Chapter 33: Shadows of the Beginning

About two years later, give or take-

11:45 a.m.

City of Falls Church, Virginia

Counting her steps, Michelle knew 20 more would bring her to the crest of the hill. Walking back from Brown's Hardware became more of a challenge as the weeks passed. She stopped at step number 15 to rub the small of her back and take a sip of water. Stay hydrated the doctor admonished her at each visit. She popped the sports bottle back into her tote bag. It would be easier to buy one of those camel water backpacks cyclists wore for long trips. She wasn't quite there yet. Eventually, she would stop caring and fashion would take a back seat to practicality. She'd wear muumuus and Birkenstocks if it meant she'd be comfortable. She just wasn't quite there yet.

Making a right at Columbia Street, she paced herself. Not too fast or the Braxton Hicks would start up again. Too slow and she felt like a waddling whale. The tempo of a leisurely stroll was about right. Now it was two blocks to go. Then it was there, her house. Our house, she reminded herself. Looking down and rubbing her 30 week pregnant belly, she was high on life. To think, it all started because she almost died.

Michelle didn't remember much from the hospital. It was buried somewhere inside her mind, wrapped in a shroud of a cloudy grey haze. There were some parts that she could recall. There was a nurse who held her hand when she first came out of the coma. She had bleached blonde hair and cracked her gum. Michelle thought it was a lovely sound. Michelle's sister tried to explain what had happened to Michelle, but Michelle didn't really want to know. Suffice to say she knew it was bad. That's all that was necessary. Because whatever had happened, the end result was good. It changed something inside of Michelle. She wasn't the same person who had collapsed in the Starbucks. Maybe she left part of herself there, the part that was holding her back.

Sarah told her that he had played a large part in her rescue; she wouldn't be standing today if it wasn't for him. Michelle was grateful for what Tom did. She'd always be grateful for what he did. But what he didn't do hurt just as much. When she came to, she blinked taking in the smiling faces of the nurse and Sarah. Did she expect that he would be there by her bedside, holding her hand? No, that wasn't his style, that's not what he could do. It was what she wanted him to do though. She didn't care what she should expect; it was what she wanted.

Then she thought about it. Lying there in the hospital as the doctors ran their tests, she had a lot of time to think. She spent much of that time on Tom and came to the realization that she had spent a lot of time thinking about Tom over the years to the point where she never gave anything else a chance. Whether it was a person or an interest, she had set up her life as a shrine to the memory of what used to be. It wasn't a way to live. She needed to step out from under his shadow. Michelle never realized how much she was holding back, waiting for an impossible something. The waiting had become a full-blown occupation for her. It was easier to wait then it was to move on.

After her discharge, it was time to start moving on. It was a gradual process. Michelle took some time off of work to recover at her sister's house. It was so full of life and happiness. Her nieces and nephews never gave her a moment's peace. Michelle liked it. The sound of their laughter was invigorating. Michelle wanted to stay forever, but her own life was beckoning. She tentatively stepped back into it. She bought some ear plugs and a noise machine. The Ambien prescription also helped. One night, for the heck of it, she crashed the SEC boys' party. Sure she probably could have been their mom, and her head was on fire the next day, but it was fun. She had fun. She could tolerate her living situation for now while she looked for a new place. It wasn't ideal, but it wasn't the end of the world.

Work was another matter. Sitting in the conference room prepping the Secretary for his latest speech, she knew she didn't have it in her anymore. Looking into the future, she didn't want to be doing this day in and day out. It wasn't fair to her employers. They deserved someone willing to give his all, who would love the minutia of the job and drafting endless memos analyzing legal positions for the Secretary. She didn't want to draft memos; she wanted to be the one out there advocating the positions, not reacting to them. It was time. Stealing a glance over at the Deputy Solicitor as he scribbled furious notes on his pad of paper, she had an inkling of just who was the right person for her job.

After she returned to her office, Michelle immediately started to draft her resignation letter. She could probably pick up some consulting work until she got her act together. It would be scary not having a job, but there were worse things. She'd survive. Starring out the window trying to decide if signing the letter "Regards" was too casual and flippant, she jumped when her telephone rang. It was an executive headhunter calling to gage her interest in the position of Director of Regulatory Affairs for the Hart Corporation, a family-held conglomerate based out of Boston. Evidentially, the company was starting up a small DC office to handle regulatory and lobbying work. It was a when in Rome sort of thing. Even though she was far from family, the headhunter assured her that the Harts wanted the best, whether related by blood or not.

Michelle decided on "Most Sincerely." Hitting print, she practically ran at full speed down the hallway to give the Secretary her notice. He took it in stride, bemoaning the fact that no one would ever possess her style savvy. At her going away party, he presented her with a scarf made out of his favorite tie. There were a few tears shed between the two. Leaving the restaurant, Michelle felt as if she had zipped off a dead shell, casting it aside.

The Monday dreads disappeared. At her new job, Michelle felt useful and challenged. After two intense weeks spent proving herself, the Director of Communications and head of the small office, Edwin Hart, convinced her to leave her desk at a reasonable hour and join the staff for a Thursday happy hour. Michelle glanced at the stack of paper on her desk and back to Edwin, "I really shouldn't."

Edwin winked, practically begging her. "Come on, have some fun with me. It's not like you're going to marry me."

Yet, that is exactly what she did. The happy hour extended to a late night bite and then Edwin insisted on one last drink before hailing her a taxi cab home. They didn't call it a night until two a.m. the next day. Michelle forgot the last time she had laughed so hard. It was like being surrounded by the hubbub of her sister's family again. Edwin was a riot—witty and conversational—his musical knowledge was unsurpassed by none. He kissed her as she stood before the cab, intertwining his fingers with hers. She didn't want to part.

They married shortly thereafter in a small ceremony at the Botanical Gardens. Michelle couldn't lie. During the courtship, she had thought of him, Tom. She told Edwin everything. Edwin didn't judge her, and it was freeing. The memories of Tom lost their hold. She didn't feel tied to the past. Tom made his choice and she made hers. A part of her would always love Tom; it would be wrong to say she didn't. He gave her her life back. But that part of her was only a part; it didn't control her. It didn't make her. She was free, free to love and to be loved. It was a wonderful feeling, the being loved, truly loved.

Michelle sold the row house in Glover Park, accepting the first offer. It was a complete low ball, and she didn't care. She was almost in the mood to give it away. After the closing, she skipped down M Street, Edwin chuckling behind her. Dodging into a random home boutique, she fell for an oil painting of a Tuscan hillside. It was completely unlike her, she was more of a modernist girl. Edwin bought it, promising it would have a prominent spot in their new home. It did. She and Edwin had bought an old two-story Victorian in Falls Church, not too far away from her sister's home in Fairfax. The picture went up right in the entrance. The house needed some work, but Edwin and Michelle figured they had time and were up to the challenge. That was until Michelle got unexpectedly pregnant. She naturally assumed that it would take some time, if at all. Now time was slowly running out to at least get one nursery ready. Michelle jiggled the bag containing the caulk that she went and picked up for Edwin. Who could have known that the man knew his way around a saw and hammer? Rubbing her belly as she felt the nudges inside, she figured the twins wouldn't mind sharing a room for a while.

11:55 p.m.

Boston, Massachusetts

The evening had been a success, filled with laughter, accomplishment, pride, and hope. Lady Jaye was still riding a euphoric high as she reached down to undo the black sandal straps digging into her ankles. After a night spent mostly on her feet, it felt like all circulation had been cut. Slipping out of the shoes, she relished in the feeling of flexing her toes against the cold bricks of the front entryway to her Back Bay townhouse. Leaning against the brownstone's doorway, she tried to stifle a laugh as Flint came up short in his efforts to unlock the deadbolt. He was like an F-14 having to abort a carrier landing as his hand constantly missed inserting the key into the lock. He stood back, blinking his eyes a few times. He wasn't exactly drunk, but his hand eye coordination was the worse for wear.

"It went well, right?"

"Hmm?" Flint took a time out from his unlocking efforts. "Oh, yeah. It was really nice."

The "it" in question was the Annual Hart Education Foundation Benefit. The HEF, established in 1936 by Jaye's great-grandfather to enable needy Boston children to remain in school at a time when many were being pulled out, had branched out over the years and provided college scholarships and internship opportunities with the Hart Corporation. An annual gala was held to honor the recipients and give the donors more bang for their buck. The Hart family found that others were more willing to embrace the philanthropic spirit when a swanky party was thrown into the mix. The Harts didn't disappoint. Each year, Boston's high society looked forward to the gala ball held in the Boston Public Library's McKim Building and dancing under the coffered ceiling of Bates Hall.

"It was nice." Lady Jaye herself was not drunk per se—as one of the sponsors, she had an image to maintain—but she did allow herself to relax and enjoy the evening, including a few glasses of wine. "And it was nice seeing everyone again." A repeat recipient this year of a HEF scholarship was Geoffrey Lynette, Duncan's grandson. Geoff, now in his second year at MIT, was an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science course major. To celebrate Geoff's achievement and all that made it possible, Lady Jaye had invited the former team, Mainframe, Shipwreck, J.T., and Agent Miller. Happily, no one could refuse Jaye's offer of transportation and hotel, and in the case of J.T., an additional flight from Houston for his wife's mom to babysit while the parents enjoyed the rare freedom of a weekend away from the kids.

Flint finally succeeded in opening the lock. With a bow and a sweep of his arm, "After you my dear," Flint followed her inside, closing the door.

He tossed the keys on the side table, missing entirely. Lady Jaye stumbled over the mail that had been left in the middle of the hallway floor. She reached down and began to sort through the letters and packages.

"Hey, let's look at these later." Flint tried to grab them away.

She boxed him out. "Just let me see what it is." She squealed. "Look at this!"

Flint squinted, trying to make out the cursive script. It kept switching shapes on him.

Lady Jaye bonked him on the head with the card, which turned out to be an invitation to a baby shower. "Pay up Faireborn, you so owe me."

"For what this time?"

"I was right, Michelle and Edwin are expecting. He was so slippery last time I talked to him. I told you there was a baby involved. That's five dollars you owe me."

"I don't recall there being an actual bet. It was just a supposition on your part."

"Nice try. A bet is a bet. Pay up big guy."

Flint grabbed her, bringing her close, and brushing her lips with his. "I can think of a good method of payment. Accepted in more places than the American Express."

"Mr. Faireborn!"She hit him with the card one last time for good measure and then returned her attention back to the mail pile. He groaned. At this point in the night, he was more frustrated than anything. All night long her dress teased him. Yes, he was convinced the dress had it out for him. A black formal number, it consisted of a long skirt, which hid her legs from view, not a good feature in his opinion, and black lace covering her shoulders and arms. As they danced, he fantasized about pushing the scratchy lace aside and allowing his hands to roam over her shoulders. Now that it was over and she was so close, he had a chance to make his fantasy a reality. Problem was, she got distracted.

Sensing his frustration, "I'm almost done." She leafed through the rest of the letters, tossing some directly into a trashcan and others into a leather basket on the table. "What's this?" Lady Jaye held up a brown paper wrapped package with no return address. She started to tear into it.

Flint grabbed it out of her hands, tossing the package aside. He nuzzled his face against her neck, tracing his fingers along her collarbone. "Let's look at that later." She closed her eyes, thoughts of the package slipping away. Flint worked his way up toward her chin. "I admit defeat. You were right about Edwin and Michelle." His lips met hers. "And you were right about Nora and Agent Miller." He went in for the kiss.

"Wait! What did you say?" She broke away from him, eyes narrowing. "Dashiell R. Faireborn spill it now. You've been holding out on me." She tapped her foot. Once she started that Flint knew he had no choice but to comply. Not even his smile, which she was clearly ignoring, was going to get him any closer to his goal. Best to be out with it.

"Well, I have it on good authority that Miller might be the next head of the Scranton Field Office."

"Miller's moving? When were you going to tell me?"

"When I knew you wouldn't rub it in my face. Who knew that one of your many talents was matchmaker." It was true; Flint had no idea the interest Jaye would take in matching up others. Edwin and Michelle were a fluke. Jaye's only involvement was soliciting Michelle for the job, although she eventually would take full credit for the marriage, as if she could see into the future and know that Edwin would fall for Michelle, despite the fact that Edwin never fell for anyone as wrapped up in work as he was. Flint reluctantly gave Jaye credit for that one. But Nora and Miller? Flint had to give full, direct credit to her; she sensed something he certainly hadn't. After Tomax saved Jaye, her first obsession was getting Duncan's cross to his daughter. Jaye wasn't in much condition to do so and Miller volunteered. That task was compounded by the fact that the search team hadn't been able to find Duncan's body. There was that news to break as well. Flint doubted that the shy FBI agent was the right person, but maybe coming from the area, the news was better from him then some Washington-based official.

With his arm still in a sling, Miller paid a visit to Nora, Duncan's cross watching over him. That visit led to another visit, and then another. Although they were from the same town, Nora's and Miller's paths had never really crossed before. Their paths were starting to cross a lot. Miller began taking weekend trips up to Carbondale staying with his Aunt Margie. Soon, Miller wasn't staying with Margie. Margie, curious, invited Nora over for dinner. Margie bonded with the strong, sure woman and offered her a position assisting in the management of the bed and breakfast. Margie wanted to travel more, but operating the B&B usually held her back. Now she had someone she trusted. Nora wasn't family, well at least not yet. Margie had her suspicions.

Jaye had her suspicions as well. Confident, she bet Flint that Miller would leave Washington behind for Nora. Flint wasn't buying it. To Flint, Miller was too much of an establishment man and Flint couldn't picture Miller anywhere else other than as Patterson's second. When Miller mentioned to Flint tonight that he agreed to accept the acting head position for the Scranton Resident Agency and was applying for the permanent, Flint wondered how long he could keep it from Jaye.

He shrugged, oh well, in vino veritas and all that. "You win. Can we get back to the matter at hand?" He reached out for her, pulling her in close.

"What did you say?"

"I," he kissed her neck again, "said," he worked his way to her collarbone, "you," then placed a few soft kisses on her right shoulder, "were," and worked his way lower, "right."

She gave into his passion, melting at his touch. "You'll go a whole day without the hat?"

He paused. "It's a beret, not a hat. And yes, I'll go a whole day."

"Mmmm, perfect."

He swept her up into his arms, carrying her up the stairs.

Flint woke up with a start; the faint pink light of the predawn streaming through the still open curtains. His brain was slightly mushy and he longed for a drink of water. Rolling over, he reached out for Jaye, his hand landing in empty sheets. He popped up. Where was she? Maybe she had the same thought.

Wrestling against the sheets, his feet found the floor, shivering as the cold seeped through them and up his legs. Somewhere in the room his discarded clothes were hidden. He didn't feel like looking for them now and made a beeline for the drawer in her dresser where he kept an extra stash. Although it felt natural to him, he recalled with some humor the hesitance with which she had made the offer. She was cute in her awkwardness, as if he would run away in fear at her suggestion. His reaction was the opposite. It was getting old carting his things back and forth and running to the corner shop every time he forgot his toothbrush. In addition to the drawer, he'd integrated himself into her bathroom cabinet as well. He didn't wait for the offer. She seemed to appreciate that.

Flint stuck his head in the bathroom, no sign of Jaye. He wandered down the stairs to grab a bottle of water. Passing by the study, he stopped. The faint light glowing from under the closed wooden door was odd this time of night. He knocked. No answer. He knocked again, leaning his ear against the door. He heard a faint rustle. "Jaye, are you in there?" He knocked harder.

"Please go away." Her voice sounded distant and cracked on the last word.

If there was one thing Flint hated, it was being told to mind his own business or go away. He slid the door open and stepped inside the room. It was a comfortable space filled with mahogany bookshelves and a comfortable leather couch. On one wall two plush chairs flanked a writing desk, on which books were stacked dangerously high. Sometimes Flint and Jaye would sit in those chairs, reading while a storm brewed outside. He preferred those evenings to the ones where they had to represent and make an appearance. In the middle of the room, Jaye sat cross-legged on the carpet, wrapped up in a terry cloth robe. The brown packaging was scattered around her. She looked up at him, her eyes red and her face streaked with tears. "Babe, what's going on?" Flint crossed the threshold, sinking down next to her.

She started crying again, burying her face into his shoulder. He held her, absently brushing her hair back off of her face. She was starting to grow it out again. He liked that. "Oh Dash. He's gone. We lost him."

"Lost who hon?"

"Tomax," she managed to sputter out.

"Oh." After he bristled one too many times at her mention of the enemy, she finally opened up and told him everything that happened at Extensive Enterprises. It wasn't nearly as bad as he had imagined, but he understood her reluctance to share. Flint wasn't known for his rational mind when it came to matters involving her. He could see her reluctance to talk about how close Tomax had gotten. Her actions, however, made a lot more sense knowing she felt a connection with Tomax to save Michelle. Jaye confided in even more to Flint. She felt that it was more than a connection to save Michelle, it went beyond that. It was an overwhelming connection to Tomax as a person that she couldn't explain. She felt when Tomax was troubled and her dreams were filled with images she didn't know. They had to come from him. It was as if she was leading two lives, hers and Tomax's. Flint encouraged her to talk to Psyche-Out. She had almost died, and certainly would have if it wasn't for Tomax. On top of that, the CDC still hadn't solved the mystery of Mindbender's virus. Who knew what lingering effects the virus could be having on her? She was stubborn; she had no desire to share anything with the team's resident shrink. She firmly believed it was something more, something that had nothing to do with the virus. Flint indulged her even though he was regretting it now.

"Look." Jaye held up a book.

Flint took it, turning it over in his hands. It was the first edition third volume of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. "Wow. Pretty impressive. Who sent this?"

"He did." She wiped away the tears from her eyes and sniffled a few times, rubbing a sleeve across her nose. "This was in it." She handed him a piece of paper folded like a bookmark. Written across it were the words, "There is always a shadow." Flint unfolded the paper and it was a copy of the baby shower invitation that Jaye had just received. Flint raised his shoulders, puzzled.

"When I first met Tomax, I found the Dickens' Great Expectations first edition volumes in his office. In one of them there was a bookmark with 'I saw no shadow of another parting from you' written on it. The bookmark was from Michelle; I assume the books were as well. She didn't quote from the edition she gave him. The last line in the first edition was 'I saw the shadow of no parting from her.' I thought it was odd that she didn't quote from the edition she gave him, but it actually made sense. The first edition was a rewrite from the original, which had a rather melancholy ending. Dickens revised it and came up with the next iteration of the line, which seemed to definitely imply that Pip and Estella got married and lived happily ever after. Dickens changed it one last time to the ending we're familiar with; it's more ambiguous, less certain as to their future. We have to make our own conclusion. That was the line she had to use. She wanted Tomax to make his own conclusion, to have his own shadow. But now . . ." Jaye lost her control and began to cry again. "He won't."

Flint gently rocked her, stroking her hair, offering reassurances he knew wouldn't help. Whatever she had swimming around in her head had to be released and worked through in its own time.

"He's gone Dash. He's gone." She was spent and huddled against Flint for comfort and strength. "I can't explain it but I don't feel a part of him anymore. He's gone. Whatever happened, it's done. I thought there was a chance . . . a chance he might break free. That he could have his own life. Not now. He won't be free. He's going back to Xamot. He's going back to the shadows." She broke down once more. All Flint could do was hold her through the night, and he would.

Across the street, a figure leaned against a burnt out lamppost, gazing at the brownstone and the soft light reaching out into the dark night from between the study's blind slats. The light radiated around the house, enveloping it in a preternatural glow. The figure, a man, closed his eyes reaching out with his mind. His thoughts met no resistance. He was alone and she was free. That was the way it should be. He opened his eyes again. A black sedan sped around the corner, pulling to a stop in front of him. The back door opened. The man grasped the door, leaning his head inside. He was pleased. "About time you came my brother."

The car's passenger in the back seat patted the space next to him. "Traffic in the tunnel's a mess this time of day."

The man nodded his head once, stepping into the car. He glanced over at the other man, his exact image except for a jagged scar cutting across his cheek, before leaning his head back against the seat rest, closing his eyes once more.

"Did you brother?"

The man opened one eye. "Yes. I called him." He pulled his jacket collar up, covering as much of his face as he could. The men weren't together yet. For the time being, he still had his thoughts. He wanted his last thought alone to be of her and her happiness. Reaching into his suit coat pocket, he rubbed his thumb against the worn and faded copy of her wedding announcement. She was absolutely radiant. That was what he wanted to remember. The car pulled away from the curb and into the dawn, leaving behind the shadows of the night.

A/N: Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read, I really appreciate it! And to those who favorited or followed, even more thanks. There are a lot of stories out there and it's an honor that you enjoyed mine. Thanks MamaBirdCat and Winterhalt for your inspiring reviews and bugsymutt for the insights. To Allie-Espero que eu estou dizendo isso direito obrigado por seus comentários. And thanks to Mossley for letting me borrow your junk room. I hope to use it again soon.