Family Imperfect: part 2
by Jaclyn Parker

There are the families that we are born into, and there are the families that we choose; our circle of friends.
~Unknown
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It had been a week and a half since Jack and a couple fellow officers had accompanied Nicole and Josh to their new temporary residence. Jack had kept his word and as soon as the FBI agents had been sent to take over, he had been home to stay by Friday afternoon. However, Jack had been temporarily re-instated into the FBI as a liaison between Oakdale and Chicago and was still head of command at the safe house. It was an interesting set up, with Jack deferring to Margo at Oakdale PD, but the FBI agents deferring to him at the safe house. So far, though, there had been no territorial outbursts. Apparently the lives of a scared young woman and her small child outweighed the pissing match that often went on between different law enforcement branches.

While Jack had stayed at the safe house and Carly had called to talk to him or say goodnight, she had also made a point to talk to Nicole, and even Josh, at least once a day. She knew how lonely it was being forced into a new place with no idea what was going to happen next.

The conversations between her and Nicole had started out polite and slightly awkward, but by the time Jack had come home that Friday, Carly was calling the safe house to speak to the other woman regularly. The Monday after Jack had returned to Milltown, Carly had spoken to her, late at night while Josh was asleep, and something in Nicole's voice the clued Carly in to how lonely she really was. So, with Jack and the FBI agents' permission, she made plans to visit on Wednesday morning, armed with very careful instructions on how and when to approach the hideaway.

As Carly pulled into the long dirt driveway of the safe house around eleven o'clock, she once again shook her head at how remote and tucked away it appeared, even though it was less than 7 miles from the Snyder farm. It was a two bedroom, one level ranch house that appeared completely worn down from the outside but was very up-to-date on the interior. Josh and Nicole shared one bedroom with twin beds, while the other one had been converted into an operations room that also housed two sets of bunk beds for the agents who stayed over.

Getting out of the car, Carly grabbed the soft canvas bag filled with items she had purchased for Nicole and Josh and headed to the front door. A large white male, dressed in all black with dark sunglasses appeared out of nowhere on Carly's right, making her jump in surprise. He said nothing, only waited patiently with his hand outstretched. Carly silently handed him the canvas bag and waited, just as patiently, as he rummaged through it. When he handed it back and she moved to go inside, he furtively slid in front of her, crossing his arms, and shook his head.

"Um, Jack Snyder said that I had clearance to come visit." Carly said, frowning up at the tall, menacing man. Again he said nothing and she frowned harder until she remembered the most important detail. "Oh, right. The safe word is 'grapefruit'."

At that, the man finally moved aside and nodded his head, before turning to stare out again into the wooded area around them. Pressing a finger to his ear, he finally spoke.

"Mrs. Snyder is here and she's clear to enter."

Carly refrained from rolling her eyes and with a small smile she nodded to him before opening the door.

"Secret service wannabee." She muttered under her breath as she shut the door again, before looking up to see Nicole coming out of the kitchen area, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

"Carly!" Nicole said, her eyes widening and a grin on her face. "I thought you were going to call before you came!"

"Jack thought it would be better to just come on over." Carly said placing the bag down on the floor and removing her down parka. "He's actually going to stop by too, in a little while."

"That's great!" Nicole said and reached out to hug her new friend. "Although, I have to confess, I am much happier to see you. I am in desperate need of conversation that does not revolve around sports, military tactics, or politics."

"Yeah, I guess Jack and the other agents aren't the best at girl talk, huh?" Carly said, hugging her back and laughing when Nicole just made a face in response.

"Aunt Carly!"

Carly turned around just in time to brace herself for the small body that hurled itself at her legs.

"Hi, Josh!" Carly said laughing and reached down to ruffle the boy's hair. "I'm glad to see you too."

It had only been a couple days of being around them when Josh had first called Carly by that name and had also taken to calling Jack, "Uncle Jack". Nicole had apologized profusely, saying that she hadn't encouraged him to do it at all, but both Carly and Jack had reassured her it was fine. Obviously, if it helped Josh feel safer during this ordeal then they weren't going to complain. Besides, he was an absolute sweetheart of a kid other than when he didn't want to nap or go to bed, which was typical of any six year old child. It had, on more than one occasion, however, given Carly pause to wonder if Josh had managed to retain even the smallest memory of his days as "Cabot".

"Where's Emmy?" Josh asked, peering up at Carly with a small frown on his freckled face.

Being an only child, Josh had thrived on the chaos of the Snyder household even in that one day he had been there. But he had taken an instant protective stance towards Emmy and the fondness was apparently reciprocated because the baby always gave him wide smiles whenever he was around. Josh had confessed to Carly one night over the phone that he often wished he had a little brother or sister. Not only to love, but also because he thought it would make his mommy not worry about him so much.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Sweetie. Emmy is having a play date with her cousins Eliza and Robby at her Aunt Emma's house today." Carly said, hating the fact that Josh's face fell as soon as the words left her mouth.

The play date was the truth but what Carly didn't mention was the fact that she and Jack had agreed that the added distraction of an infant at the safe house was just asking for trouble.

"Emma has all three babies?" Nicole said, incredulously.

"Yup," Carly replied, nodding her head as she looked at her. "She said that she had raised six children and she could damn…dang…well take care of three babies for one afternoon."

"From what you told me about her, I'm sure she can too." Nicole said, covering a laugh but her eyes twinkled like Carly's were.

"Oh yes, she is the top of the Snyder clan food chain. Emma likes to think she can do anything." Carly said laughingly but then sighed. "I have to admit though, the nice part about that is that she tends to pass that way of thinking down to the next generations."

As Nicole watched Carly shake her head in amused fondness, she wondered what it would be like to be accepted into a place like the Snyder household, especially with a mother figure like Emma Snyder.

Her own mother wasn't much to talk about, barely tolerating her or her siblings for more than five minutes at a time before telling them they were getting on her nerves. Her father hadn't ever been someone to count on because of his drinking and when he wasn't drinking he had been out gambling. Her older brother had followed right behind in their father's footsteps only he had added a huge temper to the mix, making Nicole very careful as to not step into his path on any given day.

The only person she thought she could rely on, her older sister, had flown the coop when Nicole was barely nine years old without even saying goodbye. The fighting and neglect had escalated ten-fold after that to the point where, when Nicole reached the legal age that the school wouldn't report her to the authorities for dropping out, she ran from that house without ever looking back. She knew that her parents wouldn't report her missing and more than likely, they hadn't given her a second thought since the day she left.

Nicole was shaken out of her melancholy thoughts by another downhearted sigh and realized it had come from her son. Sharing a look with Carly, Nicole reached out and drew him to her in a huge hug.

"Hey, Josh." Carly spoke up and the dejected little boy looked at her with sad brown eyes. "I might not have been able to bring Emmy, but I did bring you a present. Would you like to have it?"

Even though he was still upset at not being able to play with the baby, his eyes took on a curious gleam. But, proving as stubborn as any other child, he merely shrugged.

"Guess so." He said quietly.

"Joshua Alexander." Nicole admonished and Josh immediately looked contrite.

"Yes, please, Aunt Carly." Josh said and Carly winked at him, causing his little mouth to twitch in a smile.

She grabbed the canvas bag from the floor and moved to sit down on the comfortable plaid couch along the far wall in the living room. Wiggling a finger in Josh's direction, she also fought a smile when he immediately bounded out of his mother's arms and hurried to her side.

"Now, I was told by a little birdie that you left something very important behind when you left home. Something no little boy in a new place should be without, in my opinion." Carly said and Josh frowned.

"Underwear?" He asked and both Carly and Nicole couldn't help but laugh at his very unenthusiastic and confused answer.

"Nope." Carly said and pulled the item out of the bag.

"Whoa! A new DS!" Josh said, the excitement in his voice spilling over into his entire body making him wiggle about like a puppy.

"Oh, Carly." Nicole said, shaking her head. "You didn't have to do that."

Both women watched in amusement as Josh held his new precious commodity to his chest and glared stubbornly up at his mom as if daring her to try and take it back.

"It's okay, I didn't mind. It was actually the kids' idea. They thought that Josh was probably getting bored and watching too much television." Carly said, keeping her laughter in check. "I bought a couple of games to go with it but they're all educational, don't worry."

"Super Pokémon Mystery?" Nicole said, lifting one of the three new games that Carly had brought, and raising an eyebrow.

"Yes, it teaches him how to identify and classify different creatures based on habitat and nature while also nurturing a healthy competitive streak." Carly deadpanned before turning to Josh. "Right, Josh?"

The little boy wasn't exactly sure about everything Carly had just said, but the tone of her voice left no doubt as to what his response should be. Josh looked up at his mom and nodded, his little face completely serious.

"Uh huh, right." Josh echoed, making Nicole roll her eyes.

Seeing as how it was two against one, plus the fact that Carly's kids were right about Josh's television intake, Nicole just simply sighed and smiled, nodding her head.

"What do you say, Joshua?" Nicole prompted.

"Thank you, Aunt Carly!" Josh cried, throwing his arms around her neck.

"You're welcome, Sweetheart." Carly replied, but found the last syllables were said to a retreating back as Josh headed for the command room to show off his new toy.

"Josh loves the entire FBI crew. At first I thought he'd be scared of them but they are all surprisingly great with him." Nicole said, shrugging. "Especially Joe Carver, the guy out front."

"The giant wall of black?" Carly asked, dubiously and Nicole laughed.

"Would you believe that 'giant wall' played catch with Josh for an hour straight yesterday so that I could take a nap?"

"No, no I wouldn't." Carly replied shortly, making Nicole laugh again as she settled next to Carly on the couch.

There was a quiet moment before Nicole sighed and looked up at Carly.

"Any news about your sister?"

"No, nothing." Carly said, her voice catching in her throat as she said the words. "There was no more trace evidence on the letter and there has been no other contact since that first night. I just…if it weren't for Jack and the kids, I probably would have lost my mind already."

"I really hope she's okay, Carly." Nicole said, placing a hand on her friend's arm. "She loved Joshua so much that she gave him up and without that love, I wouldn't have my son. From what you and Jack told me about this, James Stenbeck person, that selfless decision is probably behind all of this."

"No," Carly said firmly shaking head. "James Stenbeck's insanity is the only thing behind this. You, Josh, my sister…you're all just unfortunate casualties in this man's unstable mental war."

"But that doesn't make the worry, or the fear, dissipate any faster, does it?" Nicole said, simply and after a moment Carly sighed and shook her head.

"No, it doesn't."

They sat in silence another minute or so, before Carly stiffened and shook her whole body, throwing off the stream of thoughts running through her head.

"By the way, I brought you some things too." Carly said, reaching out to the canvas bag again.

"Oh please tell me you have white chocolate in that bag!" Nicole said, following Carly's lead and changing the subject.

"No, but I do have these!" Carly said pulling out about four or five paperback romance novels. They all contained covers with pictures of bare-chested males in a some form of undress from outfits of various periods. They were complete with beautifully buxom women draped over them, their hair flowing in the wind, also dressed to match the time period of their counterpart, their clothes either ripped or hanging off their bodies.

"Oh, Carly." Nicole said, laughing hysterically as she accepted the books. "Thank you?"

"Oh you'll enjoy them, trust me." Carly said, laughing as well when Nicole's thank you came out as a question. "Nothing better than reading a trashy romance novel to make sure you don't have to think too hard. Um, just make sure Josh doesn't see them or you might be explaining the birds and the bees a little earlier than you planned."

"Do you think guys like this even actually exist?" Nicole asked lifting one book in particular.

It had a well muscled man dressed in long black pants with a black leather motorcycle jacket open to expose his bare chest. He was straddling a black Harley Davidson motorcycle with a long haired brunette straddling his thigh in a mini skirt and off the shoulder top, her cleavage barely contained. His blue gaze was directed out towards the highway in front of them, while she was looking at him like he was the last piece of pie at a Weight Watchers convention. The title read "The Midnight Angel", but whether it referred to the woman or the man was obviously left up to the readers to find out.

"I don't know about him, per say," Carly said, raising an eyebrow at the one Nicole held up. "But I found my dream guy and he even wears a police uniform sometimes…kinda like that one."

Carly pointed to another cover where the title said "The Officer's Willing Hostage".

"Um, I guess he kinda looks like Jack…but his hair is a little too long." Nicole said, her lips twitching in a smile.

"You should have seen him a year ago. It was a pretty close match." Carly said, shuddering playfully. "But the open shirt of the police uniform is very unprofessional. He would never agree to that."

"Oh, somehow, I bet you could talk Jack into it." Nicole said, teasingly. Before Carly could say anything, a voice spoke up, startling them both.

"Talk me into what?" Jack said, closing the door behind him.

The two women had been totally engrossed in their conversation that they hadn't even heard him come in. Now they just stared at him with wide eyes before turning to each other and bursting out into uncontrollable laughter. Jack watched them for a long minute waiting for an explanation, but every time one or the other looked like they could speak, they would look at each other then down at some book between them and lose it all over again.

Finally Jack just rolled his eyes, bent over to kiss his wife's head and muttered something about going to find Josh as he disappeared in the direction the back rooms.

About twenty minutes later, Josh and Jack reappeared, the little boy running over to jump into his mother's lap.

"Mommy, Uncle Jack and I are hungry." He said, pouting.

Carly looked up at Jack who just made his face go slack in innocence and pointed at Josh, shaking his head.

"He's hungry but I could use some coffee…and maybe a sandwich?"

"God, Jack!" Carly said, turning to Nicole after giving Jack a small glare. "I'm so sorry. I really did feed him before he left the house this morning."

Nicole laughed and shook her head. "It's fine. It's almost a quarter past noon anyway, which means lunch time in Joshua's world."

"Mommy, can we have chicken nuggets and French fries?" Josh asked, sliding off her lap again with all the energy of a cooped up six-year old. Sighing, Nicole rolled her eyes.

"You're going to turn into a chicken nugget one of these days." She said, reaching out to poke Josh in the sides, making him squeal in laughter and wiggle away to lean against Jack's legs. "Come on, Goober, and help your old mom spray the baking pan for your lunch."

Nicole stood and Josh happily took her hand, tugging her into the kitchen while she threw an apologetic look over her shoulder. Jack and Carly just smiled at her, both of them happy to see the little boy laughing again. Once they had disappeared into the kitchen, Jack wasted no time in coming over to pull Carly into his arms.

"What's with this lie about feeding me breakfast this morning?" Jack said, his arms around Carly's waist while she placed hers overtop his forearms.

"I never said I fed you breakfast." Carly said, lifting her chin up. "You reached over and ate some of my cereal this morning before I could stop you so technically I did feed you."

"You and your 'technically's are going to be the death of me." Jack said, rolling his eyes but grinning.

"Oh, no, G-man, there are plenty of ways to go that I can think of that are much more pleasant." Carly murmured huskily and looked at him with twinkling eyes. Jack didn't miss the cue and bent down to kiss her, hugging her close.

He had just released her and was about to say something when the sound of boots scuffling towards them made them turn their heads. Sure enough, one of the FBI agents that was on duty in the operations room was standing in the doorway to the living room area.

"Sir, I need to speak with you. It's urgent."

Jack frowned and nodded, "Okay, David, what's going on?"

David looked at Carly and back to Jack, his eyes uncertain. He had been trained to only give information to his superior, not his superior and his wife.

"It's fine, David." Jack said and full released Carly from his hold, but did not step away from her. Normally he wouldn't have let Carly hear anything having to do with a case, but this one involved her sister and more likely than not, she'd find a way to learn the information somehow.

"Yes, sir." David said, and walked over to them. "Agent Sutton found some unfamiliar footprints along the east side of the house. He followed the tracks he could find and it looks like someone's been doing some reconnaissance."

Jack frowned, scenarios instantly running through his head. "How fresh are the tracks?"

"It looks like they are from only about an hour ago, sir. I don't know how our cameras and sensors missed whoever it was." David said, shaking his head as if he was still trying to figure it out.

"Okay, did you do a perimeter sweep?" Jack asked and David nodded.

"Yes, sir. Agent Hampton just reported in that he discovered some sort of small one man camp about a mile from the safe house. The fire pit was still warm, but there was no other trace of whoever was there; not even footprints in the snow."

Jack thought hard for a moment before coming to a swift decision.

"Okay, this place has been compromised. We need to move them out, now. Call Chicago, tell them what happened and that we're bringing Nicole and Josh to the Oakdale Police Station until they can give us another local safe house. And tell them I mean today!"

"Yes, sir!" David said and without another glance in their direction, hurried away to follow his orders.

"Carly, I have to go tell Nicole what's going on, okay? I'm going to send Josh out here to you so I need you keep him entertained for a few minutes while I talk to her. Then I'm going to have one of the agents escort you three, in your car, to the police station." Jack said, his mind, by now, compartmentalizing everything that was going on.

"But, Jack, what about you?" Carly asked, already fearing the answer.

"I need to go check out that campsite and see if we can find any evidence of where this guy has gone. Or even if it's who we think it is."

"Jack…" Carly started to say but Jack just placed his hands on her shoulders and looked deep into her eyes.

"Carly, this is my job. I'll have four other FBI agents backing me up and we'll be in radio contact with the station the whole time."

Carly wanted to continue to protest but she knew that she couldn't; she couldn't distract Jack from doing his job by throwing her concerns at him now. As a cop's wife she knew that he needed to focus on the situation at hand, not her and her fear. There would be plenty of time for that later.

"Okay, go tell Nicole, I'll take care of Josh." Carly said and with a look of relief, Jack pressed his forehead to her for a moment, then kissed it and headed into the kitchen.

Ignoring the rock in the pit of her stomach, Carly turned to clean up the books that were still scattered on the couch.

"Aunt Carly?" Josh said and Carly turned to see him standing behind her, holding his new DS. "Uncle Jack said that you wanted me to show you how to get to level 2 on my Mini Ninjas game."

"Yes, that's right. I want to try and beat J.J. next time he teases me." Carly said, taking the statement in stride and jumping right in. Five minutes later, Josh was completely absorbed in showing Carly the right kick-punch-block combo that would help her defeat the second level boss. Despite the distraction it was supposed to provide for Josh, Carly found herself listening to the young child and watching the game just as intently.

They were so focused that when the explosion came, it rocked them to the core, the heat and force of the blast pushing them backwards on the couch. The game was instantly forgotten as Josh extracted himself from the protective hold that Carly had enforced on him instinctively and both heads swung around in fear to seek out the last known place their loved ones had been.

Two pairs of eyes, one of a wife and one of a child, widened in horror when the smoke shifted revealed that the back half of the house had disappeared in a chaotic crash of wood and smoke.