Rating: General -- but please see authors notes for relevant warnings.

Feedback: jessriley80@yahoo.com.au


Jess Riley

Shit, there it was again. It was soft, barely audible, but it was relentless and as annoying as hell. Whoever it was knocking on the door at this ungodly hour of the morning was about to feel the ire of the Ellison temper. After spending the last thirty-six hours on his feet, Ellison was tired. No, rephrase that; he was dead tired, and the idiot on the other side of the door was about to bear the brunt of his exhaustion.

Heaving himself out of bed, Jim pounded down the stairs, his fists tight with the frustration and anger that came hand in hand with sheer fatigue. He didn't look through the peephole; an army buddy who had lost an eye and left most of his brain decorating a motel wall had rid him of that habit long ago. Instead, he flung open the door. As it moved left, he moved right -- another habit learned long ago. He spoke abruptly, his words mindless and not considerate of his audience. "Do you have any fucking idea what time it is?"

The young boy, small and insignificant -- even more so against Ellison's large frame -- didn't move an inch as the sharp words echoed down the corridor.

"Crap," Ellison swore, when he realised his mistake. He took a slight step back, wondering what to do next. He wasn't good with children.

"Hey kid, where's your mom?" he finally asked.

The child didn't answer. He just stood there, staring up with big blue eyes that were brimming with tears.

"Crap," Ellison swore again. The poor little guy couldn't have been more than three, and he'd just let rip with an anger that would have had your average man backing away. But to his credit, the kid held his ground.

Jim Ellison didn't often feel guilt, but he figured that kids and animals had a way of dragging out the most fallible of emotions. He squatted on his haunches, bringing himself down the to the kid's eye level. "I'm sorry I shouted," he mumbled uncomfortably, giving into regret -- another wasteful emotion. "Are you lost, buddy?"

The boy shook his head, the movement causing a well of tears to slide freely down his grubby cheeks.

"Hey, hey, don't cry," he attempted to comfort, awkwardly. "My name's Jim, what's yours?"

"Blaiuh." The name was barely decipherable as a string of choking sobs that strangled the child's voice.

"Where's your mother Blair?" Reaching out, Jim brushed away some of the tears that were now falling freely to the floor. "Do you live in this building?"

"Mama said to give you this." The child's arm came up to wipe at his nose before presenting a piece of paper that was scrunched up tightly in his little hand.

Taking the note that was thrust in front of his face, Jim smoothed out the paper and began to read.

Jim, this is Blair. He's your son. I know that was probably the last thing in the world you expected to hear, but I need your help. I can't look after him at the moment. It's just too much, he's too much. I've had him for three years, and now it's your turn. I need some time to get myself together. I need time to concentrate on just me for a while, and get my own life in order. I'm in a relationship with a man who I depend on, and to be honest, he and Blair don't see eye to eye. I need this time to make it work. I need you to step forward and shoulder some of the responsibility for your son. Please don't try and find me. I'll be in touch when I feel the time is right.

Naomi Sandburg.

Ellison stared at the child in disbelief. "No way. No possible way."

"Banks!" A voice just as tired and exhausted as Ellison's snapped across the phone line.

"Simon, it's Jim."

"For Christ sakes, Ellison. Do you have any idea what time it is, or when l last slept, for that matter?"

"I know Simon, and I'm sorry that I woke you, but I need you to get over here."

"Why, you need a goodnight kiss?" Banks snapped. "I'm sure if you give the blonde you were hanging around with last week a call, she'd be more than happy to come over and tuck you in."

"Simon, a kid's just appeared at my door. He had a letter in his hand. It says he's my kid."

"Ellison, why do I have to keep reminding you that you're a detective?" There was tired sigh. "You don't have a kid, so send the prankster on his way, go back upstairs, down some sleeping pills and don't call me again."

"Simon, this is no joke. I answered the door not five minutes ago, and there's this kid standing there." Jim glanced a look toward Blair who was now sitting on the sofa, clutching a small backpack like his life depended on it. "And anyway, he's got this note from a woman I once knew. A Naomi Sandburg."

"Sandburg? Don't ever recall you telling me about a Naomi Sandburg."

"That's because she was never more than a single blip on my radar. I met her about four years ago in a bar in Las Vegas."

"Ah, city of one night stands."

"Exactly. And between that and the scotch, I wasn't exactly thinking with my upstairs brain, if you know what I mean."

"Jim, just because you had a quick liaison with a strange women in a strange town doesn't automatically get your name listed on this kid's birth certificate. The kid could be anyone's."

"I know, but the date fits, and while I'm pretty sure he's not, there is a possibility he could be mine."

"Yeah," Simon agreed tiredly. "Look, give me a minute to make a few calls to see if there's been any reports of any recent missing kids and then I'll drop over. Do you want me to call Family Services to arrange for someone to pick him up?"

"No!" Jim said, a little too forcefully. "Not just yet. I need some time to get my head around this, and besides, the poor little guy's frightened enough as it is."

"Alright, I'll see you soon."

Placing the phone back on the cradle, Jim cautiously approached Blair. He took a seat on the sofa. "Hey there, Chief, are you hungry?" Kids and food; pretty basic combination, he surmised.

The kid wiped his snotty nose on his sleeve and shook his head, before answering with a broken, 'no'.

Grabbing a tissue from the box on the coffee table, Jim cleaned the child's sleeve, and attempted to do the same to his nose before the boy buried his face in the backpack he was clutching.

"I want my Mama."

Jim lightly touched the kid's back, uncertain how to give comfort. In his world, children were pretty much akin to dealing with hazardous material. Keep a safe distance and leave it to the hands of the experts. But as the kid's distress level increased, he found himself breaking his rule of leaving to those in the know and tentatively lifted Blair onto his lap. He wrapped his arms awkwardly around the child's body, drawing the kid in toward his chest. "It's gonna be alright, Chief. We'll find her. I promise."

Jim adjusted Blair's head to stop it rolling off his shoulder as he eased himself off the sofa to answer the door. Having literally cried himself to sleep, the kid was now resting fitfully in his arms. "It's about time!" he snapped, swinging open the door.

Banks didn't bother responding. He knew Jim well enough to know that the man was well and truly out of his depth. Put Ellison in room full of outlaw bikers and he'd practically be in heaven, but put him in a room with a child and the guy was about as useless as a eunuch in a whorehouse. Instead Simon studied the boy. "Have you been able to get any information out of him?"

"He's three, Simon. Exactly how much information do you expect me to get?"

"Three-year-olds can be very informative, my friend. In fact sometimes too informative," he muttered, remembering some of the embarrassing information his own son had divulged when he was three. Simon picked up the tattered, well-used backpack that was on the sofa. "Is this his?"

"Yeah." Jim unconsciously patted Blair's back.

Dumping the contents onto the sofa, Banks began to sort through the pile. "There doesn't appear to be anything here that'll shed any light on where he came from." He picked up a few of the items. "Just a few drawings, an old book, a bear -- well-loved, by the looks of it -- and a few threadbare clothes which could do with a run through the washing machine." He stuffed the items back into the backpack. "Actually, the kid's not exactly all that clean either," he added, touching one of Blair's filthy hands.

"I know. By the smell of things I don't think he's had a bath in a while, and I also think he's coming down with a cold."

"Well, Jim, what do you want to do? Missing Persons don't have any reports of three-year-olds, and given the note he had, I'd say this is a case of the kid being dumped. Chances are that you're not his father. Until you know one way or another, despite the note, he's not your responsibility."

"What, so I let him become a statistic of Child Services based on chance?" Jim replied, angrily. "You know just as well as I do that if this kid gets sucked up into the system he could be lost in there until he's dribbling pudding down his whiskered chin." Jim tightened his grip on Blair. "Look, even if we take the note at face value, then his mother has left him in my care and technically I have her permission, so I intend to keep him with me until we can get to the bottom of this."

"Alright, alright, don't bite my head off. I just never figured you for Mary Poppins."

"He stays with me, Simon. No negotiation."

"Fine," Simon conceded. "I'll play along for the moment, but if you intend keeping him with you until we find his mother, you'll need to be more prepared than you are now."

"Prepared how?"

"Cleaning the kid up would be my first suggestion and then when he's not a walking germ factory, he could probably do with a decent meal." Simon headed into the bathroom and a few moments later, Jim heard the squeaking of faucets. "After he's clean, I'll run down to the mall and pick him up a few things to wear." Banks poked his head out of the door. "And then you can make me breakfast."

"Sounds like the start of a plan, I guess." Jim's voice held steady against the uncertainty that was beginning to settle in his gut. Moving his hand from Blair's back, he ran it lightly over the top of the youngster's head. "Hey Chief, time to wake up."

It took a few attempts but finally Blair's tired eyes willed themselves to stay open.

"Remember me, kiddo?" Jim asked.

Blair stared at him, not saying a word.

"I know you must be hungry, but I thought it might be a good idea to have a bit of a cleanup before breakfast." Jim kept talking as he carried Blair toward the bathroom. "Do you like pancakes, squirt?"

"He looks like a pancake man to me." Simon slung the towel he was carrying over his shoulder. "Chocolate pancakes if I had to make a guess."

The moment Blair heard the stranger's voice, he swiveled around and locked eyes with Simon.

"Hey, Chief, it's okay," Jim assured, feeling the muscle in Blair's back tense beneath his fingertips. "This is my friend Simon. He's a police captain, and he's going to help us find your mom."

Simon moved closer to Blair and extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Blair."

With one hand wound tightly around the fabric of Ellison's robe, Blair scanned Jim's face for reassurance.

"It's okay, kiddo. Simon won't hurt you." In an attempt to keep up the momentum, Jim pushed past Simon and into the bathroom. "Okay Chief, how about that bath?" Bending down, he placed Blair on the floor beside the tub. "You need some help with your duds?"

With Jim's hands no longer restraining him, Blair made his move. He backed into the corner, as far away from the two men as he could manage in the small room.

"Why do I get the impression we've just broken a cardinal rule?" Jim muttered quietly.

"'Why' is the golden question, detective," Simon muttered back. He crouched down in an attempt to bring himself closer to Blair's eye level. "It's okay, Blair. We're not going to hurt you or make you do anything you don't want to do. Hey, I tell you what," he said. "You look like you're a big boy. How about Jim and I leave the room while you undress yourself and hop into the tub? How does that sound?"

Letting his guard down for just a moment, Blair quickly glanced at the bath full of bubbles. "No looking," he said firmly, once again staring at them both intently.

"No looking, we promise." Jim tapped Simon on the shoulder as stood up. "How about you yell out as soon as you're in the tub and I'll come back in just to make sure you're okay."

With a slight nod of his head, Blair moved closer to the bath but made no attempt to remove any of his clothes.

Once outside the door, Jim leaned heavily against the wall. "You know, I know absolutely nothing about kids, but that reaction wasn't normal, was it?"

Simon mirrored Jim's action. "Not completely, at least in my experience anyway. I definitely think you should give him a few minutes to get settled before you go back in."

"And then what?"

"Then just try and be natural. Talk to him and make him feel as comfortable as possible, but whatever you do, don't touch him and if he wants you to leave the room, then you leave."

"So you think he's old enough to clean himself up without help?"

"Unfortunately Jim, I think this kid's plenty old enough."

"You think he's been abused, don't you?"

Simon paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. "That's a question I can't answer. His reaction could be purely based on the situation he's been placed in, or it could also be something both you and I are not trained to handle." He slapped Jim gently on the shoulder. "Look, I'm going to see if I can find a store open and buy him some clothes. You think you can handle the bath by yourself?"

"Yeah," Jim answered with some reluctance.

"Just keep talking to him, Jim, and keep reassuring him that nothing's going to happen to him." Pushing himself off the wall, Simon dug his hand into his trouser pocket in search of his keys. "I'll be as quick as I can."

The front door click closed, leaving Jim alone to handle a kid and a situation that was completely out of his depth. He stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his robe, suddenly realising that a robe was the only clothing he was wearing. "Hey Chief," he called out. "You gonna be okay in there if I go up stairs for a few minutes to get myself dressed?"

The answer was quiet, but very concise. "I big enough to be left alone by myself."

"Yeah, I bet you are, kiddo," Jim replied, taking the stairs to his bedroom two at a time.

Stripping out of his robe, Jim dressed quickly. Not wasting any time with socks or shoes, he bounded back down the stairs and stood at the bathroom door, drumming his fingers lightly against the partially opened door. "You okay with me coming in, Chief?"

Blair's quick answer of "ah-ha" surprised Jim but, as soon as he entered the room, he saw the reason why.

"I not never have a bath with bubbles, 'afouh," Blair said, for the first time showing Jim a smile. He squashed the bubbles in his hands, making a small fist and laughing when they squeezed out between his fingers.

Jim moved to kneel down beside the tub. "Not even once?" he asked.

"Nope, not once, not neveuh," Blair replied, shaking his head.

"So I'm guessing you like bubbles then?" Keeping his movement easy and well within Blair's line of sight, Jim plucked a washcloth off the faucet and handed it to Blair. "I thought all little kids have bubble baths." While the words coming out of Jim's mouth may have been trivial and aimed at keeping Blair comfortable with the situation, his mind was straying toward deeper, darker thoughts as he pondered the child's life.

Blair shrugged his shoulders. "Tom sayed that bubbles not let you see."

See what, and who's Tom? The two questions balanced precariously on the tip of Jim's tongue before he swallowed them. The first already had a speculative answer, and the second would be answered as soon as the investigation into Naomi Sandburg began. He didn't even want to think about a third question that crossed his mind but, as soon as it did, he had a clear-cut answer the moment Blair clambered to his feet to retrieve the rubber duck that had floated to the other end of the bath. Marring the child's buttocks and upper legs were a trail of faded bruises and marks.

The name 'Tom' had just become etched in Ellison's psyche, and question number three had become not only a crime to solve, but also an unsettling personal hurt that needed to be avenged.

Squeaky clean and wrapped in an oversized bath towel, Blair was sitting on the kitchen countertop, so totally immersed in stirring a batch of pancake batter he barely even noticed Simon's return.

"So, how'd it go?" Simon asked, offloading an armful of parcels onto the coffee table.

"Good." Jim smiled and ruffled Blair's wet curls before swinging him into his arms. "Why don't we go and see what Simon's bought, Shorty?"

Swiping one of the parcels from the table, Simon torn it open and held up a pair of jeans and a t- shirt for Blair to see.

"They new!" Blair responded, reaching out to brush his fingers against the motif on the shirt. He studied it for a moment before pushing it back toward Simon. "Mama said I not need new clothes. I gwows too quick. Just like a weed."

"Well I'll tell you what, little weed," Jim said, lowering Blair to the floor, and following suit. "Why don't we just try these on for the moment while I wash your other clothes? Simon went all the way to the store to buy these especially for you, and we wouldn't want to hurt his feelings, would we?" Pulling open another parcel, Jim held out the underwear Simon had bought.

Blair looked up at the shirt again and then at the underwear, intrigued a little by the funny blue monster staring back at him. "Okay," he relented. "But just till the othuhs be clean'd." With a hand on Jim's shoulder to steady himself, Blair stepped into the underwear, making sure they were pulled up before he dropped the towel. Without complaint, he then let Jim pull the shirt over his head and, once fully dressed, his fingers made their way to the motif on the shirt.

"Now, how about some breakfast, Munchkin?" Grabbing ahold of Blair's shirt, Jim playfully threw the child over his shoulder and pulled himself to his feet. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm as hungry as a bear."

Blair grinned a toothy smile as he was set back down on the countertop. "Me too," he said. "I as hungwy as a beauh as well."

Jim tickled Blair's sock-clad feet that were dangling over the countertop. "You're too little to be a bear."

"No I not." Blair pulled his feet away and let out a small giggle, before his expression reverted back to one of a boy with an announcement to make. "I big enough to be 'sponsible. I can get my own bweakfast," he said with a measure of pride.

"Wow, that is responsible." Jim threw a look in Simon's direction. "I bet not many three-year- olds can do that?"

"Nope," Blair agreed, shaking his head from side to side in a dramatic fashion. "I can get my own dinnuh too."

"Do you get your own dinner a lot Blair?" Simon asked, coming into the kitchen.

"Ah-ha," Blair answered as though it was nothing special. "Sometimes Mama gets weal tired and goes to sleep. I don't tell Tom I hungwy 'cause he gets mad if he gets 'sturbed."

Before Simon could ask another question, Jim changed the subject. "Who wants the first pancake?" He lifted Blair off the counter and threw him back over his shoulder. "I think this hungry bear should go first," he said, giving Blair one last quick tickle before sitting him down on a chair at the table.

It didn't take long for Blair to start feeling more at ease around the two men, and soon the room was filled with idle chatter about whatever was on the youngster's mind. Talk about his mother and the man Jim assumed was Naomi's boyfriend was conspicuously glossed over in the conversation, and both Jim and Simon were astute enough to pick up on the signals that Blair was giving out.

For the moment, off-limit subjects would remain off limits -- at least until Jim was able to gain more of the child's trust, or until the department turned up some usable information on Naomi Sandburg and her allegedly abusive boyfriend.

With breakfast over and Blair quite happily sitting on the sofa watching television, Jim stacked the dishes into the dishwasher. His thoughts didn't drift far from Blair, and the bruises he'd witnessed on his body. "Did you see how hungry the kid was?" he asked, practically throwing the frying pan into the bottom rack.

"Yeah, I noticed. It doesn't appear that he's had a decent meal in a while, but what's got me more concerned is how easily he seems to be adapting to his new situation. My guess is that's being left with strangers is not a foreign concept to the rug-rat."

Jim's gaze slid toward Blair, who was completely engrossed in whatever he was watching on the children's channel. Apart from his initial distress at being separated from his mother, the kid certainly didn't appear to be pining for her now.

"How'd it go after I left?" Simon asked, drawing Jim's immediate attention away from Blair.

"Not too bad, I think." Jim shrugged. "I went back into the bathroom and let him be the boss. We talked for a while, and once he felt a little more comfortable with me, he let me help him wash his hair."

"Did he let you towel him dry?"

"No, he said he could do that by himself, and wouldn't get out of the bath until I left the room."

"Why did you stop me from asking him questions before? The more information we have about his mother, the easier it'll be to find her."

"Because I'm pretty sure he's been abused, and if that's the case, it's like you said. It's a situation neither of us are equipped to handle."

"Did he say something to you to suggest abuse?"

"No, it was what I saw. When he was in the tub, the duck floated down to the other end and he stood up to go get it. He had bruises all over his backside, Simon. Fingertip-size bruises."

"Did you ask him about them?" Simon pressed.

Jim shook his head. "No. I held out my hand to steady him, and as soon as he realised I was looking at him he sat down right away and he shut up like a clam. It wasn't the time or the place."

"In the note he gave you, didn't this Sandburg woman say that her new boyfriend and Blair weren't seeing eye to eye?"

"Yeah, and I tell you what. If this Tom guy is responsible for those bruises, that bastard and I won't exactly be seeing eye to eye."

"While I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts, Jim, not being able to beat the crap out of scum like this guy unfortunately comes with the cop territory."

"What about the father territory, Simon? If he were your kid, what would you do?"

"Father territory?" Simon asked.

"I had sex with his mother, Simon. You need a biology lesson?" Ellison snapped.

"Then I'd beat the shit out of the guy," Simon replied, studying Jim intently.

"My point proven." Jim slammed shut the dishwasher door with enough force to make the shelves rattle. Sighing heavily, he pressed his fingertips into his temples and closed his eyes for a brief moment.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine. Just beat."

"Look, I don't think there is anything more either of us can do until we hear some news. I'm going to drop by the station and light a fire under them about finding the whereabouts of the kid's mom, and then I'm going home to get some sleep." Simon patted Jim lightly on the back, deciding to test the waters. "Are you sure you don't want me to arrange foster care for Blair? He might be better off in experienced hands."

"No, he stays with me. If Blair is my kid, then there is no way in hell I'm putting him in foster care."

"And if he isn't?"

Then I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. But either way, he stays here with me until we find out exactly what's been going on."

"Okay, subject's closed," Simon conceded. "Why don't you try and get some rest if you can, because I'm still going to need you to come into the station this afternoon and finish up those reports. I'm sorry my friend, but that can't be postponed."

"I know, and I'll be there."

Making his way into the living room, Simon picked up his jacket and keys, taking a moment to lean over the back of the sofa and tap Blair lightly on the head. "I'll see you later, Blair," he said.

Blair's eyes remained fixed on the television and an 'ah-ha' was the only response Simon received.

"Hey, Jim?" Simon asked, yanking open the front door. "Just one question. What the hell are you doing with a rubber duck?"

Ellison's response was simple. "It goes nicely with the aromatherapy lantern and bath salts."

"Now why didn't I know that?" Banks muttered, pulling the door closed behind him.

The slight smile in Jim's eyes never reached his face. If Blair was his son, his life had just been thrown into chaos. He wasn't equipped to care for a child. Hell, he didn't even know how to care for a child.

Leaning briefly against the door, he flipped the lock and wandered over to the sofa. Sitting down with a weary sigh, he took a few minutes to study Blair in an effort to try and determine whether or not a resemblance existed. Big blue eyes, framed by long, black eyelashes, complemented a clear, fair complexion and round rosy cheeks. Add to that one button nose and a mop of curly hair, and you had the recipe for only one thing -- a pretty cute kid. A cute kid that looked like him? He wasn't so certain, but if memory served correctly, an aunt a few lines back on his father's side had the same features. Giving up his analysis on the child, he couldn't help but smile when Blair burst into a round of giggles at Big Bird and his antics. "This a good show, Chief?" he asked, breaking the silence.

He was somewhat pleasantly surprised when Blair moved closer and lazily lounged across his lap before answering. "It's funny ... that buhd is silly ... how come he's so big?" Blair's hand reached up, pulling slightly at his ear.

"I guess he eats all his pancakes," Jim replied, lightly ruffling Blair's hair.

"Buhds don't eat pancakes." Blair's face became serious with concentration.

"Well, what do they eat?" Leaning forward Jim grabbed another tissue to wipe Blair's nose.

"They eat seeds and fwuit. I 'membuh seeing the birds in the pahk eat fwuit."

"Do you go to the park a lot, Chief?"

"Ah-ha." Blair tugged on his ear again. "Mama takes me when I being noisy. I have to be quiet when Tom comes home, but sometime I fohget. I and Mama go out when I fohget, 'cause if we don't, Tom gets mad at both of us."

"Does Tom ever get so mad that he sometimes hits you?" Jim asked, praying he wasn't making a huge mistake.

Blair avoided the question completely. "My name's Blaiuh, silly, not Chief. I 'membuh you name. It's Jim!" he announced, confidently.

"That's right." Jim leaned back on the cushion, taking Blair with him. "And your name's Blair, but do you mind if I call you Chief sometimes?"

"I not think so," Blair shrugged, before turning his attention back toward the television as Big Bird once again caught his eye.

Jim closed his eyes and listened to the quiet breathing of the boy on his lap. The near silent and steady breaths soon washed over his senses and it wasn't long before he felt himself drifting off to sleep. He vaguely felt Blair snuggle closer into his chest and, without consciously doing so, his arms come up and wrapped around the child's body.

Hell, I don't even like kids, was his last thought before he fell asleep.

Abruptly awakened by the ringing of the phone, Jim scrubbed a hand over his tired face before easing Blair from his chest. Blair didn't stir and remained deeply asleep as he tucked a cushion under the boy's head and reached for the phone. "Ellison," he said, still groggy, into the receiver.

"Jim, sorry to wake you and I'm sorry to have to do this to you, but you're gonna have to come in right away. There's a problem with some of the evidence, and the DA's not having one of her finest moments. I need you to finish off the reports as of yesterday. Are you okay with bringing the kid in?"

"I don't really have a choice, do I?"

"You can say you're minding your cousin's kid if you want. I'll back you up."

"I'm not ashamed of him, Simon. I was more concerned about taking him into a busy police station and subjecting him to more strangers."

"Jim, I'm sorry, but we need to get this sorted out as of now. Rhonda's good with kids. I'll ask her to keep an eye on Blair, okay?"

"I guess," Jim replied reluctantly. "I'll be there shortly."

"Hope you're ready for this kiddo," Jim said, transfixed on how peaceful and trouble-free Blair looked in sleep. "Because if things go one way instead of the other, you may have just gained the inauspicious title of 'Ellison's kid'."

And I'm not sure any child should be burdened with that title," he thought.

"Hey, squirt." Simon's smile was wide, attempting to make Blair feel at ease. "Have you had a good morning?"

Blair just nodded, staying very close to Jim's side.

"Jim, I'm sorry I had to drag you in like this, but the DA's saying the arrest wasn't exactly kosher and she's out for blood." He handed Ellison a file. "And you, detective, are first in line to make that donation."

"Peachy," Ellison replied sarcastically. He flipped briefly through the file. "Guess the sooner I get started, the sooner Blair and I can go home." He placed Blair's backpack on his desk. "Simon, I was hoping to get some time off, effectively starting as soon as I get the DA off our backs."

Simon glanced at Blair. Ellison might be his best detective, but with his mind elsewhere, he could very easily turn into another department statistic. "Take as much time as you need," he said. Lowering his voice he asked. "Have you thought about what you're going to do?"

"Finding out if I'm Blair's father is first on my list."

"And if you are?"

"If I am, then I'll go for custody."

"Custody ... Jim, don't you think you're being just a little bit premature? Bringing up a kid's not like having a cat. You can't just put him out the back door when you go off to work."

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that, Sir," Jim responded in a tone of voice that he didn't normally throw in Simon's direction.

Unperturbed, Simon held the Ellison's glare. "Rhonda, could you look after Blair for a minute while Detective Ellison and I go into my office?"

"Of course, Captain." Simon's secretary had been watching the display with interest and she immediately rounded her desk to greet Blair.

"Chief, this if Rhonda. You think you could stay with her for a little while? Maybe you could draw her a picture?"

"Ahre you going away?" Blair's sad eyes left Jim to study yet another stranger he had to stay with.

Kneeling down to Blair's eye-level, Jim cupped the youngster cheek. "No buddy, I'm just going into Simon's office and I'll be right behind that door." He released his grasp. "I won't be long. I promise."

"Okay." Blair's demeanour changed immediately and, once again, Jim could see the boy withdrawing into himself. But despite the disappointment shining from his eyes, Blair didn't question him any further or put up a fuss. He simply took Rhonda's hand and followed her to her desk.

"I won't be long," Jim promised again.

This time Blair didn't even look at him, leaving Jim feeling like he had just tossed the cat out the back door to spend the day in the rain.

"Well?" Hard pressed to draw Ellison's attention away from Blair, Simon abruptly closed the door, effectively shutting off any view of the kid.

"Well what?"

"Don't give me that. You know perfectly well what I mean. What are you planning on doing if, one, Blair is your kid, and two, if he turns out not to be." Simon backed off his tone. "Jim, I know you feel that you need to protect him from this Tom guy and I feel the same way, but the very real possibility of Blair being your son isn't all that likely."

"I see the odds as fifty-fifty." Jim lowered himself onto the sofa in the corner of the office and tried to get his head around his thoughts. "The first thing I'm going to do is to take a DNA test to determine whether or not I'm Blair's father. I've made an appointment with Gillian Francis tomorrow, and I've explained the situation to her. She's going to give Blair the once-over as well."

"And if the test results come back positive, don't you think the custody issue might be rushing things a bit? I mean, you've known the kid for less than half a day and already you're planning on him living with you. Hell, Jim, you don't even know if the kid wants to live with you. Maybe his mother is just in a bad situation that she can't get herself out of."

"Simon I realise that it may be sudden, but it's not a rash decision. And realistically, what other choice do I possibly have? I told you what I saw, and whether or not Naomi Sandburg has got herself into a bad deal, she still stood by and let some bastard boyfriend -- who she chose over her own son by the way -- beat the crap outta him. Any way you wanna spin it, she's not exactly 'Mom of the Year' material."

"You have no actual proof that Blair has been abused, Jim."

"Yeah, well, that's why Dr. Francis is going to take a look at him. He didn't get those bruises by being clumsy."

"Are you sure you're ready to be a dad, Jim?"

"No, no I'm not. But we're talking about choices here, Simon, and there's no way I'm letting that kid go back to a life where his mother lets him be used as a punching bag."

"What happens if the result is negative? If he's not your son, and without absolute proof of abuse, how are you going to stop him from going back to his mother?"

"If he's not my son, then I'll keep him with me, just as his mother has asked, until something else can be figured out.

"Figure out what?" Watching as Jim seemed to slump further back into the chair, Simon pulled back on his attack. "The kid's grown on you, hasn't he?"

"Maybe." Jim shrugged. "Or maybe it's just that being a cop has given me insight into the kid's future if I don't do something." Jim met Simon's eyes. "I don't think I could live with myself if I willingly sit back and let him become another statistic."

Still exhausted, Jim wearily pulled himself up to his feet and headed toward the door. "Fifty- fifty," he said. "Toss of a coin." He pulled the door open and tapped the frame. "And you know what? I think a part of me is hoping that it lands in my favour."

Without pausing to see to look on Simon's face, Jim left the room, clicking the door softly behind him.

He'd explained to Blair that he had to stay with Rhonda for just a little while longer while he finished up some work and, although Blair seemed to understand, Ellison didn't miss the continual glances the boy threw in his direction. Typing out the last paragraph and pressing 'print', he scuffed his chair back and crossed the short distance to the secretary's desk. "Thanks for keeping an eye on him, Rhonda."

"It's been my pleasure," she said, smiling at Blair. "And look at these wonderful pictures I have to brighten up the place." She passed over Blair's artwork for Jim to see. "And he's been teaching me how to count."

It had been near impossible for Jim, as well as the rest of the Major Crime unit, to miss that detail, but not one person had complained about Blair's voice singing out across the office. "Hey, that's great, Munchkin. How many can you count up to?"

"I can count weal high," Blair said, hopping off the chair that had been pushed up beside Rhonda. "Tom says I stupid, but I can count to fifty," he said proudly.

"Fifty! Wow that is high," Jim enthused. "I bet you're the smartest little boy I've ever met," he continued, determined to bring Blair's self esteem up a notch or two.

"Weally?" Blair asked, with a look of surprise on his face.

"Really," Jim smiled. "Now, why don't you say good-bye to Rhonda, and we'll hit the track, Jack."

"Thank you fo' looking afteh me," Blair said, politely.

Rhonda drew Blair into a hug. "You're welcome, sweetheart, and I hope you come back to visit us soon."

Drawing back, Blair took hold of Jim's extended hand. "I think she likes me," he whispered.

"I think you might be right, Romeo," Jim laughed.

As they walked toward the elevator, the whole office couldn't miss Blair's next comment. "Mama says that when people get old they sometimes fohgetted people's names." Blair stopped and looked up at Jim, squeezing his hand. "It not youh fault," he said gently.

Jim ignored the smirks from his fellow officers and swung Blair into his arms. "Come on, Junior. Let's get outta here before you bring the house completely down."

Blair wrapped his arms around Jim's neck, his concern still genuine. "I will maked you a name badge." He pressed his lips against Jim's ear. "Dat way you not forget."

As the elevator dinged at the seventh floor, Jim rolled his eyes. Simon was right. Three-year-olds could be very informative.

Ellison paced back and forth across the front of the reception desk. "How much longer do I have to wait?" he snapped, not stopping his repetitive trek across the carpet.

"Veronica." The voice across the intercom was cool, calm and almost calculating. "Would you please show Detective Ellison in?"

"Her Majesty speaks," Jim muttered, pulling up short. He smiled, almost painfully, at the receptionist. "Do you think you could keep an eye on Blair for me while I seek an audience?"

The young woman glanced over at the child. The kid's nose had been stuck in a picture book since he'd arrived, and he seemed to be a lot less trouble than the ranting detective. "Sure," she said, with an aloof shrug of her shoulders.

"Chief." Jim ruffled Blair's hair to get his attention. "I'm just going into the other office and the nice lady behind the desk is going to keep an eye on you while I'm gone, I'll try to be as quick as I can. You think you're going to be alright out here?"

"Ah-ha." Blair yawned as he turned over the page. He was getting tired and all he really wanted to do was to go back to Jim's house so he could lie on the sofa and watch the show with the big bird. But if Jim wanted him to wait for him, then he'd wait. "I will be good," he promised.

"That's my boy." Jim passed the receptionist, giving her one last, not quite so sure glance. "If he needs me, just interrupt us."

"Sure," she said again, her voice not hiding her indifference to children.

As the door closed behind the detective, the young woman gave the kid another disinterested glance. She had thirty minutes before quitting time and had no intention of hanging around after hours. If the meeting were still in progress, she'd just tell the kid to stay put. He seemed smart enough to understand orders, and her date with the hot bartender she'd met last weekend was more important than any snot-nosed brat.

Going back to her work, the receptionist dismissed Blair from her mind and from her responsibility.

Blair had been sitting on the hard chair for what seemed like hours, and was now starting to feel uneasy. The woman behind the desk had left him alone, telling him not to move, and now there was lots of shouting coming from behind the door. Jim hadn't seemed angry at him when he left him with the lady, but maybe the other person in the room behind the door had told secrets that made Jim mad.

Squirming on the seat, he tried to remain as small and as quiet as possible, because he knew from experience that sometimes people, especially men, just got mad for no good reason. Hesitant to disobey, but letting his memories be his guide, Blair made his decision and hopped down from the chair. He grabbed his book and his backpack and looked around for somewhere safer to sit. Somewhere that was more out of the way. Spotting a large potted plant in the corner, he decided to take refuge behind its leafy foliage. It looked safe over there, and maybe if he just sat where no one could see him, they'd forget about him, and if they forgot about him, then they wouldn't get mad at him.

Sitting down on the hard, tiled floor, Blair drew his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs. If they couldn't see him, they couldn't hurt him. He'd become well accustomed to the concept.

Ellison spat out a few more choice words before storming out of the office and slamming the door with enough force to rattle it on its hinges. "What a complete waste of fucking time," he yelled back through the closed door. There wasn't a damn thing wrong with the arrest procedure, and all the evidence gathered would be admissible in court. The only problem was one overbearing, arrogant and condescending DA, who insisted on going over everything ten times with a fine-toothed comb. God, that woman rubbed him in every wrong way possible. Giving the outer office door the same forceful treatment, he stormed into the hall and headed toward the elevator.

The elevator hit the first floor and Ellison hit the street, without a second thought for the child he'd left behind.

Wiping away the tears that trickled down his cheeks, Blair gave up trying to hide his distress. Jim was mad at him. He had left him behind, just like his mom did, and he didn't know what to do. The lady at the desk had left a long time ago, and the nasty lady behind the door was now turning off the lights and also leaving. He pulled the only true friend he had out of his backpack and curled himself up into a tight ball. The tears continued to flow. He couldn't help it; he was trying to be a man like Tom told him to be, but once again he was all alone, and he was scared. His mama had said that Jim was his daddy and that daddies loved their little boys, but maybe Mama was lying to him again. Maybe Jim wasn't his daddy and was just another Tom.

Not knowing what else to do, Blair nestled his head into the folds of his backpack and prepared himself for another night where the shadows on the walls were his only company.

But sometimes, for a boy like Blair, the shadow people were a hell of a lot better than the monsters which came to life when the lights flicked on.

"Ellison." Jim flipped open his cell phone, his temper keeping pace with the bustle of the late afternoon traffic.

"By the tone of your voice I'm guessing you and the DA won't be planning your honeymoon anytime soon?"

"Captain, that definitely would be one marriage made in hell,"

"And?" Simon pushed.

"And, it's all been sorted out in a calm, professional way."

"I'll bet, and I can't wait for the official report." There was a slight pause on the line. "Jim, in other matters, I've got some information on Blair and I'd like to drop it over tonight, if you're up to it."

"What've you got?"

"I'd rather not do this over the phone. Are you going straight home?"

"Yeah, we should be there in about twenty minutes."

The 'we' in his last sentence hit Jim at a fast and furious pace. "Simon ... shit ... I can't believe ... what have I just done?"

"Jim? You okay?

"Christ, I forgot him."

"Forgot who?"

"Blair. I left Blair at the DA's office."

"What do you mean you left Blair at the DA's?" A sharp edge crept into Simon's voice. "How on god's green earth did you manage to leave a three-year-old child behind at a downtown office?"

Simon's only answer was silence. "Jim you still there? Do you need me to dispatch a unit?"

Without a concern for the traffic behind him, Jim shifted gears, swung the truck around and tore across the median strip, barely missing oncoming traffic as he merged into the lane. "Simon, I'll call you back." Throwing his cell phone down on the passenger seat, he floored the gas pedal and pushed the truck to its limits. You're no different than your own father, Jimmy boy.

Jim slammed the palm of his hand down on the steering wheel. The thought had come out of nowhere, but it had the potential to take Blair to a place that the kid did not deserve. The toss of the coin was still fifty-fifty, but after what he'd just done, it appeared that, however the odds fell, they weren't in the kid's favour.

The door split away from the lock with a single kick and, while the aggression behind the act may have opened a path for Jim to channel his anger, no such path was opened to help manage the fear that had settled. Blair was nowhere to be seen in the outer office or in the inner sanctum of the DA's lair. The little boy, who only hours before he'd made a promise to protect, was gone.

If Jim's mind had been clear, he would have assessed the situation like he'd assess any crime scene. But his mind was, instead, full of a montage of images that became so controlling he could actually feel his resolve slipping away. Then, without warning, his knees collapsed under him and he toppled to the floor.

The sentinel was awakening, and the man was lost.

Cautiously and carefully Blair crawled out of his hiding place, and thought very hard about his next move. The door, now battered and broken and, more importantly, wide open, offered the perfect escape route not only from the room, but from Jim's volatile temper. Scrambling to his feet, he struggled to make a decision. Jim had been angry, but it was a different kind of angry than he was used to. It was an anger that so far hadn't ended with physical pain. And the more he thought about it, he recognised that the anger had never been displayed mere inches from his face. He picked up his bear and clutched it tightly to his chest as the association between the man lying on the floor and the father he'd never had became too strong for him to ignore. Daddies love their little boys. He wanted so badly to believe his mothers words -- that love came along with nothing more than playing in the mud and building castles in the sand.

"Jim?" Blair made his decision and took a few, small, tentative steps toward the man lying prone and still on the office floor. "Jim?" he tried again, this time bending down and touching Jim's shoulder very lightly. With still no reaction, Blair's defense mechanisms came into play and apologies for crimes he hadn't even committed began to take shape. "Jim, I sowwy I was naughty. I not mean to be bad." As he pushed himself to try and remember what it was he'd done wrong this time, the lines between reality and fantasy drew closer together, skewing the facts. He thought he'd done exactly as he'd been told, but maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was being stupid again, just like Tom always said he was.

A horrible feeling of remorse for an action that still mystified him began to settle; in an effort to stay one step ahead, Blair knelt down and touched Jim's cheek. "Jim please say some wo-uhds." He pressed his hand harder into Jim's skin, but Jim remained quiet and unresponsive. "Maybe you ahre ti-uhd and you just need a nap?" was his next question as his curiosity for problem solving crept into the equation. "I will tell you a bedtime stoh-wy, if you like? I 'membuh a vewy good one, I don't even need my book to telled it."

Settling down on the floor, Blair chatted away, retelling the story in near perfect detail, but the sentinel remained still and unaware of the young boy's presence. He was, however, acutely aware of the presence of another.

"It is nice to see you once again, my friend."

"Incacha?" Baffled, confused and assuming that his predicament was the sole making of a dream, Jim studied the figure in front of him. "You know this would make a whole lot more sense if I were either back in Peru smashed on jungle juice, or sitting behind a bar nursing a bottle of scotch."

"You've been here before, Enqueri, and you will soon become reacquainted."

"Don't bank on it," Jim replied, taking his eyes off Incacha to investigate his surrounds and acquaint himself with anything that looked vaguely familiar. But there was nothing. In fact 'nothing' seemed to be the decorating style of the whole place; basically all he saw was nothing.

"Incacha, you mind telling me exactly where I am? Longitude and latitude would be kinda nice." He glanced down and for the first time realised that there was nothing solid beneath his feet. "Actually at this point I'll run with anything that makes even the slightest bit of sense." He shrugged his shoulders. "But then again, when do dreams ever make sense!"

"You are not in a dream, Enqueri. You are on the path to your destiny."

"Okay, I can tell you're going to be of no help," Jim replied, sarcastically. "So if I pinch myself, will you go away?"

"Do you remember the Legend of the Sentinel, Enqueri? I told it to you many times."

"I remember you relentlessly trying to convince me that's what I was."

"It is time, my friend, to start believing. It is time you opened your eyes to your true self."

"Incacha, I told you this years ago, and I'll tell you again. I'm not one of these sentinels of yours. I was a well-trained solider, but not a sentinel."

"And what will you tell me about the child, Enqueri?"

"What am I meant to tell you?"

"You are meant to tell me that he is your son."


"And I am meant to tell you that he is the key to your survival, as you are to his."

"Incacha, enough! You speak English, so if you have something to tell me, use English instead of Indian riddles."

"The child -- your child -- has been through much for someone so young, and will not survive without you, Enqueri. You must protect him, and to do that you must learn control and you must learn to embrace your sentinel powers." Incacha's eyes grew dark. "It is time for you to go back Enqueri. It is time for you to open your heart to who you really are." With a wave of his hand, Incacha dismissed the sentinel.

"Follow your son's voice, Sentinel. Your little one is trying hard, but he is very young and you must help him. He will guide you, but to be a guide with purpose, he must have one who will follow."

Without warning the air beneath Jim's feet grew thick and appeared to tangle itself around his ankles. It dragged him down, pulling him back into the conscious world -- a world that he now acutely understood existed for two.

The coin had stop spinning.

"Blair ... Chief, god, are you okay?" Blair's face had been less from an inch away from his own, but the moment Jim's eyes shot open, the child scrambled backwards.

Jim reached out to touch Blair's cheek, to offer some kind of physical reassurance, but dropped his hand the moment Blair flinched away. "Chief, I didn't mean to leave you here. I just forgot you were with me."

The look in Blair's eyes told Jim that the child had obviously heard these words before. "Come on, kiddo. Let's get outta here." Scooping up the tattered backpack with one hand and engulfing Blair's tiny hand in the other, Jim moved toward the door. He had a growing feeling that he didn't need the results of a DNA test to tell him Blair was his son.

The only doubt to haunt him now was what kind of father he'd make to a child who deserved nothing short of the world.

"How's he doing?"

"Not so good."

"So where is he?"

"Upstairs, asleep in my bed." Jim scrubbed his hand roughly through his hair, his eyes mirroring the look Simon had in his. "Are you able to shed any light on how the hell I managed to walk straight out of that office without giving Blair a second thought?"

"Because just like the rest of us, you're fallible."

"That doesn't cut it Simon. Not when a kid like this is concerned. First his mother dumps him, and then I go and do the same thing. I'm right back to square one, you know. He's barely looked or spoken to me since we've been home. He's shut me out, and he has every right to do so."

"Jim, believe it or not, he'll come around. If there's one thing I know about kids, it's how forgiving they can be." Simon gave Jim's shoulder a quick slap before moving into the kitchen. "And this whole 'kid thing' is not an easy concept to get used to. You're bound to hit some bumps in the road."

"This is no bump, Simon. This is more like a huge, gapping hole in the ground that goes straight down to hell."

"Give me one feeling, Jim," Simon said, stopping beside the counter. "Tell me the one thing you'd feel if Blair ended up back with his mother. Back with Tom?"

Jim didn't even need time to think. His answer was honest, and straight from his heart. "Sheer terror."

Simon nodded. "Then I suggest you take note of that feeling and I suggest you remember it. And then I suggest you fight like hell to make sure you never actually feel it."

"That's a slight deviation from the speech you gave me this morning," Jim replied, trying to read the look on Simon's face. "Why the change?"

"Because I need you to be his father," Simon answered quietly. He pulled two beers from the fridge, tossing one in Jim's direction before taking a seat at the kitchen table.

Jim twisted the cap off the bottle and threw it down on the table. "You said you had some information on Blair?"

"I've got Blair's records." Simon slid a closed file across the table. "His medical records. It seems he's had some pretty bad accidents over the past year."

"What kind of accidents?" Jim hesitantly reached for the file. Simon's body language and the tone in his voice had already told him that whatever was in the file wasn't going to be good.

"I'll never get it, you know." The last page of Blair's file fell from Jim's hand.

"I don't think anyone ever really gets it," Simon added, softly.

"How, Simon? What kind of a man does that to a kid?" Jim pushed himself to his feet and made his way over to the balcony doors. "And how does a mother stand by and let it happen?"

"If I had the answer to that, Jim, then maybe this world wouldn't be as screwed up as it is."

"Why the hell wasn't he taken away from her?" Jim's anger hit the crest of the wave and he spun around to face Simon head on. "How the hell does a two-year-old end up with a concussion, a broken arm, a fractured rib and not be taken away? And, more to the point, why wasn't the fucking bastard who did it arrested and locked away?"

"You read the report just as well as I did. According to his mother, Blair fell down a flight of stairs and there wasn't any physical evidence to disprove her story. Yes, the information was forwarded on to Social Services, but by the time a social worker was assigned, Naomi had signed him out of the hospital and left the state. Blair was one of those kids who slipped through the system."

"Twice, Simon. Not once, but twice!" Ellison surged forward and picked up the file. "Six months later he's in emergency with another concussion, healing cigarette burns and severe bruising to both his back and buttocks. 'Bruising which could indicate the child had been kicked several times.' How the hell can a doctor write that and not report child abuse?"

"Because, according to that file, the report was misplaced, and by the time it reappeared, Naomi had taken Blair and disappeared."

Jim threw the file back down. "She was receiving welfare payments. It couldn't have been that hard to track her down."

"No, you're right, it wouldn't have been. But unfortunately, no one bothered to look."

"Well I'm sure as hell gonna look."

"Jim, let's just stop for a moment and think this through. If you're serious about taking responsibility for this kid, then the first thing you need to do is prove that you are Blair's father. After that's confirmed, you file for temporary custody. If you can show that Naomi has abandoned Blair and left him in your care willingly, it's going to be in your favour. That, together with his medical records, should make the process a lot easier. However if Naomi is around to contest the decision, then things could get messy. Once you've got temporary custody, then you go for full and permanent custody. I shouldn't be saying this, but in my opinion we should scale back the search for Ms. Sandburg and get Blair's case before a judge as soon as possible. When his mother finally does show up, at least you've got one foot already in the door."

"I am his father, Simon. I can feel it -- not just in my gut, but in every inch of my body -- and he's not going back to her. I won't ever let him be put in that kind of danger again."

"I'll get the wheels in motion, then." Simon drained the last of his beer and pushed back his chair. "In the meantime, I'm gonna give Brad Wilson a call. He might not be one of the most professional- minded PI's around, but he's good at digging up the dirt, and the more we find, the better. Tomorrow you need to get that DNA test done and have Blair thoroughly checked over. There might be some evidence of sexual abuse as well, and if that's the case, then it's going to have to be documented."

"I know." Jim scrubbed his hand over his tired face. He definitely didn't feel ready to face sexual abuse, on top of everything else that had happened to Blair.

Simon gathered up Blair's file and tucked it under his arm. Jim has already seen everything he needed to see. "Get some rest, Jim. Tomorrow's going to be a long and difficult day." Simon's hand was back on Jim's shoulder. "I'll make some calls first thing in the morning and try and get this all moving."

Jim had run out of words. He simply nodded his head and watched as Simon left himself out. In reality, this was his entire fault. In one single careless night when he'd let his dick take the lead, he'd given life to child; a child he barely knew and child he'd severely let down. And in the space of one short day, this same child had managed to steal his heart and captivate his soul.

Incacha was right, and the manifestation wasn't a dream. There was no doubt that Blair was his son, and there was doubt as to what that meant: the life of a son rested solely in the hands of his father. Blair's life lay in his hands.

It had been a long day and the stairs to his bedroom seemed a challenge as grueling and fraught with difficulty as the climb to highest peak of Mount Everest. But for the first time in years, his life had a definite direction; no challenge, no matter how tough, was going to stop him from reaching the top. So with one sure foot in front of the other, Jim began to climb the mountain.

Blair had not moved an inch since the last time he'd checked. The little boy was tucked up, snug under the covers on the far side of bed. He took a seat on the mattress, not wanting to think about what filled child's dreams. Fighting the urge to reach out and physically connect with Blair, he kept his hands on his lap and let his eyes make the journey down the side of the child's face. "I can't believe that you are part of me, kiddo," he said softly. "And I'm so very sorry that I wasn't there to meet you when you came into this world. I know I've let you down, but from here on in, Munchkin, it's you and me." His hand then moved with a will of its own and this time he made no attempt to stop it. He smoothed out the creases that had formed on Blair's forehead. "From this day on I promise I will do everything in my power to keep you safe and to give you the kind of life you deserve, because you truly do deserve nothing less than the very best in life."

Removing his hand, Jim continued to watch Blair sleep. He catalogued every feature of the Blair's face and let himself become absorbed, utterly and completely, in the sentiments he now felt for this child. He'd missed so much of his son's life but, from this night on, he didn't intend to miss one single moment more.

The shattering of glass had Jim bolting upright, and the whimper that followed sent him out of the bed and bounding down the stairs two at a time. "Blair?" The moment his feet hit the floorboards, Jim's attention settled on Blair who was standing to the side of the kitchen surrounded by broken glass.

Blair's eyes were already filled with tears, just waiting for the right moment to fall. "I sowwy," he blurted. "It was a accident and I not mean to dwop it."

"Munchkin, it's okay. It was only a glass. Nothing to get upset over."

Past events reminded Blair that broken cups never boded well, and even though Jim didn't seem to be upset, it was his job to clean up any mess he made. With his eyes never leaving Jim's face, he bent to pick up one of the larger pieces of glass near his foot.

"Blair, no!" Jim's voice was much louder than he intended, and the look in Blair's eyes said he'd made a drastic mistake. Blair jerked his body backward in attempt to avoid the hand that was heading his way. The move was defensive and well-rehearsed and every inch of Jim screamed at him to back off, to give Blair some time to calm down, but the shards of glass on the floor left no room for negotiation. Using both hands, he latched onto Blair's forearms and plucked him off the floor.

Driven by his instinct to survive, Blair kicked and screamed and fought with all his might to get out of the arms that held him tight. But the arms just tightened their grip, and a strong hand forced his head down onto a shoulder. Jim's voice spoke to him in a tone he wasn't expecting. "It's okay, baby, it's okay," it soothed. "I'm not going to hit you, Blair -- not today, not tomorrow, not ever."

Blair gave up. He gave into not only the arms which held him bound, but surrendered to the tiny voice inside that told him that just maybe he could trust this man. The arms were strong but, as yet, they hadn't let loose with a volley of smacks or sent him crashing to the floor with the brute force of a punch. They weren't Tom's arms and, so far, they had rendered no harm.

It was all too much and, as Blair clung to Jim, he became completely overwhelmed. His mama was gone and Tom was gone -- and while Tom was usually mean to him, at least he knew what to expect. He knew exactly what was coming next. "I want my mama," he sobbed. "I sowwy, I sowwy, I sowwy."

"It's alright, baby; it's all gonna be all right," Jim comforted, matching Blair's seemingly never- ending chorus of apologies. "Accidents happened and things break. It's not the end of the word, kiddo." He rocked Blair back and forth, and let Blair's body language set the pace. When the time was right, they'd talk, and no matter how long it took, he was determined to make Blair understand that no matter what, he was safe.

As the minutes wore on, Jim paced an endless track from the living room to the kitchen. He rubbed his hand constantly up and down Blair's back, trying to sooth away the worst of the tension that was banded in the child's muscles. He'd stopped his tirade of words in the hope that Blair just might begin to talk with him. His reward came with a soft tickle of breath against his shoulder. "Ahre you my daddy? Mama said you wehre. But you don't hab to be if you not want to be."

"Ah, kiddo." Jim pressed his face into Blair's curls. "Would it be okay with you if I was?"

There was silence and once again Jim let Blair set the pace. "What do I called you?" Blair finally asked, quietly.

"You can call me anything you want. You can call me anything that makes you feel comfortable."

"Daddy?" Blair whispered into the side of Jim's neck.

"Sounds perfect," Jim whispered back.

It was just the start, but, while there was still a long way to go, Jim felt in his heart that this just might be the beginning of the rest of his life.

Despite the air-conditioning unit humming in the corner, the doctor's waiting room was hot and stuffy and had Jim pulling at the collar of his shirt. Blair sat on his knee, apparently unperturbed by the closed-in feeling of the room. He appeared to be happy and content, thumbing his way through a picture book he'd found in a box of toys in the corner.

"Jim, come on through." The doctor's voice was friendly and her tone spoke of familiarity.

Jim dropped Blair to his feet and took his hand. "That's our cue, Chief."

As the door clicked closed behind them, Gillian Francis took a seat behind her desk. "I gather this handsome young man must be Blair?"

"The one and only," Jim replied, taking a seat and pulling Blair once again onto his lap.

If there was any discomfort in using Jim's newly christened title, Blair wasn't displaying it. With an excited bounce he pointed his finger toward the bookcase directly behind the doctor. "Look Daddy, it's that silly buhd. What's he doing heuh?"

"Do you like Big Bird, Blair?" Gillian Francis asked, pulling the toy from the shelf and handing it over.

"Ah-ha," Blair nodded. "He's on the TV and he's funny."

"He is very funny," she agreed, giving Blair a friendly smile before changing the subject. "So, Blair, your dad tells me that you have a bit of a cold and maybe a sore ear. Do you think I could take a look?"

Blair just shrugged his shoulders, more interested in the toy than the doctor.

"I take that as a yes," she suggested, picking up her otoscope.

Jim ran his hand through Blair's hair, holding it back from his ear.

"Jim, I'm sure you're aware that what we discussed on the phone entails a substantially intrusive examination. If I can draw a conclusion of physical abuse from the bruises and marks we discussed, I'd like to stop there until the results of your DNA test comes back. Once paternity is established then we can discuss what to do next."

Jim simply nodded. The last thing on earth he wanted was to put Blair through the hell of an internal examination. Just convincing Blair that he was going to have to undress for an external exam was going to make him feel like he was a manipulative bastard. Taking a breath, Jim rallied himself for what was coming. If luck was on their side, the man Naomi was living with hadn't interfered with Blair sexually. But, given Blair's behaviour in the bathroom, he had serious doubts.

"Okay then," Gillian confirmed, drawing Jim from his thoughts. "It looks like you have the beginnings of an ear infection, young man." She turned her attention toward Jim. "I'll prescribe some antibiotics that should clear it up." She reached into a cabinet behind her desk and retrieved two swabs. "Why don't I do the DNA test next?"

With Blair now more interested in what she was doing, Gillian directed her question at the youngster. "How about I do Dad first and then you can see how easy it is."

Blair nodded and watched with great interest as the doctor swabbed the inside of Jim's mouth. When it came to his turn, he mimicked the action almost to the letter.

"See, how easy was that?" Gillian sealed up the sample. "I'll pull some strings and put an urgent rush on these. If we're lucky, I should have the results back tomorrow evening."

"Thanks, Gillian." Jim took another deep, uneasy breath. The exam coming up next was the one he dreaded and he had no idea how to even begin to explain to Blair what was going on.

Sensing Jim's unease, Gillian took the responsibility out of his hands. "Blair," she said, gently rubbing his knee to get his attention. "I need to do just one more exam and for me to do that, I'm going to need you to come and lay down on my examination table." She pointed toward the high table on the far side of the room. "It has a nice warm blanket to cover you over, but you're going to have to get undressed for me, sweetheart."

"No!" Blair's reaction was instantaneous, but this time Jim was prepared. He caught Blair before he managed to scramble off his knee and, using a method that had been successful the day before, he took Blair's face in his hands. "Blair," he said softly. "The doctor wouldn't ask you to do it if it wasn't really important. Now I know you don't want to, but I promise I will be right next to you and I won't let her hurt you."

"I not want to." Blair tried hard to remain calm, but he didn't want to take his clothes off, not even for Jim.

Jim lifted Blair into his arms and got to his feet. He brushed Blair's hair away from his face. "Munchkin, I know this is hard and you have every right not to trust people, but this is very, very important. The doctor needs to know a few things so that daddy can go and talk to a very important man who just might let you come live with me."

A million thoughts ran through Blair's mind, but the most fervent one was being able to stay with Jim and not having to be with Tom again. If he lived with Jim, then maybe his mama would decide to come back and they could stay together at Jim's house. "You won't go away?" Blair finally asked quietly.

"I'll be right by your side, kiddo."

"Kay." Blair reluctantly nodded his consent.

Quickly, without leaving any leeway for Blair to change his mind, Jim stripped the three-year-old and covered him with the blanket. The sooner this was over, the sooner he could start giving Blair the love, security and safety he needed. And the sooner this was over, the sooner he could start being a father.

With Big Bird clutched in one of Blair's hands, Jim tightly held the other. "It'll be over soon, Chief. I promise."

"Okay, Blair." Gillian Francis kept her tone as easy and as calm as she possibly could. "I'm just going to have a little look at your tummy." She lowered the blanket, palpitating gently around Blair's abdomen. With practiced and professional skill, she quickly moved lower, making her examination short and succinct. Glancing at Jim, she said quietly. "Do you think you could get him to lie on his stomach?"

Without a word, Jim worked to roll Blair over onto his stomach, the bruises on the child's buttocks highlighted before his eyes, and the indentation and scarring left by cigarette burns making his anger surge.

"I'll be as quick and as gentle as I can, Jim."

Gillian Francis took the meaning of her statement to the last letter, but with every touch of her fingers and every click of the camera, Blair's body became public property. It became nothing more than a piece of evidence for the eyes of the world to deconstruct.

Gathering Blair as close as he possibly could, Jim buried his face in Blair's hair and massaged his scalp with his free hand. "It's okay, kiddo," he whispered. "It will all be over soon."

The camera was placed on the side table and Gillian Francis covered Blair with the blanket. Pulling the curtains around the bed, she softly touched the child's hair before turning to leave the confined space. "I'll give you some privacy to get him dressed."

There were no words and no interaction, and dressing the three-year-old was on a par to dressing a rag doll. Jim's best effort to give comfort -- to give reassurance -- was met by a fierce shield. Blair was back in his shell.

By the time they were both seated back at Gillian's desk, Blair was straddling Jim's lap, with his head buried deep inside the folds of Jim's jacket. Big Bird was exactly were he'd been since the ordeal begun -- clutched tightly against the youngster's body.

Jim drew a path up and down the length of Blair's back. "What's the verdict?" he asked, not really wanting to know the answer.

"From the state of the scarring, I'd say the worst of the injuries where sustained around six months ago."

"The worst?"

"As you saw for yourself there is recent bruising, and by the consistency of the colouring on his skin, it appears that it was sustained during a single incident. There was also a healed scar close to his anus and while at this stage no conclusion can be made, I've documented it in case a further examination is going to be required."

"That's not gonna happen." Jim's voice was stone cold. "Not a chance in hell."

"I understand," Gillian replied. "I'll get my report typed up right away and put a rush on the DNA test. If you need me to testify at any stage, just let me know and I will drop everything on my schedule to be there."

"I appreciate it," Jim nodded. Not knowing what else to say he turned his attention toward Blair. "Hey, buddy. What'd ya say we get outta here?" He gave Blair a little jiggle before tightening his grip and getting to his feet. "I think that Doctor Francis is going to need Big Bird back, Munchkin."

"Actually, you know what? I think that Big Bird has been rather lonely lately, sitting up there all by himself on the shelf with no one to talk to. Do you think maybe you could take him and look after him for me, Blair? I know he's a great listener and I'm sure he'd love to have someone talk to him. What do you think?"

Blair didn't answer.

Gillian pushed back her chair and rounded her desk. She squeezed Jim's elbow. "Take care of him, Jim."

Ellison nodded. Taking care of Blair had just become his life's mission.

God, what a shitty, shitty day. Jim padded lightly down the stairs, taking care to avoid the squeaky tread on the third step. After leaving the doctor's office, he'd tried to bring Blair out of his shell, but nothing had worked. Lunch at Wonder Burger, a trip to the mall, even a shopping spree at the toyshop had had zero effect on Blair's spirits. In hindsight, he realised that he should have brought Blair straight back home, away from crowds and away from everything except the one thing that the child did seem to respond to -- the security of his lap.

The shrill bleat of the phone made Jim quicken his step. He snatched it up before it had the chance to wake Blair.

"Jim, it's Gillian. I'm sorry about the time, but have the results of the paternity test."

Jim didn't skip a beat. "I'm his father, aren't I?"

"Yes. The test conclusively shows that you are Blair's father."

"Gillian, I can't ... I can't thank you enough for everything you did today. I know it couldn't have been easy for you."

"The one and only important thing is Blair. How's he doing?"

"Asleep, finally. It's been one hell of a rough day."

"You know one of the best things about kids is their resilience. I'm positive he'll pull through, Jim."

"Yeah, but how many monsters will he harbour?"

"Only time can give the answer to that, but with the love and support of his father, I'd say his future was bright. She paused briefly. "You let me know if you need me in court. I meant what I said about clearing my schedule."

"I will, and Gillian ... thank you again."

"It might not seem like it just now, but he's a lucky boy, you know."

"He will be," Jim answered. "That's a guarantee."

The wheels were now in motion and there would be no stopping until he was granted full and unconditional custody of his only child.

"Wow," Jim breathed out as he hung up the phone. "A son ... who would have thought!"

You couldn't have wiped the smile from Jim's face with a steel brush or a mega dose of cod liver oil. In light of Naomi's disappearance and her failing to provide safe and adequate living conditions for her son, the judge had granted Jim temporary custody of Blair. With paternity also established and the additional details that Simon's PI had uncovered, the chance of permanent custody was also looking very encouraging.

Unlocking the front door, Jim's smile became even wider. Blair was flopped over Simon like he was an easy chair and both where totally engrossed in today's adventure of Big Bird. "Hey guys, anyone miss me?"

"Daddy!" Leaving Bird Big in the capable hands of the police captain, Blair ran over to Jim and put his hands in the air to be picked up. "Where did you be?" he asked.

"I've been to see a man about a dog, Chief."

An edge of excitement crept into Blair's voice. "Ahre you getting a puppy?"

"No, but I am getting a little boy." Jim tickled Blair's sock-clad feet. "You remember how I told you that I had to go see a very important man? Well, today that man said yes."

"Sayed yes to what?"

"He said yes to something extremely important, but before I tell you what it is I need to ask you a very important question."

"Just like the important man's question?"

"Kind of," Jim answered. "But my question is one that can only be answered by you." He put Blair down, knelt down to his eye-level and took Blair's hands within his own. "Now, you don't have to answer me right away and you can think about your answer for as long as you want."

"Ah-ha," Blair answered.

Taking the words as if Blair understood, Jim paused for a few seconds to get the wording exactly right. "Chief, I was wondering if you would like to stay with me? If you'd like to make this house your new home?"

True to instructions, Blair didn't answer right away and the hesitation had Ellison thinking that maybe he'd preempted Blair's reaction. "Does that mean I not have to live with Tom?" Blair finally asked.

"No kiddo, you won't ever have to see Tom again."

"And Mama? Will she comed heuh to lived with us?"

"No, Blair. Your mother won't be here," Jim answered honestly. "For the moment, you mother won't be able to see you at all."

Blair thought for a few moments longer before finally shrugging his shoulders. "It okay. Mama sometimes goes away but she will comed back when she has her insides back."

The only interpretation Jim could fathom out of Blair's answer was that Naomi must have dumped Blair in the past to go 'find herself'.

Without warning Blair launched himself at Jim, throwing his arms around his neck. "I like it here. Can I stay, Daddy?"

Jim's smile was back. "You sure can, Munchkin." The word 'daddy' still sounded strange, but it was starting to have definite possibilities. "So, I guess this means you're going to need your own bedroom, little squirt." Tossing Blair playfully over his shoulder, Jim made his way to the small, cluttered room under the stairs. He flipped Blair upside down before settling him on his feet. "We'll just move all these boxes to the basement, then after a lick of paint, a door, and some furniture fit for a three-year-old, I think this room has the making of one perfect bedroom for one extraordinarily perfect little boy."

"A woom!" Blair exclaimed, bouncing on his toes.

"Not just a room, Chief. Your room."

"Wow!" A smile is just another smile in the making, Jim thought, and by the way things were shaping up, smiles looked as if they were going to be plentiful.

"Congratulations, Dad." Simon extended his hand, his own smile a tell-tale story of things to come. "You need some help with the renovations?"

"I'm never one to say no to free labour."

"Free is only free when there's no Chinese dinner at the end." Simon slapped Jim on the shoulder. "I like two kinds of egg rolls, by the way," he grinned.

"Not bad," Jim commented, inspecting the brand new paint job. Dinner had come and gone and with Blair now lying on the floor with his eyes glued to a new video, the only chore left for the evening was tackling the subject of a bath. Surviving on quick sponge wipe-downs may have worked for the short term but, as time wore on, Blair's hair was beginning to take on a life and smell of its own. Deciding that a casual approach would most likely be the best method, Jim headed toward the bathroom and began to fill the tub.

A small scuffle of feet on the floorboards soon alerted Jim to Blair's presence.

Blair peered around the corner. "What you doin'?" he asked.

"I thought it's about time you had a soak in the tub, Junior. That hair of yours will start to sprout potatoes if it doesn't get a wash soon." He chose his next words carefully. "Why don't you get undressed and hop in, while I go and find your PJs?"

"Crap," Jim muttered. His suggestion had Blair making a dash from the room quicker than a rabbit darting across a highway. Now standing alone in the bathroom trying to configure a new plan of attack, Blair surprised him, returning with the old book that he carried in his backpack tucked under his arm.

Jim watched, without saying a word as Blair set the book down carefully down on the tiles and opened it to the first page. "It's okay now," he said, pointing to the first picture. "This is the daddy and this is the boy ... the little son."

Moving closer, Jim could see that the book was actually an old picture book that looked like it had been published in the early fifties. The drawings portrayed a very clean-cut, well-dressed father engaged in various activities with his equally clean-cut, well-dressed son.

Turning the page very carefully, Blair pointed to the next picture. "The daddy and the boy, they go fishing, and widing on hohses and playing in the mud." He giggled as he turned to another picture of the man and his son with their jeans rolled up, walking through the mud.

"Do you like to play in the mud, Chief?" Jim asked, edging even closer.

"Ah-ha," came what was now a standard reply. "It's fun and I liked it when it squishes in my toes. Look," he continued as he turned to the second-last page. "The daddy is washing the boy's hai-uh 'cause he got duhty in the mud. His bath has lots of bubbles too." Blair flipped over to the very last page. "It's okay for daddies to give baths 'cause," he said, tracing his finger under the words written in big black letters, "'cause daddies love they little boys."

"They sure do, kiddo," Jim whispered, pulling Blair into a hug and kissing the top of his head. It's gonna be alright, he thought. Blair and I are gonna do just fine.

The next few weeks was a whirlwind of activity, making Jim realise how quiet and empty the loft had been before Blair had arrived. They'd both settled into a fairly regular routine and, once he felt that Blair was adjusting to his new situation, he started looking around for a good child care centre to enroll him in. The harsh reality of life was that in a few weeks he would have to return to work, and he'd also have to get used to leaving and trusting Blair's care to others. Joel had broached the idea of his wife picking Blair up from daycare in the afternoon so he'd have some semblance of a home life that didn't begin at nightfall. Having no grandchildren of her own and being a retired teacher, Jessie was over the moon at having the opportunity to be around children again. By the way the pair had hit it off, Jim felt somewhat hopeful that the situation could become long term.

After checking and cross-checking, Jim finally enrolled Blair in the Spencer Road Centre, which was central to both Joel's house and the loft. It was run by an energetic young woman by the name of Nicole Dickson. In her mid-thirties, and with past experience in dealing with and counselling children with histories of abuse, she seemed well-qualified to care for Blair's needs. And the fact that Blair had appeared to feel right at home was an added bonus.

Knowing his days of being a stay-at-home Dad were dwindling fast, Jim started spending an hour or so at the centre every day with Blair. Once Blair appeared to be settled, he left him there alone, leaving him free to catch up on all the other chores that were piling up now he had another person to care for.

Juggling a bag of groceries in one arm and catching the phone with the other before it hit the floor, Jim was cut off before he even had time to get out a greeting.

"I'd like to speak to Jim Ellison."

"You got him."

"Jim, it's Naomi ... Naomi Sandburg. I'm calling to let you know that I want to collect Blair. I know it's short notice, but I'd appreciate it if you could bring him down to the park on Northside Avenue around two. I'll meet you there."

There was no pause, no gap to stop and consider his response. That came instantaneously.

"That's not going to happen, Ms. Sandburg. At present I have custody of Blair, but given that your welfare payment would have been adjusted accordingly, I suspect you already know that. I also suspect those same welfare payments are the reason for this call. Am I right, Ms. Sandburg?"

There was no answer on the other end of the line, so Jim continued, "As I have legal guardianship of Blair, I must also inform you that any attempt to make contact with him without my permission will result your immediate arrest. Do you understand that Ms. Sandburg?"

The line disconnected without so much as an intake of breath. Immediately, Jim was on the offensive. Punching the speed dial button, he tried several times to get through to the Spencer Road Centre, each time receiving a busy tone. Giving up, he dialed the station. There was bound to be some black and whites in the neighbourhood that could swing by the centre and keep a discreet eye on things until he got there. The police switchboard picked up and his orders followed. "It's Detective Ellison here. Patch me through to Banks. It's urgent."

"What time do you pick him up?"

"I don't." Naomi's nerve endings tingled with the anticipation of things to come. The symptoms of withdrawal were edging closer, but her most immediate problem wasn't the cruel taunt of what she, herself, considered to be an insidious condition.

"What do you mean, you don't?" Short in stature with a frame shaped by well-defined muscles, Tom Walsh wore the handle of 'The Bulldog' with pride. But unlike a bulldog, Tom's pride was superficial. He was a coward and, like every coward, he chose his victims carefully, never taking on an opponent if the odds were not in his favour.

Naomi and her young son, however, were definitely very much in Tom Walsh's favour.

"He ... he said that he now has custody of Blair." Naomi's thin hands rubbed together, bone against bone. "He must know that he really is Blair's father."

A beer bottle hit the wall, inches from Naomi's head. "Fuck you Naomi. I warned you about this. That little shit's my paycheck and I want him back." Tom lunged forward, grabbing Naomi by her wrist and pulling her into his body. "Where is the kid?"

"I don't know, Tom," she replied, her words steady, despite the dangerous situation she knew she was in.

"Don't play the stupid bitch with me, Naomi. I know you've been following him and you know what's coming next if you don't tell me where he is."

Tom pushed Naomi back. For all of her motherly faults, on the occasions when she did muster the courage, she would put the kid before her own safety. By the look in her eye, he suspected that this could be one of those moments.

Tom lowered his voice and took control of his anger. "Come on, baby," he encouraged, lifting his hand to stroke her hair. "We were just starting to be a family. Don't break that up." He brushed his fingers down her cheek. "I know you miss him. Tell me where he is so I can bring him home. Let me prove to you that we can make this work."

Naomi leaned into the gentle caress of Tom's hand. His touch was warm, it was real and it was a touch she so desperately needed. She let herself fall into his trap and let herself believe in the fantasy life she so badly longed for. "He's at the child care centre on Spencer Road. He's there every day until around three."

This time, with even more gentleness, Tom moved Naomi forward once more and she melted into his embrace. He may have been a man prone to moments of violence, but he provided her with what she needed, and if Blair could just be good and not get under Tom's skin, then maybe there really was a chance of being a family.

"That's my girl," Tom, whispered into her hair. "You pack and I'll go and pick him up and then we'll hit the road. Some place better than this."

Naomi nestled her face in the crook of Tom's neck. He was her security, her refuge, and no matter how unstable that may have been, he was her reality. "I'll be waiting," she whispered.

Tom pulled away and Naomi watched as the door slammed behind him, determined that this time she'd try even harder to be a good woman to her man and be a better mother to her son. She'd kick the drugs and stay away from the alcohol -- and, just maybe, Tom would make the same effort.

Just maybe, if they both tried hard enough, they had a chance.

A wave of children spilled out the door and flooded the playground of the Spencer Road Centre. A car rolled to a stop, the occupant's eyes seeking, and immediately finding the child he was looking for.

The car door slammed shut and Tom Walsh crossed the road. The fence which cordoned the playground from the sidewalk was no obstacle for his athletic frame. He jumped it easily and moved straight toward Blair. "Hey, Blair Boy." His fingers encircled Blair's arm with enough pressure to leave an indentation on the child's skin. "Your Mama wants to see you, kid."

Blair's reaction was immediate. He'd had Tom's hands on his skin too many times for it not to be. He clawed at the fingers gripping his biceps. "No," he said, his voice succumbing to panic. "My daddy's picking me up today. I not 'llowed to go anywhere."

Creating a scene was not a part of Walsh's plan. He knelt down and yanked Blair's arm, pulling him closer to his body. "You mama is sick, Blair Boy. So sick that she even might die if she doesn't get to see you today. You wouldn't want your mama to die, would you?" He gave Blair a quick, hard shake in order to drive the point home. "Remember when your rabbit died? Remember how much pain he was in? It was all your fault, Blair. Your rabbit died because you didn't love him enough. You wouldn't want your Mama to die because you didn't love her enough, would you?"

"But ... but my daddy sayed not to leave."

Tom's anger rose quickly. "News flash for you kid, you don't have a daddy," he said, deliberately drawing out the last word. "Why do you think I call you a little bastard, you dumb little shit!"

"Get away from him!" A woman, petite and quick on her feet, moved across the playground. Knowing he needed to make a move -- not so much to escape the woman heading his way, but to get out of there, just in case she'd called the cops -- Tom yanked Blair off the ground and started back toward the fence. He covered the distance quickly until a sharp pain ripped through the muscle on his forearm; in an automatic reaction, he dropped Blair to the ground. "I don't fucking believe it," he grunted. Naomi's kid had bitten him hard enough to break skin.

Tom's next action was just as automatic. He raised his arm, his clenched fist smashing down, unintentionally, into the side of Nicole Dickson's head. He watched the woman fall to the ground, dazed and stunned, but still calling for Blair to run. Time was running out. In the distance another staff member was frantically speaking into a cell phone whilst urgently rounding up the rest of the children. Naomi's bastard child hadn't followed directions and was kneeling at his teacher's side.

Tom swept his arm down and the very moment his fingers made contact with Blair's arm, he felt himself being pulled backward and spun around. The bulldog left, leaving the cowardly lion to try to talk his way around the six-foot-two blockade that now stood in front of him. "Hey man. I was only talking to the kid. I'm a friend of his mom's."

The blockade didn't budge and by look in the man's eyes, Tom knew it was time to put his athletic legs to good use. He shifted to the balls of his feet, dugs his toes into the grass, and made ready to sprint, only to be stopped by the force of a hand that snaked out quickly and strangled his throat in a brutal, unforgiving grip.

Ellison didn't speak. He just adjusted his stance and braced his feet on the ground. The palm of his hand lay a heavy pressure against Walsh's windpipe and his fingers put a strategic pinch on the bastard's carotid artery.

Tom clawed at Ellison's wrist. He pushed back, barely making a headway against the hold on his throat. As defeat with physical strength slipped out of reach, he resorted to words. "I didn't mean to hit her, man. She got in the way."

Jim didn't move. Didn't even blink. "You really are much dumber than you look."

But Tom wasn't dumb. He realised his fatal mistake in an instant. He'd just confessed that the kid was his primary target, and he also suspected he'd just confessed that mortal sin straight to Blair's father. All that was left was to plead -- to beg for his life. "Please man. Let go, you're choking me."

"I know." Jim's words were soft and oddly compassionate, leaving Tom Walsh with the very real feeling that he was an injured dog about to be put out of its misery.

"Ellison let him go."

Again there was no reaction. No movement. No release.

Simon played dirty. "From a father's hands to a son's eyes, Jim."

There was no need to say any more. Just as Simon suspected, Jim's response came without pause.

Walsh was thrown backward, into Simon's arms. He in turn tossed Walsh, with as just much hatred, toward the officer standing to his left. "Read him his rights and take him downtown. I want this done by the book," he warned. "No mistakes and no accidents. This is one bastard who I can't wait to see make friends in the slammer."

Jim's eyes went straight to Blair. Tears were streaming down the youngster's cheeks. His face held no other emotion than fear.

"I'm sorry," was all Jim could say. He knelt down, drew Blair into chest, and buried his face in his son's hair. "I'm so very sorry."

Blair's voice was ragged. "She dead, daddy. Tom killed her and made her be dead."

"Baby, no." Lifting his head, but not relinquishing his hold, Jim looked toward Nicole, receiving a sign of 'okay' from the paramedic now by her side. "She's not dead. She's going to go in the ambulance and she's going to be fine."

Blair wasn't listening. He pulled away from Jim, the tears continuing to flow and his voice continuing to break as he spoke. "Tom hitted her 'cause I bited him. I s'pposed to go with him. I s'pposed to see Mama." The mention of his mother opened another floodgate of contentious emotions. "Mama's sick 'cause I not love her enough. She going to die just like Miss Dickson." Blair pulled away from his father. "I need to see my mama. I need to stop her fwom being dead."

Jim's hands came up to strongly cup the side of Blair's head. "Blair, what Tom told you was a lie. Your mother will not die because of you, and she won't get sick because of you. This is not your fault, Blair. None of this is your fault. Baby, please tell me you understand that. Please tell me that you understand that what Tom said wasn't true."

But Blair was now reaching the point of hysteria. Mucus ran freely from his nose and he smeared it across his cheek with his sleeve. "No," he said, shaking his head wildly from side to side. "Tom sayed I don't have a daddy. I don't have a daddy!" he cried.

"Hey, hey, hey." Jim pulled Blair close, tightening his arms against Blair's struggle. "You do have a daddy, Blair. I am your father and nothing's gonna change that. Not Tom, not your mother, not anyone, and I can promise you kiddo, that I won't ever let anyone take you away from me. It's you and me, buddy -- team you and me from here on in." He combed his fingers through Blair's hair, pushing gently down and encouraging Blair to rest his cheek against his shoulder. "Do you understand, kiddo? Do you understand how much I love you?"

Blair turned his head, closed his eyes and buried his face in the crook of Jim's neck. If I can't see them, they can't see me.

"Blair, I love you more than anything in this world. I need you to understand that."

Jim finally got his reply. No words, just a small nod, and with that he stood, drawing both them up. He saw look on Simon's face and chose to ignore it. He'd made a promise to Blair, to his son, and that promise was branded in steel. This child was now the centre of his world; no one would take him away, and if they courage to try -- they would die trying.

Of that he had no doubt.

Simon dropped his gaze. "Take him home, Jim. I'll sort this mess out."

Just like Blair's answer, a nod was all Simon received. He watched in silence as Jim moved across the playground with Blair in his arms, stopping only to squeeze Nicole Dickson's hand as he passed. He'd never seen this side of Jim before: a side that was so open and so vulnerable. He'd always considered Ellison to be a man born out of violence -- never overtly displayed, but always there, lingering beneath the surface. Violence was Ellison's survival mechanism. It was the very reason why he'd survived this long, and it was the fundamental reason why he'd lived to fight another day. But now, on the turn of a coin, things had changed. Jim had changed. The violence was still there but, to some degree, it had been boxed: packed away to be taken out only when needed. Jim had proved that today. From a father's hands to a son's eyes. It was all he'd had to say. That sentence now summed up Jim's life; it illustrated Jim's responsibilities and made him accountable for every single one of his actions.

"Guess kids will do that to you," Simon muttered. "They take your soul and lay it bare."

"Ellison, you seen this?" Without an invitation, Simon pushed past Jim and into the loft. He tossed the file he had in his hand onto the countertop. "It seems that Tom Walsh has met an early demise."

"So wishes do come true." Jim didn't bother with the file; instead he walked over and quietly closed Blair's bedroom door.

"You even want to know how?" Simon asked.

Jim just shrugged his shoulders.

Simon retrieved the file. "Poisoned. Poisoned by a substance that is apparently only found in a frog that is indigenous to South America. According to the coroner, once the poison's in the bloodstream it causes massive internal bleeding and people die as a result of drowning in their own blood. 'One of the more unpleasant ways of dying', I think was how he worded it."

"Gee, that's a darn shame," Jim replied. "I sure hope he didn't suffer."

"Can the sarcasm, Ellison!" Banks snapped. "What I want to know is 'how' Walsh came in contact with this poison, and if I were to put on my police captain's hat, I'd also be inquiring about the use of this particular poison by certain tribes in Peru; tribes which you are well acquainted with." Simon tossed the file back down. "This substance has never been reported in the US, Jim. For want of a better, more accurate description, don't you find that just a little strange?"

"Why are you asking me, Simon?" Jim leaned over and picked up the file. "Now don't get me wrong. I'm doing cartwheels that the bastard's dead, but I hope you're not suggesting that I had anything to do with the death."

Jim turned his attention to the file. "The report say that the poison was given sometime yesterday afternoon, and if my memory serves me correctly -- which it always does -- I believe you, me and Blair were somewhere around the monkey enclosure at Cascade zoo right about that time." He threw the file back down. "About to head to the tiger exhibition, if I also remember correctly."

The file ping-ponged back to Simon. "The report also said that they found a small puncture wound on his neck. Almost like the puncture mark you would receive if you were hit by a dart from a blowpipe. Don't you find that strange, Jim?"

"Strange things happen in this world, Simon, and if you want to look through my arsenal of blowpipes and collection of assorted of poison, be my guest."

"What about your connections in Peru, Jim? Should I be following that line of inquiry?"

"Inquire away, Simon. Deep as the army will let you." Jim folded his arms and leaned back on the kitchen counter. "Which you and I both know will be as deep as you can dig with a teaspoon."

"And if I inquire as a friend, Jim. How far will I get then?"

"You will get as far as me telling you that I had nothing to do with Walsh's death."

Simon locked eyes with Jim and held his gaze. He nodded his head. "Then I guess that's the end of my inquiry."

"Good, so now that the Spanish inquisition is over, do you have some time to hang around and keep an eye on Blair for an hour or so? I was going to take him over to Joel's, but since you're here and as he's asleep, it'd be a pain to have to wake him."

"Yeah, sure, I guess," Simon answered, already loosening his tie. "But where are you off to?"

"I'm going to meet with Blair's mother." Jim smiled and slapped Simon on the shoulder. "And I promise I'll leave all my blowpipes and poisonous darts at home." He held out his arms. "You can even frisk me if you like?"

"You are a very difficult man to like, Ellison," Simon muttered. He moved past Jim and into the kitchen. "This coffee fresh?"

"Pretty much."

Simon rummaged through the overhead cupboard until he found the mug he was looking for. "So why the sudden urge to meet up with his mother? After what she pulled, no judge in their right mind would consider giving custody back to her."

"I know, but I've always been a fan of the preemptive strike. Better to know what she's thinking than not know."

"Has Blair been asking after for her?"

"No, he's been pretty quiet on that front, but I do get the feeling that she's on his mind. Unfortunately he won't talk to me about what happened, and he won't talk to me about his mother, so at the moment I'm pretty clueless as to what he's thinking."

"So chances are that eventually he will ask to see her."

"That's my guess."

"And what will you do, if he does?"

"I won't let him ... I can't let him," Jim replied honestly. "In my book, what she did to him by allowing Walsh to be a part of their lives has revoked all of her parental rights. And while I know your friendly neighbourhood psychologist would say that's a superficial way of thinking and there are so many other emotional issues to consider, right now my only consideration is Blair's safety and his wellbeing. My gut tells me that letting him near that women is not in his best interest, emotionally or physically, and nothing's gonna change my mind about that. When he's older, much older -- say sixty, maybe -- but not at this age, and not when he still needs to be protected from her."

"No argument from me, there." Even though he was divorced, Simon considered himself a lucky man that his son had two stable and loving environments in which to call home.

Moving from the kitchen and into the living room, Simon reached for the remote. "So, how does it feel now that you've had a month or so to get used to being a father?"

"Weird," Jim replied. "I mean could you ever have imagined me with a kid? I didn't even like kids. Still don't if I'm honest, but Blair ... I can't even begin to explain how I feel about him. It was like a switch was thrown and bang, every single feeling that you're meant to have about your children was there -- tenfold, plus more."

Simon chuckled. "Mother Nature doing her job, my friend, and I'd say she's done a real number on you, Ellison." He pressed the remote and flicked through the channels. "Hadn't you better get going?"

"I'll just check Blair before I leave."

Quietly, Jim pushed open the door to Blair's small room. Incacha was there, standing by the foot of Blair's bed.

Incacha's physical presence had never been a threat to Jim and, while he was a little unnerved by the warrior's ghostly manifestation at his son's beside, his unease had more to do with his stubbornness to embrace the spirit world rather than a sense of danger.

"Incacha. We have to stop meeting like this." Jim closed the door. "Aside from the fact that you're blowing a hole in the laws of physics, you're going to have me hightailing down to department shrink if you keep this up."

"The enemy of your son is dead, and yet your failure to truly believe could be his ultimate undoing." Incacha stood tall. He stood proud. "What do you believe about the circumstances of his death?"

"I believe that you were responsible."

"Not I alone, Enqueri. It is well-versed that it takes a village to raise a child, and you would bear well to remember that it also takes a tribe to protect a child. The tribe acted to protect one of their own."

"You see Blair as a part of your tribe?"

"He is a part of our tribe, Sentinel and we cannot fail in our duty to protect him."

"Protect from who?" Jim asked. He was positive Incacha was not telling all he knew. Incacha had played this game before; it was one characteristic of the Indian warrior that always pushed his buttons. "You've already taken care of Walsh, so who else does he need protecting from?" He took a step closer. "From Naomi? Are you trying to tell me that he is in danger from his mother?"

"Be vigilant, Sentinel. Be vigilant for the sake of the young Guide and for that that of his protector."

"Guide? Protector? ... Incacha!" Jim reached out, hoping that if he got a solid grip on flesh and bone he'd have a better chance of getting a tenable grip on what Incacha was alluding to. He didn't intend to play a game of 'twenty questions', especially when Blair's safety was involved. But he was too late. Incacha was gone and he was left holding twenty unanswered questions in his hands.

"I swear to god, you'll tip me over the edge one day," he muttered, a little too loudly.

Blair stirred and he worked to calm the tension in the tiny room. "Ssshh." His hand passed a light touch over Blair's brow. "Just sleep."

Blair's eyelids fluttered, just once. He yawned and rolled over to his side, knocking Jim's hand away before settling back to sleep.

Jim stood still and quiet, like a stone sentinel from a distant time.

Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, he thought. "That's what little boys are made of. That and so much more," he said, quietly.

Snips, snails, puppy dog tails, dirt, mess, cheeky smiles and a laugh that can last forever when the giggles get going, he pondered. But as with all life, with the good came the bad. For Blair it came in the way of fear, of angst, of anxiety and of profound uncertainty as the child struggled to come to terms with his place in the world and his place in his father's life.

Jim's attention shifted from Blair and moved to the document that was pinned to the far wall -- Blair's birth certificate. By the very nature of its origin it held the power of both the good and the bad. He thought back to the day they'd pinned it to the wall. He'd photocopied it at work, stopping on his way home that night to buy a box of brightly coloured markers. They'd sat at the table, after dinner, Blair on his knee and with steady hands they'd neatly printed the name, Jim Ellison. A different colour for each letter, until finally the void next to the word 'father' had been filled. A ceremony followed, grand in Blair's view, as it was pinned to wall and each word on the certificate was read with the solemnity of a decree. Ice-cream followed, and dreams and promises were traded.

That night and the days to follow were the 'good', and it seemed like the good was winning the race, but his optimism was short-lived. The bad still had wind in its sails and it didn't take longer than a week to have them heading back into rough waters. It began simply: A name which had brought such excitement and hope was being rubbed away, erased. It wasn't a malicious act, or done in an outburst of anger. His name was being erased out of fear. Blair would stand and trace his finger, time and time again across the coloured letters. "Father -- Jim Ellison," he would read. Sometimes it would be soft, repeated only once or twice; sometimes it was a mantra, a dull, robotic drone, repeated over and over without stopping to draw breath. And some days, the bad days, it came with a fear-driven hysteria as the name and the promise behind it was swallowed up and lost in the dark place where Blair kept his memories.

For that, Jim hated. He hated a world in which a child could be born without a father's knowledge and, as irrational as it was, he hated himself for being that father. He hated being the father who had failed to protect his son.

But most of all, he hated Naomi Sandburg. He hated her for her weakness, her selfishness and he hated her for what she'd taken. Not only had she stolen a part of him, keeping it secret for three years, but she'd robbed her only son of his childhood. Blair's innocence had been bought and sold for measly sum of a bottle of scotch and a line of speed. In Naomi's world, that was the price of a child.

Blair stirred again, his fingers clenching and unclenching around Big Bird's beak. Jim's hand was back, encouraging sleep. "I promise we'll get it back, Munchkin," he whispered.

The promise was a tall order, and he knew in his heart that a part of it could never be delivered. Blair's true innocence was gone; no matter how much he tried to 'love' it back, Blair would always carry scars. His son's past could never be changed but, while the future could not be foretold, he was most definitely going to have a hand in shaping it.

Their future was together, father and son; of that he had no doubt.

Jim took a seat at the bar. There was no greeting, no call for an explanation or a justification of how the woman sitting to his left had managed to fail her son so badly. Instead he pulled an envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket and pushed it across the bar in her direction. "It should be enough," he said.

Naomi was nervous. Jim was not the same man she remembered. He was hard, cold; she could sense his anger, his rage. "Enough for what?" she asked, barely above a whisper.

"Enough for whatever you need. Enough for drugs, enough for booze ... enough to stay away from Blair."

Naomi found a small measure of courage; the courage to defend herself, and her status as Blair's mother. "I don't do drugs and Blair can't stay with you." She scratched unconsciously at her forearm. With Tom gone, she was alone. Being alone scared her more than living with men whose temperaments spun on a dime. "I'm his mother. He needs me. My son needs his mother!"

Jim's voice was low and the words that followed held no trace of sympathy. "The day you let that bastard beat and rape your son was the day you gave up your parental rights, permanently." He pushed away from the bar. "The money is only a token gesture; it's a way for you move on. A way for you to move away from Blair." He bent down until he was barely a breath from Naomi's ear. "My advice to you is to not use it to get a lawyer, because you can't win a fight you're not around to fight." He tossed a ten-dollar bill onto the bar to pay for her drink. "Read into that whatever you want, but for your continued good health, it would pay to decipher it correctly."

He didn't stay to listen to her answer; whatever she had to say had no bearing. She'd committed a crime and perpetrated an unspeakable act of betrayal. For that there would be no reprieve and no amnesty; she was guilty, and her sentence was life.

As Jim left the bar, he prayed that the sentence would uphold and that today would be last time he'd ever lay eyes on Naomi Sandburg.

The End

TBC in For Better or for Worse.

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