Jax had been having such a good day. A good few days really. A week out of Stockton Prison, back with his wife, kids, and family. The timeout pay had been good and while the club had a few new long-term problems to take care of, overall things were looking up. The plan at Opie's wedding had gone off without a hitch and there'd even been time to get in a dance with Tara.

Jax was a smart man, he knew Tara had struggled while he'd been in jail. Gemma had brought in good reports of her stepping up and raising the boys. Tara had raved about the help she'd gotten from the club and his brothers on the outside but Jax could see that his Old Lady's smiles didn't reach her eyes. The fact that he and Tara were on the same page about SAMCRO for probably the first time ever wasn't surprising. For once they had a physical link that mirrored their tumultuous emotional one in the form of three-month-old Thomas.

The baby's shared genetics called to Jax more than he'd like to admit. It wasn't that he didn't love Abel. He would do anything for either of his boys but he'd gotten off his bike in the TM lot after over a year away and there was something about Tara standing there holding a baby that looked like both of them that had Jax's stomach all twisted up. He would find a way to get his family clear of the blood and save his boys from a club future. He'd find a way to keep them all happy and whole.

He'd been expecting the conversation Tara had started when he proposed. He'd been prepared for it. He wasn't lying when he said that all he'd thought about for 14 months was how to get his family away from SAMCRO and into a safer way of life. He wasn't sure if it had been this last set of jail time, Thomas' arrival, or his father's manuscript; but something or a collection of somethings, had made it clear to him that the outlaw way of life was not where he needed to be.

The IRA deal was supposed to be his chance to make bank for a while before he made a graceful exit. Clay had, of course, shit on the entire thing when he'd made the jailhouse deal to mule coke for the Cartel but even that hadn't completely ruined Jax's good mood. He'd managed to come to an agreement with Clay and work the problem into a bit of a solution. He wouldn't say he was thrilled about the new situation but at least now there was a timeline on the exit strategy.

Tara seemed content, or at least on her way there, no matter how many back-up plans he could see floating behind her eyes. If Tara could deal and it generated a way out, Jax was happy to help Clay with his stupid drug vote. Hell, he'd even been happy to mule the drugs himself, but this latest fuckery was a step too far.

The call had come in a few hours ago. Romeo Parada had called Clay asking for a favor, a very lucrative one apparently. Clay had jumped like the well petted dog he was and now here they were flying down i5 towards some new and unsavory connection with the fucking Cartel. Jax stares down the stretch of road in front of him letting his thoughts about the last week fade into the background of rumbling engines.

He has no doubt whatever this favor is it won't make it to a table vote and that thought has his gloved hands tightening, itching to hit the throttle and open the Dyna up. He could leave all this behind in a moment, but there's a growl from his left and Clay pulls up to ride next to him. Like he'd sensed trouble Jax looks over to see his step-father and president watching him. Jax nods to the older man and taps his brakes dropping back to follow Clay's lead.

The location they'd been directed to was an industrial district outside Lodi along route 12. Jax took a hard look at the small warehouse as he parked his bike next to Clay, just in front of the club van driven by Phil. The older man was already climbing off his bike and tugging at one riding glove. Jax didn't miss the subtle wince as Clay tugged the leather over stiff fingers. The building was old but well maintained and a sign at the turn off had identified it as a custom welding shop. A collection of gated and locked gas tanks to the left confirm some type of torch work takes place inside although Jax figures it wouldn't be hard to leave empties around for cover.

"He said to meet him around back. Phil stay with the van." Clay's tone is tense and Jax can see he's not happy that no one met them at the front.

"Clay, what is this?" Jax had asked the question once before they'd left for Lodi but Clay's response was just "a favor" and a look that indicated further information was not going to be forth coming.

"Let's find out." Clay's voice is firm and Jax rolls his shoulders as he follows the older man down the long side of the building and around the corner.

The back is set up like a loading zone with tall roll-up doors designed to accommodate semi-trucks. All three bays are closed tight a with no trucks in sight but Jax follows Clay as he heads for a fourth office door set against the corner. He tenses as the door opens before they reach it and his hand is tight on the handle of the gun tucked under his cut. Luis Torres is easy to recognize in the slice of light coming from behind the door.

"Stand down" The call comes from Luis and Jax watches as Clay's hands both become visible, held up in the traditional sign of surrender.

"No problem brother." Clay says and Jax pushes down his annoyance at the term of endearment being used on someone outside the club. They step into the little office standing uncomfortably in the space while Luis secures the door.

"Thank you for making such good time. Did you bring a van?" Luis's voice is tight and Jax can smell gunpowder in the air.

"Van's out front with a driver. I thought Romeo was going to be here." Clay is always one to get straight to business so Jax just leans himself against the far wall and looks around the room.

It's a small office and well maintained with two exits, one leading back outside and the other into what Jax assumes is the rest of the building. There's a pinup calendar over the desk and filing cabinets fill one corner. He can see a collection of papers on the desk that look like shipping invoices. If it wasn't for the large red blood splatter on the wall just to the left of the interior door Jax is sure he'd be able to get his shoulders to stop feeling so tight. This entire situation has his hackles up and he's on high alert.

"Romeo had to deal with some other business. He felt we could take care of what's left here on our own." Luis seems to have let his guard down a bit and while the man never really smiles Jax can see he's relaxed. "Come on, I'll show you to the favor." Luis turns pulling open the interior door as he speaks and Clay moves to follow.

"Jesus Christ" Clay's exclamation is soft and genuine and even though Jax can't see through the door around the man's broad shoulders he's sure he won't like what's on the other side. "If the favor is clean up, we are going to need more than our van." Clay moves forward on the words and Jax follows him into the rest of the building trying to ignore the metallic scent of blood that slaps him in the face.

The inside of the warehouse is one big space and there are three sets of tables lined up in columns down the length of the room. From his minimal experience in the drug trade he can tell this is a cut and bag operation. The tables are strewn with bricks of white powder, smaller street baggies, and tubs of what he can only guess is the cutting product. It's not the drugs that are shocking though, it's the bodies.

Men and women, most of them wearing smocks, hairnets, and latex gloves are everywhere. Their blood is spilled across the tables, splattered onto walls, and pools of it have started to gather near drains in the warehouse floor. This was a massacre and Jax, no stranger to blood, can feel his stomach churning at the smell of death.

Luis says nothing as he deftly steps through the carnage leading them to another door on the far side of the big room. Jax spares a glance for his step-father but finds him staring stoically ahead, eyes focused on the goal. Typical Clay.

"This is our favor." Luis leads them into a bathroom and Jax's happiness that the room is blood free is short-lived when he sees room's lone occupant.

The woman is tied to a chair in the middle of the tiled room, her feet lashed to the legs of the chair and hands caught up behind her back. She looks to be about 30, with close cropped dark hair and dark eyes set in a bruised heart shaped face. Jax watches those dark eyes widen as Luis steps up to stand behind her, his heavy hands coming down to rest on her shoulders.

"I gotta say, considering what we just walked through it seems a waste to call us down here to off a little thing like her." Clay speaks on a laugh and Jax recognizes the President's classic attempt to lighten up a very dark situation. Luis smiles and it's not a pleasant sight.

"No, no. Our little lady here is far too important for a quick bullet to the head. Aren't you querido?" Luis says the last part into the woman's ear and Jax doesn't miss the way she refuses to react to the question.

"Who is she?" Clay has stepped forward and is looking at her intently. "She looks like she's had better days." Jax agrees and takes a moment to look closer. In addition to the fresh bruise coming up on one cheek he can see a steady drip of blood coming from behind the chair where her hands are tied. He guesses from the labored look of her breathing there might be wounds he can't see.

"She probably has. This warehouse belongs to the Lobos Sonora, an informant brought it to our attention recently." Luis pauses to let this information sink in. "We handled the operation but then we found her hiding in the back. Our man tells us she's the money front for the whole thing but we can't get a word out of her and we tried. Didn't we?" Luis again directs this last part at his prisoner but she just stares straight ahead only moving to duck her head when he starts to run a finger down her bruised cheek. "Romeo doesn't want her killed, but we need her safe and clear of our usual spots while we deal with the rest of the blow back from this. She could be very valuable later and we don't like to dispose of valuables until the right time."

"So, the favor is protection?" Clay is nodding as he speaks and Jax can feel a headache starting just between his eyes. Clay may be willing to take on protection but if this woman is important it could mean getting SAMCRO caught between two very powerful drug cartels. There is no way the small club stays upright if they're caught in the crossfire of an all-out drug war.

"Protection and information gathering. We're going to keep looking for leads on her and her connections to Lobos Sonora but we can't have her hanging around while we're taking care of things. Keep her whole for us until we need her." The promise and the threat in Luis's words is not lost on anyone in the small room except maybe the woman. Jax is surprised to notice she seems to be attempting to get a good look at herself in the mirror over the small sink, her face calm and impassive in the face of an uncertain future.

"We've got this. Never met a woman I couldn't annoy into talking." Clay smiles and Luis laughs at the joke. Jax decides silence is best here, he doesn't trust himself to talk just yet.

"Excellent, we'll be checking in and, of course," Luis reaches for a bag that had gone previously unnoticed and holds it out to Clay, "your compensation as promised."

Loading up the woman is easier than expected. After Clay took a cursory glance into the bag of money and shook Luis's hand the Cartel enforcer had excused himself to make a call. Jax assumed it was the call that would summon a cleanup crew for the mess in the warehouse. Once they were alone with the woman Jax thought to finally raise his concerns but Clay had just raised his hand.

"We're in it already brother. Nothing to do about it now." Clay's words weren't what he wanted to hear but they were accurate. They were in it now and the only thing to do was push forward. So Jax volunteered to get the woman moving while Clay went to get Phil and stash the cash.

Alone in the room with her, Jax takes a long moment to look her over again. She is definitely leaning to the left and he guesses she may have a broken rib, the damage hidden under the tight black t-shirt she is wearing. He kneels behind her and can't help the hiss of sympathy as he realizes the dripping blood he'd noticed earlier was from three missing fingernails on her right hand.

"If I untie you are you going to hit me?" His voice sounds too loud in the echoing bathroom. He expects an answer but she doesn't move just continues to stare straight ahead. Fine with him.

He tugs at the ropes and as soon as her hands are free she pulls them to her lap and he watches as she massages her wrists, dipping her head to inspect the missing fingernails closely. The ropes around her ankles are tighter but with a few pulls he gets them undone and she doesn't wait before standing. She's taller than he expects, the top of her head coming to his chin.

"Come on then." He speaks as he turns for the door and he's already three steps into the warehouse before he realizes she's not following. He ducks back pulling the door open to find her still standing in the room. "Come on." He maintains eye contact as he speaks and puts some extra force behind the words, holding out his hand. He's not surprised she ignores his hand but this time when he moves she steps forward. He holds the door open forcing her to walk in front of him through the bloody warehouse.

Luis is nowhere to be found and for a moment before they reach the external door Jax worries this entire thing is a setup and they're about to walk into the entire Sheriff's department but when the door opens it's just to Phil and Clay standing by the van. The woman climbs into the van without protest although Jax doesn't miss the way her breath hitches at the effort. They'll have to get her medical attention.

"Any issues?" Clay is looking at her while he talks to Jax.

"Nope, not a one. You sure this is the right play?" Jax knows it's a dumb question to ask in front of the prospect but he can't help himself anymore.

"What?" Clay asks and Jax recognizes his cocky-diffuse-the-situation smile, "you don't think we can manage one quiet woman for a weekend?" It's Phil not Jax who laughs at the joke but Jax knows this means the conversation is closed for now. He pushes his anger down and tries to stay calm.

"Should we tie her up for the drive?" It's the first thing Phil has said since they ordered him into the van and Jax once again thanks God for the big prospect's easy-going nature.

"What do you think darlin'? Do we need to tie you up?" She doesn't react to Clay's question just continues to stare blankly at the wall of the van. "Weird girl." Clay comments with a shake of his head.

"I think she'll be fine Phil. You could take her, she's already been beat up once tonight." Jax tries to put some finality in his voice and the prospect seems to take his word for it because he slams the door of the van closed before heading for the driver's seat.

There's something else wrong with the woman, Jax is sure of it. Her reactions, body language, nothing about it made any sense. The way she'd just stood there when he'd told her to follow, the way she ignored them when they spoke. She was either a very talented and well-trained player or just a pawn caught up in all this with no idea what's going on. Both options make him nervous and he hopes they can figure it out before either Cartel comes calling again.

"You ready?" Clay is watching him with bright eyes and Jax has no option but to nod and follow him to the bikes. He hopes the ride back will help him get his head right for what comes next.

"Bring a van and your VP", Clay can still hear Galindo's words echoing in his head. He knew Jax was suspicious and to be fair Clay doesn't exactly trust the Mexican drug lord either but he needs this. He'd given his life to this club, sinking everything he has into it for over twenty years and at 58 with hands that could barely make a fist he has almost nothing to show for it. He owes too many people too much to fade out with no back up plan or future stability. He owes Gemma a quiet retirement, he owes his grandkids the chance to be spoiled, he owes himself some real time off. If a favor to the cartel makes that happen faster Clay doesn't mind.

Clay watches as Jax drops his bike back to ride just in front of the club van. The MC president could practically feel the tension rolling off the younger man. Jax had been on edge since they'd met Romeo Parada and Luis Torres in the junk yard and the entire drug muling plan had come into play. This new development with the beaten woman certainly wasn't making things better. Clay loves the younger man, he has no regrets about brining Jackson into his home when JT died but the boy drives him crazy sometimes.

He'd done his best to raise Jax into a good man but sometimes the brooding just really pisses him off. Clay hadn't survived the outlaw life for all these years by brooding, it wasn't possible. This is a life for simple men. Not stupid men, but simple ones. If you can't trust yourself and get right with living in the gray space between good and bad then you really can't cut it in the 1%.

Clay has made it as far as he has by being decisive, steady, and ruthless. It kills him that Jax can't seem to find those qualities in himself. There is no room for second guesses in their world and while Jax seems locked in on a goal right now Clay is well aware the last 2 years have been nothing but waffling back and forth for the boy. Maybe that was over and maybe it wasn't but Clay is sure of one thing, he isn't going to put money on Jax's current goal staying static. Until he is sure Jax has his head clear Clay is going to hold his cards close and keep watch.

Author's Note:

This is going to be a long story that will include most of season 4's main plot points plus a lot of new content. Many of the show's events take place but most take place off stage, so to speak, and not always in the same order. Some events and storylines are excluded to prevent drag and because they have no bearing on the direct plot. There are also several shifts in timing, mostly that it has been extended dramatically and some changes to character placement throughout the events. All of this was done in an effort to create a strong narrative.

If you have arrived here after following Damned With You, I owe you an apology. I started that piece and never finished it, I don't intend to now. I promise that will not be the case with this story which is almost fully drafted, over 100k words already written. I know how frustrating it can be to get into a fanfic and find it incomplete and I extend to you my most sincere apologies. I hope that you can forgive me and enjoy this story instead.

All reviews are welcome. Thank you for reading!