Sandoval turned his gaze from the painting of a windswept landscape that decorated the wall directly opposite him and shifted slightly in his chair as he heard the doorway to the office open. Meeting Lissa Park's troubled gaze, he offered a softly encouraging smile to try to put her at ease. He'd known before he came here what was going on... he'd just wanted to make it official.
"How long have I got, Melissa?"
Sighing heavily as she slumped into the seat behind her desk, Melissa Park looked into the peace-filled eyes of the man opposite her. On occasion it still struck her how strange her life had become in the past two or three years. The man sitting opposite her had become a close and trusted friend and it pained her to think how alone and isolated he had been before the then 'Robbie Samuels' had become the catalyst that changed all their lives. Ronald Sandoval was one of her dearest friends, and he was dying, and there wasn't a damn thing that she could do about it.
"How did you know what was happening?"
She watched as Sandoval gave her another gentle smile. "I've had headaches like this before, Lissa. Much as it may have seemed like it to Boone at the time, my first CVI did not just suddenly decide to break down all at once."
"Headaches?" asked Melissa in a worried tone. "Are you in pain?"
The smile this time was self-mockingly wry as her patient responded, "I've been feeling pain in one form or another for years, Lissa. The headaches I can handle - at least for now. I promise that I'll tell you if they get bad.
"I'll ask again... how long have I got? Will I be here for the births?"
Sandoval saw his answer in the warring joy and sadness in her expression. All anyone had to do was mention the pregnancy of Renee Palmer-Kincaid and smiles broke out. People from all walks of life; business and military, law enforcement and the intelligence communities, the resistance movements and Companion personnel, they all agreed on one thing... Lieutenant Colonel Kincaid and his wife Renee Palmer were the happiest couple they had ever seen, and the most devoted. Their announcement that they were expecting their first children - twins! - had been met with almost universal delight. The sadness on Lissa's face could mean only one thing; he wouldn't live long enough to see his latest grandchildren born.
"I'm so sorry, Ron, but no. Judging by the rate at which the CVI is degrading I'd give you two months at best, and, as you very well know, the twins aren't due for another four months."
Sandoval bowed his head briefly for a moment at that announcement. Melissa sat silent, allowing him the time he needed to process her prognosis. When he raised his head again the expression of peace was once again present in his eyes. The serenity there touched a chord deep within her. Ronald Sandoval truly was an amazing man.
Softly, she said, "Do you want me to explain things to Liam and the others or would you rather do so yourself?"
Sandoval's eyes snapped to her face. His expression firm and his voice commanding - for all that he had been retired for over a year now - he said, "Nobody is to be told."
A firm shake of his head met her protest. "No!"
Seeing her disapproving face, Sandoval sighed and reached across her desk to give her hand a reassuring pat. "Lissa, I'll tell them. I promise I will. Just not right now.
"I'd like a couple of more happy weeks with them before I break the news. Besides, I have a lot of arrangements I have to make. I have friends and contacts to take care of, not to mention setting up security arrangements to ensure the continuing protection of my family when I'm gone."
Melissa Park fully understood that, as a long serving Resistance member she knew the necessities of such arrangements.
"I'll make a deal with you, Ron." She had to bite back a grin at the sardonically arched eyebrow that questioned that statement. "I'll give you three weeks of silence on my part... on two conditions."
"And they are?"
"One, you let me help you with any arrangements that need to be made; and two, you promise here and now to tell me if the pain from the headaches gets too much for you to deal with."
Sandoval smiled his thanks, "Done."
Walking down the corridor from the office in the Taelon-sponsored hospital where Lissa currently worked, Sandoval nodded absently to the salutes of the occasional Volunteer or Companion staff that he passed. Even though he had been retired for over a year now their recognition of his authority and rank was instinctive. Many in the 'outside world' still feared the man, but those that had used to work for him had had the chance to know him better over the last couple of years - ever since the introduction of Robbie Samuels into the circles of those that exercised authority on the behalf of the Companions. They had been given the chance to see the caring man and devoted friend that lived beneath his ruthless exterior. He was now almost as respected and well-loved as Kincaid.
Making his way outside, he got into the car assigned to him by his son and greeted the Volunteer security officer that acted as his bodyguard.
"Where to now, sir?" asked the cheerful brunette that was his current shadow.
"Home, Jennifer. Robbie's got a half day off school and I told Liam that I'd hang out with him this afternoon."
Smiling, Volunteer Jennifer McCulloch said, "Home it is, sir." As always, the Volunteer carefully avoided the obvious incongruity in that statement. Agent Sandoval had moved in with the then Major Kincaid and his family upon his rescue from his kidnapping and subsequent torture - that had been a surprise to the Volunteers, but had been understandable. Everyone had been worried about him. What nobody could understand - or had the nerve to ask - was why he had never moved back out. As far as the Volunteers were concerned, it was just another mystery to add to the many surrounding their former and current bosses.
It was almost seven p.m. by the time he and Robbie had tidied away all signs of their surprise present for the twins. They then moved in to the cosy den that was their unacknowledged hideaway within the Kincaid household. It wasn't that Liam and Renee didn't avail themselves of the peaceful room too; it was simply an unspoken understanding within the household that this room was the particular domain of Robbie and his 'grandfather'. It was here that they spent hours upon hours discussing everything from literature, to art, to politics. Not many children had the chance to learn world and inter-species relations from such a cunning and devious mind, Robbie ate it up.
Sandoval sighed as he looked at Robbie sprawled boneless in the chair next to him... that particular trait the boy had picked up from his adoptive father. It was in part instinctive grace, and in part the rigorous regime of martial arts training that Robbie had selected to study.
An unbidden thought sprang to mind that made Ronald Sandoval smile quietly to himself. Given a few more years to reach his full maturity, Robbie Samuels Kincaid would be absolutely lethal. With trainers that included specialist Volunteer bodyguards, FBI agents, his own parents, and ANA and Resistance operatives - how could he be anything else? This was a good thing as far as Sandoval was concerned. God forbid anything was to happen to him or his parents, but, if it did, Robbie was well able to look after himself. It would also allow him the skills necessary to protect his future brothers and sisters from any harm - which was something that Robbie would do without hesitation. His adoptive grandson would willingly go through hell to protect children from any of the horrors that he had survived as a child. Like his 'grandfather' once had - and, as his parents currently did - Robbie Kincaid had a well honed instinct to 'serve and protect'.
Sandoval looked at the boy with a heart both sad and joyous. Sad because he wouldn't live to see Robbie reach his full potential, and joyous because that potential - when realised - would result in a man of towering intellect and courage, tempered with quiet compassion.
Robbie looked at Sandoval as he sat lost in thought and wondered silently at the myriad emotions that flashed in the man's eyes. With a direct honesty that he knew the other man appreciated, Robbie said, "What's going on, Ron?" Something about the expression that settled over his grandfather's face gave Robbie pause and he locked worried grey eyes with the former Protector. His concern grew as Sandoval absently picked at the sleeve of the black wool pullover that he wore, fingering the wrist that still missed the presence of a Skrill. Sandoval only did that when he was deeply concerned about something.
Robbie swallowed at the intense expression in his grandfather's eyes but solemnly nodded his head in understanding of Sandoval's insistent, "What I'm about to say doesn't leave this room, Robbie. Do you understand?"
That was the moment that Robbie found out - before his parents did - that Sandoval was going to die. After the storm of weeping that followed, and the comforting embrace offered by his grandfather's arms, Robbie had been composed enough to listen and to understand. Robbie's own peculiar childhood of loss and trauma had given him an outlook on life that Sandoval dearly wished he'd never had to learn, but sometimes, just sometimes; it allowed the boy a greater understanding of the way things were.
Robbie understood Sandoval's reasoning for telling him first and accepted it. Renee - much as she would grieve - would also have an easier time not railing against 'what had to be'. The problem was going to be Liam. Liam was devoted to his family - as they were to him - but he still sometimes had trouble accepting some things - death of a loved one most of all. For all that he was a fully functioning adult - and in essence always had been - he was also, in essence, a child that had lost two of his parents. Liam may have been born with the genetic memory of all that they had done before his conception, but they had been taken from his life too soon for him to get to know them as their son.
Not so with Sandoval.
From what Renee had told him, Liam had gone from a politely cordial relationship with Sandoval - that masked the open antagonism of two rivals - to a solid and deep friendship that had only strengthened once the truth of their relationship had been revealed to the older man. What everyone in the family knew with absolute certainty was that Liam was devoted to his father, as Sandoval was devoted to his son.
While Sandoval blessed the few short years that they'd had to build their relationship together as a gift of peace that he'd never expected to be given, he and Robbie both knew that Liam was not going to easily accept that his last living parent was going to be taken away from him. There would be no enemy for Liam to fight, and no miracle to save his father; Sandoval's own body was killing him. No more alien procedures would save him - his body had moved past the point of surviving another CVI even if he had been willing to have another one implanted.
Liam was going to have to be told, and then he was going to have to learn how to 'let go'. For that he was going to need his family. Sandoval wanted his son happy and had no illusions that his death was going to do anything other than rock Liam's contented existence of the past couple of years. He'd do what he could to make his son understand and accept. He wanted him focused on the future. As the head of the Companion Protectors and Volunteer Corps he had to serve his masters while blocking their most dangerous initiatives; not an easy task, that he knew from personal experience! Coupled with that were his responsibilities as leader of the remainder of the deep cover members of the Resistance, as a highly ranked ANA operative, and his duties as the newest 'Wolf' operative.
By far the most important thing Liam had to concentrate on was protecting and caring for his family, both current and imminent. Sandoval had to make him understand that life went on and, for that; he was going to need all the help he could get.
From his new seat on Sandoval's lap and echoing his grandfather's silent thoughts, young head resting on Sandoval's shoulder, Robbie spoke with the insight of his wise soul.
"We'll get him through this, Granddad. I'll help. We'll be there for you too. Every step of the way... I promise."
Sandoval bent his head to place a quiet kiss on the boy's forehead. "Thank you, kiddo. I'm sorry to put so much of this on you... but I knew you'd understand."
"We'll all get through this if we do it together, Sandoval. We can survive anything if we're together. You and Liam taught me that."
Robbie moved back to his own seat and changed the subject to more pleasant matters. "So... do you think they're ever going to figure out the surprise we're making for the twins...?"
Nine weeks later
Blonde hair pulled back in a simple ponytail and wearing her most comfortable jeans and sweatshirt, Renee Palmer-Kincaid emerged from the hospital room of Ronald Sandoval weeping openly. On instinct, she headed straight into the open arms of her husband accepting the silent comfort being offered to her though she knew he was far from all right himself. Sorrow easing slightly from her shoulders as her husband put one loving hand on her belly and their unborn twins; she turned to her other child and said, "Robbie. He's asking for you..."
Robbie, dressed in black jeans and a dark grey polo-neck, took a deep breath and walked slowly in to the room. On silently graceful feet, he walked towards Sandoval's hospital bed and, completely unselfconscious, he looked into the tired eyes of his grandfather. The last couple of weeks had been bad. It had hurt to see such a strong and vibrant man in such pain. It had just hurt to know there was nothing any of them could do to fix things.
Deciding to take the burden from Sandoval this time - he still had to say goodbye to Liam - Robbie stretched over to take the weakened man into a gentle but loving embrace and said, "I love you. I always will.
"I promise that I'll take care of everyone. The twins will grow up with stories of how kind and brave you were. I'll make sure that they grow up knowing you and how much you loved us all."
Dark eyes shining with emotion, Sandoval placed a solemn kiss on his grandson's forehead, a benediction. "No more speeches, Robbie. We've said it all already.
"Thank you for your promise. Thank you for your love. Grow into the exceptional man you're going to be, that's what would make me happiest.
"Go look after Renee, please. Tell Liam that it's time."
Robbie bowed his head briefly and then kissed his grandfather's cheek. "Bye, Granddad."
Liam looked over his wife's shoulder as his son emerged from his father's hospital room. Robbie's face was calm though his eyes were shining with tears.
"It's time, Dad. He's asking for you."
Taking a deep breath, Liam let go of his hold on Renee. Robbie walked over and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, saying, "I'll look after, Mom."
Sighing, Liam nodded and walked to the doorway. He hesitated briefly but then straightened his shoulders and walked softly into the room.
Sandoval watched from his hospital bed as his son walked towards him. He'd walked into the room shoulders straight and head high... it hadn't lasted. The closer he got to the bed, the more defeated his posture became and his eyes seemed to be fascinated with the floor tiles. Oh, Liam.
"Liam?" Sandoval's tone was soft and worried. "Liam? Look at me. Please." By this time his son had reached the same spot that Robbie had occupied not that long before. With gentle fingers, Sandoval reached out to grasp his son's wrist, heart breaking at the minute tremors wracking his son's lithe frame.
"Sit!" The tone of command in his father's voice had Liam sitting on the edge of the bed before he even realised he was moving. Sandoval felt his lips twitch in amusement at the exasperated expression on Liam's face - he knew Liam had always hated the way that he had been able to do that.
He could clearly see when the amusement was once again replaced with anguish and grief. Time to do something... an idea finally sprang to mind... an echo from their past. Patting the bed beside him, he said, "Liam, move up here and rest against the pillows."
"Do it, Liam."
Obedient to his father's wishes, Liam did so, completely confused as to what his father had in mind, until that is; his father shifted positions so that he was leaning back against Liam's shoulder, letting his son support his weight.
Looking down at his father's pain-filled face, Liam felt his heart falter in his chest when Sandoval took one of his hands in his own and meshed their fingers together. He understood what his father was trying to do... he was recreating the scene in which he'd bid farewell to his mother.
He watched as Sandoval's loving gaze met his own and listened to his father's dying words. "I want you to understand something, Liam. As your mother said before me: You were brought into my life when I needed you the most... You have given me much tribulation over the course of our relationship... but more than that... much, more. You have given me such joy, my son, so much joy.
"Take care of your new family like I know you can. Look after the world. I know it's a tough job, but you're more than capable of it. Remember three things: live, laugh and love."
A single tear slowly winding its way down his cheek, Liam raised their clasped hands and kissed his father's hand as Sandoval said, "Remember, Liam. Look to the heavens... Siobhan and I will both be shining a star for you."
Liam kissed his father's brow and softly muttered, "I'll remember everything. I promise.
"I love you. Be at peace."
He saw his father smile gently before slumping heavily in his arms. Bowing his head, shoulders shaking with silent sobs, Liam murmured, "Goodbye, father."
Soft hands on his head and shoulders eventually penetrated the cloud of grief that had fallen over him. He raised his head to see the concerned faces of his wife and son and he summoned a smile. He'd feel this loss for the rest of his life, but he'd go on. To do anything else would dishonour his father's memory.
His family would help him through his grief, as he would help them. It may have taken a few years but he finally knew that he'd found a home on this planet, alien though his heritage might be. Ties of love and friendship bound him to this place, this world, and he was happy... so happy... even in the face of such a towering loss. He gently lowered his father's head to the pillows on the bed and moved to pull his wife and son into a close embrace. He'd never be without his father, not really. Sandoval's invisible fingerprints were there in every aspect of his life... there wasn't a part of it he hadn't touched.
Liam smiled and sent out a silent thought. Love you, Dad. Take care of Mom.
Liam paused in mid-sentence as his global signalled a message. His people knew he was giving a security briefing to Zo'or and they'd only interrupt that for something major. Apologising to the Synod leader for the interruption, Liam flicked open the global to see the excited face of his son. "Robbie? Is everything okay?"
"Better than okay!" said the ecstatic teen. "It's time! Mom's in the early stages of labour. Lissa said to call you and tell you to, and I quote, 'Get your Protector butt down to the hospital!'"
Liam grinned and said, "I'll be there as soon as I can, Robbie." Flicking the global shut, he turned to address Zo'or, but the Synod leader beat him to the punch, saying, "Go, Colonel Kincaid. The briefing can wait. Let us know when the birth of your children has occurred."
Not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, Liam smiled and said, "Thank you, Zo'or." He quickly exited the bridge and found his aide - and one of his father's former bodyguards - waiting in the corridor for him. "Talk to me, Jen."
Grinning, Jennifer McCulloch said, "Shuttle's waiting in the launch bay for you, Liam. Michael is doing pre-flight as we speak... he'll take you straight to the hospital and then head off to the Washington Embassy. The minute we get the word that everything's okay and visitors are allowed, he'll bring Da'an to the hospital.
"You know, I don't think I've ever seen Da'an actually be excited before."
"I know," said Liam with a smile. "It's kinda sweet, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir," said Jen with a laugh. They'd reached the launch bay so she said, "Give Renee and Robbie my best, and I hope everything goes smoothly. I'll head down to DC and get the cover rota in place. I know you can't take the time off right now because of the security preparations for the Jaridian delegation due to arrive next month, but the entire Protector and Volunteer Corps have volunteered to take up as much slack as they can so you can have some time with your kids."
"Thanks, Jen. You're a godsend."
Jennifer McCulloch watched the shuttle take off and murmured, "No, Liam. You are. You proved to us that Sandoval had a heart, and you've brought us back from the edge of darkness. We're actually doing some good here now and that's your doing. We all know that."
Fifteen hours later, one hand smoothing the hair off of his wife's forehead; the other clasping tightly to her hand, Liam said, "You did great, Renee. I love you so much, sweetheart."
Smiling tiredly, Renee raised their clasped hands to her lips and kissed her husband's fingers, murmuring, "Love you too, Liam. Always will."
Liam smiled at her and then turned his head to check with Lissa... she'd said that everything was fine... but he had to be sure. "Lissa?"
Their doctor... their friend... approached him, carefully cradling a tiny bundle in her arms. "Liam, say hello to your son before he heads off to the nursery to join his big sister."
With an infinitely gentle finger, Liam traced a path down his son's cheek and murmured, "Welcome to the world, my son." He smiled in delight when a tiny hand reached out and grabbed at the finger, holding tightly.
Lissa smiled at the loving wonder in his eyes as she moved over so that the proud mamma could give her little boy a kiss on the forehead. That done, she said, "They'll both be back before you know it, and, in the meantime, there's a teenager wearing a groove in the corridor floor he's that eager to see his family."
Renee grinned and said, "Robbie! Can he go with you to the nursery to see the babies and then come in?"
"Of course he can, Renee. It'd take a herd of wild elephants to keep him away."
Everyone laughed at that. For the past couple of months Robbie had been a teen possessed. The nursery for the twins had been decorated by Robbie and the family's Volunteer security escort - they'd demanded to be let in on the fun. There was a menagerie of cuddly toys for the twins, and a roster of people willing to baby-sit.
Two months later
Renee stood in the doorway of the nursery, Liam behind her; his arms around her waist, her head nestling back against his shoulder. The room was lit by a soft night-light and the scene inside was breathtakingly beautiful.
The two exquisitely hand-carved cribs sat close to one another, the children sleeping peacefully. The gift that Robbie and Sandoval had made for the twins had reduced them both to tears the first time they'd saw them. The hours of care and devotion that had been poured into the cribs were clearly visible in every smooth curve and every carefully crafted pattern. Added to that, was the hand crafted lace coverings that had belonged to Sandoval's own great-grandmother... coverings that had been used for the cribs that had been hand-carved - a family tradition - for his grandfather and his twin brother.
Tears shining in his own eyes when his parents thanked him, Robbie had said, "I wanted to do something special and granddad suggested this. We had so much fun carving them, I..." Sorrow had cut off his voice then, but it hadn't mattered. His parents' arms had wrapped around him then, cocooning him in shared memories and love.
Now, Robbie slept in the rocking chair that sat sentry between the two cribs, keeping watch over his brother and sister; he'd be awake the moment he sensed either of them needed him.
Renee and Liam looked at the sight of their three children and they knew that they were blessed. Pulling the door softly so that it was almost shut, they left their older son to watch over the babies and retired to their own room. Tomorrow was the day of the christening and they needed to get their rest too.
Tomorrow, Jonathan Ronald Kincaid and Lili Siobhan Kincaid would be christened in St. Michael's Church, held lovingly in the arms of their godparents, Joshua Doors and Lissa Park.
There was a guest list of hundreds for this christening, everyone from Hubble Urick to Zo'or and Da'an would be there, though the majority of those present would be Companion or Volunteer personnel. The Kincaid twins had generated a wealth of headlines to a public captivated by the story of how such an unusually powerful yet gentle family had taken shape.
Liam and Renee both knew why. First, there had been the poignant story of Robbie Samuels and the happy ending when the boy and his chosen father had been granted legal custody. Next, to the public's viewpoint, there was the love story between the soft-spoken yet courageous Protector and the CEO that had captured his heart. The messages of sympathy that they'd received after Sandoval's funeral showed that, while not fully understanding its depth, the public felt their grief and sympathised... and now there was joy again.
Jack and Lili, the Kincaid Twins, captured hearts wherever they went - and it wasn't just that they were proud parents that they thought so.
Doors International media consultants had explained it to them. The public was fascinated by the fairy-tale happiness that the Kincaid family seemed to embody. Media intrusion on the family's lives was kept to a minimum, everyone well remembered the fiasco and near tragedy of the accident that an overzealous media had caused for Robbie Samuels. That said, the consultants had explained what they'd already come to realise... their family was news. Consequently, they'd allowed access to a point but no further. Neither the media nor the public pushed the boundaries, which was just as well because the Volunteers were vigilant in their protection of the family.
It was a long time since anybody had believed in happy endings. No one, not the Volunteers, not the media, and not the public, wanted to do anything to spoil this one. The public looked forward to watching this young family grow and mature... it had the seeds of greatness buried in it... all that was needed was the chance to let them grow.