Letters From Hades

Part 5

By Demeter

"Don't push the river... the mind is a river with its own undertow and very deep currents. Push it too far and too fast ahead of itself and you're asking for trouble."

Truddi Chase, "When Rabbit Howls", 1987

33

Ocean and I sit in the living room of the loft where the fire is just about to die in the fireplace. I should maybe offer her something to drink, but just can't summon the energy for it, and it's understood anyway that this is no social visit. Blair's asleep in his room.

Now that it's all so obvious, I wonder when it was I missed the point, the one where I should have noticed something. And, would it have made any difference?

"How can anything like this heal?" I'm saying it out loud, needing an answer from her, because I can't imagine it. Too much that is shattered, too much of this violence and malice that a child just cannot comprehend - and those were only snapshots! Hell, even as an adult, this is too much. I want her to give me hard evidence that I'm wrong.

"It can. I'm absolutely positive about that." She sounds tired though.

"But--" I don't continue the sentence, as my mind is still overloaded from the images brought up. "But can you always make them, I don't know, whole?" Even though I've never been confronted with crime of this dimension before, I've seen trauma victims. I've met some who never gained balance again, becoming alcoholics, depressed, whatever.

"We work on co-consciousness first. It's partly there, and when it is completely achieved, the alters are still separate, but everyone has everybody else's knowledge and memories. Some multiples want to stop it at that. Some integrate partly, even spontaneously, after having worked through the memories. Sometimes, they still come back after a couple of years. Integration is the goal, of course."

She must have seen it in my face that this is enough of the shop-talk for tonight, giving me an apologetic smile. "Sorry, Jim. You are so intimate with that jargon, you always have to remind yourself that not everybody is."

"Not a problem."

That moment, there's a knock on the door, and even though I identify the visitor a split-second before the sound, I'm still incredulous. It's almost two. She's got a lot of nerve, hasn't she? I'm not sure what will happen if I open that door right now.

I do it anyway, and Naomi storms into the loft, a newspaper clutched in her hand. "I don't believe you, Jim Ellison!"

I'm just staring at her. Excuse me?

"Doing that interrogation on me, while you... you let that monster stay loose for so long! What happened to that tribal protector thing, huh? I've had enough. I'm going to take my son and--"

The hell you will-- I come that close to shaking her, but then, just at the right moment, Ocean speaks up.

"Naomi."

Her face loses all its color in an instant, spectacularly, I think, as she spins around to face Ocean. "What are *you* doing here?" But there's a bit of the fight leeching out of her voice, as if the anger building up inside her since the confrontation has tired her out, and this unexpected encounter is the final straw.

"Oh, I see." She sinks onto the couch, resting her head in her hands. "Just make me responsible for all this. I don't mind. Maybe you're right, even."

Ocean gets up to walk over to her and sits down beside her former friend. "No," she says softly, resting one hand on Naomi's bent back. "That's not true. We're here to help Blair - and you. If you'll let us."

The sight of this scene, so razor-sharp on the borderline of emotions breaking through, in addition to all that has happened today, makes me very aware of my own exhaustion, and suddenly I feel crowded by the two women in my home.

If only I could take Blair and just escape to... where to, I'm not sure of, just far away from all the tears and the memories and the unspeakable horror. Of course, that isn't possible at the moment.

"You two sort out what you need to. There's food and drink in the fridge, help yourselves. I'll be with Blair."

I hold up one hand in an unmistakable gesture when Naomi moves to follow me, and surprisingly, she obeys.

***

Frankly, I don't care if they're going to fight, or surprisingly, after all these years, get along well -- as long as they do it quietly. They are talking now, and I turn down my hearing to the point where I can't hear Naomi any longer. She starts to cry, and Ocean talks softly to her. None of my business anyway, but the truth is, I can't stand any more tears tonight.

Blair will be asleep until the morning, and I should probably use that time, too, but my thoughts are running around in circles. With every episode that has been coming up, new questions have arisen as well.

Of course, I had planned to continue my conversation with Naomi, if not in the dead of night - but it looks like it's going to happen anyway. She has to know.

James, he's a human animal outside every civilized idea -- we've been confronted with that fact over and over. But Blair's father. He has, very literally, opened the gates of hell for his son, and it's unthinkable that he's going to get away with it. Blair's name was not on the list of the children freed from James' compound. There has to be a reason, and I suspect that Naomi knows it.

"I'll keep my promise, Chief," I whisper in the dark, even though he can't hear me. "I'll be back. But first, she owes us some more answers."

***

Naomi looks older than I've ever seen her. So the reunion wasn't a happy one? Ocean's eyes are bright, too. Oh my. Maybe I should just leave it be for tonight and send them both to a hotel - but no, this has gone too far to let it go now.

"You're going to interrogate me again?"

"No, Naomi. But there are some things Blair deserves to know, and if he can't ask the questions, I will. I don't understand this. Why did his father have so much power over you when you weren't even married? What could he threaten you with?"

Ocean intervenes carefully. "Jim, maybe now is not the moment--"

"This is exactly the moment. I've heard things tonight so gruesome that I'd doubt them had I read them somewhere in the newspaper, but they aren't just stories. Even if you count in that memories become distorted, even then, there's no doubt that Blair was subjected to severe abuse, and I want to know how the hell that could be possible!" Almost unconsciously, I've raised my voice again.

Fresh tears are spilling over Naomi's cheeks. "You have no idea. I wonder how it's possible you never came to that conclusion yourself; it's something I wanted neither Blair, nor you to know, but you won't be giving up on this. All right, here it is. The damn fucker--" It almost makes you flinch to hear those words out of her mouth "--I was stupid enough to sleep with once, was a goddamn cop."

She's done it, I'm speechless, and I can tell from Ocean's shocked expression that she never knew, either.

Naomi sighs tiredly. "Me and my friends went to a protest march," she continues. It all went ugly that day, and Walker managed to keep me from getting arrested. We dated a couple of times, and it happened. From that day, he wanted nothing to do with me anymore, which wouldn't have been so bad. My parents were supportive when I found out I was pregnant, and for a while, everything seemed okay."

"When did that change?" I've found my voice again, even though Naomi doesn't need any more prompting. She's been carrying the burden of the past for too long.

"About two years later. He found out about Blair, and he started to threaten me right away. Said he had influential friends, and if I didn't let him spend every other weekend with Blair, he'd manage to convince a judge and Social Services that I was an unfit mother, and that his friends in the department would back him up. I was nineteen -- I believed him!"

And maybe he'd even told her the truth. I can see she was in a desperate situation, but that's still not good enough for me. Hell. Naomi was nineteen. Which means Blair was not even three years old. Okay, that probably explains why she hadn't reported Walker, but chose to run away instead. A cop. Fuck.

"I swear, the moment I realized something was wrong, we left town. I drove as far away as possible, and we found shelter in a commune."

"Walker still found you. What did he do to make you give up your son for one entire year?" I can't help it; the accusatory tone is still there.

Ocean moves to say something, but Naomi lays a hand on her arm. "It's okay, Ocean, I might as well come clean tonight. I've made many mistakes, and the worst was probably to cut you out."

"I suspected later, that Blair had been in that hell-house before. I never told anyone -- and when Sidney found us, he carried through with his threats, but in a way worse than I could have imagined. He had me committed to a psychiatric hospital, and Blair put in a foster family - his friend James, of course." Her tears have dried, her voice now completely void of emotion. She's done hard work to suppress hers regarding this subject.

I'm shaking my head. This is getting more bizarre by the minute. "To a psychiatric hospital? How could he do that?"

Naomi's looking as if she's lost in thought, her words so soft I probably wouldn't have heard them, if I didn't have my hearing dialed up.

"He had a good case against me, and evidence that he had planted himself. Drugs. In the end, he presented me as some freaky pothead who had invented the abuse. Since he himself was so occupied with serving the public, it would be his responsibility to find a good family. Once inside, I knew I was lost, but what was so much worse, I knew that Blair was with these people, and I couldn't do anything about it."

That's something I don't want to consider now. "Someone did. Blair was freed before the other children. His name wasn't mentioned in the FBI report."

"That's right. The ones who made the anonymous call, those were my friends from the commune. When they realized what was going on, they got Blair out first, because they knew that if they didn't, I'd probably never see him again."

The anonymous caller the FBI could never find. Friends of Naomi.

"I want to see Blair," she says pleadingly.

Hell, who am I to tell her no? The temptation is there, but of course I have no talking room here. It's not like I did everything right, and anyway, she's his mother, so I just nod, even if I would prefer not to let anybody into the room.

"Why don't you go? I forgot; I need to get something out of my truck anyway. Be back in a few minutes."

Ocean gives me a worried look, but I pretend not to notice.

***

The inner movie goes back and forth. When Naomi came to visit for the first time, she showed me all those pictures, entertaining me with stories from the past, a wonderful past as it seemed.

Ocean was in none of those pictures, even though they had been friends for two years, in an important time, but it was also too much of the truth. I imagine Naomi as a young woman, confronted with a horrible truth. No wonder she hasn't been able to settle down, because safety has proven to be an illusion over and over again.

No wonder she got hysterical at first about her son working with the police department.

And she was right; we needed a damn long time to catch James after his escape. Too long.

Lily doesn't cry anymore.

Cold water. Hurts. The sounds actually were the same as a child's heart that's racing in terror. Living day by day in an atmosphere of danger, threats to their life and sanity, all sexually charged, no chance for escape.

An imagined child in an adult's body, but this child was real once. It's the same little boy as in the picture Naomi gave me, with a wink, before she took off again. When it was taken, he had already been through the unspeakable, but there was more to come, and this time, neither he nor his mother had any reason to hope they'd ever see each other again.

So far, I've been totally focused on the perpetrators, and my own revenge fantasies against them.

I'd love to meet the guy who probably risked his life breaking into James' house, to help a friend.

I want to thank him.

In the privacy of my truck, I still try to hold back the emotion, but the tears come anyway. I spend a moment mourning what can't be changed anymore. Then I hear Ocean wondering where I am. All right. I can do this.

I wipe my face, get outside and walk back into the building.

***

Later that night, when I go check on them, Ocean is fast asleep on the couch. I envy her for that. Then again, she's been working with survivors of extreme violence for many years; so she's found some way to cope, or she would have gone crazy eventually.

Naomi covers her with the afghan, a smile playing over her lips, the gesture hinting at a tenderness they once must have felt for each other, maybe still do. She looks up at me, realizing I've been watching her.

"Somehow I've always made it through with the support of strong women," Naomi says. "It's been going on for so long I could actually make myself believe I am one of them."

"You are." There's no hesitation now. "Not many people go through hell and make it out alive."

"Know what you're talking about, right?"

I shrug. "Always made it through with the support of wise men, I guess."

Her smile deepens for a moment, as she knows exactly what and *who* I am talking about. Then the shadows return.

"I'm scared," she admits, as we walk over to the kitchen area to leave Ocean to rest.

"Yeah." Me too, but I don't think I have to say it out loud. Scared is a lot of what binds us together these days.

"You know, when Ocean first told me about this - diagnosis..." Naomi pauses, then she takes a bottle of soda from the fridge, clutching it like a lifeline. "I was so mad, I almost hit her. It was like... I don't know, a death sentence or something. I didn't even know everything that had happened, still don't, actually, and it was like I'd be losing him all over again."

I know what she means, know it all too well. This isn't just about discovering some new unexpected sides of a person you thought you knew. It blows your perceptions of what you thought you knew to hell. That's what's in the present. The things from the past...

Forget the fantasy everyone in Major Crimes had about how the arrest of James would go down. My rational mind tells me that it's better to let him live for trial, because we will prove his involvement in all of the crimes, in the end, and he'll end up with life at least, spend the rest of his miserable life with folk who'll turn the tables on him. Even criminals have a thing to say about child molesters and killers.

"You should get some sleep, too," I tell Naomi. "I you want, you can sleep upstairs."

Her eyes widen for just a split-second, then the corners of her mouth turn upwards. "Thanks."

"I'll stay with Blair," I say wryly.

She nods, serious again. "Sure. You don't think I should--"

"No. I got it covered."

***

34

There are voices. Not that it's something unusual, Tony thinks ironically, but these voices come from outside. Oh, no. He vaguely remembers Ocean's request; that he said yes to it, and Kerry, too, but Billy kept on crying. Cautiously, he reaches out, but the Keeper still isn't there. Damn it.

Better to keep Blair under for a while yet. Even Tony still feels dizzy from the impact of what has happened, and it will take some time for all of them to get to an - he snorts to himself - integration of all those memories. Brad still doesn't know, but he suspects something isn't right. The children want to stop hurting.

Tony feels exhausted, and what he hears unnerves him even more. Ocean is still here - and Naomi, too. He doesn't feel like facing them - or Jim for that matter, who is still fast asleep in the chair next to the bed. Tony regards him critically. Hell have one hell of a backache, but the gesture behind this is unmistakable. Looking back, Tony thinks that Jim's promises were almost the only ones they could ever count on. For sure, the only ones in a long time.

No, he *really* doesn't feel like facing Naomi.

He knows she isn't to blame for everything, but he doesn't have the energy right now for accepting apologies.

***

"I know," Kerry smiles. "But can we please talk about it another time? I'm sorry, Mom, I'm really beat. Jim and I have been talking for half of the night."

She can see Jim and Ocean share a look; they know it's her, but Naomi still hasn't completely come to terms with reality as it is - she, of course, only sees Blair. Which is all right for Kerry and the Alliance for now. Remembering things like flashes has made her uncomfortable. She'd like to retreat to her room and start drawing, but it isn't possible right now.

"Of course, sweetie. It's just that -- I'm so sorry. Ocean was right all along, and she could have helped you much sooner. I-- I did everything wrong."

"You were afraid," Kerry acknowledges.

You BE sorry, you've got reason to be.

Ben, you're not helping.

I don't want to help. I want her gone.

Well, I don't. She is still my Mom, after all.

Ben stays silent after that, but the tension remains.

***

"I've been thinking," Ocean says. "I'm sure, after a case like this, you're entitled to a few days off. If you want, you could go to the beach house for a while - I'm in Olympia during the week anyway, and it's a nice place, very reclusive."

"Can we? Oh please!" The voice belongs to Billy, but Kerry is just as happy at the prospect. All the time since they found her again, she's been hoping for an opportunity to see Ocean's house again. Before living at the loft, it had felt like the only real home they had ever had.

Jim is looking tired, but he smiles at this request. "I'll have to ask Simon, but I'm quite sure he will agree."

Naomi's expression shows her disappointment. Ocean has noticed it, too." Naomi, there's a reason why I've suggested this. I think we've got a lot to talk about that can't be done in one night. You're of course welcome at my apartment in Olympia."

Kerry sighs in relief. She's been afraid there could be some more yelling between the two of them, because that is what led to the break-up that other time.

Naomi and Ocean had been best friends, until that day -- when at night, Naomi came into the room, with what little belongings they had, packed up, not knowing it was a little girl in her beloved son's body she was waking up and dragging from the bed. "I'm sorry, Blair. I cannot accept this. We need to leave." With her, Kerry took the plush toy sheep that they had kept through all of the fear and the pain, and the book that Ocean had given to them: The Sentinels of Paraguay, by Sir Richard Burton.

Now that they are going to make up again, and Mr. James will be back in prison, maybe Kerry will be able to find peace, too.

***

She can still remember how Ocean had tried to teach her relaxation, but it would never work, she just couldn't stay on the outside. The children were afraid of the effect it had on their body. Ben fought it adamantly, not wanting to lose control, insulting her for even taking part in something like this.

With time, it became clear that something terrible must have happened, but Kerry couldn't risk the conflict of telling Ocean.

Ocean tried with exercises that didn't require deep relaxation, but used images, like the imagined protector -- Ben growled at her. "What kind of shit is this? It doesn't help any when that's only in your fucking mind!"

"It does help when you're safe on the outside, but still don't feel like it."

Kerry wanted to believe her so much.

***

"Why now?"

Tony has called Wolf. He's been responsible for the core ever since Tony can remember, and he is wise. If he played any part in what happened tonight, Tony knows the shaman is the one to go to for answers.

The massiveness of the memories has been quite overwhelming to the ones who had been carrying any of them -- it was real hard to find that safe place Ocean has practiced with them, let alone get the children there.

Wolf is there, and as always, when he's around, Tony can feel a soothing clarity in his mind.

"I will try to answer your question. There are still obstacles, but the Alliance must move on."

"What do you mean by that? It's not time yet for integration." As far as Tony is concerned, they could postpone that subject forever. He'll help in everything that will make Blair get better, but he doesn't want to fade away.

"No, it isn't. This is just another level. Trust. The Keeper is still there."

***

The ashes on the torch are still hot.

As the figure comes closer, it ceases being human, and when the torch is applied to various places of the body, Zack is once again outside of it, feeling only loosely connected with the boy who shrinks away in pain, but has no choice at all.

They're back again, and nothing can stop them, except... Zack raises the gun determinedly.

"The Golden fire people. You don't see them, man? They're made out of fire and they're burnt. You think they're ashes, but they're alive, man. And we gotta send them back!"

Ben is not far, wanting control over the body. Because he'd hit the aim, every single time, kill everyone of these hideous creatures.

It's only at the last moment, that Tony comes outside, feeling dizzy, but he does hand Jim the gun. And collapses...

At one time, Blair had woken up to find an exhausted-looking Jim next to the hospital bed, who was telling him that the bad guys had been caught -- and he remembered hideous dreams and visions while under the influence of the drug, but remained oblivious as to the source of the Golden Fire people.

Weeks after that, burn marks kept occurring and disappearing again. He'd chosen not to take a closer look.

***

The Punisher feels the tension rise again. It can't be that they're all acting as if there was never a reason for him to be here, as if it was okay to tell.

It's not your time.

Who are you to tell me?

I am.

Darn it. He had hoped the Keeper would be gone, but obviously, he was wrong. Damn right, thinks the Punisher. My time will come.

He writes this sentence in the diary, before the sluices are closed on him.

***

It's almost dark outside - or almost light again? I get up from where I lie on the couch, trying to orient myself. I feel incredibly tired, crushed under the weight of the images that have come rushing back. Ocean has always warned me not to push too hard. It's impossible anyway to determine if every single one of those episodes happened exactly that way, and she's told me not to expect that. Things like these, however, have happened. My body, still shaky with nausea and tired with all those tears shed, knows it.

I can't remember when my arm was being bandaged. One of us took too drastic measures again... And with the vague image of a man in uniform still lingering, I almost want to do it myself. The mystery is solved.

"Chief."

I look up, feeling profoundly relieved to see Jim coming down the stairs from his bedroom. He's looking equally as relieved, realizing it's me 'on the outside'.

"Hey," he says. "Can I get you something? How do you feel?"

Jim asking a question like this is truly something historical, but I can't answer either question at the moment.

I rest my head in my hands for a moment. "I don't know, I think some caffeine would be nice. I feel like--" There it is: "Like I've been sick for a very long time. Cold. God, please tell me I remember this right -- James is in a holding cell right now, isn't he?"

"Yes, he is. Come on, I could use some coffee myself."

I wonder what has happened between me losing it yesterday, getting all lost in tears and memories and the prison of a past unchangeable. What have I said or done? Or the others? I know some of it, but not all; it's like a movie with intermittent black spaces.

The questions hang between us like neon signs, and of course Jim senses them. It doesn't take a Sentinel to do that.

"It might not be the only night that I simply freak. I don't think I've made a good Guide for-- for months. I'm sorry, Jim."

"*You* have nothing to be sorry for." This is the tone, I won't argue with you about this.

God, I love this guy! Just as well for now, but there'll come a time when we have to face these subjects. "I'm just -- I don't know, this shit is causing so much trouble for you. I hate that."

I hate that the boy who couldn't do anything but endure, day after day, -- was me. And sometimes, I hate him, sick as that may sound.

Shit, I'm going to cry again. I thought this was over!

"Get that out of your head, Chief. It's no trouble. It's..." Lost for words, he simply moves forward, and I do the same. I know some of us are afraid of all closeness and have reason to be. Some can't believe that he's not appalled beyond imagination, even being in the same room. I still need this. Badly. This is safe, I give back to them.

And probably, Jim needs it too, because I can tell he has all his senses up, as if he was afraid to forget this information that tells him it's me. We stay like that for a long time, until the sounds of the coffee maker announces that the coffee's ready.

***

Naomi has gone with Ocean, he tells me later, and I'm really glad, because I couldn't deal with her right now. Not with knowing I've contributed a lot to her pain, too, unconsciously, with some of the others who were just desperately striving for stability.

I don't want to go through this now.

Going away from Cascade sounds good though, and when Jim tells me about her offer, it's okay for me that the decision has already been made. Going there feels right for all of us.

To assure ourselves that not all was bad before the dream of my life had come true.

***

35

Ocean will come down twice this week, for they have increased the number of sessions to two per week for now. I saw Simon briefly, and he assured me that no matter what James' lawyers were going to dredge up, with the statement of Grays and what Clayton has revealed so far, we shouldn't need to worry - even if a confession from the Devil himself would certainly be good.

He also said I looked like hell. Which he understood after I only gave him a brief summary without going into details. All in all, the knowledge was there ever since Blair started his research, but back then, it was theory.

I feel like there is a shift taking place - children like Billy are beginning to learn that they will be safe. Zack did not snap at me the last time he was out, and he said the truck was pretty cool. No way I'm going to let a 15-year-old drive it!

It's the adults who are tired, overtaxed with all the responsibility they've had to carry for so long, feeling like they have failed their group, the Alliance, now that memories are leaking through. Tony in particular, who has revealed the name to me. He says he's always been working hand in hand with the Keeper, who's been called back, and will only do the trick from now on when there's real danger to the body.

I wonder if he's holding something back, information about an alter I haven't met yet or something.

We didn't go right away; the next days were an endless circle of new images, trying to control their impact, lots of tears, guilt, and an overwhelming sense of shame, testimony to how easily a child can be manipulated by adults who have malicious intent. There was something I needed to take care of before we finally packed up for the trip to Ocean's house.

Right now, Billy is asleep next to me in the passenger seat, even in sleep holding on tight to the little plush toy sheep. For years, it had been sitting on a bookshelf, and I had sometimes wondered if it had a special meaning. When we packed up this afternoon, Billy was happy he didn't have to smuggle it into the bag, making me wonder how often that had happened before.

***

"Do you ever buy things for the kids?" I wonder aloud. We've stopped for lunch, and it's Kerry sitting across the table from me.

"I sometimes do, when I buy colors and stuff," she says. Her face is lighting up. "You mean we can stop on the way and... just a coloring book or something?"

Why didn't I think of that sooner? Of course, besides all the trauma, they're children with children's needs. Folks like Tony and JustSam and Kerry can go buy something if they want it. I've been oblivious, but there *is* a children's corner in Ocean's practice. Maybe it's just that until now, I've been freaked out a little at the thought of giving this phenomenon an air of normalcy - but after last week, it seems pointless. Whatever makes them happy - because those children haven't had much of it before.

"No problem." Maybe this time, we can even build a fortress of safety, before another wave comes. I hope that so much. In any case, coloring books and ice cream are not a problem.

***

It certainly is a clever idea from Ocean to suggest this place after the crisis that is, I know, by no means finished. Kerry stays on the outside a bit longer, acting relieved and happy that they're going to see the beach house again, but they're all shaken by this lowering of the boundaries; it's obvious. I'm only hoping that in an environment where they first felt safe, the impact of the memories won't be that massive.

We have taken an early flight to Santa Rosa and get a rental from there.

The last bit of the drive takes us along a road from which the ocean can be seen, the water glittering with the sunlight as a spectacular sunset is to be seen. I feel like I haven't seen something like this in years. For a moment, the urge to pretend this is a vacation like any other we've had before, is strong. But no, this is the point where everything will change in fact.

Hopefully for the better. Ocean has emphasized that it is possible, and I'm going to hold her to that.

***

"Chief, dinner's ready."

We've agreed - Tony, who's still looking like he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and in some way, he surely does, and I - to make it an early night, both of us tired from more than the trip.

After accommodating ourselves, putting away luggage and some groceries we've bought on the way, I had offered to make dinner, because I realized that Blair surely had to deal with a multitude of impressions, and memories. Finally, some good ones that hopefully can become a counterpart to the horror.

As I come into the spacious living room, he's sitting on the rug by the fireplace, talking softly to himself -- no, the little plush toy. I smile, even though I have to swallow hard at the same time. How many more 'bad secrets' would this little fellow tell if he could? I'm shaking the thought, trying not to think of -- no, that's not the way. Think good things, instead of forming images of what you don't want to think about.

When we came here, I started a fire in the monumental fireplace. It's spreading a nice, comfy warmth through the room. I haven't thought about it, or maybe just repressed it, but when I pick up the poker, at first, I don't put it together with the dramatic increase of the companionable heartbeat.

"Not bad. Not bad. Not been bad." Within a second, he's curling up in on himself, rocking himself, repeating the words over and over. Okay, think!

"Of course not. What is it? What's going on, buddy?"

It only takes a moment; somehow the meaning registers with me, me standing there with the iron poker, the tip of it hot and black with soot. I take a deep breath, think of the scene before leaving Cascade this morning, and once again know there couldn't have been any other way.

I put the poker aside, walk over slowly and crouch down beside him.

It's a critical moment; and I hesitate against my impulse to get too close. This child has learned to rely on his instincts, needed to in order to survive in a hostile environment -- and I'm sure he's sensing the rage that's threatening to consume me. Seeing red? The idea of a grown man beating up a child with a poker and locking him in a box would do that to you. And that was one day in a fucking year.

"You're right," I say as softly as possible. "I am mad, but not at you. It makes me mad that this happened to you. That somebody hurt you this bad."

He looks up at me rather incredulously. Right. Another alter has claimed they'd be burning in hell, and yet another keeps cutting the body. From his perspective, there's nothing unusual or even wrong about getting hurt.

"And it's not okay. We'll make sure it won't happen again. No one from the inside, and no one outside." How much is this promise worth to him? I wonder. "Are we okay?"

Flash, a switch, another kid. They are very present here at Ocean's. Kevin clutches the sheep close to his chest, looking confused.

"Come on, Junior," I try again. "Dinner's on the table. You must be hungry."

He looks indecisive, and I'm not sure what's going on, but then I get it. "Your buddy can come, too. He can sit right beside you."

Kevin watches me with what seems a skeptical look, then, very slowly, a smile begins to spread on his face. I'm in awe. I have never seen him smile before. At the same time, I feel like I'm hallucinating. The poker sits in the usual place beside the fireplace, and just for a moment, I doubt my own perception.

He follows me into the kitchen, asking, "Is Ocean here, too?"

"She'll be coming down in two days. We'll be all right until then, won't we?"

It's Tony who picks up the sheep again and places it in the chair beside him. "That, I'm not entirely sure of," he says solemnly.

***

I don't sleep much that night, as I haven't for the past few nights. Standing guard again. I can't take my mind off that scene in the bathroom, and it's not really the blood, or the malice of the alter who had shown himself.

It was that moment before I broke down the door, the pleas that had once remained unanswered. Put that together with the scenes Blair did remember -- no, I can't really go there. Not now, when too much is still in motion. This week is supposed to be giving us a break, but it's no real conclusion yet.

As to what's going to happen with the rest of our lives, much is still open.

***

The next day, Blair shows me Ocean's library room. "You know, when we first came here, Mom worked for Ocean as a secretary. I'd sneak in here and read for hours."

"I can imagine that."

He shudders. "Can you imagine how strange it was to hear that you'd been the most wonderful kid in the world one moment, and then totally freaked the next? I came to with broken glass all around me, and Naomi staring at me with this utter... shock on her face, because I had been calling her names. It was good for her to be working again; I guess she needed that freedom from her crazy child. That's why I came here. I'd just forget about it."

If I go far enough, I could touch the memory of Dad chiding me for 'spacing out' again at a most inappropriate moment, or taking off all clothes because the fabric hurt my skin. Then again, there's no comparing.

He reaches up to the shelf for a book, and looking over his shoulder, I see it's an old copy of 'Man And His Symbols'. "Chief, don't tell me you were reading that at the age of ten!"

"Well, I tried anyway, with moderate success," he says with a mischievous smile that warms my heart. I've missed it so much, and I must have been standing there, grinning like a loon.

There were that kind of memories too, good ones. Safe ones. Thank every God humankind ever praised, for that.

He carefully puts the book back on the shelf. "Ocean found out one day when she came home sooner, and I expected her to be mad at me, because I hadn't asked, but she just asked me... what kinds of books I liked."

There is surprise in his voice, as if it was the most uncommon reaction, and certainly to him, it was, after escaping James' hell. His eyes are bright, as he recalls, "I think she understood something about me then, about what I needed. And she gave me my first Burton book."

"It's a good thing she did."

"Yeah, isn't it?"

His look is distant as he says, "I've always felt like there was something about me, that made Naomi and Ocean split up. Strange, I've been thinking that all the time."

I shake my head. "That would be one hell of a responsibility for a little boy, wouldn't it? And you heard Ocean, she said it was when she told Naomi about her suspicion of you having MPD."

"Thanks for reminding me."

There's understanding. A good moment, making us dare to be hopeful. But the shadow has followed us down here, as it did the first time around.

***

After lunch in town - and there's actually the owner of a gift shop, an elderly woman who remembers Blair - we take a walk on the beach and return to the house in the early afternoon. The stomach pains have returned, and that's not much of a surprise considering the story Tony tells me about Wright, who had been the star witness in the trial against James, a supposedly innocent man.

There was some unknown man they had killed, and showed the children the body in the coffin.

"The children are in the safe place. Kerry's taking care of them. If I don't say it aloud, I will stop believing it happened. Fucking freaks!" he swears. "Who did they think they were?"

I've been thinking the same thing, and what's worse, there'll be others in place of those we have arrested. I've finally come to realize that I cannot save the world, though. I can, however, try at least with the most important person in my life. For now, that's absolute priority.

"Tell me," I say.

***

36

He frames my face with both hands. Applying pressure until everything hurts; my jaw, my cheekbones, my teeth. It's like he's going to press something into me - or trying to break my skull with it.

"Our love is hate, and it makes you strong. No one on the outside will or can ever love you. Remember, Jacob, you are a child of Satan."

Inside, a voice whimpers, another rages, but I manage to press out a "Yes, Master."

No, Tony, who's telling the story, says. Don't believe them.

But I don't know who to believe. I might be crazy, and I'm feeling so sick, and dizzy, after they showed us the dead body in the coffin, maybe I even passed out...

... Billy stares in shock at the coffin that's opening, being opened from the inside, and he can't say for sure what's happening, but a man is emerging from it, a man wearing the same clothes that the dead one did.

"Look, Jacob," Mr. James says with satisfaction. "Look what we can do. We are stronger than everyone else. Nobody can defeat us."

A mask is hiding the man's face now, but not his eyes that are looking around. Billy holds his breath, wishing they wouldn't meet his.

But they do.

***

You remember the remote? Now would be a good moment to use it.

Dim the image. Make it smaller; make it blur. Freakin' dial it down.

I almost laugh at that advice, but I don't want to shock Jim any more as it is. Being at Ocean's helps a bit, reminding myself that not all of my reality is of James and his crazy cult people, but the images come, too. I try hard to apply the exercises I've practiced time and again, because I don't want another drug, let alone the hospital as a last resort.

Not good. There's still taste, and I feel like I can't take any air in. Hands are forcing my mouth open, holding me immobile, and...

"Stay with me, Chief, okay?" Jim says softly, sounding concerned.

For long moments, it's an effort to just keep breathing. All right. Ocean's living room. The fireplace. The big overstuffed couch. I'm - right - here - and - now.

Still, I can't help the shudder that's passing through my body. Did they really make me think it was a dead man who touched me? Not that it would be any surprise. And touch, what a euphemism.

Hell, with James, there is no point in trying to find an explanation, there never is with sadists. But the others. Some of them lived a 'normal' family life on the outside. And maybe that's exactly what I'm afraid of -- to finally see that they did it all for the thrill of it. I spent a big part of my life learning about why people do what they do, but no class I've ever taken can give me an answer here. And none of them will ever tell me they're sorry, not that there's any excuse in the world for this.

"I'm here. I'm here." And that's not self-evident.

Jim looks me over critically, surely sensing the pain that has no real physical foundation, but still makes my stomach cramp. "You want to lie down for a bit?"

"That's stupid. I've only been up for a few hours."

He shrugs. "Well, now's the opportunity. This week will be over sooner than you think."

"You're probably right." Ocean has given us each one of her guest rooms, an adjacent door between the two of them. It's not enough. I feel the trembling inside, feeling even more foolish when I realize that I'm scared to go into that room alone, even knowing he's around. Being alone -- I know that feeling down to the depths of my soul, through all of us. I can't stand it.

I hesitate, blushing, because this is so childish. The seconds tick by, and then I dare say it, "Would you... would you come with me?"

Jim doesn't seem the least bit surprised. "Sure," he says easily.

***

Lying down is better indeed, but I can't stop fidgeting, because the pain is still there, hasn't abated a bit since those images came back today, and I'm afraid there will be more. Worse. I need to build an extension of the imaginary vault.

"We used to be all alone. No one cared."

Hell, it still freaks me out to hear myself talking in that child's voice. Though I know it's real. I've brought the diary, and it's overflowing with scary images and phrases. Are we going to die?

"That is over. You're not alone any more." Lying next to me, Jim keeps his distance nevertheless, for obvious reasons. I think, at this point, we're both afraid at what could happen next, because it's all so close to the surface, since Halloween, James' arrest. Some of those cuts were deep.

Don't tell anyone. I refuse to obey, because unlike many others, I'm lucky. I have friends who believe me. "Yes. And you deserve a medal for still being around."

I can hear the smile in Jim's voice as he says, "The same can be said of you. Let's face it, Chief, where the two of us are concerned, things will never be 'normal'. We could just as well go with it."

I can't help it; I have to smile, too, even though the decades-old pain is still there. "Now you sound like I would have years ago. You're scaring me."

"You're still in pain, aren't you?" he asks, and I'm once again amazed I've been right. He's that good when it comes to me.

I sigh. "I don't know if I should chalk up everything to... this. But you're right. Don't know why I haven't become used to it by now."

"Let me try something." I don't understand, but hell, I do trust this guy. Shifting closer, he explains, "I once had this girlfriend who was into esoteric healing big-time."

"Really?" I say doubtfully. Somehow, I have difficulties picturing that.

"Well, it didn't last long. Anyway, I've had this... problem, whatever you want to call it, and it probably had to do with my senses, only I had no clue what was going on. Muscle pains and stuff, and no doctor could explain it. So she tried, 'laying on hands'."

I'm speechless. Is this the same man who called me a neo-hippie-witch-doctor-punk a few years ago? "Wow," I say, and that's pretty much all that comes to mind.

"She said that there's not a whole lot mysterious about it, just that touch can have an analgesic effect. It's warmth, and it's relaxing, better than a hot water bottle, because the relationship blends into it, too. Wanna give it a try?"

Even if I wasn't so close to losing it altogether; the opportunity of this is too good to miss.

"I'm going to touch you, okay?" There's something weird about Jim announcing it, but the memory of fighting me for that razor in the bathroom is probably still vivid. His memory, not mine. To me, it only means a flash, blood, headache.

I try not to tense, as he reaches around me, and carefully settles his hand over my stomach. He, of course, can feel where it hurts the most. I don't switch, which is a good sign, but except for the guy who believes in the hellfire, none of us have really ever been afraid of Jim. That, the creeps didn't count in, that there would be someone we'd trust.

And he's been right about it. As the sky is getting cloudier outside, and the room getting a bit darker, I allow myself to drowse a bit, as my body's soaking in the much-needed warmth - only to be startled out of it when I see those eyes again, of the one I thought to be a dead man walking. And he did more than that. Fragments of the image come together, and it seems even worse than walking on broken glass like I have for so many years.

I can see that boy trembling all over as the man, whom he believes to be dead, approaches him. I am trembling now.

"Ssh," Jim says. "There's this big bad panther sitting in front of the door, and he won't let anybody in."

I'm laughing, which sounds just a tiny bit hysterical, and he tightens his arms around me.

"We'll get you guys through this," he says. "I promise." I don't know if I can really, honestly believe him that moment, but in any case I'm glad he's here.

***

Jim is cooking again this evening, declaring that those days will soon be over. It's been a quiet day, me, making use of the vault again, the children enjoying coloring books and the Disney Channel, Kerry sketching. I'm getting really good at this distancing stuff.

While Jim is occupied in the kitchen, my cell phone rings. I didn't even know I had it with me - but whatever. Feeling stronger than I have in days, I walk back into the guestroom, picking it up to answer.

Ben has brought the gun, too.

Excuse me?

We might need it.

Oh, shut up.

"Hello?"

"Sandburg, this is Simon. I need to talk to Jim, right now. I assume you know what this is about."

"What? No, I don't know. What's up?"

For a moment, there's only some crackling over the line, then Simon says, "I don't believe this." He starts to fill me in, and I keep listening, feeling the color drain from my face. Feeling numb all over. Stupid, good-for-nothing brat. All because of me. All over again.

Oh, Jim.

"So, can I talk to him now?" There's still anger, understandable, and a disappointment that's cutting deep even with me. I can't... believe, right.

"He'll call you back," I say. "I need to clear some things first, okay? Please give me that time."

He sighs. "I'm not ready to accept yet, but the longer he waits, the more difficult it is going to get, I hope you understand that."

"I do."

"Okay. Tell him to call me back at home, doesn't matter what time, as long as it's tonight." He pauses for another moment, and I anticipate his question. "Sorry for springing this on you. How are you?"

I wonder how much Jim has told him about the night after James' arrest. Then again, I've just gotten proof of how well the man can keep a secret. Even from me. "Been better," I say, for the lack of anything else.

"I still want to work with both of you." I can hear the sincerity in his voice. "You can tell Jim that."

"I will. See you."

I turn the cell off, a cold tingling feeling coming over me.

***

Coward. Worthless.

Ben can hear the voice from the inside as he picks up the weapon. He's tired of it, and maybe he will give in to it soon, but first, he's got something to do about this anger.

***

37

Just when I think I could get used to this; a house by the sea, having dinner at regular times, reality comes crushing down on me. Yes, I'd been naive, exhilarated at the thought of the two of us getting away from Cascade, even secretly hoping this could be the start in a new life. I knew that Simon had and probably still has a different opinion on the subject. But I kept indulging myself.

Until now, when I find my friend sitting on the couch in the living room, holding a gun in his hands.

Used to reacting quickly in dangerous situations, I'm simply paralyzed. Please, God, don't let this happen. Not now, when we've come this far already.

"Jim, I think there are some things we need to talk about," he says in the slow measured tone that Ben uses - when he's not yelling.

"You think so?"

I let my thoughts wander back to the day we left Cascade. Talking to Simon. Leaving his office, the bullpen, and then, going back to the holding cell. I'd anticipated the smug grin, the superior attitude. James knew. Whatever charges we could file, and how many years of prison he'd be sentenced with, his actions could not be undone.

"Detective Ellison, nice to see you."

Blair holds the weapon with both hands, but it's not him, it's Ben who says, "Worthless. That's what the voice is saying all the time, and I think it's right. That's what you're thinking of me, too."

"No!" I don't understand. "Okay, Ben, let's talk. But please, put the gun aside. Where did you get it from anyway?"

He laughs mirthlessly. "Hell, I got the license years ago. I'm pretty good with it, too."

Which is not reassuring. I believe him. He shot the guy who beat up Craig Thomas.

One of James' blind followers, he hasn't talked to this day. But James, he was talking, and relishing in it. "Jacob was a whole lot more fun than the others, because he was smart. Daddy Sandburg was just a regular pedophile; he had no idea what kind of potential his son really had."

That's when I had hit him first. Hard. Hard enough to make his nose bleed, and still he was laughing.

Ben keeps the gun in his left hand, as he makes a fist with his right one, slamming it on the table hard enough to make the glass jump. "You had no right!" he shouts. "It's not about you, it never was. How dare you take this out of my hands!"

"Chi-- Ben, I'm sorry, I still don't get it. Maybe it wasn't clever, I'm sure Simon told you that, but I thought you'd..." What? Relish the fact that it was James, for a change, on the receiving end of some real pain? Say thank you?

"Ask him why he was afraid of the dogs," James taunted me. "Come on, ask him that!"

For a moment, I truly lost it in there. His grinning grimace was overlaid by the image of a younger Philip James, who never got tired of finding new ways of hurting the children living in his house. And I did what I had wanted to do right away when I first saw him in that store.

It was pointless, I know now. Even when he yelped with pain, the grin was back in place the next instant.

"You think I'm a coward," Ben accuses. "I didn't ask you! I would have done it myself! But now, there's no need for me any longer."

He raises the weapon, and my heart skips a beat. No.

"I'm sorry, okay? You're right, I shouldn't have let it go that far. I shouldn't have."

"But you did."

Somehow, I had picked up the cues even in this precarious state. When Simon came rushing into the room to keep me from killing the prisoner, I'd known he'd hesitated. I could have laid part of the responsibility on him, but I didn't care to. I just left my gun and badge and went to pick up Blair, refusing to discuss any of it.

"It's not your fight."

I step closer cautiously. My heart is racing, my palms sweating. Shit, this is a bad déjà-vu. The Golden Fire People have been demystified. Lisa Hughes saw beautiful things before she went down that dam into her death, safe childhood fantasies flashing before her eyes. That day in the garage, Blair was reliving the abuse, and the fear of being burned was not entirely metaphorical.

"That's where you're plain wrong. Okay, I made a mistake, I know. Don't you make one that's even worse."

"I couldn't do anything." His finger tightens on the trigger, and relaxes again.

I hold my breath. "You were always there. Blair couldn't really express what he was feeling, because he'd be punished. Later, Naomi couldn't handle anger, and that's why you kept it for Blair, right?"

"You have no idea how it is when all you can do is wait for it to be over. Someone had to make sure it would not be forgotten. But they don't need me any more."

"Come on, Ben. You know that's not right."

"If it had been me on the outside that day, I would have blown up the whole PD with one shot," he says casually.

"No doubt about it. Those Golden Fire people, they weren't just imagination, right? They were a flashback to what those bastards did to you."

He stares at the gun solemnly. "I'm so sick of it. I want to kill him. I want to kill myself."

"All right then. But don't forget to pull the trigger on me first."

For long moments, there is silence, as he's still staring at the gun. Contemplating. Then, slowly, Ben looks up at me, disbelief in his gaze. "You're serious."

And then it's Blair, laying the gun aside with utmost care, a shudder passing through his body. "Oh man," he says. "That was really weird."

"No kidding." I'd like to say more, but I'm kind of lost for speech.

"No, I mean... I could hear him say it. I was there, kinda."

I'm not too sure what to make of this. "You were? That means--"

"A good sign, I hope," he says, his gaze straying over the weapon again, and I sense the change just in time, grab it before he can.

"You -- don't -- understand!"

Hell, I'm unnerved by this guy, but I can't ignore the desperation. You don't start cutting up yourself unless you're desperate. Ben made the lighter cuts. This here, is the other one who had made them bleed all over the bathroom floor. Maybe that's even why I jumped at the opportunity to get away from the loft for a while, because even though it's all cleaned, I can still see those stains on the white tiles.

"Then help me. I don't have a clue here. Tell me what I don't understand."

"They told," he whispers intently, his eyes large and disbelieving in his suddenly pale face. "The penalty is death."

"Who says?" I'm getting pretty good at compartmentalizing myself. Not questioning what we're doing here. Bringing this to a good end is all that counts.

He's shaking his head, seeming confused. I'm once again reminded of the Golden Fire people, and yes, this one is like an addict in withdrawal, the Punisher, getting restless at all progress into healing.

"The dead man said. It was really the devil who took over the dead man's body. I know." He's starting to pick at the bandages. "And then he took us, and we knew."

Put that aside, too, the fact that they not only hurt the children in the worst possible way, but tricked them into believing that a dead man had been made come back to do it. "Look--"

"He was dead, and he was not. I will be like him if they get to us first." He glances at the weapon again, with a kind of longing that sends a cold shiver down my spine. "It will be all over if I do it first. If it's them..." He shudders, then looks up at me with sudden understanding. "I thought you'd get it. You *are* keeping secrets of which telling could get you killed."

"That's different. There's no danger for you any longer," I say, though I'm a bit startled that he's mentioning this. "I knew what was happening, and I signed a contract. Anyway. You did a great job keeping the others from telling when it wasn't safe. It is now."

"Do you know for sure?"

I consider a lie, but realize it wouldn't work. "All I know is that I can't lose you. And you won't make me."

***

Ocean arrives at the beach house around eleven. It's just after Tony and I have agreed that the gun should be in a safe place for now, and he trusted me with it. I realize that I've totally forgotten to call Simon, though Blair has told me about the call briefly. Too many things happening at once.

"How's it going?" Ocean asks, and I need a full minute before I can bring myself to answer her. Even when I do, my voice is suspiciously shaky, and she knows exactly what's going on.

"Will Blair be okay for now?" When I nod, she suggests, "Why don't you and I sit down for a moment?"

It's stupid. I've seen a lot of what cruelty humans are capable of, and I've always been able to move on, because at some point, you learn a rational view on it. Put away as many of them as possible. No one's Superman, but there's something to be said about the closure rate of Major Crimes. We all try hard, and we are successful.

Only in this, it's unacceptable what is lost already. It's really the devil who took over the dead man's body. And then he took us.

I feel those tears starting to rise, of an utter helplessness, and I hate that feeling. "When does it ever stop?" I say aloud. "It seems like there's no end, more and more of this stuff coming up. I don't think I'm handling it the way I should, and I'm-- shit, I'm scared I'm making things worse."

"You are not. In fact, I wish all my clients had such friends who care for them the way you do. There was an end to it then, and there will be an end now, too. That's what we're working towards." She lays a hand on my shoulder briefly. "Jim, don't try to fight a war that's already won. Look at Blair, where he's come to despite all of it. And he's had this dream of finding a Sentinel ever since he was ten years old - he's made it come true."

I snort at that. "I'm hardly the hero Burton wrote about."

She smiles at me, but doesn't comment. Getting up, she says, "I'm going to talk to Blair for a minute, and then I'll crash. It's been a long day."

Tell me about it.

***

Guilty conscience raises its head again, and I pick up the phone to call Simon. When he answers, I start talking before he has the chance to say anything. "Whatever you're going to say, I've made my decision. I was a civilian when I walked into James' cell. And let me tell you, I know it wasn't the smartest thing, but I'd do it all over again. I enjoyed seeing him bleed."

"Is that all?" Simon asks, his voice rather neutral, but the fast heartbeat I can hear over the line betrays him.

"No, it isn't. More stuff keeps coming up, you know. Can you imagine a child thinking he was being--" I break off the sentence, can't bear to say it out loud. The image of the man emerging from the coffin keeps haunting me. "It was the right decision. I've saved up lots of free time, and I think it'll be enough to figure out what I'm going to do."

He sighs. "Jim, we all did our best to keep it under tabs, and so far, the story hasn't hit the press. I've been trying to bury this since it happened, and thankfully even James' lawyer is reluctant to share the news. I can't say I approve of what you did, but I don't want to have you quit over this. Hell, I just don't get it. Of course it's what we all wanted to do, but--"

"You have no idea," I shoot back. "He didn't tell you about the rapes and those sick rituals, and how much he enjoyed them. It would be bad enough in any case, but this is Blair we're talking about, and he was no more than three years old the first time around!"

For a few seconds there's a loaded silence, my own breathing sounding loud in my ears. I know I'm testing the limits here, telling this to a guy who is not only my friend and superior, but also a father.

However, he knows exactly the answer that hits the mark: "That's the same guy who gave it all up so you could keep on doing your job, remember?"

For an instant I'm too stunned to say anything. Of course, there's no denying his words.

"Jim, you're my friend, in spite of the fact you did something seriously stupid. Don't make it worse. I want you back at work on Monday."

***

Before Ocean and Blair have another session, we all take a walk on the beach together, after breakfast. She will stay until noon, then go back to Olympia, and return on the weekend; the one where I have to make a decision.

I easily recognize the guy who's kicking off his shoes to walk in the water, kneeling down to pick up a shell, and I can't help but smile, as serious as this is. Kevin is starting to trust. However the adults are fighting inside, it seems that it's sinking in that there is a present after the past. And this guy will have a cold very soon, I'm afraid.

"It's hard not wanting to be a surrogate parent for those little ones." Ocean mirrors my thoughts. "But the goal is to enable Blair to do the job."

"Will they just disappear someday?" It seems unfair, considering the enormous task they managed - and I start at that thought. Of course that is the way - isn't it?

"Not disappear, but they won't be different entities any longer."

Ocean doesn't say anything after that, but I do get her message. It will take some time yet. And when the moment comes, it will probably not be a walk in the park either.

***

38

"There were times, you know, when I wished you could have been my mother."

When those words come out of my mouth, I don't space out, remain aware of the boy, Kevin, who has said them. Still, I feel their truth echoing throughout me, and the blood rushes to my face. I'm mortified, feeling guilty as if Naomi were in the room to hear this. "Oh man. I should be way beyond those feelings right now."

"You have a right to have them," Ocean says calmly. "You know that nothing you and I, or any of you talk about in here will ever leave this room - unless you say so. Naomi had her own traumas, but of course you couldn't know. It wasn't your responsibility. She was trying to keep you safe by not staying in one place for longer than a year, sure, but you wanted a home."

I nod, shivering at the remembrance of an emotion, the ghost touch of it. Packing up again. I hated it, though I assume that it was exactly those experiences that made me a pretty self-sufficient person. Let alone considering what alternatives were out there. My father -- no. It'll be some time before I can really face who he was.

"I would have loved to stay for longer. You know, except for the mom-thing, this was the first time we lived in a house." There's a swirl of darkness inside of me, just so, and then it's gone again. "In a house where no one would abuse us, that is."

"I hated her."

Bitch! You left me all alone! It's all your fault! Naomi, speechless with shock as Ben is yelling at her, and meaning it. Ocean steps in, her voice firm when she says: "I can see you're hurt. But you're not going to talk to your mother like this in my house."

The healing cuts are starting to itch, and I just know who's said this. The boundaries have become thinner, and I'm starting to get a feel for them, slowly, or like the day before, staying aware when they're 'out' for brief times. Still, this is even more embarrassing.

Not true, I send inside. She did her best.

And, did her 'best' save us from anything?

Now, come on...

I feel drawn inside. This guy is pissing me off, and I'm going to have a word with him, session or not.

***

"I still hate her," Ben says after a while, which is, to his dismay, sounding more like a petulant child than an angry man. "We always got along best when she wasn't around. Empty promises, that's all Blair's mother is about."

"You did a good job protecting them when she couldn't. That must have been hard at times."

"Hard?" He snorts scornfully. "Lady, you have no idea, what it was to be locked up in that house. Oh, they kept sending us to school. Ms. Camden was the only one who realized something couldn't be right when the kids from that house got that zombie look. James killed her, and his cop buddy made the evidence go away. Where was the mother when they made us watch it?"

"She was locked up, too, not that it made everything better for you."

"That's what Blair keeps telling me. Whatever. They're his parents, not mine."

"Ben, you know that they are yours, too. That doesn't mean you have to make any of the same choices, you--"

"Fuck you!" he yells, eyes darting around, but this time, there's no utensil on the table he could possibly use. Fuck them all. How dare they!

Kerry shivers, but she's standing her ground. Somehow, he doesn't scare her as much as he used to. "Ocean, please understand. He isn't really mean, but afraid."

"I. Am. Not. Afraid!"

"We can't choose our parents," Ocean says quietly. "However, we can choose what to do with our lives. It's a good thing that you are there, Ben, and helping protect everyone."

"I am not like any of them. I don't run from responsibility. And sure as hell, I've never hurt anyone who's weaker than me. No."

Suddenly, his face feels damp, and he stiffens in alarm. Ben never cries. He can't afford to, not for a minute, because so much is depending on him. "I haven't broken the contract," he says. "I haven't made those deep cuts. I only keep them light. Blair is not lying to me."

"No, he isn't. You are a part of him. Naomi loves you. And he was only your father in the biological sense; other than that, I don't think there's anything of you in him."

"Hate them," he whispers -- which is even truer, as the veil of denial is slipping. Hating them for making him cry. For making him feel helpless again, his mother -- and father.

***

"That's what you got for telling! Sissy!" Okay, there are no paperclips this time, but slamming the already bruised hand against the arm of the chair does it just fine. Jim has said that the danger is over, but he refuses to believe that. Safety is not a concept available to him.

"You still haven't introduced yourself to me," Ocean remarks. "By the way, please stop doing that."

He grins at her, the feeling of the throbbing fingers exhilarating. Mostly, because it's a good method of shutting everyone up. "Always thought he was 'the man', but stupid sissy's feeling rather depressed now. I think he will agree with me."

"Agree with you on what? And could you please tell me who you are?"

He shrugs. "I am the Punisher. I made everyone keep their mouth shut. I'd make you shut up, too, if I thought it was necessary." But he doesn't succeed in scaring her; instead, her expression is thoughtful, and he can tell she is piecing his words together with that other moment he was out. And with what information she has about the night after James' arrest.

Ocean chooses to ignore the open threat. "So you made sure that everyone kept the secret."

"Exactly. Unlike Lily, that babble-mouth, who secured herself a first row seat in the ritual. Too bad it was the last one for her."

"That must have scared you pretty bad, having to watch that."

"Scared? Me, they could trust, and they knew it." It was meant to be said in a proud tone, and the Punisher hates that it comes out rather confused. "Those brats, you had to keep them under control, and I could. I was going to be a warrior." He's not sure if she has gotten the significance of those words. Jim hasn't entirely understood them either.

"You kept them from getting punished -- or worse, getting killed."

"No, I--" He breaks off the sentence. She can't be right. He's always been the trustee of the other side.

"Do you know that James has been arrested? His wife, too, along with some others of his group. There is no need to keep the silence -- except for going at a pace that is manageable for all of you."

"You mean I'm useless, that there's no need for me any longer? So maybe Ben's right, and there's not much of a need for this body either. Didn't you say we could choose? Then we can choose whether to keep up with this shit, or to end it."

"No," Ocean says somewhat sharply. "You're not useless." Her voice softens again, as she continues, "You know, it's good to be able to talk about things, and have room for one's emotions, but there will still be situations when you all need to put them aside, as there are in everybody's lives. Could you imagine doing anything else but scaring or punishing the others?"

He shakes his head with a conceited smile. "What else could I do?"

"You are strong. You could be a protector."

"You wanna know what? They turned their backs on me. I don't want anything to do with them. Choices, huh?"

"Don't hurt anyone. It's safe to talk now."

He grudgingly accepts it as the sluices close once again.

***

Jim and I do some more talking. About his loss of control there with James - about how I am uncomfortable about it, while inside, some of us rejoice. Still, he can't keep on fighting my wars, and there, Ben was just plain right.

There are still many questions. Jim, the investigator and the protector, is still very interested in what has become of my father, but I don't want to go too deep there. It's like Ocean says, to me, he's really nothing other than my biological father, and still, there's some nagging worry left. That still makes fifty percent of my genes, and what if I have done things without knowing them?

Jim keeps assuring me that one of us would know - but what if that one hasn't presented himself yet? There's always the possibility.

We come to a point here where everything remains speculation, and he can't change that either, but he keeps holding me, and there's some of his infinite trust in me that reaches me.

***

Those few days are gone way too fast, and soon, the weekend we spend with Ocean is over, and of course we all return to Cascade. Jim keeps grumbling about how he really wants to leave this shit (meaning everything but the weather, which is unusually good for Cascade in November), but I see through him.

It's here that he belongs, Sentinel of the Great City, and we will find a way to make this work. All of us. There's no way that James will succeed in the end, and he would if we ran away from this, as attractive as the thought might be.

***

There's something like a fragile routine setting in. At the station, we're all knee-deep in paperwork; at Ocean's, I try to keep sorting through the memories and put the worst of it away for later -- first, worst, last, that's how we're going to proceed.

Doing things for inner children. Feeling a bit foolish, but sensing the echo within, I go and buy coloring books and stuff like that. A new plush toy, though we're reluctant to let go of the sheep.

I show Jim, proudly like a kid presenting his report card, what is written in the diary: I promise no more cuts. That's Ben's handwriting. We're on an upward curve.

***

39

Drennan tells us that her boss is planning to put together a new Cult Crimes unit, and that he's interested in a cop who's allegedly got enhanced senses, and his anthropologist partner.

Blair and I just look at each other and both shake our heads at the same moment.

Megan comes to join us, and Drennan says they'd want her too. Connor doesn't refuse immediately, but she shrugs. "That's a great offer, but I just don't know if I want to deal with that kind of shit all the time."

That elicits a sigh from Drennan. "Well, no one really wants to, but it's important, and you guys are just damn good."

I don't really feel 'damn good', since it took us way too long to catch James, but Simon has just come out of his office and agrees with her. "That's right, Agent. That's why I want to keep them. All of them, you hear me?"

Despite the light, somewhat teasing tone, it's good to hear this. "I tried at least," Drennan sighs again. What's more, as I tune into Blair's vitals, I find him calm, pleased with the praise that was for him, too. And he really deserves the major part of it, because with what happened in the past, his contribution can't be valued enough.

We all sit down together in the break room with a farewell coffee.

"I called the hospital, by the way," Megan says. "Marsha Clement is supposed to recover. Doc says it'll be slow going, but he expects her to go most of the way, maybe have a slight speech problem, but otherwise it's looking good."

"That's great. I think we should visit her, given some time, right?"

I look at Blair who just said this, and remember the day I got a brief look at Clement - both of them responsible people who have found a place in life despite all those obstacles. Coming from a legacy of pure horror they had shared for some time - you've got to admire them. Infinitely.

"That's a good idea," I say, not wanting to share any more in front of the others, only that Simon already knows, and Drennan and Connor surely suspect something - but anyway.

He acknowledges my attempt with a smile.

To think, just for a moment, that everything could be all right...

***

And I'm granted the illusion for a while longer. Evenings at home, I'm coming to terms with the fact that sometimes there's a little boy curling up on the couch with a children's book that has barely any text in it, and that's a pre-school kid no less. Coloring stuff.

Kevin does it with so much enthusiasm one evening that he almost gives the couch a new paint.

"Hey, Kev', try to stay on the paper, okay?"

There is alarm in his eyes, as they're wide and fearful, even though I haven't raised my voice any. I would have said this to any kid, but this one, I realize once again that this one has come to expect punishment at the drop of a hat, even from me. There might have been a time when the adults in that house didn't seem like the beasts they proved to be, and surely, it was all in their plan. Some probably came from the outside, pretending they would help. Which they didn't. He has reasons to be suspicious. Even Julie betrayed them.

"That's a great picture, by the way." It's astonishing actually. Of course, a child his age does not stay within the lines. Kerry, however, could easily sell her pictures, and probably has done so in the past. And they're both in the same body.

Kevin keeps on drawing, a light smile on his face.

Passed the test.

***

Kerry and Tony are also 'out' quite frequently, tired, and reluctant to share any more information. So far, I've joined them twice at Ocean's, and she has advised them to decrease the pace. She's talking to the children, working with them on measures that help them feel safe, in a child-appropriate way.

Ben -- well, he seems curious, but he won't admit it. When the Punisher is 'out', he still utters threats and sometimes obscenities, and I get an idea of what Blair's talked about, shocking Naomi.

And then there's someone else, who keeps puzzling Ocean and me, because we can't place him yet. Whenever he appears, for brief moments only, Blair seems much older, and, I can't put it any other way, it's wisdom of ages that shines in his eyes. That one keeps fascinating me, because I keep wondering if he's a mere hallucination, but Ocean sees him too, and what's more, he reminds me of Incacha.

You know, I do respect Blair, of course, and still my relationship with Incacha was way different. I wouldn't have dared tease him; that kind of banter that's so natural between Blair and me was never a subject with him.

That's the way I feel with this one, and I suspect he isn't a new alter, but has been around from the bitter beginning -- but the others won't share any information on him, and so I guess we just have to wait until the system, the Alliance, is ready to reveal him.

***

One day, Craig Thomas comes visiting Blair at the station. Of course, ever since the incident near the Twilight, part of the secret is 'out' - no pun intended here, and I can imagine the guy wants some answers, even though Tony has most likely continued to meet him.

I can hear him say to Blair, "Look, we really need to talk. And frankly, I don't want to wait any longer, so why don't we get this over with now?"

"Sure." Blair gets up slowly, shrugs, but the look he gives me is worried. I just nod at him, indicating that I'm going to listen in. Not a problem.

They go to the break room, and Thomas starts, "Hell, I don't even know where to begin. You've kept such big chunks of your life from me, it made me wonder. You want to keep on leading a double life, it's definitely not what I want. Tony, I'm not sure where we go from here - or if there's even a 'we' anymore."

"Mr. Thomas..."

He's probably cringing now. I would if I were him.

"Craig. I'm sorry. There's even more you don't know, and it's... well, my fault, that's right, but not entirely, because I didn't know for quite some time. For one, my name is Blair Sandburg."

"And you called yourself Tony only with me or whenever you wanted to pick up guys?"

Now it's probably Blair's turn to cringe. I get up from my chair as well, thinking it's better to be safe than sorry. Thomas doesn't seem like the choleric type, but if Blair chooses to lay it all on the table, the guy's going to have a lot to deal with.

"It's not that easy. You know, for me, the first time that I met you was the night we got attacked. And I'm sorry about that, too, because it wasn't random. They were after me."

"That why you shot the guy?"

Uh-oh, I better pretend I did not hear this...

"I don't remember that either, and there's a reason for that. Craig, I don't go around telling this to everyone, but since you're basically in a relationship with one of the alters, you probably deserve to know. I have Dissociative Identity Disorder. I'm sure you know what that is."

There's silence for long seconds, and I'm listening so hard I'm close to a zone as Thomas explodes, "That's the worst excuse I've ever heard. You know, I put up with a lot from you, because I was sure we'd get somewhere-- but this is too much. I've had it!"

Time to intervene. I quicken my stride as Blair's heartbeat skyrockets, changing cadence, and as I enter the break room, it's still Thomas with Blair in the room, but Zack he's cornered in front of the vending machine.

"You guys okay in here?" I ask, and Thomas just groans. However I may interpret that.

"No, I'm not! Who is this guy? I've seen him before. He claimed he was a doctor, but then he's got to know it's the truth! He says it's an excuse!"

"Hey, kid, it's okay. Okay? He just doesn't know."

Craig Thomas takes a step backwards, looking in disbelief from me to Blair. The latter turns to walk to the table, putting some distance between himself, and Thomas and me. Can't the guy see that no man, even if really femme, could ever walk like that?

"Please don't yell. You're frightening the children," Kerry pleads softly.

Craig keeps staring at her, shaking his head.

"It must have occurred somewhere in your studies, didn't it?" Why spare him? He's a doctor. He should know better than to be one of those in denial.

"It's all right, Kerry," I continue. "But I think it would be better if we let Blair handle this. Would you let him come up front?"

As she answers my wish, I turn to see that Craig Thomas has paled. "I've never seen anything like this," he says. "Never. Tony -- he just seemed like a nice guy who just didn't want to share too much information about him... Moody sometimes..."

"I didn't know," Blair says sadly. "I'm so sorry. I should have talked to you the moment I found out about you, but... hell, how do you explain something like this?"

"So... the guy I fell in love with is nothing but a phantom? An illusion?"

I consider shaking the truth right into him. Feeling sorry for himself, had he forgotten about the typical background for a multiple personality disorder?

"You wanted answers. These are all I have for the moment."

Craig looks at me for a long moment, speculatively, then he turns to leave. "I don't think we're through with talking, but this isn't the right place. I'll call you."

When he's gone, Blair sighs, putting his face in his hands. "Well, that was fun. Not."

"You did well, Chief. This was bound to be a disappointment for him either way."

"I guess so." Blair studies me for a while, and I can read the unspoken question.

I shake my head. No, I won't mention the gun to anyone.

***

40

It may sound stupid, but I truly feel sorry. Craig obviously cares about Tony, but I'm not that person he wants, and one day in the future, when all is well, Tony won't be there any longer. I know he's hating the thought, because he keeps on writing about it in the diary, warning everyone about it.

Is it not enough not to lose any more time? he asks. Why do you want us dead?

I add my own two cents: This is not about wanting to kill anyone. But I think that we kind of belong together. I pause in writing, feeling inside, sensing that they sense my doubts. How can it ever work out? There are children, teenagers, a woman! And they don't have any more answers, but Tony has managed to get most of them quite worked up.

Kerry draws a graveyard, and she's unusually feisty. I worked with you. Is this how you're going to pay us back?

I don't know what to do.

***

The tension rises still, and I don't think that anyone around me can sense it, not even Jim, because we're rather calm on the outside - but there's a lot of discussion going on. I know that Tony doesn't like how I handled the situation with his boyfriend, and Ben is still pissed off about how they didn't get a chance for payback.

We don't need a protector, he growls. We got to survive without one then, and we'll survive now.

Of course, he isn't completely right, because there was Mom's friend, Darren, who climbed over the wall around James' estate, risking getting caught, and brought me to the commune. One vague memory that brings a swirl of another. I did try to escape another time.

***

When Naomi had asked before, Blair had always said that no, nothing bad had ever happened on the weekends with Daddy. It was because he didn't really know, but whenever they drove away, he'd always get scared, because after a while of driving, he'd always start to feel funny and fall asleep.

Wake up in the big, dark house.

And then later, Naomi wasn't there anymore, and it seemed like he was caught in a nightmare that kept recurring -- his imagined friends, Jacob and Billy always along, and even though Blair didn't know what the threat was, he knew they were right. He had to get away.

***

"Help me. Please help me," Billy had pleaded to the two policemen in the cruiser.

"What's your name?" one of them, a young man, had asked. His voice was low and friendly, and Billy really wanted to believe that he could tell all now, when he saw Mr. James' Benz approach in the rearview mirror of the cruiser. The words died in his throat as he saw the car come to a halt, and Mr. James emerging from it.

"I'm sorry my son has bothered you, officers," James said. "He's just playing cops with some friends, and they've taken it a little too far."

The young officer looked dubious. "Is everything really okay?" he asked Billy who only nodded, because he still couldn't speak. Mr. James' hand on his shoulder felt like a crushing weight.

"Come on, Jacob. These gentlemen are doing important work; they don't have time for you."

Billy had fully understood the message: 'You aren't important. No one cares about you.' He had walked to the Benz stiffly, crept into the backseat and cried.

Mr. James had looked at him in the mirror and smiled. "I can promise you that you're never going to do this again," he vowed.

Hours later, Mr. Caprisi had bandaged the boy's sprained wrist, but given him no pain medication, as punishment for running away. That night, Little Jacob curled around the toy sheep, crying into its soft wool, sleepless from the pain.

***

I might not have known that they existed until a while ago, but I'm starting to get to know my guys. I still can't always talk to them or feel them like Ocean had predicted I will be able to some day, but I can feel that Ben is up to something, especially with the memory that has just come up. The story hadn't ended there. It was winter, and shortly after we had reached the driveway to the estate, James had stopped the car.

He ordered me to take off my shoes and socks, and get out of the car.

The walk to the house might have taken a few minutes, but to me, it was an eternity as my feet sank into the fresh snow up to my ankles. I'd never get warm again... Even now, the image makes me shake with the remembered cold.

At home, I'm restless, and wired, and it's not a good feeling. I don't want to draw any blood today, so I leave for the station earlier than I had intended to. Arriving at the lobby, I'm too impatient to wait for one of the elevators, shuffling my feet for a few moments, then heading for a stairwell, feeling a sudden urgency to get to the seventh floor. To Jim.

Get away in time.

Quickening my stride, I almost run into someone. I see it's a familiar face, a Detective Peters? - and apologize.

Better not to piss anyone off; I know Peters is one of those people whose comments, whispered behind closed doors after the press conference, put a frown on Jim's face.

"Sandburg," he says, smiling. "Do you have a moment? There's something I'd like to show you."

What on earth would he want to show me? "Not for long," I say. "Jim's waiting for me."

"I figured that much." It sounds quite neutral, but with him, I'm not sure. "It won't take long."

"So, what's the matter?"

Peters shrugs. "James, that creep, is going to be transferred today. Will never see the light of day again. You know, I wasn't really convinced in the beginning but you handled yourself well, dealing with all that shit. They say it was one of the worst cases in Major Crimes ever."

"Well... thanks." I'm baffled, as I hadn't expected this, not at all. "So what were you going to..."

We've taken the elevator back down to the ground level, and he purposefully strides along the hallway until he comes to stand in front of a door, and opens it.

"You know, Sandburg, it's a shame that so many people think these stories aren't true. Because they are."

I know then that going inside would be a big mistake, everybody inside is practically screaming at me not to, and I turn on my heels, but sensing my intent, Peters reacts and shoves me inside, drawing the door shut.

Oh my God.

I'm plunged into total darkness; like in a nightmare, I yank at the door handle, fruitlessly of course, because it's been locked. "Hello? Can anybody hear me? Help me!"

Fear of the dark has its reasons for what happened in that dark. I sure have reason to be afraid, because Little Jacob hears things that I, or the others, can't. But I do sense that there's someone in the room with me, like a - and I don't care if this sounds crazy - an evil presence. No.

No.

Maybe I lay down for a few minutes at the loft and fell asleep; there's no way anything like this could ever happen in a police station, of all places. Well, right, Kincaid and the Sunrise Patriots happened here, too. But Peters, even though he is a jerk, would have never...

I feel a multitude of emotions rising up, the tears of a child who just knows what's going to happen, Ben's unadulterated rage, and then just fear, all-consuming. "Who's there?" My voice sounds small, like the one of the boy who never knew who would come to his bedroom at night.

The boy who used a cold damp wall as a point of orientation to assure himself that he wasn't lost in hell - though he was. My heart is racing so hard it's getting painful, and hell, can't Jim hear this?

It must be a nightmare. Nothing else makes sense.

So often I have mistaken them for reality lately; it must be that way now.

"Hello, Little Jacob," a voice sounds in the dark, and I jump. It's over now, all said and done, this means I'm hallucinating. There's no way in hell - indeed - that he can be here. I've lost it. Knowing all this doesn't help as I'm retreating into the corner, choking on the whimper that wants to come out. Why isn't anybody helping me?

"Shut up," I whisper. "You're not real. Go away."

"I'm right here, Jacob."

Going to be transferred today...

"No. No!"

"Yell all you want," he says smugly, "That door is soundproof, and your boyfriend is out on a case right now."

It isn't a nightmare, nor is it a hallucination. I can't pretend anymore when he switches on a flashlight, shining it on me.

The man is Philip James, and he's wearing a police uniform, just like his son, Nathan Clayton beside him. James, without the beard and his gray hair dyed to a darker brown is a shocking vision, because it's coming so close to the days when he was younger, and nevertheless still a sadist.

Peters must have helped them - but why the hell didn't they try to get away, what do they want from me...

Seeing their faces, reality and memory blend into one another - I know. I've always known. And with the realization, I'm drawn into a whirl of helplessness - black.

This is where it's all going to end.

***