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

Feedback: jessriley80@yahoo.com.au


Jess Riley

The pitter-patter of little feet. Never in his wildest dreams had Detective Jim Ellison ever imagined that sound as part of his life. A confirmed bachelor, a loner, that's what he was and not once had he ever entertained the idea of having children. The concept of being a father had never held any appeal. Sure, kids could be cute, from a distance, but the idea of being lumbered with one of these 'mini' persons was definitely not a desirable one. Over the years, he'd watched friends and colleagues fawn over these noisy, messy, demanding creatures like they were God's gift to the universe. A first word spoken, first steps taken, revered and cherished like some divine happening. Nope, Jim Ellison just couldn't see the attraction.

A small noise from the second story bedroom focused his attention away from his thoughts. The sound -- the pitter-patter of little feet. Little feet which belonged to his very own excessively noisy, exceedingly messy and not so demanding little creature. His world, God's gift to his universe, his son. "No, I just can't see the attraction," he smiled.

With one last stir of the dying embers, he replaced the wrought iron poker on its stand next to the fireplace. Flicking off the light on his way out of the cozy living room, he arrived at the bottom of the staircase just in time to intercept the child who was half asleep on his feet.

"Hey Chief," he said softly, squatting down to Blair's eye level. "What are you doing up? It's way past your bedtime."

"Did Santa come 'gain?" mumbled the exhausted little boy, whose sapphire blue eyes were losing their battle to stay open.

Jim reached out and lifted his son into his arms. "No, baby. Santa's gone home to Mrs. Claus at the North Pole and right now, I betcha he's tucked up snug and cozy in his bed, just like you should be." He settled his son against his chest and quietly padded up the staircase. By the time he reached the top, Blair was once again in the Land of Nod.

Entering the small bedroom next to his own, Ellison eyed the wolf pup that had taken up residence on his son's pillow. Moving the toys that were scattered all over the floor with his foot, he approached the bed, "Hey, Lassie, move it." The pup opened one eye, a brilliant blue eye that bore a striking resemblance to those of the little boy in his arms, but it made no effort to leave the warmth of its sleepy hollow. "Do the words, 'dog pound' mean anything to you, Pluto?" he threatened. A familiar bump on the back of his leg made him groan. "Oh great, here comes the rest of the peanut gallery." The pup disappeared from Blair's pillow, only to make its reappearance next to the jaguar. Jim flipped over the pillow and lay Blair on the bed, tucking the blankets snugly around his shoulders. "Look guys," he said, turning his attention back to the wayward animal spirits, "I appreciate the fact that you're here to protect us, but don't you think you're kinda working outside regulations here? The way I see it, you're only supposed to appear when there's something up, not drop in anytime there's a warm bed or somethin' good on TV." He pointed his finger at the large cat. "And you know that." The dark cat gave him a piercing stare, and with a flick of its tail, turned to leave the room, wolf pup in tow. "At least stay off the furniture," Jim whispered harshly after the retreating figures. "Incacha, can't you put a leash on the pets?" he mumbled. He didn't receive an answer, but then again, he wasn't expecting one. It appeared to him that those who lingered on the spirit plain suffered severely from selective deafness. Turning his attention back toward the sleeping child, he mumbled, "I swear, those two will be the death of me. Animal hair all over the sofa, fleas in the bed. God knows how many different types of parasites they're carrying around with them." I wonder if you can buy worming tablets for animal spirits, he thought idly. Picking up Big Bird from the floor, he placed it on the pillow next to his son. Bending down, he placed a kiss on Blair's smooth forehead. "Merry Christmas, Chief," he whispered. Leaving the door ajar, he made his way down the hall to check on the other occupant of the house.

Pausing outside Lucas' door, Jim knocked softly. The sound of steady breathing beyond told him that Lucas was fast asleep. A slight rattle of congested lungs still lingered stubbornly, but it was a hell of a lot better than the sound that had come from the kid a couple of weeks earlier. The flu bug had done the rounds, with exceptional efficiency. Yearly flu shots had boosted his own immunity and the bug had passed him by without causing so much as a sneeze. The rest of his family had not been so lucky. The bug had struck Jessie first, before spreading to Blair and finally to Lucas.

He entered the room, picking up several items of clothing that lay scattered on the floor and placed them on the chair by the bed. Easing the book that Lucas had been reading from the boy's hand, he placed it on the bedside table, his actions knocking over a framed photograph; a photo of a much younger Lucas and his little brother. He studied the picture that had obviously been taken in happier times. Two bright, shining faces smiled out at him. Scott's arms wound around Lucas' neck as his brother carried him across the sand. His eyes wandered, with a measure of sadness back to the sleeping teenager.

To the outside world, Lucas was nothing more than a happy-go lucky kid, your typical teenager; and in many ways, he was. But in so many other ways, he wasn't. There was a sadness that filled the boy's heart; a sadness caused by too many years of sodomy, abuse and loss, and he often wondered if he had done the right thing by taking the teenager in. Had he, by offering Lucas a place in their home, unwittingly put the boy in danger? Maybe if he had walked away that day at the hospital, then Lucas might not have gotten caught up in the uncertainties of dealing with what had become a part of their lives. He took one last look at the photo. "Or maybe, what Incacha said is right. 'Our future is preordained,'" he said, quietly.

Rescuing the blankets, which had half-fallen on the floor, his eyes lingering on the healed wound, which had left a scar on Lucas' lower back. He adjusted the covers over the sleeping youth, his hand coming to rest lightly on the teenager's blonde hair. "Not so typical after all, I guess," he whispered sadly.

Three weeks earlier

Blair sat at the breakfast table, Vegemite smeared all over his face. "Yuck," Jim grimaced, wiping off the offending black paste. "I don't know how you can eat that stuff."

Blair beamed up at his father, the black paste still stuck between his teeth. "Megan say it good for me. She say I a happy little vegemite and I got rosy cheeks." Like most of the members of Major Crime, Blair had taken a liking to the newest detective to grace the department. Jim, on the other hand, was still undecided. He found the woman to be assuming and a little overbearing and had acted quickly, nipping in the bud any thought that Simon might have had of making the Australian detective his new partner. So far his best friend, and boss, hadn't forced the issue.

"Well, rosy or not, it's still disgusting." Jim lifted Blair from the chair and planted the youngster on the ground. "Why don't you go wake the lump?"

"Lucas not a lump. He a teenager."

"Exactly, a teenage lump." He swatted Blair playfully on the backside. "Now scoot, soldier. You have your orders."

"Aye aye, sir," Blair giggled, running out of the room and heading toward the stairs.

"Wrong department!" Jim bellowed after him.

Blair didn't bother knocking when he reached Lucas' door. His father told him he must always knock, but Lucas didn't mind if he didn't. He pushed his way through the door and launched himself onto the bed. "Lucas, Lucas, wake up," he said, shaking the lump that was covered by blankets. "Daddy sayed it time for you to get up to go to school." He pulled back the covers, letting the cold air drift over the shirtless teenager.

"Agghh," Lucas moaned, as soon as the cold air hit his skin. "You little brat!" Without warning, he grabbed Blair and pulled him down on the bed, pulling the covers over both their heads. "You're gonna get it for that, Sport." In the short time that he known the three-year-old, Blair had become like a brother to him. He really loved the little boy, and would give the world to make sure he was happy and, more importantly, safe. He felt responsible for Blair, and it was a responsibility that he didn't take lightly.

Blair squirmed to get out of Lucas' hold. "No, no tickles!" His giggles quickly turned into laughter.

"You know the magic word." The teenager's fingers dusted over Blair's stomach.

"Uncle, uncle," Blair squealed.

"Wise decision, Sport." Lucas pulled back the covers and rolled out of bed. He grabbed his shirt from the chair and turned back to Blair. "You want a ride?"

"Ah ha." Blair smiled as he climbed onto Lucas back and wound his arms tightly around the teenager's neck.

"Hold on tight." Lucas jogged out of his room and bounded down the stairs, his mood lightened by the sound of Blair's giggles. Entering the kitchen, he gave the three year old a quick raspberry on the cheek, before plunking him down on the kitchen chair.

Jim gave a quick smile at the antics between the pair. It wasn't hard to tell that Blair had Lucas wrapped completely around his little finger and while he'd tried to talk to the kid about not always letting Blair get his way, Lucas was still letting Blair be the boss. He hadn't pushed the subject too far at this stage, as he knew Lucas still carried around a lot of guilt for the death of Scott, and if spoiling Blair somehow eased the burden, then for the time being, he would let it slide.

"A cooked breakfast?" Lucas asked, turning his attention toward Jim and the tantalizing smell of bacon wafting through the kitchen. "What's the occasion?"

"Does there need to be an occasion for a man to eat bacon?" Jim replied, placing a heaped plate in front of the boy.

Lucas slipped a sweatshirt over his head and pulled it down. "I guess not. Thanks." Noticing the bowl of cereal in front of Blair, Lucas picked up a rasher of bacon. "You want some, Sport?"

Blair shook his head. "Nope, that bad for your hearteries."

Jim lifted an eyebrow at his son's comment. "Your hearteries?"

"Ah ha. Jessie told Joel he not 'llowed to eat bacon. It bad for his hearteries. She sayed Joel already too fat."

"She did, did she?" Jim took the chair next to Blair, hoping to get some more information out of the three-year-old. Any personal information was always good ribbing material around the bullpen. "What else did she say?" he encouraged.

"Jessie sayed that Joel have to eat carrots and lettuce and begatables and under not 'stances is he to eat Wonderburger."

"Man, that's rough," Lucas injected, making short work of his breakfast.

Blair looked over at his father with mischief in his eyes. "Jessie also sayed that he not 'llowed to have doughnuts."

All thoughts of ribbing Joel about his diet suddenly disappeared. Depriving a cop of doughnuts was downright cruel and right this very minute, Ellison couldn't think of a more heinous crime. "No doughnuts," he breathed. "Now, that's worse than rough."

Lucas swallowed his remaining eggs and drained his juice in one go. "You really are a cop, aren't you?"

Picking up the kitchen towel from the table, Jim flung it at the youth's head. "And don't you forget it, bucko," he warned, lightheartedly.

Lucas caught the towel before it reached its intended target. "You might be a cop, but you throw like a girl."

Jim glared at the boy, but couldn't suppress his smile for long. In the short time that Lucas had been living with him, he felt that they were finally really starting to connect. He felt at ease around the kid and got the feeling that Lucas was starting to feel the same way around him. Lucas no longer pulled away when he touched him or got too close. A slap on the back or an arm around the shoulder no longer exacted the nervous reaction it once had. In fact, on more than one occasion, Lucas had been the initiator, and a comment made in jest often turned into a harmless game of roughhousing.

"You'll keep," Jim said, catching the towel as Lucas threw it back at him.

"Daddy," piped up Blair. He now had the milk carton and was doing an excellent job of drowning his cornflakes. "Holly's mom is having a baby."

Jim took the milk carton away from his son. "Is she, Chief? I bet Holly's excited."

"Ah ha. Her mom comed to pick her up yesterday and her tummy is this fat now." The little boy spread his arms open wide.

Jim smiled. "Are you sure she's really that big?"

Blair nodded, taking a spoonful of soggy cornflakes. "Daddy, how did the baby get in her tummy?"

Never one to miss an opportunity, Lucas grinned wickedly. "Yeah Jim, how did the baby get in her stomach?"

Doing his best to ignore Lucas, Jim searched for the right answer. I know the answer to this one. It was in that book. His mind clicked over, trying to remember where he'd left it. Being a father was still relatively new to him and when Blair had first arrived he had panicked. He didn't know the first thing about raising kids; what to do and say, and more importantly, what not to do and say. Deciding he was in desperate need of help, he raced out to the bookstore and bought the most informative book on parenting he could find. He'd started to put his newfound knowledge into practice, until one day Jessie pulled him aside. She told him to forget about what was in the book. "Trust your instincts, Jim. You're a great dad. Just go with the flow," she'd advised.

"Daddy," Blair said again. "How did the baby get into her tummy?" Avoidance, Jim's mind now screamed. Go with the avoidance angle until you can work out an answer to give him. It might not be the right thing to do, but he had no idea how to answer this one. He looked into his son's expectant face and his idea of avoidance flew out the window.

"Well Chief," he started awkwardly, fully aware of Lucas' presence, "when two people love each other and they decide that they would like to have a baby to make their family complete..." Jim paused, looking at the smirk on Lucas' face. "Shouldn't you be getting ready for school?"

"Nah, got plenty of time." Lucas placed his elbows on the table. "Besides, this is way too good to miss. Educational too."

"Daddy, did you and mama love each other?" Blair asked, squishing his cornflakes down with his spoon.

Instantly the mood at the table changed and Lucas was the first to react to Blair's question. Without hesitation, he plucked Blair off the kitchen chair. "Jim, look at the time!" he rushed out, urgently. "Come on, Sport. We need to get dressed." He flung Blair over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. "If I'm late for sports today, Mr. Vans will have my hide."

Retreating footsteps and the sound of laughter coming from Blair left Jim alone at the kitchen table. A twinge of guilt surfaced. "No, baby, I didn't love your mama. But I do love you," he whispered quietly.

Simon squeezed Blair's hand as they made their way down the hall toward the bullpen. Jim had been in court most of the afternoon and had been held up by the DA. The woman had a unique talent for pissing people off, and Simon had already anticipated what his detective's mood would be like when he returned. To save the officers of Major Crime from the wrath that could be Jim Ellison, he decided that a secret weapon was needed. He looked down at the secret weapon, smiling as the youngster bounced along, waving to everyone he passed.

"How comed Jessie not picked me up?" Blair asked, trying to keep up with Simon's long stride.

"'Cause she's still feeling a little under the weather, Squirt."

Blair scrunched up his nose. "Huh?"

Simon stopped at the vending machine. "She's still sick." He ruffled Blair's curls. "You want something to eat?"

"Nope, I not hungry."

Simon bent down, touching Blair's forehead. "You feeling okay?"

"Ah ha." Blair wound his arms around Simon's neck. "What time is Daddy being here?"

Simon stood, taking Blair up with him. "He should be here in about an hour or so. He was going to pick Lucas up from school first."

Blair seemed satisfied with the answer and content to be in Simon's company as they continued down the hall.

A shriek took the detectives of Major Crime by surprise as Banks entered the bullpen. "No, Joel!" Blair cried out. "You not 'llowed!" He squirmed to get down from Simon's arms, rushing over to Joel's desk.

Joel Taggert blushed, placing the doughnut he held in his hand back down on the desk. "I wasn't going to eat it, Blair," he insisted. "I was just inspecting it... you know, to make sure it was fresh. Henri was just saying how he really felt like a pineapple doughnut, and well, I had to make sure it wasn't stale."

Henri, large as life and twice as brazen, waltzed casually up beside Joel, grinning like a Cheshire cat. "Why, thank you, Joel," he said, plucking the deadly sweet from the desk. "That's so very thoughtful of you."

"What about you hearteries, Henri?" Blair asked, crossing his arms as a crease formed on his brow. "Jessie sayed that doughnuts are very bad for you hearteries."

"Kid has a point," Simon injected, removing the pastry from Henri's hand. "I better lock this up in my office for safe keeping. After all, it is my duty to look after my men." He gave Henri a slap on the back. "And that includes their 'hearteries'."

By this time, Blair had forgotten about the doughnut and had clambered up on Joel's knee. He pulled a book out of his backpack. "Look Joel, I got a book all 'bout Santa. Did you know that he brings presents to everybody at Christmas? Daddy sayed they only three more weeks to Christmas and we going to go see him tomorrow at the mall. I will ask him if he can make Jessie better."

Joel gave Blair a quick squeeze. "Thank you, Blair. I'm sure she'll feel a whole lot better just by hearing that."

"That okay." Blair said as he started flipping through the book, stopping when he came to a picture of Santa in his workshop. "What that?" he asked, pointing to an object in Santa's hand.

Joel looked closely at the picture. "That's a list."

"Why do Santa have a list?"

"Well, because he has a list of all the children he's going to bring presents to. You see, Santa only brings presents to good little boys and girls."

"Oh," Blair said, looking a little bewildered and a little unsure.

Joel pulled Blair further back onto his lap. "I bet if we could see that list, your name would be right on the top."

A brilliant smile graced the three-year-old's face. "Do you really think I on the list?"

"I'd bet my bottom dollar," Joel said sincerely.

Smiling and knowing that Blair was in good hands, Simon took the confiscated pastry into his office. "Jamaican would go perfect with this," he muttered in satisfaction.

Blair quietly pushed open the door to Simon's office and wandered casually over to the big man. Banks put down his pen, giving Blair his full attention. "Hey, Squirt, you got a new book?" he asked. Jim Ellison's son held a special place in his heart and giving his time to the youngster was more of pleasure than a chore. Blair seemed to have a unique ability to captivate all those around him and it wasn't hard to get caught up in his spell. Whether it was his big blue eyes that, despite the horror they had witnessed, always seemed to shine with trust and love, or whether it was the enormous heart and caring nature of the child, Simon wasn't sure. All he knew was that it was a nice feeling when Blair held his hand or clambered onto his knee for a hug. It made him feel special and proud that Blair trusted him enough to consider him a member of his family.

Blair put the book down on Simon's desk. "Ah ha, it not my mine, but. I borrowed it from the lib'ary. I has my very own lib'ary card, now." The little boy moved closer to Simon, draping himself over the Captain's legs.

Simon tugged playfully on one of Blair's curls. "You want me to read it to you?"

"Nope. I already readed it to Joel." Blair turned his head and looked up at Simon, his eyes full of expectation. "Uncle Simon, where Mama?"

Simon was taken back by the little boy's question. He wanted to answer Blair honestly, but it really wasn't his place to tell Blair about his mother. This was a question that only Jim had the right to answer. "Blair," he said with a measure of reserve, "I really think you should ask your dad that question."

"I can't," Blair replied quietly.

"Why not?" Simon asked, a little surprised by Blair's answer.

"'Cause I not think he like to talk about mama. I think that when I went with mama it made him sad and I not like my daddy to be sad."

Blair pulled a piece of paper from the back of the book and unfolded it, showing it to Simon. It was a drawing of his family. A colourful picture that showed Naomi standing next to Jim, holding his hand. "I want to give this to mama for Christmas, but Lucas sayed that mama was sick. Is she in the hostable, Uncle Simon?"

Placing his hands under Blair's armpits, Simon pulled the child onto his lap. He couldn't help but wrap his arms tightly around Blair and unconsciously he start to rock. "Yes Squirt, she is in the hospital and she's getting the care she needs."

Blair mumbled into Simon's shirt, "Will you take me to see her?"

"Blair, buddy, I can't. I'm sorry, but it's not my place." He pushed the child back so he could see his face. "Why don't you talk to your dad about this? Or maybe I could talk to him for you, if you're worried."

Blair let go of the picture, watching as it fluttered to the ground. Simon's heart sank with sadness. He felt like he'd just betrayed the youngster. Blair had come to him for help, and he had let him down.

A noise from the outer office made Blair turn his head toward the door. "Daddy and Lucas," he said.

Simon cupped Blair's cheek. "Kiddo, can I talk to dad for you? Or maybe we could do it together."

Blair simply shook his head and moved to get off Simon's knee. "I go and see my daddy."

As Blair left the room, he left the drawing of his family on the floor.

Lucas followed Jim down the hallway to the first floor elevators, amused by the way people shifted out of the detective's way. He'd known the instant he hopped in the truck that Jim was not in a good mood, so he'd remained silent, simply observing. They arrived at the elevator and not a single person was game enough to share it with them. "Boy, you really do have these guys bluffed, don't you?" Lucas remarked as the doors slid shut.

"And you're not, I suppose?" Jim replied, hardly giving the boy a glance.

"You don't scare me, Jim," Lucas answered very casually. And it was true. Jim didn't scare him. He wasn't being blase. Nor was he trying to play the tough guy. He knew exactly what he was capable of, and going up against Jim Ellison was not one of them. He'd probably last a few rounds, but ultimately, he knew he'd get the shit kicked out of him. But still, Jim didn't scare him. There was something about the detective, something he felt he could trust.

Amazed by the boy's attitude, and even more amazed by the look in Lucas' eyes, Jim moved closer. My god, he trusts me. Lucas actually trusts me! He took hold of Lucas' tie, adjusting it tightly around the kid's neck. The downside of going to a private school, in Lucas' opinion, was the uniform, and somehow the kid never seemed able to wear it correctly. Jim moved his hand from Lucas' tie to his cheek, giving it a hard pat. He smiled. "You're right, I'm full of shit."

Lucas burst out laughing. "Don't I know it!"

The elevator dinged at the seventh floor and Jim grabbed the kid roughly around the neck, dragging him through the doors. "Watch yourself, kid. You don't want to go messing with the master."

Lucas pulled out of the headlock. "Could take you on any day, old man." He playfully punched Jim on the arm, quickly scooting around the corner before Jim could retaliate. "Not just old, but slow as well," he laughed.

In less than the space of five minutes, Lucas Wilder had managed to tame the mighty Jim Ellison temper.

"Hey, Munchkin!" Jim said, swinging Blair into his arms and giving him a kiss. "You been good?"

"Ah ha. I readed Joel a book and I maked sure he and Henri didn't eat any doughnuts."

"You did, did you?"

"Yeah, he did," replied a sullen Henri, who was now munching dejectedly on one of Joel's carrots. "Not normal if you ask me. A cop's son, and he doesn't like doughnuts." Henri spotted Lucas, wandering through the door, unwrapping a candy bar. "Hey, Blair, how come Lucas is allowed to eat that?"

"'Cause Lucas not fat and he has good hearteries," Blair said, nodding his head.

The office burst into laughter. "Out of the mouths of babes," Rafe joked, giving his partner a pat on the stomach. "You know H, I reckon the kid might have a point."

Henri pushed Rafe's hand away, muttering a quiet obscenity before biting down on the carrot stick.

"Jim, can I see you for a second?" Simon interrupted.

"Sure, Captain, what's up?"

"In my office."

Jim raised his eyebrows, putting Blair down on the floor. Before he could ask Lucas to keep an eye on Blair, the teenager was already at the youngster's side. Jim wasn't sure why, but even in a room full of cops, he felt the most comfortable when Lucas was there to look after Blair. It was almost like it was Lucas' place to do so. He shrugged off the idea as quickly as it came and ruffled his son's curls. "I won't be long."

Ellison closed the door to Simon's office behind him. "Simon, if this is about picking up Blair, I'm really sorry if it inconvenienced you."

"Jim, this is not about picking Blair up. I love the kid, you know that, but it is about Blair."

"What's wrong?" Ellison's mind raced with possibilities.

"Blair gave this to me." Simon handed over the drawing Blair had shown him. "He asked if I would take him to see Naomi."

"What?" Jim replied in total surprise. He looked at Blair's drawing. "I don't quite know what to say. He hasn't said a word to me about his mother. He hasn't even asked where she is."

"Apparently he's worried about your reaction."

"My reaction?"

"Yeah, the kid's worried he'll make you upset if he talks about her."

Jim took a seat and let out a long sigh. "Simon, I've tried to tell him he can talk to me about anything, but I guess it hasn't sunk in." He looked over at his Captain. "So what am I supposed to do? I can't let that woman near him, not after what she's put him through." He got to his feet and started to pace. "The day she let that bastard touch him is the day she gave up all parental rights to him and I won't do it, Simon. For Blair's sake and my own, I won't ever let her near him again."

"How are you going to explain that to Blair?"

"I don't know. I'll just tell him that his mother is too sick to have visitors."

"How about you tell him the truth about how you feel?"

"Simon, he's three years old. He's not going to understand how I feel."

"Jim, he already does. Why do you think he came to me and not you?" Simon could see the anguish in his friend's face. "Just talk to him, Jim. He's a smart kid and as long as you're honest with him, he'll understand."

"You think so?"

"I know so." Simon rounded the desk and stood by Jim. "You guys got anything planned for dinner?"

"Just leftovers," Jim said absently. His thoughts still focused on Blair, and Naomi.

"Well, how 'bout we go out for Chinese? I'd offer to pay, but the way the vacuum cleaner out there can suck up food, I think I'd have to mortgage the house to pay the bill." He squeezed Jim's shoulder. "Come on, let's go grab something to eat."

Jim folded Blair's drawing and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. A feeling of unease and uncertainty lingered. After everything that Naomi had put Blair through, his son still wanted to see the woman and he was struggling to understand why.

As if reading Ellison's mind, Simon spoke up. "Jim, I know how you feel, but she's still his mother and because of that fact he'll probably always love her. It's only natural. He's still a baby and too young to hate her." He touched Jim lightly on the arm. "I also know how Blair feels about you. A blind man could see how much you mean to that boy. You're his dad and you're his hero."

Jim did know how much Blair loved him, and maybe that was part of the problem. His three-year-old had taken on the role of his emotional protector and it had to stop. He had to make Blair understand that no matter what the problem, he could come to him.

"Come on. Let's go eat." Simon gave Jim's arm a final squeeze. "Lucas is raiding the doughnut box and we both know how dangerous that can be in a room full of armed cops."

"Daddy, is that Santa?" Blair whispered, when he spotted the big jolly man in a red suit.

"Sure is, Partner. You want to go say hello?"

"Will you come with me?"

Jim smiled. It had been an awfully long time since he'd paid a visit to Santa and had no intention of going it alone. He grabbed Lucas by the jacket, as the youth tried to steal away. "Lucas and I would love to come and see Santa with you, Munchkin." He smirked, placing his arm around the teenager's shoulder. "Do you have your list little boy?"

"You really crack me up, Jim," Lucas scowled, but he made no attempt to move away from Jim, or from his casual touch. "Just remember," warned the teenager. "At the end of the day, I'm still younger and stronger than you."

"Yeah, right, kid. You just keep telling yourself that and maybe one day, when I'm feeling sorry for you, I might just let you win." Now standing only a couple of inches shorter than Jim, but still growing, Lucas was in no way a forty-pound weakling. He'd regained most of the weight he'd lost while in the hospital and developed some solid muscles. Jim had started working out with him, and had found he was enjoying the company. On several occasions, the workouts had led to a bit of harmless roughhousing and while Lucas had never won any of the friendly wrestling matches, he had come close. The kid was strong, there was no doubt about that, and he did have some pretty slick moves that kept Ellison on his toes.

With his arm still slung around Lucas' shoulder, Jim glanced down at Blair as they advanced up the 'Santa line.' He had wound his arm around Lucas' leg and was leaning into the touch as the teenager ran his fingers through his chestnut curls. Taking a strange comfort in the sight, a brief thought which came totally out of the blue passed over Jim. Lucas is a guardian an inner voice told him. He is the guardian of my son.

"And what's your name, young feller?" Santa asked, as Blair approached.

The three-year-old eyed the big man carefully, content to keep his position between his father and Lucas. "You not know?" he asked. "I not on the list?" Jim felt Blair squeeze his hand.

"Of course you're on the list, Blair," Jim said quickly, emphasizing his son's name.

"Your dad's right," Santa recovered quickly. "Now, let me think. Hmm, I do seem to remember that name. Ah yes, Blair. You're on the top of my list, if I'm not mistaken."

Blair flashed a toothy grin and moved closer. "Is daddy and Lucas on the list?"

Santa winked at the pair. "I can't recall. Have they both been good?"

"Ah ha. Daddy is always good, and Lucas is most of the time. 'Cept when I sawed him kissing Laura. Is kissing girls being good?"

Lucas surged forward in an attempt to interrupt Blair before he spilled all the beans. "Hey Sport, I don't think Santa really wants to hear about that."

"Yes, but Jim does!" Ellison slapped Lucas on the back. "Looks like you and I are in for an interesting conversation when we get home, my boy," he smiled wickedly. He was enjoying the awkward situation Blair had landed Lucas in.

"Can't wait," Lucas groaned, not looking at all impressed.

"So, what would you like for Christmas?" asked Santa, who had drawn Blair closer and now had a hold of his hands. He'd been a department store Santa for a good many years, and his instinct told him that Blair was a child who would not feel comfortable sitting on his knee.

"I want Jessie to get better, cause she gots the flu. And I want Joel to have some new tools for his shed. Me and him are building a go-cart." Blair paused for a moment, thinking of what else he wanted Santa to bring. "I want Uncle Simon to get a new fishing rod and Lucas to get some new books and I want daddy to get..." Blair rattled off a long list of what he thought all of the members of his family should receive for Christmas, but never once mentioned what he wanted.

"Well, that's a very good list, Blair," Santa acknowledged, once the little boy had finished. "But what would you like?"

Blair thought for a second. "I not know."

"Well, how about you leave it up to me? I bet you I can come up with something wonderful for you on Christmas Day."

Blair bounced excitedly. "Wow, thank you, Santa." He stood up on his toes and gave the big man a hug, his earlier anxiety gone. Pulling away, he said. "In my book it says that I gotta leave you milk and cookies." He ran his little hand over the Santa stomach. "I think I will leave you a carrot. They better for your hearteries. Jessie says hearteries have to last you a lifetime."

Santa chuckled, "Jessie sounds like a very wise woman. Thank you, Blair, I'll be looking forward to my special treat on Christmas Eve." He handed Blair a present from his sack, a book that the department store had produced and was handing out to every child that visited Santa. Blair accepted the present with glee in his eyes.

Jim took Blair's hand. "Thanks Santa, it's been interesting."

"Yeah, real interesting. Thanks Santa," Lucas mumbled, making a hasty exit.

"Hey," Jim said, watching Lucas unexpectedly skulk away. "Where're you going?"

Lucas turned around. "I just need to do a few things."

Jim moved closer. "You okay?" he asked. "You know I was only joking back there, right? I wasn't really going to give you the birds and bees talk."

"Well I guess it would be a little late for that." Lucas lowered his voice, aware that Blair was standing next to Jim. "I mean I'm not exactly the blushing virgin."

"Lucas," Jim started. He'd only meant to tease the kid. He hadn't realised it would cause such a reaction.

"Jim," Lucas interrupted. "I just need some time by myself, okay?"

"Sure kid, whatever you need." Ellison looked as his watch. "You want to meet us for lunch at twelve? No pressure, your choice."

Feeling a slight twinge of guilt at his outburst, Lucas relented. "Yeah, okay. Twelve sounds good."

Jim slapped the boy's shoulder briefly. "Great. We'll meet you on the first floor at the cafe at the end of the food court."

As Lucas moved off into the crowd, Blair ran after him. He tugged on the teenager's leg, pulling him up. "I sorry, Lucas," he blurted.

"Sorry for what, Sport?" Lucas asked, crouching down so he was eye level with Blair.

"Sorry for telling Santa you secret. I not know it was a secret." A look of worry crossed Blair's face. "Do you still love me?"

Lucas pulled Blair into his body and hugged him tightly. He placed a kiss on the top of Blair's hair. "Always," he whispered.

"Daddy, can I go play?" Blair asked, already hopping down from his chair. There was a playground in the food court, and Jim had chosen a table that gave him a good view of the whole area.

"Okay, but you know the rules."

"No talking to strangers, and yell if I need you."

Jim watched Blair cross the short distance to the play equipment and it didn't take long before his son had made a friend. He turned his attention toward Lucas, one eye still on Blair. "So, did you get done what you needed to?"

"Most of it." Lucas pushed several shopping bags under the table with his foot. "Jim, I'm sorry about before," he started. His time alone had given him time get a handle on his feelings. "I guess I was just feeling a little crowded."

"Lucas, anytime you need space, all you need to do is say so. I know it must be hard adjusting to having people around all the time, especially when you're used to being on your own and doing your own thing."

"No, it's not that. I like being around you guys, it's just that sometimes it's hard when you treat me like I'm sixteen."

"Hey, news flash, kid, you are sixteen."

"In age maybe, but not in experience." Lucas looked over at Blair. "I had sex with Naomi, you know!"

Jim didn't show any reaction towards Lucas' statement. The kid did this to him on occasion. He'd let lose with something from his past, just to see if he'd get a reaction. Jim knew he was being tested and he knew Lucas still had reservations about his place in their family. Lucas was still insecure, and Jim had a very distinct feeling that thoughts of being kicked out were never far from the teenager's mind. When Lucas came out with these statements, it was almost as if he were trying to paint an unsavoury picture of himself in order to hurry the process along.

Straight faced, Ellison looked at Lucas. "So did I," he declared.

They both sat for a few minutes, staring at each other, making no further comment until the silence was finally broken by Blair as he came charging across from the playground and barrelled into his father's legs.

Lucas broke first, laughing as he watched the rambunctious child use his father's leg as a climbing frame. "I guess you did."

Jim scooped up Blair and engulfed him in a hug. "Yep, the best mistake of my life." He blew a sloppy raspberry on Blair's cheek.

Even though Blair squirmed away in disgust, Lucas couldn't help but notice the look of love in the child's eyes. He felt the pull of sadness deep in his gut, for his own childhood lost and a love he had not known for a very long time.

Ellison was quick to snap a photo as his son swished his arms and legs back and forth in the snow. "Look daddy, a snow angel." A fresh layer of snow had just fallen, perfect for some winter fun. "Come on daddy, you make one."


"Ah ha. You snow angel will be really big."

Jim pocketed the camera and got down on his hands and knees. Blair jumped onto him, pushing him over and laughter soon rang out as the pair tumbled and tousled in the snow.

"Hey, Munchkin, what do you say we get Lucas out here to join in the fun?" They'd left the teenager inside and Lucas was now sitting by the fire in the living room, the coffee table and floor covered with his homework.

"Why," Blair asked, picking up quickly on the mischief in his father's eyes.

"Because, my little co-conspirator, we are going to have a snow fight."

Blair bounced. He'd read about snow fights, but he'd never had one before.

Jim winked at his son. "Ready?" he smiled.

"Ready," Blair chimed.

On the count of three, the pair shouted at the top of their lungs. "Lucas, Lucas, come quick!" Behind Jim's back was a loosely-packed snowball. The detective was ready and armed.

Lucas appeared at the back door. "What's up?" he asked, innocently. No sooner had he spoken, than a snowball hit him square in the face.

"Who's old and slow now?" Ellison chuckled.

Lucas wiped the slush off his face, flicking it away before stabbing his finger in Jim's direction. "This is war. You realise that, don't you?" he threatened. Grabbing his jacket from the peg by the door, and seriously intent on revenge, it wasn't long before snow balls were flying in every direction.

"I fre..eezing," Blair stuttered, his teeth chattering together.

Jim scooped his son up. The child's jeans were soaked through and his cheeks glowed red with the cold. "Come on, Munchkin, time for a nice hot shower."

"That was fun, daddy," Blair said, his fingers fumbling with the top button of his wet jeans. "Can we build a snowman tomorrow?"

Jim stood, adjusting the faucets, waiting for the perfect water temperature. "I can't see why not," he answered. Satisfied that the water was warm enough, he finished undressing Blair and ushered him into the shower stall. Getting out of his own sodden clothes, he also hopped under the warm spray. Picking up a bottle of shampoo, his thoughts wandered back to the first time he'd taken a shower with Blair in the room. The child had been cautious and unsure of the situation and it had taken a lot of thought and courage on his part to go through with it. He'd assumed that because Blair had been the victim of sexual assault he had to treat him with kid gloves; that nakedness was something to be hidden, to be ashamed of. But Blair's daycare teacher had broached the subject with him after Blair had made a passing comment to her and he'd finally come to the realization that if Blair were to have any hope of getting over his assault, then he needed to start by feeling totally comfortable around him in any situation. He needed to feel safe and secure when it came to having a bath or taking a shower and he'd actually been surprised one night when Blair had asked if he could take a shower with him. "Yes" was the only answer he could give, because it was the only answer that would prove to his son that he was safe.

Blair's voice snapped him back from his thoughts. "Daddy, did we win?"

"'Course we did, Munchkin." Jim bent down and started to work the shampoo into Blair's locks.

"But Lucas say he wonned."

"He's a teenager, Chief, they always think they win." Jim lifted Blair up into his arms. "Eyes shut," he ordered, directing the spray onto Blair's head. Satisfied that all the soap was out of Blair's hair, he placed his son back down on the tiles. With Blair splashing happily in the water, he soaped up his own hair, letting the water relax his muscles. Lucas had managed to get in a few good shots and while he'd never openly admit it to the boy, he did smart in more places than not.

Blair ran from the bathroom, through his father's bedroom and out into the hall, naked as a jaybird. He squealed as Lucas grabbed him and tossed him in the air. Jim emerged from his room, a dry towel in his hand. "Good catch," he grinned.

Lucas deposited Blair into Jim's waiting arms. "You sure this brat's not a runaway from a nudist colony?"

Jim wrapped Blair snugly in the soft towel. "Just a typical three-year-old." It wasn't hard to hear the tone of satisfaction in his voice. His son was a typical three-year-old; comfortable and secure in the company of all those who loved him.

As Lucas continued down the hall and into his room, Jim didn't miss the stiffness in the teenager's step. "Not a bit sore, are we kiddo?" he called after the boy.

"Never," Lucas replied with teenage bravado. He closed the door and leaned on the panel. "Ouch," he moaned, softly.

A squeal from the lounge vibrated painfully through Ellison's skull. "Damn it," he hissed, pinching the bridge of his nose hard to try and alleviate the pressure. He'd had a lingering headache all day and no matter what he tried, or what painkillers he took, he couldn't seem to shake it.

"Bagheera, no," Blair's voice squealed again. "If you do that 'gain I go get dad and you will be in big trouble."

As Jim pushed himself away from the table, the chair scraped against the tiled floor, making him wince as another stabbing pain hit. "What's all the commotion?" he asked gruffly, making his way into the other room.

"Bagheera is licking he lips," Blair said. The three-year-old was sitting on the large cats back as it lounged on the rug. His hands were covering the animal spirit's eyes. "He going to gobble up Santa's reindeer, daddy." Blair had changed the channel and was now watching a wildlife program on the migration of reindeer, and so was the cat.

Jim walked over to the pair and plucked Blair off Bagheera's back, just as the front door slammed shut. He grimaced as another wave of pain flooded over him.

Lucas bounded into the lounge, dumping his bag on the floor with a thud. "Boy, it's cold out there." He positioned himself in front of the fire, soaking up the warmth.

"You're late," Jim barked. "I told you to be home by five."

"Geez Jim, don't have a cow. It's only ten past." He studied Ellison's face. "What's up with you? Someone didn't take off with your lunch money today, did they?"

"A smart mouth is the last thing I need," Jim warned, glaring at Lucas. "Where have you been, anyway?"

"I was at Laura's. We were going over some stuff for the test tomorrow."

"I'll bet," Jim answered, his sarcasm matching his mood. Noticing a movement out of the corner of his eye, he turned quickly. "And what are you looking at?" he barked. Lucas forgotten, his attention was now focused on the large cat, who was glaring back at him with intense green eyes. "I thought I told you to stay off the rug." He toed the animal spirit, his foot slicing through the vision.

"Maybe I should go out and come in again," Lucas said, trying to figure out the cause of Jim's bad mood.

"Daddy's just grumpy, Lucas," Blair piped up. "You not need to go." The child was now tickling Bagheera under the chin, the cat purring loudly at the attention.

"I am not grumpy," Jim stated. "And how come you can do that?" he asked the youngster. "Every time I try and touch the thing, it disappears." He reached out again with his foot; thin air was the only thing it came in contact with.

"Bagheera not a thing. He a black jaguar from Peru," Blair stated firmly. "And he doesn't like you very much, 'cause you always yelling at him." Blair tickled the cat again.

"I don't yell at it." Jim answered. "I'm just trying to teach it house rules. In fact, I shouldn't have to teach it house rules, because it's not even supposed to be in the house."

Blair got to his feet. Reaching up, he slipped his hand into his father's. "Daddy, what's wrong?"

The minute Blair's hand touched his, Jim could feel the tension drain from his body. "I've just got a headache, Chief. Everything's just a little out of whack at the moment." He slumped down on the sofa. "I'm sorry I was grumpy."

Lucas moved to sit down beside Jim. "Is it something to do with your senses?"

"I don't know... I guess so. I can't seem to get them back down to a normal level. It's like someone's flicked a switch and turned them up."

"Well, can't you turn them back down?" Lucas asked.

"I would if I knew how."

Blair let go of his father's hand. "I know what to do," he said, picking up the box of crayons that were on the coffee table.

"Blair, I don't think your dad is in the mood for colouring right now," Lucas said quietly.

"I not stupid, Lucas," Blair replied indignantly, giving the teenager a scowl. "These not for colouring. I been having a lesson and I know how to help."

Jim and Lucas glanced at each other, confused by Blair's statement.

"You have to look at the crayons, daddy."

"Munchkin, I know you mean well, but what I need is some peace and quiet. Daddy just needs to sit here and relax until his headache is gone."

"I can help," Blair insisted. "I been listening good."

Jim knew that the likelihood of getting any peace was zero until he listened to what his son had to say. "Okay, Chief, you're the boss."

Blair climbed up onto the sofa. He stood on the cushion beside Jim. "First you need to close you eyes."

Jim sighed, closing his eyes. "Okay, what next?"

The youngster placed his hand on his father's temple and pressed lightly. "Now you have to use your 'magination. You need to think of all my crayons, but you gotta think of the black one first."

"Black crayon... okay I see it."

"Now you gotta think of the other colours." Blair listed all the colours in his box, starting with the dark shades first and then going down the palette until he had reached the pale colours. Jim visualised the colours as his son said them out loud and with each shade, his pain level decreased. By the time they had reached yellow, his headache was all but gone and he let himself relax into the feeling of his son's feather-like touches dusting his temple.

Blair scooted to the end of the sofa and arranged two cushions to make a pillow.

He jumped down on to the floor. "You need to lay down, Daddy." He took hold of his father's arm and pulled him down.

"Maybe just for a minute," Jim muttered, letting Blair guide him down onto the cushions, and it wasn't long before he had drifted off into a light, pain-free sleep.

Blair took Lucas by the hand. "We make dinner?" he asked.

"We can give it a shot, Sport." Lucas replied, quietly. He grabbed the afghan from the chair and placed it over Jim.

"We could make chocolate pancakes." Blair bounced, hoping Lucas would agree.

"And we could suffer a fate worse than death when your dad wakes up." Lucas ruffled Blair's hair. "How 'bout spaghetti? I think we could manage that without doing too much damage."

"That a good idea. Daddy love 'sketti.. I will help." Blair scooted out of the room with Rahma only a few steps behind, leaving Lucas to switch off the television and turn off the overhead light. "Get some rest, Jim," he whispered to the dozing Sentinel. "I'll take care of things tonight."

Jim pushed his way anxiously through the doors to Blair's daycare centre. He'd received a phone call from Nicole Dickson twenty minutes earlier and it looked as if the flu bug had caught up with his son. Acknowledging a staff member with a curt nod, he made his way down the hall toward Blair's room. Nicole looked up from the book she was reading as he entered the room and her assistant moved to take her place. "Don't look so worried," she said, taking in the detective's expression. "I'm fairly certain it's just the flu. He'll be fine, Jim. One thing I've learned about your son is that he's a tough little guy."

Tough or not, Ellison still couldn't hide his concern. The sensitivity in his ears increased without warning and Blair's steady heart beat an unmistakable tune. He tracked the familiar thud to a corner of the room, finding Blair sound asleep on a mattress, snuggled under a layer of blankets. Congested breathing caught his attention as Blair drew in puffs of air and blew them out noisily through his mouth; his nose was obviously too blocked to aid the process. "I don't understand?" Jim moved closer to Blair. "He was fine this morning. How did he come down with it so quickly?"

Nicole zipped up Blair's backpack. "It happens with kids. One minute they're fine, the next minute they're down with a cold or a tummy bug and, well... I'll spare you the gruesome details of the last ailment." She placed the bag on the table. "He feels a little warm, but I haven't given him anything. I suggest a dose of Children's Tylenol might be a good idea when he wakes up."

Jim pulled back the blanket. Nicole was right. Blair did feel a little warm, but it didn't appear to be too serious. He carefully lifted the sleeping child into his arms, patting Blair's back gently when he stirred.

Nicole picked up the blanket and wrapped it around Blair. "It will be easier than struggling to get his coat on," she said.

Jim adjusted Blair's head so it rested comfortably on his shoulder and picked up the backpack. "Thanks. I'll drop it back to you tomorrow."

"No need. It can wait until Blair comes back." She rubbed the child's back lightly. "You get better soon, sweetheart."

Waiting impatiently for the automatic doors to the garage to engage, Ellison turned around to check on Blair, who was strapped securely in his car seat. Two bleary eyes greeted him. "Hey baby," he soothed. "Not feeling so good?"

Blair licked his dry lips. "Where I are?" he asked, a croaky voice making him cough.

"We're home, Chief. Your teacher called to tell me you weren't feeling so hot, so I picked you up." Jim drove into the garage, the door shutting behind him. "In a few minutes, you'll be snug and warm in bed."

It didn't take long for Jim to get Blair out of the car and into the house. Turning up the thermostat, he headed toward the stairs. Blair squirmed in his arms. "I not want to go to bed."

"Chief, you've got the flu. I think a nap would do you the world of good."

"No," Blair whined. He twisted in his father's arm. "I not want to."

"Okay, okay." Jim relented. "How about you rest on the sofa for a while, then?"

Blair nodded, resting his heavy head back on Jim's shoulder. "I watch telebision." It wasn't a question. Blair was telling his father what he was going to do.

Jim made a detour into the kitchen. There was a pile of freshly washed laundry still sitting unfolded on the kitchen table and he rummaged through it until he found Blair's favorite pajamas. "Okay, Chief, let's get you comfortable."

With Blair settled on the sofa watching a video, Jim made a tentative call to the office. With no one to look after Blair, there was no way he could return to work this afternoon.

Ellison hung up the phone in frustration. His best friend, who also happened to be his boss, had just put him in an uncomfortable position. He had to choose between the responsibility he had to his family and the responsibility he had to his job and it was times like this that made him realise just how difficult single parenting could be. He heard a key turn and the squeak of the back door as it creaked on its hinges. Lucas was home.

"Hey Jim," Lucas dumped his bag on the kitchen floor and headed straight for the pantry. "How come you're home so early?"

With his mind still on his conversation with Simon, he muttered. "Blair's sick."

"Sick! Why... what's wrong with him?" Lucas stopped raiding the pantry, his attention now fixed on Jim.

"He's come down with the flu."

"The flu." The undertone in Jim's voice made Lucas question further. "Are you sure that's all it is? You seem worried."

"I've got to go back to work. There's something pretty major going down and I have to be there. Jessie's still too sick to come over and I can't ask Rachael... not with the baby and all."

Lucas moved to stand in front of Jim. He lifted his arm and gave his armpit a dramatic sniff. "Do I stink or something? Or maybe you think I've got a rare infectious disease. Or, maybe it's because I'm sixteen and you think I'm not responsible enough to look after Blair."

Jim gave Lucas a harsh stare. "None of the above, and stop being such a wise ass. I'm not in the mood."

"Well, what's the problem then?"

"The problem is, what happens if he gets worse? What are you gonna do if his temperature skyrockets or he vomits? How are you gonna handle cleaning that up?"

"You're unbelievable," Lucas replied, angrily. "Just how fucking useless do you think I am?"

"Watch your language," Jim warned, not in the mood for one of the kid's outbursts.

"God, Jim! I'm more than capable of looking after a sick kid. It's not the first time I've done it and it's certainly not the first time I've cleaned up puke. I took care of a drug addict, for Christ sake. If Blair does get sick, then I'll clean it up, and if his temperature gets too high, I'll call the doctor. It's not brain surgery."

Jim suddenly felt incredibly stupid for questioning Lucas' ability to care for Blair. The kid was right. He was more than capable of looking after a sick child, in fact probably more capable than he was. He could clearly picture Lucas as a young boy, cleaning up after his father when the man drank himself into a stupor, or looking after his brother at an age far too young to be burdened with that kind of responsibility.

"You're right. I know you're more than capable," Jim apologised. "I appreciate and accept the offer and if everything goes according to plan, I should be home around ten."

"So?" Lucas asked, accepting Jim's apology without question. "What's going down? Are you about to nab a murderer, or bring down a drug ring?"

Jim moved out of the room to get himself organised. "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you and that would kinda mess up my babysitting plans," he called over his shoulder.

As Jim disappeared into the lounge, Lucas went back to the pantry. "I know there's some chicken noodle in here somewhere," he muttered. Whenever Scotty got sick, it was the only thing he could seem to keep down and he figured the same would probably go for Blair.

Laying his hand on the can of soup, Lucas tried to push his brother's face from his mind and concentrate solely on the present. He felt a little guilty at doing so, but sometimes it was easier to forget than remember.

"I want my daddy!" Blair cried. He'd woken up a few hours ago and his temperament was as hot as his temperature.

Unable to console the youngster or bring his temperature down, Lucas decided to ere on the side of caution and had put a call into Gillian Francis. She'd responded quickly, confirming that Blair was suffering with influenza and had left him with a list of instructions and the assurance that Blair would be fine. He'd dialed Jim's cell phone several times, but on each try, the connection had gone straight through to voice mail. "It's okay, Sport," he comforted, walking Blair around the room. "Your dad should be home soon." He had stripped Blair down to his undershirt and underpants in the hope of cooling down the child's hot body.

Blair moved restlessly in Lucas'arms. "Daddy... I want daddy. I not want you!" he cried, his distress turning to heavy sobs against Lucas' neck. Although desperate for his father and saying he didn't want Lucas, he still had a deathlike grip on the teenager.

Not knowing what else to do, Lucas continued his gentle rocking. His hand moved up and down Blair's back and he spoke softly about nothing in particular, just hoping that his ramblings would take Blair's mind off his father and lull the boy to sleep. He didn't care how long he had to stand with Blair in his arms. He wasn't going to let go. An instinct deep inside told him that he needed to protect this child. It was his job and it was why he was here. Placing his lips against Blair's hot brow, he whispered. "I've got you."

Lucas heard Jim's truck pull up the driveway and he pulled back the curtain, just to confirm. "Thank God," he whispered. Blair had fallen into a light sleep in his arms, but he was still fitful. His lips were dry and red and his cheeks were flushed with fever. He adjusted the wet cloth he'd placed on the back of Blair's neck. "Your dad's home now," he whispered.

Jim had an unsettling feeling the minute he stepped into the house. He moved quickly into the living room, and Blair's fever hit him like a blast from a furnace. "Lucas, he's burning up." He reached out, anxiously seeking contact with his son. "Why the hell didn't you call me?" Removing Blair from the teenager's arms, he settled him against his own chest. "Jesus Christ, we went through all of this before I left him. You were supposed to call me if he got any worse."

"I did call you," Lucas retaliated. "Your cell was off. Didn't you check the messages?"

Jim pulled his cell phone from his jacket. He'd turned it off just before the bust went down, and had neglected to turn it back on. Throwing it down on the chair, he took out his anger at his own stupidity on Lucas. "Well why didn't you leave a message at the office, or why didn't you call the doctor?"

"I did... to both," Lucas replied hotly. "It's not my fault if the clodhoppers at your office can't take a message." He continued before Jim could get a word in, "And the doctor left about forty minutes ago. She gave Blair some Tylenol and told me to keep him as cool as possible and to make sure he gets enough fluids. Again, I've done both of the above."

A movement from Blair put an end to the argument. The youngster lifted his head from his father's shoulder and without warning, vomited.

Lucas was first to move. He grabbed a towel, which he had placed over Blair's pillow earlier in the night, but his action came too late. Blair emptied his stomach again all over Jim. "They never do it just once," he said sheepishly, handing over the towel.

Jim snatched up the towel. "Thanks for the warning," he answered sarcastically. The whole front of his sweater and his shoulder was covered in vomit and Blair had fallen forward into the mess.

Blair choked back a cry as he pulled up his legs, and this time Jim moved quickly to place the towel to Blair's mouth.

"I'll go get a bucket."

"I think it's a little too late for that," Jim said, wiping Blair's mouth.

"I guess so." Lucas breathed through his mouth in an effort to bypass the smell that filled the room. "You want me to run the bath?"

Jim looked at the mess that covered both Blair and himself. A bath was definitely in order. "Yeah, and could you grab some clean PJ's from his drawer?" As Lucas' feet hit the bottom stair, Jim piped up. "Hey, I'm sorry about what I said. You did a great job."

Lucas shrugged off Jim's comment. "No need to apologise, but thanks anyway."

Blair whimpered in Jim's arms. "Come on, big guy," he said gently. "Let's go get you cleaned up."

Jim placed Blair down on the bathroom floor. The smell of vomit was starting to affect him and he blanched, as the odor caused him to gag.

Blair latched onto the front of his sweater. "Crayons," he whispered, his breath tinged with the same foul smell.

Jim concentrated hard. He was going to be no good to his son if he ended up face down hugging the toilet bowl. He closed his eyes and visualized Blair's crayons. He imagined the box, starting with black and gradually fading to lighter, more subtle colours. One by one he worked his way down the range, his sense of smell following the visual image. When he opened his eyes, a pair of bloodshot orbs were staring back at him. "My tummy hurts."

Fully prepared this time, Jim shifted Blair over to the toilet and held on as Blair vomited again. Finally, when Blair's stomach settled a little, Jim lifted him away from the toilet. "Come on, Chief," he said, encouraging Blair to lift his arms. "Let's get this off of you."

Blair complied with his father's request, and stood still while Jim stripped off his underclothes.

"Bath's ready," Lucas announced, turning off the faucet.

Blair looked over at Lucas. "No bath," he said.

"Just a little one, Chief," Jim replied, quickly stripping off his own sweater and shirt. Blair's mess had soaked through both layers of clothing and he could now feel the uncomfortable wetness against his skin.

"No," Blair stated, stepping back on shaky legs. "No bath... I say no... I say no."

Lucas immediately took hold of the towel that he had placed on the side of the tub. He fell to his knees and cocooned Blair within the soft material, engulfing the child in his arms. He wasn't quite sure why his reaction was so severe, but the figure of Blair standing alone, shaking and naked on the bathroom floor, impacted harder than a punch to the gut. He pulled Blair to his chest, "No bath," he said to Jim.

Jim locked onto both pairs of blue eyes; one pair a brilliant sapphire, the other pair paler, but somehow deeper; a deepness that, if you looked closely enough, took you straight to Lucas' soul. "No bath," Jim whispered. "No bath, Chief."

Blair pushed his arms out of the towel. "Shower."

Jim glanced at Lucas and the teenager nodded, before loosening his grip. One day, Chief, Jim promised to himself, One day I will find out exactly what that bastard did to you.

Leaving Blair leaning against Lucas, Jim kicked off his shoes and stripped out of his jeans and socks. "You ready, baby?" he asked, waiting for Blair to make the first move.

The little boy pushed himself off Lucas' chest and this time the towel that pooled at his feet caused him no distress.

Jim lifted Blair up into his arms. "We'll do this real quick, Munchkin." Blair's body was still hot and he hoped that the cool spray of the shower might help alleviate his fever.

"I yucky," Blair said, wiping at the sticky mess that covered his chest.

"I won't disagree with you there, Chief." Jim jiggled Blair slightly, "In fact, I think you might even smell a little bit, partner."

"I sick, daddy."

"I know, baby, I know."

Lucas slipped quietly out of the room, leaving Jim to take care of his son.

With Blair cleaned and rinsed off, Jim called out to Lucas. He could hear the boy outside in the hall, not at all surprised at the close proximity kept by the teenager. "Lucas, can you take Blair for a minute while I finish up?"

Quick to move, Lucas picked up the discarded towel from the floor as he moved into the room. He took Blair from Jim's arms and wrapped him up snugly within the soft fabric. Moving toward the door in order to give Jim some privacy, he stopped as Blair's hand shot out from under the towel. "No, I want daddy." Lucas stopped, and turned around so Blair had a visual on his father.

"I'm coming, buddy." Jim assured, picking up the soap. Without thinking, he pulled off his soaking boxers and kicked them into the corner of the shower stall. After a quick soap and final rinse, he shut off the faucet and slid open the door. "Lucas, pass me that towel, will ya?"

With Blair still in his arms, Lucas pulled the towel off the rail and threw it over to Jim.

Jim caught it and dried off quickly, before securing the towel around his waist. He reached to take Blair. "Okay, Munchkin, time for PJ's and then bed."

Now on the edge of exhaustion, Blair closed his eyes and rested his head on Jim's shoulder, content to let his father look after him.

With Jim now taking sole care of Blair, Lucas made short work of the mess on the bathroom floor. As he worked he thought back to the scene a few minutes earlier, trying to put his finger on something that was missing. And then it hit him. There was no fear, no disgust or repulsion, not even any discomfort. Maybe this is how it's supposed to feel, he surmised. Maybe this is how normal kids feel when they see their dads naked. Although he was fully aware that Jim was not his father, he was beginning to see that Jim was a whole lot better than the real thing had ever been.

With an armful of dirty clothes, Lucas switched off the bathroom light and made his way down to the laundry. He could hear the soothing sounds of Jim's voice coming from Blair's bedroom. "A lot better than the real thing," he whispered.

Jim poured himself his second cup of coffee. It was three in the morning and he was exhausted, but sleep evaded him. He was too uptight, too wound up by the events that had taken place, and guilt niggled at him like a persistent toothache. Most of the time it was bearable, but when it flared, it sent a shooting pain right to the centre of his heart. It was a feeling that he knew would weigh him down until the day his son no longer remembered; a day he prayed that would come sooner, rather than later.

A tug on the edge of his robe alerted him to Blair's presence.

"I thirsty," Blair whispered. He lifted his arms, seeking the comfort of his father's closeness. "Up."

"You gotta stop sneaking up on me, kiddo." Jim swung Blair into his arms. "How do you manage to do that anyway?"

Blair shrugged his shoulders, too tired to answer. "Milk, warm and chocolate," he said, snuggling his face into the nape of his father's neck.

"How about juice, cold and apple?" Jim replied. "I don't think milk is the best thing for your stomach at the moment, Chief, and I'm sure your poor old dad isn't up for an encore performance."

Receiving no resistance to the idea, Jim moved over to the cupboard and pulled out Blair's 'comfort' cup. It had a snap-on lid and a straw in the top. Blair didn't often use it, but when he was upset or tired, it somehow made him feel a little more secure.

With the lid on tight, Jim carried Blair into the living room. Sinking down on the sofa, he pulled the afghan from the back. Blair was dressed in only a light singlet and a pair of night time, waterproof pants that he rarely needed these days. His body had still been hot when Jim had put him to bed, but a combination of sleep and Tylenol had helped cool him down considerably. Jim sat Blair on his lap, supporting his back. "Just little sips, Chief," he instructed, lifting the straw to Blair's lips.

Blair accepted the straw, gratefully sucking the liquid into his dry mouth. Jim pinched the straw between his fingers to slow down the rate at which Blair was swallowing.

He watched in fascination as his son's eyelids started to close. With the juice all but gone, Blair continued to suck in earnest on the straw, his actions almost instinctive.

"I've missed out on so much, Chief," Jim whispered, content to just sit and watch. Gently he traced the outline of Blair's face with his fingers. The child on his lap was no longer the toddler that had arrived on his doorstep six months ago. His son had grown and Blair was now definitely a little boy, his little boy. Jim's fingers lingered, feeling the muscles twitch beneath his touch as Blair's sucking action continued. "I never got to hold you my arms when you were born and tell you how much you were wanted, how much I loved you," he said. His fingers drifted across the soft, smooth skin of Blair's cheek. "I never got to give you a bottle and watch you fall asleep in my arms." He bent down and kissed Blair's silken curls. "I never got to see you take your first steps or hear you say your first words." An overwhelming sadness settled upon him. "I don't even know what you looked like... and I guess I never will." Jim tightened the hold he had on his son, "But I promise you one thing, baby. I'll be there when you lose your first tooth and when you start your first day at school." He shifted his body, lifting his legs and positioning Blair's body next to him. "I'll be there to give you your first driving lesson and buy you your first car." He adjusted a cushion beneath his head and pulled the afghan up to cover them both. "I'll be there when you go out on your first date and I'll be there to hold you the first time your heart gets broken." He closed his eyes, Blair's curls lightly tickling his chin. "She won't deny me that, Chief. I promise you that."

Jim poked his head into Blair's bedroom. It had been two days since Blair had been struck down with the flu and while the youngster was on the road to recovery, he still wasn't one hundred percent. He pulled the door shut quietly, wanting Blair to sleep for a while longer.

Glancing at the clock on the wall as he padded down the stairs, Jim was surprised to hear the sound of movement in the kitchen. It was very rare to see Lucas up at this hour of the morning, but the smell of freshly brewed coffee made him head straight for the cupboard, thankful for the small favor. Leaning back against the counter, he eyed Lucas, who was sitting at the table, his hands wrapped around a steaming mug of his own. Not going to be a great day, he thought, taking in the youth's appearance. The kid was dressed like he was about to embark on a mission to the Antarctic

Jim had realised fairly early on that Lucas' clothing matched his moods. If something was troubling or bothering the boy, the more clothes he seemed to pile on. Most of the time, he wandered around the place not really caring what he was wearing and it wasn't unusual for him to come to breakfast in only his boxer shorts. Jim never said anything. It didn't worry him and if Lucas felt secure enough to wander around the house half naked, it was probably a good sign. Having Lucas trust him was paramount on his list and as time had passed, he finally felt as if he was wining the battle.

"You're up early this morning," Jim commented, taking a seat at the table.

"Couldn't sleep."

Ellison noticed the pallor of Lucas' skin, and the bleary, slightly bloodshot eyes. "You feeling okay? You're looking a little pale this morning." He reached over the table, feeling Lucas' brow for any sign of a fever.

"I'm fine, just a little tired." Lucas closed his eyes, briefly. "Boy, will I be glad when today is over."

Jim pulled away. "What exam do you have today?"

"Biology. My last one." Lucas took a small sip of his coffee. "Jim, a few of the guys are going to the mall to grab something to eat after the exam. Would it be alright if I tagged along?"

"You sure you're feeling up to it?"

"Yeah. I'll be fine once I get going."

"Well if you're certain you're up to it, then I can't see why not. Just make sure you're back here before dark and if you need a ride, call me, okay?"

There was something in Lucas' expression that gave Jim an unsettled feeling; it almost seemed as if Lucas was debating whether or not to tell him something. He decided not to push. If Lucas needed to talk to him, he wanted the boy to do so on his own terms.

The teenager pushed back his chair. "I better go get ready for school."

Jim drained the last of his coffee and started on breakfast. Although Blair was recovering well, he still wasn't well enough to go back to daycare and they needed to leave earlier than usual to make the trek across town to his brother's house. Steven's wife, Rachael, had offered to look after Blair. Matthew had been off school for three days with the same bug and with the new baby in the house, she welcomed any distraction that would keep her bored son occupied.

Deciding on oatmeal, Jim's thoughts turned back to Lucas. There was something wrong, of that he was sure, but unless Lucas opened up to him, finding the answer would be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Although he'd felt they'd come a long way in bridging the gap in their relationship, there was still so much about Lucas and his life that had stayed blanketed in darkness. The best he could do was to keep on doing what he was doing and hope that maybe one day the boy would finally shed some light.

"Where the hell are you?" Jim hissed, hanging up the phone. It was now well after dark and there was still no sign of Lucas. Laura, the girl that Lucas had become friendly with, had told him that they'd all gone to the mall after school as planned, but when it was time to leave, Lucas had refused a ride. He said he had something to do and apparently had changed out of his school uniform, and had left his bag in the back of Kyle's car.

Jim aimlessly wandered into the living room, not really sure what to do next. Blair lay, sound asleep, on the sofa and he reached out to gently feel his son's cheek. The fever that had raged through the child's body a few days ago was all but gone and he contemplated bundling him up and taking him out in the truck to try and look for Lucas. The telephone startled him for a moment, not realising he still held it in his hand.

"Hey Jim," Simon's voice on the end of the line greeted. "Just calling to see how my favourite three-year-old is doing. He over the worst of it?"

"Yeah, I think so," Ellison replied. "His temperature is back down to normal, but he's still a little stuffed up and miserable though."

"You sound concerned." Bank's said. "You still worried?"

"Not about Blair, but I am about Lucas. He hasn't come home yet, Simon, and it's starting to snow pretty heavily out there."

"Have you called his friends?"

"Yeah, but no one's seen him since they were at the mall and that was a couple of hours ago. He told his friend that he had something to do before coming home, but nobody has any idea where he went."

"You want me to come over?"

"No, that's okay. I'm sure he'll be home any minute, and when he does get home, he's gonna get the riot act read to him," Jim muttered.

It wasn't hard for Simon to interpret Jim's tone. "Look, I'm just about to leave the office. Why don't I drop over on my way home? You can buy me a beer."

"Simon, you live twenty minutes in the other direction."

"Yeah, well, you know me. I always like to take the scenic route. I'll see you shortly." The line disconnected before Ellison could protest.

Jim moved away from the sofa, over to the large floor to ceiling window at the front of the house. Pulling back the heavy drapes, he peered out into the bleak, dark evening, concentrating hard. Every shadow, every branch that bent as the wind gusted caught his eye and he was amazed at the clarity visible to his eyes as he studied the snow-covered landscape outside. Living with enhanced senses had, to date, proven to be a hit and miss affair. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. When Blair was with him, he seemed to have slightly more control over them, but on his own, he was often left floundering. There had been only one time when he felt he had them completely under control. The time when his son was missing was the only time he'd had a glimpse of their full power. The only time where he had truly known what it was like to be a Sentinel. His vision dulled and he turned away from the window in annoyance. "Where are you?" he whispered.

By the time Simon's car pulled up the long, tree-lined driveway, Jim's concern for the teenager had grown tenfold. Opening the front door, he ushered the police captain into the warmth of the house.

"Boy, it's really coming down out there." Simon shucked out of his heavy overcoat. "Any sign of the kid?"

Jim took Simon's coat and hung it on the coat rack by the front door. "No, not a word."

"Have you tried the school? Maybe he had a late tutorial he forgot to tell you about."

"He wouldn't forget something like that. Besides, his last exam was today. That's why the kids were going to the mall."

"Did he give you any indication that something was wrong? You two didn't have an argument or anything, did you?"

"No Simon, he was fine when he left this morning. A little distracted maybe, but he said he was just tired." Jim grabbed his jacket. "Would you mind keeping an eye on Blair for me?"

"Where are you going?"

"I'm just gonna take a look around the neighbourhood, see if I can spot him." Jim zipped up his parka, pulling the collar up against his neck. "Blair's asleep on the sofa. I gave him a dose of decongestant about an hour ago." He pulled a cap from his jacket pocket. "It tends to knock him out. I doubt he'll wake up again tonight."

Just as Jim reached for the doorknob, movement on the top of the stairs caught his eye.

Simon tracked Jim's eyes but, saw nothing out of the ordinary. "What is it?" he asked.

"The jaguar."

"What!" Banks exclaimed. "In the house?"

"It's always in the house." Jim replied, moving quickly over to the stairs.

The large feline's green eyes were piercing as it let out a deep-throated growl.

Taking the stairs two at a time, Jim called over his shoulder to Simon. "I think it's trying to tell me something." He followed the cat down the hallway, coming to a halt as it disappeared into Lucas' room. Edging carefully into the bedroom, he noticed that Lucas' book had been knocked off the bedside table, his treasured photograph dislodged from the back. Jim bent down and picked it up. The cat growled again, nudging his leg. "What!" Jim almost yelled at the animal spirit.

"Jim?" Simon questioned, walking cautiously into the room. The sight of Jim talking to invisible animal spirits always unnerved him. "What's that?" he asked indicating the photo.

"It's a picture of Lucas and his brother." He studied the photo again. "Scott!" He raised his head suddenly. "Simon, can you remember the details of Scott's file?"

"It's a little hard to forget." Banks answered.

"Do you recall where he was buried?"

Simon thought for a moment. "Down at Lakeview, I think. Why?" His own penny dropped. "Surely you don't think that's where Lucas is. Jim, it's gotta be at least fifty miles from here."

Jim looked at the cat. It had stopped circling and stood perfectly still. Its luminous green eyes blinked once.

Jim dropped the picture on the bed. "He's there, Simon. I'm certain of it."

"Hey, hang on," Simon hooked Jim by the arm as he pushed past. "Let me get a patrol car out there to take a look and if he's there, they can pick him up."

"No." A feeling deep inside told Jim not to let any strangers near Lucas. "He needs me." Ellison released his arm from Banks' grip. "Will you stay with Blair?"

Simon didn't feel the question required a response. "Go," he simply said.

Ellison blew into his hands, his warm breath misting the air in front of him as it condensed against the chill of the night. The bitter cold of the howling wind whipped through his heavy jacket, its icy tendrils stinging his face. He peered into the darkness, trying to focus his concentration beyond the endless rows of headstones. His hearing spiked for a brief moment, but not long enough to be of any benefit. "Lucas!" he shouted into the darkness, frustrated by the lack of control he had over his senses. It had been just over six months since he'd discovered his 'gift'; discovered the reason that revealed the truth behind the strange, vacant episodes that had afflicted him since childhood. The reason may have been explained, but unfortunately, how to use this newfound 'power' hadn't. Incacha, in his usual aloof way, provided him with no more information than 'it was his path, his destiny. Typical, he mused. A handbook would have been a hell of a lot more useful than some mystical, Chopec mumbo jumbo.

Realising that his senses were going to be of no use, Jim pulled a flashlight from the glove box of the truck. "Where are you, kid?" he muttered, his eyes tracking the beam of white light that penetrated into the black veil of the night. Spooked by a sound behind him, he turned quickly on his heels, instinctively reaching for his gun. "God damn it, cat!" he swore. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" He holstered his weapon. "Okay, Sylvester. Time to pay your way. Where's Lucas?" He bent down, closer to his animal spirit. "Where is he, puss?"

The cat stared back at him, its gaze intense, except for a brief moment of unease that flashed across its face. It shifted its attention away from Jim, its gaze now concentrated deep into the black night. The animal's growing agitation was followed by a low, warning growl emanating from deep inside its chest. A snarl shattered the silence of the dead night. A decision had been reached.

Padding stealthily across the dead, frozen landscape, its shining black fur becoming one with the night, the feline turned around, making sure the sentinel understood what was required. Feeling a strange connection with his animal spirit, Jim followed suit, winding his way through a maze of tombstones, never once losing sight of the jaguar.

As Jim moved further and further into the ghostly depths of the cemetery, it became apparent that even in death, one still had a social standing. Elaborate headstones of granite and marble disappeared, being replaced by simple plots adorned with grey, concrete headstones. Jim came to an abrupt halt, nearly tumbling over the jaguar, which had pulled up suddenly. His eyes were drawn to the light of a single lamppost at the end of a weed-covered, gravel path and, just beyond, a lone figure that sat on the frozen earth. "Lucas," Jim breathed in relief. He closed the space between himself and the teenager, not expecting the sight that confronted him.

"Jesus, kid, what are you trying to do?" Jim rasped, stunned. The boy was sitting on the frozen ground beside a small grave, dressed in nothing more than his jeans and undershirt. The only thing keeping him from freezing to death was the warmth offered by the body of a black jaguar. Jim quickly scanned the immediate area. Seeing no sign of Lucas' jacket or sweater, he stripped off his parka and squatted down beside the youth. "Lucas, what the hell is going on?" he asked, wrapping his coat tightly around the kid's shoulders. The wind sliced through his heavy wool sweater like a hot knife through butter.

Receiving no answer, Jim ran his hands furiously up the boy's arms, trying desperately to generate some heat. "Lucas," he said again, this time finding it hard to keep the anger out of his voice. "What the hell is this all about? It's freezing out here. What are you trying to do?" He shook Lucas' unresponsive body, his anger at the boy's stupidity no longer contained. "Are you trying to kill yourself?"

Lucas jerked his head up, locking eyes with Jim, and the realisation struck with a sickening thud. That was exactly what the youth had in mind.

Jim's anger boiled over. Taking a firm hold of the jacket, which was still wrapped around the boy, he pulled Lucas roughly to his feet. His grip tightened, pulling Lucas close. "Well kid, I got news for you. It ain't gonna happen on my watch." He shook the boy hard. "Do you understand me?" His angry voice was muffled by the wind.

Lucas raised a clenched fist. Jim caught sight of the movement and prepared himself to do battle. He glanced down, shifting his feet, steadying himself, ready to swing Lucas around to contain him. But the punch never came. Lucas just looked down at his fist, opening it slowly. A handful of gravel fell through his fingers, dropping silently to the ground and barely above a whisper, he spoke. "He wouldn't even pay for a proper grave." His eyes filled with tears. "The bastard didn't even give his own son a decent burial."

"What?" Jim glanced at the grave, for the first time taking notice. It was a pauper's grave, only a tiny plot edged with broken concrete and filled with gravel.

"He was our dad, Jim. It wasn't supposed to be like this." Lucas faltered, trying to get a grip on the emotion that threatened to completely engulf him. "How could a father let this happen to his son?"

Jim released the grip he still had on the jacket collar, his hand reaching up to tentatively stroke Lucas' cold cheek. He didn't have the answer. How could he answer something he was unable to come to terms with himself? "I don't know, son. I just don't know." A tingling sensation tickled his fingertips, Lucas' warm, salted tears the culprit.

Jim opened his arms and Lucas didn't hesitate. "It should'a been me," he breathed raggedly against Jim's shoulder "It should'a been me," he repeated over and over again.

Jim wrapped his arms strongly around the teenager, his hand rubbing up and down vigorously, against the boy's back. "It's not your fault, kid." Jim squeezed the boy harder. "None of this is your fault." He turned his head, his lips brushing Lucas' temple. "Please don't do this, kiddo." His own voice was now barely above a whisper. "You've come so far. Don't give up the fight now. We need you, Lucas."

Lucas pushed back out of Jim's embrace, his fingers still clasping Jim's sweater tightly. "He never knew. He never knew what it was like."

Brushing the tousled, wet hair away from Lucas' face, Jim studied the boy, trying to understand. "Knew what, Lucas?"

Tears now streamed down Lucas' face, his fingers twisting the fibres of Jim's sweater. "Knew what it was like to have a family... a proper family. A family that loved him."

"You're wrong, kiddo. He did know what it was like to be loved." Jim's hand cupped the boy's face fiercely. "He had someone who loved him more than anything else in the world. He had a brother." Jim's thumb travelled to the hollow just under Lucas' misery-filled blue eyes. "He had you, Lucas."

Any chance that Lucas had of getting his emotions under control dissolved as Jim's words hit home. He folded back into Jim's arms, accepting without question what was being offered.

A cougar snarled in the distance, as the sentinel held the boy who had become as much a part of his family as Blair himself. The sentinel watched the jaguar bound off toward the sound and he knew that Lucas had just officially become a member of his tribe.

Lucas Wilder had been given the blessing of the spirits.

Ellison turned off the highway, pulling into a parking space in front of a twenty-four-hour diner. Although wrapped in a jacket and blanket, Lucas was still shivering.

"Come on," Jim urged, unclasping Lucas' seatbelt. "We need to get something warm into you."

As Jim guided the young man toward the front doors of the diner, it occurred to him how much of an enigma the kid still was. When he'd agreed to take Lucas in, he'd been expecting a hell of a lot more resistance than he got. The boy had been living on the streets since he was nine, and Jim had assumed that dealing with Lucas would be akin to taming a wild animal. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Sure, there'd been a few tense moments, but when Jim thought back, these usually revolved around Blair. For a teenager that was used to doing what he wanted, whenever he wanted, Lucas had adjusted amazingly well to the structure of family life. He didn't balk when Jim unceremoniously tossed a whole heap of rules into his face; in fact he seemed to flourish. As time went on and Lucas' guard started to fall, it was almost as if his outer protective casing was being chipped away. The tough teenager, whose exterior had always kept him safe and untouchable, was beginning to show his vulnerabilities, his fears. He'd spoken to Jim about his past, his father, and his brother, but he'd never really told the complete story. Brief conversations, Lucas' file and the occasional emotional outburst or two, had given Jim some insight into the life of Lucas Wilder, but there was still so much more to know. He knew that if Lucas was ever going to recover from the horrendous events of the past, he needed someone to confide in; someone to listen without pity, without judgment and Jim knew he was that someone.

Steering Lucas over to a booth by the window, Jim took a seat on the opposite side of the table, and acknowledged the waitress. "Do you have any soup on the menu?"

"We got chicken and chicken. Take your pick."

"Well, I guess we'll have chicken," Jim answered sarcastically. "Just one bowl," he added. "And two coffees. If that's not too much trouble."

"I'm here to serve," she muttered before heading back to the counter.

Lucas had picked up the salt container, nervously twisting the lid on and off. "Jim, I really am sorry for tonight," he apologised, never once raising his eyes.

"Hey," Jim said, plucking the salt from Lucas' hand in order to get his attention. "You haven't got anything to be sorry about, but I do wish you had come to me instead of coming out here by yourself. I would have driven you."

"No, you wouldn't. Not with Blair still being sick."

"Okay, maybe I wouldn't have brought you tonight, but we could have figured out a time to come."

"Today was important. I had to see Scotty today." Lucas lifted his head to look at Jim. "It was his birthday. He was thirteen today."

Jim took hold of Lucas' hand "I'm sorry, kid," he said, feeling guilty that he hadn't paid more attention to Lucas this morning. He'd known something was bothering the boy and maybe he should have pushed. "Lucas, why didn't you say something?"

"Because I didn't want to lay my problems on you."

"That's what families are for, kiddo."

Lucas snatched his hand away abruptly. "That's the whole problem. Can't you see that? I don't belong here. I don't deserve any of this!"

The teenager's raised voice got the attention of a large man sitting at the counter. Without hesitation, he lifted his bulk from the stool and approached the table. "You okay, boy?" he asked, ignoring the presence of Jim.

Lucas recognised the man immediately. He'd hitched his way out to the cemetery; the truck driver standing in front of them was his ride. "Yeah, thanks, I'm cool," Lucas replied.

"You sure, 'cause you know you ain't gotta do nothing you don't wanna do. You just say the word and this feller's history." The beefy truck driver was now eyeing Jim. He'd picked up the kid on Interstate 90 and in all his years on the road, there were only two reasons he knew for a boy Lucas' age to be wandering the highway at night. He was either a runaway, or he was looking for someone to buy what he was selling. He hadn't quite made up his mind which one Lucas was, until now.

"Hey, listen, buddy," Jim said, annoyed by the interference of the stranger. "Why don't you just go back to what you were doing and let us get on with what we were doing, okay?"

"And just exactly what were you doing, you sleazy son of a bitch? Getting your kicks outta hitting on teenage boys?"

"Clyde, no!" Lucas shouted, stopping the big man before Jim made it to his feet. "It's not what you think."

Rising quickly from the seat, Jim pulled Lucas away from the truck driver. "Stay out of it, son," he ordered.


"Yeah, you got a problem with that?" Jim had now positioned himself in between Lucas and the truck driver. "'Cause I sure as hell got a problem with your accusations."

Lucas was now wedged tight against the edge of the table; Jim's body was not only shielding him, but its weight was keeping him from moving. A wave of dizziness hit him and he grabbed onto the back of Ellison's sweater. "Hey, Jim, I don't feel so good."

Jim swung around, taking hold of Lucas' arms. "Lucas!"

The teenager started to list to the side. "I think I need to sit down."

Ellison guided the boy back down on the seat, but he only had a chance to give Lucas a cursory once over before Clyde barged in, his large hand coming to rest on Lucas' forehead. "I think your boy might be coming down with a fever," he said.

Jim pushed the man's hand away, his own moving into place. Lucas' forehead was definitely warm.

"Hey, don't. Would both of you stop," Lucas protested, batting away Jim's hand. "I don't have a fever. I'm just hungry, that's all. I haven't eaten since last night."

"Marion," bellowed Clyde. "Stop ya yakking and bring this boy out some food, 'fore he collapses."

"Yeah, yeah, I heard ya. I'm coming. No need to get yer knickers in a twist." She placed a bowl of steaming broth in front of Lucas. "I only got one pair a hands, you know."

"It's all service with a smile around here," Clyde commented. "Here kid, eat up." He slid the bowl closer to Lucas.

Jim had taken a seat next to Lucas and Clyde could see simply by the look on the guy's face that his concern for the teenager was genuine. He left them; taking up residence once again on his usual stool by the counter, as Marion poured him a fresh cup of coffee.

Jim waited until Lucas had polished off the soup before speaking. "You gonna me tell who that guy was?"

"Just a trucker," Lucas answered with a shrug of his shoulders. "He picked me up on the way to one of his deliveries. I guess he's on his way back again."

"You were hitchhiking along the highway, on a night like this! Jesus kid, take a look at that guy. He's gotta weigh twice as much as you," Jim exclaimed in disbelief. "Don't you realise what a dangerous situation you could have put yourself in?"

"Yeah, I do. I guess that's why I did it."

"Okay Lucas, enough is enough." Jim was starting to get frustrated by the cryptic answers he was receiving. "You and I are going to talk and we are going to sort a few things out. Understood?"

"Things like what?"

"Like why you have this sudden self-destructive urge, for starters."

"Because I'm happy, okay!" Lucas snapped.

"Well what's so wrong with being happy?"

"You just don't get it do you?"

"No, I'm sorry, I guess I must be thick. So why don't you just cut the crap and explain it to me. You said before that you didn't deserve any of this and I'd like to know why."

Lucas bit back a mixture of sadness and anger. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be alone, Jim? I mean, really alone? Or to be so hungry and cold that you'd practically do anything for a warm bed and some food in your stomach?" Lucas watched Jim's reaction. "No, I didn't think so. Well, you know what? I do. I know what it's like to be a nine-year-old, wandering in the shadow of night, because you're too afraid that if someone recognises you, you'll be hauled straight back to your foster family. I know what it's like to eat other people's garbage, or to sneak into people's basements in the hope of finding a warm place to sleep. I know what it's like to see your father dragged off to prison because you didn't keep your end of the bargain."

Lucas paused, waiting for Marion to refill their coffee cups. "And now, for the first time in a long time, I know what it's like to feel safe, to feel happy."

"And that's a bad thing?"

"It means that I'm forgetting. Being on the streets was a constant reminder. It never let me forget who I was or what I was... or what I had done, for that matter. I mean, how can you look at me after knowing what I used to do for money, and say you're comfortable with me living in your house, being around your son?"

"Stop it," Jim said suddenly. "If I had to choose anybody in this world to look after Blair, it would be you. Not Joel and Jessie, or Simon. You nearly died trying to protect him. Don't you think for one minute that he deserves anyone else but you."

"He nearly died because of what I did."

"No. Ultimately, you had nothing to do with it. Naomi would have taken him, with or without you. You being there is the only reason I can hug that little boy today. You, Lucas, are the reason we are a family. Now I understand completely everything you've just said, but you need to understand this. You have a right to be happy. What happened in the past is just that... in the past. You're only sixteen, kid, and you have your whole life ahead of you. I know you carry a truckload of guilt around about Scott, but you gotta let it go, because if you don't, it will consume you. Now I'm not saying for one minute that you need to forget your brother, but you have to remember him without the guilt."

"What would you say if I said that even after everything he did, I still think about my dad? I even miss him sometimes. Pretty sick, huh?"

"Lucas, I can't and won't judge you on how you feel about your father. You were just a child. He gave you love, and like all children, you accepted it. You were too young to know what was going on."

Lucas averted his eyes. "I knew, Jim. Maybe not at first, but as I got older, I knew." He looked up, hesitating for a moment. "It doesn't happen that much anymore, you know."

"What doesn't?"

"The times I think about my dad. He's fading away, and so are the memories. I mean, they're still there, but they're not as vivid. It's almost like I have a barrier around me. I can still see them, but somehow I know they won't break through, that they can't hurt me. It scares me, Jim."

Jim squeezed Lucas' hand. "Why?"

Lucas took a deep breath, finding the courage to tell his greatest fear to Jim. "Because I'm afraid it won't last. I'm afraid that one day you'll look at me and you'll see who I really am. I'm afraid that you'll ask me to leave your house, to stay away from Blair. I'm afraid I'm going to be alone again."

Jim let go of Lucas' hand. "Give me your wallet."

"What!" Lucas exclaimed, both surprised and a little frightened.

"Your wallet." Jim waved his hand, urging the boy to hand it over.

Lucas pulled it from his jeans, placing it on the table in front of him.

Jim grabbed it, flicking through it until he found what he was after. He pulled out Lucas' ID.

"Read the address," he ordered.

Lucas stared at him blankly.

"Okay, then I'll read it. 31 Parkwood Avenue. You know what's special about this address?"

Lucas shook his head.

"The special thing about this address, is that it not only happens to be my home, and Blair's home, but your home. This is our home, Lucas. Twice tonight you've said you're afraid I'll kick you out of my home. This place, this address, is your home, just as much as it is mine. And do you really want to know what I see when I look at you?" Jim didn't give Lucas the chance to answer. "I see a young man who has more courage and determination than I've seen in most adults. I see someone who is not afraid to stand up and fight for those he loves. I see a boy that I, for one, would be proud to call my son."

Lucas swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the lump that had formed in his throat. His voice broke. "You think you could handle having two sons?"

Jim smiled. "I can't think of anything I'd like better." He reached over and touched Lucas' flushed cheek. His temperature was certainly on the rise. "You ready to go home?"

"Yeah, home sounds perfect."

Jim left Lucas sitting at the booth while he paid the check. Clyde acknowledged him with a nod. "You and your boy sort things out?"

"We're getting there," Jim replied, handing over a twenty to Marion.

"Good. 'Cause there ain't nothing worth losing you kid over. When it comes down to it, sorry ain't a real hard word to say. You just gotta swolla' your pride sometimes and come out and say it."

Jim took his change from the waitress. "I'll keep that in mind."

"You do that. Don't end up being a stubborn fool like me. It ain't worth the cost." Clyde went back to reading his paper.

"Hey," said Jim, getting the big man's attention once more. "Thanks for looking out for my boy."

"I do what I can," Clyde replied, looking up briefly. "I'd get that kid of yours home, if I were you. He ain't looking so good. I think he's coming down with a fever."

Jim took Clyde's advice. He settled Lucas in the truck, tucking the blanket snugly around his shoulders. It wasn't long before the sick teenager nodded off, his head resting against the cool glass of the side window and giving him some relief from his growing fever.

A feeling of contentment settled over the sentinel. It had been a rough couple of days, but both his boys were now safe and keeping his kids safe was all that mattered.

Jim pulled the truck into the garage, the automatic door closing behind him. He got out of the truck, only to be met by Simon's anxious face. "He okay?"

"He will be." Jim moved around the truck. "How's Blair?"

"Tucked up snug and tight in bed. He hasn't woken."

Simon pulled open the passenger side door. He took in Lucas' flushed face and bleary eyes. "The flu?" he asked, his question directed at Jim.

"Yep," Jim moved to help Lucas out of the truck and guided him through the door leading into the house.

Simon felt Lucas' forehead. "He's burning up."

The boy flinched, moving back away from the touch and Simon cast a puzzled glance in Jim's direction.

"Lucas," Jim said gently, "why don't you go upstairs and grab a shower, before you hit the sack? It'll help cool you down a little."

Lucas nodded, moving away from Jim and toward the stairs, all the time keeping a careful eye on Simon.

"What was that all about?" Simon hissed, as soon as the boy was out of earshot.

"I'm not sure. He's a little emotional at the moment." Jim hung up his coat. "Today was Scott's birthday. He would have been thirteen."

"Oh shit! Christmas and birthdays," Banks muttered. They're always the hardest times."

"Yeah. Look, I better go check and see if he's okay." Jim turned around before heading up the stairs. "Hey, you wanna stay for dinner? I've made enough beef casserole to feed an army, and it doesn't look like anyone else will be eating it tonight."

Simon accepted Jim's invitation. He had the feeling that Jim's offer wasn't made out of politeness and got the distinct impression that his friend wanted the company.

The sound of retching was unmistakable. The flu had finally taken a hold of Lucas, and by the sounds of things, it had no intention of letting go anytime soon. Jim let his presence be known, knocking lightly on the door before entering the main bathroom. Dressed only in his jeans, Lucas was hunkered over the toilet bowl as violent spasms ripped through his gut. Too sick to object, he offered no resistance as Jim ran a cool washcloth over his back and neck.

When the spasms finally eased and the retching subsided, Jim helped Lucas back to his room. Pulling back the covers, he guided the sick young man down to sit on the bed. Lucas' eyes were heavy and bloodshot, and his skin clammy as the fever built up inside his body. During the thirty minutes that he'd been home, he'd estimated that the kid's temperature had risen several degrees. He wiped the sweat from Lucas' face. "You think you can keep down a couple of Tylenol?"

Lucas shook his head. "Not yet," he breathed out.

"I think you need to try, kiddo," Jim encouraged, shaking out two tablets on the palm of his hand. "You're burning up, here, and we need to get your fever down."

Lucas reluctantly swallowed the pills, blanching as the water that followed hit his gut. Jim moved to sit on the bed beside the boy, rubbing his back in encouragement and in the hope that the tablets wouldn't make a return voyage. As his stomach settled, Lucas' body leaned into Jim's, his head coming to rest on his shoulder. Ellison reacted naturally, encircling his shoulders with his arm. "You wanna lay down?"

Lucas closed his eyes. "Yeah."

"Come on." Jim shifted from the bed, just as Simon entered the room. "Can I do anything to help?" Banks asked.

Simon's deep voice registered in Lucas' fever affected mind. He opened his eyes with a start, his body becoming ridged with tension, with fear.

"Lucas?" Jim questioned, concerned by the reaction.

"Why is he here?" Lucas turned to Jim with pleading eyes. "I can't. Please not tonight."

"Hey, relax, its just Simon." Jim wished he was wrong, but his suspicions about the meaning behind Lucas' words were strong and, he suspected, right on target.


"Yeah kid, Simon."

Lucas lifted his hand, brushing Jim's fingers, lightly. "And you?"

"Yeah, just me. Only me." Keeping up a tirade of words, Jim pushed Lucas back on the bed and lifted up his legs until he was lying comfortably. He nodded to Simon, who took the hint and left the room. "Think you can strip out of your jeans?" Always extremely conscious about Lucas' privacy, it was a question he'd always ask, no matter what the circumstance. He watched patiently as Lucas fumbled, trying to unfasten the button fly of his jeans. "Won't undo." The words muttered by Lucas were barely audible.

"Can I help you?"

Lucas' eyes were now closed, but he nodded his head slightly in agreement. Taking that as a yes, Jim slipped off Lucas' jeans without so much as the boy even being aware of what was going on. He pulled up the sheet, leaving the heavy blanket and quilt on the end of the bed. Going back into the bathroom, he ran the washcloth under cold water, wetting it thoroughly. Lucas was breathing heavily and on the edge of sleep by the time he re-entered the bedroom. Placing the cloth on the kid's fevered brow, he stood for a few minutes, simply watching the boy. Without warning, the jaguar was back. All signs of agitation in the feline were gone and without thinking, he reached out, for the first time feeling the softness of the cat's sleek fur. It purred, closed its eyes and butted its head against his hand.

"Don't get used to this," Jim said, scratching the cat behind the ear. "This is only temporary. As soon as he's better, you're outta here." The cat ignored him, curling itself into a ball at the end of the bed. Satisfied that Lucas was being watched over, Jim moved to the door. "Hey, cat," he said. The jaguar lazily opened its eyes. "Thanks." He left the room; a call to their family doctor was next on his list.

"Lucas?" Simon looked up from the magazine he was reading, surprised to see the teenager out of bed. "Jim's just upstairs checking on Blair. Do you want me to get him for you?"

Lucas moved further into the room, closing the distance between him and the police captain. "Did you pay him?"

"Did I pay who?" Simon asked, confused. He threw the magazine down on the coffee table, his attention now fully focused on Lucas. As the boy moved closer into the light, Simon could tell by the look in Lucas' eyes that the teenager wasn't really with him. His torso was slick with sweat, his blonde hair sticking to the side of his head.

"My dad. Did you give dad the money?" Lucas' hand came to rest on the waistband of his boxers, anticipating Simon's answer. "It's fifty bucks if you just want me to suck you. A hundred if you want the lot."

Simon watched, stunned, as Lucas pushed his boxers down over his hips. "Jesus Christ, kid." Simon wasted no time reacting. He pushed himself from the armchair by the fire and sprang to his feet. He took hold of Lucas' underwear and secured them back in place.

Lucas became instantly agitated. "No, you've paid. You have to take me. Dad won't give you your money back. Please mister, please," Lucas begged. The kid, now standing in front of him, sounded more like a frightened nine-year-old boy, trapped in the past, not the confident, self assured teenager that Simon knew.

"Lucas," Simon repeated, hoping that his attempt to get through to the boy's fever-affected mind would succeed. "I don't want this." He edged out of the living room, shouting up the stairs. "Jim, you better get down here." Not realising his mistake, Simon placed a foot on the bottom stair.

Lucas' reaction was instinctual. Nobody was allowed up the stairs. Nobody would take his brother. Scotty would not be sold. Not like that. He swung Simon around, his fist connecting with a crack, sending the big man sprawling to the floor. "He's not for sale!" Lucas shouted, blocking the stairs with his body.

Jim didn't need his sentinel abilities to hear the commotion downstairs. He left Blair's room, the youngster still sound asleep, oblivious to what was going on down stairs. The moment he appeared at the top of the stairs, Lucas became enraged. He started up the stairwell. "You bastard, stay away from him!" he yelled. Simon recovered quickly and scrambled to his feet. He grabbed Lucas from behind and pulled him back while Jim closed the gap from above. Sweat poured off the struggling teenager and Simon was finding it hard to keep a grip on his sweat-slicked torso. Lucas' chest heaved in agitation, and he found it difficult to catch his breath. Jim reached out to take hold of Lucas. He knew from previous experience how strong the kid was, and getting the boy under control without hurting him would be a challenge. "Lucas!" he shouted, reaching the bottom stair, "Scott's not upstairs. You're not with your dad anymore. You live here with me and with Blair."

Summoning the last of his strength, Lucas broke free of Simon's hold. "Liar!" he shouted. "You stay away from my brother." Jim, anticipating the oncoming punch, moved to the side, grabbing Lucas' wrist. In one quick move he spun the teenager around, folding the boy's arm hard against his back, his arm encircling his chest. Ready for a struggle, he was completely taken aback when Lucas collapsed, his entire body weight crumpling to the floor. Simon scrambled quickly over to the prone figure. Without missing a beat, he felt for Lucas' pulse. "It's all over the place," he said.

A flash of headlights illuminated the hallway; the arriving car coming to a stop in the turning circle directly outside the front door.

"It's Gillian," breathed Jim in relief, his hand now on Lucas' chest, monitoring his breathing.

Leaving Jim to tend to Lucas, Simon moved to the front door. A blast of cold air swirled in the entrance way as he ushered Dr. Gillian Francis into the house.

Cool, calm and collected, she moved immediately to her patient's side. Unclasping the lock on her medical bag, she removed the electronic thermometer, inserting it in Lucas' ear. The instrument buzzed and she checked the results. "Do you have a bathtub?" she asked urgently.

"Upstairs, in the main bathroom," Jim answered. "Gillian, what's wrong?"

"His temperature is dangerously high. We need to get it down. Can you carry him up there?"

Not needing to be asked twice, Jim and Simon lifted Lucas' limp form and followed her up the stairs.

"Which door?"

"Third door on the right," Jim replied, straining under Lucas' dead weight.

Locating the plug, Doctor Francis started to fill the bath. She removed her coat and pushed up the sleeves on her sweater. "Lower him gently."

As Jim and Simon guided Lucas' body over the bathtub rim, a convulsion hit. His body jerked, slowly at first before increasing in intensity. "Put him on the tiles, on his side," she ordered. Jim supported Lucas' head, waiting for the convulsion to ease.

Simon turned to leave the room. "I'll call an ambulance."

"No, I need you in here. As soon as the convulsion stops, we have to get him into the tub." She stroked Lucas' hair. "That's it, honey, just ride it out, it won't be long."

Lucas' body stopped jerking as suddenly as it started; the only movement left was the shallow rise and fall of his chest. "Okay, gentleman, let's lift him gently." Jim and Simon lifted Lucas and carefully lowered him into the bath. Gillian handed a washcloth over to Jim. "Start sponging his face and neck." Picking up a jug that Jim kept in the bathroom to rinse shampoo from Blair's hair, she started pouring cold water over Lucas' chest, waiting until the rising water was high enough to do the job for her.

"Jim do you have any liquid Tylenol?"

"In the medicine cabinet. Above the sink," he told Simon.

Simon flipped open the child safety lock. Rummaging through the cabinet, he withdrew a bottle and medicine glass.

Gillian looked at the medicine glass. "Do you have a dropper?"

"I think so. Simon there should be a dropper in the back somewhere."

Simon located it easily and handed it over.

"Okay, sit him up some more."

Jim adjusted his grip, pulling Lucas up as Gillian filled the dropper. She squirted small amounts into Lucas' mouth. Satisfied he was swallowing without complications, she repeated the procedure until the required amount was administered.

Jim ran his hand down Lucas' face. "He's still too hot. Maybe we should call an ambulance?"

"Just give his body some time to react. I've just come from the hospital and it's barely coping with the influx of influenza cases as it is. He's young and strong. We just need to get his temperature down."

No sooner had she spoken than Lucas' eyelids fluttered open. Confused and disorientated, he flailed weakly, unsure of his surroundings. Jim tightened his grip, pulling him closer towards him. "Shh kiddo, relax, you're safe, nothing to worry about."

Lucas responded to Jim's voice, drawing closer to the older man. "Where am I?" he whispered.

Trailing the sponge down the boy's chest, Jim soothed gently. "You're in the bath. Your temperature spiked and you collapsed. We needed to cool you down."

"Bath?" An unsure expression spread over Lucas' face. His hand moved down past his stomach, an action that left no room for misinterpretation.

"It's okay, Lucas. You're still covered."

Lucas fingered the wet material of his boxer shorts. "Did you make him leave?"

"Make who leave?" Jim asked, continuing to sponge the boy.

"The man downstairs. He wanted Scott."

Jim cast a worried glance at Gillian.

"Keep talking to him," she reassured. "He'll become more coherent as his temperature goes down."

"Jim," Lucas forced out, struggling weakly. "I think he went upstairs. You gotta keep him away from Scotty, away from Blair." Lucas tried to push himself into a sitting position, but Jim's strong hold prevented the movement.

"Lucas, settle down. Blair's fine. He's sound asleep in his bed. Nobody's going to touch him."

Making one last attempt to extricate himself from the tub, Lucas stopped suddenly, his eyes coming to rest on Simon.

Feeling enormously uncomfortable, Simon averted his eyes, not wanting to see again the look Lucas had given him earlier. The kid had actually thought he was there to buy sex. There to take the innocence of two young boys. He grew uncomfortable standing in the corner of the room, Lucas' eyes boring straight into his soul. God, I feel like a voyeur, he thought. He turned to leave the room, but a single word halted him in his tracks -- his name. Lucas was calling out to him.

"Simon... Blair... safe. Don't leave him. The guy will come back... paid dad, didn't have sex with me... will want sex... don't let him near Blair. Please, Blair's not like Scott. Tell the guy I'm in here... not to touch Blair." The boy slumped with exhaustion in Jim's arms.

Simon slowly approached the bathtub. Kneeling down next to Jim, he took Lucas' hand in his own, the sadness in his eyes equally matched by the stoic figure next to him; Jim was fighting hard to maintain his composure. Simon brushed the boy's damp locks off his cooling forehead. "I promise kid. I promise you with all my heart that I will keep Blair safe."

Lucas closed his eyes, a small sigh escaping his lips, his body relaxing completely against Jim.

With one last, gentle touch, Simon whispered, "Rest now, son." Leaving Lucas in the capable hands of Jim and Doctor Francis, he found himself by Blair's bedside, the soft glow of the night-light giving the room a peaceful feeling. He stood, silently watching the sleeping child. Little fingers twitched sporadically, clasping and unclasping around the beak of the yellow bird the child so lovingly cherished. Eyes moved beneath closed lids, trying to catch up with the dream being conjured in an overactive imagination, and then a small murmur, a smile, and a sound to lighten even the heaviest of hearts. Pulling the overstuffed armchair, which sat in the corner of the room, closer to the bed, Simon sat, content to just sit and watch the sleeping child -- determined to fulfill his promise.

Jim gently shook Lucas, trying to rouse him. The cold water had done its job and the teenager's temperature had dropped considerably over the last hour. Lucas stirred, shivering slightly. "Cold," he stammered.

"I know," Jim soothed. "It's time to get you out of here and into bed." With the last of the water spiraling noisily down the drain, both Jim and Gillian supported Lucas as he stood on unsteady legs. He leaned heavily against Jim, letting strong arms lead him to sit on the closed lid of the toilet. "Why is the doctor here?" he asked, finally comprehending her presence.

"Because you had a fever. You collapsed at the bottom on the stairs. Don't you remember?"

Lucas looked quizzical. "I did?"

"Yep, down like a sack of potatoes."

Gillian took hold of Lucas' wrist, placing her finger on his pulse point. "How are you feeling now?" she asked.

"Tired, sorta out of it. A little confused, I guess."

"Well that's understandable. A fever will do that to you." She let go of his wrist. "I'll leave you alone to get dry. Jim, point me to the clean sheets, I'll changed Lucas' bed."

Jim appreciated the gesture. "In the linen cupboard, at the end of the hall."

Waiting until the bathroom door was closed, Jim asked, "You okay with me helping you?" He hadn't relinquished his grip on Lucas, certain that if he did let go, the boy would topple over.

When Lucas agreed, Jim began to towel the moisture from his hair. He moved quickly, drying the kid's arms, legs and torso. The last remaining obstacle was Lucas' wet boxers.

He helped Lucas to stand, wrapping a towel firmly around his waist. Certain that he was completely covered, he helped Lucas pull them off. "Bedtime," he said, wrapping his arm around the kid's waist.

By the time they entered the room, Gillian had the bed stripped, fresh linen in place. "Boxers?" she asked.

"Top drawer on the right," Jim replied.

Removing the underwear, she handed it to Jim. "I'll wait outside."

"Jim, I need to sit." Lucas was starting to get the wobbles.

"Nearly there, kiddo. Let's just get these on," Jim said, referring to the boxers in his hand. He steadied Lucas, guiding the boy's hand to his shoulder. "You hold on while I slip these over your feet." He placed Lucas' other hand on the top of the towel to keep it in place. There was no mistaking the white-knuckle grip Lucas had on the towel.

Lucas lifted one leg without incident, allowing Jim to slide the boxers over one foot. Lifting the second leg, the teenager lost his balance. He grabbed hold of Jim with both hands to stop himself from falling. As he did so, the towel slipped from his fingers and tumbled to the ground.

As Lucas lost his balance, Jim moved from his haunches to his knees, his hands shifting to Lucas' waist. For a split second, he found himself kneeling in front of the kid, in a very compromising position; his hands around Lucas' waist, his face inches away from the boy's naked front. In urgent haste, he acted. Letting go of Lucas, he stood, yanking up the boxers.

Completely dumbfounded, he was unsure of what to do next. Common sense told him to step back, to move completely away from Lucas. Instinct told him to grab hold of the boy and hold on tight and not let go. Instinct won. One hand came to rest on Lucas' shoulder, the other hand moved swiftly to the back of the kid's neck. He tightened his grip, forcing Lucas to look at him. "God kid, I am so sorry. It was an accident, you gotta believe me. I was only trying to stop you from falling." Lucas' eyes fixed on him and for a moment, time stood still. In less than a minute, he had the sickening feeling he had destroyed what had taken months to build. "Lucas, what happened... I swear I didn't mean it. I..."

"Jim," Lucas interrupted, putting on the best bravado he could muster. "It's okay. It wasn't your fault. I was the one who fell, the one who let go of the towel. You were only trying to help. Besides, it's only a dick. Nothing to get excited about, right?" Lucas' body began to shake, his body betraying his words. He diverted his eyes. "It's only a dick," he repeated. "A pretty spectacular one, I'll admit, but still just a dick." The shaking intensified. He tried to stop, but couldn't. His attempts to hide behind humour were futile. Jim'll now know just how fucked up I really am.

Jim cupped both sides of Lucas' face. He felt sickened by Lucas' reaction, appalled that he had played a major part in exacting this response. "Lucas, look at me." He shook the boy slightly. "You are safe here." Each word in his statement was emphasised. "You know that I would never, ever, touch you, don't you?" His eyes pleaded for the answer he wanted, the answer he needed to hear.

Lucas' eyes filled with sorrow. "I know... it's just that sometimes..." He faltered, his voice cracking. "They're just memories... they can't hurt me. They can't get through anymore... right?"

Without a moment of hesitation, Jim pulled Lucas into a firm hug and held him tight. "No, they can't, because I won't let them." For the second time that night, Lucas took refuge in Jim's strength, his love -- a love he so desperately wanted. A love that was unconditional and a love that asked for nothing in return; a love with no strings attached.

Feeling Lucas' body becoming heavier and heavier, Jim shifted to take the weight. "Bedtime, kiddo." With one last squeeze, he reluctantly released his grip on Lucas, lowering him to the mattress. The boy immediately turned to his side, his arm snaking under the pillow.

Jim pulled up the cotton sheet and pushed back Lucas' hair. Leaning down he placed a kiss, unashamedly, on his brow. "You are part of this family, kid. I don't want you to ever forget that."

As Jim turned to leave the room, Lucas whispered. "That's all I ever really wanted."

Jim practically bowled over Gillian Francis as she came down the hall with an armful of wet towels, his mind elsewhere.

"Hey, I'm sorry," he apologised, reaching out to steady her.

"Well, at least the bathroom floor's dry," she quipped.

"You didn't have to clean up in there," Jim said, relieving her of the towels.

"I figured I might as well make myself useful while I waited. Besides, I'm sure if I stand still, I'll fall asleep on my feet."

"I'm sorry about dragging you all the way out here."

"It's part of the job description."

"Yeah, well, I appreciate it anyway. He seems to be doing a lot better."

"I don't think his temperature will spike again. Just keep up four-hourly doses of Tylenol, and make sure he drinks plenty of fluids. If he starts to get hot again, cool compresses should do the job."

Jim looked at the weary doctor's face. "Can I get you a cup of coffee?"

She looked at her watch. "I'd love to say yes, but I still have two more house calls to make." Stifling a yawn, she said, "I'll take a quick look at him before I leave, and I'll drop by tomorrow afternoon."

"Thanks." Jim reached out and gently squeezed her hand. "Thank you for everything."

"You're welcome," Gillian replied with a slight smile. "You're very welcome."

Securing the front door behind the doctor, Jim waited until Gillian's car headed down the driveway before turning off the porch light. Leaning against the door, he scrubbed his hand over his face, wondering where Simon had gotten to. A twinge of guilt surfaced for what Simon had been put through tonight. It wasn't Lucas' fault, the kid was delirious, but still, he felt for Simon. He had born the brunt of Lucas' solicitation and accusations, as well as the kid's physical rage. Pushing himself off the door, he was sure an apology was in order.

Experimenting, Jim, opened his hearing, trying to locate Banks. As he did, images and sounds flashed through his mind. Sounds of Lucas pleading, asking for sex, so his father wouldn't be mad. Begging to be taken, so his little brother could sleep peacefully. Jim's world became hazy, the sounds around him muffled, dulled. The room started to spin, and a kaleidoscope of colours appeared before his eyes. He reached out, grasping the banister to stop himself from falling and struggled to stay both conscious and upright.

In a small room at the end of the hall, a little boy stirred. A large hand came to rest on the top of his head, in an effort to lull the youngster back to sleep. A shadowy figure stood in the corner of the room, keeping watch over the youngest of his guides. Your Sentinel must learn, little one. He has been given a power, which he has not embraced. He must grow. You both must grow. The shadow drew closer to the bed. But not tonight, little one. Tonight you will rest. Tonight your sentinel must travel this path alone.

Simon shivered against a sudden chill. "Why is it so cold in here?" he muttered, pulling up the blankets to cover Blair's chin. "Remind me to talk to your dad about the heating, Squirt," he whispered.

In another corner of the room, a jaguar appeared. It paced the length of the small room, turning to snarl at the Chopec spirit.

"You will not interfere, Mischi Misi."

The cat stood its ground, giving Incacha a superior glare, before fading away.

I think that perhaps the animal spirits do need to be leashed, little one. Incacha said. He leaned down, closer to Blair. Till we meet again.

The large feline bounded down the stairs, materializing fully by the time it reached the bottom. It pounced on Ellison, knocking him to the ground. The sentinel came back to reality the same way he'd landed on the floor -- with a thud. The gentle light that bathed the room was as intense as staring directly into the sun. The crackling sound of the fire in the next room bounced through his skull like firestorm, blazing its way across the forest. Jim shut his eyes and clamped his hands hard over his ears.

All the while, the black jaguar kneaded his chest, its claws extending and retracting against his sweater. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe and just when he thought he was going to pass out, a sense of calm descended. Colours filtered back to normal, one by one beneath his closed lids. His hearing leveled out, slowly and methodically. He cracked open his eyes to be greeted by the reason for the heavy feeling on his chest.

"You know what, cat?" he wheezed. "I think I'm beginning to like you." Bagheera purred, rubbing its large head against his chin. "Now hang on, don't get carried away," Jim breathed, pushing it away, "I said, 'beginning to like'. It doesn't necessarily mean I do like you." He attempted to sit up. "You wouldn't care to move, would you? I mean you're not exactly a lightweight here, Sylvester." As soon as the cat leapt off his torso, the sentinel rubbed his chest. "You know, I think I liked it better when I couldn't feel you." Grasping the stair railing, Jim pulled himself to his feet and the cat disappeared. "I guess all is right with the world," he mumbled. Taking a shallow breath and testing his ribs, he dismissed what had just happened and trudged up the stairs.

The sentinel, once again, had ignored what the spirit world was trying to tell him. He had once again closed his eyes to what he was meant to see.

"Hey!" Jim exclaimed quietly, locating Simon in Blair's bedroom. "You alright?"

Simon spoke, never once diverting his gaze. "He laughed."

Jim smiled, moving closer to the bed. "I know, he does that a lot."

Simon looked up at Jim. "You're a lucky man, Jim." He glanced back at Blair. "I miss this."

Jim stayed silent, giving Simon the room to talk. "I used to watch Daryl sleep, you know. In fact, I probably spent more time with him when he was asleep than while he was awake. I never seemed to make it home before bedtime. The job, well, you know what it's like. Before I even knew it, my baby was a little boy... and then he was gone. Every second weekend, Jim. That's no way to have a relationship with your kids. I hardly know him. I hardly know my own son."

Jim squeezed his best friend's shoulder. "Daryl loves you, Simon."

"I could have done better by him. I should have done better."

Simon got to his feet. "Don't make the same mistake I did, Jim. Cherish every moment."

Two men stood silently, shoulder to shoulder, both reflecting on the mistakes made in their lives. One commiserating for the mistake of not giving time to the one he loved the most. The other man rejoicing in his mistake -- his greatest mistake -- his son.

Blair's lips twitched, a distinctive laugh escaping again, causing both men to smile. "He's gonna make it, you know."

"I know," Jim whispered.

"I only hope that Lucas can laugh one day," Simon added.

"He will," Jim assured. "You just wait and see." Jim slapped Simon on the back. "How's the chin?"

Simon moved his jaw from side to side. "Sore. That kid sure packs a wallop."

"You don't have to tell me," Jim chuckled. "Hey, Simon, I'll tell you what. Once he's better, why don't I hold him down and you can beat him up?"

Simon huffed at Jim's suggestion. "Like you'd be able to hold that boy down for more than a couple of minutes."

Jim grinned. "You're probably right. But you tell Lucas I said that and I'll deny every word."

"Remember those days, Jim? When we were young and invincible?"

"You suggesting we're getting old, Simon?"

"Not old, just mellow."

Jim laughed at the look on Simon's face. "Well come on, my mellow friend, coffee's hot and I've got a feeling it's gonna be a long night."

Before following Jim out of the room, Simon bent down and placed a kiss on Blair's head. "Sweet dreams, Squirt."

Jim was right. It was a long night. Lucas' temperature fluctuated several times, casting the boy in and out of delirium. Jim sat vigil by his bed, bathing scorching skin until it cooled and vanquishing the demons that played with the teenager's mind.

Shifting to find a comfortable position in the armchair by Lucas' bed, Jim was brought fully awake by a restless moan. Lucas' pain-filled eyes stared out at him. "Hey, kiddo," he soothed. "What's wrong?"

"My back... my scar." Lucas curled himself into a ball to try and alleviate some off the pain.

"Just hang on, I'll go get the heating pad." He'd given Lucas a dose of Tylenol only an hour before and was reluctant to give him any more. The kid had suffered from back pain a couple of times in the past, and a heated pad usually helped to ease it.

At the room at the end of the hall, Blair woke suddenly. He scampered out of bed. There was something wrong, and he needed to find out what it was. He didn't bother with his slippers as he left his room. First, he peeked into his father's room, only to find it empty, the bed still made. He moved down the hall to the spare room. Uncle Simon was snoring softly. His last stop, Lucas' room. This was the reason why he was awake.

Lucas was curled up in the middle of the bed, whimpering softly and Blair wasted no time. "Lucas, what wrong?" he asked, clambering up onto the bed.

"My back." Lucas winced again as another pain hit.

Blair crawled under the sheet behind the teenager, wrapping his arm as far as it would go around Lucas' waist.

In no time at all, Lucas' rigid body relaxed a little. He could feel the pressure of Blair against his back and like a soothing balm cooling heated, scorched skin, he could feel the pain melt away. By the time Jim returned to the bedroom, Lucas was on the edge of sleep and so was Blair. Jim shook his head. "I'd really love it if someone would fill me in on what's going on around here," he whispered. He moved to the other side of the queen-sized bed, and sat down on the mattress. He pulled the quilt up so it covered Blair. "My guess is you know more than you let on, Chief," he said, running his fingers through his sleeping son's hair.

Dog-tired, Jim plumped up the pillow and lay down beside Blair. The minute he closed his eyes, he too was asleep. His boys, both his boys, were safe and for the time being, that was all that mattered.

Fit and healthy and raring to go, Jessie had come back to save the day. With only five days until Christmas, Jim couldn't take any more time off work. He'd managed to wangle the week off over Christmas, and it was impossible to stretch this out. Jessie insisted on nursing Lucas back to health, and her love and attention, plus a few old fashioned remedies, seemed to be doing the trick.

"Daddy's home," Blair said, scooting down from the stool in the kitchen. He was flourishing with all the extra attention he was getting from Jessie. Together they had made Christmas decorations for the house, baked fruitcake and Christmas pudding for Christmas Day, and had wrapped up all of the presents. Not including the ones Santa was bringing, of course.

"Jessie, Jessie, Joel is here," he said, peeking out the living room window. "Are you staying for dinner?" he asked excitedly.

"Well, I know you three men have big appetites, but I don't think you'll be able to eat all of that roast lamb and potatoes by yourself."

Jim and Joel entered the house via the door that led from the garage. "Joel," Blair exclaimed, crashing into his legs.

"Hey, Blair," Joel laughed, picking up the youngster. "You know, I think your dad better get you out of that habit before you get any taller."

Blair looked confused as Jim laughed. "Maybe you should start wearing some protection," he teased, as he grabbed at Blair. "Where's my cuddle, Munchkin?"

"Now, now, Jim, don't be greedy," he responded, pushing Jim away. "Adopted grandfathers have rights, too, you know."

Joel encased Blair in a huge bear hug. "You're good enough to eat," he teased.

Blair giggled, squirming away from the big man. "Jessie and I made Christmas pudding today. It got a penny in it and lots and lots of brandy. But Jessie sayed we won't get drunked."

Jessie emerged from the dining room and Joel placed a kiss on her cheek. "You've been cooking your sinful Christmas pudding, I hear."

"Like you'd have it any other way, my dear," she answered.

"You've got that right, woman."

Jessie smacked Joel with the kitchen towel she was carrying. "Don't you woman me, old man," she admonished playfully.

"Thanks for taking care of the boys today, Jess," Jim said, bending down to give her a kiss on the cheek.

"Well, if it means getting kisses from two handsome men when they arrive home, I'd do it all the time."

Joel put Blair back down on the ground. "Into the kitchen with you, woman," he teased. "I'm a hungry man."

"Joel Taggart, you could go for a month without food, and you'd still survive," she retorted.

Jim picked up Blair, giving him a kiss on the cheek. "Where's Lucas?"

"He on the sofa. He asleep again." Blair's voice sounded somewhat despondent.

"Well I hope you haven't been annoying him. He needs all the sleep he can get if he's going to get better."

"I know and that what Jessie sayed. But he not even stayed awake when we watched The Lion King, daddy, and that his favourite."

"Well, Junior, you're just going to have to be patient. You don't want Lucas to be still sick on Christmas Day, do you?"

Blair shook his head. "Nope, 'cause then he won't be able to play with all the presents Santa brings him."

"That's right," Jim replied. He'd been in a quandary as to what to buy Lucas for Christmas. He wanted to make the boy feel just as much as part of the family as Blair, but he didn't want to overdo it. Lucas was still uncomfortable with the fact that Jim was supporting him and had even wanted to quit school and get a job to earn his keep. Jim had put a halt to that idea immediately, agreeing that Lucas could get a part-time job. Still, stocking shelves at the local supermarket didn't pay that much, and he knew Lucas wasn't one hundred percent comfortable with the fact that he couldn't support himself. He hoped that the gifts he had bought would be suitable.

Wandering into the living room, Jim shook Lucas gently awake. 'I Dream of Jeanie' was blaring from the television, Lucas oblivious to its racket. "Hey, Lump, dinner's nearly ready." Jim waited for the boy to emerge from his slumber. "You up to sitting at the table, or would you rather me make you up a plate for in here?"

Lucas rubbed his eyes, taking a minute to get his bearings. He pushed himself off the mound of pillows and stared at Jim. "What, food and sofa. Now there's two words you don't usually hear without a 'no' in front."

"Hey, so shoot me. I'm in a good mood." Lucas moved his legs, and Jim sat down next to him. "You're looking a lot better. How do you feel?"

"Good. A little tired still, but a lot better."

"How's the cough?"

"It's good."

"That not true, Lucas, you coughed up all spit today." Blair bounced, excited to share his news. "It was green, Daddy!"

Lucas captured Blair with his legs, trapping him there. "My own personal little lie detector."

"I not lie," Blair looked at Lucas with a disgruntled expression. He squeezed out from between Lucas' knees and headed out the French doors toward the kitchen.

"Hey," yelled Lucas after him. "You still love me?"

Blair could never stay mad, especially not at Lucas. He turned back, giving Lucas one of his brilliant smiles. "All-a-time," he said.

"I guess I should know better," Lucas said, as Blair skipped out of the room. "I mean, between a sentinel and a three-year-old, I've got no hope."

Jim patted the teenager's knee. "Nope, no hope at all."

He dipped his feet into the river, upsetting the natural flow. The water swirled around his legs before continuing its journey downstream. The river was cold, so cold that he could no longer feel his toes, but it did nothing to cool him down. He was hot, too hot. His chest felt heavy, the air around him stifling and he had trouble drawing breath into his lungs. The surface of the water broke, erupting like a sulphur pool and long fingers curled around his ankle. He fought, but the grip was too strong. His body slid on the wet grass, his fingers clawed at the earth. The ground offered nothing to save him. He was dragged down into the frigid depths. His lungs no longer drew in air. He struggled hard, but he was losing the fight. He was dying.

No sooner had his ordeal begun, than it ended. The iron-like hold on his ankle was released and he was propelled upwards; up towards the air, up towards life. He broke the surface, gasping for air. He was no longer in the river. He was standing in the middle of a long, tiled room. The glare of the light as it bounced off the stark white floor made him squint. An angry voice behind him caused him to swing around. "I told you not to get any fucking water on the floor, didn't I?" A child whimpered. "Don't start sniveling, you little bastard." A hand came down and latched onto the child's thin arm. It shook the small frame violently. "Who's gonna clean this up?" The hand released its grip and the child fell backward, hitting its head on the side of the bath. "Me, that's who. I'm the only one who does anything around here. You and your mother ain't worth a pile of shit." The child let out a strangled sob. "I'm warning you, Blairboy. You start crying on me and I'll give you a beating you won't forget." "Blair," he mouthed. "Oh god, Blair." He tried to move forward, but his feet wouldn't cooperate. "Get away from him!" he tried to shout. His mouth formed the words, but no sound came out. "Get away! You touch him and I'll kill you. I swear I'll kill you." His feet found their grip on the tiles and he rushed forward, but the faster he moved, the further away the child shifted. He broke into a run, but he couldn't close the distance. Blair was moving further and further out of his reach. The faceless figure standing over the bath turned to look at him. "You're too late, boy," it snarled. "He's mine. Blairboy has always belonged to Tom." The figure grabbed the child by the hair and shoved him down into the cold water. A scream filled the room, losing its intensity as the water filled the child's mouth, flooding his tiny lungs.

He fell to the ground, his knees smashing against the hard tiles, "No," he screamed. "No... please, no." The splashing stopped, the struggling had ceased. The figure looked up, but this time it was no longer faceless. It was the face of a man he would never forget. "Robert?" he choked out. Dark eyes smiled at him. "You're mine, Lucas. You'll always belong to me." It reached into the tub and lifted up the cold, lifeless body of the small child. "And so will he." The figure approached, laying the cold, naked body of the child in his arms. He hugged the tiny body fiercely to his chest. "Please breathe... please breathe," he pleaded. The figure knelt in front of him. "You're too late, Lucas." It ran its cold, clammy fingers through his hair. "Just like you were too late to save your brother." The figure pulled his head forward and pressed its lips to his. "And just like you're too late for Blair." It plunged its tongue into his mouth, kissing him deeply. He choked on the kiss as it cut off his airway. His heart pounded and his chest burned. He couldn't breathe. He was dying.

Lucas felt his body being lifted, but could do nothing to stop it. His head landed against a solid chest and before he knew it his face was pushed upward and the taste of plastic filled his mouth. "Deep breath," a voice commanded. He complied with the order, sucking in deeply and trying to fill his lungs. A bitter tang flooded over his taste buds and he tried to remove the tube with his tongue. "No," the voice said. "Another breath. Take another breath, son." Another puff of medication was forced into his lungs. A hand rubbed his back, small circles giving comfort, but it could not compare to the comfort of one single word. The word 'son.' Tears welled in his eyes and he latched on to the man who had become his saviour. He turned his head, trying to bury himself in the man's strength. "I saw it, Jim," he breathed out in a ragged breath. "I saw Tom, I saw Robert. Blair's dead. I couldn't help him... I couldn't save him."

Jim tightened his grip. He massaged the teenager's back, trying to get the boy to slow down his breathing. He could feel Lucas' lungs wheeze as they struggled to take in oxygen. "It was only a dream, Lucas, just a dream. Blair's fine," he soothed, unconsciously rocking back and forth.

Lucas pushed himself away suddenly. "No he's not!" he blurted in panic. "I held him in my arms. He was so cold, Jim, he was so cold," he choked out.

"Lucas, listen to me." Jim took hold of the boy's shoulders. "It was just a bad dream. It wasn't real. Blair has gone Christmas shopping with Joel and Jessie. He's only just left. Nothing has happened to him, Lucas. Blair is safe."

Lucas shook his head, unconvinced. "Send the animal spirits... please Jim, send Bagheera."

"They're already with him, kiddo." Jim brushed back Lucas' sweaty hair. "You know those two. They're always tagging along after him." As much as Jim complained about having the jaguar and wolf pup around the house all the time, he was comforted by the fact that the pair very rarely let his son out of their sight.

"Are you sure?"

"Positive." Jim rubbed Lucas' arm. "That must have been some dream you had. You wanna talk about it?"

Lucas shrugged. "No... I don't know... maybe later."

Jim could see that Lucas was struggling to get himself under control. He studied the teenager closely. His breathing was beginning to ease as the medication was starting to do its job. His chest was starting to relax and he was no longer gasping for air.

Bronchitis had knocked Lucas around pretty badly for the past few days. A nebuliser had been prescribed to help open his distressed airways and, combined with various antibiotics and a homemade chest rub, Lucas' body was starting to win the battle over the ailment. This attack had been his first in two days.

Jim leaned over and adjusted several pillows against the headboard of Lucas' bed. "Here, lay back." He picked up the bottle of chest rub from the bedside table. "You wanna lift up your shirt?"

"Do I have to?" Lucas complained. "That stuff stinks worse than a dead cat."

"You say that in front of Jessie and that's how you just might end up, kid. She went to a lot of trouble to concoct this for you."

"Concoct is exactly the right word," Lucas grumbled, lifting up his t-shirt.

Jim smiled, pouring the oil out onto his palm. If Lucas was grumbling, then it was a positive sign. He knew that the nightmare had affected the kid, but when it came to showing his emotions, Lucas always managed to quickly cover up what he was really feeling. The behaviour was a defence mechanism, and it was one that the boy had obviously become an expert in using. Jim hoped that, given time, Lucas would no longer feel the need to resort to it.

Ellison warmed his hands and massaged the oil into the teenager's smooth chest. He could feel the sturdy muscles beneath his hands as he worked the area around Lucas' ribcage. "When did you have broken ribs?" he asked, feeling a definite misalignment of bones.

"A long time ago," Lucas answered casually

"How did it happen?"

The boy smirked. "I wasn't quick enough."

Jim knew Lucas well enough to know the kid had just given him all the information he was going to get. He finished the massage and pulled down Lucas' shirt. "You hungry?"

"Does a bear shit in the woods?"

Suppressing a laugh, Jim cuffed Lucas lightly across the top of the head. "I see that private school is doing amazing things for your vocabulary." He lifted himself off the side of the bed. "There's an old classic on the movie channel if you're up to it. 'Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street'."

"Sounds cool... kinda Christmassy."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "Don't tell me you've never seen it?" He suddenly regretted his words. "I'll go rustle up some soup and sandwiches and meet you downstairs. If you promise to be a good little boy, I might even let you eat in the living room."

"Hey, Jim," Lucas said, as the older man made his way out of the room. "How did you know I had broken ribs?"

"I could feel it."

"You could? Dude, that's so totally awesome."

Jim tapped the doorframe. "Yeah, totally." The tone of his voice didn't quite match his words. "I'll see you downstairs."

Lucas threw his legs over the edge of the bed. He sat for a moment, pulling in a few more deep breaths. He was still shaken by his nightmare. It had been so lifelike, so real. Easing himself off the bed, he made his way to the bathroom, and ran his mouth under the faucet, trying to rid his tongue of a strong peppermint taste. Memories suddenly came flooding back. He swallowed hard, resisting the urge to throw up. The taste... it was the taste of his uncle. It was a taste he knew far too well.

This was one dream he would be keeping as close to his chest as he could. He'd already revealed too much and his problems were a burden Jim definitely didn't need.

Blair sat in his bedroom, quietly turning the pages of a new book that Uncle Simon had bought for him when he was sick. Rahma sat close by his side, chewing a decent sized hole in a sock he'd found under the bed. Blair had tried earlier to get the pup to let go, without success. He'd given up, thinking that if he put it back under the bed, his father would never find it and would never see the big hole that had been chewed in the end. He turned over the page, his eyes lingering on a picture that disturbed him. He showed the picture to Rahma. "Why is Santa in the little boy's room?" The pup licked his face before going back to its task of total sock annihilation. Blair slammed the book shut. "I not want Santa to come in my room." Old fears resurfaced and he looked uneasily toward the door, just in case. Grabbing the book and a box of crayons, he opened the door of his closet. Pushing some toys out of the way, he squirmed back into the corner, as far as he could go. Opening the book, he emptied the crayons, shaking them onto the floor. "I not want you come to my house." He picked up the black crayon and started to erase Santa from the page. Harder and harder he pressed, until Santa was covered. A tear dribbled down his cheek, landing on the page, smearing the black mess. He had been so looking forward to Christmas, but now he was just scared. He couldn't let Santa come, he wouldn't. He thought hard for a moment, pulling Rahma onto his knee and burying his face in the pup's fur. He needed to be bad, naughty enough for Santa to take his name off the list. Daddy would be cross, but he would still love him, wouldn't he? His daddy had told him that he would never give him away, no matter how naughty he was. With his arms tightly around the wolf pup's neck, he used his sleeve to wipe his nose. But if he was bad enough for Santa to hate him, then maybe his daddy would, too.

Tucked away in the corner of his closet, the little boy cried himself to sleep.

Jim pushed open the door with his foot, dumping the load of firewood in the basket by the wall. He tried opening his hearing and listening for his son, finding that when he focused on Blair, he had the most success. He became curious with the silence in the house. It was unusual not to hear any sound coming from the three-year-old. Blair was a child who could easily keep himself occupied, but he never did it quietly. Even when playing by himself, he still chattered, sang songs, or generally made a noise. Peace and quiet was something that only occurred after seven o'clock, when the youngster was tucked snugly in bed. Jim walked through the kitchen and into the living room. Lucas was lying on the sofa, watching something on the sports channel. "Hey, you seen Blair?" he asked.

Lucas let out a deep, chesty cough. "He was here for a little while. I think he went up to his room to get a book."

Jim bounded up the stairs. The rhythmic sound of a heartbeat became clearer the nearer he came to Blair's bedroom. "Hey, Munchkin, what're you doing?" he asked, coming into the room. It took no time for him to locate the youngster. "Blair?" He opened the wardrobe door fully. Partly obscured by soft toys, Blair was tucked away in the corner, fast asleep, Rahma snuggled into the warmth of his body. "What are you two up to?" Jim asked, shooing away the pup. He pushed the toys away, scooping Blair up into his arms. A crayon fell from the boy's hand, landing with a soft thud onto a book. "I guess it's nap time," he whispered, carrying Blair over to the bed. Blair shifted once, turning on his side, before snuggling down into the blankets. Walking back over to the wardrobe, Jim picked up the crayons before they stained the carpet. He also picked up the book that Simon had bought Blair, casually flipping through the pages, but halting when the graffiti on the page caught his eye.

Stunned, he stared at the page. Blair had never done anything like this before. He was always careful with his toys, especially his books. He loved being read to, and the youngster treasured every one of his books. Jim couldn't quite comprehend what would make him destroy a book.

Determined to find out, he took the book downstairs and confronted Lucas. "Lucas, did you know about this?" He couldn't quite hide the accusation in his voice or quell the slight feeling of resentment he felt in knowing that Blair confided in Lucas more often than he did in him.

Lucas sat up straight. "No, why should I?"

"Has Blair mentioned to you that he's worried about anything? I mean, it's a book. He'd never do this without a reason."

Lucas shook his head. "He hasn't said a word. In fact, I thought he'd been really happy lately. Kinda settled. I know he's been looking forward to Christmas."

Jim sank down on the sofa. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

"Why don't you just ask him why he did it?" Lucas paused, his hand coming up to his mouth in an effort to block the bout of coughing he could feel building. His attempt was unsuccessful, the cough barked out painfully.

Jim shrugged his shoulders and left the couch. Lucas always seemed to come up with the most direct, logical answers when it came to Blair. "I'll get you some cough medicine," he said, putting the book down on the coffee table. Whatever the reason was, it would have to wait until Blair woke up.

The minute Blair opened his eyes he knew what he needed to do. Throwing back the covers, he picked up the box of crayons, which were now sitting neatly on his desk. Padding quietly, he snuck into his father's room. Taking out his crayons, he started to scribble. He didn't want to draw. He just wanted to scribble. By the time he had finished, the section of wall under the window was covered by a multi-coloured artwork of crayon. "Stay away from my house," he said, sitting back to look at the mess. Picking up the box, he squashed the crayons through the lid, heading for his next target: Lucas' room.

Placing a pile of folded laundry on his bed, it didn't take long for Ellison to discover the newly decorated wall. "What the..." He poked his head through Blair's bedroom door, only to find him missing. Heading down the hall, he found Lucas in his room, sitting on his bed. "Hey, do you know where Blair is?" he asked.

Lucas didn't answer him. The teenager was motionless, his head hung low, a photograph held loosely in his hands -- it was the only photo he had of his brother.

Jim moved into room. "You seen Blair?" he asked again. Lucas still didn't answer, his gaze frozen on the picture, making Jim glance down as well.

Just like the wall in his room, the photograph was covered with scribble, both faces erased with a layer of crayon. Jim plucked the photo from Lucas' hand, now determined to find out what could have driven the Blair to do such a thing. "Blair!" he shouted, leaving the room. His voice came out louder and angrier than he intended.

Blair's whole body jumped when he heard his name and a familiar sensation raced through his body. "It not Tom," he told himself. An image flashed though his mind. A hand slapped his face, a fist punched his stomach. His pants were pulled roughly down and he was dragged over a knee. His mother sat huddled in the corner, not moving. Hard slaps rained down on his bare backside and he lost control of his bladder. He didn't remember anything after that. The small child's breath hitched as the memory threatened to consume him. "No," he said loudly, trying to convince himself. "It not Tom, it's daddy... daddy won't hit me. He promise. Daddy not never hurt me." He stood in the middle of the kitchen, his body visibly shaking with the sound of approaching footsteps.

"You care to tell me why you did this?" Jim asked, coming to a standstill and towering over his son. "You know how important this photo is to Lucas."

Blair didn't answer; he just looked up as his father, his big blue eyes full of fear.

"Well?" Jim demanded, crossing his arms. "I'm waiting." The sound of Blair's frightened heart suddenly pounded loudly in his ears and he looked closely down at his son. Blair was visibly shaking. "Chief," he said, bending down, his voice now full of concern.

Frightened by his father's sudden movement, Blair instinctively backed up, hitting the sideboard. A china plate toppled off its stand, smashing to the ground.

"Jim!" Lucas yelled as he came barreling into the room at great speed. He placed himself in front of Blair. "It doesn't matter. It's not important. He didn't know what he was doing."

Jim kept his voice low and even. "Lucas move away." He looked up at the youth. "You know damn well I am not going to hurt him!"

In his heart, Lucas did know that Jim would never hurt Blair. His actions were purely fear-based. Slowly he moved to the side, giving Jim a clear view of the frightened boy huddled against the wall.

"Blair, baby. I'm not mad," Jim began. "And I'm sorry that I scared you." He opened his arms. "Come here, sweetheart." Please baby, please come to daddy.

Blair moved hesitantly toward his father. "You not hit me?"

"Do you think I will, Chief? Do you think daddy would ever hit you?"

"No," Blair whispered. He took off and ran towards his father, diving into his arms. "I sorry, daddy. I sorry I was bad."

"Shhh, shhh, it's okay baby, it's okay," Jim comforted, holding his son tightly. The reason for why Blair scribbled on the wall and destroyed Lucas' photo could wait. Now was not the time.

Blair pushed back from his father, "No, it not okay. I need to be bad, daddy. I need to be bad." Mucus ran from his nose and tears smudged his face.

"Why, Chief?" Jim asked, not understanding.

Blair stamped his foot in frustration. "'Cause I not want him to come. I not want him in my room. He won't come if I bad."

"Blair, sweetheart, nobody will come into your room. I won't let them." Jim sat on the floor with Blair standing between his legs. Lucas had moved closer and was now on the floor, just behind the three-year-old.

"Yes he will!" Blair shouted hysterically.

"Who, Blair, who will come?" Jim asked. He had a feeling Blair wasn't talking about Tom.

"Santa," Blair sobbed. "He will come into my room. You not stop him, daddy 'cause he magic." Blair moved back, bumping into Lucas, but Jim still had a firm grip on his son's hands. "I not want him to come, daddy." His voice hiccupped, becoming incoherent with heavy sobs. "I not want him to pull my pants down."

The sentinel reacted immediately to his guide's distress, as did the guardian. Lucas wrapped his arms around Blair from behind and Jim moved forward, engulfing not only his son, but Lucas as well.

The circle of protection was complete. The Guide was safe.

Jim sat watching his son. Busy little fingers were delving deep into an empty mug of hot chocolate, scooping out the gooey remains of a marshmallow. An occasional shudder still ran through the little boy's body, his eyes still puffy and red from crying. He smiled up at his father; traces of dried tears had left their mark on his face. Fine lines snaked down his cheeks, washing away the evidence of a hard day's play. "It all gone now," he stated, licking the sticky mess off his fingers. He clambered down from the chair, his work in the kitchen complete, another part of the house now needing his attention.

"Hold up a minute there, partner," Jim said, catching the youngster before he could make an escape. "I think you and I need to have a little talk." Jim scooped Blair up in his arms, seating him on the kitchen table so his son was facing him. He needed to talk to Blair and he needed to see his face while he was doing it. Jim pulled the kitchen chair closer to the table, Blair's dangling legs nearly touching his chest.

"I sayed I was sorry," Blair said quietly.

"I know you did, Chief. That's not what I want to talk to you about."

"It not?"

"Well, maybe a little bit. What I wanted to talk to you about is you coming to me when you have a problem, about you not worrying about things all by yourself. Why didn't you tell me you were scared of Santa?"

Blair hesitated. "'Cause then you would knowd."

"Know what, Munchkin?"

"Knowd about Tom."

"Why don't you want me to know about Tom?" Jim pushed, gently.

"'Cause you will get sad about it." Blair answered quietly.

"Sweetheart, it's not your job to protect me. That's my job. It's what fathers do. I already know what Tom did to you, Chief, you don't have to protect me any longer."

"How come you not take me away from Tom, daddy? How come you not stop him when he hurt me?" Blair wiped his nose on his sleeve. "When Tom comed into my room, I cried and cried. Mama wouldn't come. Why didn't you come, daddy?"

Jim's heart fell to the floor, shattering into a million pieces. The guilt of not protecting his son was one he would carry around for the rest of his life. He would never forgive himself for letting his only child suffer the way he had. His eyes filled with tears, and he tried to hold them back. He didn't want Blair to see him cry.

Taking a deep breath, Jim pulled himself together. "Chief, remember when I told you that babies are made when two people love each other?'

"Ah, ha," Blair replied, taking a sniff.

Jim grabbed a tissue from the box on the table and wiped his son's nose. "Well, sometimes a baby is made and the daddy doesn't always know. Sometimes the mother and father don't love each other and they go their separate ways."

"You and mama not loved each other?"

"No baby, we didn't. And the sad thing about this is that I didn't even know about you. I didn't know I had a son until your mama left you at my door. You have to believe me, Munckin; if I'd had any idea about you, I would have come. I would have been there for you."

Blair reached out and stroked his father's cheek. Jim took hold of the perfect, tiny hand and pressed a kiss firmly into the palm. "I love you more than life itself, kiddo. Do you understand that?"

Blair nodded. He did understand. Nobody had ever loved him as much as his father did.

Jim squeezed Blair's hand gently. "Good, because there is something else I want to talk to you about. It's about your mother, Blair."

Blair heartbeat started to quicken. "It's okay," Jim comforted. "It's nothing bad, but it is important. Uncle Simon showed me a picture you drew for your mama. He told me you wanted to go and see her."

Blair nodded his head. "I not tell you, 'cause I think you still mad at mama."

"I'll be honest with you, Blair. Yes, I am still mad at your mother, but worse than that, I'm afraid." Jim looked at his son's puzzled expression. "I'm afraid that your mama will try and take you away and that I'll never see you again. I'm afraid of losing you, Blair."

Blair put out his arms to be lifted off the table. Jim complied, pulling the child onto his lap. The little boy snuggled deep into his father's chest. "You not have to be afraid, daddy, we got Lucas now."


"Ah ha, Lucas not let anything happen to me. Incacha sayed so. And he sayed that Bagheera visit mama. Incacha say that Bagheera goes so mama not be lonely, but I think he go 'cause he want to see where she is."

Jim pushed Blair back. "When were you talking to Incacha?"

"I talk to him all the time. He come and see me. Sometimes he bring the boy."

"What boy?" Jim asked.

"The boy in Lucas' picture."

Holy shit. Jim pushed Blair back. "Chief, you haven't told Lucas this, have you?"

"Nope, Incacha say I not 'llowed. I have to keep it a secret. Incacha says that these thing cannot be 'vealed until the time is right. He sayed that Lucas not ready."

"Well, that sounds like Incacha," Jim muttered.

"Daddy, can I make a card for mama for Christmas? I not have to give it to her. I can ask the mailman to take it to her."

"That sounds like an excellent idea, Chief," Jim replied, his mind now elsewhere.

"We finished our talk now?" Blair asked, squirming on his father's lap. "Can I go play?"

Jim kissed the curly mop. "Sure, Munchkin. Why don't you go and get out your blocks? Maybe we can build something together."

"Way cool," Blair squealed, wriggling off his father's knee. "Daddy," he said before he left. "Can I sleep in your bed when Santa comes?"

"Of course you can, baby. You only have to ask."

With Blair no longer in the room, Jim hissed. "Incacha, I know you can hear me, so I'll say this just once. You better let me know what's going on, because if you're planning anything that is remotely connected with either one of those boys, you better think twice. If you put us through another one of your so called tests, or 'paths to our destiny', or any other of your Indian witchcraft, I swear I'll kick your butt from here to the deepest jungles of Peru."

On the far wall of the kitchen, the Chopec warrior stood, unseen. Then you must learn, Sentinel, he said, unheard. You must embrace what you have been given. A war is waging, Enqueri and I cannot fight it alone.

Lucas walked down the stairwell, which led from the kitchen to the basement. A washing machine and dryer lined one wall, with the remaining space having been converted into a personal gymnasium. A punching bag strained on its chain, violent punches causing it to swing madly back and forth. He silently moved to capture the bag, holding it steady, his solid frame keeping it in place as the punches continued.

Jim wiped the sweat from his brow, exhausted both physically and emotionally.

"He's getting better, Jim," Lucas said quietly. "Chances are, when he's older, he won't even remember what happened to him."

"Explain it to me, Lucas," Jim said, taking hold of the other side of the bag. "Explain to me how a parent could let somebody hurt their child. Explain to me how Naomi could ignore what that bastard was doing to her son? Explain to me," he said angrily, "how she could sit there while he tortured her baby. A broken arm, fractured ribs, cigarette burns." He jabbed another hard punch into the bag. "How many times did that prick share a bed with my son? How many times did he...?" Jim still couldn't bring himself to say the word. He swung wildly at the bag, taking his rage and anger out on the punching bag. A punching bag that went by the name of Tom Walsh.

Mentally exhausted and physically spent, Jim steadied the bag, his head coming to rest on its beaten leather exterior. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean for you to see any of that."

Lucas released his grip on the bag and moved to stand next to Jim. "When Incacha killed Tom, did he make him suffer?"

Jim pushed back off the bag. The expression in his eyes gave Lucas his answer.

Satisfied, Lucas picked up a towel that had been flung over the weight set and handed it to Jim. "Blair will be wondering where I've got to." He made his way across to the stairs. "Jim, if you ever need to talk." Lucas turned around. "I understand how Blair feels. Maybe I can help?"

With the towel now around his shoulders, Jim walked over to Lucas. He wrapped his arm around the teenager's neck, pulling him close. "Come on, let's go and see what the brat's up to."

Lucas' arm snaked around Jim's waist as they trudged up the stairs. "Blair and I made dessert, if you're interested in some chocolate pudding."

"And of course you cleaned up the mess?"

Lucas smiled. "Of course." He pulled away, taking the last few stairs two at a time.

"Not," he laughed, ducking through the doorway.

By the time Jim made his way up the stairs and into the living room, Blair and Lucas were both focused on the cartoon channel. Jim smiled, taking comfort at the sight. Lucas was slouched on the sofa, with Blair snuggled up against him. They both let out a laugh at the antics of Wylie Coyote and the Road Runner. Jim moved over to the sofa, and bending down, placed a kiss on his son's head. "I'm gonna go take a shower."

"Good idea, you stink," Lucas said, trying to look around Jim's large frame, which was blocking his view of the television.

Jim lightly cuffed the youth across the top of his head. "Two words," he said. "Kitchen duty... It better be sparkling by the time I'm finished."

With his eyes still trained on the TV, Blair said. "That more than two words, daddy."

Jim groaned, leaving the room and the boys to their cartoon.

Ellison pulled into the parking lot outside Blair's daycare centre. "Come on, come on," he hissed impatiently. He'd made a mad dash from work to reach the centre by five. Being only two days before Christmas, the traffic on the road was a nightmare. He spotted a vacant spot toward the back and floored the accelerator. He was not going to miss out on the parking space; the event inside the centre was far too important. Screeching to a halt, he jumped out of the truck and ran toward the entrance.

Blair's classroom was abuzz with excitement. Colourful Christmas decorations adorned the walls and hung from the ceiling. A cardboard Christmas tree stood in the corner, its paper branches sagging under the weight of the children's artwork. Jim pushed his way through a crowd of parents and spotted his 'family', proudly sitting in the front row. He took a seat next to Lucas. "Did I miss anything?" he asked anxiously.

"Nope, the rugrats are still out the back."

"Hey Joel... Jessie. Thanks for getting Blair ready and picking Lucas up."

Jessie patted his knee. "You should see him, Jim. He looks absolutely gorgeous!" Jessie's face was shining with pride. There was no mistaking the fact that Blair was the joy of her life. She was Blair's surrogate grandmother and played an important part in his upbringing. Living in a house full of men, Jessie's role in the youngster's life was made even more significant. Having Jessie around gave Blair the experience of a female influence and, being retired, she had more than enough time to do the little, everyday things with the child that he would have otherwise missed out on. "Here they come, here they come," she said, barely containing her excitement as the side door opened.

A line of very hyperactive three-year-olds entered the classroom. Jim spotted Blair immediately and Jessie was right, his son was gorgeous. He knew that every parent probably thought their kids were cute, even if they were butt-ugly, but Blair was different. He was truly a stunning child. His face, which now always seemed to shine with mischief and life, was framed by a mass of beautiful chestnut curls. Add to that, a pair of intelligent, deep blue eyes and a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts, and you had the makings of one good-looking kid.

Jim smiled at the youngster as Blair gave him an enthusiastic wave. He was dressed in stripped stockings and a pixie-style green shirt that was tied at the waist with a vibrant red belt. On his feet he had pointy slippers, complete with bells. He beamed at Jim from under a bright green felt hat, then all of a sudden left the line and ran to this father. "I knowed you would be on time," he said, engulfing Jim in a big hug.

Jim returned the embrace. "I wouldn't miss this for the world, Munchkin."

"Look! I gotted bells on my toes," Blair said proudly, lifting up his foot so his father could see his shoes. "Jessie made them."

Jim reached out to steady Blair before he landed flat on his backside. "You better get back to your friends, Chief. I think they're about to start."

Blair looked over at the other children. Nicole was arranging them in lines on a makeshift stage. "Kiss first," he demanded. As Jim bent down to comply, Blair whispered. "Don't forget the crayons, daddy. Cody Johnson's brother sayed we are really bad singers. He sayed we sucked."

Before Jim could answer his son, Blair let go and scooted back over to the stage. He jumped up, taking his spot in the line with the other children.

Jim shifted on the hard plastic chair and scanned the audience behind him, wondering which kid was Cody Johnson's brother and where he could bury the body.

"Joel, Joel, come and look at my work." Without waiting for an answer, Blair grabbed Joel and dragged him over to where Jessie was sitting, flipping through one of his workbooks. Simon smiled, taking a sip of his lukewarm coffee. "Boy, this brings back memories," he said. "Cold coffee and stale cookies."

"Yep, doesn't get any better than this." Jim laughed, brushing crumbs off his jacket. "Thanks for coming, Simon. I didn't think you were gonna make it."

"Jim, I wouldn't have missed this for the world. I just told the chief that I had some pressing family business that I had to take care of. The man didn't really have a choice."

Lucas, who was standing next to Jim, nudged the older man's arm. "Look who else has turned up."

"You've gotta be kidding," Jim groaned.

"What?" Simon asked, turning his attention to where Lucas was indicating.

Sitting in the corner by the door was Bagheera and Rahma. Both pair of eyes were tracking children as they darted back and forth across the room.

"What?" Simon asked again.

"Old Macdonald's Farm has just arrived."

Still looking confused, Simon was about to question further, but Lucas interrupted him. "Hey, Jim, do you think that to a jaguar these kids kinda look like rabbits running across a field?"

"Easy prey, if you ask me," Jim joked, knowing full well that the animal spirits were just that -- spirits.

Lucas shrugged his shoulders "Anybody want some more coffee?" When nobody answered him, he moved away to refill his own cup.

Stunned and shocked, Simon grabbed the teenager by the sweater and dragged him back. "Have you lost you're mind?" he hissed. "Apparently we have two wild, potentially lethal animals in a room full of kids and you ask if anyone wants coffee? Did you leave your brain at home, boy?" Banks said, cuffing Lucas across the top of the head. Turning to address his detective, Simon lowered his voice. "Jim, what the hell is going on?"

"Simon, settle down, they're just spirits... visions. They're not exactly real and they don't eat."

"How come you can touch them, then?" Lucas asked.

"What?" Jim asked.

"If they were just spirits, you wouldn't be able to touch them. When they visualise, they aren't cold, Jim. They're warm, flesh and blood. And if they are flesh and blood, it only stands to reason that they gotta eat." Lucas leaned closer. "Seems to me that that chunky kid over there stuffing his face with cake would make a pretty good meal." He slapped Jim on the shoulder. "Now, anybody need a refill?"

A look of irritation crossed Jim's face. He excused himself from Simon, who looked like he was about to have an aneurism, and made a beeline for the corner of the room. He inconspicuously pulled up a chair and sat down next to the jaguar. Making a concerted effort not to look at the spirits, he leaned back on the chair. "Okay, fur balls," he groused, very quietly and very calmly. "I'll say this once and once only. This is not a panther picnic. Under no circumstances are you to chase, maim or make a snack out of any of the children in this room. In fact, you would make me an extremely happy Sentinel if you would just fade away, disappear... 'devisualise' or whatever it is you do. You're officially off duty, so vamoose." He gave the cat a quick glance and swore he could see a hint of a smile drift across the feline's face.

With a glint in its eye, the cat nudged the pup before disappearing and Jim placed his head in his hands. "Why me?" he groaned.

On the other side of the room, Lucas plucked another cookie from the plate on the table, a gratified smile appearing on his face. "Excellent work, cat," he snickered. His plan had succeeded perfectly -- Jim and Simon were so easy to get the better of sometimes.

"Daddy, daddy!" Blair shouted, coming over to him with Holly and her very pregnant mother in tow. "Holly sayed that I can come over and play at her house one day. This is Holly's mom," he said, taking hold of the woman's hand. "I told you she was this big."

"Blair!" Jim exclaimed. He could feel his face starting to flush with embarrassment. He was about to reprimand his son, but Blair and his partner in crime had already taken off, leaving him to face the woman alone. "I'm really sorry about that," he began, unsure of what to say next.

Katherine Ransley smiled, rubbing her protruding stomach. "Don't worry about it. If anything, I'd say that Blair was very observant. I swear I have a baby hippopotamus in here, not a child."

Jim and Katherine made polite conversation for a few minutes before Holly was back, demanding that her mother come and look at her artwork on the Christmas tree. Jim wandered back over to Lucas, Simon and Joel, feeling frazzled and worn out. He had loved every minute of the concert, hanging on every word his son sang, but socialising with other parents, and especially their children, was not his strong point.

"Okay, guys, time to formulate a plan. How do we get the Christmas Elf outta here without causing a major disturbance?"

"Easy," Lucas replied, helping himself to another large slice of chocolate cake. "Just tell Tinkerbell we're going out for pizza." He smiled at Jim. "It works for me."

Jim patted Lucas on the back. "I knew if I kept you around you'd come in handy for something." He threw the truck keys to Lucas. "Go warm up the truck. I'll go snatch the Elf."

In less than half an hour they were all seated in a quiet corner of Mario's Italian restaurant. Adult conversation flowed, along with a few well-deserved, celebratory drinks. The only 'kid sound' to be heard was the constant chatter of a Christmas Elf with a pointy green hat and bells on his toes.

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house.

An air of excitement mingled with trepidation set the mood as Jim readied himself for the big day. Blair had been clinging to him since he'd picked the youngster up from Jessie's and Lucas had been quieter than normal as his thoughts lingered with his brother and the family he used to have.

"Hey, guys," Jim said, trying to break the mood. "Why don't we play a game? Chief, where did you put the memory cards?"

"They in my room."

The tone in Blair's voice told Jim that there was no way his son was going to make that trip alone, so he hoisted Blair up onto his shoulders. "Okay, soldier. This mission is gonna be tough and it's gonna be rough. We need to infiltrate the room of the messiest three-year-old on the planet. You think you're up to the job?"

Blair held on tight as his father bounded up the stairs. "Daddy, my room not messy. I know where everything be."

Jim reached Blair's room, ducking from side to side as he made his way past the mess on the floor. He threw Blair down onto the bed. "Okay son, we've got two minutes to find these cards and get outta here. I think the whole place is gonna blow."

Blair giggled, scrambling off the bed. He squeezed under the bed, triumphantly pulling out the game. "See, I told ya I know where everything be."

Jim picked up Blair once again. "Good work soldier, but we need to evacuate. I fear this room is full of hazardous waste material."

Having absolutely no idea what his father was going on about, Blair held on tight. He pulled himself tight against his father's torso, a position that made him feel safe; a position that blocked out everything else.

As Jim and Blair re-entered the living room, Lucas was standing, staring at the Christmas tree. "Why don't you set up the cards?" Jim said quietly to Blair. He walked over to the teenager, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"

Lucas turned around and shook his head. "No," he whispered, honestly. "I was trying so hard to be normal, you know."

Jim pulled the boy close. "No charades, remember?"

Lucas nodded. "I don't want to be alone tonight."

"Then you won't." He gave the teenager a squeeze. "Hey, Chief, what do you say we have a campout in my room tonight? We can drag the mattress from the spare bed and put it on the floor for Lucas."

Blair looked up from what he was doing in excitement. "Can we tell stories?"

"We sure can. But they have to be Christmas stories."

"Way cool," Blair smiled, going back to arranging the memory cards on the living room rug.

"Thanks, Jim," Lucas responded, quietly.

"Anytime you need me kid, the door's always open. You only have to ask."

Lucas stared at the floor. "I know."

"Come on, tough guy." Jim slapped Lucas on the back. "Let's go get ourselves slaughtered by the rug rat." Blair was an expert at 'Memory'. When Jim had first bought him the game, he had taken it easy, letting Blair get the better of him, but it soon became apparent that the youngster had a photographic memory. Blair had outwitted both Jim and Lucas nearly every time they played the game. One flip of the card and Blair instantly remembered where it was located. There was no doubting his son was smart. Steven's wife had even talked to him about putting Blair in school, advancing him beyond his age level, but he wasn't convinced. He figured that if he did have a 'gifted' child, then he would always be gifted. He considered Blair's social education just as important as academic advancement. Blair needed to experience the joy of being a child. He needed to discover the mystery of fantasy and make believe. In his three years on this earth, he'd already experienced all the hate this world had to offer and now Blair needed to discover love. He needed to find his own way without adult interference. He was going to make quite certain that his son would never be pushed or molded to fit into anyone's vision of the perfect child. Blair would grow to learn and love on his own terms. He would make sure of that.

Jim nudged Lucas. The teenager was so focused on finding the matching pair to his card, he'd neglected to notice that Blair had nodded off. "Bingo," Jim whispered, looking at his watch. 'I thought he'd never zonk out." Gently, he eased Blair into his arms.

"You going to bed?" Lucas asked.

"Yeah. I think it's time to hit the sack. Tomorrow will most likely be an early start," Jim replied, moving towards the stairs.

"I'll lock up down here, then."

"Thanks, and don't forget to take your antibiotics. You still sound congested."

Jim padded quietly up the stairs with the sleeping child in his arms. Entering his room at the end of the hall, he pulled back the covers on his bed and settled Blair gently down. "Sleep tight, Munchkin," he whispered, giving his son's brow a kiss. Ducking out of the room, he dragged the mattress from the spare room and arranged it on the floor by his bed. He waited until he heard Lucas finishing up in the bathroom, and then met the teenager in the hall. "I've made up the mattress on the floor."

Lucas was about to protest, but his memories and past fears let him down. "You sure you don't mind?"

"Go, get some sleep. It'll be an early morning." Jim pushed Lucas toward his bedroom. "I'll be there shortly." He waited until he heard the boy settle down. His job as Santa had just begun.

Jim woke with an annoying sensation plaguing him. Daylight had barely made an appearance and the clock on the bedside table told him it was after six-thirty. He shifted and removed the stuffed toy whose beak was stabbing into his back. He picked up Big Bird, staring at the goofy expression on its face. "Merry Christmas," he said before placing it next to his son. Blair twitched, but remained deep in sleep. Peering over the side of the mattress, he took in the sight of the other boy he cared deeply about. Covered head to toe in blankets, Lucas lay on his stomach. The only evidence that he was, in fact, in the room, was a mess of blonde hair peeking out from beneath the cocoon. Jim turned his attention back toward his son. "Well, this is no fun. Christmas morning and everyone's still asleep." He shifted his hand beneath the covers, his fingers gently lifting the youngster's pajama shirt. "Chief," he whispered, giving the smooth stomach a light tickle. "It's Christmas." Blair unconsciously batted his hand away, turning over, away from the disturbance. Feeling despondent by the lack of Christmas cheer, he tried again. This time he shook the youngster. "Chief, it's Christmas."

Blair's eyes opened, blinking sleepily at his father without comprehension before, drifting shut again.

"Munchkin, Santa's been here." Jim said loudly. He was awake and he was excited and it was about time for the rest of the family to share his enthusiasm.

Still not receiving a response, Jim moved to instigate plan B. He pulled back the covers and got out of bed, intent on making Lucas his next victim. "Hey, Lump," he said loudly. "It's Christmas." He swiftly pulled back the blankets that covered the teenager, exposing Lucas' bare torso. Lucas' hand reached up blindly seeking his lost warmth. His eyes remained firmly shut.

"Okay guys, enough is enough," Jim barked. He swatted Lucas' backside. "Up Lump, now." Moving back to his bed he gave his son a gentler version of his wake up call and smiled as a pair of blue eyes finally greeted him. "Guys, it's Christmas."

Once Blair finally comprehended what was going on, it didn't take long for him to spur into action. Jim grabbed the youngster as he made a beeline for the door. "Bathroom first, Shorty," he said, steering Blair toward the ensuite bathroom.

"I not need to go," Blair insisted.

"So you're just doing that little jig for entertainment value?" Jim commented as Blair moved from foot to foot. Jim directed him through the door. "The presents will still be there when you get out, Chief."

Taking care of business, Blair flushed the toilet and bolted back out through the door, only to be intercepted again by his father. "Hands, Junior." Jim hoisted his squirming, complaining son under his arm and marched back into the bathroom. With hands washed and dried, he set Blair down on the tiles. "Okay, Chief, you're free."

As soon as his feet hit the floor, Blair took off out of the room, bumping into Lucas who was pulling his sweatshirt over his head. "Whoa, slow down there, Short Stuff," he said, moving to the side so Blair could get past. He smiled at Jim. "I think he might be excited."

Blair ran down the hall, coming to a sudden stop at the top of the stairs. He waited until Jim and Lucas caught up with him. "Do you think he's gone?" He didn't dare to go down the stairs until he was certain.

Jim bent down to Blair's eye level, sensing his son's nervousness. "Tell you what, Chief. Why don't we send Lucas down first to take a look around?"

Blair wound his hands around Jim's neck. "Okay." He looked up at Lucas. "You be careful, Lucas."

Jim stood, taking Blair with him. He clapped the teenager on the shoulder. "Okay, tough guy, you think you can handle this?"

"Yes sir," Lucas replied, snapping to attention.

"Just remember, any sign of a big man with a red suit and white beard, you hightail it back up here, real quick."

Trying to keep a straight face, Lucas ducked down the stairs. He went straight to the living room. His eyes widened for a moment. He couldn't believe the amount of presents under the tree. "Wow, your dad really does know how to spoil you, Sport," he said under his breath. Moving to the back of the tree, he flipped on the power switch and instantly, the room was aglow with twinkling lights. "All clear down here!" he yelled. Feeling a little like a third wheel, he busied himself with lighting the fire.

Jim gave Blair a squeeze. "You ready, Chief?"

"Ah ha," the little boy nodded.

Jim padded down the stairs with Blair in his arms. He could feel Blair's body tense as they neared the French doors leading to the living room. "Hey, it's okay," he comforted. "Today's only going to be filled with good things, remember?"

"I 'member," Blair replied, still a little unsure.

"Okay... here we go." Jim entered the room and Blair's blue eyes became as wide as saucers. For the first time in six months, he was speechless.

"Merry Christmas, Chief." Jim placed Blair on the floor and gave him a nudge. "Well go on, get tearing. These presents won't open by themselves."

Finally finding his voice, Blair bounced with excitement. "How did he fit all these presents in his sack? It not that big." Blair moved closer to the Christmas tree. "Look, Lucas, this one has you name." He picked it up and took it over to the fireplace and excitedly shoved it into the teenager's hand. "Open it, open it," he said with a bounce. "I wonder what Santa bringed you."

Lucas took the present, giving Jim a querying glance.

Jim smiled. "I guess he figured you must have been good this year." He moved to sit on the floor to get closer to the action. "Well, you gonna open it?"

Feeling a little overwhelmed, Lucas tentatively tore away the wrapping paper. "Look, a watch!" Blair squealed, before Lucas even had a chance to get all the paper off the box. "Lucas, Santa gaved you a watch. I wonder what he bringed you, dad!" His movement back to the tree was halted by a large hand on the waistband of his pajama pants. "Why don't you see if you can find one with your name on it first, Munchkin."

Blair's whole face lit up. This was one of his father's 'suggestions' he wasn't going to ignore. With Blair busily digging through the presents, Lucas spoke quietly. "Jim, this is too much. You shouldn't have bought me this. It must have cost a fortune."

"Don't you like it? The saleslady said that all the cool teenagers are wearing this style."

"Of course I like it... I love it, but..."

Jim held up his hand. "No buts. Besides, I have ulterior motives. This way you'll always be home on time, no excuses."

Still a little uncertain, Lucas reached around to the back of the tree. He pulled out a present and handed it to Jim. "It's not much," he said awkwardly. "I hope you like it."

Jim unwrapped the gift to discover a beautifully bound, leather photo album. He scanned through the pages. His treasured memories of the past six months had been beautifully captured. Some photos he recognised, others had obviously been taken by Lucas without his knowledge.

"I hope you don't mind, but I had to go through your photo collection."

"Kid, this is fantastic, thank you." Jim turned over a few more pages. "How come there's no photos of you in here?"

Lucas averted his eyes, changing the subject quickly. "Hey Sport, what you got there?"

"It new blocks." Blair dragged the heavy box over to Lucas. "It a pyramid. And look... a camel." He tipped the whole contents on the floor. "I go see what else Santa bringed."

Jim placed the photo album on the coffee table. He'd already resigned himself to the fact that this morning was going to be messy. "I think I need coffee."

Lucas jumped to his feet before Jim could protest. "I'll put it on. You stay here and watch Blair."

Jim yelled after the retreating teenager. "Don't be long, and grab the camera, will you?" It was time to correct the incomplete photo album.

By the time Lucas returned, Blair was arranging all the presents into piles. "There is a present for Joel and a present for Jessie." He crawled under the tree, dragging out two more presents. "And one for Uncle Simon and one for Daryl." He looked over at Lucas. "Look at you big pile, Lucas."

"Jim?" Lucas inquired.

"Hey, don't look at me. It was Santa." He took his coffee from the stunned teenager. "Guess he figured you must have been 'really' good this year." Jim smiled. "Now you two, time to get cracking. At this rate, you'll still be opening presents come nightfall."

Blair immediately scurried into action. He picked up a big present and placed it in front of Lucas. "Mine is the same shape as yours." He tore away the wrapping paper. "What is it?"

Lucas tore the wrapping paper from his present. "They're sleeping bags, Sport."

"What they for?"

Jim picked up a present that Blair had missed. "They're to go with this." Both Lucas and Blair made quick work of the paper to reveal a three-man tent.

Blair was standing, still looking confused.

"I think this means we're going camping, Sport." Lucas was now grinning widely.

Jim quickly ducked to the hall cupboard. "And no camping trip would be complete without these."

"Fishing rods!" Blair squealed. He took hold of the smallest of the three rods. "We going fishing, Lucas." He bounced with excitement. "Daddies and they little boys always go fishing." He looked up at his father. "It sayed so in my book, dad. Remember?"

Jim ruffled Blair's wild curls. "I remember perfectly, Chief."

As the morning progressed, more unwrapping revealed more books and toys for Blair, each one causing the child to laugh and squeal with delight. Lucas ended up with new clothes, which included a warm jacket and a pair of sturdy hiking boots.

Jim sat back on the sofa content with some beautiful handmade presents from Blair, as well as two new mystery novels, which Lucas had helped Blair purchase. The camera worked overtime as he snapped photos of both the boys. This is what Christmas is meant to be about, he thought in total satisfaction. Family.

"Daddy, daddy, they here, they here." Blair ran to the front door and flung it open. "Jessie, Joel, Santa camed and he left presents!" His slippers crunched on the snow-covered path. "He left presents for you at our house."

Joel picked up the excited youngster before his slippers became any more soaked than they already were. "And do you know what?" Joel said, opening the trunk. "He also came to our house and left some presents for you there."

"Way cool," Blair answered, bouncing in Joel's arms. "I 'cided I really like Santa!"

Jessie laughed. "Merry Christmas, honey."

The child leaned over and wrapped his arms around Jessie's neck and planted a big kiss on her cheek. "Merry Christmas, Jessie."

Jim immediately set Lucas to work unloading Joel's car. They were now only waiting for Simon and Daryl to arrive, so celebrations could get under way. Jim had hoped that maybe Steven and his family could have made it as well, but Rachael's mother had made it perfectly clear that she was not going to spend Christmas without her grandchildren. Still, most of his family was there and adopted or not, they were still family.

"Hey, Simon, Daryl. Merry Christmas." Jim said, shaking Simon's hand. He spied the new Play Station Daryl held in his arms. "I see Santa was good to you."

"Yeah, real good. Can I go set it up?"

"Be my guest," Jim laughed. He took Simon's coat. "Did you get it?"

Simon pulled a parcel from a bag of presents he was holding. "Sure did. Good as new. I had the guys in the lab make a copy, just in case you have another run-in with a box of crayons."

Jim took the photo and studied it carefully. Simon had given it to the guys in forensics to see if they could repair the damage Blair had done. "It looks as good as new."

"It's better than new. They even retouched the colour."

"This was the only thing he had left of his brother." Jim said. "You should have seen his face when Blair scribbled on it. He was devastated." Jim looked back at his Captain. "But you know what, he never once took it out on Blair. He just shrugged it off." Jim glanced back down at the photo. "I've got a frame in my room." He moved toward the stairs. "Everyone's in the kitchen. Hey, can you get Blair for me? I think he should give this to Lucas. And, Simon, thanks."

Blair took Lucas by the hand and led him into the living room. "What you got there, Sport?" the teenager asked, noticing the package hidden behind the youngster's back. Once Lucas was seated, Blair moved to stand between his legs. "It for you, Lucas. It very, very special." He handed over the gift, a look of concern covering his face.

Lucas accepted the parcel and undid the bow. "I guess it must be," he answered noticing the look on Blair's face. He made short work of the wrapping, but his fingers trembled when he realised what he was holding. "I don't understand, Blair. How did you?"

"I very sorry I broked it," Blair blurted out. He lifted his hand and wiped away the tears that were filling his eyes. "Daddy sayed he got it fixed just like new. You can see the boy now. The crayon all gone." Blair started to tremble. "Do you still love me?"

"Oh God, Blair." Lucas was having trouble holding back tears of his own. He engulfed Blair in his arms. "Of course I still love you." He lifted Blair up so the youngster was straddling his lap. "We made a promise, remember?"

Blair wrapped his arms around Lucas' body and sobbed into the teenager's chest. Lucas buried his face in Blair's curls, his own tears flowing freely. "You're the only one I have left. I don't have anyone else who loves me, Short Stuff."

Jim moved from the door where he had been watching and sat down on the sofa. He placed his arm around Lucas' shoulder. "You okay?"

Lucas took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean..." his tear-filled eyes met Jim's. "It's just so hard sometimes. Times like this, it's just so damn hard."

Jim drew both Lucas and his son close to his body. "You're wrong, you know." He placed a light kiss on Lucas' head. "Blair's not the only one you have left. I love you, kiddo. We both love you." He gave Lucas a few minutes to compose himself before giving him a squeeze. "C'mon, today is about good things, remember? Why don't we go see what's cookin?"

Lucas wiped his eyes. "You're right, only good things." He stood, with Blair still in his arms. "Jim, I, what you just said... well, I want you to know that... well, I do as well."

Jim put his arm around Lucas' shoulder and led him through the door. "I know you do."

"And me, too," Blair said quietly.

"Always Sport, always."

Jim entered the kitchen with his two boys at his side. "I think it's about time we broke out the champagne and really got this celebration under way. Simon, the glasses are in the cupboard to your left."

"Can I have some, dad?" Daryl asked from his position at the kitchen sink. Jessie had put the boy to work peeling potatoes. "Mom let me have a glass at Aunt Kate's wedding." Simon smiled at his fourteen-year-old son. Every time he turned around, Daryl seemed to get that little bit closer to manhood. He'd spouted at least two inches in the past month and Simon swore he could see a tiny patch of peach fluff on the boy's upper lip.

"Can I have 'pagne too, daddy?" Blair asked. He was standing on the kitchen stool with his arms still flung around Lucas' neck.

"How about a nice glass of 'apple champagne' for you, Junior." Jim said as he began to fill the glasses that Simon had lined up on the counter. "Simon?" he inquired, before filling a glass for Daryl.

"Half a glass," Simon replied.

"Half a glass! Dad, come, on I'm not a baby. At least make it three quarters."

Simon took his son by the shoulders. "You're still my baby." He pulled Daryl into an embrace, and planted a kiss on the top of his head.

"Dad," Daryl exclaimed, totally mortified that his father had kissed him in public. "There are people around," he hissed.

His son's words didn't wipe the smile from Simon's face. If anything, his grin grew wider as Daryl, despite his complaining, wound his arm around his waist.

With everyone's glass filled to the brim, Jim passed a glass to Lucas. "You serious?" the boy asked. "I thought 'no alcohol' was one of your rules? One of your many, many rules," he added.

"I figure that you're old enough to have a drink with me once in a while. And besides, what fun are rules if you can't break them occasionally?" He saw a glint in Lucas' eye and quickly clarified his statement. "When I say occasionally, I mean occasionally, and only with my permission, of course."

Lucas just shook his head. "God, at this stage I'll be fifty before I get another..." His last word was muffled as he took a sip of champagne.

Jim raised his glass. "To family." He reached over and squeezed the back of Lucas' neck. "As trying as they might be sometimes, you couldn't live without them." He leaned over and whispered into Lucas ear. "And with comments like that, you just might be locked in your room until you're fifty."

Lucas' eyes widened. "You heard that?" He took in the expression of Jim's face. "Of course you did, didn't you?" he groaned.

Jim slapped him on the back "Oh yeah."

Blair, who was now sitting on the chair, concentrating very hard on not spilling his 'apple champagne," piped up. "I hearded it, too. What does 'lay' mean, Lucas?"

Lucas covered Blair's mouth instantly with his hand, his face flushing with embarrassment. He dared a quick glance at Jim, taking in the older man's expression. "It means that I'm in big trouble, Sport." He looked at Jim's face again. "Big, big trouble."

"Oh yeah," Jim replied, again.

Jessie, who had managed very well to maintain her composure, spoke up. "Why don't you boys go and find something to do in the living room?" She took the potato peeler from Daryl's hand. "Go, have some fun."

Daryl didn't need to be told twice. In less than a minute, he'd made a hasty exit from the room, with Blair hot on his heels.

"I guess I should... I mean maybe I should... I should go check on Blair," Lucas stuttered, backing out of the room.

"Might be a wise decision," Jim replied, straight-faced.

With all three boys out of earshot, Jessie could no longer contain herself. She lifted her hand to her mouth in a futile effort to smother her chuckling. Her actions caused a domino effect, and soon, not a dry eye was to be found as tears of laughter flowed in the kitchen.

Jim took his place at the head of the table. Blair was seated on a booster seat on the chair to the right of him, and Lucas was right next to his 'little brother'. Jim glanced at the table, which was laden with a decadent amount of Christmas fare. His memories flashed back to his childhood. A table, similar to this one had always been laid out for Christmas. Lashing of turkey and ham, steaming bowls of mashed potatoes and butter beans, pumpkin pie and brandy-filled puddings always graced the table. And so, unfortunately did the strong hand of his father. He looked around his table, and at his family. Smiles and laughter rang out as the competition for the jokes and toys inside of the Christmas crackers that Jessie had hand made, in an effort to bring something a little different to the traditional table setting. Simon sat at the other end of the table, batting away his son's hands as the teenager tried in vain to place a paper hat from one of the crackers on his father. Relenting under the youth's persistence, Simon let the paper crown rest askew over one eye. Daryl burst into a fit of laughter and wrapped his arms around his father. "You look like a dork, dad," he chuckled.

With glasses filled to the brim, Jim took a moment to say a few words. "I'm not very good at speeches, so I'll make this short."

"Amen to that," Simon interrupted.

"If King Arthur at the end of the table would care to keep his royal trap shut, maybe I can get started," Ellison retaliated.

"Firstly, to Jessie and Joel. I can't even begin to thank you both for everything you have done for this family. We are richer for your love and support."

"And we, yours," Jessie added quietly.

"To his royal highness over there," Jim continued, nodding to Simon. "Despite being my boss, you are my best friend and it's a friendship I'll always value." He smiled, "Of course, I'd value it a little more if I got a pay-raise."

"Dream on, Ellison," Simon retorted.

Lastly Jim looked over at his boys. "It's without a doubt that this year has been full of highs and lows. Six months ago, I would never have seen myself as a father, but here I am, six months later, and am lucky to have, not just one, but two, special kids to share my life." He took hold of Blair's hand. "Munchkin, you bring nothing but absolute joy to every single day of my life." He looked over at the other boy who he'd begun to think of as a son, "And Lucas, you've made me realise what true strength of character really is." Jim watched as Lucas ducked his head. Not wanting to make the teenager feel any more uncomfortable, he picked up his napkin and tossed it at the boy. "Despite his obvious lack of training, which you all witnessed earlier."

Lucas picked up the napkin and tossed it back at Jim, smiling broadly. "You still throw like a girl," he teased.

"Amen to that," Simon boomed. "Now, start cutting that bird, Ellison, before I faint with hunger."

Jim picked up his glass. "To family," he toasted.

The fire that crackled in the background could not begin to compare with the warmth that radiated from the table as three families came together as one to celebrate life, love and Christmas.

Three families that over the spate of six short months had become one.

The End

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