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

Feedback: jessriley80@yahoo.com.au


Jess Riley

A solitary figure stood, motionless; a man lost in thought, lost in contemplation. He overlooked bold headlines of mayhem and chaos. He filtered them out, allowing his eye to be captivated and mesmerised by a far more important document. Artwork. A bright montage of colours, crashing together and vying for attention on a single sheet of laser paper, held his gaze. Artwork created by a child, an urchin who had collided with his world, throwing it completely off its axis.

Peace and quiet were no longer the norm when it came to Jim Ellison's home life. His orderly lifestyle had been inundated by noise, disorder and bedlam, and his sparse existence had been filled with clutter and mess.

He smiled. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Joel Taggert watched from a distance before moving to stand shoulder to shoulder with the man who had recently undergone an incredible transformation. Like Ellison, his eyes were drawn to the notice board. "He's got talent, that's for sure," he said.

Ellison smiled again, which happened more often that not these days. "You think?"

"Beats the pants right off Picasso, if you ask me."

This time Ellison laughed. "Then maybe I should get it framed before one of the idiots around here uses it to wipe up a coffee spill."

"Nobody would be that stupid or that brave." Joel lightly slapped Ellison on the back, another gesture that would not have been commonplace a few months ago. "Hey, I just got off the phone with Jessie and she was wondering if you'd like to stay for dinner tonight. Apparently Blair's been helping making dessert. Chocolate mud cake, I think she said."

Ellison's gaze remained fixed on the artwork as he considered how to frame his answer.

Taggert waited.

Jim finally faced Joel. "I appreciate the offer, I really do, but I think I'm already imposing on you guys enough without lumbering Jessie with two more mouths for dinner." Since Jim had won custody of Blair, Jessie Taggert had been picking up the little boy from daycare and looking after him until Jim finished work. This arrangement was fine at first, but as he got back into the swing of his fulltime routine, the unpredictable hours of police work sometimes meant that Blair was left at the Taggert's house for longer than he had intended.

"Jim, I hope you're not suggesting that we think Blair is an imposition?"

"Not an imposition, exactly, but he is at your place nearly every day after daycare, and I don't want to get into a position where he's any more of burden to Jessie than he already is."

"You're a brave man to use the word 'burden' and 'Blair' in the same sentence. All I can say is that I'm glad Jessie was nowhere near earshot of that last statement, or you'd have the imprint of a size six shoe on your backside forevermore."

"Speaking from experience?"

"You better believe it." Joel folded his arms across his chest, letting them settle before he spoke again. "Look Jim, the truth of the matter is that having Blair at our house in the afternoons has helped filled a void in Jessie's life. Ever since she retired from teaching, she's really missed her daily 'kid fix'. He hesitated, choosing his words. "As a matter of fact, she wanted me to talk to you about maybe letting Blair have his own room at our place. I mean, I'm not saying that we think you can't look after him," he added quickly. "We think you're a great dad, Jim... it's just that... well, children need to have extended families, as you well know, and since we don't have any grandchildren..." Joel paused again, becoming uncharacteristically flustered. "What I'm trying to say is that we would like to become more than just babysitters to Blair. We want Blair to be able to treat our house as his own. Have his own things there... make it a place where he feels happy and content when you're working. And when he's comfortable with the idea, maybe he could stay for the odd weekend? We could take him to the zoo, to the aquarium, or even the museum. He really seems to have an interest in history, and given Jessie's passion for teaching, I really think Blair would benefit from trips like this." Joel's arms dropped to his side, positive that he'd overstepped the line. "Listen to me; I'm babbling and I had no right to suggest that. I'm sorry if I was out of line."

Jim didn't respond. It was reassuring to have confirmation that Blair wasn't a burden on their lives, but the bottom line was that Blair was his responsibility. It had been drummed into him from a very early age that shirking one's responsibilities was nothing short of failure. Although he'd never admit it out loud, the idea of failing Blair scared him to death.

"So, we still on for dinner at least?" Joel's hopes at a positive response from Jim were fading, as were his hopes of establishing a more solid friendship with Ellison. While he honestly enjoyed having Blair around, and it was true the presence of the little boy had added warmth to their home, he also appreciated the added benefit of getting to know a man who many considered to be unapproachable.

"You want me to drop by the store and pick anything up?" Jim finally answered.

"You're coming!" Joel coughed, clearing his throat. He'd never make a successful undercover cop. "I mean, you are coming? That's great, Jess'll be thrilled." Embarrassed, and feeling very much like an exuberant puppy at the pound, jumping around to display 'pick me, pick me," Joel made a hasty retreat from the room. "No need to bring anything. If you're ready to go by six, I'll meet you down in the garage and we can head out together."

"Sounds good." With a slight smile, Jim tossed the remainder of his coffee down the sink and rinsed out his cup. "Oh, and Joel," he called out. "I'll have to talk it over with Blair first, but I'm sure he'd be thrilled to have a room of his own at your place."

"I've just been picked," Joel chuckled softly as he made his way down the corridor.

"Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!" The screen door was pushed open with such a force that it banged into the weatherboard cladding. Blair didn't care; he was on a mission and he quickly crashed into his father's legs. "You euhly!" He lifted his arms to be picked up. "I made chocolate mud," he announced.

"I can see that, Chief. Question is, is there any chocolate in the cake, or is it all over your face?"

"It's all in the cake," Blair replied.

Jim swiped his thumb across Blair's face and wiggled it in front of the child's eyes, presenting the evidence. "You sure about that?"

"That only be a sample. Jessie say a good cook must always taste befo'e they'd bake."

"I see." Jim wiped away more chocolate, this time from Blair's forehead. "I just hope you never get a job working for a chocolate maker, Chief, because with your idea of sampling, the place will go bust in no time flat."

"I not going to be a chocolate makuh." Blair's voice held an air of insult. "I going to be a 'sploeher and look for treasuh. I told you that, 'membeh?"

"Well Indy, before we let you loose on the world, I suggest we do a little work in the area of table manners first. After all, you can't go meeting the Queen of Persia with chocolate all over your face."

"Ah-um," Joel coughed. "I do believe that my welcome may have been forgotten."

"Joel!" Blair launched himself from Jim's arms, never expecting for one minute not to be caught by Joel. "Did you have a good day?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I did. I got a enbelope from Holly. I not know what it be, but it says 'To Blaiuh' on the front. Holly woted it hehself." With the headline news of the day announced, Blair squirmed to be put down. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he scooted back up the path and into the house, the screen door receiving another pounding as it slammed against the weatherboard panels.

"Well, I don't know about you, Joel, but I'm exhausted just watching him."

"You know Jim, if they can't come up with a name for the next hurricane, I've got the perfect suggestion."

This time Jim was ready. He opened the screen door and held it firmly in his hand as Blair once again came barreling out the door. "Look, see it says 'To Blaiuh'. What it say inside?"

Joel ruffled Blair's hair and made his way into the house.

"Daddy, what it say?"

"Slow down a minute, Hurricane Harry." Jim scoped Blair and his envelope up and carried them both into the house. "At least let me get inside and say hello to Jessie first."

"But Daddy, it important."

"It is, is it?" Jim replied.

"Ah-ha," Blair answered. "Please read it."

Pleases and puppy dog eyes Jim already knew he was beat. "Alright, alright." He lowered Blair to the floor, crouched down beside him and flicked open the seal with his fingernail. "It says, 'Dear Blair. It's Holly's third birthday and we would love you to come to her party on Saturday, September twenty-sixth. We hope you can make it'."

Blair ducked under Jim's arms and squeezed in between his legs, giving himself a perfect view of the piece of paper. "What that mean?"

"Well, Munchkin, it means that your friend Holly is having a birthday party and would like you to be there to help her celebrate."

"Why?" Blair pushed a wayward curl out of his eyes. "What's a birthday party?"

The guilt was back. Blair had obviously never celebrated his birthday.

"Blair, honey." Having heard the conversation from the kitchen, Jessie decided that now might be a good time to distract the little boy. "Joel wants to know if you would like to help him ice the cake?"

The word 'cake' had an uncanny ability to immediately evaporate Blair's attention span. He pushed himself out from between Jim's legs. "Can I lick the spoon?"

"You sure can, honey, but you better be quick; you know how much Joel loves chocolate."

With that, Blair was gone, leaving the forgotten invitation in Jim's hands. "So, I guess you heard?" Stuffing the note back into the envelope, Jim hoisted himself off the floor.

"When is Blair's birthday, Jim?"

"Believe it or not, it was a few days after his mother left him at my door. Talk about timing. His third birthday came and went and at the time, I didn't even realise."

"Well then, we're only a few months late. It's not too late to give him a party of his own. We can have it here. The backyard's plenty big enough, and we can invite some of his little friends from daycare, and of course we'll need to invite some of the people from Major Crime. The catering won't be a problem, and I can bake a cake. I have a recipe for one I know he'll adore, and he can even help me organise the invitations."

Jim held up his hand, putting a dampener on Jessie's enthusiasm. "Jessie, I know you mean well, but I don't know if a party is such a good idea. You heard him; he doesn't even know what a birthday is, and I'm honestly not sure if he could cope with all the fuss. He's only just starting to get used to the changes in his life; I'm afraid that a party might be a bit overwhelming, considering that he has no idea what to expect. He's not used to being the centre of attention. While he's fine here with you guys and with Simon, you must have noticed how shy and withdrawn he becomes when he's faced with a big group of people. It's almost as if he thinks that if he doesn't draw attention to himself, then no one will notice him and they'll leave him alone. I think that with everything he else he needs to adjust to, a party at this stage will be too much."

"Jim, given the circumstances, I realise that a party might sound a little overenthusiastic. However, I also think we need to be careful of not falling into the trap of being under-enthusiastic."

"What do you mean?"

"Normality, Jim." She held up her hand, halting the reaction she knew was coming. "And by that, I'm not for one single minute suggesting that you aren't doing the very best by Blair. What I am suggesting is that there is a fine line between being a protective parent and being an overprotective parent." Jessie moved forward, taking Jim's hand in her own. While she didn't know Jim all that well, she did know him well enough to know that this man was negotiating a fine line of his own. It separated ability from inability and, for a man like Jim Ellison, she assumed that inability wouldn't be an easy pill to swallow. "It's hard, Jim," she admitted. "I've been around children all my life, but when it comes to Blair, it's ... it's hard. God knows there isn't a day goes by without me fighting the urge to wrap that child up in cotton batting and keep him locked inside the house. Just the other day I nearly snapped the head off the grocer for reprimanding Blair for touching his peaches." She smiled and shook her head. "Listen to me. I have the audacity to lecture you about being overprotective when I know full well the minute someone even looks sideways at Blair, I'll do exactly the same thing." The smile fell from her face. "Jim, what I'm trying to say, in what has turned out to be a very convoluted fashion, is that I understand your concerns about not throwing Blair into the thick of things. But I feel it's important that he's introduced to as many normal, everyday situations as possible. The child needs to grow and he can't do that if we keep him from the light if we keep him smothered. Look, if you feel that a party is too much, would you consider inviting a few of your close friends over for a barbeque, perhaps? We could still have a cake, but keep the whole thing very casual. This way, his third birthday party could be an introduction to hopefully a bigger one next year."

Jim squeezed Jessie's hands. She was right. He knew she was right. Blair needed 'normal'; he needed to experience everything that life had to offer the good and the not-so-good. If they were ever going to get past what Blair had been through, they both had to move forward. They both had to tackle life head on, and learn to deal and cope with the consequences. "Am I ever gonna get the hang of this?" he asked.

"Jim, you had the hang of this the first time you held that little boy in your arms. Being left with you was the greatest gift that child could have, and will ever receive." She patted his hand, then grasped it more firmly, and at that very moment it was as if they'd become a team, with a handshake uniting them together for a common cause. "Now we better get into that kitchen, James Ellison, before the scallywag eats all of the cake. And by that, I don't mean Blair."

"Jessie that was a feast in itself. I can't remember the last time I ate so well."

"Well then, perhaps we should make it a regular Friday night occasion." There was hope in her eyes, and a little wink in Blair's direction to help seal the deal.

"If you're not careful, I just might take you up on that offer."

"That's what offers are there for."

"Friday is a good day for chocolate mud," Blair interjected.

Jim pushed the uneaten carrots on Blair's plate closer to the youngster. "It's also a good day for vegetables, Chief."

Letting out a dejected huff, Blair picked up his folk and stabbed at the carrots. "Only if you be a wabbit," he grumbled.

"You think?"

"Ah-ha." Blair looked up at his father with an expression that usually worked. "Please, Daddy."

"Pleases and puppy dog eyes," Jim muttered. "Alright, Bugs, you're off the hook. Now scoot, before I volunteer you to help wash up."

"Why don't you all scoot." Pushing her chair back, Jessie got to her feet. "I'll get this done a whole lot quicker without you both under my feet."

Jim was about to protest, but it was short-lived. Joel was tugging on his sleeve like a man anxious to get out of Dodge before the ruckus began. "Joel, anyone would think you just got a 'get out of jail free' card."

"Better. I just built a hotel on Boardwalk." With the finesse of a quarterback, Joel dodged the kitchen towel heading his way, ducked around the table, planted a kiss on Jessie's cheek and was out the back door, all in under ten seconds. "

"Wow, I've never actually seen him move so fast."

There was a twinkle in Jessie's eyes. "I have."

"You know what?" Suddenly Dodge had become a little too dangerous for Jim. "I'll just go check on Blair and then head out to the shed with Joel. See what he's working on."

He left Jessie in the kitchen, not even wanting to think about any other circumstances that had Joel moving so fast.

"Hey, Squirt. What'cha up to?"

Blair's eyes were fixed on the television, leaving the question unanswered.

"Okay, obviously not needed," Jim muttered. He left the beer bottle he was carrying on the coffee table, and headed down the hall toward the bathroom.

When he returned to the room, the sight that greeted him stopped him in his tracks. His mouth lurched into gear before his brain had time to slam on the brakes. "Blair, what do you think you're doing? Put that down, now!"

To any other child the reprimand would have been strict, but not overtly threatening. But Blair wasn't just 'any other' child. He dropped the beer bottle and was out the front door and down the porch steps before Jim had even moved.

"Shit!... Blair! " Mistake number two, but it was too late to retrieve the words. For Blair, a voice was only happy or angry. He didn't recognise the variations that came in-between.

"Jim, what's wrong? Where's Blair?"

"He took off!"

Jessie turned on the porch light. "Took off, why? What happened?"

Jim scanned the front yard. "I came out of the bathroom and Blair was drinking the beer I'd left on the table. I raised my voice, told him to put it down and the next thing I knew, he was out the door."

"Blair," Jim called out into the darkness. "I'm sorry I yelled, Munchkin." He traipsed down the stairs and jogged down the front path, stopping at the gate. The street beyond was completely void of life.

"Jim, the gate's still shut and it's too high for him to climb over that quickly." Joel was now behind him, a hand on his shoulder. "Jess, go next door to Norma's. He could have squeezed through the hole in the fence and be hiding in her garden.

Joel's hand suddenly became heavier. Jim could feel it pressing through his shirt, warming his skin. His vision tunnelled and his world became cylindrical, as if he were looking through a cone; looking down the rabbit hole.

The touch of Joel's hand on his shoulder became impossibly heavy. It weighted him down; he worked to lock his knees, fought to stay on his feet. Then it hit. It was only a thump small, forlorn and sounding so alone, so lost. He moved, forward, then back, trying to pinpoint where it was coming from. Joel's hand was still there. He tried to shake it off, but it wouldn't budge. His world narrowed again and he was falling, tumbling down the rabbit hole, just like Alice. Unlike Alice, this was not beginning of a journey, but the end. His fall was broken by a concrete path a path that led from the front gate, to the front stairs. A path that trained his line of sight directly toward Blair.

"The porch." He moved forward, first on his hands and knees until the momentum brought him to his feet. Joel's hand left his shoulder. "He's under your porch."

The only way under the stairs was through a small hole, created by several missing concrete blocks. It was big enough for a child to squeeze through and small enough to keep him out. Jim dropped to his knees and stared into bleak, damp, darkness.

"Jim, I've got a flashlight." It was thrust into this hand, already burning bright.

"Blair, Kiddo, it's Daddy."

The flashlight found its mark. Blair was pushed back as far as he could go, his back pressed against the front wall of Joel's house. He was scared, that was obvious, but it was the look of resignation on his face that took Jim aback. He'd been found, discovered; the game was up and now it was time to face the music. But this music turned into a full- blown concerto right before Jim's eyes. To Blair's right was a bottle of water, and to his left, a package of cookies. Joel's porch wasn't just a random place found by a frightened little boy in the spur of the moment. Blair's escape had been premeditated. The size of the hole, the provisions, and the bear for company and reassurance told a cautionary tale of Blair's life. The pages of that life-book were open and fluttering in the breeze and told Jim all he needed to know; there was no need to read the story. Blair didn't trust him ... didn't trust any of them. At the tender age of three, Blair had already learned a lesson that had taken him years of military service to learn. If you want to live, then trust only yourself.

"Jim?" He didn't turn around. He didn't need to see Joel's face to know what the other man was thinking, or feeling. "What now?"

What now? The question had an infinite number of possible answers, but only one definitive response. "Now we change the story," he said. "We change both our stories."

"Munchkin," Jim said, softly, "do you remember what I told you that night you broke the glass? Do you remember, Blair? Remember the promise I made to you?"

Blair didn't move an inch. He didn't move any closer, but he didn't move any further way.

"I made a promise to you, Blair. I made a promise that I would never hurt you ... not today, not tomorrow, not ever. I know I sounded cross and my voice sounded angry and I'm sorry that it did." Jim held out his hand. "I'm learning here as well, Kiddo, and you're going have to realise that sometimes I'll make mistakes. But you also have to know that when I make a mistake it will never, ever involve me smacking you or hurting you in any way. I need you to realise that, Blair. I need you to know that.

Blair still didn't move physically, but emotionally, Jim felt he was getting through. A single tear tracked a silent path down the little boy's cheek.

"Blair, do you remember the day Simon asked me to see the lady in the big office downtown? The day when I was very, very angry?"

Blair nodded. Angry days never drifted too far out of his mind.

"Remember what happened, Blair? Remember what happened, just between you and me?" Jim pushed a little hard, hoping Blair would remember without having to reveal all the details in front of Joel. "You trusted me, Kiddo. The door was wide opened and you could have left anytime. You could have run away, but you stayed. Do you know why you stayed?"

Blair nodded, just barely, but Jim saw a definite movement, despite the gloom of his surroundings.

"Why did you stay, Blair?"

"'Cause what mama told me." Blair's voice was soft, still unsure.

"What did she tell you, Kiddo?"

"She said, daddies loved they little boys."

"That's right, Blair. Daddies do love their little boys and this daddy loves his little boy more than anything else in the world. But do you know what else?"

Blair wrapped his arm tightly around his teddy bear another of his shields. Its head flopped to the side and its aging seams bulged under the pressure. "No," he said.

"With love comes trust. Trust to know that I'll never hit you. Trust to know that you're safe with me." Jim held out his other hand, praying to every deity he could think of that Blair would reach out for his hand and take it. That Blair would give in to trust. "Do you trust me, son?"

It was like watching grass grow in slow motion, but finally, inch by precious inch, Blair moved toward Jim. Their hands finally touched, but Jim didn't take a firm hold. The decision was Blair's and only Blair's to make. He could keep moving forward or he could move back. Jim had all night.

Blair kept moving forward. He crawled out of the dark and, for a short moment in time, stood perfectly still and stayed perfectly quiet. The porch light shone from behind, outlining his profile. Another tear was captured, this time by Jim's thumb.

Blair folded into his father's arms, but remained perfectly quiet.

It could have been a scene from any American household a child, asleep on his grandmother's lap, his head tucked under her chin and her cheek resting peacefully on the top of his head. The only sound to fill the night was the sweet sound of a lullaby and the gentle swooshing of a chair as it rocked back and forth.

The cup of coffee was his second; it was strong and fresh and just what he needed. Jim pushed through the screen door. Joel was sitting alone on the stairs, his eyes focused toward the road and the darkness beyond.

"I had no idea."

Jim moved to take a seat. The coffee cup was hot against his palms. "It's not your fault, Joel."

"No, but it's my responsibility. While that child is in this house it's my responsibility to make sure that he's happy, and that he's healthy and safe. He doesn't feel safe here, Jim, and I had absolutely no idea. I'm a cop and I didn't see the signs."

"You're not a cop, Joel. Not when Blair's concerned. You're not a cop and neither am I, and do you want to know why?"

Joel's gaze slid toward Jim, waiting for the answer.

"Because the parameters have changed."


"Do you want to know how I became so good at what I do?"

"The Army," Joel answered.

"Partly," Jim replied. "The army was where I honed my skills, but not where I learned them."

"What skills?"

"The skill of putting my emotions on lockdown. The day I left home was the first time I realised how easy it was not to feel. I walked straight out the door without any regret or remorse, and without any intention of ever going back."

"And the next time?"

Jim hesitated. He turned away, seeking reassurance in the darkness beyond the 'family' porch. "Are you sure you really want to hear? It might lead you to seeing me in a different light."

"No expectations, Jim. No expectations, no disappointments."

Jim shrugged as if to say, 'your choice buddy.' "The second time ... the second time was the very first time I killed a man." His coffee was cooling, but like everything in his life until recently it was easily replaceable. "I had a choice. I could have let him live, but letting him live meant that others would die in the future. So I killed him. Slit his throat from ear to ear. No remorse, no regret. I had a job to do and I completed my mission, no questions asked. It was no harder the next time, or the time after that. My job was to survive, and my job was to maximise those same survival percentages for every single man in my unit. Kill or be killed. It's not a saying just reserved for the movies."

This time, he didn't chance a glance toward Joel. He met his eyes head on. "How are those expectations working out for you now?"

"Without disappointment." There was no hesitation in Joel's words. "But I am curious about the parameters. What's changed?"

"Blair's broken my heart."

There was a pause. A space to think. A third cup of coffee, hot and strong, just how he liked it.

The stair creaked and Joel settled back down. "Of all the emotions in the world, which one do you think is the most painful, Jim?"

Jim shrugged. "Grief, I guess."

"Love," Joel answered. "Love is the most powerful, the most debilitating and the most painful emotion you will ever experience." Jessie's sweet song travelled from the parlor and spilled out to the porch. "And you, Jim Ellison, are madly in love."

Jim's gaze went back to the darkness, back to the night. "Tell me about it," he said, quietly.

Soap, shampoo and a smidge of baby powder. Those were the scents of childhood, fragrances that alluded to nothing more than washing away the remnants of a hard day's play. It was the aroma of innocence, of a child with no demons to purge.

As Jim carried Blair from the car to the loft and settled him in bed, his thoughts drifted toward just how much Blair had lost, and how on earth he was ever going to get it back. The answer, he knew, was simple; Blair would never regain what had been taken from him. The only hope was that time would grant Blair the luxury of fading memories. Time was the answer. Time, hope and like Joel said, the most powerful of emotions love. He pulled up the covers, bent down and placed a kiss on Blair's forehead. "Sleep tight, don't let the " he stopped short, not daring to finish the sentence. He wasn't superstitious but the fewer bad omens voiced, the better.

He flicked on the night light, picked Big Bird up off the floor and placed him on the pillow. "I'm counting on you, bird," he said, before leaving the room. "I'm counting on you to make sure his dreams are filled with nothing more than chocolate-covered rainbows."

In the small hours of the night, Big Bird fell down at his post. Blair's scream filled the loft. Jim was fully awake and alert before his feet even hit the floor. Sure, he slept, but not deeply. Never deep enough to not be aware of his surrounds. It was another habit learned in the army, and one he was sure he'd never break.

By the time he reached Blair's room, Blair was out from under the covers and had squeezed himself into the small space between the dresser and the wall. "No!" he screamed. "I sayed no!"

The urge to gather Blair up into his arms was killing him, but Jim kept his distance. Blair had no idea where he was, but the child knew full well who was stalking his dreams. "Blair, it's okay, baby." He edged a tiny bit closer and knelt down, hoping that when the hysteria of the dream released its grip, the first thing Blair would see would be his father's face.

"No no no, go away." Blair's voice was rough, fractured. "If you go away, I won't tell mama. I pwomise I won't. I won't, I won't, I won't!"

There and then, Jim Ellison prayed for there to be a hell, because if hell really did exist he'd have one more opportunity to meet up with Tom Walsh and exact nothing short of pure and satisfying revenge.

"Daddy," Blair cried, breaking Jim's train of thought. "Tom won't leave, Daddy. Make he go away ... make he go away!"

Finally contact, skin to skin as Jim's hand brushed across Blair's cheek. "It's just a bad, bad, dream, Kiddo. Tom's gone, remember, and he's never coming back."

Blair lifted his hands, curling his fists and then opening them. He palmed Jim's cheek, up and down, still frantic. "And he won't hurt me?" Blair sobbed. "You won't hurt me?"

Blair had broken his heart and was now tearing it apart. In his own home, in his own room, Blair still didn't feel safe. Blair still didn't trust him.

How many times do I need to say never, before you believe me? The question remained as a thought. It could be months, even years before Blair would be able to provide an answer, and there was still hope that, if time did its job correctly, the answer would never come. But now was not the time. Blair's bladder released and he began to shake. And Jim once again prayed for the existence of hell.

Jim ignored the puddle at Blair's feet, just as he ignored the soaking wet pajamas. He pulled Blair into his arms and drew him into his chest. "Never, ever, Chief. It's our promise, remember?"

Blair buried his face in the nape of Jim's neck. "I 'membeh," he said. "I 'membeh."

Jim took it as a sign that, for the moment at least, the demons where at bay. He got to his feet, taking Blair with him. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up."

A pair of clean pajamas, a fresh towel and hope. In the deep hours of the night, that's all they had going for them. He put Blair down on the tiles, prudent with his next move. "Munchkin, you need to have a quick cleanup, and to do that we're going to have to take off your wet pajamas. Is that okay with you?"

Blair's reaction was one he was half expecting. The lines between the past and present were, in Blair's mind, still blurred. "No, I don't want to take them off."

"It's okay," Jim assured. He ran his hands up and down the length of Blair's arms. "We won't do anything you don't want to do." And it was true. He wouldn't cross that line, if Blair said no. If they both had to stand in the bathroom all night long, they'd do exactly that, because Blair's pajamas would not be coming off until Blair gave his permission for it to happen.

Blair yawned, long and wide. He leaned in and wrapped one arm around Jim's neck.

"Hey, Kiddo." Long soothing strokes moved from Blair's arms to his back. "Do you remember your book? Remember all the fun things that daddies do with their sons?" Blair nodded and his other arm shot up to hook Jim's neck. "Remember how they go to the park, and how they go fishing and horse riding?"

"Ah-ha," Blair yawned.

"And do you remember what else they do, Chief?"

"Ah-ha," Blair said again. "They play in the mud."

"That's right, they play in the mud. And when they play in the mud the little boy gets all dirty so his daddy has to give him a bath." There was no coercion in Jim's voice, just a simple re-tell of a favourite story. "Do you remember the end of the story, Kiddo?"

"I 'membeh," Blair replied. The battle to stay awake was winning the war, forcing the bad memories to retreat into the background. Blair leaned more heavily into Jim's body.

"So do you think it might be okay for your daddy to give you a bath?"

Sleep broke through the battle lines. Blair yawned and then nodded his head.

Jim remained cautious. A nod wasn't a definitive answer not tonight. "Blair is it okay for me to take you pajamas off?"

There was silence for a while and Jim didn't push. Then Blair nodded his head. "Ah-ha," he said. The answer was sleepy, but it gave Jim the confirmation he was seeking.

Knowing his chance of removing Blair's arms from around his neck was practically next to none, he worked around the problem, one step at a time, and while it was more time consuming, Blair eventually was stripped down, ready for a quick clean up.

The loft wasn't cold, but as the night air hit his skin, Blair shuddered. Jim instinctively pulled him in close.

"Okay, buddy, here we go." Lifting Blair up and over the rim of the tub was no effort at all. Getting him to stay upright however required a little more finesse. Once Blair's knees finally locked, Jim turned on the faucet and ran the washcloth under the warming water. The only touch to Blair was a trickle of water running down from the washcloth as Jim squeezed it out over Blair's skin. It was rudimentary but he repeated the procedure several times until Blair was basically clean. A more thorough soak in the tub could wait until tomorrow. It could wait until his son's world was back in balance.

Blair's arms were still wrapped tightly around his neck, so Jim squeezed his hand in between Blair's body and his chest, wiping his skin with the same cloth. He let it fall back into the tub. "Up we go, tough stuff,' he said, pulling himself to his feet and taking Blair with him.

The towel was large and, by the time Jim finished wrapping Blair up in it, the only inch of the child to be seen was his head, resting sleepily against his father's shoulder. "I sleep in your bed." It wasn't a question, but a statement, and one Jim couldn't ignore. He swooped down and picked Blair's pajamas up off the tiles and flicked off the bathroom light. By the time they reached the top of the stairs, Blair would be fast asleep. He would never have thought it possible, but sometimes it was a damn sight easier to dress a sleeping child than one who was wide awake, with more important things to do than get changed. And on a night like tonight, it was a damn sight easier not to look into his son's eyes and wonder if all Blair could see was Tom Walsh staring back. As he put Blair's pajamas on and tucked him under the covers on the far side of the bed, Jim said a silent prayer for the damnation of Tom Walsh's miserable soul.

Jim was aware there was movement outside the front door and, while he didn't know how, he also knew it was Simon. Although he didn't believe in the power of premonitions, he did believe in intuition and, when it came to intuition, his was finely tuned.

He untangled himself from his miniature human blanket and reached for his robe. If he were quick, he could make it down the stairs and to the door before the first knock.

"I hope they're buttermilk," he said, swinging the door wide open.

"You know how much I hate it when you do that."

"I know." Jim didn't hesitate in reaching for the box of doughnuts. "You keep this up and I could very well marry you."

"Now there's a good enough reason for me to put a gun to my head," Simon muttered. He moved into the loft, shucked off his coat and draped it over the sofa. "I heard you had a tough night."

"News travels fast." "So, how's the squirt?"

Jim dumped the box on the table. The contents had become a lot less appealing. "Well, thanks to dear old Dad, he had a pretty rough time of it." Jim scrubbed his hand roughly over his face, hoping the action would at least take away some of the bone-deep weariness he felt.

"Thanks to you, how?"

"So the newsflash left out the part about me yelling at Blair and scaring him to the point where took flight." "Joel told me that you raised your voice, just like any other parent would have done in the same situation."

"Simon, Blair is not like every other child; you know that."

"So, basically what you're saying is that he's entitled to special privileges? That you're going to walk on eggshells around him for the rest of his life and let him do exactly what he wants?"

"Not quite," Jim responded, a hint of hostility creeping into his voice. "But yeah, he does need to be treated differently. Allowances need to be made."

"Ellison, did bugs eat your brain? Are you even listening to what you just said?" Simon moved into the kitchen. He needed coffee. "Look, I agree that, in some ways Blair is special and that there's a chance he may need specialised help for him to deal with what he's been through, but at the end of the day he's still a child. Children need rules and they need guidelines. Ah!" Simon held up his hand. "I haven't finished yet." Jim was never good at receiving lectures but he was damn well going to sit there and listen to this one. "Jim, I understand your need to protect Blair hell we all do but the bottom line is that if you don't set up some basic rights and wrongs now, you're going to have one very out- of-control little person living with you, and you'll be setting yourself up for years of struggle and years of grief."

"Simon, you weren't there. You didn't see the way he looked at me, and you didn't see what I saw. He had a hiding place, for Christ sakes. He had food and water, and he had enough foresight to scope out a place where only he could gain access. Normal kids don't do that."

"You sure about that? I seem to remember a place not too dissimilar to that myself, and I can assure you, Jim, I had nothing to run from."

"There's a difference between a cubbyhole and a bunker, Simon."

"Okay," Simon conceded. "I accept that, but maybe instead of making special allowances for Blair, you should make considerations. Consider each situation on its own merits. Consider what he's done, consider your reaction and then consider the appropriate reprimand. But don't fold and make allowances on the last point, Ellison, or I can assure you, no sooner than night turns to day, Blair will know he rules the roost; he'll think he's entitled to get away with anything he wants."

"So, Doctor Spock, what is an appropriate reprimand for a boy like Blair?"

"Sending his father to Siberia would be my first suggestion," Simon muttered, "but since you asked so nicely, my suggestion is time out."

"So what, I make him stand in the corner facing the wall. Does a dunce's hat come with the deal?"

"You know what? I think Siberia would be well worth the paperwork." Simon flipped open the box on table and pulled out a doughnut. It was the only buttermilk in the box and he took a huge bite. "Time out, smart ass, is making him spend a few minutes alone in his room to think about what he's done."

Jim watched as Simon swallowed down the remainder of his breakfast. "Works around the same principle as the doughnut, I'm gathering."

"Now there's my best detective." Simon smiled. "I knew you'd get there, with a little help." He picked out another doughnut, Jim's second- favourite. "Why don't you go hit the shower and when Blair's awake, I'll take you both out for breakfast."

Jim closed the lid on the doughnut box. All the good ones were already gone. "Sounds like a plan," he said, "'cause there sure ain't nothing to eat around here."

"Jim!" Simon pulled Ellison up before he reached the bathroom. "On a more serious note, make sure you have a talk with Blair first, okay? Make sure he completely understands what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. The kid's probably received so many mixed messages over the years that he doesn't know the difference. Chances are he didn't even know that drinking beer was wrong. Who knows how many times he's been allowed to drink the stuff, or what else he's been allowed to do?"

Jim stood and thought for a very short moment. He nodded his head and started once again toward the bathroom. "You know what? Despite the fact that you ate my favourite doughnut, knowing full well that I have a gun, you're smarter than you look, Uncle Simon."

Simon smiled. 'Uncle Simon'. He could get used to that!

Simon didn't notice that Blair was awake until a pair of small arms wrapped around his legs. "Hey Squirt, I didn't hear you. He ruffled Blair's hair. The mop of curls was already a tangled mess. "I was just unpacking the dishwasher for your dad." He knelt down to Blair's eye level. "You still sleepy?"

"Ah-ha," Blair nodded. "I had a bad dream."

"You did, huh? Do you want to tell me about it?"

"Nope." Blair leaned in for a hug and Simon immediately accommodated. The level of affection Blair displayed toward him still blew him away. In Blair's view, he should be just another guy to float through the kid's life. But deep down, in the place where all his fatherly instincts were stored, Simon felt that Blair actually trusted him. Despite Jim's reservations about how much Blair did trust, he had a very strong feeling that Blair would get there. All the kid needed was to be shown the way. He got to his feet, taking Blair with him. "You know, Squirt, sometimes it helps to talk about what makes us scared. If you don't want to talk to your dad, you could always talk to me, or Jessie, or even Ms. Dickson. We all care about you very much and only want you to be happy."

There was no answer, or even any real indication that Blair was listening. The child's eyes were slowly closing and, as Blair turned his head and nuzzled his face into the crook of Simon's neck, Simon knew the game was up. "Looks like breakfast just turned into brunch," he said, quietly. Blair's breathing began to even out, and Simon made his way to the sofa. "You'll get there, Kiddo," he said. "I can promise you that."

As far as weeks went, this had been one to forget. Blair hadn't slept much, which meant Jim slept even less. As Friday dawned, he was praying that the day would quickly disappear off the radar. He closed the door to Blair's classroom, and moved down the hall toward the front door. It was the first time all week that Blair hadn't clung to him, so he took advantage of the opportunity and left without any fanfare. If Blair became overly distressed, they'd give him a call. He pushed through the first set of doors at the entrance and was just about to flip the lock on the gate when he heard the voice of the Centre's director directly behind him. "Jim, can I have a word?" she asked.

"Um, sure, I guess," he said, tentatively. "Blair's not already making a fuss over me leaving, is he?"

"Not that I'm aware," she answered. "My office," she said, indicating that Jim should move back through the door.

Busted, was the first thought to run through Jim's mind. He certainly wasn't inexperienced when it came to spending time in front of either the principal or his commanding officer's desks, and the discussion usually revolved around either busted furniture or busted heads.

The past slipped away and the present took its place. Blair, Jim thought, immediately wondering what Blair had broken. That thought, too, quickly slipped away. Blair wasn't that type of kid. The child wasn't like his father. The door closed behind him, and Nicole Dickson gestured for him to take a seat. "What's wrong?" he asked.

Nicole didn't answer until she was settled at her desk, facing him directly. "I was actually hoping that you could answer that for me."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"Well, for a start, have you looked in the mirror lately? From where I'm sitting, it looks as if you haven't slept in a week, and I'm betting that Blair's nightmares are the culprit."

"He's told you about them?"

"No, not really ... at least not in any detail. Are they happening every night?"

Jim settled back into the chair, his shoulders slumping. Sitting made him feel even more tired. At least when he was on the move, he didn't have the time to give in to it. "No, not every night. Only twice this week, which is an improvement."

"What's keeping you from sleeping then?" she asked.

"He's wetting the bed." Jim sighed. "Nightmare or no nightmare, nearly every night this week he's wet the bed."

"Jim, given Blair's history, it's not an unusual occurrence. While bedwetting can be caused by a number of different reasons, I'd put my money on it being an emotional response. Is there anything that happened lately that may have started it off? A trigger, if you like?"

"Yeah, me," Jim replied.

"Care to elaborate?"

He sighed and sank back even further into the chair. God, he was tired, and not just physically. He'd pushed that envelope before. Probably on too many occasions, but he'd learned how to cope with it. Emotional exhaustion, however, was a fairly new concept, one with which he didn't have a lot of experience. One advantage of keeping your emotions on lockdown, he thought. He sighed again, and then started to talk. He told Nicole what had happened at Joel's, and described Blair's response. He even told her about the advice Simon had given him. She sat patiently, her hands clasped together on her desk, and listened. Her face gave nothing away; it gave him no clue to work with.

He stopped and learned forward. "I did the wrong thing, didn't I?"

"No," she said. "What you did, was learn." Finally she settled back into her chair, her position similar to the one he'd just relinquished. "Your captain, however, was pretty much spot-on. Despite what Blair has been through, he still needs rules and guidelines."

"I'm not going to tell him you said that," Jim replied, once again leaning back.

"Jim you have to remember that while Blair is basically a pretty good kid and takes instruction well, he's still a child. You give him a big enough opening and he'll jump through it, feet first. He may be kind- hearted and gentle, but he's also not backward in speaking his mind. Believe me Jim, he's got spirit."

"I know," Jim answered. Blair's spirit is probably what kept him alive against the likes of Tom Walsh. "So, any answers on how to cure bedwetting?" he asked.

"No 'cure', because it's not a disease," Nicole answered. "However I do have a suggestion that will lessen the emotional trauma and shame that often goes hand-in-hand with bedwetting."

"Which is?"


"Diapers?" Jim shook his head. "No, I don't think so. Putting him in diapers is taking a step backwards. He's not a baby, Nicole, and I already know that he'll fight me if I try. The kid's got spirit, remember."

"They're not diapers, Jim. More like padded underpants. He probably won't even associate the two together, they're that discreet. All he'll know is that if he does have an accident, his pajamas will be dry and so will the sheets. Dry sheets go a very long way in lessening the shame that kids feel when it comes to bedwetting. Hopefully, once the emotional stress eases, so will the nightly occurrence." She looked directly at Jim as if studying him. "So what do you think? Worth giving it a try?"

"Maybe," he conceded. "Can't hurt, I suppose." He stretched the muscles in his back and rolled his shoulders before drawing himself to his feet. "But if he says no ... really says no, then I won't force him."

"I wouldn't expect you to." Nicole pushed back her chair, about to stand, but hesitated. "Jim, just one more thing. Has Blair ever seen you naked?"

"Excuse me!" And she thought Blair easily speaks his mind. "No, why would he?"

"Because it's normal, that's why. If you had a son who had never been abused, would you even think twice about getting changed in front of him, or leaving the bathroom door open when you showered?"

"I don't know," Jim replied. "Maybe, maybe not. I've never really thought about it."

"Perhaps you should."

The expression on Nicole's face didn't give him an ounce of leeway. She wanted an answer, there and then. "Okay, probably not. I most likely wouldn't even give it a second thought."

"That's exactly right, you wouldn't. Just like any other parent with children Blair's age. It would be perfectly normal."

"Nicole, where exactly is this going? Has Blair said something to you?"

"No, he hasn't. That's an entirely different concern, and one I'm working on. What I know is what I've garnished from a conversation I overheard between him and one of the other children."

"And?" Jim pushed.

"And, the child in question was telling Blair how she loved to take bubble baths with her mom. Blair quite bluntly told her that it's not right to see grownups without clothes. He also told her that they do bad things to you if you don't have clothes on. I stopped the conversation before it could go any further and got their minds on to other things, but later in the day I asked Blair about it."

"And?" Jim pushed again.

"And he changed the subject. Quite cleverly, I might add. He's got a good defensive mechanism worked out, and is exceptionally good at avoiding things he doesn't want to talk about."

Jim fell back into the chair. The emotional exhaustion was back with a vengeance. "I had no idea I was messing this up so badly," he said.

"You're not, and that wasn't what I was implying. What I was saying is basically reiterating what you've already been told. Blair needs 'normal'. He needs to be treated like a normal three-year-old, not a three-year-old whose baggage will be dragging after him for the rest of his life. And seeing your parents naked is a normal three-year-old experience. Blair needs to be able to look at you, under any circumstance, and know that it's okay. 'This guy is my dad and he won't do anything bad to me. He won't hurt me and I can trust him'."

"Nicole, do you have any idea how many times I've tried to tell him that?"

"Actions speak louder than words, Jim. Children like Blair learn pretty fast that words can be very hollow."

"Actions take time."

"They do, and there's nothing either of us can do about that. All I can suggest is that in the meantime, you just keep on loving him."

"That I can do." There were no more words; he was too tired for that. He got back to his feet and headed to the door. Loving Blair was the easy part. Gaining his trust that's where the hard road began.

"Hey, Chief, are you excited about Holly's party tomorrow?"

"Ah-ha," Blair answered. He picked up his spoon and started to stir his ice cream. It tasted much, much better when it was mushed up into a soup.

In the basket by the front door was a package that Blair hadn't noticed yet. "Look what I bought when I was in the toy shop today."

Like any child with an unopened package, Blair discovered the contents in a matter of seconds. "It a dolphin. And it got key in its back."



"Because when you wind it up, like this, the dolphin swims under the water. I thought it might be fun at bath-time."

"Can I have a bath now?"

Jim looked at the soupy mix in the bowl that was still waiting to be eaten. "How about you finish your ice cream, or whatever you call it, while I go and fill the tub."

The ice cream was finished, the dishes were in the dishwasher and Blair was in the bath. Now was a good as time as any, Jim decided. He sat down on the closed toilet lid and scuffed off his shoes. The dolphin raced through the waves created by Blair's legs, buying him time. Blair didn't pay him any attention until he was stripped down to his boxers and reaching into the shower to turn on the faucet.

"What you doing?" Blair asked. The dolphin bobbed to the top of the water. Jim now had Blair's full attention.

"I'm just gonna take a quick shower. It's been a long day, Chief." He laid the bathmat on the tiles and dropped his boxers to the floor, then chanced a look at Blair. He intended not to, but couldn't stop himself. It was mistake. The look, the body language, the way Blair's eyes kept darting toward to the door ... they all screamed one thing: caution.

Normal. If thoughts had a voice, this one would have been deafening. You can do this, Jim told himself. You have to do this. He stepped into the shower. The glass door separated them physically, but visually Blair could see him perfectly. He moved under the spray, keeping his back toward Blair. Normal, he thought again. What do normal people do? Then inspiration hit. "They sing," he said aloud. Normal people sing. He picked up the shampoo bottle, squirted some into the palm of his hand and began to sing.

"Oh the grand old Count of Eden He has six hundred chickens He walked them up to the top of the barn And he walked them down again."

It wasn't loud or boisterous. It was just normal normal, like everything should be.

"And when they're up they're down And when they're down they're up And when they're only half way there, they're neither down nor up."

He couldn't see Blair, but he could clearly hear him. It started off with a giggle just one and then the sound of a key turning. He could hear water sloshing against the side of the tub, and the sound of gears as an internal spring gave life to the dolphin. And, as always when it came to Blair, the sound of a single laugh turned into another, then another. Success inched even closer a few seconds later. "They the wong wohds. You singing the wong wohds."

He took another chance and turned around. He was now facing Blair front-on. "What do you mean I'm singing the wrong words? Are you sure?"

"Ah-ha," Blair nodded. "You singing the wong wohds."

Blair was looking straight at him. There was no caution, no fear. All Blair was seeing was his dad, taking a shower. "Okay then, Pavarotti, what are the right words?"

Blair splashed the dolphin back through the water, pushed it under his leg and watched as it popped out the other side. His voice a normal child's voice filled the room.

"Oh the grand old Duke of Yohk, He had ten thousand men. He ma'ched them up to the top of the hill. And he ma'ched them down again. And when they up they up. And when they down they down. And when they only halfway up, they neitheh up oh down."

"Are you sure they're the right words? I think my words sound better."

"No, you wong," Blair stated with absolute confidence. "But don't be sad; I teach you."

Shampoo and soap trickled down the drain as Jim stepped under the spray. "You will?"

"Ah ha," Blair nodded confidently. "You just say what I sayed."

A lot more lot more singing, a lot more laughter and not a single sign of distrust. Blair was as happy and as content as any three-year-old should be. Jim shut off the shower, dried himself quickly and wrapped the towel around his waist. "Time to get out before you turn into a prune, Kiddo."

Blair stood without hesitation and lifted his arms. "Can I take my dolphin to bed?"

"It's a bath toy, Chief. It has to stay here."

There was no complaint, Blair just shrugged his shoulders, relayed the information to the dolphin and let Jim towel him dry. "Your PJs are laid out on your bed. Why don't you go get them on while I clean up in here."

Blair scooted out the door, nearly tripping over the towel, and Jim listened as Blair's bare feet slapped against the floorboard in the living room. He wiped the water off the floor and headed up to his room to get dressed. He didn't notice Blair at the top of the stairs a few minutes later, still wrapped in his towel, until he spoke. "What be these?" Blair had a pair of Pull-Ups in his hand. "Why they got Big Buhd on them?"

Jim threw his sweats onto the bed and pulled a pair of boxers from the dresser. Since normal was the theme of the night and seemed to be working, he dropped his towel and pulled his shorts on, casually answering Blair's question. "They, my main Munchkin, are nighttime pants."

"Why?" Blair asked.

Jim paused. He wasn't really all that good at answering the three-year- old 'why's. The wrong answer could have the evening taking a serious nose dive. "Because I saw them in the store, and when I saw Big Bird, I thought you might like them."

Blair looked at Jim and then looked at the pants. His brow creased in concentration.

Crap, Jim thought. The kid's smarter than that. No way he's buying it.

"They baby pants. I not wearing them." Blair threw the pants down on the ground. "I not!"

"Hey." Jim moved forward, a little too quickly. Blair flinched, moving back slightly. But he didn't run. He held his ground.

"Sink or swim time," Jim muttered. He sat down on the ground directly in front of Blair and picked up the pants. "Okay, so they may not be like regular, everyday kind of underpants, but lots of kids your age wear them. Even some older kids wear them to bed."

"Why?" Blair asked again.

"Because they help keep the bed nice and dry ... just in case you have an accident while you're sleeping."

Resolve and determination turned to distress in less than a heartbeat the shame of a bed wetter. "I sowwy." Blair was folding. "I sowwy, I sowwy. I promise not to do it again. I promise ... I really, really promise I won't."

Jim took Blair's hands within his own. He could feel them shaking with tension. "It's okay. It's not a problem. It happens to lots of kids, and it's nothing to be ashamed about." He secured the towel around Blair's shoulders and drew him into a hug. "You don't have to wear the pants if you don't want to. The choice is yours. You can say yes or you can say no. It's up to you, okay?"

They sat on the floor, Blair wrapped in the towel, pressed against Jim's chest.

"You won't tell?" Blair moved, seeking a lap, seeking more comfort. He picked the pants up from the floor. "You won't tell?"

"Tell what, Kiddo?"

"About the pants?" Blair wiggled closer as if trying to get right inside of Jim's skin. "Tell about my accident."

Jim knew he could, and probably should, be totally honest. He could tell Blair that Ms. Dickson already knew, but what purpose would it serve, except to strip away Blair's confidence? Instead, he chose his words carefully. "Our secret, Kiddo." He lifted Blair's hand, pressed their palms together and entwined their fingers. "From this night on it will be completely our secret."

"Our secwet," Blair whispered into Jim's neck.

"Our secret," Jim confirmed, pressing a kiss against the top of Blair's head.

They sat, not talking, until Blair finally broke the silence. "Daddy?"

"Yeah, Munchkin?"

"Will Big Buhd get wet?"


Blair thought about this for a while and, when he didn't answer, Jim assumed that he hadn't yet reached a decision.



"Will you read me a story tonight?"

"Sure thing, buddy." Jim groaned as he lifted them both off the ground. "You, my boy, are getting heavy."


"Yeah?" Jim said again.

"How comed you not smack me?"

Jim craned his neck back in an effort to read the look on Blair's face. "Because we have a promise, remember?" He continued down the stairs and moved toward Blair's room.

"But when you be naughty, you have to get smacked."

"Who told you that?" Jim lowered Blair down onto his bed. The towel fell away and he scooped up Blair's pajamas.

"Tom," Blair answered. He jumped down off the bed. He still had the Pull-Ups in his hand. "When you be naughty or be loud when the telebision is on, you get smacked. Them's the rules."

"Those aren't the rules in this house, Blair. In this house, nobody gets a smack." Jim latched onto Blair's elbow, keeping Blair steady as he threaded his feet through the pants. They obviously now had the seal of approval. "Did Tom smack you a lot?" he asked.

"Ah-ha," Blair answered without hesitation. "But I needed a smack. I was naughty."

Jim closed his eyes, briefly. He wasn't sure if he should continue or shut the conversation down. This was the first time Blair had really spoken about Walsh and he didn't appear to be distraught or upset talking about it. In fact, he seemed pretty unemotional about it. He decided to take Blair's lead. "What else did Tom do?" he pushed.

Blair unconsciously rubbed his cheek. "I went to the doctoh once. My arm got bended and the doctoh put on a cast. It was blue." He grabbed his pajama top and started pulling his arm through the sleeve.

Jim did up the buttons. "Blair, did Tom break your arm?"

The subject closed just as abruptly as it had opened. Blair didn't say a word, just jiggled around, trying to reach for a book on the bedside table, while Jim attempted to pull his pajama pants up. "If I be really, really, really naughty, then you smack me?"

"No," Jim shook his head. "I won't. I won't ever smack you."

Blair's face took on an expression that made Jim intensely curious. What's going on in that head of yours, Kiddo? he wondered.

A finger stabbed at the first page of the book. "Wead," Blair said and, although Jim obliged, his voice was monotone and his mind elsewhere. It had been an eventful evening. They'd taken some steps forward without much of a hiccup, but Blair's willingness to so easily divulge information which he had thought was off limits, had him confused. Maybe time was starting to do its job, or maybe, he thought more reservedly, Blair was about to put him to the test.

"Can I play pokeh too?"

"'Fraid not, Kiddo. This game is just for the big kids." Jim ruffled Blair's head. "Tell you what, though. You can stay up a bit later and have some pizza with the guys. How does that sound?"

"Way cool," Blair said. "Can we have the one with mushrooms?"

"You sure this kid's yours, Ellison?" Simon asked. He had a beer in one hand and a handful of corn chips in the other. "I don't think I've ever seen you eat a mushroom in your life."

Jim whacked Simon on the arm. "Don't go putting ideas into his head. He's a good eater, and I'd like to keep it that way."

Simon put his beer down on the poker table and reached for the pizza menu. "Want me to call? The others should be here in about thirty, and it'll probably take that long for them to deliver."

"Be my guest," Jim said, crossing to the balcony doors. The wind was picking up, bringing the cold air in straight off the bay. He closed the doors, secured the locks, turned around and stopped in his tracks. He wasn't about to make the same mistake twice. "Blair, put that down." His voice was calm and composed, but he made it perfectly clear that he expected the order he'd just given to be obeyed.

But Blair didn't obey. No. It flashed across his face like a neon sign on the Vegas strip, and Jim recognised Blair's answer. The spirit Jim thought had given the Blair the strength to keep going through the tough times, had also possibly been the catalyst for the majority of Blair's injuries. The stubborn look on Blair's face said nothing more than 'make me'; Jim had seen the same look in himself more often than not. "Blair, I'm going to ask you one more time. Put that back down on the table."

"I 'lowed to drink it," Blair answered, his voice defiant. "Tom sayed I can drink it."

Simon was off the phone. He looked over at Jim. "He's testing you," he mouthed.

Or more specifically, Jim thought, what he's doing is trying to make me angry. Angry enough to hit him. "Blair, I won't tell you again. Put the bottle down on the table."

The bottle moved up, not down, as Blair lifted it to his lips. Jim was quick. He moved forward and, before the liquid had a chance to move down the neck and slash against Blair's lips, he snatched it away. He expected Blair to run and his first thought was the front door, but he needn't have concerned himself as to whether it was locked or not. Blair stood his ground. "Give it back!" Blair shouted angrily. "Tom lets me drink beeh. I want Tom to be here. I not want you."

Blair's words hit Jim hard, but they hit Blair even harder. Remorse, guilt, and sorrow were evident, written over every inch of Blair's face. But like most wrong-doings, apologies didn't come easy. Blair ran. Not to the front door, but to his room. He slammed the door shut with all the force an enraged three-year-old could muster. "I not want you!" he yelled again. "I don't like you." Then, his voice broke. "I want my mama," he cried. His voice hitched and it didn't take much of an imagination for Jim to be able to see the tears running down Blair's face.

Blair's voice became muffled. "I want my mama," he cried again. "I not want you."

Simon's hand was on Jim's shoulder. "He doesn't mean it you know. He's just angry. Confused and angry."

"I know," Jim responded. "But it still hurts." He turned around to face Simon straight on. "How do I get him to understand? To understand how much I do love him."

"He knows, Jim."

"No, Simon. I don't think he does. That's exactly what this whole little episode was all about. He was testing me, you said it yourself. He was trying to push me to a point where I'd break down and lash out at him. He was trying to prove that he was right. That if he's naughty enough, then he'll get hit."

"Then he failed."

"Yeah, he did." The hurt was still there, but determination was edging closer. Blair wasn't going to win this game; no matter what he did, he wasn't going to win. "And he'll keep on failing because it's not going to happen. Not when he's three, not when he's ten, not when he's god damn thirty-seven."

"Seems kind of surreal doesn't it?"


"Blair being thirty-seven."

"Yeah," Jim drew out. "I guess it does, and I also get the feeling that it's gonna be a long, hard road between now and then."

"Welcome to the world of parenting, my friend." Simon's hand was back on his shoulder. "But you know what? It's the best job in the world." Then he smiled. "Although I can understand your reservations right about now."

"No," Jim said resolutely. "No reservations, just a hell of a lot of determination."

There was a knock on the door, followed by laughter and commotion in the hallway. "You want me to tell them that tonight's been called off?"

"This is normal, right? Friends, family, evenings like this. It's normal."

"I guess," Simon replied.

"Then that's what we run with. A normal, everyday, American family." Although the words sounded encouraging, fundamentally Jim knew he was just kidding himself. Nothing about Blair's life to date was normal, and trying to pretend otherwise wasn't going to alter that. Blair needed more help than he could give. He needed specialised attention, but Blair wasn't buying it, so that's where it ended. Jim had no intention of manipulating or coercing Blair into a situation that made him uncomfortable. It would be up to him to provide what Blair needed him, Simon, Joel and anyone else Blair chose to include.

And those were the key words Blair's choice, because in their unconventional world, there simply was no other option.

He never slept deeply. Ellison was always aware of his surroundings, always aware of what and who was in his space. He figured it was because of his training the years he'd spent in the army and, more specifically, in the Rangers. But if he'd ever taken time to think about it, to trace it back, he would have drawn a different conclusion. He'd always been aware of his space and he'd always slept with the proverbial 'one eye open'. Except tonight. When he rolled over, he was surprised to find the space next to him occupied. Blair lay beside him, with one leg under and one leg thrown out over the covers. Big Bird was being strangled and Teddy was playing substitute for a pillow, but Blair wasn't asleep. His eyes were open and fixed on his face.

"Hey," Jim said softly. "You okay?"

Blair nodded. The room was dark, but Jim could make out Blair's features perfectly.

Reaching out, Jim brushed his hand down the side of Blair's face. He didn't flinch. At least that was a positive sign. "How did you manage to slip up here under the radar, Chief?" Most likely the couple of beers I had with the guys, he thought. It would be a first. Even after a few beers he was still, always, acutely aware of his space.

"I sowwy," Blair whispered.

"I know," Jim whispered back.

"I love you."

After all that had happened tonight, those three little words said more than Jim could ever have hoped for. Blair had never told him that before. He'd told him that daddies love their little boys, but never really confirmed that little boys also love their daddies. "I know that too," he whispered.

"Will mama comed back?"

"No, Blair, she won't. Not for a long time."

"I miss her," Blair said, even softer than before.

"I know, and I'm sorry."

"You won't go." A statement this time, not a question.

"No," Jim confirmed. "I won't go."

Blair moved closer, and Jim accommodated. Teddy was gone and his arm became Blair's pillow.

"You and me, kid. Team us. Stuck together like glue."

Blair closed his eyes and Jim lay quietly, listening to him breathe. It was probably never going to be easy. But then, he thought. what part of life ever is?

The day of Blair's unofficial birthday party had finally arrived, and the Taggert house was buzzing with excitement. "Must have left my keys in my other jacket," Joel mumbled. He patted down his pockets one more time, just to be sure.

"You just keep lookin', Joel, and I'll go see if the brat wants to come." Jessie was on a mission to throw a perfect party, and she was sending them both to the store to pick up a few extra items.

"Now where has he got to?" Jim muttered, looking straight past Blair. "I know he's around here somewhere." He leaned down to push a bunch of balloons out of his way; when he stood, he had Blair, dangling in the air by his ankles. Still he ignored him. "How hard could it be to find a short- legged humanoid?" he asked.

Joel was back in the room, the car keys hooked around his finger. "Found them," he said.

"That's great, Joel, but have you seen Blair?"

"Nope, can't say that I have." Joel scratched his chin and shook his head. "Maybe he's become invisible. I heard that if you drink too much red lemonade, it's quite possible."

Blair burst into a peel of laughter. The game was up; he'd had nearly two glasses of red lemonade, but he knew he wasn't invisible.

"Oh there you are." Jim lifted his hands higher, bringing Blair's face in line with his own. "I was wondering where you got to."

"You silly!" Blair laughed.

"I know," Jim replied, "But you love me anyway."

"Ah-ha," Blair confirmed. Jim was getting used to hearing that confirmation, but it continued to make him feel whole.

He swung Blair around and dropped him to his feet. "So, Junior, you want to stay here or come to the store with us?"

"I still have to blow balloons," Blair said. "It's my job."

"Okay then." Jim gave Blair a playful tap on the head. "We won't be long; you be a good boy and make sure you help Jessie while we're gone."

Even though they were taking Joel's car, Jim was driving. He backed out of the driveway and waited for Joel to latch the gate. While he noticed the white van packed a little further down the road, he didn't take note of the occupants. It was a maintenance van, for air-conditioning repairs, nothing out of the ordinary. Just a guy going about his business on normal day in a normal week. He drove down the street without a second thought.

"That's him." Naomi kept the hat pulled well down over her face, obscuring her features. "We have to move quickly ... before they come back."

"There's time," the young man replied. He wasn't stupid. He'd already driven several routes, including one from the grocery store to the house. Ten minutes there and ten minutes back. Add to that the time it would take to pick up what they needed, and it gave him a window of at least thirty minutes.

"You sure they've gone to the store?" Naomi asked.

"The tubby one was carrying reusable bags from the grocer, so yeah, my guess is the store."

He pushed open the door and crossed the road. He opened the latch slowly and carefully, to avoid the squeal he'd heard as they waited, and slipped through. Naomi had given him all the details all the details of what the child's father had done to him. He'd take the kid and they'd run. The bastard would never see his son again. In his eyes, the prick deserved a lot more, but the guy was a cop and he needed to be cautious.

Naomi followed the young man up the path to the house. Oh to be so young and so very gullible, she thought. She'd played him perfectly; found his weak spot and used it to her advantage. "It won't long now, sweetie," she whispered. Sweet, sweet revenge.

TBC in When a Child is Lost

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