New Arrivals
Author-D. Kelley
Titles

End of Silence
by D. Kelley

Summary: There's not much of a plot, but it gives a possible answer to one of The Sentinel's unanswered questions. Does anyone else think the picture of Jackie Kozinski might actually be a disguised Garrett Maggart? Watch Vow of Silence again and see if all this doesn't fit the story. Rated G or PG; not higher.

Spoilers: Everything. It would probably help if you've watched Vow of Silence.

Disclaimer: Jim, Blair, Simon, and The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, UPN, and Paramount, and no copyright infringement is intended. I don't own them, and the only things I have worth suing for are two spoiled rotten cats, one who's convinced he's starving to death, and the other no one but myself has ever set eyes on. My family thinks she's a figment of my imagination.

Copyright 2002

"Thank God it's Friday," Jim Ellison muttered cynically at his front door, jabbing his keys into the lock. The work week had been horrendous, with every criminal in Cascade (a not inconsiderable number) seemingly determined to strike at the same time. Jim hoped his weekend would bring some respite from the chaos, not more of the same.

Pushing the door open, he stepped into the loft, closed the door, and froze. Before he could even turn away from the door, the hair on the back of his neck was rising. Something was wrong. He pulled his gun from its holster and turned carefully, peering through the dim light.

Extending his senses automatically, he scanned the apartment for danger. There was only one heartbeat present besides his own, and that was easily identifiable as Blair's. Jim focused in on it instinctively, and noted the elevation in Blair's respiration and pulse. In the space of only an instant from the moment he had closed the front door, he zeroed in on his roommate's location, reholstered his gun, and charged the small bedroom doors.

He came to an abrupt stop outside the doors, suddenly identifying a scent that had been teasing the back of his mind since he entered the apartment. Salt and water. Saline. Tears.

Jim winced. "Damn," he muttered under his breath. Blair was crying. The last time he'd known Blair to cry had been when he had been dosed with Golden, and believed the fire people were after him. Jim would never admit it, but it had nearly broken his heart. Blair jokingly called Jim his "Blessed Protector," but Jim couldn't deny the urge he felt to keep Blair safe from all the trouble he seemed to attract. As he stood outside Blair's bedroom, part of him wanted to break down the door and comfort his guide, protecting him from even heartbreak, as he had wanted to do when Maya had hurt Blair. The other, more civilized part of him knew that his friend was a grown man who, despite their friendship, might not appreciate being smothered. Jim had seen it rankle at times with Blair that Jim and the other cops at Major Crimes tended to treat him like a teenager.

Jim fortified himself with a deep breath, and knocked quietly. "Chief?" he called.

There was no answer, but Jim could tell from Blair's pulse that his friend was awake--and from the strong scent of saline, still actively crying, albeit silently. Jim vacillated, not sure what to do. He wanted to offer support, but he didn't want to intrude. He felt he was walking a thin line, and thanks to his father's cold upbringing, he wasn't at all sure what was the appropriate response to the situation.

Jim rested his forehead on the door frame. "I'm going to make some soup, Chief," he called in quietly, feeling lame. "You come on out and eat." Cursing himself, sure he was handling the situation incorrectly, but unsure what else to do, Jim went to the kitchen and started a can of soup. The answering machine message light caught the corner of his eye, and after he had dinner going, Jim went over and turned on the messages.

"Blair? I hope this is the right number. Listen, I can't talk long. My name is Gregory Rupert; I'm one of Naomi's friends, remember? Well . . ." Jim picked up on the disquiet and sorrow in the man's voice. "Look, I apologize for doing it this way, but I only have a minute on this phone, and I won't be back to another phone for three weeks. I--your mom, Naomi? We were--she and I were with this group in Nepal--um, she probably told you about it? Geez, this is so hard. Oh, Blair, we got caught in a landslide. I'm afraid--your mom didn't make it. I'm so sorry. I really am so sorry. It was two weeks ago, and the little village we were staying with--well, everything's been taken care of. She asked for a ceremonial cremation, and you see, being two weeks away from civilization . . . well, everything's taken care of. She didn't suffer--she said there was no pain at all, and she died a short time after we found her. She said--heck, she ordered me to tell you she loved you, Blair, more than anybody, ever. That's a direct quote."

There was a long pause, and Jim managed to close his mouth. There was conversation in the background, someone saying they were about to lose the connection, and then Rupert spoke up again. "I have to get off this phone," he said hurriedly. "I'm so sorry, Blair. I'll be at another phone in three weeks, in England, and I'll call you then, I promise. God, I am so sorry, Blair. I--"

The tape stopped, and a hand came into view, pressing the Erase button on the machine. Jim turned to his roommate, dumbfounded.

Blair had stopped crying, but Jim could see the minute traces of salt still on his face. His eyes were puffy and red, and his lips were swollen. "I don't want to hear it ever again," Blair said quietly, not meeting Jim's eyes. He turned and walked back toward his room.

"Chief?" Jim went after him, catching the younger man by the shoulder. He was completely unprepared to have Blair round on him, swinging hard, and only his Covert Ops training enabled him to duck out of the way in time. He instinctively rushed Blair and grabbed the young man around the middle, pinning his arms and holding him in a tight body hug.

"Chief! Chief, it's going to be okay, you've got to calm down--" Jim tried to think of something he could say that might help, but he couldn't find any magic words to make it better. All he wanted was to comfort Blair somehow, and he wasn't even sure that Blair could hear him in this state. Jim doubted he was listening. He held on tightly, hoping his friend would calm down.

Blair had other ideas, however, and struggled violently for release. Quickly frustrated by Jim's greater body strength, he blindly resorted to age-old tactics and in desperation, brought his knee up on his unsuspecting Sentinel's groin. Covert Ops aside, Jim had never imagined Blair would do that. He dropped to the floor in a flashflood of pain, and listened helplessly as Blair's footsteps pounded across the loft floor. As Blair flung the front door open and took off, Jim struggled to his feet.

By the time he reached the street, Blair was gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"It's been four hours, Simon!"

The captain suppressed a sigh. "Jim, will you sit down?"

"We should be out looking for him!" Jim accused.

Simon summoned his patience. Jim was panicked right now, and he needed to be understanding. "The kid needs time alone, Jim," he pointed out. "If he didn't, he'd have been at the University, or the Station, or anywhere else we checked. Jim, you've got to give him some time." He had come over as soon as Ellison had called, insisting on driving when the Sentinel wanted to search for Blair. After two hours, though, Simon had been adamant that they return to the loft. The only way he got Jim to agree was to point out that Blair might have returned. It had taken some hard talking to convince Jim not to turn right back around when Sandburg had proven not to be back at the loft.

Jim slumped into a seat. "You didn't see him, Simon. He was out of it - totally out of it."

"I understand that," Simon replied patiently. "That doesn't mean he can't take care of himself. Give him a little credit, Jim."

"He should be here!" Jim protested, slumping lower. "He needs to be around friends."

"Well, you can't dictate what someone else needs, Jim," Simon said as gently as possible. As resourceful as his top detective was, Jim never responded well when faced with a situation he couldn't find some way to control, few though such situations were. "From where I'm sitting, it looks like he needs time alone, and he's done a damn efficient job getting it. You've got to try to calm down a little."

Jim rubbed his eyes wearily. "You didn't see him," he repeated, haunted by the unreasoning panic he had seen in his best friend's eyes. Blair and Naomi had an odd relationship, but there was no denying that they adored each other.

Jim was smart enough to know it hadn't really been him Blair had been reacting to when he struck out, but rather, his own overwhelming grief, something he didn't seem able to face. Jim was just afraid of what other reactions Blair might have in him. He hadn't seen the observer so out of control since he'd been dosed with the Golden.

The phone rang, and Jim instinctively jumped up to the loft phone, but Simon felt around in his coat pocket. It was his cell phone that was ringing.

"Banks," Simon barked. His eyes widened in surprise, and Jim couldn't stop from extending his hearing.

"I saw your car outside."

Jim was over in one bound, hand outstretched. "Let me talk to him."

"No!" Having heard Jim, Blair's panic was almost palpable, and Simon winced, holding Jim back with an upraised arm.

"Blair, are you okay?" Simon asked gently, putting all his worry and concern into his voice.

"Don't, don't, don't do that," the observer muttered back to him, his voice clearly showing how on the edge Blair was. "I don't want to hear it, I really don't want to hear it."

"Okay, okay, Sandburg," Simon agreed quickly.

"Let me talk to him," Jim pleaded.

"No," Blair said firmly, a little more calmly. Simon shook his head at Jim, who began to pace in frustration.

"Is he--is he really mad at me?"

Simon couldn't believe how young Blair sounded when he asked the question. Jim stopped stock still.

"No!"

Simon smiled ruefully. "Did you get that bellow?" he asked.

There was a long pause. "I didn't mean to hurt him, I really didn't."

Jim came to stand in front of Simon, speaking at the phone in his boss's hand. "I'm fine, Chief, it doesn't matter, okay?"

Simon made a hushing gesture. "He knows that, Sandburg," he said softly, not using the observer's first name. He had a feeling that kindness, even the unusual kindness of using the young man's first name, was what Sandburg had been trying desperately to avoid, as odd as it sounded. Sometimes kindness could hurt as much as pain. It made everything too real. "He's okay, really."

"I didn't mean to hurt him." It was more like a soft wail, and Simon could swear he heard crying.

"He's fine," Simon hurriedly assured the young man.

Jim leaned over Simon, putting him closer to the phone. "Come home, Chief. Everything's going to be okay, I promise."

Simon held up a hand for silence and listened to the other end of the phone. After a minute or so there was a quiet response. "I don't want to talk about it," Blair said in a conditional tone.

"We won't talk about it," Simon promised.

"Not any of it."

Simon exchanged glances with Jim, whom he knew had heard every word. The sentinel nodded.

"We won't talk about any of it," Simon promised.

"Not with anybody. No one, Simon."

"No one," Simon repeated back.

There was another long pause. "Okay," Blair whispered fearfully. "I'll be up in a minute."

Jim hurried over to the balcony and listened at the doors. "He's in his car," he reported back as Simon closed the phone.

The tall man got up and hurriedly set some food and drinks out on the table. "Sit down," he ordered Jim.

The sentinel glanced at the table and back out again. "I'm not hungry."

"I didn't ask if you were hungry," Simon replied in his best father-of-a-teenager voice. "Now get over here and sit down."

Jim crossed over and sat at the table, noting that there were three places set and snacks laid out. "Pretend to eat," Simon ordered. "It'll make him feel less awkward, and he can join us if he wants to--or not."

Jim felt despair at the words, despite the promise not to talk about the situation with Blair. "Simon," he began, but the bigger man cut him off.

"Get him home first, Jim," the captain instructed. "Get him home and calmed down, and then you can go from there." They both heard the key in the lock and picked up chips. "But right now you just want to get him home." Simon remembered Jim pre-Sandburg, and he suspected even Jim knew how thoroughly he depended on Sandburg. The changes the kid had wrought in Jim Ellison were astounding at times, and not just in regard to Jim's sentinel abilities. Pre-Sandburg, he had been a closed-off, cynical, smart-mouthed asshole who had absolutely no use, nor care, for people. Part of that was his father, Simon knew, and part of it was the time he'd spent, abandoned by the military in Peru, after his helicopter crashed and he had had to bury the seven other members of his team. His former partner's disappearance at an unfortunate time didn't help, nor did the unfounded accusations that had flown around the station about Jack, and possibly Jim, being dirty.

Jim nodded back at Simon as the door opened, and forced himself to take a bite of a chip, though it felt like the most unnatural thing in the world at the moment. He knew Simon was right though, and when he heard the door close behind Blair it was already an immense relief.

There were hesitant steps behind them, and then taking a deep breath, Blair stepped into view. He gazed at the two men warily. Both men looked up as casually as possible. Simon nodded. "Sandburg," he said in greeting.

Blair bit his lip. "There's nothing to talk about," he reiterated quietly, in a determined tone.

Jim nodded and nudged the chip bowl closer to Blair. "Have something to eat," he offered, much more coolly than he felt.

"I--I think I'm just going to go to bed," Blair answered.

"Probably a good idea," Simon said, stretching. "In fact, I think I'm going to turn in too. That offer of your couch still good, Jim? I don't feel like driving home tonight."

"Sure," Jim agreed, though he'd never offered the couch. He was grateful Simon was going to stay.

Glancing uncertainly from one man to the other, but looking considerably calmer, Blair turned and headed for the bathroom.

Jim waited until the door closed. "Simon--"

"Let him be," Simon advised. "He'll talk when he's ready. Just let him be for now."

Reluctantly, Jim nodded, and went to get sheets for the couch.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim slept uneasily and woke often. When soft footsteps made their way up the stairs to his room, he woke immediately, but kept his eyes shut. It was Blair.

The younger man reached the top and stood there, not coming any closer. Jim fought the urge to open his eyes as he wondered what Blair needed . He listened as Blair took breath after breath, standing unnaturally and atypically still. When Jim was sure he couldn't hold back the desire to comfort his friend any longer, Blair spoke, so softly that Jim knew he wasn't intending to wake Jim up from his supposed sleep. Had it not been for his sentinel hearing, he wouldn't have known Blair had spoken at all.

"I'm sorry," Blair breathed, and then he was going back down the steps. Jim listened to him make his way back to his own bed, and smiled sorrowfully. Even when he himself was suffering, Blair was thinking of Jim's pain.

"I know, Chief," he whispered back, aware that Blair, back in his own room, couldn't hear him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Three days later, Jim stalked down the halls of the station, oblivious to the people scattering to get out of his way. He headed straight for Simon's office, not bothering to knock.

"Do come in," Simon said facetiously, watching his detective close the door and turn his fury to his Captain.

"What is this crap, Simon?" Jim spat, flinging a paper down onto the Captain's desk.

Simon met Jim's gaze levelly, not bothering to look at the paper in front of him. "Personnel's been insisting for months that you've got to take some of your accumulated time. The department can't afford to pay that much overtime, so you're going to have to take it as comp time. Effective tomorrow."

Simon watched as his best detective began to pace like a caged panther. "I know you said to let him be, but I can't do this, Simon. The timing couldn't be worse. I can't leave Sandburg right now when--"

"You know, Jim," Simon interrupted, unable to keep from smiling, "For such a good detective, you can be pretty oblivious sometimes. I think the timing's great. You could take Sandburg somewhere--he needs the downtime--and the two of you can rest. You could still be back before--before the guy calls back from England." Simon took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes wearily. "I think it'd be good for him to get away, Jim."

Jim stopped still and considered it. The first day, Blair had spent on the phone. Jim hadn't eavesdropped, although he wanted to, but he wanted more to give Blair some privacy. Whatever he found out that day, Blair had been even more withdrawn and wooden since. Worse, he refused to even acknowledge that there was a problem. When Joel had tried to ask his friend what was wrong the day before, Blair had uncharacteristically walked away mid-conversation, leaving Joel hanging. And Jim and Simon felt compelled to keep Blair's secret because of their promise not to talk about it.

Jim had really thought, however, that Blair would break down after a day or two. It was unheard of, a silent Sandburg. But that's what his roommate had become, a robot, blank-faced, emotionless, going through the motions of his classes and his duties at the station, but it was obvious to all who knew him that something was seriously wrong. Something which he refused to acknowledge, let alone talk about.

Maybe getting Blair away would help. "It can't hurt," Jim finished thinking aloud, surrendering to the idea.

"That's what I thought," Simon agreed. "I already called the Dean and told her--"

"Tell me you didn't," Jim pleaded, imagining the consequences when Blair found out.

"Let me finish," Simon retorted, trying to hold on to his patience. "I told her that we had just finished a particularly grueling case, and that Sandburg had been instrumental in helping to solve it, and that the mayor himself requested the kid get a vacation."

Relief warred with worried amusement. "You lied, Captain?"

Simon's chin lifted. "No, I did not lie," he said gruffly. "All our cases are grueling--lately, anyway, and Sandburg has improved your solve rate, Jim, don't deny it, not that it wasn't good to begin with--and the last time I spoke with the mayor about Sandburg and one of your cases, the man said, and I quote, 'I wish that boy would take a trip and draw all the criminals somewhere else for a change'."

Jim couldn't help it; he snickered, needing the release. "He does tend to pull them out of the woodwork, doesn't he?"

"Like he's wearing a target," Simon agreed, but both men sobered quickly, remembering the current trauma their favorite observer was facing.

"I hope I can get him to go somewhere," Jim worried.

"Well, hell, Jim, you're bigger than he is. Tell him he has no choice. Tell him I don't want to see his ugly face in my station for two weeks. Heck, blackmail him--tell him you can't keep it a secret much longer if the two of you don't get out of town."

"Where can we go?" Jim mused.

"Someplace quiet," Simon advised. "Someplace where he can think. Hopefully come to grips."

The spot suggested itself immediately; it was the place Blair himself had told Jim was his first choice when he wanted a peaceful, restorative get-away. Of course, it hadn't turned out that way the last time they'd been there, but hopefully, the problem was solved now.

"St. Sebastian," Jim nodded to himself. It was perfect.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair was ice. "What do you mean, he called the Dean?" His blue eyes flashed, and Jim fought the urge to take a step back.

"Well," Jim shrugged, "he just thought you might like to get away, you know, take a vacation."

Blair started to pace the floor, an abrupt turnaround from his behavior of the last few days, and Jim winced as he realized Blair was working himself up. The panic attacks Blair had admitted to in his youth rarely happened anymore with his usually happy-go-lucky roommate, but when it did--well, Jim had to admit, he was more than a little nervous.

Blair stopped short. "He has no right to call anybody for me," he stated, voice hard.

"He was just trying--"

Blair cut him off, and his eyes were like lasers. Jim felt the room getting warm. "Did I ask anybody to call my boss and ask if I could have some time off? Did I ask him to do anything for me? Oh, wait," he said sarcastically, snapping his fingers, "I did, didn't I? And apparently, Simon just couldn't keep his mouth shut!"

"Now be fair, Chief," Jim interjected. "Simon didn't tell the Dean that. He just said it's been a tough month and you've been instrumental in solving some cases."

"I don't care what he told the Dean!" Blair shouted. "Who asked him to call anybody for me?"

Jim did take a step back this time. "Well, Chief, looks like maybe you should talk to Simon," he offered, trying to ease out of the conversation.

Blair jabbed a finger at him. "And you're just as bad! You come in here and just tell me to get packed, we're going to St. Sebastian's. Just like that! And you already called and told them we were coming!"

"We could cancel . . ." Jim trailed off, wanting very much not to cancel.

Blair laughed, a short, harsh sound. "Oh, we could cancel, could we? Just like we decided to take a vacation? And like we decided on St. Sebastian's? Or like we told them we were coming?"

"I'm sorry," Jim apologized, recognizing that he would never find the right words. "I didn't think--"

"That's for sure," Blair spat out in disgust. "You two are constantly forgetting that I am not some little kid who tags along with you! I'm 26 years old, for God's sake! I have a Master's Degree! I almost have my doctorate! I teach at the University! I've been quite self-sufficient almost my whole life, and yet you two act like I was born when I met you four years ago and refuse to see me as anything other than some little boy you have to watch over, make decisions for, raise! You two are not my fathers!"

Blair whirled away quickly, his breath catching.

Jim reached out unthinkingly. "Blair--"

"Shut up!" Blair screamed, turning back around. "Shut up, Jim!" He sat down hard on the ground, instinctively folding his legs in a lotus position, but his hands were pressed against his face and he was hunched over.

Jim sat down too, hating to see his best friend in such pain. Though Blair had covered his eyes and was silent about it, at this proximity, Jim could easily smell the saline that told him Blair was crying. He wanted to put his arm around his friend, but he was afraid it would set Blair off again.

After several minutes, Blair seemed to calm. His hands lowered, and he leaned his back against the support column behind him. His head was turned upward, but his eyes remained closed. "She promised she'd always come back," he said softly, breaking his silence on the subject. "From when I was little on, every time she'd leave, she'd promise that she would come back."

Jim knew what he meant. Naomi had always been a free spirit--too free, at times, to be burdened with raising a son. Blair had been left with friends and distant family for long periods at a time during his childhood, and when he and Naomi were together, she was usually moving him on to some new place. That kind of life had to have been a little scary at first for a child, but Jim now knew why Blair never seemed to mind; he'd had his mother's promise that she would always come back to him, and that got him through her absence. She would come back to him.

And now, she wouldn't.

Blair seemed to be reading his mind. "She's not coming back this time," Blair said with a mock-laugh, still not opening his eyes. "She's left me for good." Jim saw the tears start slipping through the closed eyelids again, but otherwise, Blair gave no indication that he was crying.

"I've got no family now," Blair observed, with far less emotion than Jim knew he was feeling. "You know all those uncles I've told you about? All those cousins, and such?" He paused, and Jim nodded, unseen.

"Naomi had me call all her boyfriends 'uncle'," Blair laughed. "Which is why I never had any 'aunts.' My 'cousins' are all relatives of my 'uncles.' The only person I knew I was actually related to was Naomi. But you know my mom--'the whole world is our family, sweetie'."

Jim nodded again; he could imagine Naomi, with her unstoppable new age proverbs and adages and such, saying something like that. He could almost hear her saying it, in fact.

"She never even told me who her family was. I don't even know if Sandburg was her real name. And she never told me who--" Blair trailed off, and his head dropped.

The silence was a palpable entity for the next several minutes, hovering in the air between them. Blair had always seemed nonchalant and unconcerned about the fact that Naomi had told him, every time he asked, that she didn't know who was Blair's father, but Jim had suspected for some time that deep down, Blair cared.

Blair laughed bitterly, breaking the silence. "When I was little, I thought, 'as soon as I'm old enough, Mom'll tell me.' Then when I was older," he shrugged, "I thought, 'when I graduate from high school, she'll tell me.' Then graduation came and went, so I thought, 'well, she'll tell me when I get my degree.' After a while, I just started thinking, 'she'll leave me the name in her Will. Or she'll tell me on her deathbed when she's old, and I'm too old to need it any more.'" Blair scrubbed at his face furiously. "I never thought she would never tell me."

Blair pounded his fist on his thigh, opened his eyes, and looked intently at Jim. "I know she does know who--" he said, bitterly. "Did know." He paused. "I know she did, Jim, I know she really did know who my father was."

Blair turned to him now, a little of the old Blair coming back as he shifted into one of his eager, explaining modes, even if it was darker than usual. "She gets--got money, all the time, from somewhere. She said it was an old friend, and I didn't need to worry about it. These notices would come in the mail that said money had been deposited. Every time we started to get low, another notice would come, like magic. As far as I know, Naomi never called anybody to say we needed money, but the money always came. I tried to trace where the money was coming from when I was 16, but it comes from a Swiss bank, and they won't tell you anything, you know?"

"There must be someone who can help you," Jim murmured, almost afraid to speak up, for fear of scaring Blair out of talking at last.

Blair nodded vigorously, his gaze and his hands flying everywhere. "A couple of years ago, I even asked Jack Kelso to see if his connections could help. He said what little he could get about the account was that the money was being forwarded around quite a bit before being transferred. Short of a whole bunch of court orders, I wouldn't be able to get any more information on it than that. It was too hard to trace.

"And now the money's my problem to deal with. I don't know what to do with it. I'm tempted to give it all away. I've always thought maybe it was coming from my father, so I would always tell my mom, well, if he doesn't want me, I don't want his money. I never would use it. She did of course, and naturally, she spent some of it on me. But only Naomi would touch it, not me."

"Maybe it's from her family," Jim suggested.

"Yeah, well, I don't know that, do I?" Blair responded angrily. "Evidently she never thought I was worth the information! Damn it, Naomi!" He pulled his knees up and leaned on them, letting his hair hide his face from view. This time Jim could even hear the restrained but angry sobs. "I took care of you!" Blair cried at his absent mother. "I loved you even though you left me all the time! I made sure everything worked! I took care of food and cleaning and writing your checks for you so they wouldn't shut off the electricity! I did! And all you ever did was leave me, or show up unannounced and embarrass me, or pull me away from my friends with no notice and drag me to some new spot halfway across the country! And I loved you!" The anger left Blair's voice and was replaced with resigned misery.

"I loved you no matter what," he said softly. "And it wasn't easy, but you knew I loved you. And yet you never would tell me. You never told me anything about our real family, about my own father. Why didn't you tell me?"

Blair got up without another word and stumbled off to his bedroom, pulling the door firmly shut behind him. Jim wrapped his arms around himself and shook his head. They were a pair, weren't they? He with his father, Blair with his mother. But at least Blair knew how to talk to people. He, on the other hand, was at a huge loss for how to make Blair feel better, and he had never been so painfully aware of that fact.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"This sucks," Jim heard Blair mutter. His roommate was staring out the window of the truck as they pulled up to the place where the monastery bus would meet them.

"I know," Jim commiserated, knowing what Blair was truly upset about, even if Blair wouldn't acknowledge it.

The young man got out of the truck as it came to a stop, pulling his bag out after him, and slamming the door. Jim winced, but managed to keep from responding.

"I have work to do," Blair muttered, dropping his bag hard on the hood of the truck. Jim bit his tongue to keep from saying anything about possible dents.

Jim could hear the St. Sebastian bus in the distance, for which he was eternally grateful. Blair kept muttering, well aware his Sentinel could hear.

"This is kidnapping, plain and simple," he heard the young man grumble.

"Brother Marcus will be glad to see you," Jim offered, knowing the affection that existed between his partner and the older monk, whom they had discovered on their last visit was really the infamous, long-missing union boss/alleged mobster, Jackie Kozinski.

Even seeing his old friend only lightened Blair's face for the briefest of moments. "Yeah, well, he'd like it a lot better if I wasn't being forced to come up here."

"Well, be sure and tell him that," Jim muttered back, making sure he pitched it so Blair could still hear.

The bus rattled up beside them, and they were surprised to see Brother Marcus himself descend the stairs. The man hopped carefully off the last step and crossed to Blair excitedly. "Blair! I was so happy to hear you were coming!" Without noticing anything amiss, he pulled Blair into an embrace. It had been the first time they'd seen each other since Blair discovered Marcus's true identity, and Jim knew Marcus had been afraid Blair wouldn't want to be friends any more after discovering Marcus's past as Jackie Kozinski.

Marcus held Blair out at arms' length, now noticing that the normal exuberance of his young friend was missing. "Blair?"

Blair forced a wan smile. "It's good to see you, Marcus," he replied, patting the monk's arms.

Jim extended his palm to Marcus for a handshake. "You remember me, don't you, sir?" he smiled.

"Of course I do, of course I do," Marcus grinned broadly, bouncing on his toes. He shook Jim's hand vigorously. "How could I forget Detective Ellison, who saved my life, not to mention made such an impression on Brother Jeremy?"

Jim joined the monk in a laugh. The Abbot was a good man, but he and Jim seemed to rub each other the wrong way at times. Blair had said it was because they were so much alike. Too controlling.

"Well, I'm keeping my gun and my cell phone," Jim warned, laughing. "There's no way he's going to get them from me again!"

Marcus nodded, grinning. "He's learned his lesson on that one," Marcus said sagely. "He wants you to keep them this time!" The two men laughed again, Blair hanging quietly on the outskirts of the conversation. The last time Blair and Jim had visited, Jeremy had locked up their equipment, pointing out that it was not needed in a monastery. However, they had all come to regret that decision, Jeremy most of all.

"Well, let's hit the road," Marcus suggested, heading toward the bus. He eyed Blair again worriedly out of the corner of his eye, and ushered the men into the bus.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They settled in quickly and quietly--too quietly, it became immediately apparent. Jim could see the monks' questioning glances. Blair was too far out of character for it to not be obvious to anyone who knew him. He was quiet, rarely speaking, and only occasionally forcing a slight smile. This was so far from the bouncing, hyperactive, full-of-the-joy-of-life young man they'd all come to love that it was unsettling. Even Marcus, who had always held a special place in Blair's heart, couldn't draw him out. The monk sought Jim out on a twilight walk after dinner of their third day, after Blair had already retired to his cell for the evening.

The two men walked together in companionable silence for some moments. Jim genuinely liked Marcus, even knowing his past history. Marcus had seen the error of his ways long ago and had righted the situation, despite the fact that it made him a marked man to some very powerful people. Were it not for his faked death on their last visit, Marcus might truly be dead by now. Jim stopped at a field just as the moon came out from behind a cloud, and he admired the view on the wild flowers running rampant over the cleared area.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Marcus remarked quietly. "I come here sometimes when I can't sleep."

Jim nodded. He watched, entranced, as fireflies hovered in the air.

"Jim," Marcus said hesitantly, "Is--is Blair--angry with me?"

"No," Jim reassured, shaking his head firmly. "No, Marcus, really, it has nothing to do with you."

"Something's happened to him, hasn't it?" Marcus asked softly. "Something terrible."

Jim nodded again. "I promised I wouldn't tell anyone," he sighed, frustrated.

"How bad is it?"

Jim turned to face the older man. "Bad," he said gravely.

Marcus's eyes suddenly misted up. "Naomi," he breathed.

Jim gaped. "How did you--" He hustled to support Marcus as the older man stumbled, and he helped the monk to a stone bench set to the side of the path.

Marcus sat still as a stone himself for a moment, and then wiped at his eyes. "She's dead," he stated.

"How did you know?" Jim repeated.

Marcus slumped against the back of the bench. "I don't know," he said brokenly. "It just came to me when I looked in your eyes." He turned to face the detective. "What happened?" He waved a hand to silence Jim before he could speak. "No, never mind, you promised." He sat back again.

They sat quietly for a long time. Then Marcus sighed. "He's not handling it well," he observed.

"He's not handling it at all," Jim muttered, looking out over the field.

Marcus nodded beside him. "I understand." He wiped at his eyes again, and looked over at Jim, and spoke in a slow, very deliberate tone. "You know, she and I used to date."

Jim turned slowly, staring at the monk, as the words registered. Thoughts began to run through his head, picking up speed as he stared at the nervous, expectant look in Marcus's eyes.

Marcus dated Naomi.

Marcus dated Naomi.

Marcus became a monk in the 70s, so he would have had to have dated Naomi before that.

Blair was born in 1969.

Life would have been dangerous for anyone associated with him at that time, and Marcus was no fool.

No one ever knew he'd dated Naomi, not even Blair. He would have told me that. Blair would have told me if he'd known that Marcus had dated Naomi.

"It wasn't meant to be," Marcus stated, tilting his head to look up at the moon. "She might have been the one for me, but I definitely wasn't the one for her."

No, Jim thought fast and furiously, I could see that. Naomi was always so innocent. When Charlie had used his abilities for personal gain, she was thoroughly demoralized. How must she have reacted when she learned about Jackie Kozinski's professional life?

Marcus seemed to be moving along the same train of thought. "She left when she learned the truth. Came back to Cascade a few times," he shrugged, "and each time it just pointed out to me what a difference there was between her world and mine. I didn't want my world to touch her. Or--"

He looked back over at Jim. "The first time she was gone four years." He paused significantly. "When I ran into her again, she had a little surprise with her."

Jim exploded off the bench, and didn't stop till he was several feet away. He started to pace back and forth. "I'm not the one you should be telling this to," he snapped tightly at Marcus.

"I know," the monk bowed his head.

"Blair is the one--" Jim took a step forward, "Why haven't you told him?"

Marcus met his gaze calmly and regretfully. "I never wanted Naomi or Blair to get hurt. And Naomi always told me she didn't know for a fact that I was the one. And she absolutely didn't want him to know. I was trying to respect her wishes."

Jim took another step forward, his anger evaporating. "Well, she's gone now," he said matter-of-factly, crossing to the bench again and slouching down onto it. "And Blair is a grown man. He has the right to know."

"You're right," Marcus agreed. "But how can I tell him this? How can I tell him now? And how can I tell him what I believe when even Naomi always said she didn't know?" He slumped on the bench. "Not to mention how can I tell him what he's got for a father."

Jim sighed at the dejected tone Marcus finished with. "You're not Jackie Kozinski any more," he observed softly. "The man I know, the man Blair's always known, is Brother Marcus. Brother Marcus is a good man."

Marcus bowed his head. "You're kind to say so," he said wearily. "But I still remember how Naomi took it--and Blair's got that same kind of innocence."

"Not the same," Jim disagreed. "He's been working with me for a while, remember?" There was only a little bitterness in his voice, leeched out of the guilt that hit him from time to time when he imagined how much safer Blair's life might have been if they had never met.

Marcus smiled at him. "You're a good man," he repeated Jim's words back to him gently. "You take care of Blair, I've seen that. I'm glad he has you for a friend."

"He takes care of me," Jim replied, shrugging.

They stared out at the field in companionable silence for a moment. Jim was surprised when he found himself breaking the peacefulness of the night.

"So how did you meet her?" he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

Marcus grinned, remembering. "She knocked me off my feet," he chuckled. "Literally."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Oh, my stars, I am so sorry!"

One minute Jackie was about to enter a department store, and the next he was flat on his back on the sidewalk. He looked up in surprise as a slender, extraordinarily pretty redhead loomed over him, and quickly made an unobtrusive gesture to warn his would-be bodyguard back before the pretty girl noticed him and was scared off.

"Did I hurt you? I can't believe--I am so sorry, I'm really so sorry!" She ran her hands over his arms and assisted as he got to his feet. "I wasn't paying attention, and then I saw my bus through the window, and--" She looked off down the street, crestfallen. "My bus . . ."

Jackie grinned, seeing the bus trailing off in the distance. "Well, maybe I should give you a ride," he suggested, always quick to take advantage of any opportunity to enhance his social life.

The redhead turned back to him. "Oh, I couldn't--you are all right, then? I really am so sorry!"

Jackie grinned and offered his hand. "I'm fine, miss, and it's Jackie. Jackie Kozinski."

The redhead's slim hand slipped into his easily and she smiled delightedly at him. "Naomi Sandburg," she responded. "And I really am very sorry."

Jackie laughed. "I know, I know. Now, how about making it up to me by letting me give a beautiful woman a ride?" He winked at her.

Naomi giggled and slid her arm around his. "Well, if you put it that way, how can I deny you?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"And it was that easy," Marcus laughed. "She was so open and innocent--it never occurred to her that I could be a rapist, or a serial killer--" he paused, "--or any other kind of criminal." He looked out at the night with sad eyes. "But she was a beautiful girl, and unlike any I'd been with to that point."

He turned to Jim. "You being a cop, you must know the kind of girls I was accustomed to. Not necessarily criminals, but--used to that kind of world."

Jim nodded. "Hardened."

"Yes," Marcus nodded. "And I came to think of it that way--my world, and her world. I deliberately kept them separate. I always came to Naomi--I didn't let her come to me. I took her places where I wouldn't be recognized. I wanted her to stay as she was. I couldn't bear the thought of her changing into one of the girls from my world."

"She was an innocent," Jim agreed.

Marcus's eyes twinkled. "Even when she was breaking the law, she was an innocent."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Oh, but we have to," Naomi pulled at Jackie's coat, snuggling closer. "It's such an important cause. Poor, sweet animals are being killed every day for nothing! Come on, Jackie, you have to protest with me." She kissed him sweetly, murmuring entreaties.

Jackie shook his head, resolute. "Baby, you'll just get arrested. I am not going to deliberately get myself thrown in jail."

Naomi pulled off Jackie's suit coat and hung it on the back of the chair next to her, wanting to cuddle without fear of wrinkling Jackie's clothing too badly. "You'll be with me," she purred in his ear.

Jackie laughed, pulling her closer. "They separate the men from the women, sweetheart. I'm not going."

"Don't you care about those poor creatures?" Naomi asked, looking momentarily hurt. Jackie knew it would pass.

"I have to work," Jackie pointed out to her. "Of course I care, honey, but I draw the line at going to jail."

Just as Jackie had known it would, the hurt passed from Naomi's face as she moved on to the next brilliant idea. She snatched up a clipboard from the table. "Oh, but you'll sign our petition?" she asked excitedly.

Jackie laughed and scribbled his signature, then went back to his growing obsession, kissing Naomi Sandburg. "You're so easy to please, baby," he whispered against her lips.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Her world, a world where everything was flowers and light, and all the good things of the 60s, it gave me an escape," Marcus observed quietly. "For a little while each day, I could escape into a world of innocence and beauty, and pretend I was a part of it. Naomi gave that to me."

The older man leaned forward, elbows on knees, abject shame on his face. "I used her," he exhaled softly. "I loved her so much, but I can't deny I also used her for what she could give me--her world, even when I knew it couldn't last."

Marcus fell into the past.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jackie couldn't have wished for a more perfect day. He and Naomi had spent the better part of the day and evening in the park, far away from the escalating insanity of his work. He was glad that he was good at what he did, glad he was doing as he'd always been taught a man should - rising to the top. But there was a part of him that was growing increasingly uneasy with the whole situation. It seemed every time he turned around, he found himself having to do something, say something, order something, that went more and more against his nature. Each time, it felt like he was losing a tiny bit of who he was, and the pieces were beginning to add up.

Jackie smiled at Naomi, who was walking beside him and swinging her hand in his. Naomi brought him back to himself. With Naomi, he could be the man he wished he was. The kind of man a girl like Naomi could love. Frowning suddenly, Jackie hoped desperately that she never learned about the dual nature of his world: his innocent, achingly sweet home life with this beautiful woman-child, and the ruthless, cutthroat profession he was sinking deeper and deeper into.

Naomi clucked her tongue at him and giggled, bringing her hand up to rub his cheek. "What are you thinking about so seriously?" she teased. "Life's too short for such dark thoughts, whatever they are." She threw her arms to the sky and whirled around. "Let them all fly away, Jackie. You don't need them."

Jackie pulled her close in a hug, captivated by her naiveté. "You're right," he agreed, as her arms came down around him. "All I need is you."

"Oh," she tilted her head, smiling brightly. "Aren't you the sweetest thing?"

Jackie was sure, in the moment that followed, that the earth had opened and they had fallen down a deep crevasse, but he saw soon enough what had happened. Like lightning, the two of them, still clasped together, had been tackled by someone big, and rolled with the momentum into the safety of a large copse of bushes. Gunfire rang out all around them as Naomi screamed.

Jackie instinctively put a hand over her mouth, simultaneously noting that it had been his buddy, Paul, who was their savior, and found himself unsurprised at Paul's protective presence. His tall friend cocked his head, listening through the barrage of weaponry, and then silently indicated the route they should take. Naomi fell blessedly silent, content to hang on to Jackie as they slipped out of the bushes, following Paul.

The guns fell silent, and Paul paused, listening intently. He spun around quickly, and then gave them both a shove. "Run," he ordered quietly. Then making a good amount of noise, he headed off in a different direction. Jackie was torn between protecting Naomi and backing up Paul, but he trusted his friend implicitly, so Jackie ran where Paul had indicated, pulling Naomi after him. She was surprisingly fast, and Jackie was pretty sure Paul had managed to draw their would-be assassins away. Jackie felt an urge he thought long-dead, to offer up a prayer, for Paul's safety.

They ran out of the park and into the more populated areas of the city, and after they crossed a few blocks, they finally fell against the alley-side of a building to catch their breaths.

As soon as she had enough breath, Naomi started to cry. "Someone tried to kill us!"

Jackie gathered her to him. "Shh, honey, it's okay."

She pushed against him. "They tried to kill us, Jackie, somebody tried to kill us!"

"We're fine, baby, we're not hurt. Let it go. Okay?"

She looked up at him in surprise, and indignant anger began to rise in her face. "Jackie, I don't like the pigs any more than you do, but this time we have to go to the cops. Somebody just tried to kill us!"

She took his hand as if to lead him to the police station herself, but Jackie held firm. "We're okay," he repeated reassuringly, trying to calm her.

It had the opposite effect. "What are you saying?" Naomi shouted. "We have to call the cops!"

Paul appeared from the opposite end of the alley, panting slightly. "No police," he told her. He rubbed his temple with one hand.

Naomi jumped at his entrance, and seeing Paul's threatening headache, Jackie stepped forward to clasp Paul's hand. "Thank you, my friend." Paul breathed deeply, then nodded in reply.

"What do you mean, no police?" Naomi interjected from behind them, hands on her hips. "What are you talking about?"

Jackie put a hand to Paul's shoulder to introduce him, but noticed immediately it was wet. "You've been hit," he exclaimed. He tried to get a better look at the wound. Paul looked surprised.

Jackie heard Naomi gasp behind them, and then he was pushed aside by the slim redhead. She took control like a professional--which, Jackie supposed, she almost was, as much of her life had been spent on the road, doing for herself. "It's not too bad," she observed, examining the wound. She looked up at Paul. "I suppose a doctor is out of the question?"

"For now," Paul nodded. He looked over at Jackie. "We need to get to a safe spot. We can call the guys."

"You know I don't have a phone," Naomi observed, poking at the wound, "but my place isn't far," she said resignedly.

Paul nodded again and abruptly turned out of the alley.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When she was done cleaning the wound, Naomi coated it with Betadine. "Naomi Sandburg," she muttered to Paul, as an afterthought.

Paul looked from Jackie back to Naomi. "Paul Mason."

Naomi ripped open a roll of gauze. "You're lucky the bullet went straight through," she told Paul. "I wouldn't have had a clue how to get it out if it hadn't."

"We would have gotten him to a doctor soon," Jackie interjected from the chair where he was sitting.

Naomi didn't seem to have heard him. She wrapped the bandage tightly around Paul's arm. "I suppose I should thank you," she said thoughtfully. "You did save my life."

Jackie noted the omission of himself and sat up straight.

Paul gazed up at Naomi. She secured the bandage. "Were you just in the wrong place at the right time?"

Paul looked over to Jackie, whom Naomi continued to ignore. "Uh," he hesitated, "I--I wanted to see you."

Naomi raised an eyebrow at him and pulled up a chair. "Me?"

Paul looked uncertainly to Jackie, who slouched back and waved acquiescence. "I wanted to see Jackie's friend," Paul told Naomi.

"Jackie's friend?" Naomi didn't so much as glance toward Jackie.

"Yes," Paul answered, clearly uncomfortable. "I mean, Jackie's been spending so much time with you--I--well, I guess I was just curious. I wanted to see you."

Naomi lay a hand on Paul's arm. "Are you his friend, Paul?"

Paul's eyes kept wandering back and forth between the two. "Yes," he confessed.

"And you heard about me?"

"Oh, yes," Paul gave the most minute smile. "Jackie talks about you all the time. Well, with me, he does, anyway."

Naomi smiled back, but Jackie winced. Naomi's tone was growing increasingly irritated, and Paul seemed to be oblivious.

"Paul, I think my neighbor downstairs has a phone. Do you think you feel up to asking her if you could use it? Tell her Naomi sent you, okay?"

Paul stood up immediately, relieved to be released. "Thank you, ma'am. It's nice to meet you."

Naomi giggled, but it was nothing like the carefree laugh of earlier. "Oh, don't call me ma'am," she told him. "I'm only 19."

Paul nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

Jackie saw him to the door. "You're hopeless, my friend." He gave Paul a pat on the back as he ushered him out, knowing that Paul always seemed to do better with such touches.

Paul seemed reassured as he left.

Jackie braced himself and turned back. Naomi was waiting for him, arms crossed.

"He seems like a nice man," she remarked, staring at the wall.

Jackie stepped hesitantly forward. "Yes," he agreed. "He's my best friend."

Naomi continued to regard a spot on the wall. "Your best friend," she echoed. "You know, Jackie," she hugged herself tightly, "it occurs to me that I don't know very much about you. Your best friend, what you do for a living, where you live--" She finally turned to face him, eyes blazing. "I kept telling myself you were just old-fashioned, wanting to pick me up all the time. But something else is going on here, isn't it, Jackie?"

"Um . . ." Jackie forced himself to take another step closer.

"Why was somebody shooting at us, Jackie?" Naomi shouted. "Why did someone want to kill us? And why don't you want to go to the cops? What haven't you been telling me?"

She had started crying again, and Jackie couldn't help himself. He went to comfort her, but took his blows as she swung out at him in pent-up fear and anger, battering against him. Her blows were light, so he simply held her up until she was finished, then sat down with her beside him, holding on.

"I'm good at what I do, Naomi," Jackie told her gently. "Very good. And there are people out there who want to stop me, any way they can. That's why they were shooting at us; they wanted to put me out of action. As to the cops--baby, it wouldn't do any good. And it could do me a lot of harm."

Naomi pushed him away. "You're not a criminal--oh, God, tell me you're not a criminal!"

"No," Jackie protested, then had to reassess his own answer. "Not really, baby, not really."

"What do you do?" Naomi asked suspiciously.

Jackie sighed. "I think up ways for people to make money," he condensed his job description. "I'm very good at finding ways for some very powerful people to make a lot of money."

"Like how?" Naomi asked.

Jackie gave a minute shrug. "This and that," he hedged. Seeing the look in Naomi's eyes, he bit the bullet. "It's complicated. Sometimes it's investments. Sometimes it's--insurance."

"Tell me the truth," Naomi ordered him in a hard tone he'd never heard from her before.

Jackie looked at the floor, his dream of Naomi never discovering the kind of man he really was disappearing in front of his eyes. "I used to be an accountant," he told her softly. "Paul and I grew up in a bad neighborhood. We were lucky," he shrugged. "We ran around with the sons of some very important people. We got pretty close to their family, and they liked us. They took care of us in the neighborhood. They made sure we weren't hassled, that we got an education. The understanding was always that we would come to work for them when we were done."

"Who are they?" Naomi demanded.

Jackie looked back down at the floor. "You're better off not knowing, Naomi," he said quietly. "Anyway, we did go to work for them. I'm sort of an accountant for them, and Paul is my--uh, assistant."

"Your 'muscle'," Naomi deduced. "How--how can he? He seems so nice!"

Jackie met her eyes. "He is nice," he whispered sadly, fully aware of the incongruity. "He doesn't like what he's doing, but he wants to keep me safe."

Naomi pushed away from him and jumped up. She began to pace back and forth, but stopped abruptly. "You said you used to be an accountant," she accused.

Jackie nodded wearily. "It started out that way. Then," he looked away, "I don't know, things started to change. It all got more--complicated."

Naomi flopped down beside him as close as she could get and grasped his arms. She peered into his eyes. "We've got to get out of here," she told him carefully.

"It's not possible."

"No," Naomi gave him a little shake. "We can leave. Tonight. We'll get in my car and just drive somewhere else."

"It's more complicated than you know, baby."

Naomi shook him again. "I've done it fifty times! We just drive somewhere else, and find a job there. It'll be fine. You won't have to do those things any more."

Jackie broke her hold on him. "You don't understand, Naomi," he said harshly. "It's more complicated than that!" He sighed heavily. "You don't just leave with these people."

Naomi gasped. "It's the mob, isn't it? You're in the mob!"

Jackie grabbed her hands. "I'm not in the mob," he said earnestly. "But--the people I work for have connections with them." He confessed, trailing off at the end.

Naomi jumped up off the couch. "We have to get out of here," Naomi insisted. She grabbed a canvas bag and started throwing in the few items in her one-room apartment. "I'm leaving," she told him over her shoulder. "You can come with me, or stay, but I Am Leaving."

Jackie sank lower on the couch, miserable. His dream world with Naomi had collapsed, she was leaving, and he would be stuck solely in the world of his job again. "I wish I could go with you," he said softly.

Naomi whirled around and faced him, anger clear on her face. "The only one stopping you is you," she accused. "You're the only person who can get you out of this. And if you choose not to, Jackie Kozinski, you can do it without me. I know when it's time to move on."

Jackie nodded, unable to think of any words to speak. Naomi finished her packing and headed with her bag to the front door. She paused, hand on the knob.

"I loved you," she said softly, and without seeing her face, Jackie could tell she was crying again.

"I love you," he replied, finding the words from the bottom of his heart. Naomi nodded, twisted the knob, and was gone.

Jackie sat there quietly, the weight of his first heartbreak crushing him. At some point, Paul reappeared, and sat down next to him on the couch.

After a while, Paul cleared his throat. "I heard," he said apologetically.

"I know," Jackie nodded. He clasped his hand onto Paul's shoulder.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"You know what happened next," Marcus told Jim. "The family thought it would be wonderful if I went into union management, and I let myself be talked into it because I thought I could do some good for the workers. But I found out quickly enough that this was just another way for me to help the family, by manipulating the union. Someone would say how good it would be if I did this, or had that done, and not knowing what else to do, I'd nod, and off someone would go to do it, in my name. And I can't lie," Marcus said recriminatingly, "some of those things were pretty bad."

He looked over at Jim. "But I meant it when I said no murders. I wouldn't order that, and they knew it, so they didn't ask me. I don't know where the rumors about it came from, but why they started was probably the fact that all of my opponents seemed to disappear after a while. I looked the other way, but I knew the family was probably doing it. They had to protect their investment in me. They needed the power of the office."

"I told myself I was clean," Marcus sighed, focusing on a nearby firefly. "I didn't order any killings, I didn't condone any killings. But I did look the other way. I forced myself not to think about it. And I never asked anyone. I didn't want to know."

Marcus sighed again, a deep, regretful sound. "The whole thing was harder on Paul than me. He had more conscience, I guess. Despite Naomi's suspicions about what Paul did, in reality, he was much more about defense than offense. He had to get rough once or twice, and he would have to spend the next Sunday in church. He never gave up on our religion, and he refused to let me completely ignore it. I don't know, he got comfort from it. He never liked what he was doing, never."

Marcus shrugged. "Up until that point, neither of us had thought about leaving. It was almost like that wasn't an option from the very beginning, from when we first made friends with those boys. So life went on, and a few years later, Naomi burst into my life again."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jackie mused for a moment, grinning to himself. Here he'd been just wondering, what had happened to Naomi in the four years since he saw her last, and just like that, if only for a moment, she bowled back into his life. Literally. Jackie had been walking through the department store at the mall, trying to find the right gift for his boss's birthday, when a blur of red hair and slender femininity knocked him off his feet. He leaned up on his elbows to see who his assailant had been.

Her attention was clearly focused on a point farther away in the store, but he could see she was torn between helping him up and whatever it was she was peering at in the distance. In the space of a mere moment, politeness won out, and as she turned quickly to him to begin her apology. And a split second later, he saw awareness dawn on her features, and her mouth fell open. He had grown a mustache since he'd last seen Naomi, and it had taken a second to see past that. She gasped and withdrew her hand to cover her mouth, but recovered quickly from the surprise and reached down to help him up. She exhaled heavily as he rose, and he was assaulted by the same familiar smell of her, her perfume, her essence, bringing the memories back into vivid color.

"Jackie," she breathed. Looking past him, she saw Paul catching up with them quickly. Jackie caught her eye motion, turned slightly and motioned Paul back. His friend hovered some distance behind them.

"Naomi," Jackie replied. He smiled at her, both happy and sad to see her.

It only took another moment for Naomi's nature to assert itself, let bygones be bygones, and she smiled widely, throwing her arms around him. He enjoyed the hug, even though it brought back the regret, and he inhaled deeply before letting her go.

Naomi slid her hands down his arms to take his hands. "I can't believe it's you," she exclaimed, and giggled, the sound a balm to his worries.

"It's me," Jackie shrugged, holding on to her hands.

Naomi hugged him again. "This must be karma! Imagine, in town for only a couple of days, and I run right in to you! Oh, Jackie." She lowered her voice. "I've missed you," she confided.

Jackie nodded sadly. "I've missed you too."

The sadness touched Naomi's face for an instant, but it couldn't linger. She smiled brightly again. "What are you doing? Are you shopping? Maybe I can help."

Jackie almost laughed, remembering how commandeering Naomi could be when she wanted to 'help' someone. She had a tendency to bulldoze over people in an effort to do whatever she thought was good for them. "Yes," Jackie answered. "That'd be nice. And what about you?"

Naomi giggled. "Oh, I'm just here with--" Her face went from outrageously happy to panicked in a heartbeat. She tore her hands away. "I forgot! Help me find him!" She took off at a run.

Shrugging good-naturedly at Paul, Jackie followed, Paul behind him, neither knowing who they were looking for. They followed Naomi, who made a beeline for the area she had been eyeing when they collided, the children's department.

Naomi didn't bother looking at the multitude of toys surrounding her; instead, she headed straight for the book section of the children's department. Jackie heard her very audible sigh of relief at whatever she saw there. He peered around her.

Sitting on the floor, with a stack of books in front of him, there was a very small boy, intently going through the book in his hands. Jackie had to smile; the child was adorable, a small angel with short curly brown hair and mismatched clothes, studying the book he held as if he could truly read it.

"Blair Sandburg!" Naomi interrupted, putting her hands on her hips. The boy looked up, and Jackie saw beautiful blue eyes. He thought the boy could easily be mistaken for a girl, if he hadn't been dressed in boys' clothing.

"What have I told you about running off by yourself?" Naomi demanded, trying her best to sound stern.

The boy smiled sweetly at her. "Tell you where I'm goin' first," he replied.

Jackie raised his eyebrows at that, and Paul beside him glanced over with similarly raised eyebrows. The boy was very small indeed, and probably shouldn't be anywhere by himself. But that was Naomi, he supposed.

"That's right," Naomi nodded. "And you didn't tell me you were leaving," she accused. She went to him and reached down.

The boy went straight into her arms. "Sorry," he murmured, not looking very sorry, but he laid his head on her shoulder for a moment.

Naomi giggled, unable to hold on to the sternness any longer. "Well, let's just let it go, now. You've said you were sorry; it's bad karma to carry these feelings any longer."

The boy bounced in her arms, waved his own arms at the ceiling and smiled brightly. "Let 'em just fly away," he declared, obviously parroting Naomi. Jackie bit his lip to keep from laughing; beside him, Paul had made a small sound that only Jackie ever seemed to know meant that Paul was amused.

"That's right, honey," Naomi answered the child. "Now Blair, sweetie, look who's here. This is my friend Jackie, and his friend--"

"Paul," Paul supplied softly.

"Paul," Naomi went on gratefully. "Jackie, Paul, this is my son, Blair."

Until that moment, Jackie hadn't really thought much of the relationship between Naomi and Blair. In the back of his mind, he supposed, he had thought the child was her nephew, or a friend's child. Jackie knew Naomi had lived on a commune once before, where the adults raised each other's children, and it wasn't inconceivable that she was living on one now.

But--son. Jackie cursed his accountant mind - numbers were flying in his head. 4 years since Naomi left. 9 months to have a child. That left a child conceived around the time she left, to be--3. Jackie stared at the child, and Naomi fidgeted in the second of silence that followed her introduction. How old is he??? Jackie's thoughts were screaming. He must be younger than 3, he's so small.

Not allowing his disquiet to show, Jackie chuckled amiably and patted the curls on the boy's head. "Well," he blustered, "aren't you the little man? Naomi, you never told me you had a 10-year-old."

The small boy giggled, and he swelled up a little with pride. "I'm not 10!" he laughed. "I--" he paused, "I'm 5!"

"Blair," Naomi reproved. She met Jackie's eyes steadily. "He's 3," she said warily, watching him.

Jackie bit down hard on his lip, and then tried to smile at the boy. He ruffled the unruly curls again.

"I'm 5," the boy repeated, grinning mischievously at him.

Jackie nodded, and felt his eyes opening in a way they never had before. Suddenly, the boy seemed more precious, more darling, and Jackie felt his emotions roll unexpectedly. He felt Paul's arm reaching unnecessarily to support him.

"5," Jackie nodded, desperately searching for words. "Then how come your mama says you're 3, little man?"

The child couldn't hold back a giggle; he was fibbing, he knew it, and he knew this man knew it too. But he liked playing the game. "She forgot," he said excitedly.

"Blair," Naomi said reprovingly again.

"She forgot, huh?" Jackie asked. "Well, when were you born, then?"

The boy laughed outright, and Jackie had the feeling the child was terribly bright--and knew he was being set up. "January 14!"

Jackie crossed his arms, smiling. "What year?"

"Five years ago," Blair replied sweetly.

Jackie couldn't help but chuckle, and he heard that small sound from Paul again. Glancing over, he could even see a slight smile.

"Now, Blair," Naomi set him on the floor and crouched in front of him. "You know that isn't true, sweetie."

He only giggled in reply. Jackie couldn't blame him; he could see Naomi didn't pull off 'stern' very well.

"You're going to get bad karma if you keep fibbing like that," Naomi said warningly, tilting her head. She straightened up and stood to face Jackie, holding Blair's hand tightly. "He's 3," she repeated, eyes challenging.

Jackie nodded minutely and reached down, sweeping the boy up into his arms. "Well, Mr. Five-Year-Old," he chuckled, admiring the close-up view of the little boy. Jackie thought he was one of the most adorable-looking children he'd ever seen - though he told himself he wasn't prejudiced. After all, he didn't know for sure. And yet, he knew. "Your mama said she would help me shop. Will you help me too?"

Blair nodded, grinning at the man who was asking him to help. "What ya wanna buy?"

Jackie looked pensive. "Well, two things actually, but the first--I need a present for a little boy. Can you help me find something?"

Blair bounced in his arms. "Oh, yeah!" Jackie set him on the ground and took his hand. Blair immediately began pulling him back to the books. He sat down beside the pile, and Jackie knelt next to him.

"This is a good book," the child said soberly, holding up one tome. He selected another energetically. "This is good, too."

"They are, huh?" Jackie replied, pretending to examine them. "Well, if you were the little boy I'm buying for, which would you like to get?"

Jackie heard Naomi's gentle reproof. "Jackie . . ." He ignored her.

Blair looked at them both, deciding. He held one up higher, dropping the other one. "This one," he declared excitedly. "It's about a puppy that gets lost in a city, and he's all alone, and he has--ad--ven--turs."

"Adventurs?" Jackie was surprised. Even mispronounced, he thought it was a bit advanced for a three-year-old. "How do you know that word?"

Blair began flipping pages. "It says so, at the end. The puppy tells his mama all about his ad-ven-turs. They're things you do," he explained to Jackie. His fingers reached the end of the small book. "See?" he held up the book for Jackie to see the page. "Says so, right there."

Jackie looked, and to his surprise, there it was. And Mama took her puppy into her lap and asked him to tell her his adventures. The puppy told her . . . He looked back at Naomi in amazement. "He can read?"

Naomi nodded, a proud smile gracing her features.

Jackie turned back to the boy. "You can read?" he asked.

Big blue eyes stared up at him. "Uh-huh," the child answered.

"Will you read that to me?" Jackie pointed.

The child concentrated on the page. "And--Mama--took--her--pup-py--and--asked--him--to--tell--her--his--ad-ven-turs." He looked up at Jackie.

"Wow," Jackie grinned. He ruffled the child's curly hair. "You're amazing, Blair."

The boy giggled. "This is a good book," he repeated to Jackie.

Jackie took it from him and stood up, clasping the child's hand. "Well, that's the one we'll buy then. Thank you so much for helping me, Blair."

As they headed for the cash register, Blair whispered, not very softly, to his mother, "I like him, mommy."

Jackie just chuckled.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jackie couldn't keep from staring as he watched Naomi tuck Blair in. The little boy was already asleep, and Naomi kissed him on the forehead, before turning away. The two of them slipped quietly out to the living room of the apartment a friend was letting Naomi use for a couple of days. Naomi poured some wine for them both and brought the glasses over to the couch.

Jackie accepted his gratefully; he needed a drink. After his first large swallow, he gestured with his glass toward the bedroom. "Tell me," he said quietly, turning pleading eyes to his old love.

Naomi's unease grew visibly. "There's nothing to tell," she told him with a strained smile.

"Is he--mine?"

Naomi hesitated before answering, then brought her eyes reluctantly up. "I don't know," she replied softly.

Jackie waited, the question in his eyes not diminishing. Naomi had been faithful while they had been dating, he knew. It all depended on the timing, when Blair had been conceived, just before or just after she had left.

Naomi looked away. "It could be anyone," she said with forced nonchalance. She gave a little laugh, though it sounded forced as well. "I have no idea," she reiterated, then turned back to him. "And I don't want to know."

Jackie looked into his wine. "Why don't you want to know?" He tried to keep only gentleness in his voice, but some of the regret bled through.

Naomi laughed again, still sounding like a poor imitation of her former carefree self. "Blair doesn't need a father," she told him. "The world is his family." Her smile grew sweet. "I want him to grow up part of a global community, 'one of the people.' He's naturally darling anyway," she grinned self-consciously. "I want his world to be filled with love and laughter and freedom."

"Unlike mine," Jackie observed soberly.

Naomi's smile disappeared, and she looked at him sadly. "Yes," she agreed softly. "Unlike yours." Her eyes were not unkind, and Jackie sighed and took her hand.

"Can I see you again before you leave?" he asked, suddenly shy.

Naomi smiled. "I'm only here for one more day, but yes, I'd like that, Jackie. We'd like that." She gave him a kiss on his cheek.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"And then she was gone again," Marcus told Jim, putting his hands inside his robe. "But once again, it was pointed out to me in glaring color the difference between the world she and Blair inhabited, and the world I inhabited. Oh, I know it was only two days. But I swear, I got attached to him right away."

"You're not the first," Jim nodded, smiling.

"I adored spending that time with him--out of sight of my colleagues, of course. And he--" Marcus shrugged almost shyly. "He seemed to really like me, too. Especially after I gave him that book," the old monk laughed. "He thought my little trick was too funny.

"And after they were gone, I started to brood. I kept seeing that little face, picturing how he might turn out in the future, and then I'd see him learning the truth about me, and my work. The feelings I had when I pictured that! If he turned out anything like Naomi--well, I didn't want to burst another bubble. I didn't want ugliness to ever be a part of Blair's life.

"That's why I didn't push too hard about the fatherhood issue. I was pretty certain Blair was mine; over the two days, I kept seeing little family traits--but I didn't want to upset Naomi, and I wanted to respect her wishes, and most of all, I didn't want to bring my ugly world into Blair's life. And while I still didn't try to get out, I started to--" he searched for the word, "not think about it exactly, more like fantasize about it. You don't have to do anything if it's a fantasy, and I didn't. I just dreamed about getting out."

Marcus shrugged. "Paul was further along than me. For several years after that, he was actively talking about it--only with me, of course. We could always talk to each other about anything."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"You know how I feel," Paul said, tight-lipped, as they walked in the park. Jackie had been feeling a little claustrophobic in his office, and the two of them decided to take a walk. Jackie nodded with an exaggerated manner to Paul's comment.

"Yes, I know, I know," Jackie smiled indulgently. "But I don't have the faith you have, my friend."

Paul came to a stop beside him at the lake. "You used to have faith," he observed. "We used to go to church together twice a week."

"We were kids," Jackie offered.

"I still go," Paul told him pointedly.

Jackie turned and walked over to the nearest bench. Paul joined him. There was companionable silence for a moment, then Jackie sighed, a sound he'd been making more and more of late. "I can't leave, Paul. We can't leave. It's not that simple, and you know it."

"It's killing you."

Jackie turned surprised eyes to his friend. Paul nodded, his normally humorless face even darker than usual. "I can see it in you. Your spirit--your will to live, if you prefer that term--it's shrinking gradually. Some day there'll come a point where you don't want to go on. I can see it coming."

Blinking at the explanation, Jackie found he couldn't deny it. He looked back over the lake. "They'd never let us go."

"There are ways," Paul insisted.

"Well, I don't know them," Jackie snapped, then relented. "If you mean the Witness Protection Program, that's definitely out. I've seen firsthand how easy it is to find a person there. And they'd kill us with no hesitation if I talked."

It was Paul's turn to sigh. "They used to love us once."

"They still do," Jackie answered. "As long as we're good little boys and keep the family's interests foremost in our minds."

Paul nodded, then turned to Jackie on the bench. "Come to church with me tonight," he pleaded. "Maybe if we pray, God will show us a way out."

Jackie looked affectionately at the beseeching look on his childhood friend's face. "All right," he chuckled, capitulating. "What the heck, it can't hurt."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Pastor took forever heading out down the center aisle, and Jackie wondered if he was stalling, trying to keep him in church just a little bit longer. He smiled at his own paranoia. The service had been fine, actually, stirring up some of the strong faith he'd had as a small boy. But accompanying that feeling was the message from his unconscious that God couldn't possibly welcome a man like himself in his house. The entire experience had been uncomfortable. But Paul was thrilled, and Jackie figured that was worth it. Paul was always looking out for Jackie; Jackie was glad to be able to give something back for once.

Finally, they were out in the night air, walking the several blocks back to the apartment building where they both lived. Jackie stuck his hands in his pockets, and Paul made the small sound Jackie knew was his laugh. "What?" he asked suspiciously.

Paul gave him a haughty half-smile. "Cold, are you?"

Jackie slapped him lightly on the arm. "Oh, shut up. I can't help it if I'm always cold."

Paul made the sound again, and gestured at the night with both arms. "It's a beautiful night, Jackie. How can you be cold?"

Jackie stuck his hands back into his pockets defiantly and deliberately bumped into Paul, knocking him off course a few inches. He heard the sound again, and grinned. Paul bumped him back, surprisingly playful for once.

"You're sure in a good mood," Jackie observed.

"Ideas are swirling around in my head," Paul answered. "I'm sure God will show me the answer."

"From your lips to God's ears," Jackie replied earnestly. "So what ideas--" he stopped abruptly as Paul gestured for silence and cocked his head. He was frozen like that for several moments.

"What is it?" Jackie whispered, touching his friend's arm, afraid that Paul was focusing too hard.

Paul turned back to him, face thoughtful, a conflict warring on his usually unexpressive face. Then he sighed and gestured with his head in a direction. "Come on," he said over his shoulder, setting off in front of Jackie.

He led Jackie to the small park a block away, and down the path to the small playing field there. As they neared, Jackie could hear that a game was going on; there were a lot of voices. They came out into the lit field to an impromptu baseball game between children, and a group of hippies off to the side, sitting in the bleachers, watching and talking.

Jackie was immediately drawn to the group, or at least one person in the group. Passing Paul, the closer he got to the adults, the easier he could see Naomi Sandburg. At 15 feet away, she finally noticed and jumped up. She embraced him happily. "Jackie," she sighed, hugging tightly.

He gave as good as he got, and reflected as he held her that somehow, he'd never been so glad to see anyone in his life. He pulled back to meet her eyes. "Naomi," he breathed, happy beyond his own belief. "Blair?" he asked tentatively.

Naomi moved aside a little and grinning, gestured toward the game in progress. The children were as ragtag a group as the adults, of all ages and sizes, but they looked happy and healthy, Jackie was pleased to see. He scanned the players, and zeroed in on the small shortstop between second and third base. Blair was still a bit small for his age, now seven years old, but Jackie was thrilled to see him, and felt a slow smile creeping in over his features. He wore shorts and a tie-dyed t-shirt, and the tennis shoes every child these days wore, and his collar-length, curly brown hair was as unruly as ever. Bright blue eyes focused intently on the batter, a small fist pounded a child's glove, and Blair shifted constantly from side to side, obviously just waiting for the action. He looked extremely happy, and Jackie thought he was absolutely beautiful.

Watching her son just as amorously, Naomi slipped her arm into Jackie's. "He's so smart," she told him quietly. "Even though we move around a lot, he always tests out of his grade level. He's always reading."

The batter hit, and the second baseman threw to Blair, who hit the base an instant before the runner. Everyone cheered, and Jackie thought it was ridiculous how much pride he was feeling. He and Naomi clapped their hands.

"He's not just a bookworm, though," Naomi continued. "He loves sports. He even plays basketball, can you believe it? But the boys tell me he's pretty good. They all like having him on their team."

Jackie tore his eyes away. "What--what brings you back to Cascade?" he asked.

"We're here for a week. There's going to be an important protest I just couldn't miss," Naomi responded. She looked up at him mischievously. "Will you sign our petition?" They both laughed.

"Anything," Jackie promised. "If you'll spare some time for your old friend?"

"I'd love to," Naomi giggled, and hugged him again.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As Jackie closed the door of the apartment Naomi had borrowed from yet another friend out of town, he realized this was the first time he and Blair had been alone together. Naomi had asked him to stay while she went to 'pick up a few things' for their upcoming departure, but Jackie suspected she was giving him this time as a present. Blair had been wonderful all week, but he was oriented mainly toward Naomi, and Jackie was just another guy in his mother's active life.

Now they stared at each other. Jackie went to sit on the sofa next to the boy.

Blair unexpectedly turned off the TV. Jackie didn't think children voluntarily did that.

The small boy turned to him. "I want to talk to you," he said very seriously.

Surprised, Jackie nodded. "Okay."

The blue eyes of the seven-year-old pierced Jackie's. "You're an old friend of my mother's."

"Yes," Jackie nodded.

"I think I remember you."

"Do you?"

The boy chewed his lower lip for an instant. "Didn't you give me a book one time?"

"That's right," Jackie smiled, pleased. "I did give you a book."

The boy smiled back. "Are you wanting to be my new uncle?"

"Excuse me?" Jackie didn't quite understand.

"'Cause if you are, you better say something soon. She'll leave, she really will."

Jackie smiled at the earnest little face. "I know," he said sadly.

The boy frowned. "Don't you want her to stay?"

Jackie patted his arm. "Well, I'd love for her to, but it wouldn't work out very well."

The boy frowned harder. "She loves you, I can tell."

"And I love her."

The boy threw up his arms in a parody of his mother. "Well, how come you don't want us to stay?"

Just the one little slip of the tongue, from 'her' to 'us' made Jackie so happy--and at the same time, sad. He wanted Blair with him, but it would be too dangerous.

"I'd love for you to stay, Blair," Jackie answered truthfully. "But sometimes - we just can't have what we want."

The boy slumped and looked away. "That's what Naomi says," he said dejectedly. "All the other kids have dads, except for Randy. And Steven has two dads. I want a dad, too." He looked back up at Jackie. "It's okay," he sighed. "Mom says it's just a phase I'm going through."

Jackie smiled. He leaned a little closer and whispered conspiratorially, "Well, kiddo, if it helps, I would be so happy if I could be your dad."

Blair smiled at him. "I would--" he took a deep breath. "I remember that book," he told Jackie. "That was my favorite book for a long time."

"Well, I'll have to send you another one," Jackie told him. "Your mom said she'd call me from time to time, I'll get your address then."

"Okay!" Blair grinned. "I like getting books."

Jackie chuckled and ruffled his hair. "I know. I saw you read when you were just three years old!"

"I read big kid books now," Blair warned him, clearly thinking Jackie might send him another baby book.

"I'll remember that," Jackie promised.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As pre-arranged, Paul kept Blair busy at the car for a moment while Jackie had one last minute with Naomi. He pressed a piece of paper in her hands.

"Call this number. It's a manager of finances in New York. He'll have access to an account I set up when Blair was three. It's for the both of you."

Looking up at him with round eyes, Naomi started to shake her head. Jackie pressed her hands together. "Please, Naomi, let me do this. I don't need the money, and I want to do something for the two of you. Just call him whenever you need anything, and he'll take care of it for you."

Naomi looked down at their hands and then back up to his gaze. "But, Jackie," she began sorrowfully, and he could tell what her next objection would be.

"It's all honest," he hurried to reassured her. "I don't keep the rest, honest, Naomi. This is money I've invested on my own. All of it's clean. I wouldn't do that to you. Please, Naomi, take it for Blair if not yourself."

Naomi smiled and kissed his cheek. She tucked the paper into her purse. "Thank you, Jackie."

"Don't forget to call me," Jackie reminded her. He had set up a phone specifically for her, less likely to be intercepted or noticed by the wrong people.

She hugged him before getting in the car. "I won't."

Jackie turned to Paul and Blair. His stoic friend was just about to give Blair a piggy back ride over to the car. As Blair grabbed a hold of Paul and the big man stood up, Jackie noticed an odd look come over Paul's face, and he froze in place for an instant. Then he shook his head and carried the boy over for his goodbyes to Jackie.

After the car had disappeared from view, Jackie turned curiously to Paul. "What was that before, with Blair?" he asked.

Paul met his eyes with astonishment, and smiled. "Jackie," he began, and then paused again.

"Yes?" Jackie prompted.

"He--Blair--" Paul took a breath. "He's a guide, Jackie."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim exploded off the bench for the second time that evening. "What?" he gasped, turning back. "You--you know?"

Marcus looked up at him amusedly. "I sent him the Burton book for his 10th birthday, Jim."

Jim gaped; he couldn't help it. "You--you--"

"Know all about it," Marcus nodded, smiling. "And I know all about you."

Jim's look became distinctly wary.

"Please, Jim, calm down," Marcus reassured him. "I've known for some time and I haven't said or done anything, have I?"

Jim paced before him. "But--but--how?" he demanded, turning back to the monk.

"Jeremy told me."

"Jeremy?" Jim was confused.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shortly after their first visit to St. Sebastian started, Jim found himself already disgusted with his monastic vacation, and took comfort in his radio headphones. At least he could listen to the game.

Then the door had swung open and before he knew it, his radio had been in Jeremy's hands. The monk looked at him unapologetically. "No radios either. Sorry." He closed the door behind him on his way out.

Jim looked over at Blair, dumbfounded. How could Jeremy have known he was listening to the radio through headphones?

Blair had shrugged. "Maybe he's a sentinel monk," he laughed.

Jeremy had passed out of the range of hearing then, and headed out to where Marcus was working on his stained glass. Marcus was alone for once, and Jeremy said three very soft words. "It's Detective Ellison."

Marcus looked up. "Blair's sentinel?"

Jeremy had nodded and then left.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"He knew all along," Jim said bitterly. "Why the hell did he think I had killed Brother Timothy, then?"

Marcus shook his head. "It's quite possible for a sentinel to do just as much evil as other people. Jeremy has never forgotten the violence he was forced to use in his youth. That's why he's so adamantly against violence now. Especially violence here. He doesn't want to let it have any part of his life again. He can't handle the idea very well."

"Tell me about it," Jim complained, coming back to the bench. "He flatly refused to help when the mob showed up, or let anybody else help."

"But he came to your aid," Marcus reminded Jim.

Jim looked at the monk. "I've never understood why he changed his mind. He clearly didn't want to do it."

Marcus smiled. "He wouldn't do it for you. Not even for Blair. But for his guide?" Marcus grinned. "It's amazing what a sentinel will do for his guide."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Marcus watched as Jeremy descended the stairs to their austere basement. He wasted no time getting to the point. "Brothers, the situation appears rather grave."

The monk helping Marcus with his gunshot wound, though normally a timid man, found the nerve to speak up to Jeremy, whom Marcus knew the younger monks often found intimidating. He admired the younger monk for the courage he had gained.

"We have to do something to help."

Jeremy refused to bend. "I've just told Detective Ellison that won't be possible."

The monk pursued his point. "Brother, I really think in this case--"

Jeremy cut him off. "No. On this point there will be no discussion."

Then those able to, knelt to pray. Marcus stayed where he was behind everyone. He'd go up himself if he had the strength, but the gunshot wound was quickly draining it from him.

There were several moments of silence, broken only by whispered prayers, and then more gunfire rang out. Marcus felt his heart leap into his throat.

Speaking softly enough that only a sentinel could hear him, Marcus protested, "Jeremy, please."

Still praying, Jeremy cast a look back at Marcus, obviously hearing him.

There was the sound of a body falling, and Marcus bit back a moan. In all of his life, with all he'd been through, he had never been so afraid--and it was for Blair, not himself. Jeremy seemed to be tuned to him.

"He's my son," Marcus pleaded, almost inaudibly. "Please, Jeremy, don't let Blair die, I beg you. I couldn't live with his death. He's the reason we're here."

After one more moment of holding out, Jeremy had cast a glance backward and then risen and left the room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Now I understand," Jim nodded. "He came because you asked him. Just as I would have for Blair."

Marcus let all the information sink in. Then Jim shook his head. "There's one thing I don't understand. Blair said he stayed here a whole summer when he was 15. Now, he knew Jackie from his childhood, but he didn't know you were Jackie Kozinski. He doesn't know you're his father, but he did know you at 15 as Brother Marcus, and he didn't know Brother Marcus was also the Jackie from his childhood. How is that possible? I mean, Blair's pretty sharp - how did you keep him from recognizing you?"

"He looked entirely different," Blair answered, stepping out from behind a tree and totally startling Marcus.

"Blair!"

"How long have you been there?" Jim jumped up, shocked at himself for being so focused on Marcus's story that he had lost track of his surroundings.

Blair came around to the front of the bench and sat in the spot Jim had vacated. His eyes were red, but he seemed outwardly calm. He kept his gaze frozen on Marcus.

"He looked different," Blair repeated unemotionally. "He'd changed his hair--and there was a lot of gray."

Marcus nodded. "And I had gained a lot of weight."

"And grown a beard," Blair added. "Plus, Jackie always wore a suit." Blair looked pointedly at Marcus's robes.

"Right," Marcus nodded, daring to put his hand on Blair's arm.

Blair seemed to take no notice. "It's a long way from 7 to 15, Jim," he said conversationally, though his eyes never left Marcus's face. "And my brain was consumed with satisfying this last requirement of Naomi's before she would let me go to Rainier at 16. I think she thought if I got bored enough at the monastery, I wouldn't want to settle down for Rainier when the summer was over."

Marcus nodded.

"She never thought I'd have so much fun talking to a bunch of monks, but . . ."

Marcus nodded again. "We did have some wonderful conversations, didn't we?"

Blair didn't seem to have heard. He kept staring at Marcus. "You didn't know about me until I was three," he reiterated carefully, his voice barely audible.

Marcus swallowed, nodding.

"You bought me that book," Blair continued.

Marcus nodded.

"Then Naomi didn't bring me back 'til I was seven." Blair sounded like he was trying to get the facts straight in his own head.

"Yes."

"You were the one depositing all the money."

"I had to, Blair. I just had to."

"You sent me the Burton book."

"Yes."

Blair looked at him intently. "You're a guide, just like me. Jeremy is your sentinel. Jeremy was Paul."

"That's right."

"You were Jackie Kozinski, and it would have been dangerous if anyone knew I was your son."

"I'm so sorry, Blair."

"And Naomi never wanted to deal with it. She never would tell anyone, not you, not me, that you really were my father."

"It's my fault, Blair. I wasn't honest with her."

Blair turned away and slumped against the seat, with Marcus still facing him intently. Blair stared out over the field.

"You--you said," Blair began hesitantly, "--you told me--that--that you would have been happy to be my father."

"Yes, I did."

Blair turned his head. "Did you mean it?"

Marcus fought the lump in his throat. "With all my heart, Blair."

Blair looked down to where Marcus's hand rested on his arm. "I remember. I started to say back then--I started to say I would be--so happy--if you could be my father." He looked up, and his eyes were bright.

Marcus leaned in. "Still?" he asked, not daring to hope he might finally have with Blair the relationship he had always wanted.

In the first instant, Marcus thought Blair was passing out; then he realized his son was leaning against him, crying, and Marcus brought his arms up around Blair. He wanted nothing more than to never let go. He had in his arms the reason he'd gone straight, the reason he'd gone back to his faith, the reason he'd become a better man, and for the first time, he could actually hold his son, be Blair's father. It was more than he'd ever expected, and much more than he felt he deserved.

"Naomi's dead," Blair said, muffled, against Marcus's robe.

Marcus held him tighter, grieving as well for the love he'd lost, but the feelings were overwhelming. He returned Blair's embrace fiercely, scarcely believing that he finally had his son, that his son finally had him, had accepted him, no more secrets. For the first time, Marcus felt his world was whole and complete, no longer split in two. His eyes began to sting as they filled up.

Jim slipped away up the path.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim put their bags in his truck. Their two weeks were up, and though Jim had told Blair he'd be happy to come back in a few more weeks to get him if he'd like to stay longer, Blair was ready to return. Jim leaned against the side of his truck, watching Blair and Marcus say their goodbyes.

Jim wished his own father could have been as Marcus was now; the monk was clearly loathe to let go of Blair, and patted his hair as he finally pulled away.

"And now you really have to write," Marcus chided, teasing Blair about the letters he had promised Marcus as a youth, the letters he'd never written.

"I will," Blair promised. His mood had improved significantly. While he was still quieter than usual over Naomi's death, he was beginning to heal, and Jim knew Marcus and the answers Blair had finally received were the biggest contributing factors. "I'll be back in November," Blair added.

Marcus couldn't help but get in one more hug at that thought; he and Blair and Jim were going to spend Thanksgiving together at the monastery. As he pulled away again, though, one last thought struck him. He held up a finger to Blair. "Now, you use that money," he instructed quietly. "It was all clean money, and it was always intended to take care of you and your mother. The accountant assures me it's still quite a hefty sum since Naomi only ever used the interest, not the principal. It's all I have to give you, and I want you to use it." He stared pleadingly into Blair's blue eyes, so like his own mother's had been.

Blair shook his head, smiling. "That's not all you have to give me," he replied. "Everything else you've given me, a father I already loved and the answers to all the mysteries of my life--the money is nothing next to that."

Marcus patted Blair's cheek, smiling softly. "Use it," he said solemnly, then turned Blair around by the shoulders. "Now, you'd better go before Jim decides to leave without you!"

Blair chuckled and got in his side of the truck. "I'll see you soon," he told Marcus, leaning out the window. "And I'll write."

"You better," Marcus laughed. "Get going, you two. Jim, drive carefully."

"I will," Jim promised.

"Bye!"

Marcus watched them until they were out of sight, and Jim saw Blair watching in the rear view mirror until there was nothing left to see.

"Glad you came?" he asked teasingly.

Blair looked his way and then gave him a mock punch on the arm. "Thanks," he said simply.

"Any time, partner, any time."

Back at the school bus, Jeremy honked the horn, and called teasingly through the window, "Even I can't see them any more."

Marcus grinned and got on the bus, holding up a wagging finger to lecture. "That is because your eyes are not so sharp in your old age, Brother Jeremy."

Jeremy favored him with the usual enigmatic smile. "I do believe you may be right, Brother Marcus."

The End