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

Feedback: jessriley80@yahoo.com.au


Jess Riley

Joel Taggert watched his wife with concern as she stood nervously by the front door. It had been over a week since the sanctity of their home had been violated and Blair had been taken, and over a week of watching his wife slowly fall apart had finally taken its toll on him. He'd stood helplessly by, unable to help as her weight plummeted, her appetite suppressed by the gnawing guilt that she carried around, a guilt that he shared equally. If only I had the power to turn back time, he thought. I should have installed the security screen on the back door like Jessie asked. If only I had been more cautious. Given the nature of the custody arrangement, I should have known better. Hindsight was a wonderful teacher. Unfortunately for the Taggerts, it was a lesson learned the hard way.

Coming to stand behind his wife, Joel wrapped his large arms around her slight frame and placed a kiss on the back of her head. "Sweetheart, Blair's okay. He's safe and well, and he's coming home and Jim said that physically he's fine. He's a strong little guy and it won't take him long to bounce back."

Jessie grabbed her husband's arms. Joel was her rock, her tower. He was the foundation that had kept their marriage solid. "I know, I know," she whispered. "I just can't help thinking that if only I had done something more, this would never have happened. Joel, how will Jim ever trust me again with Blair?"

Joel released his grip on his wife and turned her around. He looked into the eyes of the woman he had loved for more than thirty years. "Jess, I want you to stop this nonsense! Jim does not blame you. He never has and if he didn't trust you with Blair, why would he be bringing him here now? What happened was not your fault. There's only one person to blame for all of this, and that's his mother." Joel drew his wife in and hugged her tightly. "Now dry your eyes. That little boy deserves to come home to a happy greeting."

Jim Ellison gazed out of the truck window, the passing scenery a blur as it whirled past without even really registering. So much had happened to change his life over the course of the past few months that he still couldn't quite come to terms with the enormity of it. The sheer responsibility of being a parent at times was overwhelming, but he wouldn't give it up for the world. He hadn't realised how much he cherished it until it had been nearly taken away from him. He drew his attention away from the window and to the passenger safely buckled in the back seat. Greeted by a pair of sleepy eyes, he smiled warmly at his son. "Hey, Munchkin. Did you have a good nap? Are you thirsty?"

A simultaneous nod and a yawn were his answer, as the little boy remained in a dazed state; not asleep, but not yet quite awake. Punching a straw through the foil top of the juice container, Jim leaned over to the back seat, bringing the straw to Blair's lips. The child sucked thirstily before pushing the juice away. "That 'nough."

"Jim, we're here." Simon pulled the truck into the Taggerts' driveway, and Blair lifted his head in an effort to peer out the window. "We at Jessie's," he announced, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Simon turned around, giving his full attention to Blair. Sweaty curls were plastered to the side of his head and he had one bright red, rosy cheek from where it had rested on the side of the car seat. Simon's face broke into a broad grin. "That's right, Squirt. Jessie has missed you. She couldn't wait to see you."

Unfolding his tired body from the cab, Jim unlocked the back door and unbuckled Blair's seatbelt. He brushed the sweaty curls back off his son's face and lifted him into his arms. "I know someone who's very anxious to see you." He planted a soft kiss in the middle of the red mark on Blair's cheek. "Come on, let's go and see Jessie."

Jessie Taggert's heart leapt to her throat the minute she saw the car pull into the driveway. Standing unseen behind the screen door, she picked up the stuffed toy that had kept a vigil on the stool by the front door, ever since the little boy's disappearance. Nervously, she clutched it to her chest. For Blair's sake, she had to pull herself together. He was back and he was safe and it wouldn't do anybody any good if she broke down into a blubbering mess. Taking a deep breath, she reined in her emotions and forced a smile to her lips. Drawing the strength she needed from her husband, she grasped his hand and pushed open the door.

Jim lowered Blair to the concrete path that led to the front porch and let go of his hand. He gave the three-year-old a quick swat on the backside and watched as his son took off, up the path and into the open arms of Jessie Taggert.

With legs too unsteady to hold their combined weight, Jessie sank down onto the top step, and, as if somehow sensing her distress, Blair let her hold him tight for as long as she needed.

With her emotions still in turmoil, Jessie eventually pushed Blair back in an effort to reassure herself that the little boy she held was real. She brushed a gentle hand over the bruise on his cheek. "Oh, honey," she whispered.

"I okay, Jessie." Blair's eyes mirrored Jessie's concern until his attention was drawn away from her and to the toy, which had fallen from her hands. "Big Buhd," he squealed with glee, bending down to pick it up. "You finded Big Buhd!" Turning around to face his father, he smiled, excitement shining from his eyes. "Look Daddy. Jessie finded Big Buhd. I thought he was losted, but he's not. I going to take him to my woom. I gotta tell him 'bout my 'venture." In one swift action, Big Bird was secured under his arm and, standing on his toes, Blair reached up and gave Jessie a quick kiss on the cheek. Manoeuvring completely out of her arms, he gave Joel's leg a quick hug before running to the screen door. Being too short to reach the handle, he took hold of the intricate lace metalwork decorating the door and flung it open. In a flash, he was inside the house, his footsteps echoing on the floorboards as he ran down the hallway.

Knowing now that she had no choice but to face her demons, Jessie struggled to look Jim in the eye. "Jim, I don't even know where to begin to say how sorry I am."

"Joel, Jessie," Ellison interrupted, putting a halt to an apology that was only his to give. "I'm the one that doesn't know how to apologise. I put you in a position that I should never have put you in. I knew that there was a chance Naomi would try and take Blair and I should have taken measures to make sure that it never happened. Jessie, I put your life in danger, and I'll never be able to forgive myself for that, and I will understand completely if you're unable to mind Blair anymore."

Jessie Taggert couldn't quite believe what she was hearing. Jim didn't blame her for not protecting Blair, he blamed himself. When the ramifications of his last sentence sank in, she held out her hand, indicating that Joel should help her up. Her determined nature resurfaced in an instant. "You stop right there, Jim Ellison," she demanded. Her position on the top stair gave her a height advantage over the detective, and she intended to use it for all it was worth. "Don't you dare apologise to me for what that woman did to this family. She is the only person to blame for what happened to Blair, not me, not Joel, and certainly not you. Don't you think for one minute that I will let her actions ruin my relationship with that child. I love that boy like he was my own grandson, and he is always welcome in this house." She folded her arm across her chest. "But I do intend to learn from this experience and I can tell you that if she tries anything like this again, she will get more than she bargained for." Straightening out her dress, Jessie moved onto the porch. "Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I'm going inside to make Blair some lunch. I swear that boy's all skin and bone." She turned on her heels and pulled open the screen door, leaving three stunned men in her wake.

A smile broke out across Joel's face. "She's back," he chuckled. "Boy, how I've missed that feisty old girl." He held out his hand in a greeting to Jim, "And if you know what's good for you, Jim, I'd let the subject drop. It's dangerous to mess with a mother hen."

"Don't I know that," Simon mumbled, pushing past Jim and walking up the front steps. "You think you could spare a cup of coffee, Joel?" With the news I'm about to break to Jim, I think we're all going to need it.

Ellison's reaction to the news of his father's stroke surprised Simon. He knew that Jim and his family weren't close, but Jim's indifferent attitude made Simon a little curious about the detective's past. "Jim, if nothing else, you've got to at least return your brother's phone call. He made it pretty clear that the doctor thinks your father might not live through the night."

Jim placed the coffee cup he was holding back on the table, annoyed at Simon's intrusion into his relationship with his family. "Look Simon, just because someone calls himself a father, doesn't necessarily make him one."

"Jim, the man's dying, and whatever issues you have with him, he's still your father."

"And I'm sure that he won't miss my presence at his bedside." Ellison scrubbed his hand roughly through his hair. "Look, Simon, he has two sons, and I'm more than certain he would prefer to have the one that wasn't the major disappointment of his life with him."

"Steven said he was asking for you," Simon added gently. He knew that he had no right to become involved in something that didn't concern him, but he figured that if Jim's dad had been asking for him, there must have been a good reason. "Jim, I don't know what went on between you and your father, and I'm not asking you to tell me. But this may be the last time you'll get to see the man alive. Don't you think you should at least give him an opportunity to see his eldest son before he dies?"

Jim rubbed his hand over his tired face and gave Simon's question some thought. If he had to, he probably wouldn't be able to pinpoint any one single event that had caused him to become estranged from his father. The wall that separated them had taken a lot of time and effort to build. With every rejection, every failure, every disappointment, another stone was added and it was now so high that he knew it would be nearly impossible to break down. "Did Steven leave a number?" he finally asked.

The tone in Ellison's voice and the slumped posture of his shoulders told Simon that Jim obviously had a lot of demons yet to battle.

Both Joel and Simon glanced up from the kitchen table as Jim walked back into the room. Joel stood and gave Jim's shoulder a light pat. "I'll get you some fresh coffee."

"How'd it go?" Simon asked, casting a worried eye over his detective.

"Not good. I guess I'll be making a trip to the hospital this afternoon, after all."

"Jim, why don't you leave Blair here with us." Joel unconsciously patted the gun, which was still holstered under his jacket. "A hospital is no place for the boy. Especially not under these circumstances."

Jim rubbed at the top of his broken arm. It wasn't the only injury that was beginning to ache and dragging Blair along to the hospital, and potentially into the mess that was his childhood, just might open up too many raw wounds for the both of them. "Let me talk to him first," Ellison answered. Leaving Blair alone so soon after everything they'd both been through was not an idea he wanted to face.

Just as Jim was about to get to his feet, the subject of their conversation came tumbling into the room, with a very cheeky smile plastered over his face. "Jessie said I can have some chocolate cake, but I had to ask you first. Can I, Daddy?" Blair clambered up, onto Jim's lap. "It's not neah dinneh time, so I should be allowed, 'cause it won't spoil my dinneh and I promise I will be hungry lateh."

Jim smiled down at Blair as the little boy tried to persuade him to say 'yes'. He had never realised how truly vacant his life was until Blair had arrived on his doorstep. The love he felt for the youngster on his lap scared him sometimes. How was it possible to love somebody so much that you would give up everything in an instant just to make sure they were happy and safe? His thoughts drifted to the relationship he'd shared with his father, and he realised it was nothing like the relationship he shared with Blair. If love was meant to be unconditional, why had his father always put a price on affection? Why did it always have to be earned? Why couldn't he have ever just simply said 'I love you, son'?

"Dad," Blair whined, bringing Jim from his thoughts. "My tummy is growling."

Jim laid his hand on Blair's stomach and wiggled his fingers. "Hmmm, that's funny. This tummy feels full to me. Are you sure there will be enough room in there for chocolate cake?"

Blair removed Jim's hand and lifted up his shirt. "Ah- ha," he stated firmly. He positioned Jim's hand over his belly button. "There be a lot of room right heuh. This part is empty."

"Maybe if I tickle it, it won't be empty anymore," Jim smiled, dusting his fingers over his son's smooth skin.

Blair gave a little squeal as he tried to escape the impending tickle. "No, Daddy, a tickle will make it more hungwy. The only thing that will make it betteh is chocolate cake."

Jim pulled Blair close and placed a kiss on the top of his head. "Well, I suppose you better tell Jessie that I said yes."

"Way cool," Blair exclaimed, scrambling off his father's knee.

Before the Blair could escape completely, Jim trapped him between his knees. "Not so fast, Chief. I need to talk to you first." He tweaked one of Blair's curls to get his attention. "Simon had a call from my brother, who told him that my father is very sick in the hospital. I promised that I would go and see him, but because my dad is so sick, I'm going to have to leave you with Joel and Jessie. Is that okay with you?"

Blair, who had been swinging between his father's knees, stopped immediately and planted his feet on the floor. "You have a daddy?" he asked in surprise.

"Yes, Chief, I have a daddy. I just haven't seen him for a long time."

"Didn't your daddy eveh finded you when you was a little boy?"

"I don't think he ever looked, Munchkin," Jim said, sadly. He swung Blair up onto his lap. "Now, you still haven't answered my question. Will you be alright with Joel and Jessie?"

Blair grabbed Jim's arm and looked at his watch. "What time will you come back?"

Jim thought for a few minutes before answering the question. If he left now, there was no reason he wouldn't be back by four. "I'll be back by four o'clock."

Blair placed his fingers on the watch. "That mean you will be back when the big hand is heuh and the little hand is heuh. I will look at Jessie's big clock to make sured you not be late."

Jim was amazed at how easily Blair seemed to pick up new concepts. Not long ago they had been reading a book about clocks, and ever since then, Blair's enthusiasm for learning the time had soared. He had managed to master telling time on the hour but, not content with that, he had started to question Jim about what the other numbers were for.

"Fo' o'clock on the big dot," Blair said.

"On the dot, Chief," Jim promised. If luck went his way, he'd be well and truly out of the hospital and back at Joel's long before his promised time.

"This shouldn't take more than an hour." Jim tapped the door of the truck, before hesitantly shutting it. He would have preferred to go alone, but Simon had insisted, and somehow his broken arm became an excuse for the police captain to come along.

"I'll be waiting," Simon replied, shutting down the engine.

"Yeah," Jim muttered absently. He was finding it difficult to get his head around his feelings; feelings which, as an adult didn't usually rate a mention when it came to his family. As a child he was never physically afraid of his father. William Ellison had never laid a hand on either of his sons. William's abuse was emotional and he often thought that it was a thousand times worse than being laid into by a pair of fists. A constant slamming of his self-worth and his ability to do anything right plagued his earliest of childhood memories. No matter how hard he tried to please the old man, his efforts were never quite good enough, so in the end he simply gave up trying.

Ellison made his way across the crowded hospital foyer. He needed fresh air and needed it badly. The noises and smells associated with the place were bearing down on him and making him feel physically ill. Rushing out of the main entrance door, he drew in a deep breath. "Get a hold of yourself," he muttered to himself. You are not going to give in to this sentinel stuff -- not here. He sat down on one of many benches that lined the perimeter of the quadrangle and concentrated all his efforts on remaining in touch with this world.

"Jim?" Steven Ellison took a seat next to his older brother. "Are you okay? You kinda rushed out of dad's room in a hurry. I was worried."

Jim glanced over at Steven and studied the brother he had thought he would never see again. The years had been kind to him. I'm sure the trappings of wealth have helped, he thought, snidely. "Can you tell me exactly what that visit just achieved?" he asked.

"It let a dying man know that his eldest son was willing to come and see him." Steven replied, gently. "Jim, I know that the issues you have with dad run deep, and what you just did must have been a hard thing to do, but whether or not you really have forgiven him is not important. The important thing is that at least dad thinks you have. He can now go with a clear conscience." Steven got to his feet. "Look, I better get back to him." He reached out and lightly touched Jim's shoulder. "I hope this won't be the last time you'll see him."

Jim watched in silence as his brother walked away. He'd done his duty as a son. He didn't need to do any more than that.

Jessie rocked Blair on her knee as she read him his favourite book. She knew that the child wasn't paying attention, because he let her skip over words and sentences -- something he would never normally do. Blair's concentration was firmly fixed on the old grandfather clock that stood on the other side of the room. She gave Joel a worried glance.

"Who would like an afternoon snack?" Joel pushed himself out of the lounge chair and got to his feet. "I was thinking that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich might just hit the spot right about now. How about you Blair? Would you like a sandwich?"

"How long will it take for that hand to get to top?" Blair asked, not bothering to answer Joel's question.

Jessie rubbed Blair leg. "Darling, daddy will be back soon. He promised you he would be back by four o'clock and that means he still has twenty minutes to go."

"How long will twenty minutes take?" Blair asked, wiggling off her knee.

How do I answer that question? Jessie thought for a moment. "Twenty minutes," she finally said, "is how long it will take for Joel to make two sandwiches and for you both to eat them."

"Can you make them now?" Blair asked, urgently grabbing Joel's hand. "Daddy won't come back until they made." His blue eyes started to fill with tears. The anxiety and stress of the past week was finally beginning to catch up with him. "What happens if my daddy fo'get to come back?" he asked, his tears spilling down his cheeks. "I sowwy I went with mama, Joel," he cried, looking up at the big man. "Tell daddy I sowwy, Joel. Please tell him I sowwy and not to be mad." The tears continued to flow as Blair finally reached his breaking point.

Joel picked up the little boy he loved as his own and hugged him tightly. "Daddy hasn't forgotten you, Blair, and he's not mad at you. He loves you very much, and always will. He just had to go to the hospital to visit his father." Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, he thought. Perhaps it would have been better if we had gone to the hospital with Jim and sat with Blair in the waiting room.

"I want my daddy," Blair blurted, his breath hitching with every word.

Jessie peered out the window and her heart filled with relief. "Thank goodness," she muttered. Jim and Simon were back. She rubbed Blair's back in an effort to comfort him. "Darling, Daddy's back now. He's just pulled up in the driveway."

Jim got out of the car, feeling a strangling sense of urgency. He jogged up the front stairs and into the house and the first sounds to hit his ears were Blair's sorrowful cries and Joel and Jessie's fruitless efforts as they tried to console him. "Hey, Munchkin," he soothed, taking his son from Joel's arms. "Why the tears?"

Blair was still sobbing hysterically as he wrapped his arms tightly around his father's neck. He buried his face deeply in Jim's shirt. There was nothing more anyone could do. Words couldn't soothe or distract the distraught child. Blair just needed to be hugged by his father until the fear of being left had calmed.

I shouldn't have gone. Jim's thoughts and feelings went from guilt to anger as he irrationally blamed his father for his son's condition. Blair was the most important person in his life and he shouldn't have left him not for the likes of his father.

Never again, he promised. Never again will I put you in second place.

Blair pulled back the covers and climbed out of bed, his bare feet hitting the mat with a small thud. He had been awakened from his sleep by a noise coming from the bedroom upstairs. It wasn't a loud noise, but it was constant and persistent. Dragging Big Bird by one leg, he tiptoed out into the living room. Reminding the stuffed toy to be very quiet, he silently climbed the staircase to his father's room. The full moon shone through the skylight above the large bed, giving him enough light to see his daddy tossing restlessly back and forth beneath the sheets. Moving closer, he watched as his father's brow creased and listened as a babble of incoherent words were muttered.

Caught up in his childhood, Jim was taken deeper and deeper into the dream that brought back vivid memories of the past. Buried memories had resurfaced since his visit to his father's bedside that afternoon.

A twelve-year old boy stood nervously in his father's den as the man in front of him studied his report card.

"I must say, Jimmy, I'm a little disappointed by this. I thought that you were going to try harder this term."

"I did try, Dad. I tried my best. Mrs. McKenzie said I should be very proud of myself. I brought my math grade up from a C to a B-plus."

"B-plus isn't an A, Jimmy. If you want to make something of yourself in this world, your marks are going to have to be better than this. Now, I do realise that most parents would consider this report card acceptable, but we're not most people, Jimmy. We are Ellisons, and Ellisons accept nothing less than perfection. It is obvious to me that you are going to need extra tutoring if you are to bring your math grade up to an A standard. So, in light of this, I have decided to enrol you in summer school."

"But Dad, what about our trip? You promised that if I did better this term we could both go with you."

"Yes, Jimmy. I did make that promise, but unfortunately you didn't live up to your end of the deal. Since it would be unfair of me to punish Steven for your shortcomings, he will be allowed to accompany me to Hawaii. I will have to enrol you as a border at the school, as Sally will be away visiting friends."

"But dad, I wanna go with you. You promised."

"That's enough, James. You will attend summer school, and that is my final word. The subject is closed. You may go to your room."

Blair began to worry as his father's chest heaved heavily. Clambering up onto the bed, he placed his hand on his daddy's arm and rubbed gently. "Dad... Daddy," he whispered. "I think you habbing a bad dweam. It okay though, 'cause I will stay with you and keep you safe." He pulled back the sheets and snuggled under the covers, close to his father's side.

The sentinel turned over and unconsciously gathered his guide in a protective embrace. His heartbeat slowed and his movements stilled as his memories of the past faded. With the sweet, fresh scent of his young guide filling his senses, visions of happier times now surfaced and chased away the nightmare. His father's disapproving face was replaced by the face of the one person who would never disapprove of him; his son's face was now the only face to fill his dreams.

As the first rays of the new day filtered down onto the bed, Jim cracked open his eyes. "Hey baby," he murmured at the little body that was plastered up against him. "How do you manage to sneak up here without me hearing you?" He brushed Blair's hair away from his face. "Did you have a bad dream, Munchkin?" Blair remained asleep, and Jim closed his eyes and whispered. "It's okay, Chief, I'm here. I'll keep you safe."

Little did the sentinel know that his guide had already made the same promise.

The day of William Ellison's funeral was bleak and cold. Much like the man himself, Jim thought as he pulled up to the cemetery. He had visited his father several times in the days leading up to his death. William had stupefied doctors, stubbornly holding onto life longer than expected. Several more minor strokes had left him totally paralysed and incapable of communication and on his most recent visit, Jim had vowed that it would be his last. Although saddened by the fact that his father was dying, his presence at the man's bedside was serving no benefit. William gave no indication that he knew he was even there. He had let his father make his peace and clear his conscience during his first visit, and there was no more that was required of him. Steven had kept a constant vigil, but that was his chosen role. Steven had made the decision long ago to be the son that William wanted; Jim had not. His forgiveness of William was nothing more than pretence, nothing more than a show for the sake of the dying. To carry on this pretence, when William was nothing more than an empty shell, was hypocritical. He wouldn't celebrate his father's passing, but neither would he mourn. The death of William Ellison would be just another day in the detective's life.

Ignoring the stares as he took his place alongside Steven and his family, he embraced Sally in a warm hug. "How you are you coping?" he asked.

Sally returned Jim's embrace. "Oh Jim, I'm so sorry about the way things turned out," she said. "You father was a proud man, and a little too stubborn for his own good. I wish things could have been different."

Jim let go of Sally and shook his brother's hand. Tugging slightly on the tie that was digging into his neck, he politely greeted Steven's wife, Rachael, and their two children, a niece and a nephew whom he had never met.

"Blair's not with you?" Steven asked.

"No, he's with friends. He doesn't need to see this."

Steven unconsciously drew his young daughter close. "We thought it would be best if the children got to say goodbye to their grandfather. Closure, I guess," he added. "They loved him very much. He was a wonderful granddad. It's a pity he didn't get the chance to know your son."

Jim concentrated on the polished wood coffin that was perched above the freshly dug grave. "Yeah, I'm sure he would have loved to express his disappointment at the fact that I screwed up again. I mean, the story of how I fathered a child and it took me three years to find out about him would have given him lecture material for years."

"Jim, Dad did mellow over the years," Steven replied, "and he would have loved to have known that he had another grandchild. Look, Jim, I know he regretted the way he treated us." Jim's glare made Steven instantly regret his words. "I mean, I know you went through a lot more than I did and I'm sorry. But I hope that now we've made contact again, you'll give me the chance to make it up to you?"

"You don't have to make up for anything, Steven. As far as I'm concerned, what happened in the past is history. It's time to move on."

"Good. I'm glad you feel that way, because I was hoping that you would be there for the reading of Dad's will. It's after the service, at Dad's house. He specifically requested that you be there."

"Steven, Dad's house is the last place I want to be right now. Besides, I have to get home to Blair."

"I thought that might be the case, so I've also made alternate arrangements. Would you feel more comfortable if it took place at my house? It would give us a chance to meet Blair, and also give my kids the chance to get to know their uncle and cousin. What do you say? Time for a fresh start?"

Jim thought about Steven's proposal before answering. He was reluctant to agree, but then, maybe it was time for new beginnings -- a time to make that fresh start. "I'll come by tomorrow afternoon, and I'll bring Blair with me," he finally relented. "But I can't guarantee that I'll attend the reading. I didn't need anything from Dad when he was alive, and I sure as hell don't need anything from him now that he's dead."

The two brothers fell silent as the service began. One mourned his father's death with a heavy heart. The other felt nothing at all except an overwhelming urge to turn away and never look back.

Jim held Blair's hand tightly as he tentatively approached the front door to his brother's house.

Sensing his father's reluctance, Blair squeezed Jim's hand a little tighter.

Feeling the increased pressure on his palm, Jim stopped in his tracks and knelt down so he was eye level with his son. Okay, time to get a hold of yourself. His apprehension was obviously having an effect on Blair. "You're not nervous, are you, Chief?"

Blair moved closer to his father and wrapped his arms around Jim's neck. "I not nehvous. Ah you sca'ed, Daddy?" he asked.

"No buddy, not scared, but I guess I am a little nervous. I haven't spent time with my brother for a long time."

"I will stay with you and hold you' hand until the buttehflies flied away," Blair stated. "Afteh they gone, you will be bwave."

Jim smiled. "Come on, then, tough stuff." He ruffled Blair's mop of curls. "Let's go meet your uncle."

The door was flung open before Jim even had a chance to ring the front doorbell. "Matthew, you're gonna be in big trouble," berated a six-year-old girl who came running up behind her brother. She grabbed hold of her brother's arm and pulled him away from the entrance. "What has mom told you about opening the front door?"

Ignoring his sister, Matthew wriggled out of her grasp and continued on his intended mission. "You wanna come play in my room?" he asked, enthusiastically, reaching out to grab the three-year-old.

Before Jim could respond on Blair's behalf, Blair ducked behind his father's leg, while all the time keeping his daddy's hand within his own.

Steven appeared and quickly rounded up his children, restoring order. "Hey guys, why don't we at least let our guests inside before we ambush them? Matthew, I think your mother would like to have a word with you. She's in the kitchen."

"See, I told ya you were gonna get it," piped up Maggie, who had now recaptured her brother and was dragging him toward the kitchen.

Steven turned his attention away from his children. "Sorry about that," he apologised. "Matthew's been excited all day. He couldn't wait to meet his new cousin. Please, come on in. Welcome to our home." Steven briefly studied his brother, before focusing his attention on Blair, who was now clutching Jim's leg tightly. He bent down and held out his hand. "And you must be Blair." Jim ran his hand through his son's hair, as Blair tried to hide from the stranger in front of him. It wasn't like Blair to be overly shy toward people, especially when he was there, but taking into account the past few weeks and the fact that Blair knew Jim was nervous, his reaction to his uncle was not exactly unexpected. Jim scooped Blair up and settled him against his chest. "He's just a little shy," he said by way of explanation. He had no intention of divulging any more information about Blair at this point.

"Perfectly understandable. If I had just received a greeting like that, I'd be shy too. Matthew tends to be a little on the over-exuberant side. Sorry."

"No need to apologise," Jim replied, feeling a little awkward. "Kids are kids. What time did you say Dad's lawyer would be here?"

"He should be here soon. Can I get you a drink?"

"Beer, if you've got one."

Jim followed Steven down the hall and into the family room. "Take a seat Jim, while I go grab us those beers."

Settling Blair on his knee, Jim looked around the comfortably furnished room. Steven's house was not at all what he had expected. Although it was obvious that the furnishings and decorations were not cheap, the place still managed to carry a homey ambience about it. An alcove off the main room sported an overstuffed toy box and large activity table with four small chairs surrounding it. In the corner of the room was a large, flat-screen TV with an assortment of videos stacked neatly in the cabinet. Looking out the large, sliding door, which led to a paved courtyard, Jim could see an elaborate array of climbing and play equipment, including what looked like a custom-built playhouse. The children of Steven Ellison and his wife obviously didn't want for much. Thinking back to the sterile house that he had lived in while growing up, he was pleased that at least Steven had created an atmosphere that was child-friendly. Feelings of guilt slowly rose, as he realised the obvious lack of toys that his own son possessed in comparison to his cousins. His thoughts were interrupted by a quiet female voice. "Matthew, Maggie, why don't you take the snacks over to your table?"

"Would Blair like some juice?" Steven asked, popping his head into the room.

"Would you like juice, Chief?" Jim nudged Blair gently.

"Ah-ha," Blair answered quietly.

"That's a funny name," Matthew commented. He was now climbing up onto the couch in order to get as close to his new cousin as possible. "I thought his name was Blair?"

"It is." Jim smiled at the inquisitive four-year-old sitting next to him. "I just call him that sometimes. It's our special nickname, isn't it, Chief?" he said, wiggling his son slightly to try and bring him out of his shell.

Rachael took a seat on the chair opposite the couch. "Well, I think it's a wonderful nickname." She looked up at Jim. "It's good to see you again." Her smile was warm and welcoming.

Matthew, who was now starting to get bored, shook Blair's leg "Hey, you wanna watch some TV? We got the Disney channel."

"What do you say, Chief?" Jim inconspicuously removed Matthew's hand from Blair's leg. "Would you like to watch some television? I'll be right here, where you can see me."

Blair looked at the juice and snacks that were now on the little table. Maggie had already switched on the TV, and Jungle Babies blared out, a little too loudly.

"Okay," Blair said, a little nervously. "You promise you not go anywheuh else?" he asked, looking at his father for reassurance.

"I promise, Munchkin." Jim lifted him from his knee and gave him a little swat on the backside. "Go on," he encouraged.

"You can sit next to me," Matthew said, now leading Blair by the arm. "You don't wanna sit next to Maggie. She's a girl and she's got cooties."

"Mom, Matthew called me a girl again," Maggie whined, without ever taking her eyes off the TV.

"Matthew," Rachael warned. "Play nice or you'll be playing by yourself."

Jim let out a small chuckle. "Looks like you've got your hands full," he said, accepting the beer from Steven.

"You're not wrong there." Steven fondly rubbed his wife's expanding belly. "Think we might have to move out when the next one comes along."

"You'd last about two seconds without them," Rachael replied, giving his arm a gentle slap.

"You're not wrong there," Steven smiled warmly.

The next half hour progressed with light conversation between the adults and lots of laughter between the kids. Jim thought how tactful both Steven and Rachael were being, as they avoided questions on the whereabouts of Blair's mother, or how he managed to have a son he never knew about until recently. He was drawn from his thoughts, as a car pull into the driveway. He was still not sure why he had agreed to come to the reading of the will. His father had nothing he wanted. True, he was not as well-off as Steven, but his income and investments would certainly be enough to allow him to bring up his son in a comfortable manner.

"I thought we might do this in the study." Steven got to his feet as the doorbell rang.

At Jim's reluctant look, Rachael turned toward the children's play area. "How would you kids like to play outside for a while? Matthew, why don't you go and get your soccer ball?" She quickly squeezed Jim's arm. "Don't worry, I'll keep a good eye on Blair."

"Daddy, can I go outside?" Blair had now settled down and seemed to be enjoying the company of his new cousins.

"I've got to go and meet a man in Steven's study Chief, so if you go outside you won't be able to see me." Jim knelt down in front of Blair. "But just remember," he said quietly. "I can always hear you, so if you need me, all you need to do is say so."

"I know," Blair replied just as quietly. His daddy's secret was one he knew very well how to keep safe.

"You can keep his house and the money," Jim stated firmly.

"Mr. Ellison," began William's lawyer, patiently. "Over the past few years I got to know your father very well. I know what type of man he was, and also the type of man he became. We all have things in our past that we regret, and losing contact with you was one of his."

"Yeah, well it's a little late to worry about that now."

"Mr. Ellison, please. Before you make your decision about what to do with your inheritance, I will ask one thing of you." William's lawyer handed Jim a sealed envelope with his name neatly printed on the front. "Your father left instructions to give this to you after his death." Sensing Jim's reluctance to accept the envelope, he stood and placed the letter on the table in front of Jim. "Mr. Ellison, give the man the chance to say his final piece. If nothing else comes from this, perhaps he can still take comfort in the knowledge that his son was willing to give him one last chance." William's lawyer closed his briefcase. "Thank you for your time, gentlemen, and I am truly sorry for your loss." He squeezed Steven's shoulder on the way past. "I'll let myself out."

Jim stared at the envelope before getting to his feet and walking over to the window. The study overlooked the backyard, and as if sensing his father's eyes on him, Blair looked toward the window and waved. "Look Dad, I can play socceh," he said quietly. Jim smiled at the little person who had recently become the centre of his universe. How would I feel if I pushed you away and you never gave me the chance to say I'm sorry? he thought. With one last look at his son, Jim turned back to the table, and slipped the letter into his pocket.

Steven let out an audible sigh of relief. It was as if their future as brothers was hinged on this one action. Rising from his chair, he moved to the window and looked out at their children. "Well, the boys seemed to have hit it off," he said. "I hope they get the opportunity to get to really know each other. Matthew could certainly use a playmate. He's a little outnumbered in this neighbourhood." Steven kept staring straight ahead. "And I also hope that I get the opportunity to get to know my big brother again."

Jim focus turned back to the children. "I think your brother would like that," he said quietly.

Jim shifted Blair to rest gingerly against his broken arm as he fumbled with the front door key. Finally getting the door open, he threw the keys in the basket and carried Blair to his bedroom.

Blair lifted his head up from his father's shoulder and looked around in a sleepy daze. "We home," he mumbled, settling his head back down.

"We sure are, and it's well past your bedtime, Junior." He seated Blair on the low-set bed and pulled off his sneakers. He was in need of a bath, but it would have to wait until morning. Slipping the youngster's arms out of his jacket, he removed his t-shirt and struggled to pull on Blair's pajama top. Once that was achieved, he repeated the process with bottom half. "Okay, Chief, time to use the bathroom, and then bed," he said, picking Blair up and carrying him into the bathroom.

Blair mumbled a garbled sentence, as Jim placed him on the little stool in front of the toilet and waited.

"I finished," the youngster yawned, his eyes drooping little by little.

"Okay, buddy, teeth next and then bed." Jim pulled up Blair's pants and carried him to the sink. The teeth were a bit of a struggle, as Blair was now getting grumpy and uncooperative. Only giving it a half-hearted effort, Jim wiped the toothpaste foam from Blair's mouth and carried him back into his bedroom. He tucked him snugly into bed and Blair was sound asleep before his head had a chance to settle into the pillow.

Ellison sipped at his coffee and studied the envelope that lay on the kitchen table. No time like the present, he thought. Tentatively he broke the seal on the back, slipped out the sheet of paper and began to read.

My dear son,

If you are reading this, then that can mean only one thing -- once again I have failed in my role as your father. I have passed away leaving the issues that drove you away unresolved. I know that it is now too late to say I'm sorry, but please Jim, before you tear up this letter and throw it in the trash, I ask, no, I plead, that you give me this one last chance.

Thinking back on your childhood, I realise how difficult it must have been for you, growing up as an Ellison. I was a demanding father, always expecting more from you, no matter how hard you tried. Always pushing and forcing you to be somebody that you weren't. I put my aspirations of what I thought you should achieve ahead of what you really wanted. Probably one of the most awful sins a parent can do to their child is to not accept their children for who they are. To force them to be something they are not.

I know that your childhood was not always a happy one and in many ways I feel that I actually stole this time away from you. A time that should have been happy and carefree was full of pressure and self-doubts. Self-doubts initiated by me. The pressure that you must have constantly been under to try and live up to my expectations must have been unbearable. I am truly sorry for inflicting this on you. I never gave you the chance to simply be a child and I am so very sorry.

By now you will know what has been left to you in my will and if I know you, Jim, you have probably already told my lawyer that he can stick my money where the sun doesn't shine, and I don't blame you. You're a strong man, Jimmy, just like you were a strong boy and far more capable of looking after yourself than I ever could. I know I'm asking a lot of you again, but I am still selfish enough to ask that you at least consider my offer. I know you don't need anything from me, but that doesn't change the fact that you are entitled to it. Even though we haven't spoken in years, I never stopped thinking of you as my son. You are an Ellison, Jim, and this money is yours just as much as it is Steven's. This money was earned through the suffering of my children. My sons were neglected as I clawed my way to the top and I know that all the money in the world can't fix that, but please, Jimmy, please, take this money tainted with suffering and put it too good use.

I wish I had the courage to tell you all of these things while I was still alive, but you see son, I was afraid. I was afraid of what you would say. I was afraid that my eldest son would not have forgiven his father.

Obviously I will never know your decision. But I'm sure whatever you decide, it will be the right one. I love you Jim. I always have. You're a fine man and you've made me very proud. I only wish you could have been proud of your old man.

With all my love,


Jim folded the letter and placed it neatly back into the envelope. "I would have forgiven you, Dad," he whispered, sadly.

"Are you looking forward to going back to school, Chief?" Jim asked, placing a glass of milk in front of Blair.

"Ah-ha," was the only answer from the three-year-old before he took a big gulp of his drink, leaving behind a milk moustache that would have made Wild Bill himself proud.

Jim pulled out a chair and took a seat at the table. "Chief, do you like living here?"

Blair immediately put down the glass and gave his father a worried look. Unable to contain his uncertainty, he blurted out. "You not want me anymo'e?"

"Oh god," Jim muttered. I thought we'd gotten past this. He plucked Blair off the chair and settled him firmly on his knee. "Munchkin, don't you ever think that! I love you more than you could possibly imagine and I always want you with me."

Now even more confused, Blair gave his father a quizzical look. "Don't you like living here, Daddy?"

"Yes I do, but I was just wondering if you would rather live in a house that had more room. One that had a backyard for you to run around and play in."

"You mean like Matthew's house?" Blair bounced on his knee. "I could get a socceh ball and we could kick it around and I could help you build a big twee-house, like the one in my book. We would have to grow a big twee firsted," he added. His blue eyes lit up with excitement, as he continued to bounce up and down on his father's knee. "Daddy, Daddy. If we had a new house we could have one that had a special room for Lucas. I told him he could share my room, but I think he too big to fit in my bed. It would be too squishy." Changing subjects like the wind, Blair's immediate interest lay with Lucas rather than a new house. "When can we visit Lucas, Dad? I think he be sad, because he not see me fo' days and days. Can we go today, Daddy? Can we?"

Damn! Jim thought. Blair hadn't mentioned the kid since their return, and he'd been hoping that it would remain that way. "You have to go to school today and I have to go back to work," Jim said, a little too abruptly. "Besides, I'm not sure what hospital Lucas is in."

Blair scrambled down off Jim's knee. "I call Uncle Simon. He will know."

"Hey, Chief. I have a better idea," Jim said, heading Blair off at the pass. "Why don't I ask Uncle Simon when I see him at work?"

"You pwomise?"

Ellison looked at the expectation in his son's face. He had promised that Blair could visit Lucas when he was transferred to Cascade and breaking that promise would not only shatter Blair but also shatter their trust. "I promise," he reluctantly replied.

Blair took hold of his father's hand and turned it over. He first spat on his own hand before repeating the same to Jim's. Then, holding their hands together, he squished them as tightly as he could. "We make a spit pwomise, Dad. They the best kind. Lucas sayed so."

"Wonderful," Jim muttered, wiping his hand on the kitchen towel. "I wonder what other lovely habits the punk has taught you?"

"Hey, Simon." Ellison poked his head through the office door. "What do you want me to start on? H said that he and Rafe wrapped up the MacDonald case. Anything new come in?"

"I have just the job for you, Detective Ellison," Banks replied, giving Jim a wicked smile. "Your assignments are on your desk.

Ellison glanced over to his desk and spotted a large pile of folders in his in tray. "Not paperwork," he groaned. "You've got to be joking. It'll take me a week to get through all that."

"Exactly my plan. And when you're done there, I have the next few weeks planned out for you as well. The girls in records are doing a complete overhaul of the files and I've kindly offered them your expertise."

"Simon, I'm a detective, not a secretary." The sudden noise behind him made Jim turn his attention toward Rhonda. He gave her a sheepish look as she dumped another pile of files on his desk. "No offence, Rhonda," he muttered.

"Detective or not, my friend, a broken arm is a broken arm, and in this line of work, it's also a liability." Simon's faced turned serious. "And if you think I'm going to tell that boy of yours that he no longer has a father because I sent him out on the street with a handicap, you've got another think coming."

"Point taken," Jim grumbled. "I suppose I should make a start."

"Good, and Jim, while you're making that start, I'd like you to start on this file first. It's the most pressing."

Jim took the file that Simon handed him and glanced at it briefly. "This file has nothing to do with me," he said, handing it back. "And nothing to do with this department either," he clarified. "Last time I looked, it said Major Crime on the door, not Child Protection Agency."

"Last time I looked, detective, kidnapping was a major crime, and last time I looked, I still wore the bigger pants." Simon handed the file back. "And because it's my prerogative, I've assigned this case to you." Banks studied the look on Jim's face, knowing he could only push so far until Ellison completely baulked. Changing tact, he lowered his voice. "Please, Jim, this really is important. Once you've read the boy's file, you'll understand why he did what he did." Simon got to his feet and pulled his overcoat from the stand by the door. He squeezed Jim's shoulder as he passed. "I've got a meeting downtown, so you can use my office."

Jim's demeanour became stiff and uncooperative. "Are you making this an order, sir?" he asked tersely.

"If it has to be that way, then yes, I guess I am." Banks pulled on his coat. "Rhonda, hold all of Detective Ellison's calls. I'll be back in a few hours."

Jim had paled visibly by the time he'd finished reading the file on Lucas Wilder. "My god," he whispered. "How could a father do that to his sons?" How could he have sold his own sons into a life of prostitution, just to support his drug habit? He dusted his fingers over the picture of the battered body of a six-year-old boy before flipping back over to the coroner's report. Scott Wilder had basically bled out due to injuries caused by a vicious rape. The coroner reported that his hysterical nine-year-old brother had dragged his lifeless body into the emergency room, begging for them to save his life. Lucas Wilder was covered in blood himself, and his arm was severely broken. Police sent to the crime scene had found the unconscious body of Max Wilder on the kitchen floor and an arrest was made. To make a long story short, Max Wilder was sent to prison for child abuse, but not for murder. The semen found in Scott's body was not his and his remaining son had refused to tell police who attacked his brother. Lucas was placed in foster care, but ran away a short time later, and his whereabouts had been unknown up until now. The rape and murder of the six-year-old child was never solved.

Jim closed the file, picked up the phone and waited as the line connected. "This is Detective Ellison of the Cascade PD. I'd like to speak to someone in relation to the transfer of a suspect from Bowen County Hospital. Yes, that's right, Lucas Wilder... today, at noon. Good, I'll come by to organise the security arrangements. Thank you."

"Detective Ellison, I'm Doctor Bradshaw. You're here to oversee the security arrangements for Lucas Wilder, I believe?"

Jim shook the hand being offered and gave a slight nod. "How's he doing?"

"I'm afraid that I can't release medical information on my patients, detective. Unless, of course, you have a court order?"

"I'm not asking for a complete medical history, doctor. I know about the injuries he sustained. I just wanted to know how he's doing."

"He's had some setbacks in the last few days, but he appears to be a strong-willed young man. I'm optimistic about a full recovery."

"Can I see him?"

"He's really in no condition to be questioned at the moment."

"I don't want to question him. I just want to see him."

Bradshaw looked at Ellison as if she was assessing whether or not he was a threat to her patient. "All right," she said eventually, "But five minutes is all I can give you. The trip up here has been pretty rough on him."

Ellison closed the door to Lucas' room quietly behind him. He stood still and studied the young man in the bed. Focusing his senses on the teenager's vitals, he listened to the boy's congested lungs as they drew in difficult, raspy breaths. Lucas's eyes were closed, and his upper body was supported by several pillows and covered in a zigzag of wires. Edging closer, he removed the medical chart hanging on the end of the bed, and quickly scanned through the pages. The medical training he had received in the army gave him enough basic knowledge to decipher what he was reading. Along with his other injuries, Lucas had developed pneumonia.

"You here to make an arrest?" Lucas wheezed, his eyes now half open.

"Not at this stage," Ellison replied, replacing the chart. "I haven't actually made a decision as to what I'm going to do yet, although, if I do decide to press charges, you'd likely go away for a long time. I'm sure you know that kidnapping is a very serious offence."

"Yeah, well, so is child abuse."

Jim pushed back his anger. He had no intention of giving the kid an opportunity to bait him. "I'd watch that tongue of yours, kid. It's always wise to play nice with the person who holds your future in his hands."

"If you're not here to arrest me, then why are you here?"

"To satisfy myself that you're not going to be a danger to my son. He wants to come and see you."

Jim heard Lucas' heartbeat increase at the mention of Blair's name and was surprised that his senses had actually been proven accurate by the machine next to the bed.

"Blair, how is he? Is he okay?"

"He's doing alright, considering. Although I suspect that the full ramifications of his abduction might not have surfaced yet."

Lucas turned his head away from Jim and stared out the window. "I didn't mean to hurt him. I thought I was doing the right thing. He reminded me of someone I once knew and I didn't want him to end up the same way."

For a moment, Jim's heart went out to the kid as he was struck with the realisation that if Blair had not been left on his doorstep, then there was every chance that this could be his son lying here in the hospital... that is, if he even lived to be a teenager. His conscience began to struggle with the idea that Lucas did need to be given a chance. The chance to live a life, free from the physical and sexual abuse he had suffered in the past. The chance to go to school and get the education he deserved and had a right to, and the chance to simply be a normal teenager, with no more difficult decision ahead of him than whether or not he should date the blonde or the redhead. The question was, however, was it up to him to offer this boy the chance? Why should it be his responsibility to provide these things to a child he didn't even know? Why should he give a second chance to boy whose actions very nearly destroyed his life? Could he ever trust a boy like Lucas Wilder?

A round of lung-rattling coughs interrupted his thoughts. He approached the bed to offer some help, but his actions were halted when Lucas held up his hand. "mm... okay. I don't need your help."

A nurse on her rounds pushed her way into the room, her look signalling her displeasure at her patient's current condition. She checked the oxygen line under Lucas' nose before comforting him quietly.

"I think that's enough for today, Detective." Patricia Bradshaw was not far behind the nurse, and her displeasure was measured equally.

Standing aside from the door, she gestured for Jim to leave.

"I'll bring Blair by in a few days, when you're feeling a little better," Jim said, ignoring the harsh stares from both the women in the room.

As he made his way down the hallway, he knew what he had to do, but whether or not he could actually bring himself to do it was an entirely different matter.

Ellison stormed into the bullpen, his mood dark and sullen, causing his associates to stay well out of his line of fire. Since leaving the hospital, he'd been bundled up in a tight cluster of knots. Plucking Lucas's file from his desk, he headed for his intended target. Not bothering to knock, he barged into the office and flung the file down on Simon's desk.

Simon didn't look up. He just stated calmly, "Jim, nice to see you. I noticed you weren't at your desk when I got back. Everything okay?"

Without warning, Jim ran out of steam. He deflated and sank wearily down into an office chair. "Simon, what am I gonna do? I can't take responsibility for that kid. I have my own son to worry about, and besides that, who knows what kind of psychological problems he could be suffering from? I can't put Blair in that kind of risk. I won't put Blair in that kind of risk."

Simon reached back and grabbed a coffee cup from the table behind his desk. Filling it to the brim, he placed it in front of Jim. "Ellison, think about what you just said for a moment. That kid nearly died to save your son. In your heart, do you really feel that Lucas would pose a threat to Blair?" He took a sip of his own coffee before continuing. "The situation, as it stands, is that when Lucas is physically able, he will be transferred to a juvenile facility. Given the nature of the offence he committed, it's highly unlikely that he will be placed in foster care." Simon paused for a moment to make sure he had Jim's full attention. "That is, of course, unless someone is willing to assume guardianship of the boy. Even then, it would still be a long shot. The judge would need to take into account Lucas' crime and his past history to determine how much of a threat to the community he is. It would go in his favour if, say, the father of the child he kidnapped was willing to support him and take responsibility for him. If this were to happen, I would say the likelihood of him being kept out of jail would be much higher."

Ellison didn't utter a word.

"Jim, look," Simon stated sympathetically, knowing he now at least had Ellison's full attention. "I realise that this is a lot to ask, but considering this is probably the last chance the kid will get at having any decent kind of a life, I think it's something worth considering. Don't you?"

Jim scrubbed his hand over his face and let out a sigh of frustration. He knew all too well what would happen to Lucas if he were to be incarcerated. He might be able to handle himself while in a juvenile facility, but if he were sent to an adult facility in the future, he wouldn't last long. The boy was a good-looking kid, and good-looking young boys were easy prey in jail. "What do I have to do to become his guardian?" he finally asked.

"Well, as it so happens, the wheels are already in motion. The court date is set for the day after tomorrow."

Jim looked at his captain with a mixture of annoyance and gratitude. "How did you know I'd say yes?"

Simon put down his coffee and leaned back in his chair. "Because, my friend, you are a good man."

"Wow!" Blair exclaimed, looking up at the huge oak tree in wonderment. "We could build a really cool twee-house in this one, Dad. I really, really like this house."

"Why don't we take a look at the inside first, Chief, before we make up our minds." The judge had given Jim temporary guardianship of Lucas, based on a trial period of three months. During that time, Jim needed to prove that he was capable of providing a safe and stable environment for the teenager to live. Lucas would be placed more or less on home detention for this period; the only exception being his daily attendance at school. Any other outing would need to be in the company of Jim or another police officer. After the trial period, this condition would be assessed and, if all went well, Jim would be granted full guardianship. With Lucas moving in, even if only temporarily, he had decided to use his father's inheritance to buy a house. They would be seriously pushed for space at the loft, and once the seed of having a big back yard to play in was planted in Blair's head, the little boy had not let the idea slide. It would be unfair to deny his son this opportunity just because he was too stubborn to take this gift from his father. He had enough money available now from the cash his father had left and his own investments to afford a good-sized house in a good suburb. He decided to put his childhood home up for sale and place the proceeds in trust for Blair. Raising his son in his father's home wasn't an option. There were simply too many bad memories.

"Well, what do you think?" asked the realtor.

"I better go and have a word with the boss first," Jim replied.

Locating Blair on the second floor, he tracked him down to the last bedroom on the right. "Hey Munchkin, what'cha doing?"

"This can be Lucas's woom, daddy. He would like to live heuh." Blair grabbed his father by the hand and dragged him out of the room and down the hallway. "And this can be my room," he announced, going into a smaller room next to his father's.

"It looks a little small to me, Chief. Wouldn't you prefer the room next to Lucas's? It's a lot bigger."

"No," Blair replied quietly. "I like this one and it's wight next to you' room... fo' in case you need me."

Or if you need me, Jim thought. He bent down and lifted Blair into his arms. "I think this is the perfect room for you, Chief. Shall we go tell the lady that we'll take it?"

"Ah-ha." Blair squeezed Jim's neck tightly. "Can we go see Lucas?"

"Not today, Chief. He's still not feeling very well. The doctor said that by the end of the week he could probably have visitors." Looking at the dejected expression on Blair's face, he jiggled the youngster in his arms. "Hey kiddo, look on the bright side. By the time Lucas is ready to leave the hospital, we'll have a new home to move into."

"Doctor Bradshaw." Jim gave the doctor's door a light tap. "I was wondering if you have a few minutes?"

"Detective, certainly. Come on in." Her attitude toward Jim had changed considerably over the past few weeks, since finding out the lengths the man was prepared to go to for her patient. "And who do we have here?" she asked, smiling at Blair.

"This is my son, Blair."

"Hi, Blair, nice to meet you. What have you got there?" she asked.

"It a pictu'e of my family. See." Blair unrolled the drawing he held in his hand. "This is my daddy, this is me, and this is Lucas. He going to be my new bwotheh."

Jim spotted a box of toys and books in the corner of the doctor's office. "Hey, Junior, why don't you go and see what there is to play with? I just wanna have a quick word with the doctor."

Once Blair was busy digging through the box, Jim began. "I want to thank you for your help with Lucas's guardianship case. Your testimony was a great help."

"I was only doing my job. Being placed in a juvenile facility is not in my patient's best interest."

"How's he doing, today?" Jim asked. "Do you think he's up to a visit from Blair?"

"He's doing a little better today. The antibiotics have the pneumonia under control, and the healing of his other injuries is progressing as expected."

"What about the rape?" Jim asked quietly, so as not to attract Blair's attention.

"Physically, he's on the mend. He was torn quite badly, and he carries a lot of scar tissue from previous penetrations. I gather you've read his file, so you know what I'm talking about. As to his psychological progress, that, I'm afraid, has reached a stalemate. He refuses to talk to our resident psychologist. He won't discuss his past, his brother, his father, or this recent event, and I'm afraid that if Lucas doesn't come to terms with these events, perhaps one day he might snap."

"What do you mean 'snap'? Do you think he's a danger?"

"A danger to others, no, but a danger to himself, yes. I wouldn't class him as suicidal, but I do fear that any additional trauma might just push him over the edge. That's why I recommended he not be put into a juvenile facility. He needs to be somewhere he feels safe and secure. Someplace where there is no chance of anything like that ever happening to him again. Now don't get me wrong," she said, noticing the concerned look on Jim's face. "He's a strong boy. He's had to be, or he wouldn't have made it this far. All I'm saying is there is only so much a person can take. Especially when that person is all alone in the world."

"Daddy," Blair interrupted. "When can we see Lucas?"

Jim got to his feet and held out his hand. "Thank you for your time, Doctor."

"You're welcome," she said, shaking Jim's hand. "And Detective. Don't feel like you have to treat him like he is made of china. If this situation is going to work, he needs to know who is the head of the household. Although you wouldn't think so sometimes, Lucas is still a teenager. And like all teenagers, he will push the boundaries."

"Thanks again," Ellison said before rounding up Blair and heading down the hall. If there was one thing the doctor didn't have to worry about, it was treating the kid like he was made of glass. Lucas would, right from the onset, know who was in charge.

Any attempt at entering Lucas's room quietly was futile. As soon as the door was pushed open, Blair ran through, racing across the room like a tumbleweed in the wind. "Lucas, Lucas, Lucas!" he shouted with glee.

Lucas was startled awake by the commotion and it took him a few seconds to realise what was going on. "Hey, Sport," he finally said, reaching out his hand. "I've been wondering when I might see you again."

Blair pulled the chair over to the bed and climbed up on it, but he didn't stop there. In a flash he was attempting to clamber up onto the bed. Jim reacted quickly and grabbed a hold of him. "Slow up a minute there, Chief. Lucas isn't well enough for you to go climbing all over him. Why don't you just sit quietly on the side of the bed?"

"I sowwy," Blair said anxiously. "Did I hu't you?"

"No, Sport, I'm fine. It's good to see you." Lucas gave Jim a quick look before turning his attention back to Blair. "Are you okay?" he mumbled, lowering his voice so Jim wouldn't hear. "Everything all right at home?"

"Ah-ha," Blair whispered back. "But we don't have to talk quiet, Lucas. My daddy will still heuh you." Blair bounced with excitement. "We got a new home, Lucas. Me and Dad went and looked at lots and lots of houses, and we finded one that is way cool. It got a big backyahd and a big tree and it got a swimming pool for when it get hot. I can't swim yet, but I going to have lessons."

Lucas grabbed his sore stomach muscles before turning his head to cough. Blair rubbed his leg through the blanket until the bout ended. "That does sound cool," he wheezed, turning his attention back to the three-year-old.

"It is. It really, really big and it got a room for all of us, and rooms for people to come and visit. I already picked out you' room. Daddy said he was suuh you would like it."

"My room?" The teenager immediately eyed Jim with suspicion.

Jim decided it was about time he entered the conversation. He hadn't yet discussed the arrangements with Lucas. He was waiting until the kid was a bit stronger. "The judge has awarded me temporary guardianship over you for a trial period. When you're well enough to leave the hospital, you'll be staying with us."

Lucas's eyes flashed with anger. "What, just like that? No consultation? No asking me what I wanted? You just decided what was best for me without even considering that I might not want to live in your damn house?"

"This conversation can wait for another time, don't you think?" Jim said roughly, reminding Lucas of the fact that Blair was in the room.

Lucas's attention immediately shifted back to Blair. "Hey, I'm sorry, Sport. I didn't mean it like that."

"Don't you want to come live with me?" Blair asked.

"Of course I do. It was just a surprise, that's all."

"Good, cause I made you a pictu'e for your bedroom wall. It a pictu'e of ouuh new family."

The visit continued without any further conversation between Jim and Lucas. The only communication he received from the boy was a few well-timed, and well-aimed, angry stares. Well, this is going to be fun, he thought. I just can't wait to play happy families with this kid.. With Lucas tiring, Jim pulled Blair off the bed. "Come on, Chief, time for us to leave. We can come back another day."

"Bye, Lucas." Blair latched on to the teenager's hand. "I hope you get betteh quick."

"I'll be up and around in no time, Sport. I promise."

Jim ushered Blair out the door, paused for a moment and then turned around to face Lucas. He decided the only way to be with the boy was straight down the line. The kid had been around the block too many times to buy any bullshit. "I'm sorry if you're not happy with the living arrangements, but it's either that or a nice comfy room in a boy's home. It's a good crowd in there, or so I hear, so you'd probably make a few nice friends, if you get my drift." He looked into Lucas's eyes and knew the boy understood exactly what he was trying to say. "Besides, at least this way you get to keep an eye on Blair. I've got a feeling that you still don't think he's safe with me."

Lucas didn't answer; he just turned his head away and closed his eyes. Not for one fucking second,he thought. He didn't like Jim Ellison, nor did he trust him, but the guy did have a point. At the first sign of Blair in any kind of danger, he would take him and hightail it out of there. He had disappeared before; he could do it again. Jim Ellison better prove himself to be the exemplary father that Blair said he was, or he would lose his child for good.

"Welcome to your new home," Steven toasted. The sale on Jim and Blair's new house had closed and the loft had been rented out to a corporate couple whose lives revolved around money and advancement -- not children. Everyone, including Steven and his family, had helped Jim and Blair move into their new abode. After an exhausting day of moving the furniture from the loft to the new place, it was time to relax and wind down. Blair and Matthew had fallen asleep in a beanbag chair in front of the television, while Maggie, who was desperately trying to be a grownup, struggled to stay awake in her mother's lap. "Have you decided what school to send Lucas to?" Rachael asked, gently rocking her daughter.

"I haven't really looked into it yet," Jim replied. He swiped another piece of pizza, stuffing it into his mouth.

Jessie's look was stern. Being an ex-teacher, education was paramount on her agenda. "Joel told me that he was being released from the hospital tomorrow. Is that still the case?"

"Yep, I'm still picking him up tomorrow. Although I'm not entirely sure he's too thrilled about the idea," Jim added. "His doctor said that it'll be a least another month before he's up to attending school, though. The pneumonia apparently has really knocked him around and he's lost a lot of weight."

"Jim, would you like me to look into enrolling him at my school?" Rachael was a specialist teacher at a small private school. She was on extended leave due to some difficulties she was experiencing with her third pregnancy. "Given the nature of Lucas's past, maybe putting him in a smaller school would be better for him?"

"Rachael, I think it's going to be hard enough to get him used to the idea of going to any school at this stage. I can already see the trouble he'd create if he knew I was paying fees to send him to a private school. And you also have to remember that Lucas hasn't had any formal education since he was nine. I think that mainstream schooling would be the best thing for him. It'll give him a chance to fit in without making him feel like he's special."

"Jim, if the boy hasn't been at school since he was nine, it is my opinion that he is going to need some extensive tutoring before you throw him to the wolves, so to speak." Jessie got to her feet, hoping the added height might aid in getting her point across. "I'd like to offer my services. I could come by and do daily lessons with him until Blair is ready to be picked up from school. At least this way, it would give him some sort of idea of what he's in for."

Jim looked at Jessie in complete surprise. After what Lucas had done to her, he hadn't been quite sure how she would react to him taking the kid in. He never expected for one moment that she'd offer the Lucas her assistance.

"Don't you look at me like that, James Ellison," she scolded. "I've read his file. I know what he's been through. No child should have to suffer like he has. Good lord, you need a license to keep a dog in this state, but you can do whatever you like to your children. He needs our help and support and I'm willing to offer that to him."

"I'd like to help, too," Rachael offered. "Being at home all day is kind of driving me crazy and my specialty is teaching both gifted and struggling children. I think I could be of some help to him."

Jim looked at both women with admiration. First, Jessie was willing to forgive a kid who had caused her a world of heartache, and now Rachael was offering help to a boy she had never even met.

"Thank you," he simply said. There was nothing else he really could say. They were a family and as he was slowly learning, families stick together.

Jim dumped Lucas's bag onto the bedroom floor. Since the kid didn't have many possessions, he'd ended up going to the mall to stock the wardrobe. Daryl and Simon had come along, with Daryl giving some expert advice on what was 'in' and what was 'not'. Sizing wasn't an issue. If it fit him, it would fit Lucas. At sixteen, Lucas stood only a couple of inches shorter than he did and, although the kid had lost weight, he was still sturdily built.

Jim glanced over at Lucas, who was now eye balling him with nothing short of hatred. He decided to put the ball in play. "Look kid, I know you're not thrilled about being here, but considering your options, I think a little gratitude wouldn't go astray."

Lucas didn't answer, just tracked Jim's every move.

"Okay," Jim said. "Since you've set the mood, may as well get the house rules over and done with so we can start playing happy families." He crossed his arms and leaned heavily against the doorframe. "Rule number one," he began. "Under no circumstance is there to be drugs or alcohol brought into this house. If you do and I find them, which I will, you'll be out of here quicker than you can crap with the runs." He adjusted his stance, firming up his body language. "Number two. Since one of the conditions of you living here means that you're under house arrest, other than school, you are not to leave the premise, unless in the company of either myself or another member of the Major Crime squad." There was no response forthcoming. No indication that the kid was taking in what he was saying, and certainly no indication that Lucas was wary or cautious of him. He pushed himself off the doorframe. "Three," he said. "You've been enrolled in school as of the end of the month, and until that time, some very special people have kindly agreed to give up their time to tutor you. You will not only accept this help, without question, you will also appreciate this help with enthusiasm." He lowered the tone of his voice. He knew how to deliver a threat. He'd spent a lifetime perfecting it and had the distinct feeling he was going to need both barrels to get through to this kid. "And fourth," he said, "and one I suggest you think about very carefully. You are not to abscond from the premises. If you intend to do so, be fully aware that I will track you down and I will drag your sorry ass back here, without question and without sympathy." His look went stone cold. "And believe me, if you do take off, I will find you and when I do I won't be playing the nice cop."

Got'chya, Jim thought. But not exactly where I wanted you. There was a flicker in the kid's eyes which Jim recognised as easily as he recognised his own reaction. Lucas had just turned rule number four into a challenge and, despite this challenge being contrary to his plan, he felt a flicker of pride for Lucas' fighting spirit. The kid certainly had some balls, he'd give him at that.

Jim let a wry smile drift onto his face. "And lastly," he said. "Welcome home!"

When the door closed and the footsteps moved away, Lucas lay back on the bed in his new, unwanted room. He closed his eyes and willed himself to get his emotions under control. He hadn't cried in years and had no intention starting now, especially not in front of Ellison. When it came to the cop, his game face would be well and truly in place. He rolled to his side and punched his pillow. He felt like crap. His lungs burned, his back throbbed and he could still feel the dull ache from where he had been torn apart. Although he had physically healed, he could still feel it. He could still feel Gideon as he pushed his way into his body and could still feel the pain as his flesh tore apart. But worst of all, he could still feel Gideon's hot breath on his ear and the haunting sound of his voice. It is through our blood, sweat and tears that we are reborn, my son.

Blair pushed his way into Lucas' room without knocking. His daddy told him that it would be best to leave Lucas alone for a while, that Lucas had a lot to think about. But he didn't agree. He would just go in and see if Lucas was okay. He would even help him think, if Lucas wanted him to. Tiptoeing over to the bed, he whispered loudly. "Lucas, you alwight? Do you want me to help you think?"

Lucas turned to face Blair. "Think about what, Sport?" he asked, trying to sound as if nothing was up.

Blair climbed up on the bed. "I not suuh. What you thinking about?"

"Nothing much."

Blair put Big Bird down on the pillow between them. "Do you like your room?" he asked. "I picked it for you." He laid his hand on the teenager's arm. "Don't be sad, Lucas. You will like living heuh. We can be bwothehs."

Lucas couldn't answer. He couldn't answer because he couldn't guarantee that his voice wouldn't crack.

A voice rang out from the bottom of the stairs and Blair quickly climbed off the bed. "I leave Big Buhd here so you not get lonely. He a good listeneh, Lucas. You can tell him anything."

Jim carried a tray up the stairs. Lucas had made no attempt to leave his room since arriving home and was now overdue for his pills. For the past thirty minutes he'd been listening to muffled groans coming from the room; it was now time for Mohammed to go to the mountain, since it was obviously clear that the mountain was too stubborn to come to him. He knocked on the door and, when he didn't receive an answer, he turned the handle. "Time for your pills, kid, and you can't do that on an empty stomach. I hope you like turkey, 'cause that's all I've got left in the fridge." He stepped into the room and Lucas attempted to sit up, only to be forced back down with pain.

"Hey, take it easy." Jim's concern was genuine and it surprised him a little. He put the tray down on the bedside table. "Where's it hurt?"

Normal circumstances would have seen Lucas rejecting any help, but the pain was intense -- worse than he'd felt in a long, long time. The void where his kidney once had been was giving him hell. The knife that Gideon had plunged into his back had not only irreparably damaged the organ, but had sliced through and damaged surrounding muscle. The doctors told him he would heal, in time, but warned that it was possible he might experience 'phantom' pain. He grimaced as another spasm hit. There was nothing phantom about the pain. "My back," he finally gritted out.

"Here, lift up. Jim slipped his hand under Lucas' shoulder and guided him up, just a little off the pillow. He pushed two pills into his mouth. "It'll help take the edge off," he stated. His hand moved, then lingered on Lucas' neck for a brief moment. "Just lay still. I'll go get you a heating pad."

The heat pack was hot and Jim juggled it from hand to hand. Pain, people and sympathy. Such conditions had never been on the top of his priority list. Most of the guys he'd known in the army were hard-core. They either handled pain or covered it up -- no pity asked for and none given. As he walked back into the bedroom it suddenly hit home how far away from army traditions he now was. He wasn't dealing with a career solider or some jarhead who'd had his nerve endings severed at birth. He was dealing with a kid. A sixteen-year-old kid, who despite having a front wider than the Mississippi delta, was fundamentally still just a boy. A boy who felt pain, a boy who felt sorrow and a boy who had most likely been betrayed as many times as he'd drawn breath. Moving closer to the bed, another realisation hit home. Blair had open up an emotional hole -- a hole that had been sealed shut for more years than he cared to remember. If he wasn't careful now, he was in serious danger of Lucas putting a fist straight through that hole and leaving him completely exposed.

"No!" The roughness in Lucas' voice bought Jim from his thoughts. He'd taken a liberty and crossed a line he shouldn't have crossed, without permission. He found himself sitting on the bed, his hand lifting the back of Lucas' shirt.

Jim started to back off but before he could let go, Lucas's fingers wrapped around his wrist. "Hey, I'm sorry," Jim apologised. "I'm just going to put the pad on your back and then I'll leave, okay?"

The grip was tight but Lucas allowed him some movement. He put the pad directly over the scar where a kidney had once resided. "It should ease up soon," he said, his emotional guilt pressing down on the hole that Blair had created. He shook it off and got to his feet. "Try and eat something when you feel up to it. You shouldn't really be taking those pills on an empty stomach." Moving toward the door, he lingered for a moment before finally moving into the hall, leaving door slight ajar behind him. He hadn't even reached the stairwell before his heard the door shut and the lock snick into place. He shrugged his shoulders. It shouldn't be unexpected.

The next week progressed slowly. For the most part, Lucas had remained sullen and uncooperative, but Blair was as bright and bubbly as ever, and barely gave Lucas a moment's peace. Jim had, at first, put surveillance on their conversation, but finally decided to give them some privacy. Trust had to start somewhere and his instinct told him that Lucas wasn't a threat to Blair's safety. In fact, the kid had seemed to have appointed himself Blair's personal bodyguard. What did give him some reason for concern was what would happen if he didn't live up to the kid's expectations. He shrugged off the thought, pushing it to the back of his mind and labelling it as paranoid. Lucas would have his expectation fulfilled because doing the very best he could by Blair was already a done deal. He looked up from the sink as Lucas came ambling into the kitchen, and asked, "How's the back today?"

"It's okay," Lucas replied, almost civilly. He pulled out a chair and took a seat at the table. "You need any help?"

Well, this is a change, Jim thought, pleasantly surprised. "Sure, how about you peel the vegetables? It'll take me twice as long with my arm."

Lucas pushed back the chair and moved over to the sink. "When do you get that off?"

"Next Monday and it can't come soon enough. It's driving me nuts." Jim handed over the peeler. "I was talking to Jessie today, and since you seem to be on the mend, she'd like to come by and start tutoring you."

Lucas's reaction wasn't at all what Jim had been expecting. "Jessie? As in the old lady that I knocked out and left on the kitchen floor? You can't be serious. Why would she want to help me after what I did to her?"

"Because, she's a good person and she wants to help. She's read your file and she knows what you've been through. Oh, and a word of advice. If you want to live to be seventeen, I wouldn't refer to her as old."

"This is fucked!" Lucas threw the carrot down onto the chopping board. "How many other people have you shown it to?" he asked. "Actually forget it, and you know what? Why don't you stick the fuckin' thing on the fridge, right next to Blair's painting? That way everyone who comes to visit will know that I'm fucked -- literally." Lucas stormed out of the kitchen, bounded up the stairs and slammed the door to his room.

"Okay," Jim said, calmly turning back to the potatoes. "Deep breath and count backward from twenty."

The back door slammed and Blair stopped, looking up at his father with curiosity. "What'cha doin'?" he asked.

"Counting backwards and trying to find some patience," Jim replied.

"Patience be'd a vuhtue," Blair replied. "Jessie sayed so." He looked at his father for a few moments longer. "I think you should keep counting, Daddy."

Jim put down the peeler and rolled his eyes. His three-year-old son had him pegged.

After some persuasion that came in the form of 'bad luck, you have no choice in the matter', Lucas grudgingly accepted both Jessie's and Rachael's help. Although severely behind for his age level, he appeared to be bright enough; despite a few uncooperative moments, he was picking up the subject matter quickly. Lucas's attitude toward Jim was also finally beginning to progress from hostile to almost civil, and Jim was trying his hardest to be as patient as he possibly could. It took some doing, as Lucas had the skill to rub him the wrong way when he wanted to, but Jim was determine not to let Lucas get the better of him.

Looking in on Blair before he hit the sack, Jim moved down the hall. The light was still on in Lucas's room and, by the sound of the boy's heartbeat, he was still awake. He knocked before pushing the door open. "You going to bed soon? You've got a big day ahead of you tomorrow."

"Yeah, I'm just finishing off this chapter that I've been told I should read."

"So how you doing with it all?"

"Good, I guess," Lucas shrugged. "I know I'm not going to be up to everybody else's speed, but I'm sure I can wing it."

"Yeah, I'm sure you can." The pride Jim felt at Lucas' tenacity was back. "Well, I'm off to bed. Don't stay up too late." As he closed the door behind him, he heard Lucas move across the room and snap the lock into place. Any hope he had felt that they were actually moving forward faded, but once again he shrugged it off. The kid had probably had more nocturnal visits than he would care to remember.

"No, Tom!" The scream echoed pure terror. "Don't touch me! Don't touch!"

The advantage of sleeping lightly was once again put to use and Jim was out of his room and in Blair's in a matter of seconds. He flicked on the light and found Blair huddled in the corner, caught up in another out-of-control nightmare. His attention was briefly diverted when Lucas appeared in the doorway.

"What the fuck are you doing to him?" Lucas hadn't stopped to assess the situation. He pushed forward, only to be pushed back by an arm, slamming him into the wall. "Don't touch him," Ellison hissed. "Not one finger."

Lucas was about to retaliate, again without thinking, but his sleep-fogged brain beat him to it. Ellison was nowhere near Blair. He wasn't the cause of Blair's distress. "What's wrong with him?" he finally asked.

"He's having a nightmare. It happens sometimes." Jim dropped his arm. "Just stay back and let me deal with this."

Lucas didn't move. He watched in silence as Jim approached Blair. "Hey, Munchkin, it's okay, Daddy's here," he reassured. "Tom's gone, remember? He's never coming back."

Blair's sobs grew more frantic, more desperate. "Daddy, he's heuh. Tom is heuh. I don't wanna have a bath. I don't wanna!" he cried. "Make him stop, Daddy. Lucas, make him stop."

Lucas shot forward at the mention of his name. He stopped and stood next to Jim. "Hey, Sport, I'm here, too. He's gone now, it's okay."

Blair's surroundings slowly came into focus. Both his father and Lucas were in his room. Tom was nowhere to be seen. He lunged forward into Jim's safe arms and was gathered close.

"Shhh, baby, it's okay. I'm here, Kiddo. I'll always be here."

Not knowing what else to do, Lucas reached out and rubbed Blair's back. "Is he alright?"

"He'll be fine... just fine," Jim repeated, reassuring himself more than anything else.

It took close to half an hour before Blair fell back to sleep. Lucas would have left the room -- left and let Jim take care of things -- but Blair had his hand in a tight grip, so he stayed.

Jim swayed back and forth. Blair breathed in and out, slow and smooth. His sleep was now sound.

Moving over to the bed, Jim laid Blair down. Lucas's hand fell from the child's grasp and he moved away.

Without explanation or the need for to justify his actions, Jim removed Blair's pajama pants.

"What are you doing?" Lucas was back by Blair's side.

Jim made no attempt to hide his temper. It was the middle of the night, and he was tired, plus he was fresh out of patience, and one hundred percent fed up with Lucas's interference and accusations. He prayed that the kid would back off because if he didn't, he felt certain that Lucas and Blair's wall would once again be getting reacquainted. "I'm changing his pants," Jim snapped. "He wets the bed when he has night terrors. If you want to be of some useful help and not a pain in my ass, you can grab me a clean pair of Pull-ups from his top drawer and some wipes from my bathroom.

Lucas did what he was asked, but had no intention of leaving the room again until Blair was completely dressed and once again tucked under the covers.

Jim could feel Lucas's breath on his shoulder and could sense his eyes scrutinising his every move as he worked to clean Blair up and get him settled back in bed. "Satisfied?" he asked, pushing past Lucas and dumping Blair's wet pants in the trashcan by the bed. "Satisfied that I didn't molest my son?" He lifted out the liner and tied the top closed before tossing the bag over to Lucas. "You know where the trash is," he said.

Lucas caught the bag. Ellison's anger was out in the open but he didn't care. Lucas had felt the sting of anger before -- literally -- and Jim Ellison and his anger didn't scare him. "Who's Tom?" he asked.

"The bastard who..." Jim paused. "The bastard who haunts his dreams."

"Did Tom...?" Lucas couldn't say the words.

Jim's anger was raw. "Why don't you tell me? You're the expert."

To his credit, Lucas gave nothing away. His expression held steady.

Just how low can you go, Ellison? Jim's conscience was reeling. He'd gone too far; way too far. The kid had really done nothing more than look out for Blair. He should have been grateful. Should have given him a dozen roses and taken him out to dinner. But he didn't work like that. His anger didn't work like that. "Look, Lucas, I didn't mean that. I'm..."

Lucas cut him off. "Trash," was all he said, before leaving the room.

"Yeah, trash," Jim confirmed. "You just summed me up in a nutshell kid."

Lucas wasn't exactly nervous, but he wasn't exactly comfortable with the situation either. The truck came to a stop, its tyres bumping the curb out the front of what was to be his new school.

"You want me to come in with you?" Jim asked.

The teenager took a deep breath and unfastened his seatbelt. "No, it's cool. I'm sure I can manage to find my way to the administration block."

"Yeah, well, just make sure you don't get lost on the way." Jim regretted his words as soon as they left his mouth.

"You still don't trust me, do you? You still think I'm gonna take off."

"I'm sorry, you're right, that was uncalled for. I guess, like everything else, trust is something that has to be earned."

"And I haven't earned that trust when it comes to Blair yet?"

"I do trust you around him," Jim replied defensively. If he were open enough to admit it, he would have let Lucas know that of all the issues they were working through, trusting him with Blair wasn't one of them.

"Yeah, well then, how come every time you need to go out, you either take him with you or arrange for someone else to look after him? There's been a few times when I could have looked after him, but you still drop him off at either Jessie's or your brother's house."

Jim knew exactly what times Lucas was referring to. There had been several occasions where he had been called back to work, but instead of asking Lucas to sit with Blair for a few hours, he had bundled him up and driven him either across town to Steven's or to Joel and Jessie's house. It would have been a hell of a lot more convenient to let Lucas look after Blair, but for some reason he had always hesitated about asking the teenager. "I guess I wasn't sure how you'd do. Three-year-olds are not necessarily always easy to handle. It does require some experience."

"I've done my fair share of babysitting," Lucas replied quietly.

Yeah, I bet you have, Jim thought. He looked at his watch. It was getting late and he needed to get to the station. "Here," he said, withdrawing a twenty-dollar bill and handing it to Lucas.

Lucas pushed it away. "I don't need your money."

"You need lunch money," Jim insisted, "and this should last you for the week. Think of it as payment for your first babysitting job."

"You're kidding, right?"

"I'm gonna have to work late on Friday, and if you're available, I was hoping that you could look after Blair for me?"

For the first time a genuine smile appeared on Lucas' face. He accepted the money. "Thanks, Jim," he said. "And I'm pretty sure I'll be available. I mean it's not like I have a lot of places to go." The comment was not made in anger, but rather in jest.

Jim smiled back at the boy. "I guess you're right on that point. Hey, look, I gotta go. I'll swing by later and pick you up. Have a good day." As Jim pulled away from the curb, he felt that he was finally making progress. Not only did he get a smile out of the kid, it was the first time Lucas had used his name. Lucas had actually called him Jim.

Adam Jenkins' eyes immediately settled on the new kid. He nudged the boy standing next to him. "What'da ya reckon... football or a puck head?"

Five boys made up the group. All five, members of a winning football team, were strong, tall and confident. They were popular with the girls and certain members of the faculty, and it was this popularity that gave them an air of arrogance as they cruised the school halls. Kids that did not meet up to their standards often fell prey to their bullying and scare tactics. They'd never physically hurt anyone, but they were out to have a good time and it didn't matter who they humiliated in the process.

"Hey." Adam leaned against the locker to the right of Lucas. "You new?"

Lucas eyed the kid, taking an instant dislike. "And that would be your business, because?"

"Because I'm just trying to be friendly." Adam pushed himself off the locker. "You play football?"

"Should I?" Lucas responded.

If the truth be known, Lucas didn't know how to play any team sports. He had never had the opportunity. He'd often sat and watched kids down at the local park play baseball and football, but he'd never had the chance to join in. Until he ran away, most of Lucas's time was spent in the company and service of his father.

Jenkins wasn't used to getting the brushoff. He was an attention-seeker and an attention-getter. "How come?" he asked, the first in a line of questions aimed at showing his place in the pecking order. "You're not a pillow biter, are you? We got a strict rule about them. No queers allowed in the locker room."

Attention gained, and Jenkins smiled. Laughs and sniggers filled the hallway, but before Adam had a chance to enjoy the attention of the gathering crowd, he found himself, back up, hard against a locker with the new kid right in his face.

"Listen, prick," Lucas said, applying just enough pressure to Jenkins' windpipe to make him gasp. If you want to stay healthy enough to make it to this Saturday's game, I'd advise you to stay outta my way. I'm not here to take your shit or anyone else's." He eyed the rest of the team. "You got that?"

There was no answer so Lucas applied a little more pressure. He didn't have a lot of time before the Jenkins' second in command found the balls to intervene and a school brawl on his first day wouldn't earn him any brownie points with Jim. "You got that?" he pushed again

"I got it." Jenkins coughed. "I got it."

"Good. Make sure it stays 'got'," Lucas warned. He relaxed the pressure and pushed himself away from Jenkins. Bending down, he kept his eyes on the group to his left and swept his books off the floor before making his way down the hall and rounding the corner.

Adam Jenkins rubbed his throat, his eyes tracking Lucas as he disappeared from sight. The new kid had balls, he'd give him that, but balls weren't much good to you when they were smashed into tiny, little pieces and shoved down your throat. Next time they met, the eyes of the school wouldn't be upon them. Next time they met, it would be five against one. Next time they met, the new kid was going to learn some manners.

"Okay, here is my number at the station, my cell phone number, Joel and Jessie's number and also my brother's home and cell phone numbers. Of course, you know nine-one-one, so there's no need for me to leave that," Jim added in all seriousness. They were seated around the breakfast table, and Lucas was receiving his instructions for the evening.

Reaching over the table, Lucas snatched the list from Jim's hand. "Hey, I think you've missed a number."

Jim snatched the paper back. "Whose?" he asked, studying the list.

"NASA. I mean who am I gonna call if an alien ship lands in the front yard?"

"Oh we're a riot this morning, aren't we?" Jim leaned across the table and playfully smacked Lucas on the forehead. Things were getting easier between them. More relaxed, not so cautious. "No one likes a smart ass," he added

"I guess that explains the reason for your lack friends then," Lucas retaliated with a smile.

Blair giggled, giving them both a big, toothy grin.

"Don't you encourage him, Junior," Jim said. Without warning he plucked Blair from his chair, turned him upside down and dusted his fingers across his stomach.

"Lucas," Blair squealed. "He going to tickle. Save me, save me."

"Don't worry, Sport, I've got your back." Lucas darted from the room, grabbed a cushion from the couch in the living room and blocked Jim's path. "Drop the rug rat," he said. "I'm armed and I'm dangerous."

Jim's smile became impossibly wide. He put Blair down, pushed past Lucas and grabbed a cushion of his own. "Okay, tough guy, let's see what you've got!"

Now free, Blair ran over to the sofa and got a cushion for himself. He looked at it with concentration. "What we gonna do with these?" he asked seriously, having no idea why they were all holding cushions.

Lucas laughed and Jim bent down and gently hit Blair with the cushion. "That's what," he said.

"Come on Sport, let's get him." Lucas swung Blair up, into his arms and attacked.

"Hey, that's not fair. Two against one." Jim took up the challenge. He was careful not to hit Blair too hard, but when it came to Lucas he managed to get in a few well-aimed hits. Finally, as the cushions began to lose shape, Jim fell back on the couch. "Okay, enough, enough, I surrender."

Blair lunged out of Lucas's arms and onto his father's lap. "Mo'e," he giggled. "Can we do it again?"

"Not right now, Munchkin. You two have to get to school and I have to get to work. Why don't you run upstairs and find your other shoe. It's gotta be somewhere in that mess you call a bedroom."

Blair's energy was endless and in less than no time he was halfway up the stairs. "My woom not messy," he shouted from halfway on the top floor.

"I won't let anything happen to him," Lucas stated, the smile gone from his face.

"I know, it's just I get a little protective of him -- father's prerogative," he said, pulling himself to his feet. "I'm sure you'll be fine and I should be home around nine, anyway. Just do me a favour and keep all the doors locked and if you need me for anything, promise me you'll call."

"What, nine-one-one or the NASA hotline?" Lucas quipped.

"Just call," Jim groused as he left the room.

The stakeout had lasted longer than Jim had anticipated and it was well after eleven before he finally got home. He had called several times during the evening, just to satisfy his concern that everything was okay, and Lucas appeared to be managing fine.

Dropping his keys in the basket by the door, he concentrated on his hearing, pleased when he located two slow, regular heartbeats on the second floor. His control over his senses was becoming more reliable. He pushed further, and realised the heartbeats were coming from the same room. He bounded up the stairs, heading straight for Lucas' room. The bed was covered in a mass of books, and sprawled over the sleeping teenager was Blair, who, by the looks of things, was content, warm and also fast asleep. Moving over to the bed, he lightly shook Lucas' shoulder.

Lucas came awake with a start. Immediately aware of an intruder in his room, he sat upright, clutching Blair to his chest.

"Hey kid, it's okay, it's just me." Jim reached out to steady the pair. Blair mumbled in his sleep, but remained asleep. "I didn't mean to startle you." He began to gather up the books. "What's Blair doing in here?"

Lucas tightened his grip on Blair as if Jim was going to suddenly snatch him away. "He couldn't sleep, so I read him some books."

"Looks like you've gone through his whole library." Jim pried Blair out of Lucas's arms. "You know, you don't have to let him run riot over you. He knows the rules about bedtime."

Lucas was quick to his feet and quick to Blair's defence, leaving Jim with the impression he was used to shouldering the blame. "It was my fault. I said he could stay up."

"Lucas, I'm not blaming anyone. All I'm saying is that you have rights in this household, too. You don't have to let Blair be the boss of every situation. At the moment, he's got you wrapped around his little finger and he seems to be enjoying every minute of it. Whatever he wants, you go along with. If he wants to play, you go out and play with him. If he wants to change the television station, even when you're in the middle of watching something, you let him change it. You can't let him keep getting away with it. He needs to know his limits and needs to have some discipline."

"Discipline?" Lucas questioned.

Jim studied the look on Lucas' face. The mistrust was resurfacing.

"You asked me earlier in the week when I was going to start trusting you around Blair? Well, I think it's time I asked you the same question, Lucas. When are you going to start trusting me -- really trusting me around him? You've been living with us now for what, two months?"

Lucas shrugged.

"Well, during that whole time have you ever seen me raise a finger to him? Have I ever given him an unreasonable punishment or done anything that could possibly make you think that I was abusing him?"

Lucas just shook his head.

"Look, kid, I understand that with everything you've been through, it must be hard for you trust. But you've gotta start trusting people sometime. Not all fathers are like yours."

"How come you didn't take him away from Naomi earlier?" Lucas asked bluntly. "You must have known her boyfriend was abusing him."

"No... no, I didn't." Jim still hadn't come to terms with the fact he hadn't known about Blair and that guilt still burned.

"You're a cop, Jim. You must have seen the signs, if not the bruises."

"The reason I didn't take him away, Lucas, is because I didn't even know I had a son. The first I knew about him was when Naomi dropped him off at my doorstep." Blair stirred in Jim's arms, and he gently patted his back. "Blair's conception was the result of a one-night stand. But," he clarified "just because he wasn't planned, doesn't mean that he's not wanted. I love this little guy more than anything in the world, and I would never do anything to hurt him."

Lucas sank down onto the bed. "I know, and I'm sorry. I know you love him. It's just that when I was a little older than him, my dad told me he loved me, too." For the very first time since they'd met, Lucas was starting to open up. "But when my dad came into my bedroom at night, it wasn't just to kiss me goodnight."

Jim adjusted Blair's head, which was now slipping off his shoulder. "Listen, kid. What your father gave to you was not love. He might have convinced you it was, but it wasn't, and you know that. He used you and he hurt you and you have every right to feel angry and confused." Jim held his son a little tighter to his chest. "I just want you to know that as long as you're living in this house, I can guarantee you that nobody will ever come into your room unless you give your permission." He reached out and brushed Lucas' shoulder. "If you ever want to talk about your father, or what happened, I'm here to listen." His hand lingered briefly and he gave Lucas' shoulder a light squeeze. "Now, I better get this little guy into his own bed."

Just before he left the room, Jim turned around. "How much has Blair told you about Tom?" he asked.

Lucas shrugged. "He's told me enough to work out that the guy was a bastard."

The 'need to know' got the better of Jim. Blair had told him a few details about what Tom had done to him, but generally he was in the dark. "I know from the doctor's reports that it's probable Blair had been interfered with. Do you know whether or not Tom..." he stuttered, choking on the word he was trying to say.

"Did Tom rape him?" Lucas finished for him. "In the most common sense of the word, no, he didn't. But he did penetrate Blair... just not with his dick. Used his fingers mostly." Lucas watched Jim's reaction closely. He knew the signs to look for and he wanted to be one hundred percent certain. If Jim was playing around with Blair, then he'd be able to see it in the man's eyes. He'd seen that look far too many times to ever forget what it looked like.

Lucas studied Jim's reaction intently, but he saw nothing but sorrow, grief and anger. He now knew that he didn't have to protect Blair from his father. Jim's love for his son was pure and innocent. The way love should be, he thought.

"I'm sorry if what I told you is not what you wanted to hear," Lucas said.

"It's not what any parent wants to hear Lucas, but I had to know," Jim replied, turning to leave the room

As he settled Blair into his bed, Jim heard Lucas settle into his own. If anything good was to come out of this evening, it was the fact that he was one step closer to gaining the boy's trust; Lucas had left his door unlocked.

Ellison poured his second cup of coffee. It was five-thirty on Saturday morning, but he couldn't sleep. His night had been interrupted by one troublesome thought. Why won't Blair tell me what happened? Why can he tell Lucas, but not me? Staring out the kitchen window, watching two starlings fighting for the right to claim a lone lawn grub as their own, he didn't even notice the little boy that had snuck up behind him.

Blair placed Big Bird on the kitchen table and rested his head on the stuffed toy. He watched his father as he stared out the window. "Daddy, what wong?" he asked, breaking the silence.

Jim turned around in surprise. "Hey, Chief, what are you doing up so early? I didn't hear you come down the stairs."

"Ah you sad, Daddy?" Blair asked with a big yawn.

Jim placed his coffee on the bench and walked over to the table. "Would you mind if I asked you a question, Munchkin?"

Blair shook his head in reply.

"How come you won't tell me about Tom? About what he did to you? I know you've told Lucas, so why can't you tell me? Are you afraid?"

Blair grabbed his father's hand and pulled Jim down to his eye level. "I not afwaid."

"Then what is it, baby, why can't you tell me?"

The three-year-old's answer was simple and honest. "'Cause it will make you sad."

Jim cupped his son's cheek. The child's answer was exactly right. "How did you become so wise, Chief?" he asked. "Are you sure you're only three years old?"

"Ah ha." Blair gave his father one of the smiles that only he could give.

Jim smiled warmly back. "Are you certain you're not a forty-year-old midget dressed up to be a kid?"

Blair put his arm around his father's neck. "Nope," he whispered. "Ah you gonna make pancakes, Daddy?"

Jim drew his son close to his body. "God I love you," he said, squeezing Blair hard.

"'Cause you love me, does that mean you gonna make chocolate pancakes?"

"Don't push your luck, short stuff," Jim chuckled.

Jim and Lucas had finally worked out a suitable arrangement concerned Lucas's keep. Not comfortable with the fact that Jim was providing for him financially, Lucas had been pushing to get a part-time job, an idea that Jim had negated while Lucas was still living under guardianship rules. So, to help pay his way, even if it was only a token gesture, Lucas had insisted on doing jobs around the house. The first job was building a tree house for Blair. Blair had designed it and, with a few modifications, the project was well underway.

"Anyone hungry?" Jim drove the last nail into the railing. "I'm hungry enough to eat a bear."

"Me too," Blair replied. "Great 'ventu'ehs always get hungwy and they always eat beahs."

Jim smiled. Blair had a vivid imagination, and his latest kick was that he was a great archaeologist, roaming the world for forgotten treasure. "You sure they eat bears, Indy?" Jim laughed and grabbed Blair, jumping the short distance to the ground. "You can help make lunch." He looked up at Lucas, who was higher up in the tree. "You coming?"

"I'll just finish off the roof. I'll be there in a minute."

Fixing the roof to the frame took Lucas longer than he expected. Starting to wonder why Jim hadn't yet called him for lunch, he swung down from the tree. He washed his hands in the laundry tub and went in search of the missing food.

"Jim!" He was expecting to find a ham and cheese sandwich, not Jim laying still and prone on the floor with Blair kneeling next to him. He moved quickly, his fingers seeking and finding a pulse point. "Blair, what happened?"

"He be okay, Lucas," Blair replied without concern.

Lucas controlled the urgency of his voice. "Of course he will, Sport. He'll be just fine." Hauling himself to his feet, he grabbed the phone and sank back down, balancing on his haunches next to Jim.

"No, Lucas." Blair pulled on Lucas' fingers, stopping him from punching 911 into the phone. "He not sick. He just sleeping. He be awake up soon. Daddy doesn't need to go to the hospital. Sometimes Daddy just thinks about things too ha'd and he falls down and goes to sleep. He always wakes up, though. Incacha says I just got to keep talking to him and pat him... just like this."

Lucas noticed that Blair had unbuttoned Jim's shirt and was now rubbing his hand up and down the length of his chest.

"Incacha? Blair this isn't make believe, buddy," Lucas replied softly. "Your dad needs help." His fingers moved back to the touchpad on the phone.

"Bagheera won't let you," Blair said, shaking his head from side to side.

"Blair," Lucas began again, only to be stopped when a ghostly figure of a black panther moved to stand beside Jim.

"Fuck, almighty!" Lucas fell backward, making Blair giggle, but he yelped as he was dragged and pulled until all he could see and feel was the back of Lucas's shirt.

Next came an order and, while Blair could sense Lucas' urgency, the words were concise and crystal clear and spoken very, very slowly. "Blair, I need you to walk slowly towards basement. When you get there I want you to close, then lock the door." Next Blair felt a push against his chest. "Nice and slowly," the order repeated. "And don't forget to lock the door tight."

Blair huffed and pushed his way past Lucas's shoulder. "I not going to the basement," he stated. "I going to stay with my dad." Blair rolled his eyes and sank back down on his knees next to Jim. "Bagheera won't eat you, Lucas. He always comes when daddy falls down. He comes so I not be alone." Blair reached out and tickled the cat under its chin, leaving Lucas not only completely dumbfounded, but wondering how the hell he was going to protect Blair -- and Jim -- from the jaws of the creature when all he had at his disposal was the handset of a phone. He looked down at the phone and then back at the cat and felt completely stupid. Although he'd seen the cat -- as well a wolf pup -- a few times now, he'd never truly believed they existed. They were like the monsters that hid under his bed and in his closet when he was a kid. Frighteningly real, but in reality all they were was a subconscious playing tricks on a vulnerable mind.

"Hey, guys," Jim muttered softly, testing his eyes not only against the glare of the light but the headache he knew would be thumping any minute now. "What's up?"

"Hi, Daddy," Blair smiled.

"'Hey, guys, What's up?'" You've got to be shitting me!" Lucas moved from dumbfounded to thunderstruck. "I walk in here with the only thing on my mind the whereabouts of my ham and cheese sandwich, but instead I find you lying on the floor, unconscious and barely breathing! And not only that, there's a big black cat, which I'm convinced is being brought to life by your son's freaky imagination, and it's about to attack and make both you and Blair its virtual lunch, and all I get is 'hey guys'." Lucas finally paused to take breath. He shook his head in disbelief. "'Hey guys'," he repeated again.

Jim's eyes flicked from Lucas's face, to Blair's and then back to Lucas.

"Bagheera was heuh, Daddy."

"Oh," Jim replied. "And by that long-winded rant I gather Lucas can see him?"

"Ah ha. But he being stubbo'n. Incacha says Lucas is just like you."

"A conspiracy!" Lucas's rant gained speed once again. "A great big honking conspiracy involving cats and dogs and friggin' Indian warriors. Thanks for the heads-up on the crazy, guys, but all you had to do to find out that I wasn't all that sane in the first place, was just ask!"

Jim pulled himself up into a sitting position, ignoring most of what Lucas was prattling on about. "You've seen Incacha?"

"Should I have?"

"If you're lucky, no," Jim answered. "He has a way of grating on the nerves. And Lucas, believe me, you're no crazier than me, without or without a conspiracy by the spirit world."

"Spirit world?"

"Yeah." Gingerly Jim pulled himself off the floor and held out his hand to pull Lucas up as well. "Come on," he said, tentatively, "I think it's about time I filled you in on a few things about this family."

"You mean there's more crazy?" Lucas asked, letting Jim haul him to his feet.

Jim slung his arm around Lucas's shoulder, leading him toward the living room. "Believe me kid, animal spirits are just the tip of the iceberg."

"Hey, here he comes. You guys ready?" Saturday night was the final game of the season, and the football team took their usual position -- centre stage on the oval while other teams practiced on the sidelines. While Lucas hadn't yet officially tried out for any team, he'd began running laps, working on his own fitness and building the confidence to take the leap to finally join in.

As he paced his way around the track Lucas's mind wandered. Sentinels, guides and animal spirits. Logically they didn't make a lot of sense, but he couldn't refute or deny the fact that he'd seen them upfront and personal and, unlike Jim was finding the idea pretty cool.

"Okay, ready?" Lucas didn't hear the shout and didn't register what it meant until he found himself sliding across the track under the full weight of a six-foot-two, one hundred and seventy pound line-backer.

He did, however, register the gravel digging into his back and the pressure of a football spike bearing down on his thigh.

"Oh hey, man. Sorry about that. I didn't see you there." The tip of a single spike dug further into Lucas's thigh as the errant footballer player heavily pushed himself off Lucas's body. "Accidents happen so easily out here. You really gotta keep an eye out."

"Dude, good catch." Jenkins pulled to a sliding stop, ensuring he kept the momentum going until his boot came in contact with Lucas's side. He shifted his stance quickly, adding sincerity to his voice to placate the football coach who settled in beside him. "Dude, are you hurt?" Jenkins asked with manufactured concern.

"Son, are you okay?" The coach knelt down on the track, noting Lucas's torn shirt and his scratched and bleeding skin. "You think you can stand?" He eyeballed his team who were now jostling to get a better look. "How many times do I have to tell you jug-heads to keep the ball on the field!" he snapped. "Five laps and then hit the showers," he ordered. "And then ready yourselves to get your butts kicked."

Jenkins caught the ball being casually tossed in his direction. "Hey man, sorry about the accident." He winked across at a teammate. "Sincerely, really sorry. We'll try and be more careful in the future."

Lucas pulled his arm free the coach, drawing himself to his feet under his own power. He would have quite happily ripped Jenkins a new one, but the choice wasn't his. He had a responsibility now -- a responsibility to Blair to make sure he kept his nose clean and out of trouble.

The coach waved the team away. "Laps now!" he snapped. "Son, I think you should let me take a look at your back."

Lucas again pulled free from the coach, who had apparently decided to set up a one-man first aid station on the side of the field. Sensing the coach was a man used to getting his way, he gave him a short, sharp nod. "I'll go see the nurse," he muttered, moving away.

"I'll send one of the team with you. Jenkins!" The coach waved Adam back. "Go with him and make sure he's okay."

Jenkins smiled. "Sure thing, Coach." He moved in step beside Lucas. "You really gotta be more careful, man. Football can be a dangerous sport."

"So can walking alone," Lucas replied. He turned to face Jenkins, his face giving everything he was thinking away. "You'd be amazed how many accidents can happen when you're walking by yourself."

Jenkins fell out of step. For the first time in his life he actually felt that he'd bitten off more than he could chew. He knew the new kid was tough, but now got the distinct feeling that Wilder maybe a little psycho. The look he'd just received wasn't normal. Wilder wasn't normal, and something had to be done before the psycho came out to play.

Jenkins let Lucas continue on, and doubled back toward his friends. "Hey, is Kelly still working in the administration office during lunch break?"

"Yeah, she's still on her 'community help' kick," Christopher Niles answered. "I gotta tell you, though, it's wearing pretty thin. I haven't had a decent lunchtime blow-job in ages."

Adam ignored the comment. His mind was elsewhere. "Come on, guys," he said. "I got a plan."

Jim yawned as he moved down the hall toward the break room. He'd been working on the Donaldson embezzlement case all morning, and was in desperate need of coffee. The case was dull and monotonous and requiring too much in the way of paperwork for his liking. He poured himself a coffee, already grumbling because knew it was going to be stale. "Jesus Christ," he said with a start. The coffee spilled over the rim of his cup, burning his hand. "What the hell are you doing here? You just took twenty years off my life, cat." His eyes shot around the room. At least he was alone. "Shouldn't you be off harassing Naomi?" he asked, but the penny dropped the moment the last word left his lips. "Blair!" He dropped his cup in the sink and made for the door.

The cat was quick, blocking the sentinel's path, making him trip. It jumped onto Jim's chest, giving a low purr as it nudged his chin. A sense of calm settled and Jim instinctively knew Blair was fine. His guide was safe; his little boy was in no danger.

"You alright down there, Jim?" H casually stepped over Ellison. "I know this is the break room, babe, but I don't think this is what they had in mind when they put the sign on the door."

"Yeah, yeah," Jim grumbled, getting to his feet and brushing himself down. "Why the hell were you here?" he muttered.

"I'm just getting a cup of coffee," Henri replied defensively.

"Not you." Jim snatched the coffee from Henri's hand. "And how many times do I have to tell you to keep your mitts off my cup?"

Henri backed off. Ellison was in one of his moods, and he had no intention of going there. "It's all cool, brother," he said.

"Yeah, all cool," Jim replied. "And it would be much cooler if the pets would stayed caged."

Henri tentatively patted Jim's shoulder. "Sure thing, Jim," he said. He shook his head, wondering why Simon had given Ellison the Donaldson case. Ellison and paperwork went together like a two-year-old and a loaded gun. It just didn't bode for anyone, especially those in close proximity.

Blair was perfectly fine, chatty and happy and acting as if he didn't have a care in the world. Strike one for the cat theory on that front, Jim thought. He turned his attention to Lucas, who was clearing the dinner plates and rinsing them in the sink. Lucas was harder to gauge. While he was slowly piecing together what made the kid tick, there were a lot of puzzle pieces yet to slot into place. His detective eyes continued to watch Lucas as he put his sense of sentinel smell to the test. "Okay Sugar Ray, what's up?" he asked, when he homed in on an unusual odour.

Lucas looked up from the sink and scrutinized Jim with the same level of intensity being levelled at him.

"What makes you think something's up?"

"Because you're doing a better two-step shuffle than Bo Jangles ever could."

"You overdose on doughnuts today?" Lucas asked. He went back to rinsing the dishes. "I'm fine. Picture of teenage health."

"Right, so this sudden bout of premature aging which has me wondering if I'm gonna have to max out my credit card on old man walking aids, is nothing for me to be concerned about?"

Lucas shrugged his shoulders. "I overtaxed my muscles on the running track today. No big deal."

"And the blood?"

"What blood?"

"The blood I can smell on you?"

Lucas flung the dishtowel that was in his hand over his shoulder and turned his back completely on Jim. "You know I thought living with a cop was going to be bad enough, but I'm starting to get the suspicion that living with a dude with freaky superhuman powers is gonna be like hanging out in a fish bowl."

"With me the big fish and you the guppy, my boy." Jim pushed back his chair and made his way over to sink. "Shall we see what's hiding under door number one?"

"Did you get something bwoken?" Blair asked, following closely behind Jim and winding his arms around his father's leg when Jim stopped walking.

"No, Sport, I haven't broken anything. Like I'm trying to tell nosey parker here, I'm fine."

"Shirt," Jim ordered.

Lucas considered protesting, but the dogged expression on Jim's face made him reconsider. He wasn't in the mood for an argument. It would only end up where it always did -- a lost cause. He rolled his eyes and lifted his shirt. "Satisfied?"

Jim's eyes drifted over the gravel rash which covered most of Lucas left side. "How'd this happen?"

"Just a little football game that strayed off the field."

"By accident or on purpose?"

"You think I'm already making enemies and influencing people?" Lucas responded.

"If they've pissed you off, then yes," Jim answered honestly.

"What be pissed off?" Blair asked, now swinging himself from one of Jim's legs to the other.

Jim looked down at his son. He still hadn't got the knack of remembering to adjust his language for three-year-old ears. "A sentence you should never repeat," he said.

"You always said that," Blair huffed. "How comed I not allowed to said gwow'd up wo'ds?"

Lucas let his shirt drop down. "Cause you're a midget, Squirt, that's why." He looked Jim in the eye. "Inquisition over?"

"For the moment." Jim flicked the dishtowel from Lucas' shoulder. "Why don't you go and soak in the tub for a while? It will make it easier for me to clean the rest of that out."

Jim tracked Lucas to the door, only diverting his attention to Blair when Blair started to use his feet as stepping stones, apparently escaping from a crocodile now swimming on the kitchen floor. "Hey, Munchkin," he said, running his hand over the top of Blair's head. "If you want to do something grown up, think you could take the place mats off the table and put them away in the cupboard?"

"Ah-ha." Blair nodded his head. "But the cwocodile might eat me fuhst."

Jim swung Blair up and dumped him on the kitchen chair. "Here you go, Peter Pan. Crocodiles can't climb chairs." He gave one of Blair's curls a quick tweak. "I'll be back in a minute." Leaving Blair to both the crocodile and his chore, Jim caught up with Lucas just as he reached the landing on the first floor. "Lucas, if anyone is hassling you at school, I'd like to know. Maybe I could help."

"You mean you'd shoot 'em for me?" Lucas quipped.

"It's always an option," Jim replied with a small smile. It fell from his face as he registered the look in Lucas's eyes. Something was up at school. "Seriously, kiddo, everything okay?"

"Jim I'm not being hassled and even if I was, I'm more than capable of handling the problem by myself."

"I know you are, and that's my point. You don't have to handle things by yourself. I'm not just here for decoration, you know."

It had been a long time since Lucas had had someone actually care about what was going on his life. The feeling was weird and foreign. While he knew in his heart he'd always be the stranger looking in through the window, the dream of the front door opening and welcoming him in to share the protection and warmth of the family inside would always remain. "Thanks," he said quietly. "I'll keep that in mind."

As Jim made his way back into the kitchen a black shadow crossed his path. "So cat, did I do good?" There was bump against his thigh, followed by a deep, throaty purr. "I take that as a yes," Jim said as the shadow disappeared.

"Ellison." Jim snatched up the phone on the first ring. The file on the Donaldson case was still strewn all over his desk, taxing not only his detective skills, but his patience as well.

"Detective James Ellison?"

"That's me. What can I do for you?"

"It's Patrick McDermott. We met when you enrolled in Lucas in school."

"Yeah, I remember," Jim replied. "Is there a problem?"

"There has been an altercation involving Lucas and several other boys. I am in the process of contacting the parents of all those involved and I would appreciate it if you could come down to the school as soon as possible."

"What kind of altercation? Is Lucas okay?"

"Detective, I'd rather discuss this face to face. Are you able to make it down to the school?"

Jim snatched his jacket from the back of his chair. "I'll be there in twenty."

Ellison didn't need to use his sentinel senses to work out that the other parents had beat him to the mark. The shouting coming from behind the closed door of the principal's office had already given that information away. He pushed through the door into the outer office and immediately located Lucas. The teenager was sitting along the wall in the far corner, alone, while five other boys were sitting in a row of chairs on the opposite side. The carnage was plain to see -- blood-stained shirts, split lips and, by the way one kid was holding his wrist, broken bones. He dismissed the other boys momentarily, and moved forward to check on Lucas.

Lucas's eyes were downcast, refusing contact, so he knelt down and gently took hold of his chin. There was a cut above his eye that looked as if it was going to need stitching, and several other cuts and bruises that were going to need icing. "What happened?" he asked, without any prejudice in his voice.

Lucas made eye contact, briefly, before again turning his attention to the floor. "Guess I've blown it, huh?"

"We'll talk about that when we get home. You wanna fill me in on what happened first?"

There was anger in the room. Ellison had felt it the moment he stepped through the door and, as the door to the principal's office was flung open, the anger broke loose. "What happened is that your son beat the crap out of ours."

Jim turned to meet the anger, face to face.

"My son has a broken nose, Doug's son very likely has a broken wrist, and the worst part is none of them will be fit enough to play in the final game on Saturday. You know our chances of winning the championship now? Zip. Absolutely, fucking zip!"

Number one rule -- never face anger from a disadvantaged position. Jim drew himself to his feet, steady and composed. "Sir if you would just calm down for a minute, maybe we can get to the bottom of exactly what happened."

"Don't you fucking tell me to calm down. That boy of yours is dangerous and should be fucking locked up in a fucking cell." Jenkins' irate father pulled his phone from the front pocket of his pants. "I'm getting the cops involved. That kid needs to be put away."

Rule number two -- establish a line of command. "For your information, sir, I am the police, and until I get all the facts, nobody will be going anywhere. From my initial observations, I would suspect that perhaps what has happened here is a case of self-defence."

Jenkins' father surged forward and rule number three kicked in -- protect what is yours. Jim widened his stance, shadowing Lucas's body completely and blocking any visual contact the rest of the room had with the boy. "Back down, now," Jim warned.

Rule number three succeeded. Jenkins' father stopped in his tracks and took a few, subtle steps back. Jim's eyes never left the man's face. "Principle McDermott -- are you able to shed any light on what happened here?"

Tension lines creased the principal's face, making him look older than Jim figured he actually was. "From the information I've been able to extract so far, it looks as if a few of the boys managed to get their hands on Lucas's personal records."

"And how, exactly, did they manage that?" Rule number four was edging closer.

"One of the boys' girlfriends has been helping out in the office during her lunch break, and she gave them a copy of his file."

Jim's attention snapped from one Jenkins to another. Adam Jenkins -- six-foot tall and arrogance oozing from every inch of that height. Jim levelled his next question directly at the boy. "And would you care to tell me what you were planning to do with this information?"

Adam didn't answer. He just pressed the towel closer to his nose, as if the flimsy material would provide him with at least a small measure of protection.

"Anybody!" Jim barked, his gaze not shifting.

"Um... um, we were just going to stir him up at bit. We didn't mean anything by it." A kid, furthest away from the group, and obviously more worried about what his parents would say when they arrived, rather than what Jenkins would do for ratting them out, spoke up. "We all kinda ganged up on him in the locker room."

"Shut up," Adam hissed.

"Not another word," Jim warned. "Continue," he ordered.

"We locked the door to the change rooms and forced Wilder into the showers. We weren't gonna do nothing, just have some harmless fun. Anyway, Adam started calling Wilder a rent boy and offered him twenty bucks to suck him off. Adam dropped his pants and pulled out his... um, you know." The kid paused. "It was all just a big joke. Just a laugh. We didn't mean anything by it."

Rule number four shifted to top gear and Jim's worked on pushing it down. "And?" he said.

"And all of a sudden Wilder just exploded. He swung at Adam and hit him right in the nose. I swear I heard it break. The rest of us didn't know what to do. We thought he was gonna kill Adam, so we started hitting him to make him stop, but he just kept on going. It was like he went psycho. He even broke Nathan's wrist!"

"Christ," a parent muttered, and internally Jim spoke the same word. "And then what?"

"And then the coach broke it up. He must have heard the commotion, 'cause the next thing I knew, he was pulling Wilder off of us."

Jim looked from boy to boy, one by one. The five of them were not delicate creatures. With their combined weight and strength, they should have pulverized Lucas.

Rule number four dropped back to third. Lucas was right. He was capable of handling of some things on his own.

There was no more interest in Lucas. Jenkins' father confronted his son, and Jim wasn't surprised by the question that followed. "Are you trying to tell me that between five of you, you still couldn't manage to bring him down? Five against one and that fucking kid managed to inflict more damage than you did."

Jim didn't intervene. The principal had heard everything he had heard, and it was McDermott's job to play social worker, not his. His only concern right now was for the welfare of Lucas. He turned his back on the scene and knelt back down. "You doing okay?" he asked, but he needn't have bothered. The evidence presented itself clearly. Lucas was hurt both physically and emotionally. His skin was pale and clammy and his breathing was short and shallow. Rule number four slammed back and exploded. Jim surged to his feet but had just enough resolve to engage this fight differently from how he would have in the past. He pulled out his cell and punched in Simon's number. "Simon, it's Ellison. There's been an incident down at Lucas's school. I need some uniforms down here now. I'm laying charges of assault."

"What!" Jenkins' father was back in his face. "You can't do that! It was only a schoolyard scuffle. Your boy will be all right. Hell, he'll mend quicker than ours."

Just move a few inches closer, Jim thought, his fists balling into a rock. Just a few more inches and you get military justice.

"Jim." He felt Lucas's hand take hold of his, the kid's touch unifying his responsibilities as officer of the law and as a father, not as a man who could exploit the rules to suit himself. "Please don't. Just let it go."

He was back, kneeling in front of Lucas.

"Get them outta here, Jim. Please, just get them out."

"Lucas, do you realise what they've done?"

"I know exactly what they've done."

"Fuck kid." The look in Lucas's eyes had Jim immediately regretting his words.

"Jim, please."

Nothing else mattered. Not charging the five boys, not beating Jenkins' father to a pulp. "Get out," Jim snapped. "And if I see any one of you in my sights ever again, you can rest assured that I won't be so lenient."

"Detective, you can be assured that the school will be holding a thorough investigation into what happened," McDermott intervened. "And in the meantime, each of the students involved in this incident will be on suspension until further notice."

No one said a word. No protest, no remonstration. The only sound to be heard was the shuffling of feet and the sigh of relieved parents as the outer office emptied.

"I want Lucas's records marked to my attention and sent down to the Cascade police station." Jim was still on his knees, his attention still firmly fixed on Lucas. The kid wasn't coming back. He was going to take Rachael up her offer; despite the fact he knew Lucas would fight him over the school fees, the kid was being enrolled in Crestwood Private. But before that happened, his school records would be cleaned out. Lucas would go forward with nothing to hold him back. The kid's slate would be wiped clean, even if he had to commit fraud to make it happen.

"Come on." Jim hooked Lucas by the elbow. "You need to get checked out."

Lucas was again staring at the floor. "I can't... I can't stand."


"I'm bleeding, okay?" His voice was rough. "I can feel it on the back of my jeans."

God, this is not happening. A million thoughts ran through Jim's mind, but he shut them down. Lucas needed and deserved his strength, not his ineptitude as a fledgling guardian. He reached over, cupping Lucas's neck and squeezing hard. "I need you to answer my next question honestly, kiddo. Okay?"

"They didn't." Lucas had already anticipated what was coming.

"Then why are you bleeding?"

Tears pooled in Lucas' eyes and he blinked them away. He hadn't cried in years and he was not going to start now -- especially not in front of Jim. He shrugged his shoulders. "Past lives... past demons. It happens sometimes.

Past lives. Reality struck. No matter how hard Lucas tried move forward towards his future, he would always carry his past lives with him. Lucas may not have been raped, but it was only a case of 'this time'. Anyway you twisted, turned or shovelled it, it would always come out the same way -- Lucas was a rape victim, and there was not a damn thing anyone could do to take the pain or the memory of that away.

With a last squeeze, Jim dropped his hand from Lucas neck and stripped off his jacket. "This should be long enough to cover you." He draped the coat around Lucas shoulders and offered his hand to help him stand.

As they walked down the hall, shoulder to shoulder, Jim knew this wasn't just a three-month gig. He was in this for the long a haul and, whether or not Lucas realised the same, the Ellison family had just gained another member.

The sign on the opposite wall of the doctor's waiting room taunted Jim every time he glanced at it. "Waiting room's right," he muttered, because that's exactly what he'd been doing ever since the door to Gillian Francis's office closed -- waiting. If he'd had his way, he would have taken Lucas straight to the hospital but, considering the kid had practically threatened to jump out of the moving truck if he did, the second option of the family doctor was all he had to work with.

"Finally," he said, as the door cracked open and Gillian Francis stuck her head out.

"Jim, would you mind coming in?"

He didn't need to be asked twice. He was through the door and seated next to Lucas in less time than it took a termite to fart. "You okay?" he asked.

Same gaze, different floor. Lucas was silent and withdrawn and didn't acknowledge his question.

Jim raised his eyebrows.

"I've given Lucas a shot to ease the pain."


"Stitches, bruised ribs and various contusions."


"No obvious signs, although it would still be a good idea if you kept an eye out, just to be on the safe side."

Lucas got to his feet. "I'm gonna go wait outside."

The door closed, leaving only the two of them in the room. "What about the bleeding? He did tell you he was bleeding, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did and he also let me do an examination."

"And?" Jim pushed.

"And it's nothing to be overly concerned about. It's a small tear and will heal by itself."

Although Lucas had already given him an answer, Jim still needed to be one hundred percent sure. "Was he raped?" he asked, pointedly.


"Then why the bleeding?"

"Because of his past. It's been less than two months, Jim. He's still healing."

"But he will be okay, won't he?"

"With time and with rest, he'll be physically fine. I've instructed him to keep an eye on the problem, and I'm confident it will clear up over the next few days. However if the bleeding becomes worse or he develops a temperature, I want you to bring him back to me right away. There's no need to make an appointment. I'll make sure that I'm available."

"Jim," she said as Ellison got to his feet. "He's going to need a lot of support."

"I know." Jim swung the door open. "And he'll get it."

It didn't take Ellison a long time to assess what made a person tick, and right from the start he'd pegged Lucas as a fighter. The kid had fought for his brother, he'd fought for Blair, and he'd fought for his life when Gideon had tried to take it from him with the tip of a steel knife-blade. Even today, when the odds had been stacked against him, he hadn't backed down. Lucas was a fighter. But I'm afraid one more incident could push him over the edge. The day Lucas had stepped through the front door was the last time he'd given any thought to the doctor's warning. But now, today, watching Lucas crawl into himself like a hermit crab against the outgoing tide, the warning resurfaced. Was today's incident the one which would push the kid over the edge? Had Lucas finally reached the point of no return? Pulling off the quiet street and into their driveway, Jim wasn't ready to give up. If Lucas wasn't going to fight for himself, he'd fight for him. "Five to one," Jim said. "That's pretty tough odds. What's your secret?"

"No secret," Lucas shrugged. "It's the law of the streets. Fight or be killed... or worse," he added quietly. Releasing his seatbelt, Lucas pushed open the truck door. "I'm going upstairs to lay down."

As Jim waited for the garage door to open, he watched Lucas disappear around the side of the house. Time and support were all he could offer. There was no parallel experience he could draw on and unite them on a common front. While his father had been a king-sized prick most of the time, his childhood was not even on the same page as the kid's. But what he did know was that Lucas needed time and space. Some time alone to get today's events settled in his head and some time alone in which to do it. "Waiting patiently," he muttered. Not on the top of his most favourite things to do.

"Jim, we can keep Blair here for dinner if that makes things easier. I'd suggest that he stay the night, but somehow I get the feeling he knows something is wrong. He keeps asking me if Lucas is okay."

"Do you think you'd be able to keep him occupied until at least six or seven? I'd rather try and spend some time with Lucas alone, just in case he decides he want to talk."

"Sure," Joel answered."We'll take him to the Pizza Parlour for dinner before we drop him home. That should keep him occupied and his mind off things for a while."

"Thanks, Joel," Jim responded. "I appreciate everything you do for us."

"You just take care of Lucas and we'll see you about seven."

Jim disconnected the phone and placed the receiver back on its cradle. He hadn't heard a sound from Lucas since they'd arrived home and, while he still held out hope that the boy would open up to him, he knew deep down that it was a pipe dream. He couldn't even get his own son to open up to him, so what chance did he have with Lucas? Slumping down on the sofa, he glanced over at the stairs and concentrated on dialling up his hearing, in the vain hope that perhaps Lucas did need him and was waiting for him to make the first move. He cocked his head and listened intently. There was movement in Lucas'a room. Rushed movements. The sound of drawers opening and closing. The sound of zippers being pulled back and forth. The sound of a bag being packed.

There were times for keeping promises and times for breaking promises. This was a time of broken promise. Jim pushed through Lucas's door without the promised asking or receiving permission.

"What exactly do you think you're doing?" he asked, without preamble.

"Bag, clothes, stuffing." Lucas turned an indifferent stare in Jim's direction. "You sure you actually passed that last detective exam?"

Jim grabbed the shirt that Lucas was stuffing into the duffel bag. "Lucas, if you want to talk, we'll talk. If you want time to be by yourself, then I'll leave you alone, but leaving this house is not an option."

Lucas snatched the shirt back. "You really think you can stop me?"

"And you really think that I can't?"

One of two ways, Jim thought as he matched Lucas's stare. He could either play it nice or he could play it tough. At the moment, Lucas appeared to be running on anger and hate, and he had enough experience to know that trying to turn hate and anger around and put it into the Mother Theresa court probably wouldn't work. But maybe, just maybe, if he could get Lucas to release some of the anger he was holding onto, then the kid just might deflate enough to listen to him. "Nothing more cliched than a bad cop," he mumbled, deciding to give Lucas the best that he had. "You might be good, kid, but I also thought that you were sharp enough to know that you should never underestimate your opponent." He inched closer, observing and reading Lucas's body language. "You don't have a clue as to what I'm capable of, so I'll give you a little hint. You don't stand a chance, and you are not leaving this house."

"Fuck you!" Lucas spat. He moved to shoulder his way past Jim, but Ellison countered the move.

"Where are you going to run to this time, Lucas?" he asked, blocking the doorway with his body.

Lucas pulled up short and gave Ellison a look of utter disbelief. "You have no idea, do you?"

"Idea about what, Lucas?" Jim baited. "An idea of what it's like to spend your life running away because you're not man enough to stay and face your problems?" For the first time in his life, the bad cop came with a conscience, but while guilt seeped from every single word he spoke, Jim knew he had to keep going. In order to find Lucas's relief value, he had to let the pressure continue to build.

"What do you want me to stay and face, Jim?" Lucas snapped. "Face the fact that every single person around me knows I'm nothing more than a prostitute? A dirty fucking whore?" he shouted. "That all the people involved with your family know exactly what I used to do to earn money for my dad? Is that what you want, Jim, or would you rather that I just come clean and tell you exactly how many dicks I've had in my mouth? Because I can, you know. I remember every single one of them."

At that moment, Jim broke ranks with the bad cop. He couldn't do this. Lucas was hurting too badly and he'd been naive in thinking that an emotional outburst and a good cry was all it was going to take to solve the kid's problems.

Holding his hands out with a settling gesture, Jim steadied his voice. "Lucas, you know that there's not one person in this family who thinks of you like that." He dropped his hands to his side. "Why don't you just try and calm down and come downstairs with me so we can talk this through?"

Lucas' next move wasn't entirely foreseeable, but it was forewarned. It was subtle, just a flick of the eyes past Jim's shoulder to the open door beyond.

Just a few more lessons on subterfuge, might not go astray, kid, Jim thought as Lucas surged forward. Although he was forewarned and ready, Jim didn't counteract with his normal strategy. The condition of Lucas' ribs made him hold back but, the moment he did, he realised his mistake. He'd given the kid the advantage and, before he could correct it, Lucas's hand had snaked into his jacket and pulled out the gun that was still holstered at his side.

True to his nature, Lucas pointed the weapon directly at himself.

"Lucas, no!" Ellison froze to the spot and Lucas backed up. The situation had gone from bad to potentially devastating in the blink of an eye. He'd screwed up. Right from the start, he'd screwed up by not only giving Lucas the physical advantage, but by giving him the emotional one. And the stupid thing was, it all seemed so ridiculously clear. He had an ace in the hole -- an ace which he had neglected to use.

"What am I gonna tell Blair?" Jim asked, bluntly. "What am I gonna tell him, Lucas? Oh, hey, I know. How about something along the lines of, 'I'm sorry, Chief, but Lucas couldn't cope with life anymore, so he decided to take the easy way out. But hey, it's okay, Munchkin, he's not really gone. If you look really closely at the wall, you might still be able to see some of his brain splattered across it.' Is that what you want me to tell him, Lucas? You want me to tell a three-year-old child that one of the people he loves more than anything in this world decided to kill himself?" Lucas flinched and Jim knew he had his attention. "Is that what you want me to tell him at your funeral?"

"You don't understand." Lucas had gone quiet. "I'm doing this for Blair."

Jim just shook his head. "You wanna tell me how you even begin to justify that statement?"

"Because I know what it's like to have a brother. I know what it's like to be responsible for someone else's life and for their death." The gun dropped, just slightly. "All it takes is one mistake. You make one error in judgment and that person is taken away from you forever. I let my little brother die and I can't do that to Blair." The gun moved back up. "If I'm not here to be responsible for him, then it won't be my fault if anything happens to him."

"Lucas, nothing is going to happen to Blair."

"How can you possibly say that, Jim? How can you guarantee his safety? What happens when Naomi gets out of the institution? She'll try and take him, and when she does, she'll hook up with some other guy who'll look at Blair as nothing more than his own personal plaything."

"No! No she won't," Jim said with conviction. "And you know why she won't? She won't because he has me, and up until now I thought he had you. That kid loves you, Lucas, and I would have bet my life that you felt the same way."

"I do love him." Lucas's voice dropped. "That's the whole point."

Emotional breakdowns unusually worked in one of two ways. A devastating, often destructive outburst of anger and rage, or a complete shut-down. Fortunately for Jim, Lucas appeared to be going with the second. He watched carefully as the boy's hands began to tremble and his legs struggled to find the strength to keep him on his feet. The watching continued, as did the waiting. When the opening came, Jim exploited it for all it was worth. In a swift, sure-footed move, he surged forward, twisting the gun out of Lucas's hand. The clip disengaged and the gun was thrown across the other side of the room before Lucas had even hit the floor.

Still moving, Jim caught Lucas before he crashed to the ground and folded him into this body. "God, that was too close, kid." He pulled Lucas closer, tightening his arms around his chest and letting out an enormous breath of air. "Way too close."

Lucas was offline. It was as if the computer in his brain had shut down and wasn't recognising any more than the most basic level commands. Arms up to take off a blood-stained shirt, arms down when a sweatshirt was secured into place. Jim was beginning to worry that he was way over his head -- that Lucas needed more help than he was experienced to give. And just when he considered phoning Simon to try get some help, there was a spark of hope. An answer to a single question came along with a whir and a click."Lucas, can I help with your jeans?" One question was all it took to get Lucas back online, and although he fumbled and slipped and nearly ended up flat on his ass, he managed to pull on a pair of track pants completely under his own steam.

"A fighter," Jim whispered.

"Nice and easy, kiddo." Jim eased a cup of sugar-laden tea towards Lucas's lips. Settled on the sofa with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, Jim let Lucas set the pace. The kid hadn't really spoken, but at least he was making eye contact.

Turning his attention to the outside of the house, Jim heard a car pull up their long driveway. He took the tea from Lucas's hands. The kid still had the shakes.

"Daddy, what's wong with Lucas?" It was the first question out of Blair's mouth as soon as the door opened.

Jim held out his arms to take his son. "He's just a little sad, Chief. He's had a rough day." He pulled off Blair's sneakers and dumped them by the front door. "How did you know something was wrong?"

"'Cause I could feel it." Blair squirmed to be put down. "I going to see if he okay."

As Blair scampered away, Jim gestured for Joel to come in. "Thanks for bringing him home, Joel."

"I won't stay," Joel answered. "I'm sure you already have your hands full." He pulled up his jacket collar to ward against the cold. "How's he doing?"

"He's a little on the ragged side, but he's doing a lot better than he was a couple of hours ago. He's a tough kid, and while this may knock him flat for a while, he'll bounce back."

Joel just nodded. "Well, if you need us for anything, just call."

"Thanks again, Joel," Jim replied sincerely, clapping him on the back. "Goodnight."

By the time he had made his way back into the living room, Blair had settled himself on Lucas's lap and Jim couldn't tell whether it was Lucas who had Blair in a protective embrace, or whether it was the other way around. Instinct told him it was the latter, because Blair hadn't uttered a single word. It was almost as if he sensed that all Lucas needed was to be held, and nothing more.

Jim took a seat, close enough to Lucas that their legs touched. He stretched his arm across the back of the sofa and let his hand drop down to Lucas's shoulder. He too stayed silent. What he needed to say needed to be spoken without little ears listening.

The plan stayed true to form. As the hour ticked by, Blair's breathing evened out and his tired blue eyes lost their battle to stay open. Jim left Blair where he was, on Lucas' lap, protecting his brother.

"You up to talking?" he finally asked.

"What's there to talk about?" Lucas's response was soft, defeated. He'd shown his underbelly to Jim, and Jim now knew exactly how weak he really was.

"How about we talk about your life... about your brother."

Lucas drew in a ragged breath. He never talked about Scotty. Not to anyone. "You read the file. You know what happened," was all he said.

"It won't close up by itself, you know," Jim replied. "That hole that's been punched in your gut will bleed you dry if you don't work on closing it up."

"And how's talking gonna help?"

"Because a problem shared is a problem halved." Jim squeezed Lucas's shoulder. "And as corny as that just sounded, it does have some merit." He adjusted the blanket which was now slipping down. "Look, Lucas, I know I haven't exactly welcomed you with open arms, but I realised something today."

"Which was?" Exactly how screwed up I am, Lucas thought.

"I realised how hard I had to work to control an overwhelming urge not to put five heads through a plate glass window."

Lucas was back to subterfuge. "That doesn't sound very cop-like."

"No, it doesn't. It sounds more like what a father would do to protect his son." Jim clarified his answer. "What most fathers would do to protect their kids."

"My dad did love us, Jim. He just loved us in a different kind of way." Lucas briefly closed his eyes. He still couldn't quite believe that after everything he'd been through, he still protected his father. He paused to gather his thoughts. His story wasn't an easy one to tell, but maybe Jim was right. Maybe if he talked about it, maybe if he reconciled his feelings, he could learn how to hate his father; because he was certain that hate would be an easier feeling to cope with than the kind of love he was used to. "It doesn't have a happy ending, you know. You sure you wanna put yourself through it?"

Jim's hand settled back on Lucas's shoulder. "Try me."

The floor once again became Lucas's refuge. He lowered his eyes and his story began. "Max... my dad, had a hard time dealing with things after Mom died. Even though he still had Scotty and me to take care of, he just couldn't seem to cope. He started drinking, just a little at first, but then that became more frequent. He said he was lonely and that drinking helped, but then when that wasn't enough, he turned to drugs... and then eventually he turned to us." Lucas stopped, trying to decide how much he should reveal, and wondering how understanding Jim really would be. Make it or break it time, he thought. Either way, Jim needed to know what kind of person was living under his roof. "Dad's love was never malicious or aimed at hurting us, and in his heart I really do believe that he thought as long as what he was doing was in the name of love, then it couldn't be bad." He dared a glance at Jim. "Pretty sick, huh?"

"What happened next?" Jim asked. He wasn't there as judge or jury. He was only there to listen and to understand.

"Well, I guess you know it's not easy bringing up kids, and since Dad wasn't working, we were always strapped for cash. I think his brother helped out a little, but if I had to take a guess, it was probably only for drug money. I didn't realise until later what Dad was actually doing to pay Robert back and how Robert had worked on Dad to convince him that Scotty and I should be helping out."

"Helping out how?" Jim asked, already knowing the answer.

"Prostitution," Lucas answered. "Money paid to Dad by Robert's acquaintances. If I'd let the men he brought around touch me, they'd pay Dad money. More if I'd touch them."

"Then what?" Jim asked softly.

"Then, as I got older, Robert convinced Dad that I was capable of handling more, a lot more, and that I was also capable of earning a lot more. I knew it was wrong, but I didn't know what else to do. Robert drummed into me that Dad would go to jail if I told anyone and that we'd wind up living with him. I couldn't do that to my brother. I just couldn't."

"And what about your brother? Did your dad think he was capable as well?"

"No. Scotty was still Dad's baby. He wouldn't even let Robert near him, not completely anyway, and when I think back, arguing about Scott was the only time Dad ever showed some balls toward Robert."

"What happened the night your brother died?" Jim felt Lucas's muscles contract beneath his hand and he waited, not sure if he'd get an answer.

"When Robert came around, he liked to show me exactly who was boss, and the only way he knew how to do that was by causing pain. He was rough and he was violent and the more hurt he caused, the more he seemed to get off on it. The more he seemed empowered by it, somehow. So, one night when I couldn't handle it anymore, I just took off. I knew that Robert was coming around, and I knew exactly what he would be expecting, so I left. I waited until Scotty was asleep and then I climbed out the window and ran down to the river and just sat on the bank. I sat and waited until I thought it would be safe to go home. I knew Robert would be mad as hell and that I'd pay for it next time he came 'round, but I never once thought he'd take it out on my brother. Dad was supposed to protect him. He promised me that no matter what, he'd always look after Scotty."

Jim had read the file and now knew all the details from here on in, but it was important that Lucas finish. "Go on," he encouraged.

"When I finally decided to go home, Robert was still there. I climb up the tree outside of our window, and found Scotty's bed empty. Robert was yelling and shouting down in the kitchen and all I could think of was what was happening to Scotty, so I climbed through the window and ran down the stairs. Dad was lying unconscious on the floor and Scotty..." Lucas swallowed hard. He'd made a deal with himself never to let Jim see him cry. "There was so much blood -- too much blood. I thought my brother was dead and all I could think of was wanting Robert to die. I saw the scissors on the kitchen table and I picked them up and ran at him. I ran at him so hard, but I was only nine and I never stood a chance. He picked me up like a rag doll and tossed me into the wall. I felt my arm snap, and then I heard the old lady next door yell about calling the cops. Then it was over. Robert took off and all I can remember from that point on was grabbing the keys and dragging Scotty out to the car. Somehow I managed to drive to the hospital, but it was a waste of time." The tears came and, as foreign as they felt to his eyes, they bought with them an overwhelming sense of release. Lucas's voice broke. "They couldn't save him, Jim. Scotty had already died.

"Lucas, why didn't you tell the police what happened?" Jim asked gently. "Why didn't you tell them it was Robert?"

"Because I was afraid of him. Because I knew that a prison wouldn't hold him forever, and that when he got out, he'd..." Lucas' voice turned dull, resigned. "Because I was a coward."

"Lucas. No!" The listening was over and it was now Jim's turn to talk. He swivelled around. He needed to face the boy head on. He needed to see Lucas's eyes. "You were not a coward. You were a child, Lucas. A nine-year-old boy who had the guts to stand up and fight for his brother even when the odds were so badly stacked against you."

"I could have left," Lucas said quietly. "I could have taken Scotty and just left."

"It's a nice concept, kiddo, but not easy thing to do, especially when you're a kid and when you're responsible for another person."

"Exactly," Lucas whispered. "I was responsible for my brother."

"Hey, what happened to Scotty was not your fault then, and is not your fault now. Your father is the one to blame." Jim cupped the back of Lucas's neck roughly. "Do you understand that?"

"My fault or not, I left my brother alone, Jim, and that's something I'll never forgive myself for."

There was no hesitation, no wondering if he was being too personal. Jim leaned in and wrapped his arms around Lucas, embracing both the teenager and his own little boy. He understood exactly how Lucas felt. He understood the guilt, because he still hadn't, and probably never would forgive himself for leaving his son alone at the hands of Tom Walsh.

Lucas didn't cry out loud, but his tears were real and they soaked through the front of Jim's shirt. There was nothing Jim could do to alleviate Lucas's pain. All he could do was offer him a life raft to hold on to -- a life raft to stop him drowning.

Lucas's story was told. The prologue, the content, the end, all finished, all done, all dusted -- except for one technicality. Jim had both the power and knowledge to manipulate the final outcome. He settled back on the sofa, his arms still wrapped around his boys. "I can't undo what's been done, Lucas, but I can change the ending. I can find your uncle and I can put him away."

Lucas shook his head "No... no you can't. It's too late, too long ago. Too much time has passed."

"That's where you're wrong, kiddo. I will find the evidence and if I have you to help me -- if you agree to testify that you saw what happened to Scotty -- then together, we can do this."

Blair was still sound asleep on Lucas's lap. Lucas chorded his fingers through the youngster's hair, battling with his decision.

"You just give the word, son, and I promise you that I'll do everything in my power to put the bastard behind bars."

"I wish that were true."

"You wish what were true, Lucas?"

"That I could have been your son." Lucas sank back, letting his body settle against Jim's. "I'll testify."

Blair squirmed and wriggled, the movement putting pressure on Lucas's bruised ribs. "Here, let me take him," Jim said.

Despite the pain, Lucas' grip tightened. "No, I got him." He rested his cheek on against the top of Blair's head and closed his eyes. "Do you know where Max is?"

Jim knew exactly where Max Wilder was. It had been his first priority to find out when making the decision of whether or not to take Lucas into their home. "He's in California. He was paroled three months ago."

"I can't see him, Jim. I don't ever want to see him."

"Right now, he'd be violating his parole if he tried to contact you. But Lucas, if and when your brother's case goes to trial, you might not have a choice. There is no doubt your father will be called up to testify."

"I know," Lucas replied.

You're a fighter, kid. You can do this. "And when that day comes, you won't be alone. Strength in numbers, kiddo. Together we can do this."

"You sure you want to take all this on, Jim? It's not... I'm not your responsibility."

"I wouldn't be quite so sure about that." Jim pulled the blanket up to cover Blair's back. "And you know what? Responsibility is turning out to be not such a bad thing."

The night grew darker and the silence deeper. Lucas and Blair were asleep, lengthways on the sofa and Jim sat on the floor, watching them both. The bruises on Lucas's face were deeper now, and his cuts swollen. But they would heal. Given a week or two, Nature would do her job, and the only visible trace would be scar over the boy's eye. Pulling the blanket up, Jim brushed his hand across Lucas's forehead and wondered how good Nature was at removing invisible scars. How long would it take Lucas to heal from the wounds his family had inflicted on him? A year, two years, a lifetime, or never? In the end he knew it really didn't matter. Lucas was a fighter. Although there would be times when the kid would find himself knocked flat on his ass, Jim was certain Lucas would always pick himself up again. And if he ever needed help to get back on his feet, Jim would be there, hauling him up and dusting him down.

Lucas was now his responsibility... and responsibility really wasn't such a bad thing at all.

It was three days before Christmas and everything that the season promised was coming to bear. Lucas's three month trial period had ended and Jim had been awarded permanent guardianship -- and this time, Lucas had taken part in the decision. Lucas had settled into Crestwood School and was making some friends, and he was finally beginning to take back the teenage years which had been stolen from him. A case had been made against Robert Wilder for the murder and rape of Scott, and at present the man was sitting in a cell, while his lawyers battled out the issue of bail. A trial date had been set for the New Year, but right now, the New Year seemed a lifetime away.

"Okay, Sport, I think it's time for the angel." Lucas lifted Blair up onto his shoulders. "Think you can reach?" he asked, handing Blair the delicate ornament.

"Ah-ha," Blair replied, knowing he had to be extra careful.

Lucas steadied Blair as the little boy reached up and placed the angel on the top of the tree. Once it was secure, he took a step back.

Jim dimmed the living room lights. "We ready to light her up, guys?"

"Yes, Daddy, yes!" Blair clapped his hands and bounced excitedly on Lucas's shoulder.

Still smiling, Jim plugged in the electrical socket and watched as the room turned to Christmas.

"Wow," Blair whispered in absolute awe. "I never had a Chwistmas tree 'afo'e."

Jim slung an arm casually around Lucas' shoulder, his hand latching onto Blair's leg. "Well guys, what do you think?"

"Way cool, Daddy, this is way, way cool." Blair couldn't take his eyes off the tree. With the coloured lights reflected in his eyes, he almost looked as if he should have been part of the decorations.

"It is cool, isn't it?" Jim said, scratching his jaw. "But I can think of a potential problem."

"What?" Lucas asked, curiously.

"How are we gonna keep that damn cat from climbing it?"

The End

To be continued in Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Back to The Loft