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When You're Hungry For A Hero

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Ever since the Reyna Boyanov mission, Bradley Fine had found himself doing something he'd rarely done before: Doubting himself.

He'd been so sure that going triple agent was the only way to do this thing. Fine alone could face the danger; he alone could keep his cool during the complex set of deceptions necessary to get closer to Reyna and, by extension, the bomb. Only he could make such passionate love to Reyna as to confuse her mind and weaken her defenses—

Except Susan had deceived Reyna without a hitch. Without a complicated cover. Without having sex with Reyna even once.

(At least, he thought they hadn't had sex. Fine wasn't one hundred percent sure, and didn't intend to ask.)

So all his lies—feigning his own murder, going rogue, remaining silent while he was legally declared dead, giving up the lease on a New York apartment with an actual view of Central Park, like, a really good one in the West Eighties with an eat-in kitchen—had been for nothing.

Meanwhile, Susan Cooper had marched in, thought fast, improvised in the moment and saved Fine's ass.

Also saved the world. Couldn't forget that.

Fine's ego was a vibrant, healthy thing, undented by Susan's achievements. He felt a genuine glow of pride that she was now out in the field where she obviously belonged. What nagged at him was not her success, but his failure—on many levels.

"What did I miss?" he mused as he walked through the crowded, narrow cobblestone streets of Barcelona's Barri Gótic, three people behind the man he'd come here to tail. "Why didn't I realize Reyna was being played for a fool?"

"You mean, by someone else," said the voice in his earpiece. "Because obviously you meant to play her for a fool yourself—"

"Yes, thank you, Nancy." Fine was still adjusting to the new voice in his ear. "I ought to have realized the scenario was too simple."

To him the arms deal had seemed complex: games within games, wheels within wheels. This had blinded him to the fact that, for Reyna, the sale of the nuke had appeared to be no more complicated or dangerous than delivering a pizza. It was a finer analytical point, the kind of thing that was all too easy to lose track of in the heat of field work…

…which was why analysts stayed with you, whispering in your ear throughout missions. To think that extra step ahead.

In other words, if he'd let Susan save him to begin with, she wouldn't have had to risk her own life to save him far more dramatically at the end.

"All's well that ends well with Reyna," Nancy said briskly, "so let's not worry about that any longer, shall we? Incidentally, you've two gunmen coming up behind you on the right."

Fine cocked his head, picked up the sounds of the footsteps, and ducked the moment before the first shot rang out. As people began to scream, he shoved himself backward into one gunman, tossed the guy over his shoulder, and had his own gun in hand by the time he saw the second attacker. The guy's eyes widened—he'd counted on surprising his target—so Fine had plenty of time to fire.

"Sounds rather bangy on your end!" Nancy said.

"Killed that one. Sorry. I know it's a mess to clean up." Fine settled for knocking the other one out before getting to his feet and dashing away. By now his target would have fled; he'd have to pick up the trail again later. Damn.

"Oh, don't bother about the blood and, you know, brain matter and what-not. What else are consulates for? I'll give them a ring straightaway."

"You know, we could use another agent on the ground here," Fine said as he straightened his tie in the semi-opaque reflection offered by a passing shop window. No blood flecks had stained the cuffs of his Brooks Brothers shirt: excellent. "I'm made now—won't be able to go undercover as well. So we'll need another set of eyes. A second gun."

"Really?"

Nancy sounded surprised—as well she might. Fine knew he had a reputation as a bit of a lone wolf. A maverick. A rogue. He liked this reputation. But just because he knew how to handle a situation alone didn't mean he couldn't work in a team. "For the good of the mission. You know."

"Right, then. I'll put through your request. Anyone in particular you'd rather work with?"

If there was one thing Fine knew how to do surpassingly well, it was "sounding casual." (Well, really, there were many things he knew how to do surpassingly well, from infiltrating the Yazuka to cunnilingus, but that was beside the point at present.) So he did sound casual, maddeningly so, as if he were browsing a mundane wine list, when he said, "Where's Susan Cooper these days?"

Good. That would seem as if she were merely another agent who had come to mind—a good one, someone he trusted to work by his side. It would not at all sound as if Fine was worried about how it would go when he and Susan finally saw each other again.

I love him, she'd said, as if it were the saddest, most obvious thing in the world. As though it were completely pathetic, and surely Reyna had believed it was. Most people in the world would. Fine was uncomfortably aware that, if he'd been observing the same situation with two other similar people, he might've thought her pathetic too.

But he hadn't.

Instead Fine had found himself surprisingly moved. It wasn't that he'd ever harbored romantic feelings for Susan, or that he hadn't suspected she had a bit of a crush on him. However, to him, she'd primarily been a hyper-efficient, all-knowing voice—a cross between Siri and Wikipedia—and he'd assumed he was similarly impersonal to her. A vague, distant, glamorous presence in the world of espionage. Like a poster of James Bond or something.

(Daniel Craig, probably. Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan were also acceptable. But for the love of Christ, not Lazenby.)

So Fine had been content with his idea of Susan as a cheerful, chirpy sort of woman who probably wore appliqued sweatshirts for every major holiday, had umpteen cats she'd rescued from shelters, and baked one hell of a Bundt cake. While he had only the vaguest idea of what a Bundt cake was, he thought it was likely the sort of thing best produced by amply sized, constantly smiling women.

Susan was cute. He called her "Coop" because that was cute too. And he'd bought her that cutesy cupcake necklace to go with the candy-cane striped slippers he'd bought her for Christmas, and the popsicle earrings he'd bought for her birthday last year—or was it two years ago? She'd always acted like she enjoyed the gifts…

A spy ought to know when people are pretending, Fine reminded himself. Your blind spot about Susan Cooper—well, it's inexplicable.

No. Not inexplicable. Just embarrassing as hell. Because Susan had turned out to be so much more than he'd ever dreamed. And what she'd felt for him was, he knew, far more than he'd ever deserved.

All Fine knew was that he kept going back to those final moments when he'd believed he and Susan were about to die together. Reyna had taunted Susan about being a fool to ever believe Fine would love her back. And he had wanted to—he'd meant to—to find a moment, one second, when he could kiss Susan farewell. She deserved that, didn't she?

But Susan also deserved a kiss that wasn't mostly about showing up Reyna Boyanov. And the chance hadn't really come. So, there it was, an awkward unfinished thing between them, and if Fine could just work with Susan in the field once more and find a way to show his respect for her as a colleague, it would all be okay—

"Susan's not available, I'm afraid," Nancy chirped. "She's in Singapore with Rick Ford."

Fine had roughly the same level of respect for Rick Ford as he would for a brick wall: Strong, tough as hell, unyielding, but extremely unlikely to solve even a beginner-level sudoku any time this century. "What are they working on there? I hadn't heard of any mission in Singapore."

"Oh, it's not a mission. Their first big couples' vacation! Mind you, I'd have gone someplace closer. That transpacific flight's a bitch, isn't it? You'd be ready to smack Mahatma Gandhi before you got past Honolulu—"

"Did you say …couples' vacation?" Rick Ford and Susan? Susan and Rick Ford?

Nancy's voice rose in pitch. "Oopsie! Gunman number one's back, coming in from your left!"

Fine whirled around, catlike reflexes being all catlike, as he sighted his target and pulled the trigger. Screams echoed through the Barri Gótic as the would-be assailant dropped to the ground like so much dirty laundry.

"Goodness, that was quick," Nancy said. "Well done, you."

"I don't have any time to lose." Grimly Fine holstered his weapon and slipped back into the crowd. By the time he'd taken off his jacket and run his hands through his dirty blond hair to change the part, he'd transformed himself well enough to avoid detection by local police. "Tell the agency to send in someone new, someone whose cover hasn't been compromised. I've got to get to Singapore."

"Singapore? As in, the Asian Singapore? That one?"

"There's only one Singapore, Nancy!"

"You never know! Do you have any idea how many San Diegos exist on this Earth?"

"Have a ticket to Singapore waiting for me at the airport." Fine decided he probably had time to swing by the hotel and grab his things. "Heading West or East. Doesn't matter. About the same distance from here."

Nancy still sounded bewildered. "But that hasn't got anything to do with the mission you just completed. So why are you going to Singapore?"

Fine squared his shoulders as he strode onward, speed and sense of purpose intensifying by the moment. "Because if anyone's going to overcome cultural prejudice against women of size in order to belatedly recognize Susan's inherent value as an agent and as a woman, it is by God going to be me!"