Title: Relationship (As the Pictures Go)
Characters: OCs, young!Rodney, young!Jennifer
Rating: Adult for concepts
Spoilers/Timeline: Prequel to a post-series story
Warnings: Underage sexual activity; creepy dysfunctional OC behavior; possible voyeurism trigger; implications of content in the first part.
Credits: Beta by sophia_sol, who pointed out where I yet again failed to include enough motivation in the actual text for certain reactions to make sense; all remaining mistakes mine.
Notes: This is the backstory/prequel I worked from when writing the first part; it's low on the conspiracy/long-lasting implications angle, but probably no less creepy. Other backstory interpretations are possible, and if anyone wants to try writing them, please feel free (and to let me know, because I'm curious). Incidentally, I tend to hate when fics assign first names to the parents of canon characters — I'm weird, I know — but it was unavoidable here, so my apologies.
Policies: All feedback of any length, including constructive criticism, always welcome. If my warnings for triggers/squick are inadequate, please let me know.
Archives: At Dreamwidth; As chapter at AO3
Summary: Neither Rodney nor Jennifer had any idea how it had happened, but one person knew the entire truth.
Joe Esposito loved Anne Lundquist, and she loved him.
She declined his proposal.
"I can't," she said, smiling sadly across the restaurant table. "I can't do this."
He wanted to protest, to ask what she meant, but he knew. He knew because he'd had to reschedule the dinner twice, and he had been half an hour late, all because of his work. He had still hoped.
"I need someone who will be there," she explained. "I need someone who can make promises. I need to know my husband will come home, every night. I need my children to know their father will always have time for them."
Joe swallowed. "I can't."
Her smile grew a little bigger, still so gentle. "I know. I know that Joe, I really do. I would never ask you not to do what you're doing. It's too important — to everyone, and to you." She reached across the table and took his hand. "I want you to be happy. You deserve that. You deserve a wife who can support you, who won't resent your job … or you. I just can't be that for you."
He was very good at controlling his expression. With his job, he had to be. He made the right faces and said the right things, knowing he could never let her see what her refusal meant. She had to believe he could move on, for her sake. He loved her too much to bind her to him with pity.
She wanted to remain friends. He wasn't strong enough to refuse.
A few months later she met a nice, dull man from a nice, dull town and with a nice, dull job. Bill Keller was a good man she could rely on, and he made her happy. Two years later, Joe danced with her at her wedding and kissed her on the cheek.
Joe never married.
Anne and Bill settled in Chippewa Falls, of all places.
Joe gave them a crock pot and complimented the modest home. He smiled dutifully at the picturesque yard. He didn't tell Anne he could have given her Paris or Lisbon or Hong Kong; she would have loved to see them, but she didn't want that life.
Without her, neither did he. He took an apartment in Minneapolis and made it clear he was willing to take any assignments in that region. His job didn't particularly allow selection of assignments, of course, but more choice assignments would be coveted, so his willingness to take lesser work would be a factor. The location meant a lot of time in the air, getting to DC or bouncing from one of the coasts to parts classified, because Canada wasn't exactly a hotbed of anything, but it kept him close enough to see her occasionally.
"So, why Chippewa Falls?" he asked late that first day, once he was sure he could sound mildly interested rather than mocking. He leaned against the standard-issue tree in the standard-issue backyard and took a sip of the standard-issue beer Bill had offered him.
"Bill's from the area," she answered, rubbing the man's arm with affection. "His parents are just a few miles away." She looked up at the house and smiled happily, her gaze on one of the two small rooms she had particularly shown him — one decorated by the previous owners in pink and one in blue. "And it's a perfect place to raise a family."
Years passed. Ford to Carter. The IRA and the TWA 841 to the Rockefeller Commission and Saigon to the Saur Revolution and Iran. The rise and fall of disco.
Joe saw Anne — and Bill — every few months, give or take. Each time, her smile was dimmer, slower. There were no toys in the yard. The two small rooms waited, staged and empty.
He offered, eventually.
He didn't want to complicate anything, and he certainly didn't want children. But he couldn't bear to see her in pain, and she had sobbed once she was positive Bill was asleep upstairs, letting Joe hold her for the first time in years.
So he held her through the tears, and he gave her tissues to wipe her face afterwards, and he let her regain her composure. And then he offered — no strings, no attachments, no contact between them if she preferred, no one told.
But she refused.
She couldn't do that to him, she said. She couldn't hurt Bill like that.
Joe didn't give a good goddamn about Bill, not when he was hurting Anne this way, regardless of whether it was anyone's fault. Anne said no, though, and he would respect her wishes. Bill would almost certainly have known, given his Scandinavian coloring and Anne's fair features and Joe's far darker hair and eyes and skin. They couldn't count on chance hiding the truth, and Anne wanted Bill enough to deny even this.
Joe made the right faces and said the right things and carefully buried his fury.
Joe's quiet little patch of the country suddenly became a lot more interesting when a nuclear device turned up in Toronto, of all places. He and several other agents were hustled over only to find themselves, after several hours of confusion and tense confrontations, facing a startled but smug preteen.
The kid readily admitted building the thing. That was a problem, because both they and the Canadian agents were fully prepared to have to work a canny agent or terrified stooge. The Canadians were convinced the kid must be part of the youth brigade of some Quebecois separatist thing, while the American agents had a wide variety of potential groups to suspect. The kid didn't act at all the way he should have, which threw them all off. He didn't boast that his group/nation/sect/movement would soon vanquish the capitalists/Yankees/unbelievers/Anglopho
He didn't even ask for his parents. Oh, he threatened with them, insisting that no one could question him without his parents present, but he never once actually asked for them the way any normal kid facing interrogation would. He was arrogant, he was as profoundly condescending as Joe had thought only an older teenager could be, and a bitter anger simmered just below the surface. He answered questions with the same eye-rolling exasperation and rapid, hyper-literate delivery whether he was responding in English or slightly stilted French, automatically matching the language of the questions.
It took six frustrating hours for them all to accept that he really was just a kid with more brains than sense.
From that point on, though, Joe's bosses made sure someone had a general eye on the kid. A twelve-year-old who could go from an aspiring professional pianist to the sole builder of a fuel-ready atomic bomb in a couple of months, obviously with no useful adult supervision worth mentioning, was not someone the CIA planned to lose track of.
Anne and Bill had a barbecue later that summer. It wasn't for the Fourth or for Labor Day; their neighbors had kids, so they always went over to one of the neighbors' for those cookouts. This was just an ordinary August day.
Joe noticed Anne's taut smile before anything else. She was facing one of the neighbors, a woman proudly showing off a toddler. He edged closer to hear Anne calling the girl a "perfect little angel", her smile a rubber band stretched to the breaking point.
Joe closed the gap smoothly. "Hey there, Anne. Sorry to interrupt, but Bill said I should remind you about the marinade."
"Oh, of course. I'd better go get that now." She smiled at Joe, smiled at the woman, smiled at the kid, and hurried into the house.
She came back out again about ten minutes later, clear-eyed and empty-handed, and trailed her fingers across his arm for just a moment in thanks.
That winter Joe drew a month watching the Toronto brat, Meredith. Or Rodney, as he was apparently still insisting. For six solid hours of questioning, the boy had refused to respond to his first name. That phase was apparently still in effect.
They didn't have anything like full-time coverage, not without evident reason and without Canadian clearance, but they made sure to look in on him a few times a week, just watching for trends or trouble spots. Paperwork could be done anywhere, and there were a few groups worth monitoring in the area for the majority of their time and attention.
Joe found himself spending more time than he planned on the kid, watching from cars or wandering adjacent aisles. You'd think the parents might have learned a lesson about keeping an eye on him themselves, but the kid seemed to wander almost at will.
During school hours, Rodney spent about half the day in the school library, working through classes on his own. The system had been keeping him with his age group, but the bomb had apparently changed their minds and they were letting him speed through the remainder of his schooling. Joe wasn't sure that was a great idea, considering what the boy thought was a great idea, but he could see why the school might want to hurry him along and out of their hands.
Rodney showed every indication of being fully invested in this plan, working far more steadily than anyone that age should. He took plenty of breaks for water or hidden snacks, but he always went right back to work, never pausing to wander the library or doodle aimlessly. The one thing he didn't do was work through lunch, instead storing his papers and books carefully in his locker before heading to the lunchroom and then bolting his food down swiftly before heading back.
He was still an obnoxious little twerp, but his mouth didn't get him in as much trouble as it should have. Nearby adults were swift to step in, and the boy often looked briefly startled by the interruption but then smug. Joe was certain the boy didn't see the fear in the adults' eyes.
Outside school, Rodney spent most of his time in the nearest branch of the city library or in his room. Sometimes he had a small girl with him, the younger sister, and he didn't appear to enjoy being responsible for her but he always took her hand for road crossings. She spent a lot of time mimicking him or yelling, and he would frequently yell back but he never once raised a hand to her. Not to hit, anyway; the kid tended to flail when he was agitated.
One day stuck with Joe particularly. It was cold, snow from the last storm still covering the landscape but the roads clear. Joe was doing paperwork in his car that morning, the McKay house in sight, and thinking about the warmer climes he could have been in that very moment if he had made different choices. Both kids emerged from the front door, the girl hurrying over to her lopsided snowman and the boy hovering near the door, clutching a book. They both had heavy coats and gloves. When Joe was the boy's age, everyone's hair had been kept tidily short, but Rodney's loose curls were in the longer style that was now common. In their winter caps, the two children looked remarkably similar, her bright gold curls and his darker blond ones haloing around their faces.
Perfect little angels. To look at them, anyway.
The girl played around for a while as the boy sat on the steps to read his book. She eventually went over and pulled on his arm, and after a brief resistance he put down the book to join her. They played with the snow for a few minutes, but then they disagreed about something, the girl stubbornly refusing and the boy gesturing with increasingly broad motions. Finally the boy went back to his book, ignoring the girl, though he did look up every now and then as if to make sure she hadn't wandered into the street.
The girl went back to her snowman for a while longer, then spun in a circle until she fell down, then made a snow angel. She stood up from that and planted her hands on her hips, considering the shape she'd made. Then she went over to the boy, who tried to send her away again. It took him several tries and some yelling, but eventually she stomped away a few feet, her little arms folded across her chest.
Then she scooped up a double handful of snow, pressed it together, and threw it at her brother.
He scrambled up, frantically brushing the snow off the book and himself, yelling again. Joe thought he heard a giggle as the girl prepared and threw a second snowball, which just made the boy angrier. After the third, he put the book down by the door and started throwing snow back at her.
The girl had the better arm.
The girl was playing, the boy really wasn't, and they traded several volleys before the door opened. Both children immediately pointed to each other, though anyone could have predicted the twelve-and-a-half-year-old wasn't winning that argument against the four-year-old. The boy's arms were soon flapping in outrage and the door closed again.
The boy said something to the girl and went to sit back down. After a few seconds she knelt, clearly meaning to scoop up more snow, but the boy stood again and went over to her, bending over to say something right into her face. He went back to his book, and she threw a handful of snow at the car before stomping back over to her snowman.
After about twenty minutes she went back over to her brother, apparently asking something because the boy shook his head, not looking up. She didn't move away, though, and after another minute or two she burrowed in against his side, huddling against him. The boy looked up at the house and shook his head again, moving his arm to wrap it around her. They stayed that way for a few minutes, and then the boy stood, tucking the book up under one arm and holding his other hand out to his sister. They headed away from the house and down the street, not looking back even once.
After a few minutes Joe got out and strolled after them. He caught up with them at the library, where the boy was softly reading something complex about black holes to his sister as she dozed against him.
Joe couldn't imagine any sort of national security threat stemming from Canadian almost-teens reading about black holes, so he headed back to his car. The whole way back, he tried not to think how well Anne would have fit with the two children, or how certain he was that she would have been out there with them and bundling them back inside when they got cold or tired, or how much it pissed him off that the whole world seemed to be divided between those who had and didn't deserve, and those who deserved and couldn't have.
Anne invited Joe every holiday. He could make no promises, of course, but he was able to be there for the next Easter. He expected a big meal, perhaps also a church service, but Anne had volunteered to help coordinate the Easter egg hunt.
He and Bill watched from well to the side. Bill tried to chat with him about some crazy baseball game over in New England the night before, based on some second- or third-hand account he'd gotten. Bill looked anywhere but at the field of children.
Joe nodded along to the story, watching as Anne went to the rescue of overwhelmed or outnumbered parents. She moved from one frustrated or distressed child to the next, soothing and calming them, encouraging them towards easy finds.
She remained until every child had been gathered back by their parents and bustled away. Even then she lingered, clearing bits of litter and the occasional unfound egg, until Bill went out to draw her away.
September and Joe was back in Toronto. The city was no more interesting this time than the last.
The McKay boy was still speeding through his coursework, setting his own pace for math and science and grudgingly fulfilling double-time requirements for everything else. He was being allowed to take a couple of classes at a nearby college, as well, math and science again, though Joe wondered where the kid found the time.
He went through the latest observations while McKay was at school. Someone had tracked down a proud parent's 8mm film of a recital from back in 1979, so he went ahead and watched the dupe his people had made of that. Which kid the recording was for was revealed by a burst of applause very near the camera's microphone; that kid sounded okay to Joe's untrained ears but nothing special. The recording kept going, though, through players decent and bad, until the final performer was announced. Meredith McKay, the woman stated, and the kid made no objection to that, just nodding and sitting to play.
Even Joe could tell he was far beyond the others, the selection significantly more complex, the notes as perfect and precise as a music box.
This was why they still had an eye on him. This recital was only two years earlier, and every indication they had was clear: The boy cared only about the piano. Someone that focused simply didn't turn into a science prodigy in the space of months, not without deserving real attention.
The science wasn't as completely unfounded as they had initially thought, at least. The father, they had learned, had been setting extra coursework since the kid could read, so McKay had exposure to far more of the basics of science than his classes had suggested. He was further along still with math. "Musician," one of the other agents said, agreeing. "Makes sense." Joe didn't see the connection, but he would accept that there was one.
That foundation made McKay's leap into successful bomb design in such a short period merely worrying rather than impossible. Worrying and worth attention. Someone would find a way to make use of that kind of adaptable intelligence.
It was always possible it would all come to nothing, though, because McKay had hit puberty in a major way.
That had apparently really kicked in over the summer, going by the notes of the previous agents, and Joe saw it pretty quickly himself. McKay had eyes for nearly every female figure to cross his path, and several times he had been seen hurrying to the nearest restroom, emerging pink but relieved. So far he was keeping up with his excessive schoolwork despite the distraction, but there was no telling how long that would last.
Several agents were quietly betting McKay's studying pace would falter as he turned his attention to the opposite sex, idling as his peers caught up. The majority didn't really buy that it would happen, but pretty much all of them wouldn't have minded. This assignment, even as part-time coverage, was no one's favorite.
The same arrangement held at the local school, so Joe didn't bother to spend much time there. After that, several days a week, McKay made his way over to the college that was letting him sit in on classes. Joe sat in on a few of those, too, which turned out to be a good call, because he soon noticed other students approaching McKay for quiet conversations. McKay wasn't heading directly home after most classes, either.
Maybe the surveillance would pay off after all.
Joe trailed McKay one afternoon the following week and watched as he went into a fraternity house. Joe's generic workman's uniform and tool kit would suffice, so he waited a short while and then headed in himself, waving his mock school identification at the guy watching the door and muttering about the electrical system. He poked around, touring the house by way of its light switches and power outlets, until he heard McKay's strident tones all the way from the other end of a hall.
McKay sounded worked up but not immediately distressed, so Joe moved carefully towards the room until he could hear conversation easily. He didn't have to wait long before McKay spoke again. "No! Look, if you do that, you'll end up with x = -x. It's wrong!" McKay let out a long groan of frustration. "Come on, this is easy. My little sister could do this and she's only four and a half!"
The strange thing was that he might not be wrong about that. The girl had been tested, and she was very likely to follow in her brother's footsteps. Intellectually, at least. Quite a few people were determined that she would not be following McKay's example of bomb-making.
Maybe there was something in the water.
The second person's words became clear for the first time as his volume rose in frustration. "So I don't get it! That's what I'm paying you for! Explain it, already!"
"I'm not sure you're paying me enough," McKay shot back, but the two apparently settled down. Joe had heard enough anyway. The conversations and meet-ups weren't any kind of conspiracy. As daunting as the prospect might be, McKay was just tutoring, never mind that his students were almost half again his age.
Joe didn't drop it immediately; he was a professional, and this was something they had to be sure about. He contrived to eavesdrop on another three sessions, managing to fix a broken light switch entirely by chance in the process, but he heard nothing to suggest the tutoring sessions were anything but what they seemed.
That third session was on the weekend, and McKay didn't leave the fraternity afterwards. The session had run long, a good half hour into the start of a party downstairs, and rather than heading home, McKay wandered into the party, eyeing the girls with appreciation.
Joe trailed him, as much from concern as duty. McKay really was too young for this sort of thing, but no one seemed to care. A couple of guys looked ready to kick McKay out, but they ended up shrugging and ignoring him, possibly because McKay was tutoring several of them. If McKay's parents cared where he was, it would be a first.
Joe kept to the edges, inconspicuous in the dim light, just keeping an eye out. Over the next couple of hours, the partiers passed from raucousness to intensity, finding meaning in drinks or in each other.
McKay wound up on a sofa in a corner with a profoundly drunk coed, a blonde with that ice skater's haircut. She was giggling at him, and her giggling only increased when he cautiously felt her breasts. Joe edged closer, trying to decide if there was a point at which he should intervene. He could probably manage it without blowing his cover, but it was a risk.
The two groped for a bit, the girl soon guiding McKay's hand up under her short skirt. After he had poked around a while to her murmured directions, she reached over to unfasten his pants, but he batted that hand away.
Apparently McKay had drawn lessons from the fact his parents had married only five months before he was born. Joe sighed quietly in relief that McKay did have some amount of sense and control.
That control didn't extend to his physical reaction, though. He was plainly aroused, and it wasn't long at all before he was thrusting his clothed crotch against the girl's caressing hand and then stiffening and gasping with release.
He didn't stay with the girl much longer, leaving her to mutter a disgusted "Pig" as he headed for the bathroom, walking with obvious discomfort. A couple of minutes later he emerged, walking with a completely different awkward stride, so Joe slipped into the bathroom to poke around.
The explanation was easy to find. McKay's briefs rested at the top of the trash, nestled in a thick bed of paper towels.
It shouldn't have meant anything at all. Joe should have turned and left, following until McKay got home and then going on with his life.
The problem was that he stopped to think.
He didn't do it on purpose. He simply noticed the emission-stained underwear and happened to wonder why McKay's parents didn't bother to do their job of keeping track of him.
Unfortunately that simple thought cascaded. Parents. Those who shouldn't be and those who should. Children growing up too quickly and perfect little angels. Haloes of bright hair. Why Joe couldn't help Anne himself, and what Bill couldn't give her.
What was right in front of Joe now.
It was a party. There were all sorts of supplies in the kitchen, such as sandwich bags and ice. Plastic spoons. Even a Thermos.
Joe waited in his car, a few houses away, until Bill emerged for some kind of yardwork. A couple of minutes after that, he pulled up to their house, raising a hand in casual greeting to Bill as he rang the doorbell.
Anne looked confused and then quietly pleased when she answered the door. He didn't give her a chance to speak, shoving the Thermos into her hands and making her look confused again.
"It's not mine," he said immediately. "I swear to you, it's not mine. You don't know him. He doesn't know about this. He'll never know."
"Joe? What is this?"
He gave her a tiny smile. "Blond hair, blue eyes. Just like Bill." She started to frown, started to understand. "Very intelligent," he added. "Even plays piano."
She gasped, her eyes wide with shock and horror. "No. No, Joe, I can't —"
"Anne, please," he said, pouring the full measure of his love for her into his intensity. "This isn't about what I need. It's not about what Bill needs. It's about what you need. Please, just one time, take care of yourself. Just once."
He turned and left swiftly before she could find her voice, waving to Bill again on the way. He had spent less than five minutes there, both of them in full view, so no one would suspect her of any impropriety with him. That was important, because her reputation mattered to him. She mattered to him, more than anything else in his life.
He saw now that he would do anything, quite literally anything, for her.
As soon as he got to his apartment, he called his boss and asked for the most remote assignment possible.
The invitations stopped.
He wouldn't have been around for them anyway, too busy with crash courses in Spanish and trips southward, but he checked his answering machine and had someone keeping an eye on his mail. No word from them for months, a year.
He finally did get word from them, well over a year later. The envelope held only a clipping from a newspaper. It was a birth announcement, the date about nine months after Joe's last visit.
They had named their daughter Jennifer.
Years passed. Reagan, Gorbachev, Thatcher. Afghanistan, the Falklands, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, Libya. Air India 182, proving once again that Canadians weren't as quiet as they seemed. Chernobyl and the Challenger. Iran-Contra, Pinochet, Duvalier. Political structures changing in Central America and Eastern Europe with dizzying speed.
Joe expected he wouldn't see Anne again, so the invitation was a surprise.
It didn't seem to be for anything in particular. It simply asked that he visit sometime that summer, just to catch up, since it had been so long.
He knew better than to go. He went anyway.
It was awkward. Bill was cool and distant, though not as actively aggressive as Joe had expected. Anne was stiff and uneasy. They asked politely how he'd been, and he gave the usual empty answers. He asked how they'd been, and they answered with similarly empty phrases.
They both changed completely when the girl came racing into the room, shouting, "Daddy, daddy, daddy!"
Bill caught her up easily, smiling as he pointed out that they had company. The girl looked up at Joe with wide eyes, shyly pressing herself against Bill's legs but offering a quiet greeting when prompted.
After that Joe was swept into a tour of the house and their current life. The girl soon overcame her shyness and turned out to be quite the chatterbox, merrily telling whichever adult was nearest stories about her toys, her friends, or animals she'd seen.
Joe didn't realize Bill was waiting for an opening until Anne was busy helping Jenny get something to drink, though he should have been more careful. The anger he was expecting didn't appear, though. Bill just looked steadily into the kitchen, away from Joe, as he spoke. "Look, what you did … whatever you did, it was wrong. But …." He cleared his throat softly. "Thank you. For Jenny. Thank you."
Joe nodded stiffly and headed into the kitchen, because he hadn't done anything for Bill's sake.
The brief moment he had alone with Anne didn't go as he expected, either. They sat in the living room and Anne told happy stories of her daughter as Jenny played with one of her toys and Bill went to prep the grill.
The girl marched up to Joe and shoved one end of her toy stethoscope against Joe's navel. "You have appendix-itis," she declared firmly. She went over to her tea set, carefully poured imaginary tea into one of the cups, and presented it to him as his medicine. He thanked her and mimed sipping from the cup until she turned away.
"She's different," Anne said abruptly.
Joe looked over at her and said nothing.
Anne kept her voice low. "She's smart. Really smart. She's already reading. Not just easy books, either. She picks things up so fast … I couldn't leave her alone for even a second, for years, because she'd get past anything. She says she wants to be a doctor, and the questions she asked at the last visit, they were so …. She doesn't really play with other children her age, because she gets bored. This isn't … I don't know what to do."
"Don't hold her back," Joe said. He had seen what that kind of intelligence turned into after years of boredom, frustration, and social isolation. "If she needs to skip ahead, make sure they let her."
"But she won't fit in," Anne protested.
"She doesn't now," Joe pointed out. Anne winced, conceding. "Don't make that worse. Make sure she has enough to challenge her. It'll help. Trust me."
Anne nodded. They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the girl tend one of her stuffed animals.
Joe understood that she was shaken to see traits that came from someone she'd never met, especially considering what suspicions she might have had about how Joe came across him, given what she knew about his line of work. Anyone could see the girl was at least as much Anne, though, if not more. She might have gotten McKay's intelligence, but her eyes and her smile were entirely Anne's, and the hair could have been from either or both of them. Personality was always hard to figure out, but nothing about the girl reminded him of McKay at all, and with Anne for a mother, he was sure she would never become like him, either.
"What about music?" Joe asked finally. That was the only other thing he had told Anne about McKay. "You try her on the piano?"
Anne laughed shakily. "No. No, she's terrible at it." Joe smiled at that. The girl was lecturing a teddy bear sternly, so he could pretend he hadn't heard Anne add a whispered, "Thank God." He could pretend he hadn't seen a hint of fear shadowing the love and affection in her eyes when she looked at her daughter.
The years slipped by faster and faster. Once the Soviet Union fell, nothing was the same; the Cold War was his career, and he wasn't quite young enough to adjust easily. The Berlin Wall fell, and suddenly it was the Gulf War, Bosnia and the Chechens, Rwanda and Kosovo. Skirmishes in a much larger war were abandoned in favor of bloodbaths for only their stated purpose. Within the US, political espionage was out and political bombings were in, as if even these were merely matters of fashion.
Even Canada followed suit, in its pallid way, its political parties decentralizing and the country itself flirting with fragmentation, though that passed soon enough.
Joe still heard from Toronto 80, that loose grouping of agents who had spent time tracking McKay in the early 80s and who had given themselves the name in the solidarity of boredom. They caught up with one another from time to time, as they crossed paths, content to share something so mundane. According to them, McKay hadn't burned out at all and had successfully been wooed to work with the US military, so he counted as a success.
Joe was relieved, because there had always been a small chance that Jenny and McKay might run into each other at some college or another. Luckily, the best pre-med and medical schools for a student who wanted to stay near her home in Wisconsin didn't overlap much with the sort of hard-science schools preferred by a student trying to get as far from Toronto as practical.
Then Anne was gone.
Jenny was still a little unsteady in heels. Joe hadn't seen enough of her recently to know if that was because of lack of practice or because she hadn't yet grown comfortable in her body. She circulated among the mourners dutifully, but her eyes were red and she clutched a handkerchief in one hand.
"Sorry about your mom, Jenny," Joe said when she greeted him.
"Jennifer," she responded automatically. Then she shook herself and gave him an apologetic smile. Anne's smile. "Sorry, Uncle Joe. It's just, I'm trying to go by Jennifer now. People don't really take me seriously if they call me Jenny."
McKay had scowled. It's Rodney, he had insisted. Rod-ney. I can use my middle name if I want. He hadn't apologized.
Joe nodded. "Jennifer, then." He moved smoothly on into soothing, meaningless conversation, knowing that this might be the last time they ever spoke.
Because with Anne gone, everything would change.
His only obligation had always been to Anne. He had been ready to hide McKay's identity for the rest of their lives, for her sake. Now, though, any obligation he had left was to Jenny — Jennifer — and that only because of the faint echo of Anne he could see in her. He had to make sure that if Jennifer needed to get to her one surviving genetic parent for some reason, she could.
McKay was linked to some program Joe couldn't even get a whisper about, but he knew people who would know the right people. He could pull strings to make sure Jennifer was given every chance to end up somewhere near McKay. She was a doctor; they were useful anywhere, and she was brilliant enough to write her own ticket to nearly any program that existed.
He would arrange this one last thing for her, as his final gift to Anne.
They talked briefly about her work and about what her father would do now. As they spoke, Joe made the right faces and said the right things, carefully hiding that he no longer felt anything at all.