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Delaney catches me as I head into my office.

“We’re headed to SoHo for dinner at Bocca Di Lupo. Are you in?”

“I’m not in the mood to deal with anyone tonight. Especially, Laci’s--not too subtle--attraction to me,” I reply, taking my seat behind my desk.

“Well, it’s a good thing she bowed out on this one. Did you guys get into it? She was in until she heard we are asking you to join. She sounded like something was bothering her,” Delaney says, taking a seat across from me.

“No, I haven’t talked to her in a week. I’m sure she’ll be fine. I have a few things to take care of here first. I’ll head over after. I’ll meet you guys there,” I instruct.

Delaney nods before exiting my office. I unbutton my sport coat, taking a seat at the computer to log in. Looking for an update on Shy’s progress, I find the report. Reading it, I’m surprised to see that she’s been discharged. Turning off my computer, I stand and button my sport coat. Grabbing my jacket from behind the door, I head out. I won’t be able to enjoy myself if I don’t stop by Shy’s to try and salvage something with her before heading to the restaurant. I need to try and make her see where I was coming from on that last mission. I didn’t want to deceive her, again, and I certainly didn’t enjoy seeing her in harm’s way. I haven’t spoken with her since the mission in Dublin. I sat with her while she slept to try and help quell some of the guilt I feel, but didn’t go while she was awake. I thought it best to give her the space she needed to heal. The way we left things in Dublin wasn’t what you would call . . . amicable terms. My hope is, she’s cooled off enough to hear me out. Once I speak with her, I’ll know if I’ve used up all of her forgiveness.

Coming around the corner of the hall to Shy’s apartment, I stall in my tracks as a heavy feeling instantly forms in my stomach. I think most people call this feeling jealousy. I call it weakness, and weakness is dangerous. My fists clench as they ache to hit something. I watch as Shy wraps her legs around Griffin, kissing him like he means everything to her. I stand there for a few minutes unable to make my body move. The door closes, and it takes everything I have not to walk in on them before things go too far. I broke her trust in me. I know that. Just like I know this is my punishment. My mind goes to places it shouldn’t. My best recourse is to walk away. To allow whatever is happening behind that closed door to happen.

Pulling up to Bocca Di Lupo, I notice the parking lot isn’t too full. I find a spot in the corner of the lot under a light post to park my Aston. Hopefully, this will deter any miscreants from doing anything they will live to regret. My dark grey three-quarter length pea coat lay across the passenger seat. Grabbing it, I put it on holding it close to guard against the cold. I keep my head down as I pass the host stand, hoping to avoid the unpleasantries. I spot Beck and Delaney in the corner with their backs to the wall, facing the door. Even outside of work, this is who we are. Our mantra: stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. By now it’s second nature, I doubt they even realize what they had done when choosing their seat. I watch as they laugh, and throw back a shot. This is exactly what I need to take my mind off what Shy is probably doing right now. I grab the waiter on my way to the table and order a scotch, neat. Pulling out the chair, my boys greet me.

“Michael, glad you made it, buddy,” Delaney says.

“Let’s get you a drink. Maybe a couple to get you to where we are,” Beck laughs.

“Already done,” I reply.

I really want to enjoy myself, but the waiting is incredibly difficult with what’s running through my mind. I need that drink. At last, it arrives and I order another round for all of us before letting the server get away. Throwing the drink back, I slam the glass down and inhale deeply. Damn that hit the spot. I notice my boys eyeing me. Delaney grins and nods.

“Okay, it’s going to be one of those nights. Yes!” he exclaims.

It’s been a long time since we went out and just got plastered. Too long. I need this. We need this.

“Damn right it is!” I return his enthusiasm.

“What should we drink to?” Beck asks as the server sets down another round.

“The first toast always goes to the unit. Long live Alpha squad,” Delaney roots.

We all touch glasses and slam our drinks back. While we wait for another round, Beck brings up an old mission we did in Tehran. One, of course, where he saved our asses when we were pinned down in a firefight. Delaney still refuses to give him credit. He’s says it doesn’t count if you’re in a perch, sniping, only if you’re on the ground in the thick of it. I don’t give a shit where Beck is shooting from as long as he’s taking out the bad guys.

This place is getting more and more crowded the later the hour grows, consequently, it’s taking the server longer to arrive with our drinks. Beck excuses himself to the bar, explaining that the server is taking too long to return, but we know the real reason he’s heading over. Beck has a propensity towards redheads, I think it’s the Irish in him. We all noticed the beauty at the bar when she came in. We also know we won’t be getting another round of drinks if we wait on Casanova over there to bring them. It’s more likely this will be the last time we see Beck this evening. I hold up a finger, summoning our server over and order Delaney and I another round. I’m far from how drunk I want to get tonight. I can see Delaney gauging me. There’s something on his mind. Either he doesn’t know how to bring it up or he isn’t sure now is the right time. Either way, I’ll let him figure it out. The server comes with my third glass and Delaney’s . . . I’m not really sure.

“How many is this for you?”

Delaney holds up his whole hand and smiles. I shake my head, picking up my glass and knocking it back. Delaney sets his glass down the same time as I do. He leans back in his chair, making himself comfortable. Crossing his arms over his chest, I can tell he’s found the courage to finally say what he’s been aching to say.

“Look man, I totally get it if you don’t want to talk about this, but are you good?”

I stare aimlessly at the empty glasses on the table for a short time, deciding whether I want to answer his question or not. The alcohol has definitely helped take some of the bite out of my previous disposition. More relaxed, maybe talking will do me some good. I twirl the edge of the glass on the table and as it stops spinning, I speak.

“I fucked up, Coop.”

Delaney exhales, leaning forward while rubbing hands on his thighs.

“It’s this place, man. They’ve turned us into literal monsters. She’ll get over it, Michael, she has no choice.”

“But will she forgive me?” I ask, looking up at him.

The server comes back to ask if we want another round. Delaney flips his glass, indicating he’s done. I, on the other hand, order another one.

“Talk to her. It was an order. She’ll understand,” Delaney says.

I eye him. “I’m not quite sure she will. She got the shit beat out of her before being thrown in a cage like an animal,” I pause. “You weren’t there. You didn’t see the look in her eyes. I betrayed her, again. She was in the infirmary for a week with broken ribs.” I shake my head as the events play across my mind.

“She didn’t care if she died in that moment. I’m the leader of this team, and I don’t think she can trust me. I can’t lead her if I don’t have her trust,” I explain.

“Michael, you’re an extraordinary operative, and leader. Ask any member of the Collective who they would want to have their back in battle, and it’ll be you, every time. Don’t expect her friendship, but as her leader, she’ll trust your command.”

I nod. He’s right. I’m asking too much in seeking anything other than a professional relationship with her. I should never have been thinking otherwise to begin with. The General and Sonja have their plans, whatever they may be, and I can’t stop them. What they could possibly want from her, I can’t begin to imagine. One thing has become very clear to me throughout these missions with Shy. They don’t want me getting too close to her. The second I pull her in they make me push her back out again.

“Michael, if you want her. Fight for her, man. There are ways. You did it with Echo,” Delaney reminds me.

“Echo was shipped to Greece, and now she’s dead. I don’t want that for Shy. It’s not worth it. I’ll get over her. I have no choice.”

I stand, grabbing my coat off the back of the chair. I think that’s enough sharing for one night.

“Thanks for getting me out of the cave. I needed this,” I tell Delaney.

His face twists in confusion. “The cave?”

“It’s what Shy calls the Collective.”

He nods. “Cheers, mate.”

We go our separate ways. I hit the cold of the outside, and feel the vibration of my phone in my pocket.

“What,” I answer, gruffly. I’m not sober enough to deal with their bullshit right now.

“My office, now,” the General demands before the line goes dead.

“For fuck sake,” I complain. “Can’t this fuckin night be over already?”

Only God almighty knows what they could possibly want now. This is my down time and I’m not the only tier five operative they can call on. Entering the Collective, I notice Olympus is dark.

“Michael, they need you in Sonja’s office,” Vivian says from Comm.

I nod at her, changing my direction. I punch in the five-digit code to Sonja’s office, and the doors slide open.

“Come in, Michael.” Sonja instructs from behind her desk.

The General’s standing next to her in his monochrome suit. They’re watching something on Sonja’s monitor. It makes me leery as to why they asked me here.

“Come stand with us, Michael,” Sonja instructs.

Cautiously, I walk to where they’re standing. I’m paralyzed for what seems like hours. In reality, the short seconds that pass are enough to have me aching to put a bullet in someone. Every new operative has a live camera feed linked to their apartment, and Shy is no exception. I’ve refused myself several opportunities to watch her. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I wouldn’t invade her privacy like that. That’s their job. I will know Shy at her most private, but not before she gives me permission. I told Delaney I will get over her, but something deep within me tells me I won’t. Now, I’m standing here, next to Mommy and Daddy- so to speak- staring into Shy’s living room. Griffin is there, touching her in a way that’ll only lead to one place. Her bedroom. I’m seeing in living color what I’ve been imagining for the last hour. Do they actually expect me to watch this shit?

“Who is he?” the General asks, breaking my train of thought.

“You own the building, sir. That tells me you know exactly who he is.” My aggravation clearly peeking through.

“We mean, who is he to her?” Sonja asks, feigning sensitivity.

“I think it’s pretty clear who he is to her,” I admit. “Is there a reason you’re showing me this, sir?”

“Look at the way he touches her. The way she touches him. They’re becoming emotionally attached to one another. Her emotions for this man will water her down, Michael. That’s not good for business.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” I ask, confused.

Seeing the images on the screen enrages me, but hearing them speak about how they’re touching each other, how they’re forming emotions makes my blood boil. I watch the screen for as long as I can. Memorizing every place on her body Griffin places his hands. I ache to go over there and make her forget all about him. To replace his touch with my own. My hands ball into fists as I watch the expressions of passion and pleasure play across her face. An expression, I won’t soon forget. In my head, I get that I have no right to feel anger or betrayal after what I did, except my head isn’t running shit right now; something else is. What I don’t get is why I feel any of it at all. This isn’t me. I don’t act this way with anyone. I refuse to be that operative who lets a woman fuck up his shit.

“I want him eliminated, Michael.” The General commands before exiting the room.

“Can you turn that off, please?” I ask, turning my back on the monitor mounted on the wall. If I stand here for one second that monitor will be in pieces on the other side of the room.

“Does it pain you to see her in another man’s embrace?” Sonja asks.

“No, why should it?” I lie as we eye each other.

“You tell me.”

“I’m just not into spying on my teammate’s personal lives,” I speak half-truths.

“No one in here truly has a personal life, Michael. You should know that best of all.” Sonja takes a breath. “Look, you and Shyira have a bond . . .”

As her words come out something tightens in my core. This innate need to possess her. To protect her. My jaw tightens, now feeling the need to kill Griffin. I have to step away from this, or I’m going to go crazy.

“. . . we all see it,” Sonja continues. “But, if it’s not Griffin it will be someone else who gets her heart, because it can’t be you. Are you going to be able to handle that?” she asks.

“Why wouldn’t I?” I counter, playing her game. She doesn’t truly know anything.

“Only you can answer that.”

Sonja quickly changes the subject. “It’ll need to look like an accident. We don’t need Shyira’s wrath turned on us when it’s over,” she explains, while taking her seat once again, behind her desk.

“Since when do you care about an operative’s wrath?”

“Ever heard the expression: hell, hath no fury like a woman scorned?” Sonja chuckles to herself. “Don’t worry, you will. You’re dismissed,” she says, shooing me away with her hand.

This job may be my life, and I may love it at times, but this woman tests my resolve. I turn, walking away seeing the threat for what it is. A promise that once I kill Griffin the parents will make sure Shy knows it was me who pulled the trigger.

My office is a welcoming place after being in the lion’s den. I quickly close the door behind me, taking my seat gruffly. Yeah, I’m pissed. My body and mind are betraying me. I have no control over it. My mind closes off everything, except for all the ways this can go horribly wrong. Closing my eyes briefly against the raging headache forming, I take a deep breath, trying to relax. No time like the present. It has to be done, and now is as good a time as any. Picking up the phone, I dial Shy’s number. The phone rings only once before she answers, “I’m here,” she says, breathy.

“Why are you out of breath?” I inquire, wanting to see what her answer will be.

“You caught me in the middle of a workout. Do I need to come in?”

She answers with such confidence. Yeah, she’s been working out, alright, only not in the way she would have me believe. There’s no hesitation is her response, no quiver in her voice. We’re trained to keep our lies as close to the truth as possible as to not confuse our stories. If she were strapped to a polygraph at this very moment she would pass with flying colors. I have mixed emotions about that. I won’t lie. It pleases me she pulled it off. If I hadn’t witnessed the truth--in all its glory--I would’ve believed the story she just fed me. On the other hand, I hate how easily she lied to me.

“Yes,” is my only response before hanging up the phone.

I can’t stand hearing her voice at the moment. I have a little time to think before she arrives. Maybe I can try and reason with her instead of starting off with threats. She’s a reasonable person. She’ll see the logic in what needs to be done. This new me has me reasoning with myself about making it easier for her. This does not work for me. My fucking house, my rules. Period. Fifteen minutes pass before Shy enters my office.

“Close the door and have a seat,” I order from behind my desk, never looking at her.

“What’s going on, Michael? Are we going out?” she asks, concerned.

My tension is palpable. She knows something’s wrong. She’s not stupid.

“This thing you have going on with Griffin has to end, now,” I say matter of fact.

“Excuse me?” Shy asks defensively, getting to her feet.

That has me looking at her for the first time. I purposefully avoided eye contact because I knew once I did the anger I felt while watching the monitor would come rushing back. I was right.

My eyes rake her from head to toe, forcing me to remember every place Griffin touched her. Shy takes a step back at the way I’m glaring at her. My anger is unmasked and the way she recoils excites me. I want her to be afraid. She needs to be afraid. I stand slowly placing my hands on the desk, leaning forward.

“I think you heard me.”

“Why should I?” she asks, defiant. “You don’t own my soul, Michael.”

That has me standing a little straighter. Her statement dampens the rage boiling up. Defiant to the end. She’s here for a reason. I need to remember that. I need to keep my personal feelings out of this.

“I told you it wasn’t a good idea to fall for him,” I remind her.

“You also said to live my life. Do you remember that? Because that’s exactly what I’m doing,” she reminds me back.

“Just end it, Shy.”

“Or what?” she asks, smugly.

“Or I’ll end it for you. Trust me, you don’t want that.”

The look on her face tells me she doesn’t believe I’ll hurt her. My look promises otherwise. She obviously forgot, or doesn’t care what will happen if she challenges me.

“Why are you doing this? Was it not enough that you brought me here, or that you did this to me? Look at me, Michael. Look at what your lies and deceit did to me. Now, you’re going to dictate how I spend my personal time?”

She narrows her eyes at me. I look at her as she demands, but my emotions are mixed. It’s disgusting what they made me do to her, but it was a necessary evil. How I feel about what happened means nothing in the grand scheme of things. I rather not deal with feelings that could do more harm than good. Anger is a familiar feeling. A comforting feeling. That’s the feeling I hold on to as Sonja’s words reverberate in my mind. I regurgitate them back to Shy.

“No one in here truly has a personal life, Shyira. You should know that by now.”

As much as I hate quoting that bitch, she’s right. We hold each other’s gaze for a moment before she asks, “What is it, Michael. Are you jealous?”

“Of what?” I bite out.

“That I could love him, and I don’t love you!” She bites right back.

Her hands ball in anger. I round my desk. I’m in her face before she can react. I’m so close I can see her hair moving as I breathe. I’m very careful not to touch her, and she notices.

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