This one is for Theresa and Paige, whose encouragement has sent me spiraling out of control.<snicker> This one's a crossover. If you're familiar with my TS/EQ crossovers, this one will come as no surprise. Here, it's EQ/KF:TLC.
As always, the characters I'm writing about belong to others, to whom I'm eternally grateful for not suing me over the unauthorized use of their property. I mean no infringement on their copyright and will incur no monetary gain from writing or sharing this.
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"Calm down, Paul, and tell me what the trouble is?" He hadn't heard from Paul in several years; the last time had been when he literally needed to be two places at once and Paul had done him the favor of filling in one of those spots.
"I know you're not much into field work, Control, but I really need a favor."
Control frowned. It wasn't like Paul Blaisdell to beg. "If I can, what is it?"
Paul sighed. "One of my men, Kermit Griffin. He was captured. They've got him just outside of Bucharest, at a farm." He was silent for a couple of minutes. "They've had almost a week with him, but I'm given to understand that he's still alive."
Control sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose against the burgeoning headache. "That's not exactly an easy destination, Paul. Why don't you just cut your losses and..."
"NO!" Paul's voice rose in what almost sounded like panic. "Please, I'd go myself, but...."
"But you're in the hospital, having barely escaped, yourself." Control sighed and considered the matter. "I suppose I could send someone after him," he offered.
Paul hesitated, "He doesn't know any of your people, though, and he's not very trusting."
Control understood and sighed again. "All right. I'll go myself, then. What exactly were you working on?" He wasn't generally active in Eastern Europe, not in several years. He was strictly Western Hemisphere management, these days.
"We were tracing down some arms dealers; but the shit hit the fan and Kermit was caught."
Control didn't need details, such as Paul being badly injured. "All right. Give me the coordinates or directions and I'll see what I can do."
They made contact with the defector and left him in the capable hands of Robert McCall. While they awaited transport, he and the other three members of the team took off to rescue Kermit Griffin. His men didn't bother to ask any questions; they knew better.
Arriving at the farm, they watched for an hour or so, tracking the comings and goings of the residents. They certainly didn't look like farmers. Davis touched Control's arm and pointed. Control peered through his night-scope and nodded. He recognized that one. When a car full of the enemy left, they waited another thirty minutes and then moved in.
It was an easy operation. There were a minimal number of guards and it took them very little time to get in and immobilize them. His team looked askance at him, questioning whether they should kill their prisoners or not. Control shrugged and moved through the house searching for the missing operative. When he found him, he called to his men to dispose of their prisoners, in any way they wanted.
He closed the door so as to not hear the screams of the dying and moved quickly to the prisoner. He was hanging by his wrists from the ceiling, naked. He'd obviously been badly abused, his body crisscrossed with bloody cuts and his head tied back so he had no option but to stare into a brilliant spotlight. He imagined the poor man was probably blind, at worst, and no doubt in a great deal of pain. First, he cut the cords and tape holding his head in place. He couldn't find the keys to the manacles, so he simply grabbed the man around the middle to support his weight and shot the manacles off. He was braced for the sudden collapse of the prisoner, who groaned in agony as he gently lowered him to the floor. Both of the prisoner's shoulders were dislocated. He had no choice, so he quickly popped them back in place, eliciting a strangled cry. He glanced around for something to cover the man, but there was nothing. With a growl, he grabbed his pack and pulled out the sweats he always carried as `just in case' equipment. Grabbing a towel and wetting it in the sink in the corner of the basement, he wiped what blood he could from the man's body. Further first aid would have to be done later. He quickly dressed him, trying to be gentle, but not worrying too much about causing any more pain.
Once he had him covered, Control gently cradled the semi-conscious man against his chest. "Kermit?" he asked. "Kermit, can you hear me?"
The light-damaged brown eyes squinted open and immediately teared from the light. Control pulled his sunglasses from his pocket and gently placed them on Kermit's face, offering a bit of protection. "Kermit, come on, son, wake up. We need to get you out of here."
"P-Paul? Y-you shouldna come."
"It's all right, son. We're going to get out of here, soon."
"I-I didn't break, Paul. They didn't get me to t-tell them a thing."
Control shook his head. "That's good, son. Do you think you can get up?"
Kermit tried to stand and, with a great deal of assistance, managed to become vertical, although very wobbly. Control constantly encouraged him, gently urging him to come with him. Kermit staggered at first, until he managed to find his balance and leaned heavily on his rescuer.
Control was impressed. Paul's man had a lot of moxie and enough stubbornness to not give up. Making their way up the stairs was extremely difficult, but they were nearly at the top when the door opened as one of his men came in search of him.
"Damn, Control. What the hell happened to him?"
"He's one of ours," Control replied, gratefully accepting the smaller man's assistance in getting the injured Kermit the rest of the way up the stairs. "He's been a 'guest' here for the past week or so."
The younger man grinned, understanding. "I wondered why you volunteered for this one. Ulterior motives, Control?"
"Kostmayer, I'm simply being economical. Someone had to come and take Mr. Xavier home, so why not do an extra little errand on the side?"
Kostmayer grinned. "Hey, no complaints from me, boss." He looked up into the sunglasses-covered eyes of their rescuee and introduced himself. "Mickey Kostmayer, and you are?"
"K-Kermit Griffin. P-Paul? I don't think my legs are going to hold me up much longer at all."
Kostmayer snorted, like he was able to stand? Not hardly. "Don't worry about it. We've got a car right outside and we'll be out of here in just a few minutes. There's a couple more guys with us, so I'm sure that between us we can carry you if we have to."
Kermit nodded and leaned more heavily on the two men. Turning his head slightly towards Control, he softly said, "Paul, I think I'm going to be sick."
Control moved quickly, ducking out from under Kermit's arm and moving to support him as his empty stomach rebelled and tried to turn itself inside out. Kostmayer grimaced in distaste but understanding and helped support him. Once he was no longer helplessly heaving, Control and Kostmayer again lifted Kermit's arms over their shoulders and half-dragged him the last few steps up and into the farmhouse kitchen. The other two men had gone and brought their car around to make for a faster get-away. They gently got Kermit into the car as quickly as they could. Mickey squeezed into the front seat to give Control and the injured man as much room as possible.
"Paul," Kermit murmured softly, "You shouldn't have come back for me."
Control wondered what the real Paul would say. He thought silently for a few minutes, then leaned down and spoke softly in Kermit's ear. "I don't leave my friends hanging out to dry, Griffin. Is that understood?"
Kermit smiled softly. "Oh, yeah." He was silent for a bit, until Mickey turned back and offered them his canteen. Control nodded his thanks and held it for Kermit to drink.
"Not so much that you get sick, now." Kermit nodded and took just a few small sips. Control kept hold of the canteen as he continued to cradle Kermit in his lap.
He frowned in confusion to discover that the sedan that the others had left in had somehow been turned into a somewhat larger van. As he escorted Xavier out to the vehicle, he found himself unpleasantly surprised to discover that somehow, Control had managed to find an injured colleague of some sort.
"Collecting again, Control?"
"Just retrieving what doesn't belong to them, old son." He smiled grimly, still cradling the injured Kermit against him.
"Friend of yours?"
Control glanced down to check if Kermit was conscious or not. Deciding that it didn't really matter, he replied, "Not exactly."
Xavier was put in the middle next to Mickey and McCall took the third seat, compressing Xavier between them. "Not exactly? What's going on, Control?"
Of all the people he could have used for this little operation, he had to pick the one man who would challenge him. "We're helping Mr. Xavier defect, and as long as we were in the neighborhood, I decided to rescue Mr. Griffin, here."
"Is he one of ours?" Mickey asked.
"He's one of the good guys, which is enough."
"But you don't even know him!" McCall sputtered.
"I have it on good authority. Besides, he's spent about a week at the tender mercies of Janek."
The others were silent. The name meant a great deal to all of them, as a sadistic monster who delighted in torture just for the fun of making men scream.
"I don't suppose he was there?"
"He left with several others. We just waltzed right on in and picked him up." Mickey grinned.
McCall frowned, knowing it hadn't been nearly that easy. "How many were there?"
"Ten," Kostmayer answered.
"What did you do with them?"
No one said anything for a moment and McCall became angry. "You killed them, didn't you."
"Robert," Control said softly, "Do you have any idea what they did to this man over the past week?"
McCall turned in his seat and looked. "Why is he wearing sunglasses?"
"They had his head tied six inches from a 25,000 candlepower spotlight. I don't know how bad the damage is, but it's there and probably permanent." He paused, "I also had to reset both shoulders before I could move him, and he's covered in cuts," he added softly.
Kermit stirred and whispered, "Paul?"
"Easy, son. We're on our way out of here. We'll have you home in a few more hours," Control softly promised, gently stroking Kermit's hair out of his face.
"Would you like some more water?"
Kermit shook his head, "I'm already queasy from the ride, I don't think you'd like me to puke it up on you."
Control chuckled dryly. "No, I suppose not. Try and rest, now. You're safe, for the moment."
"If that changes, do me a favor and put a bullet in my brain?"
McCall heard him and changed his mind about being annoyed. The man sounded so pitiful....
"Your name isn't Paul."
Control looked up from the paperwork he was perusing to pass the time. "No, it isn't. And it never has been," he agreed.
Turning his pale blue eyes to his friend, "Then who the hell is Paul, and why does that man think you're him?"
"Robert, he's practically blind. Maybe my voice is similar to this Paul of his. I'm not about to disillusion him. He's got enough pain and distress for me to add to it by saying we've never met, before."
McCall was taken aback by Control's generosity. He frowned at his friend, who returned his frown with a mild expression of amusement.
"You wouldn't happen to have a twin brother, would you?"
"I do not have a twin brother," Control promised.
McCall frowned and shook his head. "Ah, well. Just another mystery to add to your bag of tricks, eh?"
"Does it really matter, Robert?"
"I suppose not." With that, McCall stood up and went back to his own seat to doze away the time.
As the medical personnel prepared to transport the injured agent, he called for Paul. Control came immediately. "What is it, son?"
Kermit pulled the sunglasses off and held them out, "Thanks for the loan, Paul."
Control took the glasses and put them back on Kermit's face. "Keep them. I have another pair," he said softly.
Kermit became embarrassed and looked away, "Thanks," he whispered.
Control gently stroked Kermit's hair out of his face, "You're welcome. You need a haircut," he said teasingly.
"Nah, I'm thinking of trying for the sheep dog look," Kermit quipped back.
Control chuckled. "I think the sunglasses will do a better job. You take care, now, and let the doctors take care of you."
"Yes, sir," Kermit managed a mocking salute as Control stepped back and the medical folks continued on their way.
Control chuckled, "Just keeping you on your toes, Robert. It's part of my job, don't you know?"
McCall shook his head and followed his friend out.
"Paul, I need a favor,"
There was no mistaking that voice. Cautiously, he replied, "What do you want?"
There was a sigh. "I need to be in Washington to testify before the Committee, but I also need to be at a meeting at the UN."
"Which one do you want me to do?"
"Well, I sure as hell don't want you in DC," came the wry reply.
"I'm out of the business, Control. I've got a family, as you well know."
"That's why I want you in New York. Just take notes, who's there, what's said. You don't have to say a word, I promise."
Paul grumbled for a moment, then sighed and agreed.
Surprisingly, it wasn't that bad a job. It went (for once) exactly as Control had said it would. When it was over, he went to Control's office, where everyone greeted him deferentially, and dropped off his report on the desk. Then he left and caught the next flight home. Easy. For a change.
"I need a favor."
"I'm going to be stuck here for at least three more days. I need you to go to my house tomorrow afternoon and go to Peter's baseball game."
Control frowned. "Peter?"
"My foster son. It's his first game and I promised I'd be there. The kid needs this, he hasn't had a lot of promises kept."
Control hesitated. "What about your wife?"
"You don't have to spend the night, Control," Paul said exasperatedly. "Just go, have dinner with the family, give them all hugs, go to the game, and get back on the plane and go home. Please, it's important to me."
Control sighed. Except for the certainty that he could never pull it off... "All right. What's the address and what details do I need to know?"
"Paul! You made it. Peter will be so pleased."
"Hey, babe. I'm sorry, but I won't be able to stay, I have to fly back right after the game, I'm afraid."
She smiled and put her arms around him, lifting her face towards his. He couldn't very well refuse to kiss his `wife', now, could he?
She frowned after the kiss. "Are you all right, Paul?"
"Just tired, Annie." He chuckled ruefully, "Wishing I didn't have to go back, of course."
She smiled and turned back into the house. He followed, enjoying the view. She led the way to the kitchen, where she started a pot of coffee. He didn't notice anything out of the ordinary as she shared what the kids had been doing while he'd been gone, until he watched her pour the coffee. He blinked in surprise. Damn him! Paul had failed to mention that his wife was blind!
He was saved from any embarrassing slip by the front door banging open and a trio of voices arguing, followed by the slam of the door closing. The three children came into the kitchen, where Peter stopped in shock.
"Paul!" he cried, excited, "You made it back!"
Control took a good look at the boy. Too skinny and he looked to be in the middle of a growth spurt, all gangly arms and legs. But the boy's expression, surprise, eager excitement, and underneath it all, a solemn gratitude.
"I promised I would, didn't I?" He asked softly. He was startled when the boy threw his arms around him and hugged. He covered masterfully and grinned as he returned the hug. Then it was the girls' turns. He greeted Caroline and Kelly with hugs and kisses. They never noticed anything and he started to think that he just might be able to pull this off.
Peter started chattering and announced that he was going to be the Jr. Varsity starter at third base. Control smiled, unable to withstand the boy's enthusiasm. After being regaled with all the minute details of the ins and outs and politics of high school sports, he was beginning to wonder if the kid ever took a breath or shut up.
"Peter, breathe," Annie admonished gently. Peter abruptly shut up and blushed.
"Sorry," he mumbled, but he was too excited to sit still and began to bounce just a bit. "I'm really glad you made it home, Paul."
Control smiled, "So am I, but I have to go back right after the game," he announced. Peter frowned and glanced at Annie.
"Then you should stay home with Mom. That's all right," but there was just a hint of disappointment in his voice.
Control now understood what Paul had meant by Peter `needing' this. "I came home to fulfill my promise to you, Peter. Annie and I will have time together when I come home for real," he glanced at the woman in question and was relieved to see her nod.
"That's right, Peter. We've got plenty of time after he's finished and can come home for good," she agreed. "Meanwhile, it's time for dinner and I want you to set the table. AFTER you wash up, young man."
"Yes, Mom," Peter eagerly agreed and practically flew to complete his tasks.
Control chuckled and wondered, "Is he always like this?"
Annie laughed, "No, sometimes he's worse." She came over and hugged him. Control suddenly wondered why in God's name did Paul ever leave this house? He had a lovely, charming, and intelligent wife, three great kids, and yet here he was off fighting someone else's battles for them. It simply did not make any sense. He soaked up the warmth of Annie's embrace like a sponge, reveling in the contact, even knowing that this was something he could never have, and for that one moment, he envied Paul.
"Are you all right, Paul?" Annie asked, stepping away.
"I'm fine. Just tired, and I miss you."
She smiled coquettishly at him. "Well, you could always take a later flight, you know."
His heart froze within him for a moment. "No, that wouldn't be right. I'll be back in a few days and we'll have a proper homecoming." Tempting as this beautiful woman was, he'd never dream of cuckolding Paul.
She sighed and shook her head. "Paul, sometimes..." Then she smiled and headed for the kitchen as he watched her move.
He watched and quickly figured out where he was to sit. He lavishly praised Annie's cooking. He thought, perhaps, he was just a bit overenthusiastic, from the way Annie frowned at him, but he honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd had a home-cooked meal and he was truly grateful.
After dinner, the girls got KP and quickly cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. Within minutes, everyone was ready to go with Peter to school and watch him play. They loaded into the family sedan and Paul, who had studied a map while on the plane, drove them. At the high school, the girls ran off almost immediately and Peter stood hesitantly by, watching his foster-parents.
"Go on, Peter, or you're going to be late," Annie chided him gently.
Control could see the sudden nervousness Peter was feeling and, with one arm around Annie's shoulders, reached for the boy with the other. Peter, an expression of relief on his face, stepped into the embrace.
Control murmured softly into Peter's ear. "Relax. You know what you're doing. Right?" At Peter's nod, he continued, "Good. Now, just remember, have fun. It doesn't matter how your team does, just do your best and enjoy yourself." He hugged the boy hard and then released him. Peter looked at him, a little misty-eyed. "Go on, before you're late, son." With a quick kiss and hug for Annie, Peter turned and ran for the locker room.
"I'm glad you made it. It's been all he's talked about since you left." Annie leaned against her husband as they strolled towards the stands. They weren't quite as perfectly in sync as usual, but she put it off to his being tired and having to leave again so soon.
Control, realizing that (so far, at least) he seemed to be pulling off this charade, began to relax just a bit. From his briefcase, he took a small video camera. Annie, hearing it whir, frowned.
"What's that, dear?"
"Video camera. I, uh, borrowed it."
She giggled and snuggled against him. "Good idea. Maybe you should get one for us?"
"Might not be a bad idea at that," Control agreed, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and sighing in pleasure as she leaned against him. It had been a very long time since he'd been this close to a woman that didn't involve ulterior motives of one kind or another and he determined to relish it for as long as he possibly could.
When the teams came out onto the field, Peter looked up and smiled at his family, positively beside himself that Paul had not only kept his promise, but also had left whatever business trip business unfinished, just to be here for him. With that kind of encouragement, his natural enthusiasm positively radiated from him and even affected his team. For a bunch of kids, they were seriously on fire.
Control kept the camera on Peter, for the most part, but used the wide-angle setting so that when Paul saw the tape, he'd be able to follow everything that happened. Peter's first triple play brought cheers from the crowd, including Control; his second brought everyone in the stands to their feet as the game ended with the home team's solid win.
After the game, instead of going with his teammates, Peter opted to go home with his family. Control lavished praise on him, which was exactly the thing that Peter needed, much better than pizza with the team.
Once back at the house, Control was treated to Annie's homemade apple pie a 'la mode. Even the ice cream was homemade and he relished every single bite. Afterwards, the girls were sent to bed, since the following was a school day. Peter was allowed to stay up a bit longer, but realizing that Paul would have to leave, soon, he decided to go to his room and `check over his homework'.
Alone with Annie, Control began to feel just a bit nervous. When she stepped into his arms, he hugged her, and when her face tilted up to his, he kissed her and wished, uncharacteristically, that he'd made a few different decisions in his life.
"What is it, Paul?" Annie asked, knowing that something was wrong.
"Nothing, babe. I just have to go, and I honestly don't want to."
She smiled. "I'll call a taxi for you, then. What time's your flight?"
She winced. "Will you sleep on the plane?"
"I'll do my best to." He watched her as she made the call, amazed at her ability to navigate the house without assistance. The fact that she could cook as well, floored him. While they waited for the taxi, she sat on his lap in Paul's favorite recliner, kissing and cuddling. When the beep from the taxi's horn announced its arrival, they stood and Control cursed himself for a fool and Paul, as well, for doing this to this wonderful woman.
"Go on. I'll see you when you get home."
He sighed, kissed her once more, deeply, longingly, and then without a word, but with a gentle caress of his fingers across her cheek, he left, never looking back.
"You can't be serious! Both of us in the same city at the same time? Are you out of your mind?"
"Paul, if there were any other way, I'd do it, but there isn't. I need this alibi, or I'll end up dead."
Paul sighed heavily. "All right. I'll be there in the morning. You owe me big time for this one."
"I always do, don't I?"
"Yeah. You do." Paul hung up the phone, shaking his head. Popping out of his office, he headed for the closed door nearby and without even knocking, went in.
Kermit Griffin, trademark sunglasses in place, looked up with a scowl that, upon seeing who it was, instantly turned attentive. "What's up, Paul?"
"I need to go out of town for a few days. Keep an eye on everyone for me?"
"Oh, yeah. Anything you need backup on?"
"No, thanks. Just doing a favor for a friend."
Kermit's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Oh?"
"You know better, Kermit," Paul warned.
"Not one of our mutual acquaintances, I take it?"
"Oh, you met him once, but I doubt seriously if you'd remember it."
Kermit frowned. He thought he knew all of Paul's friends. "He in the business?"
Paul grinned, "Oh, yeah," he said with just a trace of mockery in his tone.
"And I don't know him?"
"Not by name, and I doubt you'd recognize him if you saw him."
Kermit shook his head. "Well, if you need any help, I'm just a phone call away, remember."
Paul clapped him on a shoulder and smiled. "I know. Tell Peter and Annie that I shouldn't be more than a couple of days."
Kermit frowned. "No luggage?"
"Not this time."
"Only if I get caught, and I won't."
"Don't get too cocky, Paul."
Paul grinned, "I've been doing this since I was a teenager, Kermit. This one is a piece of cake."
"Famous last words," Kermit muttered, scowling.
Paul laughed and waved as he left. "See you in a couple of days."
"You be careful. I don't want Annie on my case if anything happens to you." Paul just laughed again and continued on his way.
Kermit wondered, and not for the first time, where Paul went on these brief excursions. If it was a real mission, he'd be right there with him, but even when they were active in the game, Paul would pull these brief disappearing acts, be gone for a day or three, and be back, tired, perhaps, but never injured. Even now, once or twice a year, he'd pull that same disappearing act, and Kermit wondered yet again what was going on. Shrugging at the lack of answers, he turned back to his computer and continued working.
Retired? Who'd have believed it? Control, after who knew how many centuries was finally retiring. His friends, as few as there were, gave him a rousing sendoff and he prepared to disappear into the countryside. He took one final look around the office and sighed. He was NOT going to miss this place, he vowed. He was going home.
Home, after almost forty years he was going home to stay. He dropped his keys on his secretary's desk and walked out. He drove to the airport and caught a plane. Once at his destination, he took his soft-sided luggage from within the hard-shell suitcases, disposed of those in a dumpster and, with a change of clothes and some hair dye, he caught another plane, under a different name.
From there, he stopped shaving and took a bus to his next destination, where he again changed luggage. Then a train ride, and another bus, then another plane and on, and on.
Finally, knowing he'd lost all possible pursuit, he caught one final plane home.
Home. It was peaceful, serene. Soothing to a trouble soul. He was greeted joyfully by members of his family and he moved into the old family farmhouse and prepared to enjoy his remaining years.
His euphoria lasted about six months before he began getting restless. He didn't want to get back into the game, but he didn't want to stay home forever, either. Instead, he made a phone call.
"Blaisdell residence," the cheerful voice replied.
His breath caught and he wondered if she'd think he was pulling a prank on her. Raising his voice half an octave, he asked for Paul. She hesitated, but then replied "Just a moment," and called for her father.
"Who is it?"
She shook her head in confusion. "I don't know. The voice is kind of familiar, but I can't quite place it."
Paul frowned at her, "Thanks, Kelly." He lifted the phone to his ear and said, "Hello?"
"Paul, you busy this weekend?"
Paul stiffened. "I thought you'd retired?"
Control chuckled. "I did, about six months ago. I'm getting bored and thought I'd see if you needed any help."
Paul chuckled. "I can just imagine the havoc we could wreak, but I don't know if that's such a good idea."
"You could always come here for some fishing."
Paul sighed. He understood Control's itch to be out and do something. Since his own retirement and subsequent soul-searching, he'd finally come to find peace in the arms of his wife, who managed somehow to keep his demons from his dreams. "I don't know. I'm wondering what everyone would think, finding out about us."
"I'm not planning on telling anyone, are you?"
"Should I be worried?"
Paul thought about it a bit longer. "Come here. I'll properly introduce you to my family."
There was a long pause. "Are you sure?"
Paul smiled. "I've spent three years learning to deal with the demons. No more lies, no more half-truths; Annie understands, bless her, and she still loves me anyway."
There was another long pause. "You're a lucky man, Paul."
Paul relaxed as he spotted his wife in the doorway. "I know. So, do you have an ETA, or is this going to be a surprise?"
Control chuckled. "How about we make it a surprise? I'm not sure whether to drive or fly."
"If you fly, I could come pick you up," Paul offered.
"Thanks, but I think I'd rather get there when I get there. Take my time, see the sights."
Paul laughed, "Good for you. I don't suppose you have a traveling companion?"
"Unfortunately, no, but that's all right. I'm used to being alone, after all."
Paul picked up the slightest hint of pain in the other man's voice and he started plotting. "Tell you what, I'm back at the hundred and first, why don't you come by there, first?"
"Are you sure?"
Paul grinned at the consternation that would follow. "Positive."
"Okay, expect to see me when you see me."
They concluded their call and Paul was smiling.
"Who was that, Paul?"
"Someone you haven't officially met, yet, but I need to tell you about him."
They sat in the kitchen over coffee as he explained. She was annoyed, at first, knowing she'd been fooled, but then remembered how she'd kept asking `Paul' if he was all right that night. She told him what she remembered and then scolded him for not telling her earlier. Berating him that she might have inadvertently broken their vows.
"He wouldn't do that, babe," Paul assured her. "He's not that kind of man."
She scowled at him, "He's a career spy, someone who was very important and you're trying to tell me he's `safe'? I hardly think so."
"Annie, he was doing me a favor, fulfilling a promise I rashly made to Peter. Can you imagine how Peter'd have felt if `I' hadn't been there as promised?"
Annie deflated, realizing he was right. "I knew something was wrong, but I never thought that he wasn't you. Do you really look that much alike?"
"Well, we do with our clothes on. The scars are different," he admitted.
She shuddered, realizing what might have happened. "That is too scary."
"I doubt you'd have much trouble telling us apart now, babe. We've been married a lot longer and he still doesn't have anyone."
She perked up at that. "Oh?"
Paul chuckled, "My wife, the Yenta?"
She playfully punched him. "Damn straight."
It looked like barely controlled chaos. Several people smiled at him as he passed through, heading for the glass-walled office across the room. His path was momentarily blocked by a longhaired young man, who held up a hand to stop him as he was speaking on the phone. He stopped, wondering what the detective wanted.
"Get me what I need, Donny, or I'll tell your wife what you've been up to." He listened another second and slammed the phone down. "Sorry, Paul. Look I've got a line on some incoming weapons, but I don't have nearly enough pieces, yet. Do you think Kermit might be willing to help me track it down? I can't think of anyone else who'd be able to find info on it, so is it all right if I ask him?"
He smiled. There was no forgetting that talent of talking without breathing. "Go ahead, Peter, but you might want to check in my office, first."
Peter frowned and looked towards the office. The blinds were closed, so he rose and crossed the few feet separating him from his goal. Glancing over his shoulder, he opened the door and poked his head in... and froze, his expression going blank.
Paul sat back in his chair, removing his reading glasses. "What is it, Peter?"
Peter's mouth opened and closed several times as his hands made vague motions towards Paul and back towards the bullpen. Frowning, Paul asked again, "Come on, son, what's got you gasping like a fish?"
"H-he... But you're... and he... I... you..." He shook his head violently, trying to get his brain to function. "I... you... he..."
Frowning, Paul stood up and crossed to his son. "Peter? What's wrong, son?" Peter backed away and started shaking his head. "Peter?" He followed him out the door, his eyes quickly scanning the room. Spotting his double, he sighed. "Come on in, Peter. I do have an explanation for this." He grasped Peter's arm and pulled him into his office. He motioned to the man who had managed to leave his son speechless. Control, smiling now, crossed the bullpen and entered the office without anyone noticing that there were two of them.
Peter was pushed down in a chair and gaped, his eyes going from one to the other. "Man, I never knew you had a twin brother, Paul."
"I don't," Paul replied, grinning at his double.
"But, but you look just alike!"
"Brothers sometimes do that, Peter," `not-Paul' replied. "I'm a couple of years older than he is."
Peter shook his head. They even sounded exactly alike. "Man, talk about a family resemblance!" He grinned at them for a moment and then frowned, "Wait a minute. How did you know my name?"
`Not-Paul' stifled a laugh. "I've never met anyone else who could talk without breathing, Peter."
Peter scowled, turning his accusing gaze on Paul. "When was that?"
Paul sighed. "Your first Jr. Varsity game. I was stuck and had no way of getting away for it, so I called James, here and talked him into taking my place." Seeing the hurt come into the hazel eyes, he continued. "I hated that I made that promise and wasn't going to be able to keep it, so I did the next best thing and had my brother step in for me." He watched as Peter wrestled with it, remembering.
"Oh, God, what about Mom?! Did she know? I mean, you two... you... you...."
James shook his head. "In case you don't remember, I didn't stay, but left that evening."
James blushed slightly. "Yes, I kissed her and I hugged her, but that's all I did, Peter." He glanced at the very calm Paul. "I don't poach on another man's family, especially not my own brother's."
Peter looked uncertainly at Paul, who was smiling. "Annie knows all about it, Peter. I told her. She remembers it and if you recall, she kept asking if I was all right."
Peter's brow furrowed as he struggled to remember. What he remembered most was that `Paul' was there as promised. How he'd hugged him and encouraged him, praising him for his accomplishments. "Do the girls know?"
"Does Kermit know about him?"
James sighed. "Because it would have caused a lot of trouble for both of us. We were, after all, in basically the same business."
Peter looked up, "You were?"
"No questions, Peter. You know the rules."
"But you're retired!"
"Doesn't matter, son. The rules are still in force."
Peter sighed and shook his head. "Did you ever pull a switch on Kermit?"
Paul's gaze met his brother's and he slowly nodded. "Once. Kermit doesn't know and wouldn't remember it anyway." There was a sadness in his eyes that was mirrored in his brother's.
"What happened?" Peter asked softly.
There was a tap at the door and it swung open without waiting for a reply. Kermit, nose buried in some printouts, came in, closing the door behind him. "Paul, I just got these...." He looked up and did a quick double take. Frowning, he looked from one to the other. Damn, they even wore the same ties. "Paul?" There was just a hint of plaintiveness in his voice.
James sighed and cast a rueful glance at his brother. "I'm beginning to think this might not have been such a good idea, little brother."
"B-brother?" Kermit still had the look of a pole-axed steer about him.
James frowned, "Eyes still bothering you?" he asked softly.
Kermit jerked as though he'd been zapped by an electrical charge. He frowned and stared at his friend's doppelganger. "What?"
"I take it your eyes still bother you."
Kermit glared at the stranger, then turned an injured expression to Paul. His words were to the stranger, however. "What would you know about that?"
"You didn't break," James said very softly. "They didn't break you. Hurt you, damaged you, but never broken."
Kermit shivered. He looked confused, but covered it far better than Peter had done. "Paul's always called me Kermit," he mused. "Except for that one time," He turned his gaze to Paul's double. "Do you call everyone `son'?"
James chuckled softly. "No. Very few, in fact. You're in a very select group."
Kermit gazed into his eyes and finally nodded. "Thanks for the shades."
"You're welcome. I'm glad they helped."
"Oh, yeah." He stared at the two men for a few moments, digesting the new information. "That's why you'd disappear for a few days at a time, isn't it, Paul? Doubling for him?"
Kermit nodded. "Does Annie know?"
"Have they met?"
Kermit flinched, but didn't follow that lead. "So, what now?"
"A couple of old, retired spooks are going to have a nice little visit. Care to join us?" Paul offered.
Kermit was surprised by the offer but slowly nodded. "Oh, yeah." He regarded Paul's brother again. "So, how come you came after me instead of Paul?"
"Paul was in the hospital with a broken leg, as I recall. He barely got out of that one himself. He found out that you were still alive and asked me to go get you. So I did."
"Just like that?"
"No. We had a defector to bring out, as well. It gave me the excuse to go, so I took it."
Kermit's grin was very faint and slightly mocking. "Thanks again."
"Kermit, what were you going to tell me?"
"Oh, yeah, I found a trucking company that I think is smuggling arms in."
"Hey, that goes along with what Donny was saying," Peter jumped in.
James just stood back and watched them work. There was a cohesiveness among them that he recognized and he found himself enjoying watching them put the pieces together. Decisions made, they put together their plan and gathered the people required to implement it.
Paul looked apologetically at his brother. "Sorry about all this, but crime waits for no one."
"No problem. I'm going to be staying at the Sheraton, so why don't you give me a call when you're free?"
"You're staying at my house," Paul growled. "Annie'll kill me if you don't. Just let me give her a call and you can go there and relax. Besides, I'm sure she wants to interrogate you." He smiled at that, knowing just how good his wife was at getting what she wanted.
James laughed. "All right, but warn her, will you? The last thing I want is to be the cause of any trouble."
"Give me a minute." Paul made the call and, as expected, Annie insisted that James stay with them. After writing down the directions, James headed out. He'd had a long drive and was actually quite tired. The others promised to be there as soon as they finished with their current project.
As he approached the front door, it opened to reveal his sister-in-law. She was just as beautiful as she'd always been, a bit of gray mixed in with the gold, but she looked good.
"James?" She asked as he paused at the bottom of the steps.
She smiled. "Come on in. I've got coffee on and I'm in the middle of baking cookies." He followed her, shaking his head in wonder. "The guest room is at the top of the stairs and to the right. Go ahead and put your stuff there and then come on down to the kitchen and we can talk."
"Yes, ma'am," he politely agreed, although something told him the `talk' would be more like a hostile debriefing. He didn't mind, though. He carried his bag up to the indicated room and set it on the floor. Since he wasn't sure he was actually going to stay, he just left it there and went back downstairs to the kitchen, where Annie had just finished pouring him a cup of coffee.
"Sit down. Would you like some cookies?"
Chocolate chip with nuts. He could smell them and they smelled wonderful. "Yes, thank you." She set a plate before him, mounded high with the delectable morsels. His mouth started watering as he took one and bit into it. It was still warm and slightly soft. The nuts and bits of chocolate were in perfect proportion and he couldn't help the "Mmmmm."
Annie smiled. She'd been positive that Paul's brother would be like him in at least this respect. "I know you sound like Paul, but do you really look that much alike?"
"Yes. People who don't know us well would always mistake one for the other when we were teenagers, and particularly after we hit our twenties. Same height, same weight, same face and hair. Only our father could instantly tell us apart."
Annie had a wistful look on her face. "Paul's never talked about his family, I'm afraid. How many of you were there?"
"I have a twin sister, and we have three half-siblings still living, although our youngest brother died a long time ago."
James shrugged. "He was a traitor, selling secrets to the enemy. He never showed any remorse, I'm afraid."
"That must have been terrible for your parents," Annie murmured, hearing more in his voice than he was telling.
"It devastated my father. His second wife died and then his youngest son. It was hard on everyone."
"And you? What about you?"
James frowned. "What about me?"
"Do you have a family?"
"Sort of. I was married, but my wife couldn't handle my job after a few years, so we separated. It was amicable, but I promised to not see our son and daughter. That was hard, but you do what you have to in that business."
Annie knew only too well what he was saying. She'd known from the beginning that Paul's job came first. It had taken some very serious occurrences to convince him to give up that work, not that he'd ever completely left it, until recently. When he returned from exorcising his demons, it was to stay. He'd been exhausted when he came back and the nightmares had been hard on her as well as him, but they'd worked through it and their marriage was stronger than ever. She wondered how James dealt with the nightmares.
"I know. I'm just glad that Paul's out of it permanently, now. No more secrets, no more taking off for who knows where or for how long. It's nice."
James took a sip of his coffee. He was on his second cookie and the homey atmosphere was beginning to affect him. "Yes, it is."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. It was comfortable, despite James's misgivings. When she spoke again, he jumped a bit. "Thank you."
He frowned. "For what, may I ask?"
"For not taking advantage of the situation. For being a gentleman and a good friend; not just his brother."
He understood and was glad she couldn't see him flush. "You're welcome." He'd eaten three cookies and stopped, knowing that, even as good as they were, any more would make him sick. Instead, he finished off his coffee.
She seemed to sense his exhaustion and stood up. "Paul's probably going to be late, so why don't you go and get some rest, if you'd like? I promise to let you know if anything comes up."
He was grateful for the kindness. "Thank you, I think I will. The drive seems to have tired me more than I thought it would." He stood, "The cookies are wonderful, by the way."
She laughed, "You're Paul's brother, all right. No two ways about it." He just smiled and slowly made his way upstairs to his room.
Normally, he wouldn't think of sleeping in a strange room in a strange house with people he didn't know, but for some reason, he felt comfortable, here. Taking off his suit jacket, tie and shoes, he stretched out atop the bed and within moments, was asleep.
He didn't awaken until he heard the front door close and voices from downstairs. He frowned and looked first at his watch and then out the window to discover it was nearly dark. Shaking his head at this sign of age, he rose and after a quick stop in the attached bathroom and combing his hair, he headed downstairs.
He found them all in the kitchen. Peter was high on adrenaline and Paul looked exhausted. Griffin, hiding as usual behind his sunglasses, showed nothing.
"Did you get them?" James asked, leaning in the doorway. They turned to grin at him, grins which on two of them froze upon seeing James in what they'd always considered one of Paul's trademark poses.
Paul, seeing their discomfort cast an apologetic glance at his brother and replied, "Yeah. We got them. Them and a thousand high-powered automatic weapons. It was a good bust."
James nodded. "I'd have expected you to all have a big post-bust party at a bar, somewhere."
"There is," Peter agreed, grinning. "But that's not until later, at Chandler's. Paul insisted on `real' food first."
Paul defended himself, "I am not going out drinking on an empty stomach," he insisted.
James nodded. "Smart move." He looked them over. "I suppose Kermit's the designated driver?"
"Oh, yeah," Kermit smiled at him, still uncertain, but Paul had told him more while they were staking out the gunrunners, so he was much more willing to accommodate the older spook.
James thought about it for just a moment. "If you'd like, I could take that job for you, Kermit, so you can party with the rest."
Paul smiled. The three former agents would none of them willingly overindulge. It simply wasn't in them, not after as many years as they'd survived. Kermit grinned. "Well, knowing most of the bozos we had with us on our little mission, I wouldn't mind some help," he offered, then his grin broadened. "Besides, I'm looking forward to what happens when everyone starts seeing double...."
Paul laughed, followed almost immediately by James. Eerily, they laughed exactly in sync, even down to the pauses for breath. It sent chills up and down the other two men's spines. Annie just smiled and enjoyed the sound of their genuine amusement.
Annie, standing with her husband, arms comfortably around each other, smiled. "Okay, boys. Dinner's about ready. So, if you're hungry, let's go." They went.
James followed Peter, the first time. Going back to the bar, he sat pensively in the passenger seat, waiting for the questions he was sure would come. About halfway back, the first one came. "So, how come you came all the way out here to watch some kid you didn't know and weren't related to, play baseball?"
That was an easy one. "Because Paul asked me to."
Peter snorted in disbelief. "You gotta be kidding me."
"No." He looked over at the young man, grown so much from that first baseball game. "I admit that at first I said `no', but he said he'd promised you that he'd be there and that it was important that he somehow manage to keep that promise."
Peter looked upset. "But he never said anything."
James understood. "Ask him about the video I made of the game, why don't you?"
Peter frowned. "Video?"
"Just ask him."
James watched him drive and finally understood Paul's need to have kept that promise, even by proxy. Even now, Peter felt less than worthy. "He does love you, you know."
Peter jumped and cast a quick scowl at this stranger who looked like his foster father. "I know that."
"Then why doubt him after all this time? He couldn't make it in time, even though he desperately wanted to. I was the best he could come up with at the moment."
"But you fooled Annie, too."
James smiled and shook his head. "Not really." At Peter's snort of disbelief, he continued. "I mean it. She knew something was wrong. She kept asking me if I was all right."
Peter scowled, "I remember. Didn't seem to stop you from hugging and kissing her, though."
James sighed. "No. But she knew there was something wrong, something different. I managed to keep her just uncertain enough that she didn't react badly and make a scene."
"You made out with her in the living room," Peter said in his most accusatory tone.
James sighed. "Yes, I suppose I did. Although, I'm not quiet sure what you mean by `making out'. Did we kiss? Yes, a little. Mostly, we just sat there holding each other."
"I remember. I went down for a soda and saw you." The accusatory tone was still there.
James sighed again. "I guess so. Do you have any idea when the last time was that someone just hugged me?"
That stopped Peter cold. He glanced over and could see the pain in the older man's eyes that he couldn't quite hide. It took all the wind out of his sails. "So you just sat there?"
"Pretty much. Your mom knows how to hug, possibly one of the best huggers I've ever met."
Peter gnawed on his lower lip, trying to picture what it must have been like for this man, to be so alone for so very long. Then he remembered how Annie had been with him, right from the beginning, the hugs, the light touches, and the physical closeness. How could he possibly begrudge anyone wanting that? Paul had never been jealous of his time with Annie, so why should he be concerned about James'?
"Yeah, she is."
"I never took advantage of her, Peter, except to the extent of one human being holding and comforting another."
Peter thought a bit longer and finally nodded. "I can't blame you for that," he said softly. "She's the only mother I've ever known, you know."
"Paul told me."
Peter relaxed, accepting this foster uncle. "It was really important to me that Paul be here for that game, you know."
James smiled. "I know. I didn't understand until I met you. It's rather refreshing to discover that you haven't outgrown the ability to talk for long periods without breathing."
Peter blushed a bit, but smiled, as well. "Yeah, well, it's a talent, what can I say?"
"A very great deal, I've noticed."
The tone of voice informed Peter that it was a compliment and he smiled. No, this man wasn't Paul, but he was a lot like him.
"So, you did this to Kermit, too, huh?"
"That's not your business. If Kermit decides to tell you, that's his business. I rather doubt he ever will, though."
Peter nodded, accepting the gentle chastisement. "Probably not. He and Paul still have a lot of secrets, but that's okay."
They arrived back at Chandler's and picked up the next batch of passengers. This time, James followed Kermit, who was driving Paul's car.
Riding back. Kermit seemed determined to not say anything, but James just waited, knowing that eventually, the questions would come.
"I've been trying to remember," Kermit began.
"You don't want to," James assured him. He glanced over at the tense ex-mercenary.
"I always remember it in my nightmares, mostly." He shook his head. "Nothing solid, nothing specific, only the pain and the blinding light. By the time I was coherent again, Paul really was there."
"Good. I'm glad," James replied.
"Tell me what happened, the things I don't remember."
James stared out the window for a couple of minutes. "I found you in the basement, stripped naked and hanging from the ceiling by manacles on your wrists. Your head was tied in such a way that you couldn't escape this extremely high-powered spotlight. I cut you lose, then lifted you and shot the manacles off. I had to put your shoulders back in their sockets, which brought you around." He glanced at Kermit and saw no expression. "You were bleeding from a lot of little cuts and there were signs of someone using a whip on you." He decided not to go into more detail. If he didn't remember, so much the better. "I cleaned you up a little and got you into some clothes."
"I remember the clothes, black sweats. Where'd you find them?"
"I had them with me. Emergency stash. Luckily, I'm a little heavier and taller than you are, so they fit you pretty well. I'm sure the looseness helped."
Kermit nodded and waited for him to go on.
"You naturally mistook me for Paul. I originally offered to send someone in after you, but Paul said that you wouldn't trust them. He was still in the hospital, so I finally told him I'd go myself."
"Oh, yeah," Kermit agreed. "All this time, I thought it was Paul who saved me."
James stared at him, then shook his head. "He did." At Kermit's confused glance, he explained. "I suggested he just cut his losses and he practically begged me to go get you. He's my brother, Kermit, and he was pleading with me to save you." He looked out the side window, unwilling to face the younger man, "What else could I do?"
Kermit thought about it for a bit, then nodded. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Anyway, your eyes were pretty badly damaged. I wasn't sure you wouldn't be blind, so when you tried to escape just that little sixty-watt bulb I'd left on, I gave you my sunglasses."
Kermit grinned. "One question."
"Why green lenses?"
James chuckled. "It was all they had in polarized at the time I got them."
Kermit chuckled and shook his head. "Figures."
They spent the rest of the trip in companionable silence.
Finally, they'd gotten everyone safely home and it was time for them to do the same, themselves. Peter offered to take Kermit back to his car while Paul took James home with him.
"So, did they give you the third degree?" Paul asked.
James shrugged. "A little, I suppose. Nothing major."
"Kermit still doesn't remember."
"No. That's probably a good thing," James agreed. Paul just nodded. When they got to the house, it was dark and Annie had already gone to bed. Kelly now had her own apartment in town, so she still didn't know about James. The brothers said their good nights and headed to bed.
"Hmmm?" He turned towards her, wrapping his arms around her.
"Paul, James is having a nightmare."
Paul came fully awake and listened for just a moment. "I'll take care of him. You go back to sleep."
"Right. I'll go make the coffee," she countered, rising with him. Paul smiled in the darkness as he pulled on his robe, shoved his feet into his slippers, and headed down the hall.
Paul shook his head and marveled yet again at his wife's hearing. Standing right outside the door, he could barely hear the whimpers from within. He tapped on the door and the sounds immediately stopped. He waited a moment, then called softly, "James?"
The door opened and his brother stood there, hair mussed and perspiration faintly sheening his face. "Sorry," he muttered, shaking his head.
Paul smiled gently. "No need to apologize. I still wake Annie up with them."
James stretched. "I didn't realize I was that loud." He winced at the stiffness in his back and shoulders.
"You weren't, but Annie's got a mother's ears for trouble."
"Oh, hell. I'm sorry." He looked at his brother contritely. "I should have insisted on staying at the hotel," he added.
"Hell, no," Paul disagreed. "Come on downstairs. Annie's got the coffee on. Unless you think you want to try and go back to sleep?"
James shuddered. "I hardly think so."
James almost smiled. "There aren't any good ones."
Paul nodded. "I remember how that is."
James finally met his gaze. "I suppose you would." He sighed and nodded. "Coffee sounds good."
"How about talking about it?"
James shook his head. "Not so good."
"It really does help, James. And Annie's got some insights that might just surprise the hell out of you."
James shook his head doubtfully. "Paul,"
"Trust me, James. Trust us."
James stared at his brother for several very long moments and finally sighed and nodded. "I don't have anyone else, Paul." There was a deep anguish in those words that made Paul reach out to hug his brother.
"You're not alone. We're here for you any time you need us, any time you want us. Remember that."
James leaned into the embrace, returning the hug as hard as he could, needing the simple touch of another human being. They stood there for several minutes, until James took a deep breath and released his brother. "Thanks."
"Any time." Paul watched his brother for another minute or so. "Come on. The coffee should be ready any minute." James smiled and nodded. He turned back into his bedroom to pull on his robe and slippers and followed his brother down to the brightly lit kitchen.
Annie was pouring the coffee as they entered. She smiled at them. "Good thing Peter didn't realize there were fresh cookies, or there wouldn't be any left," she quipped, turning and replacing the coffee pot on the warming plate and bringing over a platter of the cookies she'd made earlier.
Paul chuckled. "That boy can still eat his weight in groceries." He picked up a cookie and bit into it. His eyes closed as he savored the perfect blend of nuts, chocolate, and dough. "Babe, you still make the best cookies in the world," he praised.
James, feeling uncomfortable for having disturbed their sleep, remained silent, but helped himself to a cookie as well. He started when Annie came up behind him and put her hands on his shoulders. She gripped him firmly and began to knead the tight muscles.
"You're as bad as Paul. Strong, stubborn, suffering in silence until you break. You need to learn to bend a little, James," she scolded gently as she worked at easing the tension from his muscles. She hit one particularly nasty spot and he groaned. "Oh, my." Her fingers dug harder at the stubborn knot and he tilted his head, trying to ease the pain. There was a loud `pop' as a vertebra shifted and Annie's hands froze.
"Are you all right, James?" she asked, as her husband frowned at his immobile brother. There was a grimace of pain on James' face, which was quickly replaced by an expression of wonder.
He moved his head around and then shook it. "It's better," he admitted, grinning ruefully. Annie smiled and started rubbing again. Within a few minutes, the muscles released and James groaned in pleasure, instead of pain.
Satisfied, Annie stopped kneading and patted his shoulder. She moved unerringly back to the coffeepot and brought it back to refill their mugs. After returning the pot to the warmer, she sat between the two men.
"Better?" Paul asked, taking his wife's hand and kissing it.
"Much," James admitted with a small smile. Annie smiled and unerringly patted his hand.
"Good. I'm glad," she said. She remained like that, one hand being held by her husband, her other hand covering one of her brother-in-law's. They sat silently like that for a minute or two and then James shook his head.
"Sorry to be so much trouble," he apologized.
"You aren't," Annie immediately replied, patting his hand. "You're family, after all. You can't imagine the times we've been up all hours with one `emergency' or another. Peter afraid that he's going to fail; Kelly's heart being broken by her latest boyfriend. This is no different."
"No `buts', James," Paul admonished. "You're still family; and family stands by one another, remember?"
James stared into his brother's eyes and finally nodded. "I remember," he said very softly.
Annie patted his hand. "Can you tell us what the nightmare was?"
James shrugged diffidently. "The usual. Faces, mostly." He looked at his brother, who nodded, understanding completely.
"Oh, yeah. I know all about those." He felt Annie's hand tighten in his and looked at her. She had a pensive expression on her face. He wondered what she was thinking.
"I think I may know someone who might be able to help."
James shook his head. "I can't talk about most of it," he reminded them.
Paul looked at Annie, who tilted her head and mouthed a name at him. Paul's eyebrows went up in surprise, but then, as he thought about it, nodded. It could work. He turned back to his brother.
"She's right, James. I know who she's talking about. She helped me. More importantly, she helped Annie help me. Having someone to talk with about things, even without any specifics, is a tremendous load off your mind." Seeing the dubious expression on his brother's face, he continued. "We'll do what we can, James, but you need more than we can give you, alone."
James frowned. "Remember when anyone wanting to talk to a shrink was immediately deemed a security risk?"
Paul nodded. "Of course. You're not that much older than I am. But times have changed. You're out of the game, now. You have the right to get help and to get some relief. When's the last time you slept through the night?" As James took a breath to answer, he hurried on, "Without the aid of drugs or alcohol?" James let the air out without saying anything. He shook his head.
"I couldn't tell you." He felt Annie's hand tighten on his and he closed his eyes, concentrating on the touch. "Too long. Forever."
"I can tell you, I bet," Paul said very softly. "Just before you and Eva split. When you held Peter Mark or Penelope in your arms."
James' breath caught at the painful reminder of what he'd given up. Annie didn't know what they were talking about, but could guess.
"How many years have you 'made do' with sleeping in snatches of one or two hours at a time?"
James looked at him. "Longer than you and Annie have been married," he answered wryly.
Paul nodded. "I know." He looked at his wife and squeezed her hand, eliciting a smile. "I remember what it's like, James. There's help available. Let us help you?"
James shook his head. "Why?"
Annie answered before Paul could. "It's what families do, James. It's what our family does."
James was amazed to feel tears sting his eyes. It had been so long... so very long. "Help me," he whispered.
Annie and Paul stood and gathered around him, hugging him. Safe. Cared for. Uncensured. He let go and cried. For all the things he'd lost. For everything he'd given up in the name of patriotism, of duty, of responsibility. For the children he hadn't watched grow up, the wife who couldn't deal with his career choice, the siblings who blamed him for something he hadn't done, but for which he willingly took the blame... for all the horrendous decisions he'd had to make; for the dead, for the ruined. For lost friends and colleagues. And most of all, for the loneliness he'd lived with for most of his life. He cried. Great, gut-wrenching sobs. Agonizing wails of a tortured soul, a soul that had never been meant to undergo the things he'd had to go through. He clung to them, and they held him. Supported him. Cried with him. And finally, comforted him. When he was finally finished, he could barely move, so they simply helped him up the stairs to his room, where they helped him to lie down and covered him and tucked him in.
He was asleep before they'd finished, still hiccuping occasionally as a sob would work its way out. But the emotional exhaustion from the catharsis was a beginning. For the first time in memory, he slept without the worry-lines creasing his face.
He was finally home. For real, this time.
The annual family reunion was well underway. As the eldest, he held the so-called honor of running things. Fortunately, he was an expert at delegating. He did, however, greet every arrival personally. He could get a month's worth of hugs in a day that way. This year was even more special. Not only were his children there, but his first grandchildren, as well. Due to his past, he rarely left the country, but his children had no such problems and frequently came for visits. His other son, the one he'd had no knowledge of for nearly thirty years may have lived across the country, but they at least talked every week. He'd mellowed a great deal since his retirement. He certainly didn't miss the game. If anything, he wished he'd quit earlier, but that hadn't happened. Still, he mused as he watched his eldest son with his infant, he wouldn't trade anything for his life as it was now. He heard her approach and smiled as her arms came around his waist from behind. He turned, wrapping his arms around her and leaned down to kiss her. She smiled and rested her cheek against his chest. Who'd have thought that his sister-in-law's psychologist friend and he would have fallen in love? He rested his cheek on the top of her head as they hugged. Sometimes, still, he'd hold her desperately, others, like now, it was simply warm and comforting. He'd come to understand that he'd never completely lose his paranoia and mistrust, but he could certainly deal with it. Between his wife and his siblings, particularly his twin and full-brother, he was never alone and certainly never lonely. He smiled as he watched the large group interact. Even his nightmares had mostly ceased, thanks to this wonderful lady in his arms, who always seemed to know what to say or do to ease his mind.
He took a deep breath and let it out in a gentle sigh. Life was good.