Disclaimer: No they are not mine. They belong to Pet Fly, UPN & Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended.

Thank you: Thank to Bobbie and StarWatcher for your doing such a quick beta on this story. All mistakes, as always, belong to me. Thanks also to wolfpup for giving my stories a home.

Summary: A flea-ridden motel at the ass end of the world, and Sandburg’s just summed it up perfectly -- almost. When Blair sees something he shouldn't have seen will the future be a copy of War and Peace or a Wal-Mart catalogue?

Notes: This story can be read as a stand-alone but I will most likely continue and make it into a series.

Feedback: Always very welcomed. jessriley80@yahoo.com.au

Tale One: The Story Keeper

Jess Riley

“Well, here’s another fine mess.”

A flea-ridden motel at the ass end of the world, and Sandburg’s just summed it up perfectly -- almost. I say almost because I know what’s coming next.

“It’s not your fault.” I cut him off before he gets to the part that goes on to say ’I’ve gotten us into’.

“Wrong place, wrong time?” He flops down on the bed, defeated.

“Or the universe conspiring against you, again,” I reply.

“Gee thanks, Jim. Kick a guy when he’s already as low as he can go.” He reaches for the pillow, but thinks twice. It’s grey, just like the rest of the room. Grey, depressing, grimy. An epitome of a society steeped in hopelessness.

The look on Sandburg’s face mirrors the same. “You know you don’t have to do this,” he says. “You don’t have to be here.”

“Yes I do,” I reply.

“Why?” he asks.

I don’t answer. I know what he’s looking for. I know the answer he’s seeking. And we both know the answer and the question will only go to prove what I’ve always known -- he’s been a fraud from the start.

A fraud who invaded my life under the guise of a free spirit. A’detach with love, I’m outta here at the drop of a hat’ kinda guy. But his cover was blown right from the moment he dumped his boxes of junk in the store room under my stairs. You see, Sandburg needs people and from day one he made me ’his people’. He’d never admit it, of course. ’It’s all in the name of research,’ he’d cite. But it’s bullshit. I’d had the Sandburg autobiography opened, read and back on the shelf before the first week’s rent was due. And before the second week came around, I had my cover reinforced and rock solid against the uncanny ability he has to weasel his way under your skin.

I study his face, trace his gaze to the ceiling. His attention’s now fixated on the stain above his head, and if I know him as well as I do know him, he’s already moved on from working out what it is and shifted onto how the hell it got there in the first place. That’s Sandburg for you and because he is who he is, I’ve adjusted the facts of my life to become who I am. There’s no guilt; I haven’t lied to the kid, just kept to the basics -- army, cop, sentinel, and the bonus are the tidbits I throw his way when he stumbles too close for comfort.

Again, I feel no guilt. I do what I do to keep him out of harm’s way. If he got even a half a whiff of my true past, he’d be like a bloodhound on the trail and most probably the only way to stop him would be with a round from a double barrel. And given my past and the way secrets are guarded like diamonds, it’s not an out of the question scenario for those who still wear the unit code as a badge of honour.

His attention moves from the ceiling and he turns his head to the side, taking care not to let his cheek touch the bedspread he’s laying on. “Why?” he asks again, with a more determined tone than before.

This time I answer. I have to. The parameters have shifted. It’s the truth that will keep him safe. He needs to know what I know. He needs to be taught how to survive. I hold his gaze. “Because I’m the only one I trust to keep you alive.”

“What about the program? Witness protection? They do it all the time, Jim. It’s what they do.”

It’s times like these I realise just how young and how naive Sandburg really is. Sure, he’s book smart and I’d even go as far to say that’s he’s worldly, but the world he lives in is the world of the civilian. Not my world. I live in a world shaped and patterned by the army. Being a civilian is a technicality; you can never leave special ops behind, because it will never leave you behind.

His eyes are still trained on my face. Fixated, just like the stain. “You’re not the only witness, Chief. They have three more. Three people whose existence makes you expendable. If you fall, they move onto the next. Three’s a bonus, but at the end of the day they only need one to make their case.”

“So you’re saying that all of us... all the witnesses, fall into the category of last man standing?”

“I’m saying that while they have three they will do their job well... and when they have only one, they will do their job extremely well. I have no intention on waiting for the extreme.”

Sandburg goes quiet. His hand moves from where it’s been resting against his stomach and falls onto the bedspread. It doesn’t take long for his fingers to latch onto the material. It’s the only bit of colour in the room. In the shadow of gloom that’s hovering over his life, he’s reaching for colour. Sandburg’s reaching for hope. “I wonder how this found its way here?” he asks, his fingers now moving in and out of the holes left by the crochet needle. “It takes a lot of time and dedication to knit a quilt cover like this.” He paused. “And love,” he finally added. “I mean you don’t just wake up one morning and decide, hey I’m going to invest the next twelve months of my life in making a quilt for a total stranger. You don’t do that for someone you don’t know. Someone you don’t care about. You just don’t do that, do you, Jim?”

“No, I guess you don’t,” I reply.

He nods his head. I don’t need to elaborate; he knows the meaning behind my words.

“You know, Naomi used to say that time is a tale-teller. She said that while time is still ticking our tale could never be complete. The story only ends when your time comes to an end. Wonder what my story will tell? War and Peace or a copy of the Wal-Mart catalogue?”

“Your story’s not going to come to an end, Chief. You’ve got many more chapters left in you yet.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I’ve appointed myself number one story-keeper, and I don’t lose things I’ve been entrusted to keep.” I move over to the bed, grab hold of his wrist and haul him to his feet. “Why don’t you hit the shower? See if you can wash some of the last twenty-four hours away.”

“What’s the point?” he mumbles. “I don’t have a change of clothes.” He nods towards the only possession salvaged from the day before. “Don’t suppose you happen to have a secret longing for me, do you? Keep one of my shirts in your gym bag as a symbol of your hidden desire?”

“Socks, jocks, and a sweatshirt, Chief. All mine and all extremely pungent. Sorry to disappoint.” I give him a push to get him started. “We can pick up what we need tomorrow.”

“How?” he asks. “You tossed your credit cards, burned the charge card the FBI dude gave you and all I’ve got is a twenty bucks.” He draws in a deep breath and releases it slowly, deliberately. Money is now on his mind, but from a different perspective. “A year’s a big investment, Jim. Not just in time, but in money. Maybe the Romanos will figure that Junior’s not worth the cost. He’s not the Big Kahuna after all. Just a medium fish in a pond full of scum.”

“It’s not about money, Chief. It’s about family. They won’t give up on family.”

His shoulders slump.

“Hey,” I say, reaching over to squeeze his arm. “You’ve got family, Chief. More than you know.” I push him forward again before the questions start. “When you’re done, I’ll tell you a story.”

“A story about what?” he asks.

“A story of how, together, we’re going to take what I know and use who I know to see this through to the end.”

A dog with a bone and Sandburg with unanswered questions. They're one and the same; both tenacious, both obstinate and I could already see his mind at work. “Who do you know?” he asks. “And what makes you think they can stop the Romanos? You said it yourself. They’re family and they won’t give up on family.”

“The Romanos might be a family, Chief, but they’re not a brotherhood.”

Time for more persuasion and this time I do it with more force. He practically falls through the bathroom door, not noticing the cracked, chipped tiles beneath his feet, or the small specs of black mould dotted across the ceiling.

“I’d leave your socks on if I were you,” I said. “No telling what you might pick up in here.” But I doubt he hears me. He’s lost in thought, crippled with concentration. It’s a habit he’ll have to lose. Time to think is a luxury that’s no longer available. He’ll have to learn to do it on his feet, on the run and without hesitation.

Allowing him to have one last luxury, I close the bathroom door. It’s not commonplace at the loft; he very rarely closes anything behind him. But for now I figure he could use some time alone; time alone in his head to deconstruct the events of the last twenty-four hours and time alone to start working on reconstructing the next juncture in his life.

The door opens after just a moment. So far the only deconstructing he’s managed to do is strip down to his t-shirt. “The soap’s already been opened,” he says. “And it comes complete with pubic hair.”

I pull my shaving kit out of my gym bag and take out a bar of soap. “Doesn’t come with a pubic hair-free guarantee, but I guess the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

I toss the soap in his direction and he catches, one-handed. He leans against the doorframe. “Thanks,” he says, quietly. His eyes lock with mine. “Thanks for...” He pauses, lost at how to express what he wants to say. “Thanks for sharing your pubic hair with me, man.”

The smile doesn’t reach my face, but there’s warmth in my voice. I can’t hide it. Truth is, Sandburg’s my people, and I look after my people.

“Any time, Chief,” I reply. “You know that.”

“Yeah,” he breathes, before pushing himself off the doorframe and turning around. This time he closes the door under his own steam and I use the time to prepare.

I riffle once again through my bag until my fingers touch what I’m searching for. I lift out the Glock and it settles in my hand like a handshake from an old friend. It’s heavier than I’ve recently been used to, but somehow it makes me feel complete. As if the years of separation have had no bearing on the man I was then to the man I am now.

The phone is next. I bought it from Radio Shack. Simple, no fuss, disposable. I press in the number and a recording comes to life. The voice gives me ten digits. Ten digits with over three million possible combinations. I smile. “And a possibility of one, if you know the code.”

I look toward the bathroom door. “North to Alaska, Chief,” I say, quietly. “I wonder what tale time will tell about that.”

~TBC in~

Tale Two: The Story Maker

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