The Volunteers on duty in the Embassy couldn't help but hear the argument in progress. There was nothing new there. Da'an and Major Kincaid argued all the time, the Volunteers had come to accept it as part of the peculiar relationship the two had. Major Kincaid was still the only Protector not to be implanted with a CVI; maybe that was the reason he was allowed greater leeway in the way he questioned the Companions.
This argument had been going on for a while, though; what was going on? Then they heard something unexpected, something they never expected to hear coming from one of the Companion's chosen agents.
"I quit! Get someone else, Da'an. I'm tired of being caught in the middle!"
Liam stalked out past the stunned Volunteers, oblivious to their reaction. He was thinking of his next stop of the day, to go see Doors and give him back full control of the Resistance.
Doors' reaction pretty much matched that of Da'an and the Volunteers. It was as though the world had suddenly turned on its head. Liam had stunned them all; his dedication to duty had been accepted as a given by them all. This wasn't like Liam. What the hell was going on?
Liam returned to his apartment to think. After the past few days he really felt he had no choice. He had to get away from both factions of this conflict if he was to preserve any part of his sanity. Of course there were two big questions. Would they let him go? What would he do now?
The apartment was dark, he hadn't even bothered to turn on the lights as he came in. The only light came from the window. It was night outside, but the lights of the city cast some light into the apartment, causing shadows to cascade across its interior.
Liam gave a sigh and wandered over to the window. He leaned forward, one arm raised to rest against it as he stared outside. He felt so tired of it all. For crying out loud, he wasn't even two years old yet and he felt bone weary. Gazing out over the city he came to a decision, he needed to leave for a while, away from the country and all the schemes and counter-schemes of the Taelons, the Resistance and the politicians all jockeying for power. Somewhere quiet.
"Ireland," murmured Liam. "I'll go to Ireland."
The place he had in mind was a little village in the middle of the Irish countryside. Beckett had gone there for a holiday when she was a child; Liam could still feel the contentment the place had filled her with. That was exactly what he wanted.
Having made a decision, he went about arranging to leave as quickly as possible. He wanted to be long gone before people came looking for him. Liam knew they'd find him eventually but he wasn't going to make it easy.
Before he went to bed that night he'd made all the arrangements. He had very few personal possessions - they'd fit in a single rucksack that he'd take with him. He'd travel light: some clothes would be taken in the rucksack, he'd buy more. His apartment was fully paid up for the next year; a few dustcovers placed over the furnishings before he left would have to do, the owner knew better than to invade his privacy.
Travelling undetected to the village would be tricky, but he'd been sneaking about the planet for almost two years now for one reason or another. He knew how to create a travel plan involving ID portals and the well loved combination of planes, trains and automobiles. Money wasn't a problem either; Companion Protectors were ridiculously well paid. He had secret accounts that not even the Resistance knew anything about; not even Augur could find them.
Liam only allowed himself a couple of hours of sleep and then he slipped away from his apartment. He made his way to the airport and hopped onto the first internal flight he found. At the next airport he booked tickets on three separate flights. He went through one gate, skirted round security and at the last minute switched to an alternate flight. At this new city he made use of the ID portal to get to mainland Europe before disappearing.
Two days later, a tired but happy Liam exited the car of the old Irish couple that had given him a lift to the village. He entered the inn and was immediately the source of attention for all the locals. Tourist season was months away. They looked at him suspiciously.
Having found the owner of the inn, he asked to speak to him privately. The old man muttered something uncomplimentary about daft tourists in Irish to a few of the locals. They laughed uproariously. Liam smiled, acting as though he didn't get the joke.
Entering the owner's office, Liam burst forth in a rush of fluent Irish, astonishing the other man. He explained that he needed somewhere quiet to be for a while, somewhere to think. One of his former colleagues had mentioned this place to him before she died. She had said she never forgot the place even though she hadn't been there since she was a child. He had remembered what she said and it sounded like the perfect place. Would they let him stay?
The owner asked the name of his friend and upon hearing it was Siobhan Beckett, he smiled. As a child she had enchanted the village with her joyful exuberance and love of life. They had been devastated when they had heard on the news that she had died. Any friend of hers would be welcomed, no questions asked.
Half an hour later Liam was settled in a room and sitting down with the locals getting an earful of the local gossip.
In the two weeks that Liam had been gone it seemed to all that worked there that the joy had gone from the Taelon Embassy in Washington DC. Now that he was not there, his fellow workers had started to realise all the little things he had done that they had taken for granted.
He had always been there for the general staff to go to if they had a problem or a query about their work. He was far more approachable than the other Protectors. If he couldn't get you an answer there and then, he'd get one by the end of that day.
The Volunteers missed him; he treated them like people and not pieces of furniture. They missed the cheery greetings that he always seemed to offer.
As for Sandoval and Da'an, the rest of the staff had spent the past two weeks avoiding them as much as possible. They were moping. Nobody came right out and said it, but that's what they were doing and everybody knew it.
Sandoval had found himself with many of Liam's former duties - the official ones and the unofficial. He had not realised how much care Liam had taken of the embassy staff. Apparently his door had always been open for those that needed to talk; he even kept track of things like staff birthdays! Now they expected him to take over for Liam.
Da'an grew distant. He missed his young Protector; he had not realised how much he had come to enjoy his verbal sparring with the young man until he had gone. Silence now seemed to be his constant companion and he didn't like it.
Sandoval had been busy working in his office in the Embassy when he got a call from security stating that there were a bunch of kids demanding to see him and that they wouldn't go away. Perplexed, he said he'd be right down.
The sight that greeted him in the main lobby momentarily rendered him silent. There were about five kids ranging in age from about six to thirteen, all babbling at once to a pair of very confused security guards. Their befuddled expressions were actually quite funny, but enough was enough. Striding forward, he called out for silence.
In the silence that quickly descended he asked the eldest of the children for an explanation. Instead it was the youngest that stepped forward. The little girl was about six, she had a front tooth missing, but she piped up in a firm little voice, "We wanna see Mr. Sann'oval! Major Liam said if we ever needed help an' he wasn't here to ask for Mr. Sann'oval, that he was a very nice man an' would help us!"
Sandoval's eyebrows had raised in surprise at this. He judiciously ignored the stifled laughter of the guards at hearing this description of him.
"I'm Agent Sandoval. Now what's the matter?"
Hearing this the little girl smiled and burst into a garbled explanation. Sandoval raised his hand to stop her and said, "Slower. First tell me your name, and what's wrong?"
"Marie, pleased to meet you. There's a stranger in the playground near the park. He's selling some funny stuff in little packets to lots of different people. He chased us away! Major Liam said if we ever saw a bad stranger that we were supposed to tell a grown up."
She looked up innocently as she made this statement. Sandoval turned to the guards to see one of them already on the line to the police. He also noticed that Da'an had joined the milling crowd in the corridor that were trying to see what was going on.
Sandoval looked at the little girl and said, "You did a very brave thing and you were very clever to remember what Liam told you. The police are going to go look for this stranger and we'll all just wait here until they come and tell us what's going on. How about we all go to the cafeteria and get some milk and cookies?"
Hearing the words milk and cookies caused the rest of the children to smile. So Sandoval and this strange little group made their way through the embassy with a highly curious Da'an tagging along.
Marie, deciding that Sandoval was indeed a nice man, babbled and smiled and told Sandoval all about herself and her friends and how they had met Liam. Apparently he had been passing through the park when he had noticed Marie crying. Her brother had been climbing a tree when he had fallen and broken his arm. Liam had contacted their parents and taken the children to the emergency room. He had visited them a few weeks later and ended up staying for Marie's sixth birthday party, they had been friends ever since.
Sandoval listened, smiling. As he did so he was thinking, Trust Liam to find more waifs and strays to look after.
The next two hours were amongst the more bizarre the Embassy had ever witnessed. The five children, after having their milk and cookies, had run about and laughed and played. Da'an and Sandoval had been dragged into their games without a second thought. The children showed no awe at their presence; if they were there, they were playing too. Liam always had.
The police contacted the Embassy to say the 'stranger' had been apprehended. He was a known drug dealer and would face severe penalties. Having been caught in the act of committing a crime it was unlikely the children would be needed as witnesses, but their parents would be contacted just in case. Meanwhile, the children could go home.
Sandoval arranged for several of the Volunteers to escort the children home. He and Da'an said goodbye to the children, genuinely sorry to see them go.
Marie turned and ran back to Sandoval to ask him, "Are you going to be there for story hour instead of Major Liam?"
"What?" asked Sandoval, confused.
"Major Liam meets us at the library on Saturday mornings for story hour. He just finished the story about Mr. Bilbo and the Hobbits before he went away. Our new story is supposed to start this week. He said it was his daddy's favourite when he was a boy. It's about somebody called Sir Galad and the quest for the holy gruel."
"Sir Galahad and the Quest for the Holy Grail?"
"That's what I said!" exclaimed Marie, exasperated.
"Yes, I'll be there."
Marie smiled and hugged him before running back to the Volunteer that was taking her home.
"That was my favourite story when I was a child," murmured Sandoval distractedly to Da'an.
Sandoval returned to his office thinking hard. Foremost in his mind was one question. When are you coming home, Liam?
Liam leaned on the dry stone wall and smiled happily, his face raised to catch the rays of the sun. He had been in the village for about a month now and he was accepted by the locals as one of them. It felt nice to be accepted with no questions asked.
The villagers had astounded him. Knowing that he had been a friend of Beckett was all the information they had required. They seemed to have instinctively realised that he had needed time and space. At first, they had included him in village life by providing a bit of judicious local gossip now and then, as he grew more outgoing with them, they invited him to participate in local events. He had been to a ceilidh for the first time in his life. It had been an exhilarating and fun experience.
Liam had taken to going running after breakfast. He couldn't help but enjoy it. The scenery that flashed by seemed to evoke more and more of his mother's childhood memories; it was almost like she was running and laughing beside him.
That was another thing his move to Ireland had accomplished. Free of Taelon and Resistance concerns, he had been free to take a good look at himself and his 'differences'.
Liam knew he had become more focused since his sojourn in Ireland had begun. When he had first arrived, he had been unsure where the combined experiences of his parents ended and Liam began. How was anyone supposed to cope with the memories of three fully matured adults as well as a growing list of his own experiences? When he remembered something was it him, Liam, doing the remembering, or one of his parents? It had been a terrible thing to feel like he was sometimes lost in his own mind.
Over the past few weeks his inner contemplations had caused him to reach peace with himself. He was Liam, and that was enough. In fact, for the first time he felt blessed. People who had lost their parents had only their own memories of them to keep them company. He had the memories of his parents within him always; he'd never be alone.
Liam had also noticed his control of his abilities was growing. He might not always have wanted to use them, but he had always known they were there, buried under a thin veil of control. Now free to concentrate on them, he had begun to master them. For the first time he had felt sure enough of himself to test how far they could be used. He was learning, he was growing, he was adapting. Laughing at himself, he had realised all children grew up eventually.
He was distracted from his contemplations as he heard a garbled shout from down the road. He manoeuvred himself up from the wall to see Marcus Flanagan running towards him, gesturing wildly. Sprinting down to the obviously agitated man, Liam asked what was wrong.
"There's been an accident up at the old manor house, Liam. There's people trapped. We need help."
Liam didn't need to hear any more. He called for Flanagan to catch his breath before following as he turned and ran back towards the village. Quickly changing into some more appropriate attire for a search, he caught a ride with a few more of the locals and they sped up to the site of the old abandoned manor house. There was already a group of vehicles present, including a car from the Garda. The men approached the officer who seemed to be co-ordinating at the site to find out what was going on. It wasn't good news.
"Some of the local children were playing in the grounds. They've been told repeatedly that the grounds aren't safe, but you know kids, they never listen. Apparently they decided to play at being ghosts and do some haunting. The ground shook under them and we have three children missing. Apparently there is a network of old servants' tunnels under the house that led to the cellars, but as far as we know there are no maps of the tunnels. There is still debris falling and the ground is unstable, but we've got to get someone into the tunnels to look for them."
"I'll go," said Liam.
"Sir, you're not authorised. You're a tourist," said the Garda officer.
Liam just looked at him. "My name is Major Liam Kincaid, United States Army Rangers and former Companion Protector. I have more emergency training than anybody else here and I'm going. Get me authorised."
"Sir, yes sir!"
Half an hour later, Liam tentatively lowered himself down into the tunnels. He was wearing a two-way radio and carrying a small rucksack containing an emergency medical kit and a flashlight.
Time to get moving, thought Liam to himself.
"I'm heading in," he announced over the radio and then the search began.
Sandoval looked up from the work on his desk to see a Volunteer standing in his office.
"Yes, can I help you?" asked Sandoval.
"Sir, have you been monitoring the news from Ireland?"
"No, I've been working all night. What are you talking about?" asked Sandoval in a distracted tone.
"It's about Major Kincaid, sir."
Sandoval, acting quickly, had the latest news bulletins from Ireland directed to his desk terminal. As he did so he dismissed the Volunteer with a wave of his hand.
The news report was from what appeared to be a small, quiet village. Sandoval raised the volume to hear what the news reader was saying.
"...the children were recovered in the nick of time from the tunnels under the old manor house after being trapped for almost twenty hours. They were suffering from shock and some minor cuts and abrasions, but after being taken to a local hospital for a check-up they were allowed to go home with their families.
"They were rescued moments before the recent shocks caused the entire house to collapse in on itself. Tragically, their rescuer is still missing in the tunnels below. Major Kincaid had just passed up the last of the three children to waiting medical personnel when the collapse of the manor house knocked him back into the main tunnels and out of reach of rescue personnel. A search is underway. The local population are refusing to give up the belief that he is still alive.
"As viewers may recall, Major Kincaid caused headlines just over a month ago when he became the first Companion Protector to resign from duty. As yet there has been no comment from the Companions on the rescue or its tragic aftermath. To reiterate, Major Liam Kincaid, former Companion Protector, is still trapped and missing after rescuing three local children from certain death. Major Kincaid has been staying in Ireland for the past month, ever since his surprising departure from service to the Companions. There will be more news from the scene as the situation develops."
Closing off his terminal, Sandoval swung round and stared out of his office window. Over the past couple of weeks Liam had occupied a great deal of his thoughts. Since meeting Marie he had done a lot of thinking. Her statement about Liam's father's favourite story had triggered a thought process deep within him. His CVI-enhanced memory had brought repeated buried images to the surface. The sudden appearance of Liam, his reaction to Beckett, her reaction to him, his reaction to seeing them both in his hospital room when he was injured. The sight of Beckett lying dead in Liam's arms, the grief on his face - and then there was the expression on his face when he had seen Sandoval. What was that? It hadn't been surprise; Liam had acted as though he'd expected to see Sandoval there.
The implications of what he had been thinking were disturbing, not to mention impossible.
His turbulent thoughts had communicated themselves to the skrill on his arm and it began to respond to his emotions, glowing. In an unconscious action he soothed it, stroking it gently with the fingers of his left hand. Reaching a decision he pulled on his jacket and headed off to talk to Da'an.
"Come in, Agent Sandoval. I have been expecting you."
"I take it you have been informed of the situation in Ireland," said Sandoval.
Da'an rose and approached him. Looking deeply into Sandoval's eyes, he gave a slight smile. The concern there was genuine. Answering Sandoval's unasked question, Da'an said, "Yes, Sandoval, you may go to Ireland. There is a shuttle waiting to take you. Find Liam and bring him home. Good luck in your search."
Sandoval bowed his head in thanks and left to go find Liam.
The shuttle flared and descended to the manor grounds. They had been turned into the headquarters for the search for Liam. Heads had turned as they heard the shuttle enter normal space. The locals stared questioningly at the figure approaching them. The press, recognising him, tried to rush forward to question him, but were held back by the police.
Sandoval scanned the group in front of him.
"Who's co-ordinating the search? Where was Liam last seen?"
A Garda officer stepped forward as the search co-ordinator and asked why Sandoval was there.
Sandoval just looked at the man. One of the other Garda present recognised the look. Liam had given him an identical look when he had tried to stop him joining the search.
"I'm here to get Liam out. Is there a problem?"
Recognising an immovable object when he saw one, the Garda officer decided not to waste his breath. Half an hour later Sandoval entered the debris-filled tunnels looking for Liam.
The tunnel Sandoval found himself in had been partially cleared by the rescue team to allow easier access. The further in he looked, the more debris he saw. Hoping fervently that Liam had enough warning to get himself into a side tunnel away from the falling debris, Sandoval began the slow process of scanning the tunnel for any sign of Liam.
About ten feet back into the tunnel he thought he saw something. Moving forward, he saw that he had been right, there was something lying half buried under a huge pile of debris. It looked like a rucksack. Swearing softly, Sandoval was beginning to think the worst until he heard a faint scratching sound. It sounded like it was coming from behind the rubble. Quickly raising the light he was carrying, he saw a gap at the top of the pile of rubble. Raising his voice, he shouted out, "Liam, can you hear me?!"
Holding his breath and with his heart pounding so loudly, he barely heard Liam answer yes.
"Liam, are you OK?"
"Sandoval, is that you? What are you doing here?" was the faint but bewildered response from Liam.
"My friend was listed as missing and presumably injured, did you think I wouldn't come to help? Are you hurt or trapped? We're going to need some information before we get you out. I'm standing in front of a huge pile of rubble. Is it safe to move it without hurting you?"
"I'm in a side chamber, I made it in before the house fell on my head. I'm not trapped under the rubble, but I'm not going anywhere until you move it; there's no other way out."
Hearing this, Sandoval gave a small sigh of relief, until he realised Liam hadn't answered his other question.
"Liam, how badly are you hurt? Tell me!"
"It's not too bad."
The undisguised pain in his voice was apparent and Sandoval swore softly. Calling to the surface team, he let them know that Liam was trapped and injured and that he needed help down here now!
Sandoval began to climb the pile of rubble to try to extend the gap at the top. The footing was not exactly steady, and he sent smaller pieces of rubble flying to the floor as well as sending up a billowing cloud of dust, but he made it to the top. He was pulling smaller pieces of debris out of the gap at the top when he heard the others approaching. Calling over his shoulder that he had cleared enough of a space for him to fit through, he levered himself through the space before they had a chance to stop him.
Dropping to the ground on the other side, he quickly approached Liam. Trying to be gentle, he assessed the man's injuries. Liam gave a hiss of pain. Sandoval placed a gentle hand on his cheek and told him to try to lie still.
Over the radio Sandoval reported that Liam apparently had several ribs broken, what looked like a fractured leg and was bleeding from a wound on his head.
The message Sandoval heard in response was, "Copy that. From this side it looks like it'll be several hours till we get the rubble cleared. We'll pass you through some first aid supplies and we've alerted the medical services above ground. You're going to be by yourselves for a while, though."
"Understood," said Sandoval.
After receiving the supplies, Sandoval did his best to make Liam comfortable. The other man finally gave in to the pain and passed out. Sandoval spent the next hour sitting thinking, gazing occasionally at Liam's face with questions burning in his eyes.
Lost in his own thoughts, he didn't notice that Liam had come round until he heard Liam say, "You're the last person I expected to see here, but I am really glad to see you."
Sandoval looked at him, unsure how to start the conversation they so desperately needed to have.
"Your presence was missed at the Embassy, Major. The staff and Volunteers particularly have missed you. They seem to have delegated me to take your place when it comes to handling their queries and complaints..."
Liam couldn't help it; the slightly bemused tone Sandoval used had him fighting a grin. He had never expected this - Sandoval had been dragged into caring for the others! He obviously wasn't as annoyed about it as he was trying to let on. It was still funny, though - Sandoval as an agony aunt? What a thought!
Sandoval, seeing Liam trying to hide his grin, tried to look stern and foreboding, but he knew the grin on his own face gave him away. Giving up a losing battle, he started to laugh. This set Liam off and they both spent the next few minutes chuckling.
Calming down, Sandoval continued, "I met Marie and the other kids too, a couple of weeks ago. She said I had to tell you the next time I saw you that you were right. I am a very nice man. She co-opted me into taking your place at story hour, too; she told me all about their new story and what you had told her about your dad."
He raised his eyes to look directly into Liam's as he said this. He saw the answer to the question that had been plaguing him reflected back at him. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and spoke before Liam had a chance to say anything.
"Don't say a word. If it remains speculation on my part and without any corroboration from you, then I can't be made to betray you."
A momentary flicker of anguish shone in Liam's eyes but he nodded his agreement. "If you don't want confirmation, you had better make sure that no one takes any blood samples. Trust me on this."
"Why did you leave, Liam, really?"
Liam opened his mouth to answer, but just at that moment the rescue team finally broke through. He shook his head to Sandoval to say not now.
Sandoval nodded his head in agreement and murmured one word, "Later."
Liam was released from the hospital a few days later. Sandoval drove him back to the village, where they both received a boisterous welcome; the parents of the children rescued were effusive in their thanks. Sandoval also found a warm welcome - the locals liked him. He had come to Liam's aid the moment he had heard he needed help; loyalty like that was to be respected. More to the point, he had somehow managed to get rid of the press - that was considered miraculous.
Both men left the impromptu party early, pleading tiredness. Sandoval had been given the room adjoining Liam's. As a result of his 'adventure', Liam was now sporting a light cast on his leg so Sandoval helped him get settled.
He had then turned to leave when Liam said, "Isn't it about time for that talk?"
Taking a deep breath, Sandoval nodded. Pausing to lock the door, he pulled up one of the chairs in Liam's room and sat it beside Liam's bed.
"Why did you leave?"
Sandoval winced at the accusing tone he used. He couldn't help it, the question just kind of sprang out that way.
Liam sighed and looked up at the ceiling, trying to think how to explain his reasons. "Let's just say I was getting pulled in too many directions and I was losing my focus."
Sandoval motioned for him to continue.
"I was stuck in the middle of a whirlwind. I had the Taelons on one side with Zo'or and even Da'an demanding one course of action from me, the Resistance demanding the exact opposite - don't look at me like that, I knew you knew I was in the Resistance.
"Where was I?
"Oh yeah, the Taelons and the Resistance. Then there was you. Working for the Taelons, trying to get rid of me on more than one occasion and yet obviously working to some agenda of your own.
"No! Don't tell me. The same situation applies as before. If it's speculation on my part without corroboration from you, then I can't be made to betray your secret to either faction.
"I do want to say thank you about Lili. I know she's not dead. I also know something has been done to her and she hates you. I believe she's been sent off planet; I don't sense her any more. She may never forgive you, but I know it was the only way to save her, so thank you for that."
Sandoval had been shocked at his last statement, but one thing had caught his attention.
"What do you mean, you can't sense her any more?"
"That's another reason I left. I had to get away to get control of some of my inherited abilities. I've been feeling this for a while - that's why I sometimes appeared a bit distracted. You know the Taelons are linked to each other through the Commonality. I can sense humanity in kind of the same way. It's not as focused as the Commonality or as powerful; it's more a subconscious feeling on my part and completely unconscious on the part of humanity. Only the more powerful psychics have even come close to experiencing it till now. My sense of it is growing; I had to learn to control it.
"I don't feel every unconscious thought in the planet, or every birth and death - obviously that would be too much input for any one being to handle. Things like wars or major disasters come through more strongly due to the greater pools of emotion involved. I do feel people I'm close to - familiarity seems to strengthen the ties. That's why I knew what had happened to Lili. You come through strongest - we won't go into why. Are you OK with that?"
To say that he had been astonished by what he had heard was an understatement, but he was OK with it - he trusted Liam.
"Yes, Liam, I'm OK with it."
Giving a sigh of relief, Liam continued, hoping Sandoval would accept what he had to say next.
"I'm not coming back yet, Sandoval; I can't. Till I have full control I have to stay away from the Taelons - I can't risk them finding out about this. I promise I will be back. Please be careful - now that you know about me, I'm not ready to lose you yet. If there's a problem and you need help I'll feel it and I'll be there as soon as I can.
"You've two more days before you have to get back. Let's not waste them. I'll show you round the village tomorrow."
Liam settled down to get some sleep.
Before leaving, Sandoval leaned forward to whisper, "Be sure you come home soon."
Sandoval and Liam spent the next two days relaxing in the village and then Sandoval left. He returned to the Embassy and told Da'an that Liam wasn't ready to come back just yet, but that he'd be back soon. The confident tone that Sandoval used piqued Da'an's interest, but Sandoval would not be drawn out on the matter any further.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Liam left the village to find a new refuge. The press had found him thanks to the rescue - that meant it was time to go. He bade farewell to the village and travelled on to pastures new. The sooner he had achieved full control the sooner he could go home.