on?"

A grin broke onto his face. "I'm moving out of Section tomorrow. I had the argument with Madeline today."

"Jesus, Birkoff, was that what this morning was about? Madeline, who is never late, kept me waiting for half an hour to discuss an apartment for you?"

"She's weird like that. But yeah, that's what that was. I guess it could have sounded ominous, if you didn't know the context."

"Why all the secrecy?"

"I don't know. It just kind of seemed like a big deal. So do you want to come over tomorrow night and see it?" He paused. "Actually, I'm not even sure I could give you directions. It's on the subway, but I haven't quite figured out the train yet."

I smiled; I couldn't help it. "I know the subway pretty well. Why don't I just leave with you tomorrow?"

"Wow, that'll get the gossip flowing. Marin Rosenthal, Section slut."

"Pot kettle black, Seymour. Don't forget to find me before you leave tomorrow."


As it turned out, we wouldn't leave at all before tomorrow evening: a mission was called for the next morning, and Birkoff and I stayed up all night doing intel. At 0800, Birkoff went with the team again, although this time he stayed in the van to do on-site intel. I was still too new, apparently, to go out.

When the team got back in the building, I started closing up: shutting down, setting the macros to run for the rest of the night. If something went wrong, we'd know, but otherwise this could run on autopilot. I was logging out of the last station when I noticed a man--a boy, really--standing much too close. "Can I help you?"

"You must be Marin Rosenthal."

Well, I thought, I'm sure as hell not Madeline or Nikita. "That's right. Who are you?"

"Greg Hillinger." His hair had more wax on it than the bodies of most sports cars. "I've been doing some work for Admin, but I'm a techie at heart. I just wanted to compliment you on the mission today."

"Birkoff and I work well together," I answered, wondering who this trying-to-be-suave boy was and what he was doing in my personal space.

"I'd love to work with you sometime. I think our methods would mesh."

I saw Birkoff come in a few feet away. "Are you ready-- Oh, hi, Hillinger." If Birkoff had been a dog, his hackles would have been gone up. I could almost hear him growl.

"I was just complimenting your assistant on her tech, Seymour," Hillinger said.

"She's not my assistant. She's my partner."

I slipped my arm through Birkoff's and put on my best dumb-female smile. "It's been lovely talking to you, Greg, but we have dinner reservations in an hour."

To my utter astonishment, Birkoff played along. "Do you need to stop by your place first, Marin?"

I looked down at my outfit and made a face. "I really should get out of these disgusting clothes, sweetie. Do you mind?"

"Not at all. Hillinger, good to see you."

Outside, we broke into laughter. "Jesus, Rosenthal, where'd you learn to channel Sandra Dee?"

"I'm a female comp sci geek, Birkoff; you don't get anywhere if you don't learn the tricks of defusing the male ego. Do you have the apartment address?"

He fumbled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. "Yeah. You said you knew the trains?"

"My apartment's on the subway, too. You should know; you went there."

"I took a taxi," Birkoff admitted.

"You can break into any system on the planet, but you can't figure out the subway?"

"No wonder they were reluctant to let me out."

His tone was bitter enough that I took his arm again. "You'll figure it out, Birkoff; you just need some practice."

The apartment was on another line, and I made Birkoff navigate us through the station where we had to change trains. A few stops before ours, the train emerged onto street level, and Birkoff pressed his nose against the glass and watched the last of the sunset, as the sky turned the color of blush wine. We found the grocery store and stopped there (milk, juice, cereal, soup, a bottle of wine, and four boxes of Oreos), and then ran across a Vietnamese takeaway farther down the block. Birkoff looked askance at the menu, but I dragged him inside anyway, then had another argument with him when he discovered that a number of Vietnamese dishes contain peanuts, which (I never knew) he loved. I was allergic to them--not deathly, just enough that my sinuses would go into overtime production if one came near me)--and we were finally able to agree on two things with peanuts, and one without. I'd never known that Birkoff felt so strongly about them, and wondered what else I didn't know--what else, even, that he didn't know.

It was a short walk to the address he'd been given. It was near the university--a deliberate move on Section's part, I suspected, as a geeky boy living alone would be even more inconspicuous in this part of town--and we passed hurrying professors and laughing students. My own neighborhood was mostly families, and I often felt like I stood out as a single woman living alone. Here, though, we were just two more twentysomethings. For all that the passersby suspected, Birkoff was just another mathematics undergraduate and I just another master's candidate in (let's say) philosophy. We might have been dating; we might have been friends; we might have been study partners. Our history was whatever the onlookers made it out to be.

Birkoff's building was actually a converted warehouse, brick with enormous windows on each side. We directed ourselves to the second floor, as the instructions read. It took him a few minutes to find the key--it had disappeared into the depths of his pockets--and as he was trying to find it, two of his neighbors passed us. Two men, as it happened, holding hands, the taller of whom smooched the shorter before they turned the corner. Birkoff abandoned the key search and stared.

"What's the matter, boy, ain't you never seen homosexuals before?" I asked when they were out of earshot.

"No. I mean, yes. I mean, not in public!"

"You haven't seen much of anything, gay or straight or otherwise, in public since you were fourteen."

"Well, I know I never saw gay people before."

"You're looking right at me, Birkoff."

"What about Robert?"

"He was something of an exception to the rule."

"Did he know about this?"

"He knew about all my exes, genders notwithstanding."

"So you're telling me you used to do it with chicks, Rosenthal?"

"That's what I'm telling you, Birkoff."

"Section never told me that."

"Some things are on a need-to-know basis."

"Do you still have that bottle of wine?"


"Good. Because I'm going to need the whole thing." The key finally found, he shouldered open the door and we walked into the quiet apartment. "Wow," Birkoff breathed. It was a studio, an enormous one, one room of wood and light and windows that probably had the same amount of floor space as a two-bedroom, if not more. Copper pots hung in the kitchen to our left, while streamlined black furniture filled the living space to our right. The bed was a futon, set further to the back along with a host of electronic equipment.

"Swanky pad, Seymour," I said.

"God. I'll say. My computers are even here. Oh my God. I can leave Section and still hack. I can keep all the Oreos I want twenty feet from me. Oh my God. I am in heaven."

I rooted through his cupboards and located wine glasses. "Have some wine with me to celebrate."

"I'm old enough to drink wine?"

"You have been for quite some time."

He sniffed the côtes du Rhône suspiciously before taking a sip. "Hmm. This isn't bad."

"Stick with me, kid, I'll show you the good stuff."

We spread out the Thai food on black dishes, using the angular silverware that Section had provided. We lounged on the couch, which was soft black leather, and drank some more wine. Our feet tangled comfortably. After the long day and long night, and the glass of wine, I found myself sliding into the softness, closing my eyes.

"Why is it that I inspire you to sleep, Rosenthal?"

I blinked my eyes open and laughed. "Maybe if you'd stop nearly getting yourself killed around me, Birkoff, I'd have more normal reactions to you."

"And what might a normal reaction be?"

"Whatever one's normal reaction is upon seeing a cute shaven-headed geek boy. I don't know. It's just that lately all my non-work time, including that spent with you, seems to be when I'm exhausted."

He began poking my feet with his. "Wake up. If you fall asleep, I'll be bored."

"The wine didn't make you sleepy?"

"No, I'm even more awake now. Don't go to sleep, Rosenthal." His voice was plaintive.

"Too late."

Before I realized it, Birkoff had clambered across the couch and was sitting on my stomach. "Rosenthal, you're no fun. Come on, wake up."

I couldn't help it; I started to laugh. "Birkoff, you're a really funny drunk."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I've never known you to climb on people."

"I'm not climbing... well, I guess maybe I am."

"You win, anyway. I'm awake. Move a little bit so that I can sit up."

He did move, but not very much, and when I sat up I found myself face to face with him, his eyes huge and green. "Hello, Birkoff," I said quietly.

"Hi, Rosenthal."

He was close enough that I could reach up and run my hand over his short hair, feeling it bristle under my hand, which came to rest, almost of its own accord, on the back of his neck. I moved to cradle the side of his face in one hand, letting the tops of my fingers trail over the curve of his ear. Hesitantly, Birkoff wound a lock of my hair around his finger, and when I didn't stop him, he drew his hand through it, smoothing out the tangles, brushing it back from my face. I found myself kissing him. He tasted like red wine.

"I thought I was too young for you," Birkoff murmured after a moment.

"You are."

"Are you fucking with me?"

"How do you want me to interpret that, Birkoff?"

He didn't smile. "You know what I mean."

"I fuck with computers, not people. You're not getting anything that isn't offered at face value."

"You know what happened the last time a woman kissed me."

"Should we stop?"

Birkoff thought it over for a while, his hand still idly stroking my hair. I waited, and then suddenly I was on my back, looking up, Birkoff's leg in between my thighs. "No," he said. "I don't think we should."

His mouth was warm on my neck, biting gently, and I snaked one leg around his hip to pull him closer. I put my hands on the skin under his sweater, a thin cotton V-neck, and traced the knobs of his spine and the outlines of his ribs. There was more solidity than I'd expected, muscle cording around the bones. I pulled his sweater over his head and trailed my fingers up his chest. Hesitantly, Birkoff undid the first button of my shirt and cupped my breast in his hand. I unbuttoned the rest of the buttons and Birkoff ran his thumbs over my nipples. He pushed the shirt down over my shoulders and I reached back to unhook my bra. Birkoff bent to push that away, too, and his mouth found one of my breasts.

Birkoff's skin was silky against mine in a way I hadn't felt for a long time. Tongues found collarbones, navels, trails of soft hair that led to a southward promise. It was only when my jeans were undone, and I tried to shift to give Birkoff better access and nearly fell off the sofa, that I realized where we were. "Birkoff," I said around a gasp as his fingers brushed over my clit, "you have a bed now, remember?"

"Mmm," he said. His other hand started to push my jeans down, and there really wasn't room for this.

His fingers found a circular pattern, and I arched to meet them, moved one of my legs to the side--and almost fell off the couch again. Birkoff snickered, and I said, "I'm serious. You have that bed for a reason."

We made it over there slowly. Halfway across the floor it came to seem like a great waste to have this beautiful boy half-clothed and not being touched, and I kissed him again. The slide of hands up my sides, fingers playing back and forth again on my nipples, and they were wet with my juices. It was simplicity itself to snap open the buttons on Birkoff's cargo pants and reach for him. His murmured, "Oh yeah," was the most satisfying thing I'd heard in months. The hardwood would be hell on my knees, but I decided that I didn't care, that I wanted the musky taste of him hard and full in my mouth now and if I waited I would die--

"Hey Rosenthal," and his voice was guttural and amused. "Remember that bed?"

I had thought at first that I might be the one in charge. I was older, more experienced--but maybe it wasn't that clear-cut. Because when Birkoff pushed me onto the futon, I went, and he knelt between my legs and first my jeans were gone, and then he leaned forward, hands flat on the mattress, and circled his tongue down my ribcage and drew a line just parallel to where my panties still covered up the good parts. He dipped down a little further, let his fingers recover the territory they'd been exploring before, and meanwhile the warm wetness was just a couple of frustrating inches above. "Please, Birkoff," I said, but it came out little more than a whimper.

He tugged on the black cotton, and I shimmied and then I was naked. Tongue on my inner thighs, a little bit of teeth and then soothing lips, and when I tried to push his head closer to where I wanted it to be, he pinned each of my wrists under his hands and then his tongue was in exactly the right place. This was something he'd done maybe a few times before, but what he lacked in experience he made up for in enthusiasm and willingness to learn, and I came with my pinioned hands clenching at the black sheets.

Then it was my turn, and I undressed him and explored him in a way I hadn't done to anyone for years. I had known Robert like the back of my hand, but now I got to discover Birkoff. Naked, he was fuller than he looked in his clothes, more muscular than I'd have guessed, and I got to taste the hollows that delineated his hips. I remembered, too, that I'd wanted a taste of other parts, and I took Birkoff's cock into my mouth, licking the head and moving with him as his body arched. One of his hands found my shoulder; the other clenched itself into the sheet. He would have thrust against my mouth, but I held him down by the hips, and I could hear his moans become more strangled.

So I moved my mouth away, and he fell limply against the futon. "Jesus, Rosenthal, why did you stop?"

"Because I'm not doing all of this on my own." I straddled him and sank down, and his eyes flew open. He stared up at me, eyes luminous, and linked his fingers with mine. I set our pace and let Birkoff keep up, until he gripped my thighs hard enough to bruise and came with a cry, his head thrown back. I could feel myself tighten around him and then I came, too, leaving marks on his upper arms where my nails dug in.

I collapsed on his chest, listening to his heartbeat return to normal, feeling the sweat on my body cool. I pulled a blanket around us. I didn't mean to sleep, but Birkoff's hand was gentle in my hair, and I did.


For years, I had slept with a long, lanky heater of a man. I had been able to tuck myself around Robert, inserting myself between his narrow bony spaces. I had fallen asleep with him as my pillow, curled up around Robert while one of his hands lay on my back. I had held on to him like a tree clutching the ground during a storm, and Robert's light touch had kept me anchored during dreams.

Birkoff, though, clung as tightly as I did, and we lay in a tangle as complex as knotwork. Alone, I'd seen, he slept sprawled out, the king of his domain, but I suspected that lying in bed with someone else brought out the cravings for affection that he usually kept hidden behind tinted glasses and edgy clothes. His body stayed wrapped around mine, as though he needed my warmth as much as I needed his.

"You're awake," his quiet voice said.

"How did you know?"

"Your breathing changed."

I trailed a finger down the nape of his neck, where soft hair met soft skin, and in the intimacy of the dark Birkoff allowed the caress. He traced gentle patterns on my back, and I lay there and let myself be held for the first time since the last night--an ordinary Thursday, nothing special, I'd showered and set the alarm for 6:45 and climbed in next to him--I'd spent with Robert.

"What are you thinking?" Birkoff asked.

"I don't know."

"You're lying." Not an accusation, just a statement.

"Not as much as you think I am."

"Do you think Madeline's taping this?"

"If she is, I hope it was good for her, too."

The snort of a laugh. "Don't forget about Ops. Now they can augment their extensive Nikita-and-Michael collection."

"Is it really all that extensive?"

"It's not as extensive as either Nikita or Michael would like, that's for sure."

I shifted to make myself more comfortable, resting my head on the space between shoulder and chest, settling my leg over Birkoff's hip.

"Should I take that as an invitation?" he asked.

Birkoff's skin beneath my mouth was sweet. "If you want it to be one," I answered after I'd finished licking him.

His hands moved down to cup my ass and press me against a burgeoning erection. "What do you think?"


The second time was slower, less exploratory, and this time I let Birkoff pin me while he thrust, and when I came I bit his shoulder hard enough to bruise.

"You bit me," Birkoff said a few minutes later.

"It's a compliment."

After another pause, "What does this mean?"

"It means you're good, boy."

I wished I could see the blush I knew was spreading. "That's not what I meant," he mumbled.

"I know what you meant, Birkoff. And I don't know what it means. I think it means that we can let it happen, but we can't get too attached. One of us might be dead tomorrow, and if so, the other one is going to have to keep on working like it never happened."

"I don't want to become like Nikita and Michael. It's stupid to pretend that--that nothing exists. Because everyone knows what's between them, and they try to act like it's not."

"For what it's worth, I don't think Nikita does. I'm not saying shut it off and ignore it like Michael tries to; I'm just saying that we lead high-risk lives."

"I know what you mean."

I kissed the declivity underneath his ear. "Maybe in another life, I'll get lucky and be reincarnated as your high-school girlfriend."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you'll take me to the movies in your dad's car--"

"My parents didn't have cars."

"That's why I'm talking about another life here, Birkoff. As I was saying, we'll live out in the Midwest somewhere--"

"Like Manitoba?"

"Are you Canadian?"

A pause. "I might have been."

"I was thinking more Nebraska than Manitoba. But someplace with wide cornfields and bright stars. You'll take me out in your dad's old Caddy, and we'll drive down the farm roads on the outskirts of town, and you'll put your arm around me and tell me about the constellations. And you'll know about all of them, too."

"So will you."

"Yeah, but I'll let you tell me anyway. And then you'll stop talking and start kissing me, and we'll kiss in the back of the Cadillac, and I'll have to fix my hair and try to cover up my flushed face with powder before I go inside."

"You'd be wearing makeup?"

"Like I said, this is another life." I moved onto my back. Birkoff curled up against my side, nose against my shoulder, arm across my middle. Idly, he drew hieroglyphics on my skin while I talked. "So one night--it'll be right around graduation, warm outside, and we'll have had a little bit to drink at a party--we'll take each other's clothes off and have sex out there. It'll hurt the first time, and it'll be a little cramped, but then we'll get out of the car and go make love in the field between rows of corn, on soft earth.

"We'll go away to college that fall, me to Berkeley and you to MIT. We'll break up, because that's what happens."

"It does?"

"It's pretty rare for things like that to last. Yeah, we'll break up. You'll stay at MIT, doing research on cryptography after you get your doctorate. And I'll become a physics professor, and I'll stay on the west coast. But one semester, I'll stop in the hall to get a drink of water, and I'll hear an astronomy class going on next door. And I'll sit in on that class every day that it meets, and I'll stare at the star charts and think of you."

Birkoff's hand stopped moving for a while and he was quiet. "Maybe that's not such a bad life, Rosenthal," he said after a moment.

"That's going to be us in one life. Another life might be something different. I don't know. But it can't be this one. We can't afford it now."

We fell back asleep after a few silent minutes. When I woke up, it was daylight, and my cell phone was ringing for a mission.


"Marin?" Nikita's voice made me think of a fairy tale I'd once read, about a girl from whose lips jewels fell whenever she spoke. Her voice was rich, the accent adding color like light through a gem. "Could I speak with you for a moment?"

I set the program on autorun and got up. "Sure."

Nikita was dressed in a slim gray suit, her hair pulled up elegantly behind her head. Her shoes made sharp clicking noises as she walked. I had on overalls, hiking boots, and one of Birkoff's V-necks.

By comparison, I felt like the sister who cast forth toads whenever she opened her mouth.

Nikita's smile was slight, and seemed to hold no malice. She reached out and fingered the collar of my shirt. "That's Birkoff's, if I'm not mistaken."


"He's young, you know."

"He's twenty-one. I'm only three years older than he is."

"You're both young, then." She paused. "Do you love him?"


"Does he know that?"

"It's not the kind of thing we say to each other."

"He's in love with you, Marin."

"He hasn't told me so."

"He doesn't need to. It's clear without being spoken." Nikita paused. "He was in love with me once, you know."

"I know."

"Although I'm not sure that's really accurate," Nikita continued. "He was in love with what he thought I was. He thought I was--I don't know if I have the word for this, at least not in English. Intangible."

"Out of his reach," I said.

"Out of his reach," Nikita agreed. She looked at me directly, through crystal eyes. "He loves you for the person that you are, tangible and human. Just remember that you've had a life full of experiences that Birkoff will never have. He doesn't know a lot of the things that you do. A lot of the things you don't even know you know." A second's pause. "I love Birkoff, too, and I don't want to see him hurt."

"I would never hurt him."

The brief smile again, and a shake of the head. "Never say 'never' in Section."


It was slightly more than three weeks later when Birkoff went missing.

"Missing" was what everyone called it, though that wasn't accurate: We didn't know where he was, true, but we knew exactly who he was with. We just didn't know where they'd taken him.

They'd wanted Michael. It was Michael, the leader, the kingpin and the lynchpin, Operations's protégé and Madeline's right hand, not Birkoff, the geek sent along for tech support. What did he know? How to program the computers, sure. How to hack the mainframe for any security agency or terrorist organization or any combination thereof in the world, sure. Section One's rubrics and strategies? Very little. We knew what we needed to know. Nothing more. If we were tortured, they would get nothing, because we knew nothing.

If we were tortured.

You bastards, if you hurt one quarter-inch hair on his head or bruise one centimeter of that perfect skin, I will take your skins off with a paring knife. I will take your eyes out with a meat cleaver. I'll castrate you with a corkscrew. Bring him back, you bastards. Bring him back.

The mission had been routine. So, so routine. Go in, steal a couple of hard drives, get out. Drunk security guard, with some Xanax in his Jack Daniels to help him along. Empty building. Warehouse district. Late at night. What could be easier? Go in, get out.

They went in, and Birkoff got out, but not the way he was supposed to.

He went in with Michael, because Michael knew next to nothing about computers. Bombs, yes. Linux servers, no. We'd scanned that building top to bottom, and the only life signs that came up were from the sluggish pulse of the drunk security guard, but we hadn't known about the subbasement. It was shielded. And it was shielded better than we could scan.

We hadn't known that you could shield a building better than we could scan one.

They started off with a rocket launcher, and when they'd reduced the guard team to smoking bits, they went upstairs. They went up one floor above the server room and came down through the ceiling, thinking they'd find Michael dismantling the machines with his clever fingers. Only Michael was standing guard by the door, and Birkoff was dismantling the machines with his clever fingers, and Birkoff threw the drives at Michael and screamed at him to run.

It was between the data--access codes and identification information for Red Cell operatives in the Middle East and eastern Africa--and Birkoff. Section had another hacker as good as the first one. They didn't have duplicates of the data.

Michael ran. Birkoff disappeared.


We heard nothing. They didn't ask for ransom; they didn't ask for the drives back. There was no point: Section wouldn't have paid, and the data was compromised now anyway. What Michael could tell them was more important.

Except that they didn't have Michael.


Still missing. Still missing, God, and he's been gone for almost three weeks now and I just want to know if he's alive or not alive and not in pain, that's all I want. They say they don't know where he is, and maybe I believe them, but Madeline always knows more than she's telling, and I want to wring her elegant--no, scrawny--neck until she talks.

Give me back to me, you motherfuckers. Give him back.

I've done the work for both of us, and I foisted Hillinger off on Walter, who was kind enough to take him. My work hasn't slipped. If anything, it's better, because it's all I do when I'm there. I don't laugh, I don't talk, I don't throw Oreos at Birkoff. I just hack, and I watch, and our intel is better than it's ever been.

Maybe Section planned it that way.

It couldn't have been Section. They're not that stupid.

I can't keep going. I get home and I bawl. Or drink. Three glasses of wine is the only way I can sleep, and even that's getting less effective by the day. Maybe I should try something stronger. Vodka. Valium. Morphine. Cyanide.

One of these days, I'm going to crack. I'll let through some fifteen-year-old wanker from the Republic of Uzbekistan. Then they'll take me into an interrogation room, strap me into a metal chair, and shoot me. Fucking good for them. Being shot has to be better than this.

If I can make it through tonight, maybe he'll be back tomorrow. I'll walk in the briefing room and he'll be there. Maybe he'll have a black eye or two, maybe a cut on his lip. Please God. Let that be all. I'll never ask for anything again. Just bring him back.


That was one night, that was two, that was twenty. It had been days or weeks--I didn't really know--when Walter paged me one afternoon. "Need your assistance, darlin'."

But instead of handing me a weapon or a piece of code to look at, he closed the door and lowered his voice. "What I'm about to tell you, I didn't tell you, right?"


"They've got Birkoff down on Level A. Found him half-dead in an abandoned mine. No one's allowed to see him, so don't ask."

He's back. Oh my God, he's back. He's back and he's alive and maybe my grandmother was right about this God business after all.

"Walter, are you sure? Are you sure it's him? There are always crazy rumors in this place. It might--"

Walter set a hand on my shoulder, light but firm. "Sweetheart, I'm as sure as I'll ever be. Saw the team come in, heard Michael talking to Ops. They got a tip, and they went out after him. I didn't want to tell you until I was sure--until I was sure that he was OK."

That he was alive.

"Is he OK?" He's alive. That's all that matters. That has to be all that matters.

"He'll live."

I threw my arms around Walter. I felt him hesitate--I wasn't sure I'd ever touched him before--and then he hugged me back. The words burst out of me in a helpless rush. "Oh my God. I'm so glad he's OK. I was so worried. Thank you so much. I thought... I don't know what I thought. I was so scared."

"When you're scared for someone you love, it's like dyin' inside."

"I didn't say I loved him."

"You didn't need to, darlin'." He let me go and smoothed my hair back from my face. It was gentle, almost paternal, the same thing my own father had done when I'd come home crying from a skinned knee or a fall off my bike. Put a Band-Aid on it, smooth down the ubiquitous tangles in my hair, and fix me a glass of juice. It was that, it was Birkoff, it was everything from the past weeks; I almost burst into tears.

"Darlin', darlin,'" Walter said. "He'll be OK, and you've got to be OK, too, until then. So dry those tears, you hear?" He took a clean bandanna from his jacket pocket, and I pressed my face into it until my eyes were clear. "Right as rain, darlin'. Now get back to work."


Four days, Birkoff had been in the recovery rooms. It felt like four years. I tried without much success not to pace outside the unit and wait for him to get better. On the fourth day, Nikita said gently, "Why don't you go in?"

"I can't. The doctors--"

"Aren't there. Go on."

The hallway of the medical unit was sterile white walls and steel equipment. The rooms were no different. The bed was near the far wall, windowless as were the other three, and Birkoff was asleep, curled up on his side, his back to me.

I went back out. Nikita looked surprised. "Was someone in there?"

"He's asleep."

With a roll of her eyes and a click of her heels, Nikita strode into the recovery room. I could do nothing but follow. Gently, she curled her hand around Birkoff's skull and spoke quietly. "I'm glad to see you back, Birkoff."

Slowly--painfully, it was clear--he turned to look at her. "Nikita."

She kissed his forehead. "There's someone here to see you." And then she was gone, as quickly as she'd come.


"Hi. It's me." I sat down on the edge of his bed and took his hand. "I've been really worried about you."

There were dark circles under Birkoff's eyes and just the hint of a bruise on his lower lip. "I wanted to see you, but they said I wasn't well enough."

I leaned down and put my arms around him as best I could, one around his neck, the other on his shoulder. He moved over and pulled me down next to him, and we lay there for several minutes while I re-remembered the smell and feel of him.

"You didn't miss much around here," I said after a while, as though he'd only been away on business in Reno for a few days. "Hillinger got some Internet girlfriend. She thinks he goes to college in Toronto."

"Has she seen him?"

"No way. Michael's about to kick his ass as it is. Hillinger's just lucky he hasn't told Operations about it." We lay still for a few more minutes in the white-tiled silence. "They never told me where you were. When you came back, I mean. They never told me where you'd been."

"I'm not sure. Some safe house somewhere--well, and then the mine. I don't even know where the house was. They thought I knew a lot more than I really did. They wanted the strategic stuff, and I don't know any of that."

"My neighbors kept asking me where my boyfriend was."

Birkoff cracked a smile. "What did you tell them?"

"That you were out of town."

With no small amount of effort, Birkoff reached up to stroke my hair. "Which I was, in a manner of speaking."

"So when do I, uh, get to welcome you back?"

A faint laugh. "Anytime you want, Rosenthal."


Three days later, a week after he'd been brought out of the mine, Birkoff went home. Operations had agreed to let him come into Section three days a week, on the understanding that he would do intel from home the rest of the time. Since Birkoff did that anyway, it wasn't a hard bargain on either side.

Madeline had, not very subtly, told me to leave Birkoff alone for a few days. And I did. I worked eleven hours a day, puttered around in my small garden, and read the entire Herald-Tribune every morning. Finally, after another five days had passed, I decided that enough time had elapsed and that Madeline could go fuck herself, and I took the train to Birkoff's apartment.

He answered the door looking much stronger than he had since he'd come back. I pushed him against the doorframe and we kissed in plain sight of anyone who might happen to walk by. Birkoff was as hungry as I was, hands on my ass, erect as soon as I touched him. I closed the door and we managed to maneuver to the bed without falling.

Birkoff had lost weight in captivity and recovery, and I could trace his ribs after I stripped his shirt from him. He took off my clothes as though unwrapping something breakable, his lips following his hands on my body. The bed was soft and I felt myself shudder as Birkoff explored me as intently as the first time.

Afterwards, we lay in a tangle of arms and legs, my head on his chest as I listened to his heart rate slow. "I missed you," I said. There was more that I wanted to say, but I stopped there.

"I missed you, too." For once, there was nothing mocking in his voice.


It was, I had been told, rare and exciting to get a new person in Section. Everyone had heard about me several weeks before I was actually brought to headquarters, and there had been, Walter and Birkoff had both told me, no end to the speculation: A techie. A math geek. A girl. (A girl!)

This one was a girl, too: good at film, surveillance, visual recon. American. (Blond, someone reported, and stacked; the guys rejoiced.) Not sure how she'd gotten here. Not sure she would survive recruitment: too much attitude, too many ties to the outside. But hot, we heard, from multiple sources.

But she survived, and she came to us one morning dressed in a pastel halter top and the kind of shorts we used to call Daisy Dukes in my high school. She'd just been through weeks of hell--we all knew it--but she stood there and looked around the room with one hip cocked, flipping her golden hair to one side, taking it in like a prom queen who'd transferred from one high school to another.

I had no idea what possible use she could be.

The outfit, we discovered over the next several days, was typical--conservative, even--and it set off an epic air-conditioning battle between Operations and Madeline. Some days it would be almost unbearably warm, and the girl would wear her skimpiest and no one, not Birkoff or Hillinger or Walter or even Michael, would get any work done. Then the next day it would be chilly enough to turn your skin blue, the girl would cover up in sweats, and suddenly the guys would be productive again. I got into the habit of keeping a variety of tank tops and flannel shirts at Section to allow for the wildly varying temperatures.

Her name was Sunday, and, we also discovered, she was not (despite her hair and the late-season strawberry that was her mouth) as stupid as she looked. She'd been a documentary filmmaker, and a good one, in her living life. I looked up her work: after a few years in indie films (a few of which, I realized, I had seen in my own living life), she'd gotten famous by infiltrating various splinter groups. Her tactic was to hide cameras on herself, much as Abby had with her infamous glasses. Sunday had used, among other things, a Rolex watch, a cast on a broken arm, and a set of pasties to get footage. Her shots were random, so her films were choppy, but they were slick, with colors that bled into one another, sometimes accompanied by a female voice singing wordlessly. Sometimes Sunday narrated the films, and sometimes she let the images speak for themselves.

She'd come to us through the U.S. government. Her latest project had taken her into more radical factions of, respectively, Zionists and the PLO, and she'd gotten footage that could potentially have turned the sporadic violence into World War III, as well as exposed some nasty little nuggets about U.S. foreign aid. Normally something like this could be passed off as the fakework of a nutjob, but Sunday had her reputation behind her, and was under contract, it turned out, to the BBC. It was arranged that a suicide bomber would appear to run into a café where she was having lunch, and thus Sunday McDaniel became a member of Section One.

Hillinger tried, ill-advisedly, to call her Sunny, and this was when I started to like her: she continued her conversation with me (we were discussing programming schematics for a wireless camera) and pointedly ignored him until he called her by her real name, at which point Sunday turned around and informed him that she was in the middle of discussing a mission, and he would have to wait until she wasn't busy. I held back my smile, but Birkoff snickered outright.

I got to like her. I was visual enough that I understood what she did, with some explanation, of course, and she was enough of a techie that I could make my work comprehensible to her. Birkoff just thought she was hot, and blushed whenever she came within ten feet of him. She flirted with him without mercy but also without intent, and his reactions were hilarious enough that I didn't mind. She was all business with Michael, respectful and distant with Nikita. Sunday knew how to handle people. I admired that.

One night, missionless and Birkoffless, I was drinking peppermint tea and watching The Empire Strikes Back when someone started knocking on my door. It was probably Dave or Jacob (or both) from around the corner, needing a cup of sugar or a teaspoon of cumin. Or else it was Birkoff, bored with hacking. I answered the door with the mug in my hand.

It was Sunday. "I was in the neighborhood," she announced, hand cocked on her hip. "Got any more tea?"

"Uh," I said, "yeah." I happened to know that she lived on the opposite side of the city. I moved aside to let her in, and she followed me into the kitchen.

I put down my mug and she threw herself against me, her hands very suddenly in my hair and her mouth so close to mine that we might have been kissing. "Your kitchen's bugged, but not very well," she whispered. "Now act like you're necking with me."


She ignored me. "Their visual recon missed the space between the refrigerator and the wall, and their sound wiring sucks. I'm going to push you against that wall so that we're off-camera. Keep your voice down. Got it?"

I had suspected that my apartment was wired, but I hadn't known specifics. This definitely ruled out any further kitchen-table sex. "Got it," I said, and Sunday pushed me back across the kitchen, hands sliding into my back pockets, her breath warm on my face and neck. "Didn't mean to molest you," she said once my back was against the sheetrock, and we were niched between the hum of the fridge and the wall that divided kitchen and living room. "But it would have been sort of obvious if we'd just moseyed on over here in casual conversation. Besides, it'll give Ops something to jerk off to."

This was not something I cared to picture.

"Here's what I want to tell you," Sunday said, her voice low and rushed. "Day after tomorrow, you need to keep yourself out of Section. Birkoff too, if you care what happens to him. Just stay away. Stay home."

"There's going to be a mission that night."

"Don't go on the fucking mission. Either of you, if your lives are worth anything to you. Now moan. Loudly enough that the shitty wiring will pick it up."

I let out the most pornographic preorgasmic sound I could muster, then whispered, "Sunday, you know as well as I do that I can't just call up Madeline and tell her I don't feel like going."

"Mmm, yeah, baby, right there, God," Sunday gasped, and palmed something into my left hip pocket. She said into my ear, "Get half of that into Birkoff's food tomorrow night and put the other half in yours. It doesn't taste or smell like anything, so he won't suspect. It'll make you both sick as dogs for the next forty-eight hours. Won't kill you, but you'll wish you were dead for two days. It's a natural toxin that occurs when food spoils, so if they do any kind of chem screen, it'll just look like you ate some bad food. You and Birkoff eat together enough that it's reasonable."

"How do I know you're not lying to me?"

"You'll know when the mission happens. Trust me, you'll know. And, by the way, if you've got any money parceled away where Section can't see it, now's a good time to remember where it is. Birkoff too." She let out another gasp. "Harder, Marin, baby, God that feels good."

I let out a matching gasp. "What are you telling me?" I whispered.

"You're a big girl, Rosenthal. I know what you can do with numbers. Just add them together."

"Out of all the people in Section, why are you telling me this?"

"Because there aren't that many good people on this earth, but you're one. And because you have the most to live for on the outside."

"What about Nikita? Walter?"

There was suddenly something very sharp nestling at the base of my skull. "If you say one fucking word to anyone, and that includes your green-eyed boy, I will put this through your brain, Marin Rosenthal. Do you understand?"

I had no doubt. "I understand."

The sharpness disappeared and Sunday's porn star voice returned. "You want it like that, baby?"

It was a little random to go from having my life threatened to having Penthouse-style lesbian sex, but I did my best. "Oh, Sunday, like that, God, please!"

"I'm gonna try to get Walter out, because he doesn't deserve what's going to happen, but I can't promise." I heard an accent for the first time, a broad O and a nasal A. Boston, maybe; it was a little too hard to be New York. She must have worked to lose it over the years. "Nikita, Michael, I don't think so. They're too invested in Section. Not everyone gets a happy ending, Marin."

I remembered how Walter had found me when Birkoff came back, how surprisingly crisp he'd smelled when I hugged him, how awkwardly and gently he'd hugged me back.

"It's your choice," Sunday said. "But don't be there. I'm telling you. Stay away."

She pushed herself away from the wall, and I could tell when she knew she was on camera again, because she slung her hips diagonally and smoldered at me. "I gotta go, baby," she said, her voice sultry but loud enough for a bug, even a crappy one, to pick up. Her accent had disappeared. "But you're gonna come over sometime and let me finish what I started, right?"

I was no actress. But I could do this, I told myself. I could do this. "Don't leave me like this," I said. "Why not tonight?"

She shook her head and ran a hand through her cropped hair. "You're not ready for it now." She smirked. "And anyway I want you to beg me."

"I'll beg you now," I said. "I'll get down on my knees right here and do anything you want." Dear God, I thought, was Birkoff going to be watching this?

"No you won't. Not like you will tomorrow."

"I can't wait that long," I said.

Sunday licked her lips. "A little overeager, are we? Then maybe we'll have to wait another day. Day after tomorrow."

"I have plans with Birkoff," I said, which was true, in a manner of speaking.

Sunday stretched, and her top slid up to expose a swath of ivory-pink stomach. "So bring him along. I bet he's delicious. Now, aren't you going to walk me to the door?"

I did. Her hand was on my hip the entire way. We got to the door and she opened it, but not before sinking into me and pressing her mouth against mine. I hadn't kissed a woman for years, not since before Robert, so long ago, and the feel of her was at once foreign and familiar. Then she pulled away, lithe and deceptive, across the threshold, and smiled. "Day after tomorrow, Marin baby. And bring that pretty green-eyed boy of yours."


I walked into Section the next morning and knew immediately that Birkoff had seen the tape. I wondered how long he'd known the bug was there: if he'd known all along, or if Madeleine and Operations had played him, and he'd just found out today. Maybe it didn't matter. I'd never seen him that angry. I knew almost immediately: I smiled at him when I sat down, and his expression didn't change. We didn't touch at Section, even though everyone knew we were together: it felt not only unprofessional but also vulnerable, showing emotion in that place. So we had a code, and there was a private smile, one reserved just for me, that I saw on the mornings after we'd spent nights apart. I didn't see it this morning, and I was pretty sure I knew why.

I tried to put it out of my head that morning, and I followed Birkoff to the kitchen when he went to get something to eat. "Alright, so why am I getting the silent treatment?" I said. I'd start off like nothing was wrong, I decided, and I'd let Birkoff take it from there.

He took a loaf of bread out of the common refrigerator and removed two slices. "You're on video with your tongue down a woman's throat, making noises like the soundtrack to a fucking porno, and you're asking me why I might be pissed?"

"That wasn't what it looked like."

"Then what the fuck was it?" Birkoff slammed a jar of mayonnaise down onto the counter. "First of all, you had to know your apartment was bugged! Did you think I wouldn't find out? Operations was the one who showed it to me! Fucking Operations! He said there was something I had to see. Did you even consider the fact that he'd show it to me, and that he'd probably jerk off to it first?"

I decided that this would not be the best time to remind Birkoff that my kitchen table had been one of his favorite sites of sexual encounters. I also wondered what the communal obsession was with Operations's masturbatory habits. At least, though, this meant that the Powers That Were didn't have any idea what was really on that tape; rather than an informant and a breach of confidential information, they thought it was just two chicks getting it on.

"Birkoff, I'm sorry. All I can say is that it wasn't what you think."

"Fuck you, Rosenthal! I may be younger than you and inexperienced with the world and shit, but I'm not stupid! Don't fucking cheat on me and then try to tell me it wasn't what it looked like! I know exactly what it was, and I can't believe you think I'm dumb enough to believe this shit!" He threw the bread knife into the sink, where it spun around with a metallic clatter; then he stormed out of the room.

I put the bread and mayonnaise back in the fridge, my hands shaking. I was pretty sure he'd be back to eat something, but this room was bugged to the hilt, and I couldn't risk putting the toxin in anything. I had a key to his apartment, and I could have snuck in there and laced his orange juice, but if my apartment was wired, no doubt his was, too.

Fuck. I could just drink my share of the toxin--that was no issue. If the situation had been different, I would have--despite Sunday's threats--told Birkoff what Sunday had told me, but he was too angry to believe anything I said. And even if I risked it, I wasn't sure it was safe to say anything--he still loved Nikita, despite what he claimed--until after whatever was going to happen happened.

What if Sunday's lying? I thought. What if I kill us both?

What if she's not, I thought, and we go down with the rest of Section?

What if it had never happened, and we went on living this way forever?

We couldn't live this way forever. Someone would kill us, or we'd kill ourselves because death would be better than a lifetime of this.

It was better to be dead than to live this way forever.

I had to take the chance. I prayed I wouldn't kill us both, but I had to take the chance.

I was going to have to get half of the toxin into Birkoff's food as soon as I could, and then drink the rest tonight. Birkoff would leave work ill, and I could call in sounding like death, and they'd have the cameras to back up the fact that I was actually sick. I hoped that it would be really gross, and that Operations would have to watch it. But first I had to figure out how to get food to Birkoff.

I opened the fridge to inspect its contents, and took out an apple to make it look innocent. The bread; mayo; some lettuce; a grizzled tomato; sandwich meat. Also milk and orange juice. The milk was communal; Birkoff usually brought the OJ but Walter often drank from it. Some yogurt of Nikita's and leftover Chinese something-or-other that was probably Michael's. I finished the apple and threw away the core, then checked the freezer. Butter pecan ice cream.

My father had always eaten butter pecan, an old-fashioned flavor that no one much buys anymore, but I liked it, and I always got it. Birkoff claimed to hate it and to not understand why I couldn't buy a regular flavor like chocolate-chip or strawberry, but he always ate it if he ran out of Oreos. No one else touched it, though; it was weird enough to be understood to be mine. I checked the cupboard. God was kind to me: there were only ten Oreos left in the package. I ate them. Then I ate what was left of the butter pecan, and I felt somewhat ill, but I went back into the surveillance room and sat down at my main terminal. I had to get work done now, as though nothing was wrong. There was a code in North Korea that needed breaking.


I worked for five hours, ignored entirely by Birkoff, then got up and found Walter. "I feel sorta like ass," I said. "I'm gonna duck out to the grocery store for some OJ; want anything?"

Section looked like any other office building, glass-windowed and sleek, in the central business district. I looked like someone who might have worked in one of the design studios or architecture firms, or perhaps a bohemian girlfriend of someone in one of the law or consulting firms. It was past the business lunch hour but before everyone left for the day, so the stores were open but empty. I went into a large one and got a basket. I bought a bottle of tangerine juice and some sort of uber-Vitamin C drink, a banana and a navel orange, a couple of instant noodle soup bowls, and a carton of butter pecan ice cream. It was hard to find, especially here, but this store always had it. I picked up a packet of herbal lozenges, since they only kept the Red Dye #3 Hall's kind in the infirmary at Section. Last, I got a packet of roasted, salted peanuts.

The aisles in the store were open and exposed and I prayed to my grandmother's god that no one would catch me doing what I was about to do. If that god existed and had gotten her out of Treblinka, then surely it could watch me for just a few seconds, just long enough to save the life--though I didn't know what from--of someone I loved. In the abandoned family-planning aisle, I knelt down, opened the carton of ice cream, poured half of Sunday's poison all over the surface, and put the lid back on. Then I poured the other half into the tangerine Odwalla. I put the cap back on as quickly as I could, got up, and paid for everything.

I stopped for a moment just past the cashier, next to the carts, leaning against the wall of the store, and opened the package of peanuts. I ate them as quickly as I could, and couldn't help but feel a little sad that I wasn't able to properly enjoy them. I had always liked peanuts, especially this kind, but never ate them because of the copious quantities of mucous they inspired my body to produce. But I didn't have time to waste savoring them; I needed to get back to Section as quickly as possible.

I was already sniffling when I walked back in, and by the time I stuck the ice cream in the freezer and sat back down at my station, I felt like my head was about to explode. It was, then, completely normal that I would go to the infirmary for decongestants and tissue, and that, red-eyed, I would blow my nose every few seconds.

I peeled the orange and continued my work on the Korean code.

Two hours later, Birkoff still hadn't gotten up to do his usual late afternoon kitchen raid. I tried not to keep staring at him, but dammit, I just wanted him to eat some of the ice cream, start yakking, and go home safely. I kept up my work, though, blew my nose a few more times, and ate the banana. Took another lozenge. Yawned.

Michael came through a while later, and I saw him eye my workspace. "Are you getting sick?" he asked.

"I don't know. I hope not." I gestured to the home-remedy detritus around me. "Trying to stave it off."

"It would be a shame," he said, "if you were to get sick. Especially with the mission tomorrow." His voice was strangely flat, and my heart hit my throat. It had nothing to do with being sick, and everything to do with being scared. God, I thought, what if he knows?

"I know," I said. "I'm sure I'll be fine."


An hour later, Birkoff stretched, grunted, and headed into the kitchen. I felt my breath catch, but I willed myself not to watch him. I couldn't go in after him: we might have started fighting again, or he might get uncomfortable and leave without eating anything. I breathed in deeply and told myself that the ice cream was the first thing he'd go for. He'd already had a sandwich, so he wouldn't want real food, and there weren't any Oreos, so he didn't have much of a choice for his sugar fix. And leaving the building without a mission or without me made him nervous enough that I knew he wouldn't go to the store to buy more of them. I took another breath and tried to focus on the screen.

He came back in a few minutes, carrying a large bowl of something. It could be cereal, I reminded myself. Could be cereal. I picked up my cup and headed in the direction of the kitchen, casting a surreptitious glance at Birkoff on my way. There were four enormous scoops of ice cream in his bowl. My knees almost buckled with relief. I got into the kitchen, took the orange juice out of the refrigerator, and almost cried. I couldn't open up the ice cream carton without eating some--it would look odd, and nothing about this could look the slightest bit odd--but I told myself that I had coated the top so thoroughly with the toxin that he could not help but ingest more than enough to make him sick. I wasn't sure I believed in God anymore--I wasn't sure I ever had, and I was even less sure now--but I found myself chanting silently again: please God, please God, let him eat it, let him get sick, let him not die because Sunday gave me rat poison. My grandmother would have known the Hebrew for it. I wished I did. I wasn't sure it would be more effective, but it seemed sensible that the more languages I could ask in, the likelier some god would hear me.

Half an hour passed. Birkoff's tap-tapping on his keyboard continued uninterrupted. Forty-five minutes, same. Deadly poison would have taken effect by now, I told myself, though in the back of my mind, I knew that I knew nothing about poisons.

At fifty-three minutes, I heard a crash of metal hitting the floor and looked over to see Birkoff headed in the direction of the men's bathroom at a dead run. I wanted to close my eyes and pray, but instead I widened them and stared. But I still prayed. Sick, not dead. Sick, not dead. Please, God.


After ten minutes, Birkoff still hadn't come out. It would be normal for me to be worried about it, but it would not be normal for me to pace and jitter in my seat. Sick, not dead. Sick, not dead. Please, God.

After fifteen minutes, they sent Michael in after him. I waited for a shout, for the alarm that would call the medics, but there was nothing. Michael came out a few minutes later...without Birkoff. Was he lying dead on the floor? Was he too weak to walk? Had they not called the medics immediately because it wasn't that serious? Or had they not called them because he was dead, and there was no point in rushing?

Michael went up to the balcony, where Operations was standing in his usual overseer position, lacking only a whip. They conferred, Operations nodded, and Michael strode back downstairs and into the bathroom. He came out a few moments later, his arm tight around Birkoff's shoulders. Birkoff looked weak, and very, very green, but also very much alive.

They headed toward the infirmary.

Fuck, I thought. Fuck fuck fuck. I should have thought of this. Of course they'd take him to the infirmary, not just drop him at home. We don't live normal lives here. But how could I have given it to him so that he'd get sick at his apartment rather than at Section? He wasn't speaking to me, and the delay between ingestion and illness was short enough that I couldn't have relied on trying to get it to him at the end of the day, which there wasn't even a way to do, since he had stopped talking to me and I couldn't exactly force-feed him.

I allowed myself to look worried--I was, and everyone would have expected me to be, though for reasons markedly different from my actual ones. I tried to get back to the North Korean code and was completely useless.


Several hours later, I saw Michael go back upstairs and have a brief discussion with Operations, then come back down--and, to my surprise, walk over to my station.

"How late are you planning on staying?" he asked.

"Um, I don't really know. Probably eight or nine, since Birkoff's out of commission?"

"We're sending him home in a car--"

"You are?" I interrupted before I could stop myself.

"He's insistent, and the medics were able to give him something for the vomiting, so Operations--reluctantly--OK'd it. But I wanted to see if you would be able to stop by his apartment later to check on him."

"I don't..." I tried to sound tentative. It wasn't that hard, given what I was saying. "We had a fight. A pretty bad one. I don't know if he'll let me in."

"It will be a condition of his being allowed to go home. I assume you have a key?"

I looked down at the floor--the spurned, guilty girlfriend. "Yes," I said. "I do."

"Good. Stop by there on your way home tonight. Go by the infirmary, and the staff will give you more medication to take to him." Michael's eyes were level on mine, and my stomach twisted again. Had he found out what was going on? Or had Sunday told him? It hadn't sounded as though she would, but if she wanted to get Nikita out, it was probably less risky to tell Michael, who would keep the secret if that's what it took, versus telling Nikita, who would most certainly tell Michael and possibly Walter too. I saw him look again at all the accoutrements of a cold--lozenges, tissues, the bottle of tangerine juice--that I'd accumulated on my desk. "I just hope you don't get sick."


On the subway, it was about half an hour between Section and Birkoff's apartment. It had taken Birkoff fifty-three minutes to get sick from Sunday's poison. I wasn't sure if it would be the same for me: our constitutions were, of course, different, and it was also likely that I'd wind up ingesting more of it through the bottle of juice than Birkoff had through the ice cream.

I did my usual cleanup, the same things I did every day before leaving: setting certain systems on autorun, shutting down others, putting security protocols in place. I threw away the pile of used tissues and tied up my desk. I threw away the empty bottle from the Vitamin C drink, opened up the tangerine (which was warm, because I hadn't wanted to risk putting it in the refrigerator and having someone else drink it), and took a couple of sips, then put it in the deep hip pocket of my overalls.

As soon as the doors of the subway car closed behind me, I drank the rest without pausing for air.


Half an hour later, walking up the stairs to Birkoff's apartment, I didn't feel any different. I told myself not to worry, that Birkoff had looked completely normal up until his Olympic run for the men's room. Watch this be the one poison I have some kind of magical resistance to, I thought.

I knocked on Birkoff's door. "It's Rosenthal," I said, and waited to see whether he'd let me in.

There was no answer. I took out my key and opened the door myself. The apartment was dark.


"I'm not dead," came a croak from the other end of the room. "Now get the fuck out."

In the darkness, I was able to find a floor lamp. I turned it on, and it cast muted shadows around the apartment. Birkoff was collapsed in bed, a bowl on the floor next to him and a glass of water on the nightstand.

"How are you feeling?" I asked.

"I haven't puked in a while, so that's exciting. Now get the fuck out of my apartment."

I sat down on the edge of the bed. "Birkoff," I whispered, "I need to know where your apartment's bugged."

"Fuck you, Marin."

He had never used my first name before. Rather than an intimacy, it felt like a lash.

I took out the medications I'd been given. "The medics sent these with me to give to you." God, I hoped he'd forgive me once I told him what was happening--if I was able to tell him what was happening, if he believed me. "They're for the nausea, in case it comes back. If they don't stay down, the medics also gave me injections that you can use. It's probably best if I help you with those, though."

"I said I don't want you here."

"Too bad."

With obvious effort, he turned over and faced the wall.

I set my elbows on my knees and waited for the inevitable--or, at any rate, prayed that it would in fact be inevitable. I closed my eyes, wanting to reach out a hand and set it on his forehead or his shoulder, to comfort even though he didn't want it.

When the inevitable came, it hit me like a semi.

Birkoff staggered into the bathroom behind me, carrying an injection kit. "They gave me this first," he managed. "You won't be able to keep pills down."

His hands were shaking, and I was entirely useless, but he managed to get the injection together. "Damn you for wearing overalls," I heard him say. It took him a few tries, but he got the straps undone, pulled them down, and unceremoniously yanked down my underwear and stuck the syringe into my ass. I wasn't sure if I was imagining things, or if he did it with more force than was strictly necessary.

The shot didn't take effect right away, and I still felt like death even after it did, but at least I wasn't trying to remove my own stomach through my esophagus. I rinsed with mouthwash, and Birkoff made his unsteady way to the kitchen and back to bring me a glass of water. "I'm not bugged in here," he said, "since you asked."

I sat back against the tiled wall and resisted the urge to lie down on the bathmat and go to sleep. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I have some other precautions in place, too, but this is the only room I know is clean."

"We're not sick, Birkoff," I said. "I poisoned both of us."

"You WHAT?"

"Relax, it's not permanent. We'll be sick, really sick, for two days. Then we'll get over it."

"Shit, we'll miss the mission tomorrow."

"That's the point."

He looked at me. "What do you mean, that's the point?"

"I don't know exactly what's going on. All I know is that we need to not be on that mission."

"Christ, is this some kind of fucked-up women's-intuition thing?"

I shook my head. The room shook with it. "No. It's information I have. That Sunday gave me. You know what you thought you saw happen in my kitchen?"

"Where you begged her to fuck you?"

"Yes," I answered, enunciating the words as precisely as I could, "where I begged her to fuck me. She was giving me information. My kitchen's bugged. The spot next to the refrigerator is out of range. Sure fooled Operations, didn't it?"

Birkoff looked up at me again, and something in his eyes had changed--not exactly softened, but opened, at least, a little bit. "So that'd be why you kept moving in and out of there."

"Yes," I said, "because it had to be believable. I didn't want you to hate me, but I didn't know any other way to do it."

"So what happens if we go on the mission?"

"We die." Or so I guessed. Even after administering some mystery poison to us both, I wasn't 100% sure. At least I could be relatively certain that Sunday's potion wouldn't kill the two of us, but I could tell very little beyond that.

There was a silence of several minutes' length.

"How are you feeling?" Birkoff finally asked.

"Still like shit. You?"

"Same. Do you think you're going to be sick again?"

"No. I mean, not for a while, anyway. I think the shot kicked in."

Precariously, Birkoff stood up, then steadied himself on the towel rack and reached a hand down to me. "You should probably lie down."

"I could just sleep here."

"Rosenthal, I think that's probably not a good idea."

We were back to Rosenthal. Something tightly wound in my chest relaxed.

I tried not to pull him down with me when I got up, and we made our wobbly way from the bathroom to his bed. I tried to lie down, but it was more of a collapse. Birkoff set out the meds where we could reach them easily, and then lay down next to me. Tentatively, I curled up against him, and when he wound his arms around me and tucked my head under his chin, I closed my eyes. I was so exhausted, and the day had been so long. I fell asleep almost immediately.


I was sick almost as soon as I woke up the next morning. Birkoff got a shot into me before I even knew what was happening, and then I heard his hoarse voice on the phone. "Yeah, it's me....Yeah, but now she's sick, too....Last night. I gave her one of the injections a few minutes ago....Yeah, as soon as I woke up....Two of the injections, and a bunch of the pills....I dunno, it's a lot more intense than anything I've ever had before....Yeah, I'll call in later today....I'll try to keep an eye on intel, but seriously, I don't know how long I can stay upright. I'll do my best....OK. 'Bye."

Birkoff got up to wash out the bowl--I'd at least managed to aim there, and not onto the bed--and brought us fresh glasses of water. He crawled back into bed, looking exhausted, and set a hand lightly on my hip. "We're off the mission. Hillinger's going to go out with them, and one of the other techs will do the site intel. They're obviously not as good as we are"--it wasn't boastful, just true--"but they'll be covered."

I wondered what Sunny was doing, and how she was getting herself pulled from the mission. I wondered if Michael really knew, if he'd found a way to pull Nikita, if he'd sacrifice himself instead of her when the time came, if the time came.

"How are you feeling?" I managed.

"Still like shit, but not as bad as yesterday. Hand me the alarm clock."

It took what felt like Herculean effort, but I was able to reach over and hand him the small silver clock.

"The injections last five hours. I'm setting this for four hours from now, and we're both going to take the pills then, when we can keep them down."

"OK," I said, but I was already falling asleep again.


The alarm woke us again in the early afternoon, we both downed the pills I'd been given, and we agreed that we were feeling slightly better--or, at least, less like we were going to die imminently. The idea of food made me feel sick all over again, but we were both able to keep down orange juice. We settled back in bed, and Birkoff turned on the TV. We watched a terrible French-language talk show--I was fluent in the language, but still couldn't figure out who was sleeping with whose in-laws--and I started dozing off while Birkoff watched a truly bizarre example of Japanimation.

"Hey," he said quietly when I was almost asleep. "It's three o'clock."


"The mission's going out now."

I thought of Sunday, Walter, Nikita, Michael. "I hope they're all OK," I said, which was true, but which wouldn't ring suspicious if Operations or Madeline was watching.

Birkoff kept watching his anime film. I fell asleep.


"Rosenthal! Rosenthal! Wake up!"

I had been sleeping so heavily that I had to stop for a moment to clear my head--where was I? was this my house? was Robert next to me?--and then I rolled over to look at Birkoff. "What? Is it time for meds again?"

"No. It's just a little past six. Holy shit, Rosenthal. Oh my God. Look at this."

Birkoff rewound the Tivo, and I sat up and stared at the talking head in front of the scene.

A British accent was declaiming, "...CIA, Mossad, and MI-5 agents collaborated to uncover the headquarters and leadership of the terrorist group known as Section One. A technologically advanced and highly secretive group with informants in the security agencies of every major superpower, Section One, as a shadow corporation, is believed to be responsible for funding the September Eleventh attacks in the United States, as well as funding and providing the logistics for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 embassy bombings, and--though CIA spokesman Jim Mitchell was careful to reiterate that this has not been proven--the attacks on the London and Madrid subways."

"Kathryn," said an equally British male talking head, this one in a studio, "other suspects have been arrested--and in some cases convicted--for perpetrating many of these acts of terrorism. What does this mean for them?"

"Well, Steve, it will certainly mean new trials--and perhaps even exonerations--for many of them. But it's important to remember that this organization was far-reaching, and in many cases, such as the September Eleventh attacks, Section One did not physically carry out these actions, but rather engaged in the upper-level planning that made them possible. So while some of those currently charged may in fact be innocent, others may well have been hit men, if you will, for this organization. Obviously there is still much to be investigated."

"What can you tell us about the scene at the consulate?"

"That's not a consulate!" I burst out. "It's a Red Cell safe house!"

Birkoff looked grim. "I don't think that's the point. I think Section was set up."


But the heads were talking again.

The woman named Kathryn continued, "The scene is terrible, Steve. The building has been virtually destroyed by the bomb--"

"But it wasn't a bombing!" I protested. "They were going in to kidnap--"

"Ssh," said Birkoff.

"...only two survivors found so far. As you can see, search and rescue teams are on scene trying to find others who may have been buried in the rubble, but hope is growing dimmer and dimmer."

"Holy shit!" Birkoff shouted, and rewound the Tivo again. "That woman. Right there. With the blond hair."

"Oh my God," I said. "It's Sunday."

The image was blurry, but she was unmistakable, with her golden blond hair and tiny figure, deep in discussion with two men behind enormous swaths of police tape.

"What's she doing there?" Birkoff whispered.

"That's how she knew what was going to happen." I could barely bring my voice up loudly enough to speak. "She was involved. They set Section up."

"Kathryn," the male talking head interrupted me, "keep us posted as events unfold on the scene. We go across town now to another scene in this tragedy, where a second bomb destroyed an office building in the central business district shortly after the attack on the consulate. The building belongs to the World Trade Organization--"

I knew that block so well that, even with all the smoke and the ruins, it was obvious which building it had been. "Oh my God, Birkoff, that was Section. That was our building."

He looked at me. His eyes were clear, but his voice was breaking. "That was everyone."

"Walter," I said. That gentle man hadn't deserved this.



"Jesus, even Hillinger," Birkoff said. "The guy was an asshat, but he didn't deserve to die. Not like this." He covered his face with his hands, but when he looked back up, he'd forced the tears back. "Operations. Madeline."

"Do you think they survived?"

"Not if they were in that."

"But that's just it," I said. "Do you think they knew?"

He shook his head slowly. "I don't know. It doesn't make sense. I mean, someone obviously wanted to take out Section. But I don't understand why they'd blow up headquarters. All the information is there. All the files. And why kill people like Hillinger and Walter? Hillinger doesn't care who he works for. Neither do a lot of those people. It seems like a waste of talent."

"I don't understand," I said. "I mean, I understand that someone wanted Section to go down, although I'm not sure why. We're not the terrorists! Not the bad ones, anyway."

"It doesn't matter. That's just the cover they're using. If you want to demonize someone, call them a terrorist."

"So, OK, someone wanted Section down. But you'd think they'd want the files."

"And the people."

"And the people."

We were silent for several moments.

"So this leads to the question," I said. "Are they going to come after us?"

Birkoff looked at me. "I don't think anyone knows who we were." When I looked at him quizzically, he explained, "They didn't keep any offsite files. And you and I were the only ones with remote access to the servers."

"If they get a forensic tech in there--"

"There's a possibility that it could be traced, yes. But, God, Rosenthal, you saw that building. First they'd have to find enough of a server to be able to reconstruct data from it. And then they'd have to get around our security. It's next to impossible that they'll find enough to reconstruct, and it's even more unlikely that they'll have someone better with security than we are."

"It ain't bragging if it's true," I said. "OK, so the files are, short of a miracle, dead. The next questions is: Who know who we are?"

"Operations and Madeline. I don't even think Michael knows the outside identities. And there aren't any written or digital records linking you to Isabel Dauphin or me to Gabriel Tremblay."

"So let's say they are, in fact, able to resurrect some of the files," I said. "They'll find out that we're all still alive. And then we'll all be wanted terrorists with millions on our heads. But they won't know our new identities."

"So I need to stop calling you Rosenthal."

"And I need to stop calling you Birkoff. Gabriel."

"Isabel." He tried it again. "Isabel. It doesn't really suit you. I like Dauphin better."

I rolled "Gabriel" off my tongue again, once with an American accent and once with French. "I actually do think that suits you. God knows it's better than Seymour."

"Anything's better than Seymour."

I tried Tremblay, first with the phonetic, slightly nasal English pronunciation, and then with the muted vowels of the fluid French. "Tremblay. Salut, Monsieur Tremblay. C'est plus facile de t'appeler 'Tremblay' que de t'appeler 'Gabriel,' quoique j'aime le nom Gabriel."

Birkoff brushed my hair back from my face and let his hand rest there, running his thumb over the rim of my ear. "Bonjour, Mademoiselle Dauphin. C'est un plaisir de faire ta connaissance."

My accent, as always, was better than his.

"Oh, monsieur, tu me connais déjà, intimement!"

We both laughed, and it broke the tension. We were silent again for a while, then Birkoff broke it with, "Gabriel has money."

"Yeah," I said, "so does Isabel. A good bit of it. Cayman Islands."

"Same. Walter suggested that. I think he had a fair amount socked away."

"I hope she was able to get him out."

"Me too."

Birkoff turned off the television, and we lay down and held each other. We didn't sleep.


About twelve hours later, only slightly after dawn, there was a quiet but distinct knock on the door. We froze and stared at each other, and it came again.

Birkoff reached underneath the bed and pulled out a dark shape. With some shock, I saw that it was an automatic pistol. He flipped the safeties with nimble and oddly expert fingers, handed the gun to me, and took out a second one, then got out of bed.

"Where the hell did you--"

"Walter." Birkoff turned around and looked at me. "Just so you know, I'd rather be dead than in prison."



The knock came again. Birkoff walked over to the door.

He peered through the eyehole. "Sunday?" He opened the door slowly, keeping his gun trained on it the entire time. I kept my aim on the doorway just to the left of his head.

She waltzed in as though there were no firearms aimed in her direction, brandishing a bottle of Krug Clos du Mesnil, a basket of strawberries, and a box of chocolates tied with a silver ribbon. "Seymour, point that thing somewhere else," she said to Birkoff, and pushed his gun aside. "Rosenthal, is that any way to greet a guest?"

"Isabel," I said, and lowered my gun. "It's Isabel."

"Isabel. And your handsome boyfriend...?"

"Gabriel," Birkoff supplied, accenting it like the French. "Tremblay."

"Gabriel. Or Tremblay. Tremblay seems more appropriate, really. It would be strange to use your first name after all this time. Pleased to meet you both. Shall I get some glasses? Some plates? Are you up to drinking some champagne and eating some strawberries in celebration of your newfound freedom? Or should I leave them, and you can eat them off each other when you're feeling more up to it?"

"Maybe the strawberries now," I said, "but I don't think I'll be able to deal with champagne or chocolate for a while."

"Gabriel? How are you feeling?"

Birkoff closed the door, though he didn't put down the gun. "I feel less like ass than I did twenty-four hours ago, no thanks to you, but I'm alive, so in general I'd say I'm doing much better than I otherwise might be."

Sunday put the champagne into the refrigerator, so casually that she might have lived here herself, and left the chocolate on the counter. She brought the strawberries over to where I was sitting on the bed, and Birkoff sat down, put his gun aside, and ate one.

"So," she said. "Where would you like to start?"

"'What the fuck?' pretty much sums it up for me," Birkoff answered.

"I assume Mari--Isabel explained to you about the toxin?"

"Yes. And how she got it, and why."

"Walter," I said. "Nikita. Michael. Did they live?"

"Walter and Michael are back at my apartment getting really, really stoned and trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Nikita..." Sunday trailed off. "Nikita's alive. But she got captured on the raid."

"What's going to happen to her?" Birkoff asked quietly.

"I've got some friends in Mossad. I think she'll be better off there than the CIA or MI-5. I tried, Birkoff--sorry, Tremblay, I mean. I tried. Michael tried. I told him. I had a helicopter waiting on the roof. They were supposed to split up once they were in the building, and Nikita would come up the east stairs and Michael the west. I couldn't have them go together; it was too risky. Michael came up. Nikita didn't."

"But she always wanted out of Section. Why would she--"

"She went back after Michael. I guess she felt she had to make sure he got out. She went to find Michael, but he'd gone up a different way because there were people in the west stairwell. Nikita ran right into them, and they captured her." Sunday ran her finger around the neck of the champagne bottle, drawing a circle in the beads of water on the glass. "We couldn't wait. We took off in the copter, and Michael tried to jump out. We restrained him. It was...I hope I never hear anyone sound like that again."

"That was so stupid," I said before I thought better of it. "Why would she go after him? It's not like he can't take care of himself."

"It's Nikita we're talking about. If we were living in a Greek play, that'd be her tragic flaw, always trying to make sure that everyone else is alright. This time it got her captured, but at least it didn't get her killed."

"You think she'll be OK in Israel?" Birkoff asked.

"My guys in Mossad are good people. The Israelis like tough women. Deborah, Esther. The chick who beheaded her husband."

"Judith," I said.

"Yeah, Judith. Plus, a lot of people go to Israel to escape their pasts. That's kind of what it's there for. So there'll be a lot of other people there who don't want questions asked, and who won't ask her questions. She won't be in deep cover. She'll be able to have something like a normal life. I think she can be happy there, if she'll let herself."

"And if she can be happy without Michael," Birkoff added.

"And if she can be happy without Michael," Sunday acquiesced.

"So what's your part in all this?" I asked. "Did you set Section up?"

"No," Sunday said. "I didn't set us up. But even after I quote-unquote died, I still had some contacts on the outside, mostly in Mossad, but also in the DGSE. They suspected early on that I wasn't actually dead, and then Mossad sent some people to California to exhume my alleged body and find out for sure. Section got all the DNA samples from my old life, but Mossad staged a burglary at a lab where my mom had gotten some blood work done. Made it look like some clueless dope fiends had trashed the place trying to find a fix. Mossad discovered pretty quickly that whoever that poor girl in the grave was, she wasn't a biological relative of my mother's--and she died of hepatitis C, not an explosion. And from there, it wasn't a huge jump that I would be in Section.

"Basically two things happened. One, Operations got too big for his britches. He was making a lot of noise, forgetting that he might be the boss at Section, but he was still a butt-monkey to the security agencies. He wanted to come in and give briefings at the Pentagon and La Piscine--in a sense, you could say that he wanted credit for his work, but he forgot the big fact: He was dead. He, and Madeline too, to some extent, was becoming a huge liability.

"Two, the US wanted a public terrorist takedown. Problem is that the al Qaeda guys haven't been cooperating. The UK--pretty much because Blair is Bush's butt-monkey--went along with it, and Israel got in on it, too, since they could use a takedown themselves. It was a four-in-one deal: They kill or capture Operations--they were OK with either--and they also get all of Section's people and files, they get one of the Red Cell principals, and they get to claim to the world that they've taken out this enclave of terrorists."

"Did they get the Red Cell guy?" I asked.

"The two 'survivors' were Nikita and him."

"But they didn't get Section," I said. "I mean, they got Nikita, but they blew up headquarters."

Sunday shook her head. "No. They didn't blow it up. Operations and Madeline did."

Birkoff and I stared at her.

"The CIA/MI-5/Mossad team was on the first floor of the headquarters building when it blew. Best I can figure, Ops and Madeline heard the mission go wrong, and then they heard the raid downstairs, and they knew they were fucked. Rosen--sorry, Isabel, you don't want to get captured by ISIS if you have information they want. The US pretends like it doesn't torture, but then goes through all kinds of legal loopholes to get around it; Israel doesn't even pretend. Operations knew a lot, and had pissed a lot of people off. There was no way he was going to let them take him alive. They took down the entire building, and everyone in it. I was able to get Walter out before the raid, but everyone else is dead. Section's gone, and so are all of its files and all of its secrets."

"So you knew Operations was going down," Birkoff said. "And you knew the people on that mission were going to die."

"I knew that Operations was going down, but I was under the impression that the people on the mission from Section would be captured alive. That bomb in the Red Cell building was a little surprise from the CIA, and it took out a couple of Mossad people, too. 'Tragic accident, unintended casualties,' blah blah blah. Olmert is PISSED.

"Birkoff--Tremblay--I had no idea that headquarters was going to blow. It wasn't in the agencies' best interest for it to be destroyed, but I had never been able to find out for sure whether the building had a self-destruct system. In any case, I thought they'd get in before Operations or Madeline had the chance. But for all I know, Ops and Madeline carried some kind of remote control on themselves. It's what I would have done." Sunday looked up at him directly. "I risked a lot by getting the four of you out; understand that. I didn't want you taken by the CIA or Mossad. The other people in the building--with the possible exceptions of Operations and Madeline--didn't deserve that any more than you did, but"--she shrugged--"I didn't know them. I knew you, and I wanted to get you out.

"If I'd tried to prevent the operation from happening, I'd have been killed--and it would have gone ahead anyway. You can blame me if you want, but I did not plan this; I just found out about it because some people in Mossad didn't want me dead for real."

She got up and kissed Birkoff on the forehead, then me. "I need to get back and make sure that Walter and Michael don't smoke me out of house and home. There's nothing to link Isabel or Gabriel with the people that you two used to be. You're free, babies. Your lives are your own now."

She left, closing the door behind her. After a moment, Birkoff got up and locked it. He sat back down on the bed, and we stared at each other. I couldn't think of a thing to say.

"This is the weirdest fucking day of my entire life," Birkoff muttered. After another period of silence, he added, "So what the hell do we do now?"

"Take a shower," I said. "I bet we both smell really bad."

He let out an unintentional bark of laughter. "We what?"

"We take a shower. Bir--Tremblay, I'm as clueless as you are. I have no idea what we do. But I know that I'd like to shower. I smell like ass to myself; I can't imagine what I must smell like to other people. I want to shower, and put some clean sheets on the bed, and borrow some of your clothes so that I'm not wearing these filthy ones, and have some more orange juice, and then maybe I can contemplate this life that I never knew I was going to have. But I can't do that when I'm dirty and disgusting, OK?"

He hugged me, and I hugged him back. He felt bony and solid and warm.

"I love you," he said after a pause.

He'd never said it before. I'd never said it.

I answered without hesitation.

"I love you, too." I kissed him, and made a face. "And you know what? You smell."


We were feeling well enough to stand up in the shower, but not well enough to do anything else in it, and we had to sit down afterwards to recoup our energy to change the sheets and clean up. Sitting down turned into lying down, and we woke up in the late afternoon. When we'd finished recovering the apartment from the hazmat zone it had been, Birkoff started a second sort of cleaning: sweeping for bugs. We spent several hours getting rid of all that. When we were done, I pulled back the blinds, opened the windows, and let the fall air in.

Birkoff was feeling considerably better, and a few hours later, so was I. Forty-eight hours, just like Sunday had promised.

We were both really, really hungry.

Birkoff opened the fridge, eyed it, and then turned back to me. "I have butter pecan ice cream," he said, "but I'm not sure I ever want to eat that again."

"Sorry," I said.

"Enh, I think it was a pretty good trade. We can order something. And Sunday left all that stuff."

It seemed like an occasion for oysters and caviar and truffles, but that would have required leaving the house. So we ordered Thai, and drank eight-hundred-dollar champagne with it. We ate the rest of the strawberries and some of the chocolates, though not off each other. And then we went to bed again, and put the clean sheets to their highest and best use--which was not, in case you're wondering, sleeping.

"I feel like I just lost my virginity," Birkoff said a while later, when we were lying naked and sated in the dark, his chest against my back and his arms around me.

"How do you mean?" I asked; it wasn't as though we'd done anything we hadn't done a couple of hundred times before.

"I guess I feel like I just mated for the first time out of captivity."

I couldn't stop a snort of laughter. "Birkoff, you say the nicest things."

"Oh, shut up. I just mean that I think this is the first time I've ever had sex as a free person. And anyway it's Tremblay now, remember?"

I turned over, propping my chin on his chest, and looked up at him. "I hope you don't feel like everything before this was, I don't know, coerced."

"No," he said. "God, no. I'm not sure which of us technically initiated things, but I think it was pretty mutual. But I think I feel like a normal guy who just had sex with his girlfriend, not like a participant in a semi-illicit affair between two members of a locked-down counterterrorism compound."

I turned my head to the side and rested my ear over his heart. I knew its sound better than I knew my own. "I know what you mean," I said.

"Do you remember that alternate-life story you told me a while ago? The one about how we'd be in love when we were kids, and then go to university--"

"You're so Canadian."

"Shut up. Anyway, we'd go to university really far away from each other and break up, but you would still remember me?"

"I'd look at the star charts," I said. "I'd look at the star charts, and think of you."

"Well," Birkoff said, "I always thought that ending sucked."

"Gee, Bir--Tremblay, why don't you tell me what you really think?"

"It was better than what was going on in reality at the time, but a story is supposed to be a story, and if you want to have a happy ending, you can have one."

"So do you have another ending in mind?"

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah. Listen." He took a breath. "So we grew up in this place with cornfields and stars, right? And then you went off to California, and I went to Boston."


"But, see, I hated Boston. People talked funny and they were all obsessed with baseball, which is the most boring sport in the universe apart from golf and I don't understand how anyone can watch it."

"So what do you prefer? Hockey?"


"God, you really are Canadian."

"Will you be quiet and let me tell the story the way it actually went? OK. So I stayed out there for four years because I wanted to finish my degree, and because I didn't have any reason to go home since you weren't there, but I didn't like it. Even after you broke up with me our second year, I still didn't want to stay in Boston any longer than I had to. I didn't know where I wanted to be, but I knew it wasn't Boston.

"My last year, they wanted me to apply to graduate school at MIT, but I didn't. I applied a bunch of other places instead: Stanford, Cambridge, UCLA, Emory. But more than anything--more than I wanted a doctorate, a career, money, anything--I wanted to find you again. Because you mattered more than any of the rest of that.

"I went back home for the first time in four years just so that I could go to your house. I spent about a hour with my family--which was about as much as I could take without killing any of them--and then got in the car and drove over to your parents' house. They hadn't seen me since I was eighteen, and your dad shook my hand all manfully and your mom kept saying how much I'd grown up. And then they said you were still in California, and you were engaged to this jerk. Not Robert, I know he wasn't a jerk; this is an alternate life, remember? You were engaged to this jerk--we'll call him Greg--and your parents had always been really sad that things hadn't worked out between the two of us. They asked what I was doing, and I said I was trying to choose a graduate program: I had offers from Stanford and Cambridge, and I had to make up my mind in the next couple of weeks.

"'Marin's not far from Stanford,' your mother said, like she was just bringing it up to make conversation. 'Berkeley and Palo Alto are less than an hour apart.'

"I picked Stanford.

"I moved there straight from Boston that summer. I unpacked, looked at a map, and then I drove to Berkeley to find you. Yeah, this is an alternate universe where I drive.

"Your fiancé Greg, he really was an asshole. I tried calling your house first, and he got all aggro when I asked for you. So I looked you up in the Berkeley directory, and I found your office in the physics building. It turned out it wasn't just your office; you shared with a bunch of other grad students, because I guess they do that. So I went in expecting that we'd be able to talk privately, and instead there were like eight other people standing around, and there you were.

"You looked so beautiful. Just like I remembered you. Your hair was still long and you still had those intense dark eyes, and it was like the past four years had never happened. You were holding a cup of coffee, and you dropped it when you saw me. The cup shattered and it got everywhere. I saw that you still put so much milk in it that you might as well have been drinking hot chocolate. 'Gabriel'--because my name in my alternate universe sure as hell isn't Seymour--you asked, 'what are you doing here?'

"I said, in front of the entire audience, who were naturally fascinated by this turn of events, that I had never stopped loving you. That I had been stupid to let something like distance--something temporary, something that can be changed--separate us. That I didn't think I could ever love anyone but you. That if you felt differently, I would go away. But if you didn't, that there was no reason for us to make the same stupid mistake twice. And then I stopped talking, and I looked at you.

"The entire room was silent. All the other people were also looking at you, waiting to see what you'd say. You were quiet for so long that I thought you were trying to figure out a polite way to tell me that you loved this Greg jerk and that I should go away. But then you walked over to me and put your hands on my face. 'You're real,' you said.

"I touched your hair with my fingers, and it was such a relief to know that you were real, too.

"You said, 'I can't be the same fool twice.' And I hugged you for a long time, just remembering how you felt and how you smelled. And then one of the other people in the room--remember them? I completely forgot about them, too--yelled, 'Kiss her, you idiot!' And it was pretty idiotic not to, so I did. And I knew I'd done exactly the right thing for maybe the first time in my life.

"You dumped Greg. We got an apartment together. We had no money, and we ate a lot of ramen, and we had star charts on the walls."


Had Elvis himself shown up in the south of France and informed everyone that he had, in fact, been working at Wal-Mart all these years, it would possibly have caused less of a ruckus than when Sunday McDaniel appeared at Cannes wearing a slinky red dress, a white mink stole, and a diamond the size of one of my eyes draped casually at the base of her throat.

It was tabloid manna.

"CANNES" IT BE TRUE? cried the Daily Mail.

S-CANNES-DAL! exclaimed the Sunday Express.

DOC-FILM BEAUTY BACK FROM DEAD stated the comparatively reserved New York Daily News.

SUNNY MET ELVIS! said the Weekly World News, which thoughtfully included photos with Sunday's head grafted onto Priscilla Presley's body.

There were sobbing reunions: with her mother, with her sisters (three, equally blond, equally inclined toward melodrama), with the boyfriend she'd left behind (who had gotten married during the time Sunday was gone). A prettily tearful Sunday explained that the pressure had gotten to be too much, and she was receiving so many death threats from opponents of her various documentaries that the safest thing seemed to be beating the would-be assassins at their own game. She was so, so sorry to have caused her family such pain, and she hoped they would forgive her.

She had, she said, spent her death at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, where she had been proclaimed the living reincarnation of Uygen Rinpoche, the only woman in history to be so blessed (and, as an aside, the only woman in history ever to be allowed to live at the monastery). (REIN-CANNES-ATED! proclaimed the Toronto Sun.) A passel of robed monks was acquired to tell fantastic stories of the miracles wrought by Sunday's hands--and then, a few days later, a robed (Buddhist) nun was acquired to tell a fantastic story of the torrid affair that she and Sunday had had while Sunday was in residence at the monastery. The Dalai Lama himself was asked to comment on the matter--both of the reincarnation and of the affair--but declined.

Sunday did not deny the reincarnation, and refused to comment on the affair.

Everyone thought she'd go back to LA. Everyone was wrong. Instead, she stayed in the same city we were in--but, more to the point, the same city Michael was in. At first it seemed mostly like a coincidence. Then it became clear that it was not, especially when Michael never really moved out of her apartment.

They got a house; they got dogs. Michael walks them, and writes suspense novels under a carefully guarded pseudonym. They sell amazingly well, in more languages than all of us combined speak, all over the globe.

Walter wound up in California, of course, where he bought a house off Haight Street in San Francisco. He sent us pictures of the house, of the mountains, of his cat and his Great Dane. And then we got new pictures: Another cat, a puppy. And Walter himself with a woman about his age: sitting on the front steps of his house, sitting on the front steps of a very similar one that he explained was her house, just a block away. They met at the greenmarket. Her name is Gretchen. Her husband died young; her children are grown. Her house has been in her family for generations, and she does not want to give it up; Walter is enjoying living truly on his own for the first time in decades, and also does not want to give it up, so they have not moved in together. But she and two of her kids and their families spent Thanksgiving at his house this year, and he spent Christmas at hers. Walter sounds happier than I've ever known him.

I wish we could visit. I would love to meet Gretchen, to show San Francisco to Birkoff. But there's too much risk: We have passports and we have identities, but with random searches and Homeland Security and US-VISIT, crossing borders--especially into the United States--is too dangerous even with ironclad paperwork. Birkoff and I stay here, and we email, and I try not to remember what the salt air in the Sunset district smells like.

None of us hear from Nikita directly, but Sunday keeps her contacts in ISIS, and they pass on information when they have it. She lives in Tel Aviv, and just a few months ago, she got married: a native Israeli, a little older, also in Mossad. She converted to Judaism, we heard. Sunday emailed me some pictures (surveillance, of course): Nikita's eyes are still as sharp and as tough as ever, but her hair is back to its natural color (which is closer to mine than I'd have guessed), and somehow that brown makes her stand out a little less. She's still lovely, but less conspicuously so.

I don't know if she's happy or not.


Birkoff and I moved to the mountains. We live in a small town that get some skiers, though not terribly many, during the winter; the rest of the time, it's a quiet mountain town where our milk is delivered to our doorstep and our greengrocer knows our names and what sort of tomatoes and squashes we prefer.

Sunday and Michael don't visit: With the press that Sunday gets, that's too risky, too. It's risky enough that she and Michael are together, even though he's had some surgery and, from what I can see in the pictures Sunday sends, doesn't look entirely like the Michael I knew in Section. (His hair is shorter, his chin slightly less pronounced, his nose a little less Roman.)

Birkoff and I didn't get any surgery. We dress differently, though: I gave up my overalls for sleek silk pants and cashmere sweaters, and through Birkoff puts up a token show of resistance, there's usually some combination of Theory and Armani that he'll agree to wear, and that will make him look more like a grown-up and less like a hacker from Canada.

I cut my hair short, and he grew his long. It grew out to a thick honey-brown, softer than I would have expected; it gentles the angles of his face, and makes him look, despite the clothing, very, very young. (The drinking age is eighteen where we live, and no one much bothers to enforce it; I have seen the youngest students at the lycée nonchalantly buying bottles of wine. I buy our wine, because Birkoff without fail gets asked for ID.) I run my fingers through Birkoff's hair when we're in bed, and sometimes he catches me fingering the cropped curls at my scalp. It's a strange, selfish sadness to know that I'll never have long hair again.

But it's a strange, selfish happiness to know that my life belongs to me.


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