Notes: This story was given to me to finish by Victoria May. As such, this is as much her story as mine, and I am very honored that she allowed me to do this. To those who have asked about the progress of this story, I hope you think I've done Victoria's idea justice, and I thank you for your interest and patience. I did make some changes to Victoria's part, with her permission.
I limp through the open doorway and pause. The bullpen is busy as usual. Civilian aides throw folders onto desks, and retrieve files and mail from others. Uniforms dot the unit, transporting prisoners back and forth, and visitors blend with the plain-clothes detectives scattered throughout the bullpen.
I almost expect to hear 'Hairboy!' shouted across the wide space, and bite down on my disappointment when, of course, it doesn't come. I didn't expect to be here today, or ever, so it shouldn't be a surprise when no one rushes to greet me.
I tighten my hold on the bundle in my arms and shift my weight from my damaged leg. Wearily, I cast my gaze around the room, scanning each face, hoping to find someone I recognize. So many new faces. They can't all be gone - it's only been three years. Finally, my eyes come to rest on the bald, coffee-colored head of a man I'd once known. H. Thank God - someone I know. I begin to limp over to my friend when I'm bumped from behind. Strong hands grab my arms, to stop my downward descent. Jerked back to my feet, I clutch tightly at the child I'm carrying.
"Sorry," a strange voice offers as my back is patted, and the officer who'd attempted to knock me off my feet departs.
I lean over slightly; my knee is throbbing now and I really need to sit down. I glance back to H's desk and find it empty. Cursing silently, I grit my teeth and try to find him again in the melee. Unsuccessful, I wish that the man I really want to see is near. But his desk, or what had been his desk the last time I set foot here, is empty.
My knee sings with renewed pain, and I close my eyes, parting my lips to release short, panting breaths. I jerk when I feel a gentle touch on my arm.
"Are you all right?" a pleasant, feminine voice asks gently.
I know that voice! My eyes snap open and I find myself staring into familiar brown eyes.
"Rhonda?" I ask, relief washing over me. Finally, a friend.
Recognition dawns on the woman's face, and she draws back in disbelief. "Blair?" Her voice is loud with shock and seems to echo through the bullpen. "Oh my God! We thought you were dead! Are you all right? Where have you been? Does Captain Banks know you're here?" The questions flow, without a pause between them to allow me to speak.
The voices around us seem to grow in intensity and I can hear the muffled sounds of one man's attempt to reach us. Finally, a body brushes against me, and I turn my face to see H. standing next to me.
"Shit! Sandburg! Where the hell have you been?" The detective's voice falters and then flares again with renewed intensity. "Oh man! Do not tell me you left. Do not tell me that you fucking took off and left us all hanging." The man's usually pleasant voice, one that had so quickly imparted snappy witticisms, is now dark with seeming loathing.
I shake my head in frantic denial. "No!" I try to sound forceful, but the word only comes out as a shocked whisper. I want to explain; I want to let them know that it wasn't what it looked like. I try to make my mouth open, make my lips form words, but I'm frozen in the face of such anger where I had expected to find peace.
"How could you do that? How? Do you know how long we looked for you? Did you even think of Jim - even once? Did you bother to wonder what hell he might be going through, thinking you were dead?" The rant continues and pulses in my ears. It's soon matched in intensity by the advancing roar in my eardrums and the frantic beating of my heart.
I can feel the muscles in my good leg beginning to quiver and I look for a nearby chair. "I need to sit down," I finally manage to gasp.
H.'s rant falters when he finally notices the brace on my leg, and the child in my arms. "Sure, sure," he hastily says, dragging over a chair from a neighboring desk.
I collapse into it, my weakened muscles able to give way at last.
"Thanks," I gasp, fighting for breath. I haven't had a panic attack in ages. I hunch over the small figure in my arms, embracing her as I struggle to control my racing heart. I'm not able to control my cringe when a strong hand clamps down on my shoulder.
Simon! I jerk my head up and meet the rich brown eyes with my own, stinging ones. I blink rapidly, trying to chase away the tears I can feel gathering. I don't know what I expected, but to be wrapped in two strong arms and held tightly, isn't it. I melt into the embrace, hiding my face in the older man's shirt as a sob erupts.
I can feel the arms tugging me up, out of the chair, and I cover my face with my hand as I'm led into the privacy of the captain's office.
I'm eased down into another chair, my lame leg stretched out before me. I lower my head, pressing my face into my daughter's soft curls. I can hear Simon dictating orders: 'find Ellison' and 'get me some water' barked to the gathering crowd. Then the door is closed and the blinds are drawn.
Alisa is amazingly quiet throughout all of this. I worry that the shock of the sudden plane ride, crowded airports, and now this insanity is somehow harming her. But she seems content to just cling to my shirtfront and watch the world go by. I wish I had her ability to bounce back so easily. Instead, I sit there, quivering like jello, tears streaming down my face.
I keep my head lowered and listen to the sound of another chair being dragged next to the one I'm seated in. I can feel the warmth seep through my linen pants as Simon sits close enough that our legs touch. I release an exhausted sigh as I'm drawn into the embrace of the other man's arms once again.
Finally, I'm home.
After a few minutes - I'm amazed that Simon can stand to hug me for so long - I push away from Simon and wipe my face with my shirtsleeve. "Sorry," I mumble, embarrassed at falling apart so completely.
And then Simon laughs, a half-chuckle, half-sob. "Geez, I missed you, kid."
I have to be dreaming. Simon Banks, the ferocious captain of Major Crimes, admitting he missed me. Puny, annoying, always underfoot - me. I smile my first real smile in two months.
"Just tell me one thing," Simon says, sitting back in his chair and staring at me hard, as if trying to see into my soul. "Just tell me that you didn't walk away."
A pain so sharp, I think my heart has finally given way, tears through my chest. It's a fair question - one I'm sure everyone who had caught sight of me in the bullpen is wondering the answer to. How could they not?
I'm not dead, for one thing. I walked into the bullpen under my own free will for another. My clothes aren't in tatters. They are, in fact, clean and conspicuously expensive. Light beige linen pants matched with a royal blue silk button-down shirt. My hair is neat and trimmed tidily, close to my scalp. And in my arms, I carry an obviously well-cared-for little girl. Not exactly the spitting image of a kidnap victim.
But that's exactly what I am. Mutely, I shake my head and turn away from Simon. I'm not even close to being capable of using words at that moment.
I'm spared doing exactly that when the door flies open with a force that sends it slamming into the filing cabinet behind it.
Startled, Alisa's small body jerks in my arms and she screams her displeasure loudly. Her sobs are a soothing balm to my soul as they are the first real sounds she's made since being delivered back into my arms in the first class section of Chilean Air, flight 474.
Cradling the screaming baby in my arms, I pat her back and stare over her head at the figure looming in the doorway.
I've waited three years for this, to see my best friend again. I'd given up hope of ever seeing him, joking with him, sharing a meal with him. Guiding him. I want to jump up and run into the arms of my friend, but my exhaustion keeps me firmly seated. Instead, I smile and hold out my hand, finally finding my voice.
"Sandburg," he says, his voice icy. His eyes pierce mine and I shrink back, suddenly feeling like the lowest of the scum on the streets.
Did no one have faith in me? Did they all believe that I would just up and leave with no word to anyone?
Simon steps forward and takes Jim by the arm, pulling him into the office and shutting the door. "Jim," he snaps, his jaw clenched tightly. "He didn't leave - not on purpose."
It hurts to listen to men whom I had once called 'friend', speak about me as if I weren't there. As if I couldn't speak for myself.
"I was kidnapped," I blurt out, startling myself as much as the other two men. "I didn't have a choice," I add lamely.
"You look like you tried real hard to get away," Jim says, his arms crossed tightly across his chest.
I clench my eyes closed, blocking out the sight of my friend, my soul brother, bristling with years of pent-up worry, fear, and anger. I hadn't had time to imagine my homecoming - my release having been so unexpected. But I would never have expected such a welcome as this.
"Once," I say, hardening my heart to the pain of coming home to a life that no longer holds a place for me. "I tried once," I explain further. "It was enough."
Jim's posture loosens, but I no longer care. I was foolish to believe I could just walk back into my life and expect that nothing had changed. Everything is different. I'm different.
"Can you give a statement?" Simon asks gently.
I ponder the question and shift in my chair. The pain in my leg reawakens, and I'm growing increasingly concerned at my daughter's silence. "I think," I pause, "we need to go to the hospital."
"What!" Simon exclaims, reaching for his phone.
"No ambulance!" I protest. "I made it here on my own two feet, and I can make it there on my own as well."
After having all my movements watched and critiqued, and having normal everyday things, like using the phone, or emailing, or even going for a walk without an escort, denied me, I'm relishing my newfound freedom.
"You sure?" Simon asks, his hand still clutching the phone receiver.
I nod, and struggle to stand.
Jim finally breaks out of his stupor and steps forward to help me. I nearly whimper at the feel of his hand on my arm as he supports me.
"Can you carry her?" Jim asks, his hand still resting on my elbow.
"Yeah," I say, handing him the black carry-on bag I'd hauled with us from Chile. I thought I'd lost Alisa for good after the accident and they wouldn't let me see her. Two months - two fucking long months of wondering if I would ever see her again. I wasn't letting her out of my sight again.
The walk down to the parking garage is slow going. I hold my head high as we pass through the same group of officers who had stared and whispered after they realized who I was. I try not to flinch when the pain radiates up from my knee, making me struggle for balance and above all else, to stay conscious.
We ride in silence, and I'm relieved when we finally pull up to the emergency entrance of Cascade General. I wait while Jim hops out and grabs the first wheelchair he can find. I'm glad for the ride; I'm not looking forward to walking any distance for a long, long time.
From the black bag, I present medical records from my time in Chile. I had been surprised to find my records, as well as Alisa's, along with her birth certificate, and passports for both of us in the mysterious bag that was presented to me on the airplane with my daughter. The bag also held a bankbook with a sum of money.
Alisa is first to be examined, at my insistence. I wait in the examination room and am relieved when she's declared healthy. She's slightly dehydrated, and I feel ashamed at hearing that. I know I hadn't been as attentive as I should have been during our journey from South America. As for her silence, the doctor explains that children are often highly in tune with their parents, and upon hearing the brief explanation that I had been kidnapped and we had been apart for two months, explains that she is probably as much in shock as I am. Lots of hugs and TLC are prescribed for that ailment.
I'm examined next. New x-rays are taken of my knee and leg, and an MRI scan is done as well. These are compared to x-rays included with my medical records and it is determined that no new damage has been done. My new knee is holding up well, and the break shows no signs of weakness. The pain and swelling is from walking on my leg so soon after surgery without crutches. I'm scolded for even being mobile, and I apologize silently for fleeing my prison of three years.
My lab results show no sign of infection around the new joint, and I'm otherwise healthy. I'm released with a prescription of antibiotics and heavy-duty painkillers, and ordered to report to my physician for a full work-up and a possible arthroscopy if my knee doesn't show dramatic improvement in the next day or two.
And so I'm released into the care of Jim and Simon.
I stand awkwardly, as I wait for Simon to strap Alisa into the car seat he had gone out and bought while we were being examined. I'm touched by this show of kindness, and gratefully fold my body into the back seat with my charge. It's difficult - I have to stretch my leg across the floor with my body turned, but I can't bring myself to be too far from her, as I would be, sitting in the front, facing away from her.
"So, where to?" I ask, leaning forward a bit on the back of Simon's seat.
Jim looks guilty as he turns to face me. "I'm sorry, Blair," he says, and he even sounds sorry, surprising me after his attitude earlier in Simon's office. "I turned your room into an office. I couldn't handle seeing your things there anymore and finally gave them to your mom."
"Oh," I say, disappointed. "Um, I guess I can call around, see if anyone is willing to put us up."
I lean back and turn to look out the window. It feels like déjà vu as I see so many familiar places flying past. I wonder who I can call. Jim is my closest friend - I'm ashamed to admit, if only to myself, that I had let most of my friendships flounder when I began working with him.
"You'll stay with me," Simon says in a no-nonsense tone of voice. "I've got the room, and you're my friend too. I wouldn't have it any other way," he adds.
"Thanks, Simon," I say quietly, my energy drained. "Oh!" I sit up and grab the seat ahead of me again. "Alisa needs diapers and food, and some clothes," I say, berating myself for neglecting my child once again.
"Done," Simon says. "In the trunk. I picked up some stuff when I got the car seat. There's one of those portable cribs as well. She doesn't look old enough for a bed. I got you a couple changes of clothes too," he says, glancing at me in the rearview mirror.
"You didn't have to do that - clothes for me, that is," I say. "I'll pay you back."
"Don't worry about it. Right now, I'm so glad you're alive, I'd buy you a diamond ring if you wanted it."
"Really?" I ask, feigning some of my old enthusiasm.
"No. But the sentiment's the same."
We make it to Simon's house and I wait on the couch, with Alisa next to me on the floor in the carrier, while Jim and Simon bring in the wares. I'm surprised to see the bulging bags, full of baby clothes, diapers, toys, food, and not a few things for me as well. It all feels so surreal; I have to pinch myself to prove that I'm not dreaming.
Finally, the other two finish putting everything away, and I'm shown which room Alisa and I will be sharing. It's not Daryl's room, and for that, I'm grateful. I don't think I can handle being wrapped in someone else's life like that right now.
It's too early to go to bed, and I know that the others want some sort of explanation.
I share a pizza with my friends, and allow Simon to bathe and diaper Alisa, since I'm within eyesight of them. She's laid on the floor on a folded blanket while I stretch out on Simon's couch, my leg propped on a mound of pillows and topped with two icepacks.
I glance over at my audience and find them watching me intently. I wonder what they're expecting. I wonder what they'll think after they hear what I'm about to tell. Will they be disappointed? Could the life I'd led the last three years be considered anything but willing? Will they believe that I had no choice but to let go of everything and everyone I had ever loved, and live a life I had forced upon me?
Taking a deep breath, I begin my tale.
Although it had been two months since the fiasco that had seen my dissertation become public, and a month since I'd started at the Police Academy, it was still a shock every time I looked in the bathroom mirror in the morning. I ran my hand over the short curls as if by touching them, they would become more familiar to me, more a part of the man I now was. I'd said, when I'd been handed my badge at the impromptu ceremony, that I'd never cut my hair, but that was just something I knew I was expected to say. Truth be told, I was so stunned at the whole deal, that when calls had gone up for me to make some response to what had happened, it was the only thing I could think of to say.
I'd been blindsided by the offer of becoming a cop, of working with Jim on a completely legitimate and permanent basis. I think what threw me the most was the look on Jim's face that day, the look that told me he really wanted this, wanted me to accept. So I did. Not just because he wanted it. Hell, I did too. I loved working with him, even through the bad times, and we'd had more than our share, but I loved the cop thing too. Investigating crimes and taking down bad guys did it for me. Maybe the investigating thing was a natural follow-on from my studies as an anthropologist, but I'd grown to love the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment I got when we put a perp away and made sure he'd have no more victims. So, yeah, I accepted the badge. Now I just had to learn to accept the new image of me. Hey, it was just hair, right? And every day, once I'd taken that first look in the mirror, it got easier, until at last I was beginning to actually think of myself as more Detective Blair Sandburg and less Blair Sandburg, TA.
I know Jim still wasn't sure I'd made the adjustment. I'd catch him looking at me as I glanced through one of my old anthropology texts, or the latest edition of Anthropology Today, a small frown denting the skin between his eyes. He never asked if I was happy though. I guess he figured that someone as in touch with his feelings as I'd always been would be sure to speak up if I wasn't. And I was happy, pretty much. Until Simon threw us a file two days after I finished at the Academy. If I never hear the name Sam Crandall again, it'll be too soon.
It had looked simple enough to begin with. Sam Crandall was a street thug and hustler who picked up kids off the street and turned them into thieves for pay. He gave them food and a roof over their heads, and in return, they broke into houses and took the goods to him to fence.
Jim and I were heading out to lunch when a call came over the radio that there was a housebreaking in progress at 1120 Maple. We took the call, as the address was only a block away from us. There was a car in the driveway of the house, and Jim went round to the back door while I headed for the front.
I heard the shot just as I reached the front door. Heart pounding in my chest, I shoved the front door open, feeling like I'd dislocated my shoulder in the process. The door slammed back against the wall, and I barreled through, my gun held in front of me at chest height, sweeping the room.
Jim was down, blood seeping through the fingers of his left hand and covering his right shoulder. A figure dressed completely in black stood over him, gun raised to sight on his head. I called the requisite warning, and she turned, her gun now aimed at me. As I watched her finger press down on the trigger, I did the only thing I could and fired my weapon, the impact sending the girl flying back into the wall behind her.
I stood flat-footed and shell-shocked for a long moment, then raced across and checked the perp, kicking her fallen weapon across the room. By the time, I'd ascertained that she was dead, I could hear sirens piercing the air, and I stood and raced over to Jim, kneeling at his side.
He was conscious, but in obvious pain, and I coached him into turning down the dials a little till I saw the tension leave his face.
"Thanks, Chief," he whispered.
"You just hang in there, Jim," I said softly, pressing down on the wound in his shoulder firmly.
My eyes wandered over to the body on the floor. She looked so small now that she was no longer a threat.
As the backup arrived, and then the paramedics, I waited till Jim was loaded onto a gurney, then walked over and crouched beside her. Her eyes were open, looking like they were staring accusingly into mine. I bit down on my lip as I realized she was just a kid, fifteen or sixteen maybe.
Then one of the medics asked if I was riding in with Jim, and I shook my head. I had to stay and oversee the lockdown of the scene. Procedure. I knew Jim would be okay, and I'd get to the hospital as soon as I could, but in the meantime, my place was here. I'd have to talk to IA, go over the whole thing with them, and with Simon, not something I was looking forward to, but I was a cop now. Procedures like this had been drilled into my head at the Academy. If I wanted to be a cop, I had to act like one.
I walked across and placed a hand on Jim's uninjured shoulder. "I'll get to the hospital as soon as I can," I said.
"You did the right thing, Chief."
I nodded. "She's just a kid," I said, and then wished I hadn't as tears burned my eyes.
Jim's hand patted mine clumsily. "It'll be okay, Blair." Then they wheeled him out to the ambulance and I went back to the scene.
Within days I was cleared by IA. The shooting of the girl had been declared to be in self-defence. I knew it was a fair judgement, but it didn't stop me from seeing her young face every time I closed my eyes.
The girl, Lisa Judson, had a boyfriend, Joe, who'd worked for Sam Crandall before he'd managed to claw his way free of the underbelly of the streets and return home. When he heard what had happened to Lisa, Joe had come forward and given us enough evidence to get a search warrant on Crandall's place.
I'd picked Jim up from the hospital the next day. The bullet wound had been more bloody and painful than serious, fortunately.
Crandall was locked up, Jim was fine mostly, and IA had cleared me. Life was going to get back to normal. The dreams of killing the girl would stop, I told myself, every night I woke up sweating from a new one. But the guilt and pain leaked into more and more of my daily life till some days it was as much as I could do to go into the PD.
Simon pushed me to see a psychologist, and I agreed, but kept putting it off. Jim just kept an eye on me, trying to draw me out, to get me talk about it, but never pushing when I backed away.
I gave myself another once over in the mirror then headed out of the loft for a run down to the bakery to pick up bagels for breakfast. I was tired of seeing everyone watching me as if I was going to fall in a heap any minute, and I wasn't going to give anyone who'd doubted my place as Jim's partner an excuse to say I wimped out. I was going to keep the appointment with the staff psychologist as soon as our shift was over, and then I was going to get on with the rest of my life.
"Blair, it was a righteous shoot." Simon's voice is loud in the sudden silence, and Alisa stirs at my feet, pushing herself up to sit staring around the room. Her mouth drops open and she begins to wail, her arms outstretched toward me, her little hands opening and closing in the gesture I've come to know that means she wants me to pick her up.
I lean forward and push the icepacks to the floor but before I can get up, Jim's standing, reaching down to pull Alisa into his arms. "Don't get up, Sandburg. I've got her."
I watch, tears stinging my eyes as the man I've always considered my dearest friend, lifts my daughter into his arms and rocks her gently, one big hand cupping the back of her curl-covered head. "It's okay," he murmurs. "Your daddy's right here. I'm going to pass you over to him right now."
Alisa's stopped crying, tears damp on her cheeks. She lifts one small hand and pats Jim's face, and it's as much as I can do not to fall apart at the sight.
She's been so silent, so still ever since we left South America, apart from that one outburst in Simon's office, but now she's reaching out at last.
Jim drops a kiss on her head, and then settles her on my lap, taking obvious care to position her so there's no strain on my leg.
"Thanks," I whisper, my voice husky with emotion.
"Why don't I get us all some tea?" Simon stands up and grabs one of the shopping bags, pulling out a bottle. "I've got milk in the fridge. Is she old enough to drink cow's milk?" he asks worriedly. "I can't remember how old Daryl was when we started giving it to him-"
"Yeah, she's fifteen months old, and she likes milk, thanks. Just zap it in the microwave for 40 seconds and it'll be fine." I rest my head on Alisa's warm hair and rub her back. It comforts me as much as it seems to comfort her. "Hey, Alisa, Simon's got some milk for you. Then you can go back to sleep, all right, baby?"
I look up and catch Jim watching us, an expression I can't define on his face. "Where's her mother?" he asks.
"I'm getting to it," I say, laying Alisa back across my arm as Simon brings the bottle in and hands it to me.
Alisa wraps both her hands around mine on the bottle and closes her eyes as she sucks. She looks so much like her mother right now that it almost makes me gasp out loud. Instead, I hold myself together till she's asleep again.
Jim lifts her from my arms, and without me saying anything, puts her back down in the nest of blankets at my feet. He pats her back a couple of times when she moves around, then once she settles, moves back to his seat in the armchair opposite me.
Simon hands me a cup of honey-sweetened tea and sits back down as well. "Go on, Blair," he says.
I was heading back to the loft with breakfast in my hand when someone called my name. I stopped and turned towards the sound. There was a sudden stinging pain in my neck and my hand slapped at the source, my fingers pulling a small red-tipped dart from my skin. I blinked at it for a moment, too stunned to do anything more. By the time realization struck and I started to run, it was too late. The drug was flooding my system and my legs became too heavy to move. I remember slumping to the sidewalk, the bag of food dropping from my nerveless fingers. There was a rush of blurred sound around me, and my eyelids felt as if they'd been weighted down.
As if from a vast distance, I felt myself lifted and placed over something - someone's shoulder perhaps - and then blackness descended and I passed out.
I had vague memories of waking up from time to time, but each time I did, something sharp pricked my arm before I could regain any coherency or conscious knowledge of where I was. Each time it happened, lethargy swept through me again and the world receded into darkness.
When I finally woke up and was allowed to remain that way, I was in a strange room. The air was warm and humid. A ceiling fan swirled lazily over my head.
"Good, you're awake. I was worried those idiots had overdosed you."
The voice came from my right and I turned my head. I blinked a few times to clear my vision, then gasped as I recognized my visitor. "Maya!"
"Hello, Blair." Her voice was as sweet as the day I met her, and I struggled to sit up, my arms pulling ineffectually at something holding me to the bed.
Looking down I could see my wrists were encased in handcuffs, and a wriggle of my legs brought the telltale clink of cuffs on my feet as well. "What's going on?" I asked.
Her hand cupped my cheek lovingly. "Don't struggle. I don't want you to hurt yourself. I've missed you so much, Blair. I needed to see you."
I dropped my head back to the pillow. "You could have called," I said.
"How could I? They sent me away from you, and for all I knew, they were tapping my phone. Blair, I wanted to come see you, but they told me I could never go back to America. So, I had to bring you to me." Her voice carried the finality of someone who thinks she's done all she can do.
"Maya, I need to call Jim. He's going to be worried about me-"
"No!" She knelt beside the bed and placed her hands on my shoulders, urging me to be still. "Don't you see? He's the one who took everything I loved away from me - my father, my surrogate mother, Blanca, Francisco, and even Uncle Gustavo. Now he would keep you from me as well. No, Blair, you must stay here with me." She leaned forward and kissed my dry mouth, her hands stroking through my short hair. "Look what he's done to you already. Your beautiful hair. I read about your dissertation. He destroyed your life just like he destroyed mine. I'm going to give your life back to you. A life we can share."
I turned my head away from hers and stared at the wall, my mind racing. I had to find a way out of here, and a way to get hold of Jim. After a moment, I looked back at her. "I've missed you too, Maya," I said, sincerity coating every insincere word. "Maybe we can make this work." I jiggled the cuffs meaningfully. "Can you take these off? I'd love to be able to put my arms around you."
She pulled back, her eyes narrowing. "Not yet," she said firmly. Then she pecked my lips with hers again. "Soon though." She pushed herself to her feet and walked to the door. "I'm going to get you some food and something to drink."
A noise makes me look up, pulling me away from my memories. Jim is pacing up and down in front of me, one hand running through his hair, his jaw set and grim.
"You chose to stay with her?" he asks, the harshness back in his voice again.
"What?" Alisa stirs restlessly, and I lower my voice. "How could you think that? I had to play along with her. I was cuffed hand and foot to a bed. Somehow, I didn't think there was much chance of her letting me make a call to you."
"Well, you must have been untied sometime," he replies sarcastically. He points at Alisa. "I take it she's definitely yours?"
"Of course she's mine. She's part of the reason I waited to get out as long as I did. I wasn't going to leave her there with them."
"Jim, take it easy on the kid." Simon reaches across and pats my shoulder. "Look, it's getting late. Why don't we all try to get some sleep? We can talk more in the morning."
I nod and scoot to the edge of the couch, then stand up on legs that are suddenly shaky. My knee's stiffened up, and I bend forward awkwardly, reaching down for Alisa. Once again, Jim surprises me, moving me not ungently to one side and picking her up himself. She turns and buries her face against his chest, and he rocks her slowly back and forth till she settles again. Then he leads the way down the hallway to the guest room.
Simon's already set up the portacrib he bought, and I blink, wondering when he'd done it. I guess I'd been so caught up in telling my tale that I hadn't even noticed him leaving the room.
Jim puts Alisa in it and covers her snugly, then stands back and looks at me. "Does she have a toy she sleeps with or anything?" he asks.
"Um, yeah." I pull the raggy-looking teddy bear out of the bag Simon's placed on the bed and limp over to put it under my daughter's cheek. Alisa gives a deep sigh and flops over onto her stomach, her thumb finding its way unerringly to her mouth.
"I'm going to sleep in Daryl's room," Jim says. "If you need any help during the night, just give me a call."
"Thanks," I whisper. "Jim, listen, it's not the way you think-"
He pats my shoulder briefly, then ruffles the top of my hair in a gesture so familiar, it brings tears to my eyes. "It'll keep till tomorrow, Chief. You need anything else? Pain meds?"
I shake my head. "I'm good."
And I'm left alone to lie awake and wonder at Jim's conflicting actions, at his quicksilver changes of moods. I guess he's probably as confused by all of this as I am. Recognizing that doesn't help.
I stay awake until almost dawn, tossing and turning. I'm home at last, something I've prayed for every night for the past three years. Yet, my homecoming is bittersweet. I wonder if it's too late to salvage my friendship with Jim.
Alisa, at least, sleeps the sleep of the innocent and exhausted, her thumb never once leaving her mouth. I'm glad of that, and as dawn begins to lighten the bedroom we share, I fall asleep, lying on my side, facing her, her peaceful face the last thing I see.
There's a murmuring buzz of voices above me, and I flip over onto my back and try to prise my heavy eyelids open.
"Yeah, that's your daddy. He looks kinda tired right now. How about we go get you some breakfast and let him sleep in?"
I finally push my eyes open and see Simon standing over me, Alisa in his arms. She grins broadly at me when she sees I'm awake, and I hold my arms out to her, watching as her legs kick against Simon's stomach till he lets her down to sit astride me.
"I was trying to keep her quiet," he says apologetically.
"It's fine, Simon, but thanks. I'm awake." I tickle Alisa's tummy and grin at her as she giggles and pulls away from my hand, then I pull her forward and kiss her forehead, then point to my own. She lays a wet kiss there. It's become our morning ritual over the past couple of days we've been back together.
"I was just going to take her out to the kitchen and get her some breakfast," Simon says. "You still look exhausted, Blair. Why don't you let me look after her for a while? Get some more sleep."
I push myself up on one elbow, hooking my other arm around Alisa to keep her on my lap. "Simon, I really appreciate what you're doing " I swallow down hard. "I just need to keep her with me for now. I didn't see her for two months before I got on the plane -" I stop, hoping he understands that this isn't about me not trusting him, but only about needing to be with my child.
"It's fine, Blair. I'll go get her some breakfast, bring it in here."
"Already done." Jim walks into the room, a bowl and spoon in his hand. "I mixed up some of that baby cereal stuff Simon got yesterday."
I watch, barely holding back my emotions as Jim and Simon argue good-naturedly over who's going to hold Alisa and who gets to feed her. Finally they compromise. Alisa sits sideways on my lap while Jim spoons baby oatmeal into her, and Simon stands by with a bib to wipe up the spills. Then Simon swoops her off me, making aeroplane noises, and lays her on the floor and changes her diaper. Alisa laughs as he makes funny faces at her, and in no time at all, she's dressed, and then Jim's carrying her out of the room, her tiny hand waving a cheerful goodbye to me over his shoulder.
Simon steps up to stand beside the bed, looking down at me, his face serious now. "Blair, you need to sleep some more. You still look like death warmed over. Alisa's safe here, you know that, don't you?"
I nod. "I know."
He holds out two of the painkillers and the antibiotic pill the doctor at the hospital had prescribed, and when I take them from him, hands me a glass of water. I swallow them reluctantly, and then let him push me back to the pillows.
"Oh God, I should call my mom." I'm shocked that this is the first time I've thought of it.
"I called her. She's in Australia, but she'll be here in a few days," Simon replies.
"She's pretty damn keen to see you, but she's fine."
"I need to tell Jim the rest of what happened," I add.
"It'll keep, Blair," Simon says. "It may not seem like it, but right now, he's just glad you're back, and alive."
I bite the inside of my lip hard to stop the tears falling and shake my head. "I don't think so. He thinks I betrayed him again. Why do we always end up like this, Simon? When is he ever going to learn that I'd never do that to him?"
"Give him a little time," Simon says, his voice soft. "He's missed you. He was worried about you."
The tears spill over without warning, and I turn onto my side, facing the wall, hating myself for my weakness. I feel the mattress dip as Simon sits down on the bed behind me. "It'll be okay," he murmurs. The last thing I feel as I fall asleep is his big hand rubbing soothing circles on my back.
It feels like hours have passed when I wake again, but looking at the clock on the bedside table, I see I've only slept another hour. I stretch, then wish I hadn't as my knee locks and I have to push myself out of bed, and bend and straighten it a few times to get it to unlock again. There's a mild twinge of pain in my leg as I walk to the bathroom, but it's not unbearable, and I realize my knee is probably grateful for the rest it got last night and this morning.
It's only when I come back out of the bathroom and see the crib, with Alisa's teddy bear abandoned on the pillow that my heart suddenly goes into overdrive, and for the first time since I got back, I go into full panic mode.
My head tells me to calm down, that she's out in the living room with Jim and Simon, but my heart tells me that she's gone again, that Maya's family have found us and taken away the most precious thing in my life.
I don't stop to put the brace on my knee, but limp quickly into the hallway, my pulse beating a rapid tattoo against my throat. By the time I reach the living room, I'm almost gasping for breath, and I fight against the hands that grab at me, trying to stop my forward movement.
"Blair, calm down. You're hyperventilating."
I know that voice so well; it's the one I've heard in my dreams every night for the past three years, but I fight anyway, my gasps for breath making it almost impossible for me to speak.
"Where is she?" I get the words out in staccato bursts, and then I feel myself being pulled along and I'm pushed down into a chair, and Jim's face is in front of my eyes. I can feel his hand gripping my chin firmly, and I try to concentrate on what he's saying, thinking that the sooner I do, the sooner he'll let me go so I can find Alisa.
"Listen to me," he says, his voice hard. "Alisa's fine. She's right here, but I can't let you hold her till you calm down." He gives my chin a shake. "Understand?"
I gasp in a solid breath of air and nod quickly. I try to still everything that's roaring out of control within me, but I can't, and I look to him for help.
He stands up, moving away from me, and my eyes fill with hot tears, my breathing ratcheting out of control once more. Then he's back, pulling me forward, holding something over my face. "Breathe," he says. "You know the drill, Sandburg. You coached me through it enough times. In and out, slowly. That's it, you're doing great."
Once my breathing settles into a semi-normal rhythm, he pulls the paper bag away and pats my back. "That's it. You okay?"
I nod, raising my hand to wipe the tears from my sweaty face.
Simon comes over, and puts Alisa on my lap. I look up to thank him and see the worry in his eyes. "I'm all right now," I say hoarsely. "Sorry for freaking out."
"Christ." Simon murmurs the word feelingly. "I need coffee. Anyone else?"
"Tea for Blair," Jim replies, not taking his eyes from my face. "Don't suppose you've got chamomile."
"Maybe," Simon says. "I'll check. I think I've got some of that SleepyTime stuff. Blair recommended it to me once when I couldn't sleep."
I can't help smiling at that. "It'll be mouldy by now, Simon. That was four years ago."
Simon shakes his head. "I do clean out my cupboards, Blair. I bought a new box only a month or so ago. That stuff really works."
"I'll be okay now," I tell him.
I nod, and he walks back into the kitchen and starts pulling things out of the fridge.
I rock Alisa back and forth, Jim watching silently. She looks up at me wide-eyed, and clutches my shirt with small, tight fists.
"I'm sorry I scared you, baby," I whisper, rubbing my cheek across her hair.
"Want to tell me what brought that on?" Jim asks.
"I'll try," I reply.
Jim stands up, pats my shoulder and then Alisa's head. "You need to eat first."
We sit at Simon's kitchen table and eat eggs and bacon, drink orange juice, and SleepyTime tea for me, coffee for Jim and Simon. For a while, I can almost imagine that the past three years haven't happened. Simon is telling us about the last letter he got from Daryl, who's studying law in Seattle. He has a girlfriend, and Simon grins broadly when Jim tells him he should probably start preparing for grandparenthood. I think about how good he's been with Alisa and that he'd make a terrific grandfather. That thought alone reminds me that things are different, that just seeing my child sitting in her carryseat on the floor at my feet proves that the last three years happened, and that perhaps nothing will ever really be the way it once was again.
Suddenly I'm not hungry anymore, and I push my plate aside and stand up, not missing Jim's eyes following my movements. "The food's great, Simon," I say, by way of excuse. "I'm just not that hungry. Probably ate too much pizza last night."
Simon just nods acceptance and takes my plate over to the sink, but Jim keeps watching me, his steady gaze making me feel both unnerved and comforted at the same time. It's an odd feeling.
I manage to crouch down enough to unstrap Alisa from the chair and pull her into my arms, taking her out into the living room and settling her on the rug in front of the couch. I scatter a few of the toys Simon bought the night before around her, then sit and watch as she picks them up, cooing over them, inspecting them in that intent way babies have. Every so often she holds one up to me for inspection, and I take it and tell her what a nice toy it is, then hand it back. She's smiling so much more today, vocalizing often, and my heart warms in gratitude to my friends who've brought this about by their kindness to my little girl.
Jim comes in and sits back down in the chair he'd used last night. Alisa grins at him and holds up a teddy bear for him to see. He takes it and makes a production out of hiding it behind his head, then popping it out at her and saying,"Boo!"
Alisa giggles at him, then pulls herself up against his knee and stands there, waiting till he does it again.
The game goes on for a few more minutes till Simon comes in and picks Alisa up. "I thought maybe I could take her for a walk to the store," he says hesitantly. "That way you and Jim can talk."
I know he's waiting for a renewed bout of my misplaced hysteria of earlier, but I surprise myself, and him by nodding. "Thanks, Simon. It'll be good for her to get outside for a while."
He holds her down to me so I can kiss her, and then they're gone, and Jim and I are alone for only the second time in three years.
I look across at him. He's sitting patiently, waiting for me to begin. I've seen him look that way before, when he's questioning a victim, and the thought makes my insides cringe. I don't want him to think of me like that, as a victim, even though I surely am one. I just want to be his friend again, his Guide again. But it's going to be a long road back to that, so I clear my throat and go on from where I left off.
The next day or two dragged by with agonizing slowness. I was kept chained to the bed and Maya didn't return.
Food and drink was brought in for me, and my hands were uncuffed long enough for me to eat. There was an armed guard stationed inside my room all the time. I presume he stayed there when I slept. I wondered if the water they gave me was drugged as I slept so deeply, despite the anxiety that churned in my gut. When I needed to use the bathroom, my feet and hands were unshackled and I was led, at the point of a gun, to take care of business. The guard went into the toilet with me, and I think it was that indignity, as much as anything else, that made me begin to bargain with Maya when she finally came to see me.
It was getting toward nighttime when she finally came; shadows on the wall had already begun to lengthen and the air was growing cool.
She sat next to me on the bed and just looked at me without saying anything.
"Maya, please, at least uncuff my hands. You can't just keep me chained up here forever." I raised my hands as far as I could and thrust them in front of her face.
She blinked slowly at me, then lowered her eyes to my wrists. "Oh, Blair, I'm so sorry." She leaned forward and brushed kisses over the abrasions the cuffs had made. Then she sat up and called the guard over, demanding he give her the key.
He fished it out of his pocket and handed to her, shrugging nonchalantly.
Moments later, I was free, well, relatively so. My feet were still chained. I decided to take what I could get and wear her down gradually. I'd already begun to sense that I needed to get her to trust me, to make her believe that I wouldn't try to escape. For whatever reason, she believed she'd saved me. Somehow, I had to make her think that I was grateful and willing to stay with her.
"Thank you." I reached up with my hands and cupped her face, pulling her down to where I could kiss her lips.
She allowed it but then pulled back with a smile. "You need a shower and to brush your teeth-"
"Sorry," I apologized. "I didn't think I forgot "
"Sssh," she whispered, kissing my forehead. "It's not your fault. Luis," she turned to the guard again, who'd retreated to stand back against the door of what I'd come to think of as my cell, "Blair needs to shower. Get him some toiletries, but you shave him." She gave me a soft moue of apology. "I need time to get to know you again before I can trust you completely. Luis will help you shower and shave. Then I'll come to see you again."
She stood up and began walking to the door. I called her name and she turned to look at me.
"Why are you doing this? What do you think you can gain by keeping me here?" I asked, all my instincts at getting her to trust me swallowed up in my desire to know.
She walked back to the bed and brushed her hand through my hair. "I want you to give me back what you and Ellison took from me," she said. "A family."
"How?" I asked. Blanca was dead, her father was in prison, as was Francisco, and God only knew where Gustavo was.
"I want you to give me a baby," she said. Then she turned away again and left the room.
The door opens behind me and I look around to see Simon walk in, a shopping bag in his hand, and a fast-asleep Alisa draped over his shoulder, a thin line of drool dampening his t-shirt. "She conked out on me," he says. "I'd forgotten babies take naps. I should have bought her a stroller when I got the car seat."
"It's fine, Simon. I'll get one tomorrow."
Jim raises his eyebrows at me inquiringly, and I answer the unasked question. "They gave me some money when they handed Alisa over to me on the plane," I say. "It's in a bank account in my name here in Cascade."
"Who's they?" Jim asks.
"It's better if I tell it in a linear fashion," I reply, watching Simon take Alisa along the hallway to put her to bed. ""Sorry, I'm not trying to be deliberately mysterious but a lot happened in the last three years, some of which I've tried pretty hard to block out."
"Okay," Jim agrees. "Your leg okay? You need pain meds or anything? More tea?"
I shake my head. "I'm fine."
Simon's sitting in the chair next to Jim and he motions for me to continue.
Things settled into a weird sort of routine after that. Every morning, I was allowed to get up, shower, brush my teeth and dress in clothes that were delivered daily to my room with my breakfast. Books gradually began to arrive as well, along with anthropology journals and magazines. Maya usually appeared at dinnertime and ate with me, telling me what she'd done that day. She didn't allude to her desire for a baby again for at least another week. Each night, I was given pajamas to change into after she left, then my legs and wrists were restrained once more for the night.
I tried to talk to the guards who were with me in my room, attempting to establish some sort of rapport with them in the hope that perhaps, one day, I might be able to persuade one of them to help me escape. But, although they were pleasant enough, played cards and chess with me to pass the time, they kept themselves at a distance, polite and almost non-threatening, but never letting that veneer of distance slip.
It was around ten days after I'd woken to find myself a prisoner that Maya broached the subject of having a child by me again.
We were eating dinner when she simply asked me outright if I would willingly give her a baby.
I fiddled with my fork, unsure of the right thing to say. If I agreed, there was a chance she'd let me go home. After all, she'd have what she wanted from me. She wouldn't need to keep me with her anymore.
On the other hand, if I did say yes, what of the child, if there was one? I'd grown up in a single parent family, with a mother who loved me dearly and showed me that love, but who found it difficult to *be* there for me a lot of the time. I never knew my father, and there were many times in my life when I wanted needed to know that he at least knew who I was, even if he chose never to see me. Could I put a child of mine through that same pain, even if it meant giving up any chance I had to escape and get back to the States?
"Blair?" Maya's voice was soft. "Answer me."
I looked up into the face of the woman I'd once thought I'd loved more than I'd ever loved anyone before. I held up my hand, asking her wordlessly to give me a few minutes to think. "There's a condition," I said finally.
Her chin jerked up at that, her eyes looking knowingly into mine. "I thought there would be," she replied.
"If I agree, you have to promise to release me, let me go home to Cascade as soon as the child is born. In the meantime, you have to let me leave this room, let me have some freedom to study or work, even if it's from within the house-"
"I can't let you call your friends," she interrupted.
"I figured you wouldn't," I said, even though it broke my heart to think of Jim wondering where I was, not knowing if I was dead or alive.
"What else?" she asked sharply.
"When the child is old enough, I want you to tell him or her about me, and if he or she wants to find me, you have to make that possible, do you understand?"
She nodded. "All right." She smiled at me, her eyes bright now. "I agree to your terms, but I know once the child is born, you won't want to leave us. We'll be a family."
I swallowed hard. "Maybe."
She stood and came around the table, bending down to kiss my cheek. "I'll get Luis to bring you to my room tomorrow night for dinner. I want to prepare a special meal for us."
"Good, that'll be nice." I watched as she left the room, then went and lay down on the bed, studiously avoiding the all-seeing eyes of the guard. I felt as if I'd just made a deal with the devil.
I look up from where my eyes have been fixed on my hands.
Jim's watching me steadily, but there's no condemnation in his gaze this time. His eyes are soft and filled with sympathy. "And once Alisa was born, you couldn't bring yourself to leave?" he asks, though it's more a statement of something he knows, than a question.
I nod jerkily, tears burning my eyes. "I wanted to, more than anything, but she was so small, so defenceless. I kept thinking - these people had kidnapped me and kept me prisoner for so long. How could I leave my child with them, knowing what they were? I'm sorry."
I look at Jim again, then over at Simon, who's brushing at his eyes with the fingers of one hand. He's crying, I realize, for me, and my little girl, and the knowledge causes my own tears to overflow. I sniff them back and scrub hard at my cheeks.
"You did what you thought was right for her, Blair," Simon says, his voice gravelly with sorrow. "You gave up your life for that little girl."
"Only temporarily," I reply. I lift my head and set my jaw, pushing the overwhelming emotion away, deep down where I kept it hidden for three long years. "I never gave up hope of getting us both out. I decided the only way it would happen would be to play along with Maya. Let her think that once we had Alisa, I was happy to stay in Chile with her, to be a family." I almost spit out the last word. The Carasco family were that only in name, they had no true understanding of what family really meant, what it could be, what it should be.
There's a distant wail from the bedroom and I shuffle forward to get to my feet. In a moment, Jim's there, hauling me up with one hand under my elbow. He waits till I'm steady, then follows me down to the guest bedroom, where Alisa's standing up in the cot, one hand clasping the side, the other holding her teddy by a dangling arm.
"You should probably put the brace back on if you're going to be on your feet for a while," Jim says, detouring to the crib to pull Alisa up into his arms. She grins cheerfully enough at him, so I sit on the bed and wrap the brace around my leg, wincing as I pull the straps tight enough to give me support.
Standing, I hold my arms out and Alisa comes willingly, wrapping her small arms around my neck.
"Why don't we take a break from the discussion for a while," Jim suggests. "You and Alisa should spend some time doing what you'd normally do during the day."
I nod gratefully at him. "That'd be good. I hadn't seen her for so long. I used to read to her after lunch before " Suddenly I feel stricken. "I forgot to get her books-"
"Settle down, Chief." Jim pats my shoulder and herds us from the room towards the kitchen. "I'm sure Simon's got some of Daryl's old toys and books around. If not, I'll run down to the bookstore and pick up what you need while you give Alisa some lunch and," he raises his eyebrows meaningfully at me, "eat something yourself. You need more meds and you can't take them on an empty stomach."
"Okay." I settle down as ordered and allow myself a small smile. Guess that old Blessed Protector Syndrome is still in place. For all the times it annoyed me before, now, I find myself welcoming it, feeling a small area of warmth settling around my heart. It feels like coming home.
The rest of the day passes by in a haze of almost-normality. I change into sweatpants, pulled from the pile of new clothes Simon bought me, which are better suited to the brace on my knee. As I potter around the kitchen, making sandwiches for everyone, and cutting up bits of fruit, bread and cheese for Alisa, she wanders with me, one hand clutching the loose fabric of my pants leg, still new at walking, but determined to show off her skill at it. From time to time, Jim or Simon pass by us, grabbing drinks from the fridge, and each time they do, a big hand brushes gently over my daughter's soft curls, a warm voice speaks her name, and she grins up at them, already acclimatizing, already knowing that they've become her protectors, her friends, just like they've always been mine. I have to swallow hard to dislodge a lump in my throat several times that day.
After lunch, and swallowing more meds that Jim insists I take, I settle on a beanbag in the living room, Alisa perched next to me, her head resting on my chest as I open the book Simon brought out from Daryl's room. It's called 'The Velveteen Rabbit'. I'm not sure Alisa understands a word of it, but she seems to enjoy the rhythm of the words, and the sound of my voice, and when I finish it, she tilts her head back at me and grins widely, then pats the book cover and says "More."
Her first real word. I grin back at her, and read it again, then Simon drags out some old videos of Daryl's - Barney the Dinosaur - and slots them into the VCR. Alisa watches in rapt fascination while Jim, Simon and I kick back on the couches, and sink a couple of beers while they fill me in what's been happening at home while I've been gone.
I'm dying to ask Jim about his senses, but I hold back for now. He seems fine, so I guess he managed them without me. A small twinge of resentment rears its ugly head at that thought and I tamp it down fiercely. There's no place for those kinds of feelings right now. We still have too much healing to do before I can allow myself to give voice to those kinds of emotions.
I smile broadly when I hear that Rafe and Megan are married, and that they're Downunder visiting Megan's family right now, which is why I didn't see either of them in the bullpen when I arrived. That makes me feel better. Megan and I had been pretty close. I want to think that if she'd been there when the word got around the precinct that I was there, that she would have turned up, welcoming me back.
"They've got a baby too," Simon adds, "a boy, a little older than Alisa."
That makes me smile again. Maybe when they get back, Alisa will have a ready-made playmate. "What's his name?"
"Jeb," Simon replies. He grins at my arched eyebrow. "It's Megan's father's name," he explains.
"It's nice. Different." I look down at Alisa, who's still glued to the adventures of the giant purple dinosaur and his friends. "Are they coming back to Cascade?"
Simon nods. "They're due back next week. Man, are they going to be happy to see you."
"I can't wait to see them either."
Jim leans forward, his arms resting on his knees. "Feel like telling us the rest?" he asks. "It can wait, if you want." He smiles apologetically at me. "I'd just really like to know-"
"It's fine," I say. "I'd rather get it over with anyway."
Jim frowns at that, but he says nothing, just leans back in his chair and waits for me to begin.
Once Maya knew she was pregnant, I was granted more freedom. I was allowed to go for walks around the estate, my guards trailing behind me. I was no longer cuffed to the bed and was able to use the bathroom alone.
Gradually, my figurative shackles were loosened more and more, as Maya realized I intended to keep my promise to stay until the baby was born.
One day, she came into my room and announced that she'd found me a job.
I felt my mouth drop open in stunned surprise. "What? Where?"
She bent and kissed my forehead, lifting my hand and placing it on her belly, so I could feel our child kick. "The university is looking for tutors," she said.
"That's great!" I stood up, my mind racing. Surely now I'd be able to find a way to contact Jim. "Will they give me an office? I'll need to buy text books and-"
Her reply dashed my hopes. "You'll work from here," she said. "We'll set up an office for you and the students will come here to see you."
Crushed, I sat down again. I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my world again. I pasted a smile onto my face. "Great," I replied. "I'll still need textbooks and stuff."
"Write a list and give it to Luis. He'll make sure you have everything you need." She bent forward again, cupping my face in her hands. "You see, Blair, we will make this work. You can teach and I will have our baby and we will be a family."
I nodded. "Yeah. It's great news, Maya. Thank you."
"You didn't tell any of the students you tutored what was going on?" Simon asks.
"I wanted to," I reply. "You have no idea how many times I almost did, how many times I almost asked to borrow a cell phone or a laptop to try to contact Jim, or the Chilean police." I look over at my daughter. Alisa's laughing out loud at the antics of Barney.
"But you couldn't," Jim says softly. "You would have put them in danger of reprisal if you had."
I nod. "They were just kids. How could I risk their lives any more than I could Alisa's?"
Simon stands up and looks at his watch. "I don't know about you two, but I'm starting to feel housebound. Let's go out for dinner."
"What about Alisa?" I ask.
"There's a few kid-friendly restaurants in Cascade," Simon replies. "We'll go to one of them."
Jim grins and I can almost see the wheels turning in his head.
"No way, Jim. Not Wonderburger!"
He laughs and shakes his head at me. "Can't blame a guy for trying." He looks over at Simon. "What about Gianelli's? Rafe and Megan take Jeb there all the time."
"Good choice. Well, I've got first dibs on the shower seeing as how it's my house," Simon says, heading up the hallway.
Jim watches him go, that familiar smile still lighting his face. Then he turns and faces me. "I'm sorry," he says.
"Jim, you don't have anything to be sorry for-"
"I should have found you," he goes on, ignoring my words. "I should have tracked you down. You were gone for three years, Chief "
"It's okay. I'm back now, right?" I smile reassuringly at him.
"Yeah." He walks across to stand in front of me. "I'm so damn glad you're back, Chief."
"Have have your senses been okay?" I ask hesitantly.
He shrugs. "I have my good and bad days. Luckily, you taught me a lot before you disappeared, so I've tried to use that when I could." He grins wryly at me. "It doesn't always work. Guess I haven't gotten any better at listening to you than I used to."
"You're listening now," I say, standing up.
Suddenly, he's pulling me forward, his arms wrapping around my shoulders in a fierce hug. "I've missed you," he whispers.
Dinner's great. For the first time since I got back, I feel almost as if I've never been away. We talk about everything except what happened to me, while Alisa sits in her high chair, munching happily on fries and chicken nuggets made especially for her by Enrico Gianelli, the head chef. She accepts the attention of the waitress with grins and giggles.
"She's so cute," the girl says, patting Alisa's cheek. "Which one of you does she belong to?"
I raise a hand, and the girl, Becky, smiles indulgently at me. "You're such a good dad, giving your wife a night off. I have three kids. Maybe I should get you to talk to my husband."
"Maybe." I smile at her as she leaves the check on the table.
Simon picks it up and pulls out his wallet.
"I should be paying for this," I say. "I have money-"
Simon shakes his head. "Do you really want to use their money, Blair?" he asks.
"No, but you've done so much for me already-"
"Blair, you're my friend. Let me do this much for you, okay?" I nod, and Simon stands up and goes to pay the bill.
Alisa falls asleep in the car on the way home and Jim carries her up to the bedroom, putting her in the crib, tucking the bear under her cheek the way I had the night before.
I can hardly believe that so little time has passed. So much has changed in just 24 hours. I've gone from the depths of despair to feeling on top of the world.
I sit down on the bed and take the brace off, while Jim stands propped against the door. I take the pills the doctor prescribed and I see Jim give an approving nod as he turns and leaves. As the door closes behind him, I undress down to my boxers and fall back wearily into bed, asleep almost the minute my head hits the pillow.
Alisa's screaming, her high-pitched wails cutting though my own cries of pain. I jerk away from the hand on my shoulder, yelling as agony lances through my leg and head. The scent of blood is all around me, overwhelming me and I gag as thick bile clogs my throat.
"Blair! Settle down! It's just a nightmare. You're safe."
The words are meaningless at first; I'm too lost in my past to comprehend them, then I feel myself pulled forward into strong arms that wrap around my back and begin to rock me back and forth. "It's okay, it's okay. Simon, take Alisa out of here, all right?"
I want to scream, "No!" Beg them to bring her back, promise I won't try to run again, but the rocking of my body is calming, and then I blink and open my eyes and realize I'm in Jim's arms, his big hand pressing my face against his shoulder, my tears dampening his shirt.
I push myself back and look into his worried eyes. "Sorry," I mutter.
Jim moves his hands down to my forearms and squeezes gently. "Not a problem," he says. "You okay?"
I nod, wiping at my eyes with the back of the hand I free from his grasp. "Alisa-"
"Is fine," Jim finishes for me. "Simon's got her." He cocks his head in the way I'd become so familiar with in the years of being his Guide. "She's laughing," he says, shooting me a wry grin.
"I haven't had that nightmare for a while," I tell him. "Guess talking about everything brought it all back."
"Do you think talking about what happened that caused the nightmare will help," he asks.
I shrug. "Maybe. You know me, in therapy since I was in Pampers, remember?"
Jim grins, gives my head a gentle noogie. "Can't hurt," he replies. He lets go of my arm and scoots back so he's sitting against the wall behind the bed, then looks at me expectantly.
"What time is it? Alisa needs to be in bed-"
"It's 6AM," he replies, indicating the clock beside my bed. "She'll be fine. Simon will get her some breakfast and probably put on another of those god-awful Barney tapes she loved so much."
I'm stunned. I feel as if I'd only just closed my eyes when the nightmare woke me.
"So Feel like telling me the rest?"
"Yeah. Better out than in, Naomi used to say."
"She'll be here tomorrow," Jim tells me.
I clench down on my lip at that news. I want to see her, but I'm worried she'll think I ran out on her too.
Jim seems to read my mind, leaning forward and patting my arm. "It'll be fine. She can't wait to see you and Alisa."
"You told her about Alisa?" I ask, not sure how I feel about that.
"We figured she'd had enough of a shock finding out you were alive," Jim says casually. "We didn't want to push it by letting her find out she was a grandma when she got here."
I can't help grinning at that. "Good point. Naomi, the grandma. Now that's going to be something to see."
"She'll spoil Alisa rotten," Jim says, grinning back at me.
"Yeah, she will. But that's a good thing, right?"
"It's a great thing, Chief. You want to stay up here or go into the living room?"
"Would you mind if we went out there?" I ask hesitantly. "I really don't feel like staying in bed any more."
"It's fine, Chief." He helps me up, helps me pull my sweatpants and tshirt on then walks closely behind me down to the living room, where he hovers anxiously over me till I'm settled on the couch.
He settles back in the armchair again. "Now What happened to your leg and to Maya?"
Once Alisa was born, Maya never approached me for intimacy again. In fact, if anything, she withdrew from me completely, reverting almost back to our former positions of kidnapper and captive. She dropped into my study, where I tutored students from time to time and asked how I was, but there was no real attempt at conversation. I felt like a sperm donor, which is probably how she thought of me too.
The only happiness in my life was Alisa. Surprisingly, I was allowed to see her whenever I wanted to and we bonded quickly. I took to taking her back to my room in the evenings, before she was put to bed, and we'd lay on my bed, her little head resting on my chest as I read to her. I knew Maya was allowing it for one reason only, to keep me there. Alisa was my anchor, but she was also my shackle, stopping me from returning to Jim and Cascade.
I'd kept track of Maya's routine comings and goings and finally was able to work out a day when she'd be out of the house for longer than usual. The guards appeared to have become inured to my presence. They joked with me from time to time and even played chess with me in the evenings after Alisa had been taken back to her nursery for the night. The guard who had been my first watchman, Luis, had become particularly relaxed around me.
I waited till my last student had left then went to Alisa's nursery and brought her back to my study, telling her nanny that Maya had said I could spend an hour with her before dinner. The nanny didn't demur, handing Alisa over to me with a smile.
Back in my study, I sat with Alisa on the floor for a short while, playing with the toys I kept there for her. Finally, glancing at the clock on my desk, I realized that time was running out and if I was going to do this, it had to be now.
"Hey Luis, how's it going?" I sauntered over to where he stood, leaning against the doorway of my study. "How's Maria?"
He beamed at me. "She is pregnant again," he said proudly. "Number five. We are hoping for a boy this time. Four girls are all very nice but a man needs a son, you know?"
"Congratulations, man." I patted his shoulder firmly and casually looked down to where his gun lay unattended on the table. There was a keychain next to the gun, one of the keys, I knew, was for the four-wheel drive Luis drove to work and that was pulled up in the driveway just outside the house.
I dropped the folder I was carrying in what I hoped was a subtle maneuver to the floor, cursing as I bent forward to pick up the scattered papers. Luis, gentleman that he was, bent down to help me, and in what seemed a surprisingly easy move, I jerked forward and my scrabbling fingers grabbed for the gun.
Luis looked up and cursed loudly, then hauled off and smacked me in the side of the head.
With my ears ringing and stars dancing in front of my eyes, I grabbed despairingly for the gun again and managed to pull it into my hand. Trying not to think of what I was doing, I swung it round and bashed Luis full in the face with it. He collapsed soundlessly to the floor, blood streaming from his nose and mouth, and I wasted a second to feel for a pulse in his neck. Huffing with relief when I felt it, fast and full beneath my fingers, I whispered a quick apology to my jailer, then stood and tucked the gun into the waistband of my pants. Turning around, I saw Alisa, sitting on the floor, her eyes wide and her mouth open in preparation for a full-fledged wail.
"Ssh, ssh," I whispered, pulling her hurriedly into my arms, relieved beyond measure when she simply buried her head in my shoulder and made not a sound.
"Good girl," I murmured, stepping cautiously out into the hallway and looking around.
I'd picked the time perfectly. Luis' offsider would be in the kitchen having dinner. I just had to get through the front door and into the vehicle before anyone came to investigate. I touched the butt of the gun carefully. I had no wish to use it, but I knew I would, if push came to shove.
Barely daring to breathe, I snicked the front door open and crept out to the car, my precious bundle wrapped safely in my arms. There was an indefinable moment of serenity as I started to unlock the car door, a moment when my only thoughts were that I'd made it, that this time tomorrow I'd be winging my way home to Jim to my life and then all hell broke loose as the car alarm went off.
Cursing my stupidity in forgetting about it, I twisted the key in the lock anyway and wrenched open the door, dropping Alisa gently onto the front seat and pushing her across it far enough for me to climb in after her. I'd made it halfway in when a hand clawed at my shoulder and I was wrenched backwards to land crumpled on the ground, the air knocked from my lungs.
Gasping for breath, hearing Alisa screaming inconsolably, I looked up to see Jorge, Luis' offsider, standing over me, straddling my legs. He glared into my eyes then pulled back his arm, and I cringed as I saw the gun in his hand point down to aim at my head. Then he smiled coldly, dropped his aim and fired the gun at my knee.
I screamed in pain and tried to curl up around the agony that streaked along my leg. Bright flashes of light obscured my vision, then pain sheared through me again as he drew back his leg and kicked me hard where the bullet had entered.
He was yelling at me, cursing me in his native tongue. The words rushed over me, my whole world coalescing into a nightmare of pain and sound. Alisa's crying carried over it all.
"Oh God." There was a soft voice next to my ear and I looked up, blinking back the encroaching darkness to see Maya kneeling at my side. "What have you done to him?" she shrieked at Jorge. "Help me get him into the car. Jorge, take Alisa into the house. I'll take him to the hospital myself."
I forced myself to stay conscious long enough to hear Jorge query her words, and Maya shouting at him to do as he was told.
Then I felt myself lifted, pain searing along my nerves and everything just went away, Maya's soft apology to me, the last thing I heard.
Jim curses softly, vehemently, and I look across at him and see so much pain in his eyes that it makes my heart clench. He stands up and moves over to sit next to me on the couch, placing one hand along the back, close enough that I can feel the warmth of his body against mine.
"You want to go on?" he asks. "We can take a break-"
I shake my head. "I'm fine. I'm so close to the end, I'd rather get it over with. Then I can look forward, instead of back. Where's Alisa?"
"In the kitchen with Simon." Jim sniffs the air and smiles appreciatively. "They're making blueberry pancakes."
I take a huge breath in and Jim's hand lifts up from where he'd rested it and ruffles my hair briefly. "Go on when you're ready, Blair."
When I regained consciousness, it was to an awful pain in my leg that sheared all the way down to my toes and back up into my thigh. My knee was wrapped in a thick, heavy bandage and I touched it with curious fingers, while I blinked and tried to work out where I was. My head ached as well, and I could feel an IV in the back of my hand, and a catheter tugging uncomfortably in my penis.
The pain in my leg grew fiercer and I couldn't stop the groan of pain seeping from between my dry lips.
"Finally, you are awake," said an oddly familiar, accented voice from my bedside. "I will get the nurse to bring you some pain medication."
Before I could gather my wits, my visitor was gone, returning a few minutes later with a nurse, who took my pulse and checked my IV, then pushed a syringe full of happy juice into the tubing in my hand. She smiled down at me, patting my hair gently, then turned and glared at the man now standing at the foot of my bed. "Do not keep him talking for too long, Senor Alcante," she said firmly.
Gustavo Alcante nodded, winking at her and watched appreciatively as she left the room.
"Gustavo?" I shook my head, wondering if I should pinch myself to make sure I was actually awake and not still lost in unconsciousness.
Gustavo inclined his head toward me, then moved back to stand at my side. "Senor Sandburg," he said, "when you sleep, you really sleep."
"How long have I been here?" I asked, swallowing against the dry soreness of my throat.
Gustavo picked up a glass of water and held the straw to my lips, letting me take several long swallows. "Your throat is sore from the tube they had to put in to help you breathe," he explained. "They took it out just a day or so ago. As for how long, you have been here for almost three weeks-"
"What?" I struggled to sit up, biting down on a yelp as my leg was jostled.
"Hey, take it easy. You need to relax or the nurse will come and kick me out and then your questions will go unanswered, yes?"
I sighed and lay back down. "What happened? I remember being shot and I think Maya was there " I looked into his eyes, seeing deep sadness there. "She had me kidnapped-"
Gustavo sighed. "Yes, I know. I've been out of the country for quite some time. I found out what she'd done when I returned. I tried to convince her to release you, but as you know, Maya could be very stubborn when she wanted to be." He smiled sadly. "I was biding my time. I was going to contact Ellison, tell him where you were, but then I heard about the accident and-"
"This was no accident," I said hotly. "That big ape of Maya's shot me when I was trying to escape-" Suddenly something about his words struck me and I retraced them as well as the fuzziness of my narcotic-numbed brain allowed. "What happened to Maya?"
"There was an accident, with the car, you understand? Maya must have been frantic when she saw how badly injured you were." He shrugged. "Nobody knows for sure, but it appears she lost control of the car and it hit a tree. You had a severe head injury, as well as the bullet wound in your leg. They had to replace your knee joint, and you were unconscious for many days after."
"What about Maya?" I could feel my breath trapped in my chest, waiting for the answer, although I was almost sure I knew what it was going to be.
"She was killed instantly," he said, a hand brushing away tears that tracked down his wrinkled cheeks. "What she did to you was wrong, Senor-"
My vision blurred as my own eyes filled with tears. "Blair, my name is Blair."
Gustavo nodded. "She was misguided, perhaps not in her right mind," he ventured. "She lost so much from such a young age." He straightened up, banishing the last of the tears with a quick wipe of his hand across his eyes. "What she did was wrong, Blair, but at least now, perhaps, she is at rest, with her mother, yes?"
"Yeah." Suddenly another thought hit me and I reared up in bed again, my hands instinctively going down to clutch at my knee as the pain ripped through me again.
Gustavo pushed me back down firmly, his hands on my shoulders. "Do not move around," he warned me.
"Right, right, I don't think I'll do that again," I muttered, feeling sweat dampening my face. I stayed still and let the narcotic begin to push the pain back again. "Where's my daughter?" I asked finally, urgently.
"Alisa is safe, with friends of mine," Gustavo replied.
"I need to see her-"
"Not yet. It would not be safe to bring her here. This may be a hospital, Blair, but in Chile, even hospitals can be broken into, people can be killed. It is simply a matter of paying enough money to the right person to get them to turn a blind eye. I promise you, your child is safe. As soon as you are ready to leave the hospital, I will bring her to you."
Suddenly, I think of something else. "The man I hit, his name was Luis, is he okay?"
Gustavo shakes his head. "You Americans and your sentimentality Luis Rodrigues is fine. His nose was broken and I believe he had a very bad headache for a few days, but he'll live."
"Can you call Jim, tell him where I am?" I asked, dragging my now-heavy eyelids open impatiently, looking imploringly at his increasingly blurry figure.
"Not yet," he said quietly. "First, I need to clean up the mess Maya has made, without getting arrested myself. I am still a wanted man in your country, you know." His hand patted my shoulder. "Get some rest. You need to heal. All will be well if you trust me."
I fell asleep to his hand patting my shoulder, and when I woke up again it was the next day and there was an armed guard in my room, placed there, he said, on Gustavo's orders. I didn't see Gustavo again for another two weeks, when the doctor grudgingly, on my insistence, released me from the hospital. I was allowed no phone calls or visitors in that time, and began to feel as much a prisoner there as I had when I'd been with Maya.
My guard drove me away from the hospital. A man named Jose, he and I had become buddies of sorts while I was recuperating. We'd played cards during the long, seemingl endless nights, when pain and fretting for Alisa kept me awake. He was interested in anthropology and told me some stories from Chilean folklore.
"Where are we going?" I asked him as we sped away from the hospital in a small, dark vehicle.
He shrugged. "I have an address where I am to take you, then you will be moved again, perhaps many times, from safehouse to safehouse until Senor Gustavo can arrange for you to go back to America."
I tried to settle myself more comfortably in the cramped front seat. My leg still ached dully from time to time though the worst of the pain was gone. I wore a brace to keep my new knee in place till the ligaments and tendons could heal properly.
"Your leg is painful, yes?" Jose asked, pulling a bottle of tablets from his jacket pocket and handing them to me.
"Yeah." I eyed the bottle dubiously, then sighed and uncapped it. I'd be no good to Alisa if I could barely walk. I swallowed two down with the water Jose handed me then leaned my head back against the seat and dozed off.
It seemed like only minutes later that Jose was shaking me awake and he half-carried, half-walked me into a small stone house that looked to be on the outskirts of a small village. He helped me into a bedroom, introduced me to a man named Petro, who was to be my new babysitter and shook hands with me. "Take care, Senor Blair," he said, heading for the door.
At the doorway he stopped, slapping his head comically with his hand. "I almost forgot. Senor Gustavo asked me to give you this before I left."
Walking back across to me, he shoved something into my hand, then gave me a salute and left.
I sat down on the bed, still feeling unutterably weary, and looked at what I held in my hand.
It was a photo of a small girl with large blue eyes, brown curls and a wide smile. Alisa! Holding the picture gently, I dropped back onto the bed and cried for the first time since I'd found out that Maya was dead.
As Jose had told me, I was moved often after that, from house to farmhouse, village to village, always in the dead of night. Petro told me that Maya's father was very angry about what had happened to his daughter. For some bizarre reason known only to God and Chilean drug lords, he blamed me for her death and had put out a contract on me. Hearing that made me worry more about Alisa, wondering if Gustavo could really keep her safe. I wanted nothing more than to find a way to call Jim. I felt if anyone could protect my child, it would be him.
My leg wasn't healing well, the constant scurrying around in the dead of night and the endless walks around whatever house I happened to be in while I attempted to relieve my boredom and agitation, caused the joint to swell, pressing painfully against the brace. One night I woke to find myself sweating profusely, the pain in my leg almost as bad as it had been when I'd woken in the hospital.
Petro came running in when I called out, his swarthy face creased with worry as he looked me over. "You are burning up," he said. "I must call Senor Gustavo. You need a doctor."
"Just tell Gustavo I need to get out of here, I need to go home," I said.
Petro shook his head anxiously. "You are too sick to leave, Senor Blair. I will call Senor Gustavo."
Frustrated, I dropped my head back to the bed and fell into a restless sleep, waking to find Gustavo and another man beside my bed.
"This is my friend, Doctor Aliante," Gustavo said. "He is going to give you some medicine to make you feel better."
The doctor bent and examined my leg, shaking his head worriedly as I groaned when his fingers probed the swollen joint. He muttered something to Gustavo then took a couple of vials from his bag and filled two syringes, injecting me with both in the top of my thigh. "This is all I can do. I have given you antibiotics and some morphine for the pain," he said, looking at me kindly. "I will leave some antibiotic pills for you to take. Gustavo, he needs to return to America. The doctors there can treat him much better than I."
Gustavo nodded. "I know." He looked down at me. "Try to sleep. As soon as you are well enough to travel, I will take you to the airport."
My heart literally jumped in my chest at that, and I nodded my thanks to the doctor. It wasn't till I woke the next morning, my fever and the pain all but gone that I realized Gustavo hadn't mentioned Alisa. He'd said he'd take *me*.
I spent the next three days hobbling around the small cottage I currently called home, alternately thanking Gustavo for giving me the chance to go home, and cursing him for leaving me without news of Alisa.
On the fourth day, just as I'd decided to make a break for it on my own if I had to, the door opened and Jose came in.
"It is good to see you again, Senor Blair," he said, shaking my hand enthusiastically. "You are well enough to travel, yes?"
My heart felt as if it had literally jumped into my throat, and I nodded. "I'm fine. What about my daughter? I can't leave Chile without her-"
Jose patted my shoulder. "All will be well. Senor Gustavo says to remember you promised to trust him." He held out a shopping bag. "There are new clothes in here for you," he said. He grinned at me. "We don't want our American friends thinking we don't know how to look after our kidnap victims, do we?"
I grabbed the bag and went into the bedroom to change quickly, my pulse hammering a staccato beat against the skin of my throat. I wanted nothing more than to get to the airport and climb aboard a plane headed for home but without Alisa in my arms, I wanted nothing more than to stay. Finally, I decided all I could do was what Gustavo had asked me - trust him. He had, after all, made sure I was kept safe the past few weeks, he'd given me Alisa's photo to prove to me that she was safe Swallowing my doubts, I left the room and walked out to the car.
A couple of hours later, I was seated in first class on Chilean Air flight 474, having been rushed through the boarding preliminaries with a minimum of fuss by Jose. As I'd walked towards the plane, I kept looking around for Gustavo, but I hadn't seen him. I watched the seats around me beginning to fill, my heart aching with loss.
There was a sudden scuffle at the curtained-off doorway to first class and I looked up, my breath catching in my throat as I saw Gustavo walking towards me, Alisa cradled in his arms. He leaned forward as he reached me and placed Alisa on my lap, then whispered in my ear, "In this bag is everything you and Alisa will need when you get to America." He placed a hand on Alisa's curls, patting them gently, then looked into my eyes. "Give her a good life, Blair."
"I will," I promised. "Thank you for everything."
Gustavo nodded. "Tell Ellison, all debts are now paid."
Then he turned and walked away without looking back.
"And that's how it ended." I look over at Jim, who stands up and then pulls me up after him. He wraps his arms around me and hugs me.
"You did everything right, Chief," he says, repeating to me words he'd said so long ago, after he'd rescued me from Lash.
"Maya's dead," I remind him.
"But you and Alisa survived," he says. He smiles down at me as he pushes me gently away and I can see our friendship reflected in his eyes again.
"If you two have finished with the macho bonding stuff," Simon says from behind me, "I could use a hand here."
Turning around, I stare in astonishment.
Simon's holding Alisa on his hip, both of them liberally covered in pancake mix. A glob of it drops from Simon's forehead onto his shirt as I watch, and he shrugs. "She grabbed the bowl when I wasn't looking," he says. "I tried to grab it but " He points down at his clothes, grinning ruefully.
Alisa puts a sticky finger in her mouth and smiles broadly at me.
For the first time in three years, I laugh out loud, then I wave Simon over. "Get on over here, Simon. We're having a family hug, pancake mix and all."
I'm sitting on the balcony of the loft, watching my friends and family through the open glass door. Mom's sitting chatting with Joel, no doubt bending his ear about the protests she went to in the 60's. I have to say Joel doesn't look as if he minds, his eyes are riveted on Naomi's mobile face. Mom was a little surprised to find herself a grandmother, but, being Naomi, she took it in stride, gathered Alisa up into her arms, after hugging the stuffing out of me, and began being the best grandma a kid could want.
Rafe and Megan called earlier from downunder, promising to bring Alisa a stuffed koala to play with when they got back. Megs went kinda teary on me when she heard my voice and I could hear Rafe talking to her soothingly in the background. They sound happy together and that makes me happy too.
H came over as soon as he arrived and apologized for the way he'd reacted when he saw me in the bullpen. I told him it was fine, that I understood why he'd think what he did. He just shook his head. "I should have known you'd never walk away, Hairboy," he said. Then *he'd* wrapped his arms around me and hugged the stuffing out of me as well.
Simon's playing mein host at my welcome home party and passing around food and drinks, in between being proud surrogate uncle to Alisa. Right now, he's sitting on the floor with her, letting her run a succession of toy cars and trucks over his chest while he makes appropriate engine noises, and Alisa giggles.
Jim comes out onto the balcony and sits down next to me, placing a companionable arm around my shoulder. "You okay?" he asks. "Leg not hurting?"
"I'm fine," I reply. And I am. "I'm home," I say, wondering if it will seem more real if I say it out loud.
"And you're staying this time," he tells me firmly.
"I need to find a job-"
"Your job at the PD is still open, if you want it. You're still my partner. As soon as the doc clears your leg-"
"I think I'd like that," I tell him.
Jim nods and smiles, welcoming me home.
My life has been ever-evolving, ever changing, but in the end, I've come full circle, back where I want to be.