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Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Shadows Fall: Chapter 18 (adult)


"Hey," he shouted, "Are you awake?  Blair?"

He tossed his keys onto the desk and called after her.  "Blair?"

She appeared at the top of the stairs.  She was dressed in her lounge pants and a tank with a silk over jacket.  "Hi."

"Hi."

"Did you just get home?"

"Yeah.  An interesting day," he said, as she descended the stairs to him, and put her arms around her neck and pulled his mouth to hers.

"Scotch.  I taste it."

"And I taste you."  He kissed her deeper.  "Wait until you hear about this day."  He decided not to tell her about Fedora Man outside the building in the morning.  What if McBain is right, and I am imagining things?  I can't scare her, not now.  

"I can't wait to hear about it.  Our first assignment together!"

"Maybe,"  he said, leading her by the hand to the couch.  She sat and he put the logs into the fireplace and lit it.  The warmth was almost immediate.  He sat beside her, arm around her shoulders.  He began to relay the events at The Break Bar to her, and entertain her with his description of the events.

"It sounds like blackmail."

"It is blackmail, but the question is, what for and who?"

"Yeah.  So, what's our plan?"

"Our plan?"
   
"Yes, our plan.  Don't leave me out, Mr. Manning.  You definitely said I was going to be working with you.  Remember?"

"Yeah, I said it, but this one...come on Blair.  What are you going to go undercover as?"

"I don't know.  What are you going to go undercover as?"

"I think it's obvious don't you?  The back room, the hookers, looks like I've got to pretend to be a client or something."  He was lost in thought.

Blair dropped her jaw, and folded her arms over her chest.  "Oh no you're not!"

"What, Blair?"

"You're not going to be a john and engage in whatever mess it is you'd be engaging in."

"Blair, come on, give me more credit.  I've been essentially with one woman for most of my adult life, and she's the woman that is my heart.  You can trust in that."

"Oh, and who is she?"  She feigned stupidity.

He nuzzled her ear.  "Come on, now, none of this jealousy stuff."

"Jealous?  I'm not jealous, it's just, what kind of husband goes off to pretend to be a client of a hooker to get information about blackmail of a guy he met at a bar?"

"Yours."

She slapped his shoulder.  "Oh!  I don't want you to do this!  I mean, these are young girls, what if one of them has her way with you?"

He looked directly into her eyes.  "No one can have their way with me but you."  He kissed her, bringing his hand to her cheek.

"All right.  I guess I trust you.  So, what is my assignment?"

"None.  There's no male hookers there, Greek magicians, or paunchy CIA artists."

"Todd Manning!"

He smiled.  "Yes, Mrs. Manning?"

"Come on!  What's my assignment?"

"Your assignment..."

"Yes?"

"Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to keep our bed warm, so that when I get home, I can come and act out all the things the ladies offered."

She folded her arms again, over her chest.  "Oh, you....this is not fair.  On our honeymoon, you said..."

"On our honeymoon, you weren't feeling really tired, going through a lot with Jack or being around men who want to pay for sex."

"Ah, so you're the one who is jealous, then."

"Maybe.  I just don't want my pregnant wife dealing with this kind of story."

She didn't respond.  Instead, she huffed up the stairs.  "Well, I had better get going at my 'assignment,' shouldn't I?"

"Blair?  Wait..."

She was out of sight.  He was slightly bothered by her anger at him, but not enough to falter.  With Fedora Man, her exhaustion and worry, the revelations about Jack's abuse, and everything she had been through in recent times, he was certain he was doing the right thing.  There would be other stories for them, and long hours at The Sun, and long nights with the new baby.  He realized that before long, he would be holding his new little one, a little parcel of the love they have for each other, wrapped in their skin and looking at him through her eyes.  He hugged himself across the chest and leaned into the couch, feet up.  He'd let her calm down before heading upstairs.

It was in the quiet, solitary hours that he let his mind wander, and at times, he did not like where it ended up.  He reviewed McBain's conversation with him, going back to the same question;  "Manning, if I may?  Could you have imagined it?"  Could I be that messed up?  This evening, he looked into the fireplace and just could not shake the feeling of dread.  In his mind, he spied The Slice and Dice, somewhere in a prison cell, using a shank he made from silverware, peeled an apple with a knife, or maybe even peeled his cellmate.  He was waiting to find an opening, a slight error on the part of the guards, a mistake that would lead to his getting free.  He was waiting to come back and finish the job he promised to complete on Blair.  Why didn't I kill every last one of them?

Todd approached the fire and stared into the flames.  They were orange, sepia, brassy, and beautiful, but he also knew the pain they could inflict.   He moved closer, to get warm, he was so cold and shivered.  What about The Grim Reaper himself?  All those times with the lighter, and Peter's voice, and then...he stopped himself.

She came down the staircase, first with an angry pace and her arms swinging, but when she looked at his face, she slowed. 

"Todd?  What is it?"  He couldn't speak.  He didn't even look at her.  One arm was hugging himself, and one hand was extended forward.  "Oh, My God," she ran to him.  He looked down, again without speaking.  One of his hands was slightly red.  He was still shaking, as if it were freezing.  He looked up from his hand to her face, and fell into her arms, gripping her in his panic.  "Shhh," she whispered, "it's all right."

He sucked in air and tried to regulate his own breathing.  Instead, he heard the raspy sounds of someone sobbing, and realized it was him.  "Blair."  He pulled her tighter, if there were such a possibility.

She pulled back, but he fought her.  "I'm not leaving you or going anywhere, I just want to see you.  Look in my eyes."

He finally focused on her face.  "Babe," he said, not sure what to put after it.  He found the words.  One question:  "What did I do?"

"I came down and I saw you standing in front of the fire and your hand was....your hand was over the flames.  What were you thinking of?  Do you want to tell me?"  She fumbled for his hand and searched it.  He had not held it over long enough to burn it.

He was afraid to.  He was afraid that telling her would make it more real.  "I can't.  I don't know."  He pulled her back to him again.

She lead him to the couch and they sat.  She held him close against her and stroked his hair gently.  He stared off in to the fire.  This was the first time in a long while she was afraid for him.
  
"What is it, Todd?"

"Something...I don't know, something bad."

"Remember what Ray said.  It's not going to go away overnight.  Go slow.   You can tell me, if you want to." He thought to himself how beautiful she was, how close he had come to losing her, how close it had come to her death in front of him, or her electrocution, or...her rape.  He began to shake again.  "I was thinking...about The Grim Reaper."

She gently moved his head to her lap, and he looked up at her.  His expression, so boyish and innocent, snapped her heart into pieces during these times.  He needed her.  She asked, "You mean Carlo?  Isn't that who you mean?"

"No.  Carlo is not frightening to me.  The Grim Reaper, for some reason, he still is.  Something about him, when he pretending to be Peter.  Something that he....that he did to me, or had someone do.  That's more like it for him, I guess.  Watch someone else brutalize me.  I still can't remember all of it...but...."

"It was bad, wasn't it?  It was very bad,"  she combed his hair with her fingers.

He closed his eyes.  "I was getting close to recalling it, but I don't think I want to.  I was on the brink of seeing it in my mind, and then, I don't know, I just saw you, and you ran toward me.  Blair, I didn't even feel the heat of the fire.  It was like when Peter used to abuse me, I'd just fade away.  Like that."  He wouldn't remember.  He refused. 

"It was safer that way, that's all."  In her mind, she played his words over.  Had someone, in sick hopes of torturing him with reliving his past, raped him during his captivity?  Was that the horrible thing?  She didn't ask him, at least not then.  Instead, she stroked his hair again, off his forehead, and she started to sing.  When she was finished, he was not shaking any longer, calmed and breathing regularly.

She said, "You know, I'm not mad, I could never stay mad, and you know that."

"I knew you weren't really mad.  Well, maybe a little."

"Are you all right now?"  Her heart broke for him.  His head, on her lap, was so close to her belly, she was certain he could feel the movement she was feeling. 

Within moments, he moved in reaction to it. "I felt her!"  Joy was all over his face.  He sat up and put his hand over Blair's small roundness.  "I felt it again.  She's got a lot of energy."

She hugged him close.  He closed his arms over her back and rubbed his hands in circles on her.   She looked at him, "Do you want to go upstairs now?"

He moved her hair with his index finger.  "Yes, I do.  But I have a special request?"

"All right, anything you want."

"Will you hold me, close, and will you...sing to me?  I need you, Blair."

She looked closely at him.  His green-gray eyes were pained, and had bags under them.  His face was still contorted with grief.  He seemed so tired to her, suddenly.  "I said 'whatever you want.'  I meant it."

They walked upstairs, and she crawled into bed, waiting for him to change.  He slipped into bed next to her, putting his arms across her and lying his head on her breasts.  He traced her belly and belly button with his fingers.  "You and this baby, and Jack, Sam, Hope and Starr are everything to me.  Everything."  He closed his eyes.  She knew what he needed from her, and began to circle her fingers through his hair with her free hand.  My man, my God, I still can't accept what they did to you.  She kept her thoughts private.  She sang, "Tell me why, the stars do shine.  Tell me why, the ivy twines.  Tell me why the sky's so blue.  And I will tell you, just why I love you..."

After a while, they both were quiet and breathing together.  She said, "So, how do you feel?"

"Better,"  he said, "much better now."

She dragged her fingers across his chest and abdomen, seeing his body respond.  He was so beautiful and so ready for her.  She knew that for her, it never took long to get him going.

"Good.  I know what would make it even better," she said, moving him off her gently, and onto his back.  She just wanted to make him feel good.  She worked across his shoulders, kissing every inch, and then onto his chest, where she flicked his nipples with her tongue.  Her hands were busy running up and down his body, caressing his arms, sides, and thighs.  She moved her mouth down his chest to his rib cage, where she kissed delicately along his abs and ribs.  His hands found her hair as she moved lower still, licking his skin along his waist and belly button.  Moving down, she dazzled him by taking him into her mouth, as fully as she could, and beginning to move over him like he knew she adored, she used her tongue and suction to bring him to a solid hardness that suddenly ached him.  He closed his eyes and let himself be taken by it.  He wanted release. 

He buried his hands in her hair more and wildly, whispering, "Babe, it's good.  So good."

She hummed, "Mm - hmm," and worked carefully to lick up the sides of him, stopping to pull on and off him rhythmically.  She felt his hands kneading her hair and brought herself down on him, lower and harder.  After the years together, she knew all of his signals and desires, as he knew hers.  She knew what he needed, and her only goal was to hear his beautiful, ragged voice let her know he'd forgotten his pain, at least for a little while.  

She got a thrill inside her thinking back to him calling her name when he finished, as he'd done so many times.  The thrill turned to a physical shake through her, and she felt him direct her to all fours.  Her mouth never left him, and her hands were giving him every pleasurable touch she could think of.  He pushed himself inside her mouth more, meanwhile reaching between her legs and finding her center-most spot.  He began fingering her, stroking and massaging her into a state of deep want.  Her cries were muffled by him inside her mouth, but her body responded to him like nothing else.  Never had there been a man who had brought these feelings to her, while barely having to touch her to make it end in pulses of pleasure.  She felt him surge to his ending, and tasted him, loving all of him.  His whispers, moans and sounds of surrender brought her closer to abandon, as he used his long fingers to drain ecstasy from her.  She cried out in passion.  Shortly, their shadows fell into stillness, and the dark took them into sleep.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Shadows Fall: Chapter 17

With Blair soundly sleeping at home, safe, he ventured to the police station, and then The Break Bar to do a little researching.  The bar would open at 3:00 p.m. for Happy Hour, and he would make his way there after doing the most important thing of the day.  McBain.  Walking in to the main hub of the office area, he knocked on the detective's door.  "McBain, it's me.  Can I talk to you?"

John encouraged Todd to come in, and said, "Manning.  What's up?"

"Just following up on that gift.  The lighter?  Any prints?"

"None. Just yours and Blair's.  There was one other print, a smudge.  It was not Carlo Hesser's.  No match."

Todd sat in the chair across from the Lieutenant.  "This is not good, John.  I took Sam downstairs in the penthouse lobby today to put him on the bus.  I saw someone watching him.  When the bus drove by, he was gone."  Todd winced.  "He was dressed the same way as the man I saw at the wedding."

John looked at the man across from him, and took in his appearance and demeanor.  He seemed calm enough, but when he talked of the watcher, his hands trembled slightly and his coloring changed.  "Manning, if I may?"

"Yeah, sure."

"There was no one at the wedding.  I checked the entire perimeter, Bo did too.  No one was there.  I know you've been through a lot.  Could you have imagined it?"

Todd stood up.  "I see where this is going.  You're assuming I am making this up. That I have some 'problem.'  It's possible, sure.  I could have imagined it at the wedding.  But today, I really saw him.  I did...am I imagining the lighter, John?  Someone sent it to us.  That person is real.  So is the man I saw today.  And as much as it doesn't seem so, so was the man at the wedding."

"I didn't say I didn't believe you.  I am just posing a question that might explain some of this.  You and Blair are pretty well-known public figures.  People follow your lives.  Anyone could have sent that gift."

"I have a feeling you're going to wait until something worse happens, and I can't go with that.  I'm asking you to do something.  Please."

"I'll be outside your building tomorrow, myself.  I'll watch you bring Sam down and I'll look for the man."

Todd sighed a bit.  "Thank you.  That I will appreciate.  See you later."  He turned to go.

John called after him, "How's Blair doing?"

"She's all right, tired all the time, but all right.  Thanks for asking.  No hard feelings on the conversation we just had."

"No hard feelings."

Todd left the LPD, determined.  "No hard feelings, but, Manning, you want something done, you have to do it yourself."
 
At The Break Bar, there were two or three folks already parked, belly up, and drinking.  He ordered a beer, that he would nurse for a while, and kept his eyes and ears open.  He did not want to draw attention to himself, so he refrained from a trip to the back, the curtained hallway and secret doors for the moment.  When he thought back to the young woman with the Managing Editor of the Banner, he felt sick in his stomach.  She was about Starr's age, or a little older.  He sipped his beer, being sure to make it last.  The bartender eyed him curiously, when he realized he hadn't removed his coat, and did, hanging it on the hook on the wall next to the bar area.  He went back to his bar stool and sat, drinking occasionally.  

His eyes darted around the room, first falling on a shabbily dressed older woman with long, gray stringy hair, sucking down a tall draft.  On the other end of the bar, he saw a man, in a business suit, looking into his highball glass as if it was his long lost woman.  Todd turned back to his own bottle, took another sip and became lost in thought.  That lighter.  Can't let anyone hurt Blair or the baby, or the kids.  If this is Carlo, somehow, he won't live long enough to deny it.

The man in the business suit called the bartender over.  "Give me another double, will ya, Hank?"

Todd became distracted and watched the man.  He was definitely under some kind of stress.  His suit was rumpled, his hair was out of place, and he appeared to be unshaven.  He heard him ask Hank, "Can I go to the back, Hank?"

"You need to sit down and stay put, Matt.  You gotta get it together."  Hank walked away.

Todd moved over next to the man.  "Hey.  Might as well not drink alone.  I'm Sam."  He extended his hand.  

The man took it.  "Matt.  Matt Hardy."

"Good to know you,"  he tipped his beer back.

"I don't know about that."  He sunk into the bar stool like a pile of mush.  Todd was rather put off by him; giving up on life so much and so easily.

"I heard you talking.  What's in the back?  Any bookie action, if you know what I mean?"

"Nah,"  the inebriated guy winked and then frowned, "but it's bad news, brother, bad news."

"Why?  I'm a gambler myself.  Never been bad news for me.  Okay, what happened, if you want to talk about it?"

"I'm in trouble.  I might lose everything I have."

"How?"

"Someone has some dirt on me.  It's pretty bad.  They want to tell my wife and she'll leave me, and take the kids.  They are threatening to tell my boss, and ruin my chances for a promotion."

"What do they want you to do?"

"Shit, I shouldn't even be talking about this.  Not to someone I don't know."

"Sorry, I guess I thought I might be able to help, you know, just lend an ear."

"Yeah, well, you're a stranger.  How do I know you're not one of them?"

"I'm not one of anyone.  I'm just a guy, a father like you."

Matt stopped, and drank the rest of his drink.  "Well, I'm leaving, Sam.  Sorry I snapped.  I've got to go home while I still have one."

Todd shook his hand.  "See you, Matt.  Good luck."

The man went out of The Break Bar, and the door closed behind him with a whoosh of wind.  A group of five came in after that, and took a table in the corner.  A few moments later, several people came in and sat themselves around the bar.  Todd looked toward the back.  He wanted to get a peek at the goings on there, but wasn't sure how to do so without being caught.

He threw money on the bar and realized he needed a better plan.  "Thanks," he said to Hank, who was watching him go.  He would have to come back with a scheme that would get him into the back rooms to see what was going on, first hand.  Why had Matt been blackmailed, who was it, and what did they want?
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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Shadows Fall: Chapter 16 (adult)


The next morning, Jack had a predictably difficult time getting up for school.  "Let's go, Jack.  Time for school."  Todd pulled the covers off Jack.

"I can't.  My head."

"Should have thought of that last night.  You are going."
  
"Are you serious?"  Jack got angry.

"Yeah, let's go."

"Okay Mr. Toughguy, let me have 15 more minutes."

"No, Wise Ass, you can't.  Now get up, the bus will be here in a few minutes.  If you don't get up, I'll help you do it."  Todd left the boy and went back to his own room.  Blair was still asleep.  She'd been worried and stressed out with guilt, and feeling overtired.  He would let her rest and deal with getting the boys to school.  Or, at least he would try.  Sam was easier.  He jumped right up and hugged Todd around the legs and then ran to take his shower.  Todd went back to Jack's room.  Starting a cold shower, he went to the bed and got his son up, dragging him to his feet.  He walked him into the bathroom, opened the shower, and shoved.  

Jack yelled out loudly, to the point that Blair came running in.  "What is it?"

"Nothing,  Jack's just getting ready for school.  I've got this."  He put his arm around her shoulders and walked her back to her bed.  "Lie down, babe.  Rest some more.  I've got this, I told you."

"Are you sure?"

"Yep.  These are my boys.  I lost years of doing this.  It's actually kind of fun."

She closed her eyes but not until saying, "I love you, Todd."

He kissed her cheek and smoothed her hair.  Then, he headed back to Jack in the bathroom.  He was coming out of the shower, which he had changed over to hot.  He was applying deodorant and getting clothes out.  "So, you know we need to talk."

Jack ignored him.

"I have a lot to say to you, so I changed my mind about the bus.  We'll talk in the stretch."  He headed down to make sure Sam was dressed, fed and ready for his yellow bus' arrival.

"Bye Mom."  He heard Sam call from the bottom of the stairs.  He looked at Todd, who was making his way down.  Sam had a lunchbox that was not all the way closed, and had some papers sticking out of the sides.  His jacket was buttoned wrong and one shoe was untied.  

Todd scooped him up.  "Where's your glasses?"

"Right here."  He went into his own pocket and took them out.  He put them on.  "Better?"

"Did you eat something?"

"Yep.  I had toast and bacon.  I know how to make the microwave kind of bacon myself."

"Bacon in the microwave?"

"Yeah, Dad.  You've kind of been gone a while."

"Well, I'm sure glad I am back.  And I'm glad you're here with me," Todd said, and the little boy hugged his neck.  Jack was making his way down the stairs in time to watch the scene.

"Me too.  You're my best friend.  Can you bring me down, now?  I gotta go!"  Sam said.

"Sure."  They boarded the elevator, and went to the lobby.  The bus was just pulling up.

"The bus is here!  I have a test today on my spelling words.  I love you!" and he ran out to the bus.  Todd watched him step on board before closing leaving the lobby of the building.  Before the bus drove off, his eye caught a man, in a fedora, face unreadable, across the street, ahead of the bus, staring at it.  His heart leaped in his chest, and he broke out in a cold sweat, frozen for a moment.  Before he knew it, the man had turned his stare toward him.  Wild with protective urges and fear, he started to the door to run out and confront him.  As the bus drove past the man, he vanished.  He's gone.  Get a grip and go to see McBain later to follow up on that gift.

He got back into the elevator and entered the penthouse to see Jack at the bottom of the stairs, sitting.  "Hey," he said to his son, throwing his keys on the desk.

"Hey.  I feel...I feel sort of stupid."

Todd was glad but didn't let on.  "Why?"

"I thought I was going to be some big man at that bar.  I'm not.  I guess I'm not so tough.  I'm just a kid, aren't I?"

Todd sat next to him.  "Yeah, you are.  But you're my kid, though."

Jack looked at his own hands.  "I am being a pain in the ass.  I can tell I am, but when I am, I can't stop it, and when I'm not being one, I don't care if I am for some reason."

"You're not a...you're not.  You need some help, that's all.  This is a hard time for you.  Think about it.  You grew up with Zeus as your Dad.  Then, you lost him sort of when he and your Mom broke up.  Then, you lost him again when you found out he never was your father.  And then, you got me, with all my strange problems and situations.  I can relate to this, believe me.  You've been through a lot lately.  But you need some help with it."

"I thought you were against therapy.  I am. I don't believe in that kind of stuff.  Like when you had that problem and you went inside yourself?  He came and he did practically nothing.  That's why I said, I thought you would be against it."

"I used to be.  Not now.  Not ever again.  It didn't seem like much, but my work with Ray is what makes me able to love your mother, and love you all, and protect you without having more episodes and scaring the people I care about.  Maybe even having a breakdown.  But I can tell you something that goes back before I was captured, and I think it will help you see."

"What?"

"When I was a little younger than you, well, you know what happened to me.  After that, I was one angry sonofabitch.  And I was out to prove my worth to Peter Manning and everyone else.  I grew stronger, I had a good football career.  I was strong and physically fit.  I was popular, pretty wealthy.  At the same time, I was crumbling inside from everything that happened.  My anger took over my life.  I made some terrible mistakes.  One was raping Marty Saybrooke."

"I don't understand that.  You had a lot of girls after you, if you were popular and a football player."

"It wasn't about getting girls.  It was all about anger.  I wanted to punish her for hurting me the only way I knew.  The only way - because it had also devastated me.  I wanted her to pay.  But, if I had been in therapy as a kid, after losing my mother, and being mistreated, maybe those things would never have happened.  If I had two parents who loved me and knew I needed help."  

In the midst of this, Blair came to the top of the stairs and silently sat, listening.  

Todd went on, "Even if I was able to fully participate in therapy with Ray, the first time, so much could have been avoided.  So, yeah, I was against it once, but now, I'm positive it is what has saved me.  Aside from one other thing."

Jack thought about it and looked to his father's face.  "Mom?"

"Yes.  When I met your mother, I was infatuated with some other girl.  She was trying to save me with religion, and that was almost impossible to do.  We were too different. But your mom and I, we were so much the same.  We understood each other, and we still do, even today.  She wanted to be friends, at first, but from the first moment I saw her at Rodi's, I loved her."

Blair rested her chin on her arm, elbow propped on her knee, and her eyes misted over, as she recalled Rodi's and the park bench.  She wiped a tear and attended to listening, as Todd continued, "I always loved her.  Always."

To Todd's relief, Jack looked puzzled, and his mind was going just where Todd wanted it to go.  "If you always loved her, why were you always apart?"   Good Manning.  Perfect.

"You really want to know?"

"Yeah."  Jack was a captive audience, and Todd knew he was getting somewhere.  

"It was two things.  My fear and my anger.  I was scared of loving her, and scared that she could not possibly love me.  And my anger took over, when I was jealous, or hurt by something she did, even if she didn't mean it.  It made me do things that always resulted in our ending up apart.  Even if we almost got back to each other, something would happen.  And usually, it was caused by me or my inability to accept love from her."

Jack thought.  "Why didn't you keep going to therapy, then?"

"People told me to.  Your Aunt Viki.  Tea.  Sam, who you don't remember.  But your Mom, she never did.  For one reason.  She knew me so deeply, she knew that I'd only be able to go when I accepted it.  And it hurt her so much along the way, and it hurt me.  It even hurt you, in a roundabout way."

"How?"

"I gave you away.  Remember?"

Jack had almost forgotten.  "I forgave you.  I almost forgot about it."

"I know.  But I did it out of fear and hatred.  I hated myself.  I never forgave myself for Marty, for anything I did to your Mom, for anything wrong I did.  I needed help to do that."

"So why didn't you go get it?"

He looked at his son, and touched his arm.  "Because I was sure I could handle it myself.  Just like you." 

Jack looked down and swallowed.  A bit of time passed, and the three of them sat, quiet, pensive.

Todd said, "Well, it's time for school, I'm going to have Williams take you."

"Dad?"

"Yeah, Jack?"

"Do you think Ray will like me?"

"Sure.  I think he will.  Great hair.  You're a likeable guy, when you're not calling people names, mouthing off and acting up."

Jack smiled.  Blair was crying at the top of the stairs, watching.  Todd got up to call down to his driver and Jack got his things together.  Todd watched as his son got into the elevator and departed.  He turned and saw her at the top of the stairs, sitting, in her white nightie and robe.  "Hi."

"Todd, I..."

"I love my kids, Blair, it's always been that way."

"And I love you."  She ran down the steps to him and threw her arms around him.  "Thank you, for loving us."

He held her in his arms, and she felt the baby move.  "Oh my God!  She moved Todd!"  She grabbed his hand quickly and put it on her stomach.

"Isn't it a little early for that?"

"I'm four months.  It's almost Christmas, it's about right.  There!  Feel her?"

"I think I actually did feel Moonbeam moving."

"What is it with you and that name?"  She smiled.  "I can't believe how lucky we are to get to raise this baby together.  A miracle."

"You are,"  he kissed her.

"I'll make us breakfast," she said, walking off to the kitchen in a swirl of white.

Todd went to the phone and dialed.  "I'd like to speak to the Managing Editor of The Banner, please.  I'll wait.  Todd Manning, The Sun."

The voice on the other end said, "Ben Crawford, Managing Editor."

"Mr. Crawford, Todd Manning, publisher of The Sun.  I'd like to meet with you to discuss something, a story I've come up with.  Interested?"

"Why would you be meeting with me about it?"

"Because you happen to be in it."

"Really?  Hmm.  You have peaked my curiosity in an odd way, Mr. Manning.  What is this about?"

"Why don't you meet me at The Break Bar today around, say, 3:00?  We can talk about it then.  Familiar surroundings, you know."

The voice changed, "I'm not interested in meeting you.  This must be some kind of joke.  I'm not entertained, good day."  He hung up.  More than ever, Todd was certain he was on to something.

Blair came out with the tray, and plopped herself down, eating a bowl of fruit and yogurt.  He walked over and sat next to her, taking his coffee and sipping it.  She asked, "What was that about?"

"Something is going on.  I can't put my finger on it yet, but when I do, you'll know about it.  Has to do with The Break Bar, which is where I found Jack."

She didn't respond.  "You're going to get through to him.  I can tell.  He loves you, Todd."

"I know.  He'll be okay.  He has us."

"Big difference from what you or I had, huh?"

"That's my goal."

"It's working.  Look at Sam, and how he loves you.  He hasn't asked for Zeus in weeks.  Now, what about The Break Bar?"

"I saw something that I think will lead to a juicy story."

"Now that's more like it!  I'm waiting for my first assignment!"

He smiled at her, touching her chin, "It will be a good one, if it's what I think.  I just need another day or so to check it out.  So, later today, I'm headed over there to see what I can dig up."

"Can I go?"

"I think it's better I go alone, so I can talk to some people.  Next time."

"All right, I'm kind of tired anyway, still."

"Blair, are you okay?"

"I think so, just so tired.  It's been a tough few days."

"Let's just relax the rest of the day until I have to hit the bar.  What do you say?"

"It's quiet, nice and peaceful."

"Yep."

"Want to take a bath?"

"Perfect.  Let's go.  Nice and warm."  They climbed the stairs together, arm in arm, and retired to the master bedroom, he ran the bath and she got their favorite bath oil ready.  When she got into the bathroom, he was already in the tub.  "Come on in," he put out his hand.  She stepped out of her nightgown and he noticed her stomach getting rounder.  It brought a surge of bliss to him.  She dripped a little of the oil into the tub.  "Is it safe?"  he asked her.

"Yes.  It actually helps build up the fluid for the baby and relax us.  Me and her."

"And me,"  he put his head back against the tub.  She had intentionally remade the bathroom to include a large, deep tub with jets along the sides.  It was tall and large enough to accommodate both of them comfortably.  She looked at him enjoying the warm water.  His arms propped along the rim, his head leaned back, his god-like form submerged within the froth from the jets, his feet on either side of her.  His knees were poking out a bit from the water.  She would often forget just how tall he was until a moment like this.  She felt something stir in her; he made her feel so much like a woman whenever he was near her.  She took one of her feet and made a path up his thigh.  He lifted his head from the tub and looked at her.

Their eyes connected and he put out both hands, she took them and he lifted her above the waterline until she was positioned over him.  As she slid herself onto him, they both let out sighs of passion.  He put his hands over her breasts, massaging them, then sliding his hands to her hips, using them to gently move her up and down.  She smiled down at him, her hair, now passing her shoulders, falling in curved crests around her face.  Their intensity increased and he moved his hand, using his thumb to pleasure her until she cried out.  Hearing her moans and sighs, and his name on her lips, he was triggered to his end, stroking her stomach, sitting up higher for a moment to kiss her.  Then, he sank back against the tub, and brought her onto his chest, letting the warm water jets run over both of them.

They emptied the tub a while later, and he carried her to the bed and dressed her in her nightie.  He loved the feeling of caring for her, as if she were a porcelain doll, that he wanted to cherish and keep.  She fell asleep almost immediately, and after securing the fact that she was, he dressed and got ready for his plan to hit the LPD and The Break Bar. 

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Monday, March 26, 2012

The Shadows Fall: Chapter 15

Todd brought Jack into the penthouse and sat him in the kitchen, moving the wastebasket in front of him, as he got a cold cloth for his forehead and put on some coffee.

"How did you happen to get this drunk in 15 minutes?"

"I started before I left." 

"Jack, what's the deal with the drinking?  You're 15 years old.  It's not the greatest idea."

"You drink, sometimes.  I thought it helped."

A signal.  He needed something.  He needed help before he even left the house.  "It doesn't.  And, your mom and I were right here.  It amazes me that you're more willing to talk to a glass of whiskey than either of us."  He put the cloth on Jack's head.  "Now, what did you need help with?"

"I don't know, things are just, they're all messed up.  I grew up thinking I was one person and just found out I'm not."

"That happened to me, too."

"When?"

"When I learned I was Victor Lord's son, not Peter Manning's."

"That was a relief, right?"

Be careful, Manning.  "I am not sure it was a relief, but more like it explained a lot of things."

"About why he hurt you."

"Yep.  It didn't excuse it, but it gave me understanding."

"Dad?"

"Yes."

"The room is going around.  Is that normal?"  Jack heaved into the trashcan.  Blair walked in.  

"What's going on, you two?  Jack, what's wrong?"  She rushed over, patting his back.

"It's okay, Blair, Jack and I are just talking,"  he said.  She looked at her husband's face and read it.  

"I'm going back upstairs before all this sick makes me sick too."  She left them alone, after kissing her man on the lips lightly, and squeezing his hand.

"Jack, you all right?" Todd asked.

"You know, I actually feel better after puking.  How does that work?"

"It just does.  Now, let's get you upstairs and to bed.  Tomorrow is another day, we'll be talking more about this.  Right now, none of it will stick."  He helped his son off the chair, steadying him, and leading him to the staircase.

"Dad, I still can't believe how tough you are."

Todd smiled, despite everything.  "I'm not so tough."

"You are, you just, bam!  Headbutt.  Badass."

"Maybe, but it's not pretty how I got that way.  Now, let's go.  Walk."  It took them several minutes to get up the stairs, and Todd led Jack to his bedroom, where Jack promptly fell onto the bed and was out.  Todd turned him on his side in case of more heaving, and left a trash can by the bed, putting the cool towel on his son's forehead.  He moved Jack's hair back from his face, seeing Blair's sleep expression, and he made a halfhearted single laugh.

He made his way to their room, and she was wide awake, waiting for him.  "Hi."

"Hi, Blair." 

"Is he okay?"

"He will be.  I'll finish with him tomorrow.  He needs help, and as much as we care for him, he needs Ray.  Ray will know what to do."

She snuggled next to him, as he climbed into bed, shirtless and with his pajama bottoms.  She traced a heart on his chest.  "Can you see that?"

"See what?"

"Look at what I am tracing."

"I don't know, do it again," he whispered.  She indulged him, looking up at his face with her green eyes very wide and accepting.  For a moment, he flashed on her next to him in a different time, in the same room, in the same position, on the bed with baby Starr, after Ireland, looking at him almost the same way.  "A heart."

"Yep.  The big one you have right there."

"Don't tell anyone.  Our secret."  He leaned down to kiss her.

"You really love Ray, don't you."

"I don't know, is love the word?  I respect him, I appreciate everything he has done.  I know he'll take care of my son."

"And you consider him your friend, whether or not you want to say so."

"Maybe."  He gave her the side glance.

"You're a wonderful, loving father."

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer.  She put one leg over him to get herself closer.  She rested her head on his chest, so that she could hear his heart beating.  He didn't know what to say to her then about what happened, but he was certain he'd skip the headbutt.  
     
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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Shadows Fall: Chapter 14

The next night Todd was ready for Jack.  He feigned exhaustion and he and Blair turned in early.  When he heard the noise of Jack trying to leave the house, he was prepared and followed his son.

He was surprised to see Jack walk a long distance across town, and enter The Break Bar at around eleven thirty in the evening.  Todd had his driver circle the area, allowing Jack to get inside, before he parked or was noticed.  Before disembarking the car, he just sat.  Manning, be cool about this.  He's just a kid, confused, been through a lot.  Kind of like you.  He spent a few more minutes and then thought of her.  Blair.  She would wake, see him gone, see Jack gone and panic.  He called her.  "Hey."

"Hi, Todd, what time is it?"

"It's 11:45 or so.  I didn't want you to wake up and be scared when you didn't see me."

"Thanks for thinking of me, but what are you doing?"

"I wasn't going to tell you until I was sure it was okay, but let's say I'm tailing Jack."

She went silent.  "What's he doing, Todd?"

"He's all right.  When I get home, I will fill you in on the rest, and I'll have him with me.  It will be okay, and I am asking you to trust me, Blair, with our son.  Please."

He could hear her sigh.  Her voice became weepy.  "I do trust you."

"All right, Babe.  I'll call you in a few minutes, when he's in the car."  And he hung up.

Blair was not going to be able to sleep, so she ventured down to the lower level and got herself a hot tea and some cookies.  She sat waiting for her husband's call.

***

Todd walked in to The Break Bar and skimmed the perimeter.  He didn't see Jack at first, but noticed a scuffle breaking out in the back of the bar, near the pool tables.  He made his way over there, hearing commotion and various loud voices.  There was no mistaking the breakout of a brawl.

As he approached, he realized that there were two very large men standing in front of his son.  Jack looked very small right then, but was shooting his mouth off nonetheless, and the last thing Todd heard before all Hell broke loose was Jack, anger in his voice, and a twinge of something else, saying, "Yeah?  When's your baby due?" and making a circular movement near his own stomach to match that of the man.  Looking closer, he realized Jack had a drink. 

He stepped up in front of the men, between them and Jack.  "Is there some kind of problem?"

The two men looked at each other.  Neither appeared very clean, one had tattoos on his neck, the other had a huge beer belly that Jack was just poking fun at.  "Who are you, his boyfriend?"

Todd laughed and then straightened his face.  "No.  His father.  This kid is my son and he's underage."

The man with the tattoos walked closer to Todd.  "So, you'd better do a better job with your kid, then.  He's got a wise mouth that needs to be shut.  And we were just about to shut it for him."

Todd couldn't see Jack, but he knew he was still behind him, since he had kept the corner of one eye on the door as he stood there.  "I don't see how you can justify doing that.  The kid is 15."

Pot Belly spoke.  "He has the mouth of a grown man, he should be able to fight his own battles, Daddy."

Todd's own anger was rising in his gut, but he pushed it down.  He was not 15 and he had to show his son that violence was not going to be the answer.  He spoke, "Hey, listen, no harm done, he's just a kid.  Let's just let me get him home and sobered up, and no one has to get hurt."

The two men looked at each other again, clearly itching for a fight.  "Well he's definitely a kid," said Tattoo, "but you ain't."  The man stepped forward menacingly.

So much for the non-violent approach.  Todd simply shrugged and headbutted Tattoo, sending him flying against the pool table.  Pot Belly came toward him, but seeing the look in his eye, he stopped, hesitating.  Todd said, "Don't.  Really.  I've had one serious long bad day and it started 40 some years ago."  The man, sizing up his opponent as quick-witted and exceeding fit, thumbed his nose.  Then, seeing Tattoo on the ground, unconscious, flanked by a female biker and a waitress, he said, "You're too scrawny anyway," and turned away.

Todd turned to Jack.  Jack, swaying a bit, shot glass in hand, said, "Wow, Dad, you're tough."

"Jack, let's go."  He brought Jack to the front of the bar, and then, thinking it over, realized that the place had let his fifteen year old son in and allowed him to drink.  Putting Jack into the car, who promptly passed out in the passenger seat, he asked the driver to watch Jack and headed back in.

"I'd like to see the manager, please?"

A waitress chewing gum like her life depended on it said, "He's in the back.  Try the drapes."

Todd saw Tattoo and Pot Belly going back to their game.  He crossed over to the bathrooms and saw a curtain door, leading to what he assumed was the back room.  Once there, he saw another door cracked slightly open, and being an investigative reporter at heart, he wanted to see what it was.  Pushing the door slightly more open, he saw a scene he would definitely file away for later.  The Managing Editor of The Banner was on a sofa, partially clothed, with a woman half his age.  She was sitting over him, in scant clothing, gyrating, and his head was flung back.  Lining the walls of the room were various other doors, leading to other places, and one of them opened, revealing a man in a suit fastening his tie, and walking toward the door at which Todd was standing.  He quickly ducked against the wall behind the door, and the man exited, not even realizing Todd was there.

At that moment, someone he immediately took as the manager of The Break Bar came out from another door to his left, and said, "What are you doing here?"

"The waitress told me to come back here to find you."

This did not make the manager very happy.  "What do you need?  I'm busy with paperwork."

Todd explained how Jack, only 15, had gotten into the bar and was served alcohol.  The manager didn't seem to care much.  "Keep your kid home, buster."

"Wait a second, this is a crime, you can be cited for it, it's illegal.  Come on, he's just a kid.  Don't you have kids?"

"No, I don't.  What's it to you?"

Todd sighed, "Look, don't let my kid in here again.  In fact, don't let any kids in here again, or it might make a great story for the front page."  Not waiting for a response, he turned to leave, keeping in the file cabinet of his mind the scene in the back room.     

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Shadows Fall: Chapter 13

"McBain, I have to give you something."  Todd walked into the lieutenant's office without asking.  

"Manning, I'm busy, and I have a closed-door policy.  You're supposed to knock."

"Sorry.  It's important."  He tossed the lighter onto John's desk.  

"A lighter.  Looks suspiciously like the one that your father had."

"Yeah, suspiciously.  It was a wedding gift.  Look, my wife is pregnant.  My son is going through some things, and so am I.  But I can tell you, something's wrong.  I need your help.  Can you trace it?  Can you find out who sent it?"

"I'll try.  You're spooked."

"Shouldn't I be?  You try being someone's object to whittle away at and fry for 8 years."

John swallowed.  No matter what people said about Todd Manning, he had to have admiration for someone who could come through all of that without completely dissolving.  "I'll try.  I'll do my best.  Was there a card?"

"The card is in the box.  I'm worried, McBain.  I'm really worried for my family."

He left, hoping he had made the right decision of going to McBain without telling Blair.  He knew she was dealing with so much, with Jack's issues, her morning sickness, exhaustion, guilt.  He'd tell her when he got home and make her understand.

Later, Williams dropped him at the door to the building, and he rode the elevator up to the penthouse, fumbling for his keys.  When he opened the door, he saw her, sitting on the staircase, holding a tiny baby blanket in her hands.  She was crying.

He placed the keys on the table and walked to her, taking her into his arms without even asking.  He held her, rocking and shushing her tenderly.  "It's all my fault,"  he heard her say through tears.  "I should have known.  He was my baby, Todd.  He was my baby boy."  Her body was wracked with sobs, and her hands gripped the baby blanket tightly.  "I brought that man into this family.  I let him be near my children.  How could I not have known..that he...he wasn't...?"

Nothing he was saying or doing was stopping her cries.  He gently wrenched the blanket from her hands, and folded it, lying it on the arm of the chair nearest the staircase.  Then, he reached down and lifted her in his arms, like a child, and carried her up the stairs.

"I'm a bad mother," she wept.

He placed her on the bed, "No, no, babe.  You're not.  You didn't know.  Shhh.  This isn't good for you."

She looked up, her face twisted in despair.  "Did I let you down, Todd?  I left you there to rot.  I left you there to be at their mercy.  What is wrong with me?"  She screamed, her chest heaving.  

He could only look at her, palm her cheek and say, "Shh.  No, it's all right.  Shh."

He gently lifted her arms and removed her top.  He did the same with her slacks, and replaced the clothes with her favorite soft nightie.  He brushed her hair, lovingly, and lotioned her hands.  Nothing was calming her.

Blair looked at her husband, and while watching him care for her, she flashed on another time, when he washed her hands from powder burns and protected her when she had lost her mind and shot Max.  She started to cry harder, thinking of how, regardless of his mistakes and his self-hate, he had always taken care of her.

She searched his eyes for an answer, and instead, got his pity.  She recognized the slight sadness in his eyes, and his helplessness to quell her.  Without warning, she grabbed his face and kissed him with everything she had, stopping only to let a despairing whimper escape.

He swung her legs over the bed, and putting her hands at her sides, and began to pleasure her every way he could think of.  He just wanted her to feel good and to forget; he was certain that is what she needed.  He could remember well times she asked him to do just that.  Now, it was part of his life's plan to be her protector, her answer and her lover, all in one.

Later, in the darkness of midnight, he felt a tugging on his sleeve.  "Dad?  Dad?"

He opened one eye.  It was Sam, standing aside their bed.  Blair was partially draped over him, deeply asleep.  "Hey buddy, what's up?"

"Dad!" Sam urgently whispered, "Jack ran away."

Blair stirred, but did not wake, turning and facing the other way.  Todd slipped out of bed, and took Sam's little hand, leading him back to his bedroom.

In Sam's room, his little bed was messed, his favorite stuffed turtle was on the bed near his pillow, and his little prayer book was by the bed.  "Come on, buddy, let's go to sleep."

"But Dad, Jack ran away!  I saw him."

"It's all right Sam, I'll find him.  How do you know he ran away?"

"I just do.  What else would he be doing leaving the house in the middle of the night?"

Todd rolled his eyes, "Yeah what else would your teenage brother be doing?"  He tucked the little boy in.  "All right, I've got this covered.  Don't wake your mom or talk to her about this right now, okay?  I'll take care of it."

"That's what my old father said."

Todd stopped short.  Sam was Zeus' son.  He'd forgotten about that.  Sam was five years old.  He sat on the bed, careful not to alarm his boy.  "What did he say, Sam?" 

"What you said, the thing about not talking to Mom about something."

Todd swallowed.  "What was the something?"

Sam thought.  "One time, he got real mad at me.  It was when I was your friend, and he didn't like it.  He told me never to talk about you anymore, and he said not to see you again."

"Okay.  And what did you say?"

"I said 'I'll see Spiderman whenever I want.'"

Todd stifled a grin.  "And then what?"

Sam squirmed in his bed a little, and then said, "He shook me."

"Here, do it to me.  Show me."  Sam put his little hands on either side of Todd's biceps.  Then, Todd went limp and let him shake him.  The little boy shook as hard as he could. "Wow, you're pretty strong."

"He was, too.  He did it really hard, and it hurt, so I yelled.  That's when he told me not to tell Mom.  Then, Starr came and butt in."

"All right.  I am glad you told me about that.  Sam, did he ever hurt you any other times?"

"Only when I was bad.  Well, goodnight, Dad."

"Sam?  Can I ask you something else?"

He took his turtle into his arms and squeezed.  "Yeah?"

"You know you can trust me.  No one is going to hurt you, ever.  Not while I am around." 

The little boy shook his head.  "Yeah, I know.  Mom said you're her hero.  Mine, too."

"Sam, when you were bad, what did he do, the other guy?"  Todd felt a lump in his throat again. 

"Eh, I don't know.  He yelled and stuff.  He scared me when he yelled.  He shook me sometimes, one time he grabbed my arm.  That's prob'ly it."

Todd sighed.  "Are you sure, bud?"

"Yeah.  I mostly always listened to him.  I didn't like him to yell at me.  Mom says I am a good boy."

Todd's heart shattered for a moment and he choked up.  "You are."  He put his hand and his son's head, "You are a very good boy.  I love you a real lot.  You're the best partner Spiderman ever had."

"Okay.  Goodnight, Dad."

"Goodnight, Sam."

"I love you."

"I love you, too, Little Guy."

Todd sat in the dark for a while, thanking the sky above for saving this little boy from too much harm.  Relief washed over him, and then he tended to the next issue at hand: Jack.  Making his way to the living room, he sat up working, waiting for Jack to get home.  When he heard the elevator arrive on their floor, he went and hid in the kitchen, and watched as Jack stumbled in the dark and found the staircase.  He waited a few minutes before returning to Blair and their bedroom.  Tomorrow, he would put his plan into place.  Thanks to Sam, he was going to beat his oldest son at his own game, and figure a way to help him.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Shadows Fall: Chapter 12

"Blair, we have to face this. We have to," he said, holding the little package in his hand. After bringing all of the gifts home and opening them, he reminded her of the gift that almost sent him back into his safe haven.
  
A few days had past since their return from the honeymoon, and the bad vibes from the gift were still looming. Blair said, "Maybe it doesn't mean anything." 

"Babe, I know you're scared, but we have to do something before it is too late. We have to bring it to John McBain. Right away."

"All right. But Todd, I am scared for you. For us. And don't say 'too late.'" He took her in his arms.

"We will be all right. I just have to let John in on this. In case it gets worse, he will know ahead of time about it."

"I am sorry I am being such a baby about it."

"You're not. It's okay. Let me handle it."

"I want to go with you."

"You don't need to."

"Todd, don't do this. Don't shut me out. I need to be with you."

He hugged her again. "All right, you can come with me. I just don't want you worried, it's not good for you or Moonbeam."

Before she had a chance to rebut his reference to that name, Sam entered the room. "Is the baby okay?"

They both responded quickly to the little boy. "The baby's fine."

"Why aren't you at school?” Todd realized, looking at his watch.

"Oh my God, we must have missed the bus or something," Blair said, scooping up his things and grabbing his hand.

"No, that's not it. I'm skipping school." Todd and Blair both stopped short.

Blair put her hand on her hip. "What are you saying, young man?"

"I said I am skipping school. I want to be like Jack."

Todd said, "Jack? He's at school, if you want to be like him, you have to go to school."

"He's not at school."

Blair looked at Todd and back to Sam. "He's not at school?"

"Nope. I heard him on his phone this morning. He said, 'Let's ditch.' I asked Grandma what that means and she said it could be a big hole. Then, I asked Starr, and she said it could mean to not do something. So, I knew he wasn't going into a big hole, and figured out he was skipping school. Can I stay home and be like Jack? I want to play with Grandma."

Blair folded her arms over her chest and looked at Todd. "No, pal, you have to go to school," Todd said. 

"Why?" Sam asked.

"Because if you go to school, you get good grades." Sam made no response or reaction. "If you get good grades, you can go to college someday." Again, no reaction. "Santa will be proud of you."

"Santa wants me to go to school?" Sam asked, excitedly.

"Of course he does," Blair added, "he loves school, and he sees everything you do."

Sam ran to get his jacket. "Mom, will you drive me? Boy is Jack going to be mad when Santa doesn't like him anymore."

After dropping Sam at school and having a long interrogation session with the little boy, Todd and Blair determined that Jack was most likely at The Mall. They headed there in a hurry, but Todd told Blair that the plan was to pretend they were shopping for baby things and accidentally run into Jack, if he were still there. "This way he doesn't think we were prying, he doesn't think Sam told, and he doesn't get the idea that he'll get away with things like this." Todd said.

"That sounds like a good idea. You act like you've raised a teenager before."

"No, I didn't. You know that."

"Parenthood is really tough," she said.

They went into The Mall, pretending to be searching for a stroller for the baby. 

"Would we really be buying a stroller now? The kid is not even born," he asked.

She answered, "No, but Jack won't know that."

After combing The Mall for a good half an hour, Blair spotted Jack in the music store. He was with two boys and a girl, about his age. They planned to accidentally run into Jack. Thinking of a good way to do so, Todd rolled a ball that he picked up for the baby and yelled, "I'll get it." Jogging toward the same store that Jack was in, he pretended not to see his son at first. Blair watched from a seat near the fountain, and saw Jack's expression as he tried to hide. Todd was onto it, and soon, Blair saw him approach Jack, talk to him a minute, be on the receiving end of some not-so-nice teen angst, and then drag him out of the store by his ear.

Bringing Jack over to Blair, Todd sat him down next to his mother. "Remember your comment on parenthood?"

"Yeah?" she replied.

"Can we ditch?"

The three rode in silence. Jack was the first one to speak. "You didn't have to humiliate me in front of my friends."

Todd said, "Yeah, well, you didn't have to call me Scarface and tell me to buzz off either."

Blair gasped. "Jack Manning! What have I told you about that?"

"Told him about that? You mean, he calls me that?"

"I'm sorry, okay," Jack said, "I used to. I didn't mean it. It just came out because I was mad."

"I'm sorry too, I was as mad as you were. But, your screwing up your school career is not a good idea. Sophomore year is important."

"What does it matter? I want to work with you when I get older." Todd suddenly was bursting with pride. "You do?"

"Yeah. I loved working at the paper part time. I want to help with the business and take it over some day."  Blair got that look that said, 'there's a sucker born every minute.'

Todd said, "Well you cannot work for me without a high school diploma and a few years of college under your belt." Jack got very quiet, and watched the scenery out the car window. Todd was sure what they would be doing next was dealing with yet another punishment and trying to convince his son to see Ray. Blair also was quiet.

When the family arrived home, Todd went immediately to the kitchen to get something to eat. Jack plopped himself down on the couch and opened the small gift absentmindedly. "Hey, Mom, what's this?" He held the lighter in his hand. She attempted not to let him see her nervousness. "It's a gift someone sent." 

Jack fingered the metallic case slowly, and then said, "It's a threat. Against Dad."

Todd walked in, eating a sandwich. "It's not a threat, Jack, it's a gift."

Jack said, "Anyone can tell it's a threat. It's just like the lighter that your father used to....oh, I'm sorry, Dad."

Todd ate with gusto. "It's all right Jack. Yeah, it's like that lighter."

"My other Dad, uh, Zeus, he one time burned me. He said it was to teach me a lesson." Todd stopped chewing in mid chew.

"Jack!" Blair was frantic. "When? Why didn't you tell anyone?"

"I was only like 5 or 6. Maybe like Sam."  5 or 6.  That's when Peter started...

She interrupted, "Oh my God, the stove burn?" He nodded. Todd was fuming, and his anger was getting the best of him. He had dropped the sandwich onto his plate and shot up our of his seat.  He began to pace, going near the windows and staring out.

Jack added, "He said it would teach me not to touch things I wasn't supposed to. He told you, Mom, and the hospital people that I accidentally put my hand down on a live burner. But I didn't."

"I remember that," Blair was shaking. She went to his side. "I wish you told me, Son."

Jack was agitated and trying to express himself, "I know Mom. It's not your fault, I should have spoken up but I was afraid.  He held my hand over it, and when I started to..."

"Stop!" Todd shouted, turning to them. "Stop, please. I can't. Not right now. Please, Jack."

The color had drained from his face, and his hands were trembling. He appeared faint. Blair ran to him, steadying him with her hands, then called to Jack, "Jack, help me."

The two of them supported Todd's weight and got him to the couch, and before they could seat him there, he was out. He lay on his back, eyes closed. "No, Todd. It's okay, come on. Wake up."

Within moments, he stirred. "I just felt so dizzy, and then I just couldn't stand up anymore."

"Mom, I’m sorry, I'm sorry, Dad."

"No, son, you have no reason to be sorry, none at all. You know I am getting better, but I still have some rusty parts." Todd managed to say.

"Can I do anything, Dad, to help?"

"You can make sure you never call me Scarface again. And, you can go and see Ray."

"I don't need that, Dad. Honest. I can handle this all myself.  That story I was telling, it doesn’t even really bother me anymore, now that…well…" Todd knew his son was wrong, but he told himself, "I'll let this go another day and broach it then."

Blair was still reeling from her son's admission and Todd's near miss. She rubbed her eyes. "Are you two, okay? I'm going to go in the kitchen, if you are?" She needed to get away from it.  Her little boy.  No.  Todd could see her shoulders shaking and knew she was in tears.

"We're fine. You take care of you, Blair, and that little one." Todd said, smiling. 

When she was out of view, his face returned to a more serious one. "You need to get it together, right now, Jack.  Your mother and that baby are very important to this family.  She doesn’t need this kind of stress.”  He looked down, dejectedly.  “I’m enough.  And by the way, you're grounded.”   He called to the boy as he walked up the staircase to his room. "And, hand over the phone."

Jack, rolling his eyes, didn't balk. He walked back down the stairs and handed the phone to his father.  "Anything else?"

Todd put the cell phone in his pocket. "No." Jack turned and ascended the stairs. "I love you, Jack." His son ignored him and continued to climb the stairs.

Todd waited until Jack was out of eye and earshot and grabbed his own cell.  “McBain, I have to see you.  I am afraid my family is in danger.”

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