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

Feedback: jessriley80@yahoo.com.au


Jess Riley

"One red, two yellow and three blue."

Surrounded by an assortment of balloons in various shapes and sizes, Blair played happily on the Taggert's living room floor. He was three now, or so everyone was telling him, and apparently when you are three you have a party. He'd never had a birthday party before. Although he'd been invited to one or two, he was a little hesitant about what to expect. His dad had said that he could invite whoever he wanted, but apart from Holly, he didn't need more people; he was happy and far more comfortable in just the company of his family.

Kicking away a stray balloon with his foot, Blair's attention was drawn to a strange noise that sounded like it was coming from the kitchen. "Jessie," he called, grabbing Big Bird and scrambling to his feet, "what that noise you making?" As he headed in the direction of the kitchen, another noise distracted him and piqued his curiosity. Changing track, he headed toward the front door. "Mama!" he exclaimed.

Naomi Sandburg hovered anxiously on the front porch of the Taggert's quiet, suburban home. Her usual attire of a vibrant, coloured sundress was hidden beneath a thick woollen cardigan and a pair of shabby hiking boots, giving her normally bohemian appearance a somewhat 'outdoor woodsman' feel. She looked past her son without acknowledging his greeting. The event happening in the kitchen was making her nervous, and she knew that their time was limited.

"Mama, wheh you been?" Blair asked, drawing closer to the locked screen door.

Still ignoring her son, Naomi pulled on the door. It was, as it had been a few minutes earlier, still locked, and keeping her from carrying out her intended task.

"Wheh you been, Mama?" Blair asked again. He was used to his mother disappearing from time to time, but this had been the longest he could ever remember her being gone, and he had missed her. "Did you finded you insides, Mama?" he asked, becoming more and more excited with the fact that she'd come back.

Again, she ignored his question. Her only goal was to gain access to the house and find out what was taking the boy inside so long. "Blair, baby, come and unlock the door for Mama," she said, in a voice laced with sweet persuasion. Dropping to her knees, and for the first time since arriving at the house, she made eye contact with her son. "Mama can't wait any longer to hold you in her arms. Come and unlock the door, sweetie."

Guided only by his sense of right and wrong, Blair hesitated. He had missed his mother and he did want to see her, but Jessie and Joel's number one rule was to never unlock the front door. "I hab to ask Jessie first," he told her, displaying a sense of his growing maturity. "I not 'llowed to let people in the house. That the rule. The numbuh one rule."

"Oh darlin', Mama's not a stranger, so that rule doesn't apply to me. I'm sure Jessie won't get cross if you unlock the door for your own mother."

Blair was now confused. He couldn't remember if Jessie had said that he was 'never' to unlock the door, or whether he was meant to not unlock it for strangers. He looked into his mother's pleading eyes and was immediately drawn into the web she was so skilled in weaving. She was his mother; his love for her was young and pure and, despite everything she'd let happened to him, he still trusted her and he did still love her.

With his decision made, Blair dragged the little stool that was beside the door into position and climbed up on it. His fingers reached up to release the lock, but stopped suddenly when a voice behind him startled him. It was a male voice, a voice he did not know -- a voice that should not have been in Jessie's house.

"Hey there, little guy, why don't you let me do that?"

Before Blair could react, a large hand reached over his head and unlatched the lock. Before he even had a chance to turn around, he was swept off the stool and into the arms of his mother. "Good boy," she said, although by the direction in which she was looking, Blair wasn't sure if she was talking to him, or to the stranger behind him. Twisting around to get a better look, Blair carefully studied the person that was not meant to be in the house.

At the age of sixteen, Lucas Wilder already stood close to six feet tall. Solidly built, with a broad chest and wide shoulders, his medium-length blond hair framed a tanned, handsome face and, although his lively blue eyes had seen a lot in their time, they still sparkled with mischief and didn't miss the opportunity to give the youngster a quick wink.

Blair studied the boy for a few moments longer before squirming back around to face his mother. "Who that, Mama, and why he in Jessie's house?"

Naomi dropped Blair to her feet. "Sweetie, I'd like you to meet Lucas. He's a friend of mine."

"Pleased to meet you, Blair," Lucas smiled, holding out his hand.

"Ah you a boyfriend?" Blair asked bluntly, refusing to take hold of the extended hand.

"No baby," Naomi laughed, nervously. "Lucas is just my friend. I hope he can be your friend too."

Blair craned his neck to take a long hard look at the stranger. He didn't look like he would be mean, but he was awfully big, and too many of his mother's friends had been not very nice. He decided to keep his decision about whether he liked the stranger in reserve. Maybe when Jessie came out of the kitchen, she could take a look, and she could decide for him.

"Dude, look at all these balloons!" Lucas exclaimed. "It's not your birthday, is it?" He picked up the stuffed toy, which had fallen to the floor by the child's feet. "Hey I know this guy. It's Big Bird from Sesame Street, right? I used to watch that when I was a kid. My favourite was the Cookie Monster."

"Sweetie," Naomi interrupted. "How would you like to go to the park with Lucas and me? We could get some ice cream and maybe buy some bread to feed the birds. I know how much you love to do that."

Blair hesitated before answering. "I wait for Daddy to comed home, first," he replied, trying to sound as if he'd just made a very grown up decision. "I not 'llowed to go to the park with anyone 'less I ask Dad."

"Well pumpkin, Mama's already asked your dad. I gave him a call on his cell phone, and he said we could go as long as you were back in time for your party. He said to give you a big kiss and tell you to have a good time."

"He did?"

"Yes he did, sweetie," she lied.

"I suppose it be okay," Blair replied, with a measure of reserve still in his voice. He stood up on his tiptoes and rescued Big Bird from the hands of the stranger, before turning around to face his mother and her pleading eyes. His heart softened, and so did his ability to make the right decision. "If Daddy sayed so, then I must be 'llowed," he reasoned.

"Of course you are," Naomi replied, sweetly.

As his mother's eyes worked their magic on him, an exciting idea suddenly struck. "Ah you coming to my pahty, Mama?" Blair bounced on his toes, in the hope that she'd say 'yes'. Having both his mother and his daddy at his party would make it an extra, extra special day.

"Baby, I'd love to come to the party." Naomi replied, in a voice laden with feigned sincerity. Reaching down, she took hold of Blair's hand. "But we better get a serious wriggle on if we want to be back in time."

"Okay," Blair agreed, this time truly excited. "I just go tell Jessie that we ah going to the park but we be back fo' the pahty."

"Hey Blair," Lucas interrupted, shooting a look of concern Naomi's way. "Why don't I tell her? It would give me a chance to meet her and say hello."

This time, Naomi didn't give Blair a chance to answer. She tightened her grip on his hand and encouraged him, with a forceful tug to follow her.

"Bye Jessie!" Blair shouted, stumbling after his mother. "Me and Mama going to the park. I be back soon."

Jessie Taggert didn't hear a word the little boy said. Her unconscious body lay perfectly still on the kitchen floor.

Banks' sedan hit the curb before screeching to a complete stop outside the home of Joel and Jessie Taggert. Leaving the lights flashing, he hastily scrambled from the car and jogged toward a stretcher being loaded into the back of an ambulance.

"Jessie, are you okay?" Simon made no attempt to hide his concern as he reached out to take her hand. He gave a curt nod to the worried man who stood rigidly beside his wife's side.

"Oh Simon." Jessie tearfully latched on to the captain's hand. "They took Blair. They came into the house, Simon, and they took him. I had no chance to stop them."

"Sshh, Jessie, it's okay," Simon comforted, gently. "Did you get a look at who took him?"

"No." Jessie shook her head from side to side. "I didn't see a thing. I was checking on Blair's cake when all of a sudden someone grabbed me from behind and placed something over my face. All I can remember is this voice telling me that he wouldn't hurt me and that everything would be ’cool’."

"Jessie, if you heard that voice again, would you recognise it?"

Jessie nodded and closed her eyes for a brief moment. She was muddled and confused, but still she pressed hard to try and remember anything that would help. "I don't think he was an adult, Simon. The vernacular he was using didn't strike me as if it were coming from an adult."

"A teenager?" Banks questioned.

"Yes... yes, I think so?"

"Jess, you said that 'they' came into the house." Joel grasped his wife's other hand tightly, adding his strength. "If you didn't see anyone else, what makes you think there was more than one person?"

"I don't know?" Another tear leaked out from the corner of Jessie's eye and Joel moved quickly to thumb it away. "I don't remember, but I just have this feeling that there was also someone else in our house."

"It's okay," Simon hushed. "Don't push it, it'll come to you." He tucked her hand under the blanket. "We'll get him back, Jessie. I promise. We won't rest until we do." Tapping the stretcher, Simon gestured for the paramedics to continue. "Go with her, Joel," he said.

A fierce look of determination burned in Joel Taggert's eyes. No words were spoken between the two men; they both knew that this was not a case of 'if' they got Blair back, this was a case of 'when'. No matter how long it took or how many man hours were expended, Blair would be coming home.

Taking a deep breath as the ambulance pulled out of the driveway, Simon rallied himself for the most difficult task yet -- facing Jim Ellison. As a father himself, he knew that the depths of the man's grief would be crippling, but he also knew that if they were going to have any hope at all of finding Blair, both of them needed to be in only one frame of mind -- the mindset of the detectives that they were. While protocol would normally insist that Jim not be on the case, protocol didn't account for the fact that Jim Ellison was one of the best detectives in the department. Simon had already worked on pushing his role of 'uncle' to the background, and if Jim wanted to find his son, the role of father would also need to take a major step back. Banks wasn't sure if that was even feasible, but they had to give it a shot. For Blair's sake, they both needed to push down their fear-driven emotion and be at the very top of their game.

With a huge amount of reservation, Simon entered the kitchen and took in the sight of his best friend. The man's rigid, stalwart stance told him immediately that Ellison was already in prime detective mode. Feasibility had just moved to the front of the line.

"Tell forensics to dust the oven switch," Ellison ordered. "There's a fresh fingerprint on it, and there's more on the pillow and blanket that he covered Jessie with." Swinging around, Ellison acknowledged Simon. "Whoever this bastard was, he wasn't being very careful. He left a trail of evidence that a blind man could follow."

Simon nodded. "Well, from the little Jessie's managed to tell us about him, it appears that whoever took Blair was not much more than a boy himself." He looked over at the pillow and blanket that were now being bagged, "Jim, I know this is probably no consolation, but for the moment, maybe we should take some reassurance in the fact that the level of violence shown toward Jessie was very limited, and if the person who did this took the time to make her as comfortable as possible, then just maybe they might also be showing that same behaviour toward Blair."

"Reassurance be damned," Jim growled. "Whoever this bastard is, Simon, he broke into this house, rendered Jessie unconscious and kidnapped my son." Jim suddenly stopped talking and drew in a long, deep breath. A sweet, scented smell of perfume hung heavily in the air. "Naomi's been here," he stated without question. "She was behind this."

"And you know that how?" Simon asked.

"Because I can smell her," Jim spat. "I can smell her very essence."

Okay, maybe feasibility has just taken that flying leap out the window after all, Simon thought. Ellison's behaviour was becoming erratic, and he now realised that he'd have to be the driving force behind the investigation. "Jim, let's try focusing on the evidence at hand. What makes you think the perp's fingerprints are on the oven?"

"Look, Simon," Jim snapped impatiently. "I know that from where you're standing you're thinking that I'm just about to fall off the edge, but you're just gonna have to trust me on this one. I know what I'm doing, and if you don't let me do it and find my son, then I can guarantee you will see me fall apart."

Banks nodded. There was a look of desperation in Ellison's eyes, but there was also a look that he'd had become well accustomed to over the years. Determination was the driving force that made Jim as good as he was, and determination shone with vigour from the detective's eyes. "You've got the lead," he said, quietly.

"Captain," Rafe interrupted, "we've found the van. It was abandoned down at the local mall. We've run the plates, and it was reported stolen this morning."

"Any witnesses?" Banks pressed.

"One. A shop owner by the name of Tamara Wallace. She said she saw a woman placing a sleeping boy into a station wagon. Her description of the woman matches that of Naomi Sandburg."

"Any mention of a teenage boy?" Simon asked.

Rafe nodded. "The witness stated that she wasn't taking all that much notice, but indicated that she thought she saw a young man sitting on the driver's side of the car."

"You did good, Rafe," Simon said, squeezing the young detective's shoulder. "I want forensics crawling over that van. You got that?"

Rafe nodded again before glancing at Jim. "Yes, sir," he said.

Lucas Wilder pulled the station wagon to a stop in the driveway right in front of the main house. Glancing over at Naomi and the sleeping child on her lap, he turned off the engine and pulled the keys from the ignition. Their plan had worked, and while technically he'd just committed a federal offence, the label of 'kidnapper' was far less offensive to him than the label of 'uninterested bystander'. From what Naomi had told him, her son had been through a living hell at the hands of his father; in all good conscience he couldn't walk away and ignore it -- not again. Because of his actions, this child would now sleep soundly at night, and maybe, just maybe, he would be one step closer toward his own sound sleep.

Lucas' focus was drawn away from Naomi and her sleeping son as several people, who he'd come to know as 'the family', came out of the house to greet them. The kid was now safe from the clutches of his father, but still, he had to wonder if this was really such a good place to bring a child. During the short time he'd spent living among these people, he had experienced some pretty wild stuff and the phrase 'sex, drugs and rock-n-roll', aptly described what seemed to be an everyday experience for the members of this family. He'd be lying if he said he hadn't partaken in a few of the activities, but he had his limits. Drugs were on the top of his 'do not do' list, and despite the life he'd led, he'd never once been tempted to go down that path.

As the rusted door of the station wagon creaked on its hinges, Lucas pulled himself from the front seat. Naomi was already standing among the gathered masses, taking obvious pleasure in the attention being bestowed on her and Blair. He shrugged his shoulders and decided not to judge. The commune might not be a perfect place to bring up a kid, but at least Blair would be safe from his father; and if things didn't work out, the three of them could hit the road. Naomi seemed like a good mother, and he was certain she wouldn't hang around if she thought Blair was at risk.

"My children!" Father Gideon greeted them warmly, drawing Lucas from his thoughts. "We thank the Lord for your safe return and welcome the newest angel into our midst." Tenderly laying a hand on top of Blair's hair, Gideon bowed his head in a silent prayer. "Lucas, you can be proud of yourself, my son. Without your courage and strength of character, Naomi's child would have been left to rot in the depths of Hell." As he continued, Gideon's warm grey eyes bestowed a look upon Lucas that made his hackles rise. "Because of you, Lucas, this child has been saved. Come," Gideon ordered, smiling broadly, "let us take this precious addition to our family in out of the weather." Taking Blair from Naomi's arms, Gideon gathered the sleeping child close to his body. "He truly is beautiful," he whispered, placing a gentle kiss on the little boy's forehead.

Lucas shrugged off the praises and celebratory slaps that landed on his back. Gideon's look had unnerved him and made him wary. A child of the street did not forget; although it was just a flickering glint, a mere glance, intuition and experience niggled at him, urging him to stop and take heed of the signs that had been laid out before him.

Unconsciously, Lucas Wilder had just appointed himself Blair's unofficial bodyguard.

Blair slept through the night, oblivious to the celebrations going on around him. He was oblivious to the alcohol, the drugs and the sex, oblivious to the potentially dangerous situation his mother had placed him in.

But most of all, Blair was oblivious to the broken, shattered heart of his father.

As the first rays of the new day filtered softly through the window, Blair's eyelids fluttered open. Speckled and fractured by the dirt covering the pane, the morning sun cast an eerie glow over the bedroom, a bedroom that the youngster did not recognise. He whimpered softly as a dull ache at the back of his head intensified, making him feel sick to his stomach. Still not quite comprehending his whereabouts, he lifted his head from the pillow and looked around the room. Tears sprang to his eyes when the events of yesterday came flooding back in a waking nightmare. His mama and the big boy had said they were going to take him to the park, but they never ended up anywhere near the park. He'd cried and sobbed, telling them that he wanted to go back to Jessie's so he could ask his daddy if he was really allowed to go, but his mama just hushed him and made him take a sip of a drink that tasted funny.

Blair didn't remember anything after that.

Shivering slightly as the cold morning air hit his bare torso, Blair kicked the blankets off his legs and gingerly lifted his head from the pillow. His mama was sound asleep to his left and to the right was a man, someone he'd never seen before. Fighting to remain silent, he pulled himself up into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to the dappled light. The man's face was covered with a short beard that went down to a funny point at his chin. His long brown hair trailed halfway down his back, which was covered in ugly round marks. Startled when the man snorted and flipped over onto his side, he froze, not daring to move a muscle. The man was naked -- completely naked.

Past fears resurfaced quickly and, for the first time since he'd awakened, Blair realised that he, too, wasn't wearing any pyjamas. Confused and dazed and very scared, he could no longer hold back his cries of anguish. "Mama, wake up," he blurted, as his small fingers clawed at her bare shoulder. "Mama, wake up, I wanna go home." Not getting a response, Blair's cries became more erratic and frantic. "Mama, wake up!" he shouted. "Wake up, wake up!"

"Hey, Sport, not so much noise." Lucas padded into the room and plucked Blair from the middle of the bed. "You don't want to wake up Father Gideon," he warned. "The guy is definitely not a morning person." He soothingly tousled Blair's curls. "Come on, let's go into the kitchen."

Settling Blair on his hip, he bent down and plucked the kid's clothes off floor. For the first time since entering the room, he noticed that Gideon was completely naked, and for the second time since he'd taken Blair, his warning bells rang out. What the hell were you thinking, Naomi? he thought, flipping up the blanket to cover the naked man. He could well understand Naomi's desire to keep her son close last night, but stripping him down and putting him in the same bed as Gideon just didn't sit right. Turning around and padding out the door as quietly as he'd entered, he was struck this time by a powerful thought. What the hell were 'you' thinking Lucas and what the hell have you done?

"How you doing there, Sport?" Standing by the stove, with Blair clinging to him like there was no tomorrow, Lucas was patient. It wasn't the first time he'd soothed the tears of a child, and even though at the time he'd been a child himself, he had worked out fairly quickly that patience and reassurance were the best and only medicine. He had never been able to erase his brother's nightmares, and probably wouldn't be able to erase Blair's, but he wasn't a child anymore and he was no longer completely powerless. The little boy he held in his arms was a testament to that. Blair's nightmares would probably still linger, but because of him, the reason behind them no longer existed.

"Hey, short stuff," Lucas comforted gently. The morning air was chilly and, although the wood stove was giving off adequate heat to keep Blair warm, the child was still naked; it was a situation Lucas was keen to rectify before the kitchen became a hive of activity. "I bet you could use a trip to the bathroom by now." Blair didn't answer him, but the sobs of distress coming from the child had lessened considerably, and Lucas made the most of the opportunity. Wrapping Blair more tightly within the folds of his sweater, he moved away from the warmth of the stove and headed down the chilly hallway. Receiving little resistance from Blair, he unwound the child's arms from his neck and placed Blair straight on the toilet seat, never once taking into consideration the little boy's modesty. He'd done the same thing so many times with his own brother, when Scotty was about Blair's age, that it didn't even register to him that he might have overstepped the boundaries... not until Blair's hands shot out to cover his naked front, and gave him a look that chilled Lucas to his core. Any niggling reservations Lucas might have had as to the extent of Blair's life with his father was, at that very instant, shot to hell. Blair was a child of his own upbringing.

Backing away, Lucas stumbled, not quite knowing what to say. "Blair, I'm so sorry," he began. "I totally forgot that you're old enough to handle this by yourself." Moving closer to the door, his eyes desperately sought something else to look at -- anything that wasn't a scared, naked three-year-old sitting on the toilet. Finally his back hit the door and he made a hasty exit. Pulling it most of the way closed, he spoke through the gap. "I'll go get your clothes, Sport, and I'll leave them just inside the door. When you're done, come back out into the kitchen and we'll cook up a storm. How does that sound?"

Lucas didn't get an answer, but wasn't really expecting one. His question, his ramblings, were made more in an effort to appease the guilt he felt for being so stupidly oblivious to Blair's feelings. He should have known better, he did know better. He'd only made it halfway down the length of the hallway before his back hit the wall and he slid to the floor. The morning shadows hid his presence and, as he had done for the better part of his life, he took solace in their ability to hide his pain, and to conceal his shame.

At sixteen, life's memories still knocked him on his ass, and if he couldn't cope, how the hell would a three-year-old manage?

Lucas could feel Blair's eyes boring into his back as he stood in front of kitchen sink, mixing pancake batter. Blair had emerged from the bathroom fully clothed and with a look of determination on his face that had surprised him. After his slip-up in the bathroom, he had barely managed to pull himself together and expected Blair to be in the same frame of mind. But if the kid was still distressed, he certainly wasn't showing it. Blair had stomped into the kitchen, challenged him with a look of stubbornness, pulled out a kitchen chair, tucked his feet underneath him, settled his chin in his hands, and just stared at him. Not a word, not a peep, he just sat there, staring angrily at him.

In an effort to take some of the tension from the room, Lucas turned around and smiled. "Hey, small fry, you're in for a real treat this morning. I hope you like pancakes, because I happen to make the best pancakes this side of the galaxy."

Blair's silence broke. "My daddy makes them betteh. He gave Lucas a fierce glare. "I not gonna stay here. I going home." With that statement, Blair clambered off the chair and headed directly toward the back door.

The whisk clinked against the side of the sink and Lucas was quick to intercept. "Listen, little dude, you just can't go wandering off by yourself, especially not around here. It's too dangerous." He dropped down onto his knees, in the hope that he'd be less intimidating and that Blair might start to see him as someone who wasn't a threat. "There are a lot of bears in these woods, Sport. Promise me that you won't run off."

Blair showed no reaction. He just continued to face Lucas off with a determined mask.

"I mean it, Blair, you set foot in the woods, a bear will eat you." While Lucas' intention wasn't to scare the kid, he knew that if Blair did run off, the chances that he would end up as lunch to some kind of wild animal were pretty high.

Unease and apprehension bubbled up inside of Blair and he let it flash across his face. He had never seen a bear, but he had read stories about their big teeth, and the last thing he wanted was to get eaten up. Cautiously he took one step back from the door. "Alwight," he finally agreed. "I not go home by myself; 'stead I will call my daddy to come and get me. He is bery big and he not 'fraid of beahs."

"Sorry, buddy, no can do," Lucas said, brushing his hand lightly across Blair's curls. "This place doesn't have a phone and town is a long way away." He settled back on his haunches. "And besides, why do you want to go back to your father? Your mom's here and she loves you very much, you know. She'd be sad if you decided to leave her."

"My daddy would be bery sad too," Blair responded, quietly. "He would be bery sad because my daddy loves me this much." Blair opened his arms as wide as they would go and looked at Lucas with sad blue eyes.

Lucas took hold of Blair's hands, bringing them back down to his side. He rubbed his thumbs into Blair's palms, trying to work out how to explain feelings to a three-year-old, that he, at sixteen, was still at a loss to comprehend. "Listen kiddo, I know you think that your dad loves you, but there are all kinds of love in this world, and the way your dad loves you is wrong."

"It is not!" Blair declared. His anger flared and he stamped his foot on the ground. "My daddy not wong, he the bestest."

"One day when you're older you'll understand." One day you'll realise that what your dad has done to you is wrong and you'll thank us for taking you away from him. "Come on, jump on," Lucas said, turning around so Blair could climb onto his back. "This wagon train is heading back to the stove, so this cowboy can get some grub."

Blair reluctantly climbed onto Lucas' back. He wrapped his arms around the teenager's neck and held on tight as Lucas stood up. He was sad and angry and mostly confused about what to do next. He hadn't forgiven his mother for taking him away from his daddy. Initially, he had wanted to vent the same anger toward the teenager, but now the boy seemed kinda nice, and there was something about him that made him feel like Lucas was his friend. "Lucas," he whispered, finally deciding to trust the big boy. "Will you help me call my daddy... please?"

Lucas sighed sadly at Blair's request. He didn't blame Blair for missing his dad. How could he, when he'd gone running back to his own father so many times, back to a man who he thought he loved and who he thought loved him. "We'll see," he finally answered.

"Good morning, pumpkin," Naomi murmured, as she staggered into the kitchen. "I was wondering where you had gotten to. I hope you're not annoying Lucas?"

"He's fine, Naomi," Lucas replied, watching with interest as she stumbled past him to grab a coffee cup. "Blair and I are just getting to know each other."

"That's nice, sweetie." Not really interested, she poured herself a cup of coffee. "I'm going to go back to bed for a while. I have a terrible headache this morning. You play nice and quiet," she told Blair, ruffling his hair on the way back to the bedroom.

Lucas studied Blair as he pulled his head away from his mother's touch. The whole time Naomi was in the kitchen, the kid never bothered to answer her. The little boy simply watched, almost cautiously, as she flitted in, then out of the room.

Pushing out his chair and getting to his feet, Lucas dumped his dishes into the sink. "How would you like to help me in the garden today, Blair? I've got some planting to do, and I sure could use a hand."

Sullenly mushing up his pancakes with his fork, Blair shrugged his shoulders. "I guess so," he said, flatly. Although his thoughts were firmly fixed on his father, the idea of spending the day with Lucas was far more appealing than spending it with Naomi and the strange man in the bedroom.

"Come on, Sport, cheer up." Lucas encouraged. "Things will get better, I promise." He walked back over to the table and ruffled Blair's curls. "Now eat up, because you're going to need lots of energy if you want to help me dig."

As Blair made a half-hearted attempt with his breakfast, Lucas' warning bells now clanged louder than a tugboat being swept up on the rocks. The kid had been abused, of that he was certain, and while Blair's father remained on the top of the culprit list, Naomi's show of being the perfect, caring mother was starting to unravel. Although he'd only known Blair for a short time, in that time he'd grown fond of the kid. If he were truthful with himself, he would have admitted that Blair reminded him of his little brother.

And if he were to be totally honest with himself, Blair was a perfect surrogate to appease his own guilt-laden soul.

Blair and Lucas spent the day in the vegetable garden, as well as clearing out and re-fencing the chicken coop. The agreement the teenager had made with Gideon was that he would help with various building projects and do basic maintenance in return for room and board. It had been a pretty good deal, once he sorted out a few minor details. He had a room to himself and three square meals a day, and for the most part was pretty much left to his own devices. Most of Gideon's 'children', as they liked to refer to themselves, weren't all that bad. He guessed they all had their reasons for being there and their own assorted reasons for letting Gideon rule them like he did. Whatever they were, he never pried further than that of a friendly acquaintance.

But the casual, open demeanour Lucas usually displayed to the outside was world was pretty much a farce. There weren't too many times he'd let his internal guard down, and being cautious and wary of those he met had become a natural way of life. Meeting up with Gideon had been no exception. He didn't trust the man, nor was he taken in by all the religious mumbo jumbo about following Gideon on the path to the golden temple. When he had first arrived at the commune, Gideon had tried to persuade him to his way of thinking, and Lucas had immediately made it very clear that he was not interested in anything other than a fair meal for a fair day's work. Gideon had initially backed off, but as time passed, subtle, often skilfully persuasive suggestions found their way into everyday conversation. It didn't perturb Lucas very much; he'd reached an age and gained enough street smarts to get by. Not many people could make Lucas Wilder do something he didn't want to do, and that included Father Gideon. He'd come close a couple of times to packing up his meagre belongings and hitting the road, and the last time very nearly done it. And that's when Naomi had stopped him. While he was nobody's fool, he'd become captivated with her tragic story of loss, and just couldn't seem to walk away when she pleaded for his help.

And that help was why he was now sitting in a garden alongside a three-year-old child, seriously questioning his actions. His regret didn't extend to having taken Blair away from his father, but it did extend to leaving the child in the sole care of his mother.

From any way he looked at it, Blair had unwittingly become his responsibility.

"Blair, sweetie, come and sit with me," Naomi whined. She was curled in an armchair by the fire, bored and lonely. "Come and tell Mama a story. I need to be cheered up."

Blair didn't react immediately. Something in his mother's tone of voice made him hesitant to go to her. Lucas had gone to fix something in the shed, and then to have a shower. He'd promised to come back as soon as he was finished, and Blair thought that maybe if he waited a few more minutes, the teenager might turn up before he had to go and sit with his mother. He felt secure around Lucas, more secure than he felt around his own mother.

"Blair," Naomi whined again; her voiced sounded like Maddy Hanson at school, when Ms. Dickson wouldn't let her do something. "Mama wants to see you, baby."

Knowing now that he didn't have a choice, Blair scrambled to his feet and let himself be pulled up onto her lap. "Are you having a nice time here, Sweetie?"

Blair gave a quick shrug of his shoulders. He didn't want to tell her that he didn't like it here and that he wanted to go back to his daddy, because he didn't want to make her sad. But he really didn't want to stay. He missed his house and his room and he missed Jessie and Joel. But most of all, he missed his father and he missed the way Daddy made him feel special. Nobody in the house, apart from Lucas, had paid much attention to him; even his mama, for the most part, had seemed to have forgotten all about him. It was getting late, and she hadn't told him to brush his teeth or to put his pyjamas on, and she hadn't said that she would read him a bedtime story. All she seemed to care about was what was happening down the hallway, behind the closed door where Gideon had gone with the yellow-headed lady.

"Hey, beautiful, why are you all alone?" Blair was instantly on guard the moment a man, who he thought was called Gary, came sauntering into the room with two bottles of beer in his hand. "How 'bout you and me have a little party of our own?" he suggested, leaning down to give Naomi a kiss. He looked at Blair, briefly. "Hey kid, why don't you amscray for a while. Your mother I have got some important things to discuss."

Naomi gave Blair's hair a quick ruffle. "Honey, why don't you go over and sit on the couch?" She gave him a little push, encouraging him to hop down from her lap. "I think there are some old books over there in the corner that you can look at."

Blair obediently did as his mother asked. He was happy to get as far away from the man with the beer as he could, and he'd sought refuge in corners many times.

As the hours ticked over and the night drew long, Blair's patience waned, as did his ability to make decisions that were in his best interests. "Mama, I want to go to bed," he said, throwing the magazine back into the box. "I tired now."

Naomi and her male company were spread out on the rug by the fire and neither of them appeared interested in his request.

"Mama," he repeated, scrambling down from the sofa and kneeling down next to her. "I tired, Mama."

"Jesus, Naomi." Gary broke their kiss and glared at Blair. "Can't you get rid of that kid?"

"Sweetie, you can go to bed by yourself," Naomi encouraged. She lightly pushed him away again. "You're a big boy, now. You don't need me to help you." She turned her attention back to Gary. "Off you go, pumpkin."

"No," Blair said, shaking her arm. "I not wanna go by 'self. I don't like this place, Mama."

"Fuck, doesn't he ever shut up?" Fuelled by alcohol and his general dislike of children, Gary picked a half-empty bottle of beer and thrust it toward Blair. "Here kid, take a swig of this. This will put you to sleep in no time, and maybe we'll all get some peace around here."

Blair took a step backward and shook his head fiercely from side to side. "I not 'llowed to drink beuh," he said.

"Take a drink," Gary ordered, shoving the bottle more forcefully toward Blair.

"No!" Blair knocked the beer out of Gary's hand and took a step backward.

"Oh, you are so going to pay for that." Gary's hand shot out and caught Blair by the arm. "I told you to take a drink and for fuck's sake, that's exactly what you're gonna do." He pulled Blair into his body and forced him down onto his lap. With his fingers entwined in Blair's hair, he forced the child’s head back, picked up the bottle and pressed it against Blair's lips.

"Mama!" Blair spluttered as the beer glided across his tongue and flowed down his throat.

"Gary, maybe you should stop." Naomi reached out and took hold of the hand that held the beer, uncertain of the ramifications of her action. "He didn't mean to be naughty," she said, nervously. "Why don't I just take him and put him in the bedroom."

Gary was not Tom Walsh, but he was a man of considerable size and stature, and Naomi had been in the position of Pavlov's dog more times that she cared to remember. With one aggravated look from Gary, she released his hand, shrank back and cowered away. Blair was screaming and choking, but she simply closed her eyes and covered her ears.

'Hear no evil, see or talk no evil, and we ourselves shall be spared all evil.'

By now Blair was screaming in terror, and the panicked sounds coming from his drowning airway were making Gary more and more manic. "Would you shut the fuck up!" he shouted angrily.

Then, as quickly as it had started, it stopped. Blair felt Gary's hands release his body and he felt himself being lifted up into the air. Within seconds his chest came in contact with a solid wall of muscle, and every instinct that he possessed shouted at him that he was safe. Lucas' strong arms embraced him and his hot breath nuzzled his hair. Although shouts of anger filled the room, he heard nothing but the steady beat of the teenager's heart.

Lucas' voice was low and guttural and every single word he spoke was punctuated with unqualified truth. "You ever come near him again, I swear to god it'll be last steps you ever take. I will break you down into so many pieces that they'll never be able to put you back together."

Surprised and provoked at the front shown by the teenager, Gary sprang to his feet. "You better watch your mouth, boy, because if you don't, I'll rip your fucking head off." Gary was quick to size Lucas up. The kid matched his height and was by no means a forty-pound weakling, but he was just a kid and, from Gary's standpoint, a kid who needed his low-hanging balls hitched up, just a notch or two.

The look in Gary's eyes told Lucas, without question, that the asshole had no intention of backing down and that this altercation would not end with a simple verbal threat. He put Blair down on the couch behind him and squeezed his shoulder. "Stay put, Sport," he said. He had intentions of his own, and they didn't equate to backing down either.

"Brother Gary, Brother Lucas!" Gideon swept into the room, clapping his hands together with an air of authority. "Is there a problem?"

Gary's eyes flickered momentarily toward Gideon. Lucas' attention remained steadfast.

"There will be no fighting in this house of peace." Gideon moved closer, his hand coming to rest on both their shoulders. "We are a family brought together by love, not hate. I thought you both understood that."

Gary's eyes lowered in submission. "Yes father, we do. Gideon's touch grew more intense and Gary reacted accordingly. "I am sorry, Brother Lucas, for my harsh words and my inappropriate actions."

"Lucas," Gideon encouraged. "Do you have words of reciprocation for your brother?"

Lucas shrugged Gideon's hand from his shoulder. "I do," he said, swinging around to scoop Blair off the sofa. "You come near him again and I'll rip your fuckin' head off." He glared at Gideon. "Is that reciprocal enough for you?" Settling Blair against his chest, he shouldered his way past Gary and headed for the doorway. "Blair's staying with me tonight," he stated bluntly.

Gideon was a patient man; although Lucas Wilder was a test of that patience, he was not about to admit failure. From his earliest of years, he'd always felt a certain affiliation with the human psyche; as he grew, so did his ability to harness it and to keep it bridled, tamed and disciplined within the palms of his hands. To Gideon, the psyche was a complex structure that depended on a stable foundation to keep it balanced and strong. But those structures, if lacking a foundation, were fallible and susceptible to the whims of nature and to the exploitation of mankind. And as he sought out this susceptibility, there emerged his most nefarious of qualities; Gideon knew how to find a psyche without foundation, and he knew how to exploit it. Although Lucas Wilder had built strong walls, Gideon suspected that his foundation was not solid and that, if enough pressure was placed on the right spot, those walls would come crumbling down. He lowered his hands to his side. "You are right in doing so, Lucas. A child of Blair's age should not be confronted with pleasures of the flesh."

As Gideon looked from child to teenager, he saw conviction in the young man's eyes, but he also saw a revelation of the soul.

Father Gideon had just found Lucas' fundamental flaw, and he now knew exactly how to exploit it.

"Hey kiddo, you okay?" Lucas placed Blair's breakfast down in front of him and pulled up a chair, waiting for an answer that never came. "You know what," he began. "I was thinking of going to go visit a friend of mine today and was wondering if you'd like to tag along." He ruffled Blair's hair lightly. "I'd love to have the company."

Blair just nodded his head silently. He was still shaken from the events of last night, and had become withdrawn and silent. All he wanted was for his daddy to come and take him home. He wanted his daddy's strong arms to hold him tight and tell him that everything was going to be all right.

"Okay then," Lucas said, with a practiced, cheerful smile. "We'll head off straight after breakfast. He pushed a plate of toast and honey closer to Blair. It had taken him several hours to settle the kid down after his altercation with Gary. Once back in his room, Blair had refused to let go of him and he'd spent the night on his bed, with his back up against the wall, nursing Blair on his lap. While it hadn't been the most comfortable of positions, it had allowed him a clear and uninterrupted view of the door, and it didn't allow him to fall into anything more than a light slumber.

Lucas' world was one that existed on the turn of a coin. Decisions to stay or to leave were often left to the fate of head or tails. Now he found himself in a universe where decisions could no longer be left to chance. He'd already stolen Blair away from his father. What would the ramifications be if he did the very same thing to Blair's mother? But what would the ramifications be to Blair if he didn't?

Blair's life, he decided, was too precious to be left to the toss of a coin.

Not bothering to ask Naomi for permission to take Blair with him, Lucas buckled Blair into the back seat of the station wagon.

"Lucas, where are you going?" Gideon emerged from the house and appeared to almost glide down the front stairs.

Lucas slammed the door shut. "Just to visit a friend."

"Perhaps you should leave Blair here." The words flowed out in the guise of a suggestion, but there was no mistaking the authority behind them.

Lucas was firm. "No, he wants to come with me."

"Blair is just a child, Lucas, and children do not always get to make the rules. And besides, I'd like the chance to get to know Blair a little better."

"I bet you would," Lucas muttered, taking careful note of the glint in Gideon's eyes. "Well, you know what," he said, turning to face Gideon. "I've already promised to take him, so he's coming with me."

"I feel as if there is a challenging tone to your voice, Brother Lucas." Gideon took a step closer to the teenager. "I pray, however, that I am wrong."

Lucas stood his ground. "I'm not challenging you, just telling you what I'm going to do."

"And the difference to that would be?"

Lucas lowered himself into the front seat of the station wagon. "Probably not a hell of a lot."

"There you are, sweetie." Dishevelled and glassy-eyed, Naomi smiled sweetly at Lucas. "Are you going somewhere?"

"I told Blair that I'd take him with me to visit an old friend. We'll probably be gone most of the day. I would have asked first, but figured you wouldn't really mind."

Naomi missed the subtle nuance of Lucas' statement. "Of course I don't mind, sweet cheeks." She leaned down and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Take all the time you want. Gideon and I could use some time alone together, if you know what I mean." She winked coquettishly, and then blew Blair a quick kiss. "You have fun, pumpkin."

As the car started off down the long driveway, Gideon's eyes flashed with anger. Even his patience had its limits and Lucas had severely overstepped the bounds. His authority would not and could not be challenged again. All of his children would be subservient, and that included Lucas. He would own the boy and when he did, the pleasure of the flesh would not be denied to him. The teenager would not reject him again, and neither would he refuse him the right to make Blair a part of their family.

"Lucas, haven't seen you for a while. I was beginning to think you'd come to your senses and left that crazy mob." The elderly man gave Lucas' shoulder a hearty slap. "Hey, who's your young friend?"

"Bill, I'd like you to meet Blair. Blair, this is Bill."

Bill held out his hand. "Well hi there, young feller, it's nice to meet you. It's not too often I get visitors."

Blair returned the gesture, shaking the calloused hand and cautiously sizing up the old man standing before him.

"Hey, I bet you like ice-cream." Bill flashed Blair a toothy smile. "You look like a chocolate man to me."

"Ah, ha. I do." Blair tugged at Lucas' sleeve. "We fah from town, Lucas?"

"A little way," Lucas answered. He took hold of Blair's hand and followed Bill up the front stairs. "So, you got anything around here you need help with?"

"Things a little tense today at the crazy farm, eh?"

"What makes you say that?"

"Because the words 'teenager' and 'voluntary help' don't often mix company." Bill pulled open the screen door and ushered the pair into the house. "You know, son, you don't have to have an excuse to come visit." He scratched his whiskered chin. "Not that I'm complainin', mind you. At my age, I'll take all the help I can get."

"I know, and thanks," Lucas responded quietly.

"So, everything okay, really?"

"Of sorts." Lucas shrugged. "I just needed some time to get my head around a few things and Blair needed a day out."

Bill tapped Blair on the nose. "Why don't you go and take a seat at the table, young feller, and I'll go get you that ice-cream. Hey, I bet you'd love to colour, and I think I've got just the thing around here somewhere." After rummaging in the depths of a bureau drawer, Bill was rewarded. He pulled out a box of crayons and some butchers' paper. "They might be a little worn. My grand kiddies used to colour with them, but that was many a long, long year ago."

After Blair had settled himself on the kitchen chair, Bill joined Lucas at the kitchen counter. "Boy, he sure don't say much," he murmured.

"He's had a tough time of things, lately. His father's been beating on him, and now he's living with his mom. It's gonna take some time for him to adjust."

"What did the bastard do to him?" Bill asked. "He don't appear to be sporting any bruises."

"Not all things leave bruises, Bill. At least, not ones you can see."

Bill had only known Lucas for a short time and knew nothing at all about his life, but if he had to take an educated guess, he'd be figuring that Lucas carried around an assortment of bruises himself. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he said. Pulling a tub of chocolate ice-cream from the freezer, he filled a bowl to its brim and took it over to Blair. "What are you drawing there, pup?" he asked, noticing the squiggles Blair was making. "You trying to write down your name?"

"Nope." Blair tore off the paper and put it in his pocket.

"How old are you, Blair?" Bill asked.

"Three." Blair held up his fingers as if to prove his age. "It was my birthday befo' and my daddy was giving me a pahty. I neveh got to go, but, I knowed my daddy be sad about that."

"Well, young feller, I know that birthday parties, especially three-year-old birthdays, are very special, but you must be glad that you're with your mom, now."

"Nope." Blair shook his head, sending a flurry of curls whipping in all directions. "I want to go back to my daddy." His blue eyes stared directly at the man, leaving no doubt as to his wishes.

"Why do you want to go back to your dad, Blair?" Bill asked gently.

"'Cause my daddy loves me and I miss him and I knowed that he will be missing me."

The kindly old man patted Blair softly on the head. "You better get stuck into that ice-cream, kiddo... don't want it to melt." Making his way back over to the kitchen counter, Bill accepted a cup of coffee that Lucas held out for him.

"You sure you're right about his dad? It doesn't strike me that the little feller's being abused. Sounds more like the kid really misses his father."

"He's only three, Bill, and right now is very confused. He wants to go back because it's all he knows and it's what he's used to."

"Well that don't sound none too logical."

"Yeah, well, logical or not, it's a part of the cycle. But you wait. He'll be cool with the whole thing in a few days." Outwardly, Lucas was not yet ready to admit that he might have made a terrible mistake. Inwardly, he knew that Blair wouldn't be staying at the commune and he wouldn't be staying any longer with Naomi. He wasn't yet certain how he was going to manage it, but he was certain that in the next couple of days he'd be taking off, and that Blair would be coming with him.

Bill considered Lucas and his statement, and it made him wonder more about the elusive Lucas Wilder. What exactly had happened to the boy to make him take off from home at such a young age and end up with a bunch of crazy hippies? "If you need help, kid, you just ask. I might be old, but I'm still pretty darn good with a shotgun." He shoved his hands deep into his pockets. "I mean, you might think you're all big and growed and ready to take on the world, but you're hardly much more than a kid yourself -- and that Gideon feller has a way of persuading folks to do things they wouldn't normally do."

Lucas smiled warmly. "You don't have to worry about me, old timer. I've been looking out for myself a long time now, and believe me, there's no way anyone's ever gonna persuade me to do something I don't want to do." He slapped Bill's flannel-clad arm. "Now, what part of that structure you call a barn do you wanna start with?"

While Lucas and Bill worked on the barn, Blair waltzed in and out, exploring the farm, but never straying too far away from his teenage guardian. When it was nearly time for them to leave, he ran ahead, bolting into the house.

"I'll go fetch him," Bill said, stretching out the muscles in his back. "It'll give you a chance to pack up the tools."

"Thanks," Lucas muttered, light-heartedly.

Bill finally tracked Blair down in the living room. "Hey pup, what ya doin?"

"Do you gots a telephone?" Blair said, urgently.

"I sure do. Why do you ask?"

"Heuh." Blair shoved a tiny piece of paper into the man's time-weathered hands. "I wited my daddy's phone numbe'. The first one is my home and the next one is my daddy's wo'k. He a detective in a big, big police apa'tment," he stated. "Can you please call my daddy so he can come get me? I not want to stay heuh no more."

Bill studied the phone numbers. "That's mighty fine writin' young feller; you sure you're only three?" He was avoiding answering Blair's question and avoiding acting on his request. His gut told him that Blair's father wasn't the bastard Lucas had made him out to be, but his gut also told him to give Lucas and his intuition the benefit of the doubt.

"Yes, I three," Blair said impatiently. "And I learned my telephone numbeh from my daddy 'case I got lost." He turned his big blue, sorrowful eyes on the old man. "I lost now," he said quietly.

Bill bent down to Blair's level. "Tell you what; why don't you give it a few days, and if you're still not happy living with your mom, I'll call your dad and have a chat with him." Hearing the screen door slam, Bill slipped the paper into his shirt pocket. He would wait and see how things panned out. Lucas had promised to come back in a day or two, and if Blair were still insisting on going home, then he would think seriously about the little boy's request.

"Hey buddy, you ready to go?" Lucas asked, tapping Blair on the head.

"You taking me home?" asked Blair hopefully.

"Yep, your mom's probably wondering where we've got to."

"I not wanna go back to that house!" Blair stamped his foot. "I not like those men and I not like they beuh."

Lucas scooped Blair up into his arms. "I know, and to tell you the truth, Squirt, I don't like them either."

"Then we both leave together," Blair said, hopefully.

"We need a plan first, kiddo." Lucas' eyes locked in understanding with Bill's. "And while we are working out this plan, you can stay with me in my room." He tickled Blair's stomach. "It'll be fun, you'll see. We can stoke up the fire and toast some marshmallows. Just like a campout."

"Okay," Blair agreed, wrapping his arms around Lucas' neck. A plan -- marshmallows, and then they could leave. And then he could go back to his daddy.

"Lucas!" Bill ran his hand up the length of Blair's back as Lucas turned to leave "You remember what I said, okay? You might be built like a brick shit house, but you're still just a kid yourself, and those people need to be handled with caution."

"Yeah, I know." Lucas winked in an effort to lighten the mood. "But I also know some real cool moves, old man."

Bill gave Lucas a shove toward the front door. "You go on and get out of here before this old man takes a wooden spoon to your britches. We'll see how cool your moves are when you're not able to sit down for a few days."

"All right, all right," Lucas laughed. He bounded down the stairs and pulled open the squeaky door of the station wagon.

"Hey," Bill said, following behind in a slow, but steady pace. "You sure it wouldn't be wiser to stay on here for a couple of days? They don't know where you disappear to when you come here, do they?"

Lucas buckled Blair into the back seat. "No, they don't, but everything I own is back at the commune. And besides that, I still want the chance to talk to Blair's mother. I have to be one hundred percent certain that I'm doing the right thing, this time."

"This time?" Bill questioned.

"Yeah, this time."

"Kid, I don't know what you've got yourself mixed up in, but I have my suspicions, and they're telling me that you've been bamboozled." He unconsciously tapped at his breast pocket. "The young feller gave me his daddy's phone number. I think we should consider using it, don't you?"

Lucas had a feeling that the older man was right, but he also knew, for Blair's sake, that he couldn't afford to be wrong. "Bill, all I'm asking for is a couple of days. Families are complicated creatures, and if I'm going to give Blair back to his father, there has to be absolutely no doubt that he's gonna be safe."

The desperate plea in Lucas' eyes had Bill nodding his head. "A couple of days. No longer."

"Thanks, Bill." He seated himself behind the wheel and gunned the engine. "See you in a couple of days."

Bill lifted his hand to wave goodbye. "I'll be waiting," he said.

Keeping Blair away from the members of the family had not been a difficult task. Initiating any kind interaction between Blair and his mother, on the other hand, had been like trying to plug up Mount Vesuvius with paper wadding. Bill was right; he'd been bamboozled. Naomi was not the same women he'd met a month ago and she was not, by any means, a mother who had her son's best interest at heart. But that being said and done, it didn't automatically make Blair's father any more stellar. Although Blair continued to defend the man, Lucas knew from his own experience that the kid could have been trapped within a realm of familiarity, a place where you stay because you know nothing else. He might be trying to return to a realm where even a mere smattering of love is lapped up and cherished like a beaten dog seeking the attention and approval of its master... no matter what that master's hand gives out.

"Lucas?" Blair tugged on Lucas' arm, bringing the teenager from his thoughts.

"Yeah buddy?"

"I just had a big 'vehsation with Incacha, and it okay. We not have to have a plan no longeh, 'cause Incacha is going to bring my dad to me."

"Oh," Lucas replied, trying to make sense of what Blair had just said. "And who is this Incacha person?"

"He not a pe'son, silly. He a spirit, and he bery sma't."

"Oh, I get it, an imaginary friend. Cool, I never had one of those. What else did this Incacha dude have to say?" Lucas asked, getting into the swing of three-year-old speak.

"He sayed I need to go in the forest and my daddy will find me."

"Blair." Lucas' tone became serious. "You remember what I said about going in the forest by yourself, don't you? I didn't tell you about the bears just to frighten you. There really are bears and mountain lions in these woods, and a kid your size would make the perfect afternoon snack." He pulled Blair up onto his lap. "Look, I got a better idea. Why don't you invite this Incacha dude to our room and we can all have a little chat, toast marshmallows, and just hang out for a while?"

"Incacha don't eat mahshmallows," Blair said in a serious voice of his own. "And besides, I not have to worry about beahs or lions, 'cause he going to tell the animal spirits to look afteh me."

"Animal spirits?"

"Ah-ha. I gots a wolf puppy and my daddy gots a big black cat. He has big, big teeth and could gobble up a beah in one big bite."

"Right," Lucas said, deciding to play along, and to keep an extra keen eye on the youngster. "He sounds mean. I hope he won't eat me?"

"Nope, he likes you, 'cause you nice to me."

"Good, that's a relief. Hey, do these animal spirits have names?"

"Yep, my puppy's name is Rahma, and daddy's cat is name Bagheera."

Let me guess," he laughed. "You've seen the Jungle Book?"

"Ah-ha. I seed it ten times." Blair held up both of his hands. "Daddy and me watch it togetheh. It our favourite."

In his heart, Lucas knew what he had to do. He glanced over at Naomi, who was stoned, and dancing around to imaginary music. He cupped Blair's cheek. "Blair, I want you to answer a question, but you have to be really honest... okay? No lying."

"I not lie!" Blair replied with an indignant look on his face.

"I know you don't, Squirt, but I just want you to understand how important this question is." Lucas drew in a breath. "Blair, has your dad ever hit you or done something to you that you don't like?"

"My daddy neveh hit me, 'cause we have a promise. But he do make me go to my room when I naughty. I don't like that," Blair said, stubbornly.

"Okay then." Lucas was now ninety-nine percent sure Blair's father wasn't hitting on him, but there was still that one percent of uncertainty that niggled at him. He would get Blair back to his dad, but it didn't mean that would be the end of his association with the youngster. One town was much like another, and he didn't really care where he drifted to. He'd follow Blair home and discretely hang around until that ninety-nine percent turned into a one hundred. Sure, it had its risks, but he'd been taking risks all his life and Blair was worth this risk. "Tell you what, Sport," he finally said. "How 'bout we go to Bill's tomorrow and give your dad a call and tell him to come and pick you up?"

"Really? You promise?"

"I cross my heart and hope to die."

"I not want you to die, Lucas," Blair said worriedly.

"I didn't mean it like that, Blair," Lucas laughed. "Hey, I got an idea. Why don't we do a spit promise instead?"

Blair scrunched up his face in confusion. "A spit promise! What that?"

"A spit promise is where you do this." Lucas spat on his hand and waited for Blair to do the same. "Then you shake hands." He grabbed Blair's hand and squished their spit together.

"Yuck," Blair giggled, trying to pull his hand away. He suddenly lunged at the teenager, wrapping his arms around his neck. "You my best friend, Lucas, and you can come and live at my house so you don't have to stay heuh," he announced.

Lucas gave Blair a quick tickle. "Oh, I'm sure your dad would be so thrilled with that idea." He got to his feet and dangled Blair playfully over his shoulder. "Come on, Squirt, you and I have got some things to organise."

Gideon watched from the window of the main house as Lucas played with Blair. The relationship between the pair had blossomed quickly and was gaining momentum at every turn. It was time for it to come to a stop before it became dangerously out of control. Lucas needed to be reined in and controlled before Blair was forever lost to them, but using persuasion on the boy, no matter how skilfully practiced, was like trying to get a deaf-mute to recite Shakespeare. Alternative measures were needed if Lucas were ever going to enter the family fold. Gideon had searched his soul long and hard, and spent many hours pontificating over what made Lucas tick and how he could uncover the boy's fundamental flaw. A child of the streets was his first starting point, and the possibilities of both physical and sexual abuse were not far behind in his train of thought. If Lucas had, at one point in his life, been controlled by sex, then control by sex seemed a fitting place to start. A twinge tugged at the base of his groin, and Gideon fought to push down the feeling. His task was not about sexual gratification or fulfilment. His task and his duty was to save Lucas from the sins he had been burdened with. "Tonight," Gideon whispered. "Tonight, Lucas, you will take your place among my children." He pushed through the screen door and clapped his hands with an air of authority. "Tonight, my children," he began, "will be one of celebration and thanks. Tonight we will give thanks for all which has been fortuned upon us and for our blessed unions." He merged gracefully among those who had gathered around him. "Come, let us get ready for the festivities. Cleanse your bodies, my children, in preparation for a cleansing of your souls."

As his children dispersed, Gideon pulled a young woman close to his side. "Crystal, my dear." He ran his hands through her long, flowing hair, "I have a special drink prepared for our celebrations. When the time is right, I want you to offer this drink to our brother Lucas."

"Yes, father," she replied faithfully and without question.

Great, another orgy, Lucas thought as he swung Blair onto his shoulders. "You know what, kid, I must be getting old."

"We going to the pahty?" Blair asked. A hint of reserve was clearly evident in his voice.

"Short Stuff, I think this is definitely one party you and I don't need to attend." He tugged on Blair's leg. "How about we make ourselves scarce?" And by the time anyone notices we're not there, they'll be too stoned to care, he thought hopefully.

"We going to make a plan to go Bill's?" Blair asked.

"When things quieten down," Lucas answered. Once the party was well underway and the 'family' were too out of their heads to care or to act, he'd take the car and head to Bill's. He'd stay discreetly out of the way until Blair's dad turned up, and then he'd make his own way to Cascade. As well as telling him a lot about his day to day life, Blair had also told him his address, so it wouldn't be too difficult to keep tabs on the youngster.

Lucas pushed open the door to his room and swung Blair down from his shoulders and into his arms. A pang of sadness washed over him. He'd become attached to the kid, and was truly going to miss him. He carried around with him a sizeable wound at the death of his own brother, a wound which Blair had started to heal. But as the realities of life once again encumbered him, he could feel his wound beginning to bleed once again.

It seemed like his life was and would always be a never-ending journey on the road to heal a broken heart.

A comfortable nest of blankets and pillows on the floor by the fire had become Blair's temporary bed. Lucas pulled the blankets up more snugly around the child's shoulders as he gave the room a visual once-over. He'd already packed up most of his belongings and now was just waiting for the activities in the main house to die down.

A soft knock on the door had him on guard.

"Lucas, it's Crystal." The young woman knocked again. "Can I come in?"

With a quick release of the lock, Lucas pulled the door open. "Crystal, what are you doing here? I thought you'd be well and truly enjoying the better things by now."

"How can I enjoy myself when you're in here?" she pouted. "So, I thought if you weren't coming to the party, I'd bring the party to you."

"Not tonight. I'm sorry, but I'm not really in the mood for partying. And besides, I just got Blair settled."

"Come on, Lucas, just one beer." She pushed an already opened bottle of beer into his hands. "I don't want to do anything but talk, and I promise I'll be real quiet."

Reluctantly, Lucas took the beer. The sooner he downed it, the sooner he'd get rid of her and the sooner he could work on getting his head around exactly how and when they'd be leaving.

"See, that wasn't so bad." Crystal smiled and lifted her own bottle to her lips. "Sharing one beer won't hurt a bit."

The effects of the drug were fast acting and extremely effective. By the time Lucas had consumed half the bottle, his vision had already begun to blur. And by the time he'd worked out that something was seriously wrong, his coordination was shot to hell. "What have you put in this?" he slurred.

"Nothing that will hurt you, baby." She nuzzled at his neck. "Father Gideon just wanted you to relax. You've been way too tense lately."

"Get out!" He tried to push her away, but to no avail. His limbs simply refused to cooperate.

Gideon's frame darkened the doorway. "Thank you, Crystal, you have pleased me greatly." He captured her mouth in a seductive kiss. "Go back and join the others. I will be there shortly."

"Yes, father," she replied obediently, locking the door on her way out.

"Get the hell out!" Lucas stumbled forward, barely able to keep himself upright.

"Don't fight me, Lucas." Gideon reached out to steady the boy's body. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but either way, we will do this." He ran his hand through the youth's hair. Your soul will be cleansed, my sweet child, and you will no longer have the need to fear. You will be joined as one to our family, Lucas, and it will be a beautiful moment." He gently kissed Lucas' cheek. "Trust me, child, to make you whole once more."

Although his anger burned like fury on the inside, Lucas' limp body provided his inner rage no assistance. He could still move, but he had no control over the movements. His body was like putty in Gideon's hands.

"Tomorrow and for the rest of your life, you will thank me for this, my son." Gideon stepped up behind Lucas and, with one hand around the teenager's waist, he used the other to snap open the buttons on the boy's jeans.

Lucas struggled weakly, but his efforts only resulted in him falling face first onto the bed. The cold air hit his skin, and he shuddered as Gideon's fingers traced a line from the top of his neck to the base of his spine. The fingers dipped lower, but then stopped. Penetration, however, did not. With his vision fading fast, and his body failing him, the only thing that Lucas could do was lie helplessly on the bed and listen to the hysterical sobs coming from the little boy in the corner. The only thing he could feel as Father Gideon slammed repeatedly into his body was another part of his soul dying.

At the same time as Gideon's passion filled his body, Lucas lost consciousness.

"Stop, stop, stop!" Blair pulled his knees to his chest and rocked his body frantically back and forth. "Please stop, please stop," he repeated over and over again. Finally, unable to sit and watch what was happening to Lucas any longer, he sprang to his feet and ran with all the force he could muster straight at Father Gideon. He bit and clawed and punched with all his might. "Get away! Get away from him!" he screamed, frantically.

Gideon backhanded Blair without warning and sent him sprawling across the bedroom floor. He lay, stunned and trying desperately to catch his breath. The sounds of Gideon's assault filled the room, bringing back horrific and crippling memories.

Covering his ears and curling himself into a tight, small ball, Blair squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and prayed for his daddy to come. "Please come, please come," he said over and over. "Daddy, please come and take us home."

With a feeling of pure exhilaration and purification, Gideon pulled himself from Lucas' limp body and wiped himself on the bedspread. Mesmerised by the thin trickle of blood that was slowly weaving its way down the teenager's inner thigh, he clasped his hands tightly together. "It is through our blood, sweat and tears that we are finally reborn!" he shouted. "Do you hear me, Lord? Can you see that this child has now entered your house?" Breathing heavily, he pushed himself completely upright and fixed his attention on Blair. "Don't be afraid, my little one." He moved closer and bent down to stroke Blair's hair. "Brother Lucas is part of our family now, and in time you will be granted that same honour." Still half erect, he pried Blair's hand away from his body and forcefully uncurled his fist. "And until that glorious day arrives, you will learn how to please your father." Gideon smoothed out Blair's palm and directed it toward his body, but the moment the youngster's hand made contact with his skin, a deafening roar filled the room. Gideon released Blair and toppled back with a start, scanning the room in a state of bewilderment. "What in the Lord's name!" he exclaimed, unable to detect anything out of the ordinary. Bringing his attention back to Blair, his heart leapt to his throat. Standing over the distraught child was the form of a midnight black jaguar. Gideon blinked furiously in an effort to clear his vision, but the feline remained. "No, this cannot be real," he stammered. "You cannot be real." He staggered to his feet and stumbled toward the door, where he clumsily unlocked the latch. "You are a child tainted with the soul of the devil!" he shouted. "You are the spawn of the underworld."

Gideon flung the door open and disappeared into the dark, his incoherent mumbling lost within the beat of a percussion drum and an acoustic guitar.

Blair lay deathly still, unable to move until the touch of a wet tongue tickled his cheek.


The tongue was back, this time like rough sandpaper scraping against the side of his face.


He sat up with a start. "You heuh! You comed to us!" He grabbed the wolf pup around its neck and cuddled it close to his body. "Wait till Lucas sees you!"

Giving the pup a kiss on the top of its head, he released it from his grip and scrambled to his feet. "Lucas, look. I told you they was real and that they would comed to us." He had learned to know Incacha in his dreams and, as time went on, he'd come to trust and love the animal spirits in real life. His daddy couldn't see them, but didn't seem concerned that he could. Too much Jungle Book, his daddy would laugh, and then say no more.

Lucas also didn't say a word.

"Lucas?" Blair edged closer to the bed. "You alright?" Still receiving no answer, he clambered up onto the bed. "You be okay now," he said as he combed his fingers through the teenager's hair. "If the animal spirits re heuh, that mean my daddy will be heuh soon, too." He patted Lucas' cheek. "He will take us home, I promise."

Lucas awoke to the soft touch of fingers cording through his hair. Willing his eyes to open and praying that they would be functioning properly, he finally managed to focus on Blair. After several attempts at coherent speech, he was eventually able to get his mouth to cooperate with his brain. "You okay?" he slurred.

"Ah-ha." Blair bounced excitedly. "They comed Lucas... they comed to save us."

"Where's Gideon?" Lucas mumbled.

"He runned out the door when Bagheera gwowled."

Ignoring Blair's babbling, Lucas lifted his hand shakily and gripped the back of Blair's head. "Did he hurt you?"

Blair shook his head. "Nope 'cause Bagheera was going to gobble him up so he runned away."

"High five for Bagheera," Lucas muttered, drawing a deep breath into his lungs. "Sport, I'm not good for much at the moment and I'm gonna need to rest for a little while till I'm feeling better. I need you to go and lock the door. Do you think you can do that?"

"Ah-ha." Blair immediately hopped down from the bed and made a beeline for the door. Grabbing hold of it, he slammed it shut and stood on his tiptoes to reach the lock. "I locked it!" he called out.

"Good boy." Lucas saved his waning energy until Blair came back over to the bed. "You need to get dressed into the warmest clothes you have. As soon as I can move a little better, we gotta leave, okay?"

"It okay, Lucas." Blair assured. "You go to sleep and we will look afteh you." As he pulled up the blanket to cover the teenager, he didn't fail to notice the blood. "I sorry 'bout yo' bottom," he said quietly.

A rogue tear trickled down the teenager's cheek. "I'm sorry you had to see that."

Blair softly wiped away the tear. "It okay to cry. I cried when Tom huht my bottom."

More tears followed and Blair folded himself into Lucas' body and held on tight. He patted the teenager's back with a slow, steady rhythm. "Shhh," he comforted. "We heuh, and eve'ything will be okay," he said.

When Lucas finally lost his battle and gave in to sleep, Blair pulled the covers all the way up. Snuggling back down, he lifted the blanket for Rahma to squeeze in. He didn't have to look around for Bagheera, because he already knew that the big black cat would not leave its guard by the door.

"Night, Lucas," he whispered, as his own eyes drifted shut.

Lucas gingerly rolled himself to the edge of the bed. Being mindful of Blair, who was sleeping soundly next to him, he carefully sat up and placed his feet on the floor. Gingerly pulling up his jeans, he stood, wincing at a pain that was by no means unfamiliar. With limbs cooperating just above a snail's pace, he set about packing the remainder of his belongings. His plan was simple. He'd steal the station wagon, drive it to Bill's, call Blair's father and lay low until the guy arrived. He'd get Bill to size the guy up, and then he'd catch the first bus to Cascade.

Turning his attention back to Blair, he shook him gently. "Blair, time to wake up."

Blair mumbled and opened his eyes briefly, but didn't wake fully.

"Come on, big guy." Trying to ignore the painful strain on his body, Lucas leaned down and lifted Blair into his arms. "We need to get going, Squirt, and I need you to be extra quiet." He jiggled Blair slightly. "You think you can manage that?"

Blair lifted his sleepy head from Lucas' shoulder. "Ah-ha," he replied. "I be quiet as a mouse."

"Good stuff." Lucas dropped Blair to the floor. "Are you awake enough to walk by yourself?"

Blair rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and nodded his head. "Ah-ha," he said again. "Is our plan happening?"

Lucas shouldered his pack and took hold of Blair's hand. "Sure is."

"Then I will get Bagheera to tell Incacha to tell daddy to go to Bill's house."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Lucas muttered, not really feeling up to giving his full attention to the youngster's wild imagination.

As Lucas cracked open the door, the first rays of dawn greeted them, and he berated himself for not leaving earlier. He quickly surveyed the compound, taking some solace in the fact that last night's party would have created a few sore heads, and resulted in virtually no early risers. Guiding Blair quietly across the grass and onto the path in front of the house, he was acutely aware of the blood staining the back of his jeans, but totally unaware that Gideon was following them.

"Quick, hop in and put your seatbelt on." Lucas' body suddenly went ridged and Blair's eyes widened in fright. Standing behind the boy who had become his saviour and his best friend was Father Gideon. Lucas' skin paled instantly and a low, gut-wrenching moan escaped his lips. Blair couldn't comprehend why, but then, Blair couldn't see the knife that was plunged deeply in the teenager's back.

Frozen, Blair couldn't move and he couldn't talk. All he could do was watch as Gideon's lips gently brushed across Lucas's ear. "Take your place in the temple, my son. I have delivered you from sin; your demons have now been purged."

A trickle of blood from a lip torn in pain, and a whisper from those same lips had Blair on the move. "Blair, go... run!"

Gideon withdrew the knife and held it fiercely in his bloodstained hand. "Come to your father," he ordered, shaking the knife at Blair. "Come and let me rid you of your demons."

"Blair, run." Those were the final words out of Lucas' lips as he toppled into Gideon. Not knowing what else to do, Blair scrambled out the driver's side window and set flight. As soon as his feet hit solid ground, he took off down the path and dove into the bush. He'd left Lucas behind, but he couldn't stop running. His feet pounded along the hard earth and he wasn't even telling them to move. Tears flowed down his cheeks and voice inside tried to calm his turmoil. Trust in your sentinel, little one. Trust in him, and soon you and your brother will be home where you both belong.

Infuriated as the child's tainted soul took off down the path, Gideon turned his attention back to the one child he could still save. He lifted the bloodstained knife high into the air and cried mournfully into the heavens. "I bring a gift for your temple, Lord! Please forgive this sinful boy."

Lucas lay on the ground, unable to move, unable to protect himself. He knew he was going to die, but he wasn't afraid. He was surprised he'd made it this far in life -- although he had never quite expected to go out at the hands of someone like Gideon. On a good day, he knew he would be able to take the man down. I guess today's not a good day, he thought ruefully, as knife plunged toward his chest. Closing his eyes, he laid his head back down and waited for end.

The movement was quick, graceful and silent. The cat struck its prey with deadly accuracy. Its teeth sank deep into the exposed neck of the sanctimonious family leader, ripping his windpipe from surrounding flesh in one fluid movement. Satisfied with its kill, the cat disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the only witness to the attack standing by the window, running her hands frantically through an untidy mop of short-cropped, red hair.

No death-summoning pain, no blood, and no knife protruding from his chest. Lucas' eyes fluttered open and his hand groped around for a knife that should have signalled the end of his life. He rolled onto his side, only to come face to face with the bloody remains lying next to him. 'Bagheera will gobble him up'. The thought was first and foremost in his mind. The second was the little boy he'd come to love as a brother.

"Blair!" The name and the blood left his body at the same rate, and Lucas knew that he didn't have a lot of time left. If he was going to find Blair, he had to get help. He couldn't do it by himself, not this time. Dragging his body across the gravel, he used the steering wheel to painfully pull himself up and into the car. Fumbling with the keys, he shifted the car into gear as the engine roared to life. In what seemed like a walking dream, he manoeuvred the car down the mountain road and across several miles of lonely countryside, before crashing into the fence near the entrance of Bill Winters' driveway.

Seventy-eight years of getting up with roosters was not an easy habit to break and, luckily for Lucas, Bill had faithfully maintained his morning routine. Sipping leisurely on his first coffee of the day as he scanned yesterday's paper, he was startled by a loud crash coming from the direction of the lower road. Making his way to the front porch as quickly as his ageing legs would allow, he instantly recognised the car in the distance. "Lucas!" Turning quickly on his heels, he re-entered the house and grabbed his keys and his phone. "Hold on son, I'm a-comin'."

By the time Bill reached his front fence, the station wagon had stalled. Frantically pulling open the driver's side door, he was taken aback by the amount of blood covering the seat and the young man. He reached immediately for a pulse point. "Thank god," he rasped, grabbing Lucas' lax hand. "Hang in there, son, doc's on his way."

"Bill." The metallic taste of blood filled Lucas' mouth and he coughed to try and clear his airways. "Blair... his father... call the number... he's gone into the woods... need to find him."

Lucas's world shaded to grey before finally turning black, but through it all, he could still feel the warm embrace of Bill Winters' hand touching his face.

"How long has he been here?" Simon impatiently tapped the top of Rhonda's desk. "Has he been home at all?"

His secretary shook her head. "I don't think so. He was here when I left, and still in the same clothes when I arrived this morning."

"Damn it, Jim," Banks muttered. This time he butted his hand against Rhonda's desk. "Give me a minute to grab some coffee and muster some fortitude, and then I'll talk to him."

Rhonda just nodded. Jim Ellison was a hard case, but Simon was no pushover, either. She felt deeply for the man's anguish, but knew that he was digging not only his own, but his son's grave as well, if he didn't take some time out to get some rest. She prayed that her boss could make the detective realise this.

Ellison sat staring blankly at his computer screen. Not one lead. Blair had been missing for over a week and the best detectives in the department still didn't have one single lead. In a surge of anger and bitter frustration, he upended his desk. Not caring, not even seeming to notice the pile of broken computer equipment that surrounded him, he hung his head dejectedly and covered his face with his hands.

Startled by the crash and not caring in the least about the destruction, Banks hooked his arm across Jim's shoulders. "Come on," he said, gently. "Why don't we get out of here for a while?"

"It's been a week, Simon." Jim's arms fell to his sides. "A whole week, without one single lead."

"I know, but we're not giving up." He squeezed Jim's arm. "You need to eat and you need to rest, Jim. You're going to be no good to Blair if you wind up in the hospital."

"Captain!" Rhonda cupped her hand over the receiver of the phone. "I have Sheriff Winslow of Bowen County on the line. They've got a lead on Blair."

Bank's snatched the phone from Rhonda's hand before Ellison had a chance to react. "This is Captain Banks." Ellison listened intently and Simon nodded furiously. "We're already on the road, Sheriff."

"Jim, they've found Naomi and..."

"I know, I heard." Ellison already had his jacket and keys in hand.

"No way." Banks plucked the car keys from Jim's hand. "You're in no condition to be behind the wheel."

Ellison glared, but didn't say a word. Simon was right; his heart was pounding and his emotions nearing the edge. He was in no condition to drive.

"Good luck," Rhonda prayed, as the two men rushed from the bullpen.

It took a full three hours before the Ford Expedition pulled up outside the Bowen County police station. Doors strained on their hinges as Jim Ellison burst through. "Who's in charge?" he demanded, without introduction or welcome.

"Jim, will you just settle down." Three hours on the road at near breakneck speed had frayed Simon's nerves and considerably lowered his Ellison tolerance metre. He stepped in front of his detective and introduced himself to the civilian manning the front desk. "I'm Captain Banks, of the Cascade PD," he said, briefly flashing his badge. "This is Detective Jim Ellison. We're here to see Sheriff Winslow."

"I'll just go and get the sheriff." The young receptionist shuffled back her chair, aiming to put as much distance as she could between herself and the detective, whose only movement was a clenching and an unclenching of his fists. "Why don't you gentlemen take a seat?"

"We don't have time to sit!" Ellison was on the move and Simon wondered how long it was going to be before he had to physically restrain the man.

"Jim... sit." Simon pushed him toward a row of hard plastic chairs that lined the wall, inwardly relieved when Ellison didn't challenge his order.

"Captain, Detective." Middle-aged and heavily set, the Sheriff of the expansive county of Bowen extended his hand. "Please come into my office."

"Have you found my son?" Jim pounced the very second the door was closed.

Winslow shook his head. "No detective, not as yet." He gestured for Jim to take a seat, watching with interest as Banks pulled out a chair and pushed the detective down. "As I speak, we have sniffer dogs and every available local out looking, but with the storm that has just passed through, it's making our job a lot harder. There's an awful lot of ground to cover."

"What about Naomi Sandburg, or the kid who was with her. Where are they?" Simon asked.

"The kid we've identified as Lucas Wilder. I've got my deputy searching the data base for any information on him."

"Where is the little bastard?" Jim lashed out, smashing his fist down onto the sheriff's desk. "I'm not leaving his interrogation up to backwater hollow cops."

Sheriff Winslow glanced at Simon. "He come with a leash?"

"I wish," Simon muttered.

Winslow straightened his stance and with an air of authority pulled some notes out of a folder. "There will be no interrogation detective, by you or by officers of this extremely competent backwater hollow." He held up his hand, in order to silence what he assumed would be coming next. "Lucas Wilder is, at this moment, undergoing emergency surgery."

"For what?" Ellison asked, without emotion.

"The boy was stabbed in the back while trying to save your son, and if he does by some miracle pull through, he will be minus one kidney and carry with him the psychological scars of a rape."

Jim paled at the Sheriffs words. "Do you know if Blair... I mean, my son... was he..."

A father of two and grandfather of one, Winslow softened his stance, pushing the detective's earlier behaviour to the back burner. "We haven't been able to establish one way or another what happened out there, other than the fact that Lucas Wilder was attacked while trying to get your son out of the place." Winslow removed his glasses and placed them on the desk. "Before Lucas passed out, he briefly told old Bill Winters that Blair had managed to escape through the car window and scampered off into the woods. While I know this probably isn't much comfort, old Bill swears black and blue that Lucas would not have let anyone hurt the boy. And considering the violent retaliation the kid endured, I'm kinda inclined to believe him."

Simon reached over and squeezed Jim's arm. "Do you have Naomi Sandburg in custody?"

"Yes, but again we're not getting much out of her, and we're waiting on a psych consult. She keeps screaming about an attack by the devil and mumbling something about a black cat. Once she's sedated, we're hoping she'll make more sense. We found a nice assortment of illicit drugs up there, and personally, I think she's taken somethin' that's scrambled her head."

Jim got roughly to his feet. "How the hell didn't you know about any of this?"

Ellison was now facing away from the desk, and Simon sprang to his feet, ready to intervene. Jim's voice was flat and even, almost serene... but Simon sensed that it was merely the calm before the Ellison storm whipped up a fury and blew the Sheriff's office of Bowen County completely off the map.

A cop of more than thirty years, Winslow also sensed impending doom. "Look, detective," he said calmly, "this is a large county and my jurisdiction covers an awful lot of territory. Sure, we knew about the folks up there, but we had no reason to go hassling them. Up until now, they haven't given us a lick of trouble. I don't know how it works in the city, but 'round these parts we can't go around investigating people just because they're living an alternative lifestyle."

Simon still stood, ridged between Winslow and Ellison. "And none of the people around here ever saw Blair? I mean, his photo's been plastered all over the TV for the past week."

"Bill was the only one to see the child. Lucas Wilder never brought Blair to town." Sheriff Winslow withdrew a photo and handed it toward Simon. "I know we haven't got much at this stage, but we do have this."

Simon studied the photo. "Who's this?"

"Henry Charles Foster, otherwise known as Father Gideon. We've tracked down his particulars, and he was picked up a few years back for assault and drug use."

Jim snatched the photo from Simon and etched Gideon's face to memory. "I want to talk to him."

Winslow ran his fingers through his grey hair. "He's dead, detective."


"No, not unless the boy has a set of fangs." Winslow retrieved the photo and placed it back in his file. "The man had his throat ripped clean away from his neck by something large. The coroner thinks it may have been a mountain lion, but in all my years in these parts, I ain't never seen one of them big cats attack like that."

"Incacha!" Jim spun around and confronted Banks. "Simon, we've got to get up there."

"Detective Ellison," Winslow intervened, "I understand your concerns and your desire to help. I mean, if it were my boy out there, I'd feel the same way; but believe me when I say that we've got the best people out searching. You have to let the folks who know the area do their jobs. I'll make sure that you're kept completely informed."

Completely ignoring the Sheriff, Jim moved toward the door. "Simon, I saw a camping store on the way through town. We should be able to pick up what we need."

The Sheriff followed the two men out of his office, but didn't waste any more breathe on arguments. "I'll lead the way," he muttered.

Simon pulled Jim's truck to a halt behind the Sheriff's squad car and studied their surroundings. The area was thickly forested and, with heavy clouds looming dark on the horizon, he was grateful at least that Jim had been thorough at the camping store. Decked out with hiking boots, wet weather gear and a backpack full of provisions, Jim had left nothing to chance, and that included supplies for Blair. Unfolding his long body from the cab, he sized up one of the locals heading in their direction.

"Captain, this is Earl." Sheriff Winslow moved aside. "He's been coordinating the search."

Simon shook the burly man's hand. "Any luck?"

"No sir, not a trace," Earl, took off his hat and scratched his thick, red beard. "In all my years of trackin' damn fools who've come up here and got themselves lost, I ain't never seen nothin' like this. Not a track to be found. Not even the sniffer dogs can pick up a scent. It's like the boy's just up and vanished off the face of the earth."

"I'm going to take a look around." Not interested in introductions, Jim pushed past the man.

"Who's that?" Earl drawled.

"The father," Winslow offered.

"What's he doing?" Earl asked.

"Beats me." Winslow shrugged.

This time Simon pushed past Earl and made his way toward Jim. Ellison stood perfectly still, impassively staring into the bush on the left-hand side of the driveway. "Jim, you okay?" he asked, in concern.

"He went this way."

"Jim, how could you possibly tell that?"

"I just can."

As Jim walked back up the path toward the truck, Simon once again found himself trailing after his detective and watched as Ellison grabbed his gear.

"Are you coming, Simon, or you just gonna stand there?"

"Coming where, Jim? You heard the tracker. There's no indication that Blair went that way. For all we know, he could already be halfway to town."

"Fine." Ellison shouldered his pack. "It'll be quicker by myself, anyhow."

"What'd'ya mean 'fine'?" Simon leaned in and pulled his pack across the seat. "And what'd'ya mean quicker?" He shouldered his own pack without hesitation. Although he didn't believe that Jim could have possibly known which way Blair went, he was not going to let the stubborn fool go wandering around the woods by himself, not in the frame of mind he was in.

"Hey, where do you two fellas think you're goin'?" Winslow asked.

Simon waved his hand though the air. "Ellison seems adamant that this is the way Blair went, so we're going to have a look around."

"There ain't no way the boy went that way," Earl interrupted. "If he had, we'd-a seen his tracks." Earl slapped his well-worn trucker's hat back on his head. "We're concentrating our search along the main road, closer to town. If you two want to be of some help, I suggest you join the search parties down there."

"Simon, are you coming?" Jim had already pushed past the dense undergrowth and was making his way into a clearing.

"Yeah, but just hold up for a minute, will ya?" he replied, breaking into a jog to catch up.

"Captain Banks," Winslow called out. "Either of you had any experience in the wilderness?"

"Ellison was an army ranger," Banks called back. "And I've done my fair share of hiking."

"Fantastic," muttered the Sheriff. "Rambo part one and two." He caught up with Banks just as Simon was about to head into the scrub. "Look, at least take the walkie-talkie. I can't guarantee you'll get a signal everywhere, but at least it's better than nothing."

"Thanks," Simon nodded. "Ellison, will you wait up!" he shouted.

After two hours of traipsing through the rugged terrain without any clear indication of where they were going, Simon finally broke the silence. "Jim, why don't we take five?" He dumped his pack on the ground and sat down on a fallen log to make his point clear.

"Simon, we don't have time for this!"

"Time for what, Jim? Time to formulate a plan, time to know in what direction we're headed, or just time to come to our senses?" He sighed heavily. "Look, Jim, I don't mean to be Mr. Negativity here, but do you have any idea where you're going? I mean, we've been wandering around for hours now, and haven't yet seen one single trace that Blair passed through here."

"I've been following his tracks ever since we left the driveway," Ellison replied.

Simon sighed again. "Jim," he said calmly. "I know how you must be feeling. If it were Daryl lost out here, I'd be clinging to every possibility, but let's put things into perspective for a minute. There's no way that you could possibly make out Blair's tracks in this terrain. Why don't we turn back and join the search parties near town? For all we know, they might have already come up with a substantial lead by now."

"Simon," Jim responded, trying to remain calm and cap the explosion of emotion he could feel building. "I know you'll find this very hard to believe, but I can see Blair's tracks. There are three sets of very distinctive footprints plastered all over the place." He crouched down on his haunches. "Look here."

Simon bent down and focussed on the spot where Jim was pointing. "I can't see anything."

Ellison patiently traced the area with his finger. "Right here. If you look close enough, you can just make out the tread marks from his sneaker."

Banks squinted. "Well I'll be damned," he muttered, now seeing the faint impression for the first time. "What about the other prints? You said you could see three sets of prints. Don't tell me there's someone else out here with the kid!"

"Not someone," Jim replied, standing up and brushing down his pants. "Something. I'm certain the other prints are from a large cat and a wolf pup."

"Excuse me!" Banks eyed Jim's calm expression. "You mean Blair is being hunted... like prey?"

"No, not hunted. They're travelling with him. I think they've been sent to protect him."

Simon's patience had just come to a screaming halt. "Alright Jim, enough is enough. You either prove to me right here and now that you haven't completely lost your marbles, or I swear to god I'm gonna drag you back and have the Sheriff himself lock you up."

"I'm a Sentinel, Simon."

"A what?" Simon pushed himself to his feet. "Jim, enough, okay!"

"A Sentinel," Jim repeated. "A man with heightened senses -- in my case, five heightened senses."

"Okay," Simon replied, his frustration mounting. "So you missed your calling as wine taster or perfume sniffer, but how does you having heightened senses explain your detachment from reality? Wild animals!" he shouted. "Possibly tracking your son, and all I get is some useless and totally irrelevant information about your bodily functions."

"Simon, do you remember what I told you about my time in Peru?"

"Of course I do; how could I forget?" Simon replied sarcastically, refusing to let go of his temper. "The whole gripping story must have dragged on for a whole five minutes."

"Well in that five minutes, what I neglected to tell you was that most of my time there was spent with the Chopec. That's where I met Incacha."

"Who the hell cares, Jim!"

"I do, because there's every likelihood that he's here."

Simon just shook his head, unable to fathom how such a strong man as Ellison could be broken into so many pieces. "Jim, I know this has been hard and the pressures you've been under have been enormous, but you gotta get a grip, man. For Blair's sake, you need to get ahold of yourself."

"Simon, whether you believe me or not is totally irrelevant. I am a Sentinel and Blair is not just my son, he's also my Guide."

"I know I'm gonna regret asking," Banks muttered, feeling as if he were hitting his head against a brick wall.

"According to Incacha, every sentinel needs a guide to help keep him grounded and focused. Without a guide, the sights and sounds of everyday life would be too overwhelming."


"You remember the blinding headaches I'd been having for months before Blair came into my life?"

"Of course I do. Things like that are a little hard to forget." Banks had had many an argument with Jim about the state of his health, and had been ready to pull Ellison off the street, when the whole issue had become interrupted by the arrival of Blair.

"Well, just in case you haven't noticed, I don't have them anymore. They stopped the very day Blair came into my life."

"And you think Blair is responsible for this?"

Jim could tell by the look on Simon's face that there was no further point to the discussion. Bottom line, Banks thought he was a prime candidate for the funny farm, but he didn't have the time to try and convince him otherwise. "Simon, at this point I don't really care whether or not you believe me. My only objective is to find my son and take him home, and if that takes me using all of my five enhanced senses, then that is just what I'm going to do." He looked toward the sky before once again shouldering his pack. "It'll be dark in a few hours, so if you're gonna head back, I suggest you start now while you can still make out our tracks."

Sighing, Simon adjusted his own pack, but remained silent. Crazy or not, Jim was his friend and there was no way he intended to leave his side.

The arrival of dusk had Simon once again breaking the silence that had settled between them. "You still seeing his tracks?"

Jim pulled up sharply. "Quiet, I think I can hear something."


"I'm not sure." Ellison cocked his head to the side. "I can't seem to focus clearly enough to get a fix." Doubling his chances, Jim concentrated on his vision. "Simon, can you see that?"

Simon followed the direction in which Jim was pointing. "Where exactly? All I can see are trees? Is it Blair?"

Ellison suddenly capped his ear and winced. "A heartbeat." The moment the words left his mouth, another sound was added to the mix -- the sound of crumbling dirt.

"Jim!" Simon shouted. He lunged forward, his fingers brushing Ellison's jacket, but never gaining a substantial grip. As the dirt gave way, Jim's body disappeared over the embankment and Simon lost sight of it until it came to a sudden, crumpled stop at the bottom.

"Jim!" he shouted. "Jim, can you hear me?"

Ellison didn't stir.

"Damn it," Banks hissed. Quickly surveying the area, he searched for the best way down. A few yards to the left, the hillside was heavily wooded. Using this to his advantage, he descended -- inch by inch and tree by tree -- until he finally had a sure footing on the bottom. Cautious on the uneven, slippery ground, he made his way to Ellison's side. "Jim," he breathed, reaching out to find a pulse point. "Thank God," he whispered, running his hands down Ellison's neck and back. The gash above Jim's eye was bleeding profusely, but didn't look too deep. His arm, however, was trapped at an awkward angle under his body and, by sight alone, Simon could tell it was broken. Snagging Jim's battered pack, he gave thanks that at least Ellison had come prepared.

"Okay Ellison, this is really starting to piss me off." After trying for close to an hour, Simon still had been unable to bring Jim around. The detective had muttered a few incoherent words about fifteen minutes back, but now lay with his eyes at half-mast, not responding to anything. Even the pain caused by Simon splinting his arm hadn't seemed to register. "Please Jim," Simon tried again, his concern mounting by every passing minute. "Don't do this... your son needs his dad."

An overwhelming sense of urgency had Blair clambering to his feet. The wolf pup gave a little yelp as it fell from his lap to the cave floor, but Blair ignored it. "I have to go find my daddy," he said, suddenly.

The wolf pup was now upright and on all four paws. The little boy belonged to him and, despite his small size, it was his job to protect him. Loping across the cave floor after the child, he snagged Blair's sweater between his teeth and pulled backward with all his might.

"Don't do that, Rahma," Blair admonished. "Let go. My daddy hu't and he need my help." The pup refused to let go and pitted his own strength against that of the youngster. Blair became angry. "I smack you nose if you don't let go," he warned angrily, bringing up his hand. With a small whimper, the pup shrank back, but still kept its grip. Its face was a mirror of hurt and distrust and the gentle little boy knew instantly how he'd made the pup feel. "I sorry," he said reaching out to stroke Rahma's soft fur. "I sorry I got mad, but I promise I not smack you." Rahma let go and Blair knelt down and buried his nose in the pup's fur. "Eben if you really, really naughty, I not smack you. It can be our promise."

A black panther emerged from the depths of the cave and nuzzled the side of Blair's face. Blair looked up immediately. "You finded my dad, Bagheera?" The panther butted Blair gently with its head before turning toward the entrance of the cave. "You did!" Blair squealed, scrambling to his feet. "Come on Rahma, we got to follow. Bagaheera finded Dad!"

Serious brain injury was not far from Simon's mind as he tried once again to rouse Jim. He'd been unable to raise a signal on the radio Sheriff Winslow had given him and, as night was setting in, so was his concern of how he was going to keep Jim's vitals stable. They hadn't brought a tent, but had packed one space blanket and two sleeping bags. That, combined with a fire, should be enough to keep hypothermia at bay. But if Jim was bleeding into his brain, the risk of seizures was high on the list of dangers. "Come on, Jim," he tried again, running his knuckles, hard, down Ellison's sternum. "I know you're in there, buddy, and you gotta get it together. It's starting to get dark, and your little boy's out there all alone."

With his concentration firmly fixed on Jim, Simon didn't hear or notice the child coming up behind him.

"Uncle Simon." Blair reached out to touch Simon's shoulder. "What wong with my daddy?"

Simon spun around with such a start that both he and Blair ended up flat on their backsides. "Jesus, Mother Mary," he swore, scrambling to his knees when his brain finally registered what his eyes where telling him. "Blair, how... where the hell did you come from?" Not waiting for an answer, he pulled Blair up and frantically ran his hand over his body. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?" Still not giving the child a chance to answer, he pulled him into a smothering hug. "You just took twenty years off my life, Squirt."

"Uncle Simon?" Blair tried to turn his head in order to both speak and breathe. "What the matteh with Daddy?"

Simon pushed Blair back and cradled his dirty little face within the cup of his hands. "Your dad just took a little fall, Squirt," not knowing how much to tell Blair. "But he's gonna be fine and I'm gonna get him out of here, okay? We just have to wait till he wakes up, that's all."

Blair withdrew from Simon's hold and went to kneel by his father. "Daddy," he said tenderly. "It okay now, Daddy. I heuh now. I take care of you." His grubby fingers lightly smoothed over his father's brow and down the side of his face. "I heuh, Daddy; you can wake up now," he continued quietly.

Simon's heart was bleeding, but there was nothing else he could do but keep Jim comfortable and warm... and listen to the pleas of a child as he spoke quietly to his unresponsive father.

Ellison looked around and then down as the vision of absolutely nothing surrounded him. "Shit not again," he ground out. "Incacha!" he shouted into the air. "I don't have time for this, so I want you to get your butt out here and talk to me. Plain English, no psychedelic, technophobic, hippie babble," he added.

Incacha stood in the shadows watching the fledgling Sentinel. It took many qualities to become a sentinel. Strength, bravery, conviction, passion and patience. "Somehow I think some qualities will take longer to master than others," he mused. "You don't appear to have learned the art of patience, Enqueri," Incacha said, coming into the light. "A good Sentinel must learn this virtue if he is to truly succeed at his task."

"I'm not here for a lesson," Ellison responded. "I'm here to find my son." He drifted closer to the spirit guide. "And why the hell didn't you stop this before it started?" he asked, angrily. "Why didn't you stop Naomi from taking him? You didn't seem to have any problems getting rid of Tom Walsh."

"Because she is the boy's mother, and as such is part of his past and part of his destiny. I cannot interfere in such a fate. If your guide is to grow in both spirit and strength, he must overcome adversity and I must say that for one so young, he has already proven himself to be most worthy." Incacha reached out touch Jim's shoulder. "You each have a lot to learn, Sentinel, and a long path to travel. The way of Sentinel and Guide is not an easy one, but I have every belief that as you both grow, you will travel this path well. Go to your Guide, Enqueri... you have passed this test."

As Incacha disappeared, Jim surged forward angrily. "Test!" he shouted. "You're trying to tell me this was all a test? Incacha, get your ass back here... I'm not finished."

"Daddy, Daddy can you heuh me?"

At the sound of the voice, Jim immediately stopped shouting and listened to the voice that was calling out to him. "Blair, where are you? Tell me where you are?"

"Follow me home, Daddy," Blair said. "Follow my voice home."

Jim hit the conscious world with a thud and would have been enveloped in pain if not for the beautiful, brilliant smile shining down at him. "I finded you, Daddy. We not lost anymo'."

Barely functioning, Jim felt his body being lifted and gently placed back against Simon's chest. His son stood before him. "We safe and sounded now, ahn't we, Daddy?" Blair bounced on his toes. "I think I ready to go home now."

Not trusting his voice, Jim just nodded his head. He didn't even try and stop the tears from rolling down his cheeks as he gathered Blair into arms and buried his nose deeply in a mop of curls. He breathed deeply and inhaled the scent of his child -- the sweet, pure, innocent scent of his son.

With darkness closing in fast and Jim still not focusing clearly, Simon's decision was clear-cut. They'd have to make camp for the night and, depending on Jim's condition, head out at first light.

"I know'd a cave, Uncle Simon," Blair said as he watched his uncle collect firewood. "It already have a fire and it nice and warm."

After all they'd been through, Simon had no intention of discounting Blair's statement, but he couldn't go dragging Jim through the bush just to satisfy the child's lively imagination. "I'm sure it has, Squirt, but it might be too far away for your dad to make it."

"It not," Blair said. "It just over there, and we won't get lost 'cause Bagheera will show us the way."

"Who's Bagheera?" Simon asked cautiously.

"He daddy's animal spirit. Mine is a wolf pup. I called him Rahma. It from the Jungle Book, you know."

Simon glanced over at Jim, who despite the pain he was in, had a shit-eating grin plastered across his face. "Told you," he said.

"You both are kidding, right?" Simon said, nervously.

Jim held out his hand. "Help me up. I don't know about you, but I have no intention of freezing my butt off out here when there's five-star accommodation waiting."

"You sure?" Simon asked, before hesitantly taking hold of Jim's hand.

Slinging his arm across Simon's shoulders and waiting for the swaying motion to stop, Jim took a step forward. "There are more things in heaven and earth, my friend."

By the time they arrive at the cave, Simon had gone way past the realm where he was questioning the reality of everything that had happened. A surprisingly warm cave awaited them, complete with a fire and a pot of something that didn't look half bad, bubbling over a roughly-made tripod. "Heaven and earth," he muttered as he lowered Jim to the ground. Although the stubborn detective would most likely cut off his right arm rather than admit he was in pain, Simon had easily picked up on all the signs. "Sit and stay," he said, shaking open the space blanket and tucking it around Ellison's shoulders.

"Do I get a kiss goodnight, as well?" Ellison asked, straight-faced.

"You should be so lucky," Simon answered. He ruffled Blair's curls. "You need to water the garden, Squirt?"

"Huh?" Blair asked.

"You know, take a squirtle, drown the ants?"

"What?" Blair said, this time scrunching up his face.

"You need to go the bathroom, Chief?" Jim clarified, rolling his eyes.

"Oh," Blair said. "I guess."

Jim started to shift. "I'll take him."

Simon placed a forceful hand on Ellison's shoulder. "I thought I told you to sit and to stay." He took hold of Blair's hand. "I won't let him out of my sight, I promise."

As Simon and Blair made their way to just outside the cave entrance, Jim looked over at the jaguar and cub who were both soaking up the warmth of the fire. "Hey, you two, move it," he ordered. The jaguar cracked open one eye and gave him an indignant look and a low growl but, true to its duty, it moved away from the fire and followed Blair outside. "Don't look at me like that," Jim called after it. "Mystical beings are not on top of my ten favourite hit list at the moment... that includes you Incacha," he said, talking into thin air. "I'm still pissed, you know."

Simon glanced back briefly to listen to the ranting going on in cave, before turning his full attention toward Blair. "Squirt, you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Nope," Blair replied, as he fumbled to do up the top button on his jeans.

Leaning down, Simon pulled up the kid's zipper before fastening the button. "Can you see a black panther anywhere around here?"

"Ah-ha," Blair nodded. "He standing right ove' theuh."

"Okay." A hint of nervousness was evident in Simon's body language as he looked over at where Blair was pointing. "Um, he doesn't bite, does he?"

"He only gobbles up bad people, Uncle Simon. He won't bite you." Blair grabbed hold of Simon's hand. "You can pat him if you want."

Reluctantly Simon let Blair take his hand and stroke it over the panther's fur. "See, he nice and soft."

As Simon's hand passed through the air... air was all he could feel. Not wanting to shatter Blair's illusion, he picked him up and swung him into his arms. Blair wrapped his arms around his uncle's neck. "Uncle Simon, will my daddy be okay?"

"He'll be fine, sweetheart." Simon placed a kiss on the top of Blair's head. "I wouldn't let anything happen to your dad."

"Do you love my daddy, like I do?" Blair asked.

Simon hesitated for a brief moment. His natural reaction would have been a straight 'no', but his honest answer would have been 'yes'. Simon decided to give Blair his honest answer.

"Does that mean we all a family?" Blair asked.

"We sure are, buddy." Simon gave Blair a squeeze. "Come on tough stuff, it's getting cold out here."

Having monitored everything that had gone on outside, Jim wasn't about to make Simon feel uncomfortable about his answer. The man was his best friend, and he loved the guy back, but being a guy, he also knew that it was a point that would never warrant a direct mention, from either side. "You won't be able to see or feel them, Simon," he said, completely avoiding the play of emotion. "They're our animal spirits, not yours. It's a Sentinel-Guide thing."

"Right," Simon drawled. He put Blair down and gave his hair a quick ruffle. "Jim, how do you feel about taking a little evaluation when we get back? You know, just to be on the safe side."

"Simon, after all that's happened, I can't believe that you still don't believe me."

"It's not that I don't believe you, Jim, it's just a little hard to come to grips with the overall concept. Sentinel and Guide, okay I can kind of believe, especially after your little demonstration today, but animal spirits, ghostly tribal warriors -- I mean, you gotta admit that's a little farfetched."

"Well, you better come to grips with it, my friend, because it's what we are." Jim lifted the blanket and encouraged Blair to hop under. "And I'd also suggest you move your foot. You're standing on the wolf pup's tail, and the cat's getting a little agitated."

Blair burst into a round of giggles as Simon jumped and quickly hot footed it over to the other side of the cave. Despite his humiliation, it was a sound that had the police captain's heart singing. They were his family and he wouldn't want it any other way.

Simon shook out the sleeping bags and laid them out beside the fire. Blair was cuddled on his father's lap and, in an effort to give the pair some privacy, he set about packing up the dinner utensils.

"Chief." Jim rubbed his fingers lightly over the deep bruise on his son's cheek. "Who did this?"

With his head resting against his father's chest, Blair sleepily replied, "The bad man, Gideon. He hit me when I try to make him stop hu'ting Lucas. He hu't Lucas and he made his bottom bleed."

Jim paled as his son's words hit home. Blair had seen the teenager being raped. Burying his nose deep into Blair's curls, he wasn't sure whether he had the strength to ask his next question. "Did Gideon hurt you like this?" he asked, shakily.

"Nope." Blair yawned widely and was barely able to keep his eyes open. "Bagheera was going to gobble him. Daddy," he said quietly, "Lucas not have a daddy who loves him like you love me. Can you be his daddy too?"

"Close your eyes, Munchkin," Jim replied, avoiding the child's question. "You go to sleep now, okay?" As Blair's breathing evened out and little puffs of breath become long and heavy with sleep, Jim pondered his son's question. Blair understandably seemed to have latched on to the kid, but he hoped, given time, that Lucas and the attachment Blair had to him would become a distant memory. Because if it didn't, there was going to be more heartache afoot.

If the kid did manage to survive, Jim was intent on having him thrown in the slammer for as long as justice would allow.

A good night's sleep seemed a distant memory as Simon's waking hours stretched out to nearly thirty-six straight. While Jim had slept on and off, the pain in his arm never let him fall asleep too deeply. Simon had watched and noted with curiosity that Blair, even while asleep, seemed to have an effect on comforting and alleviating some of his father's pain.

Sentinel and Guide, he mused, leaning back against the cave wall and closing his eyes. The evidence was there, but sometimes even unequivocal evidence was hard to believe.

"You all set Chief?" Ellison bent down to scoop Blair up.

"I not going to be carried." Blair gave his father a scowl. "I not a baby," he said. "I can walk on my own."

"Are you sure?" Jim asked, using his thumbs to smooth out the crease lines in Blair forehead. "We've got an awfully long way to go."

"I suuh." Blair said, with confidence. "And Bagheera promised he keep the beahs away. Lucas said they mighty big beahs in these woods."

"Listen to the boy, Jim," Simon said, noting a distinctive change in Ellison's demeanour at the mention of Wilder's name. "Sometimes I think he's got more sense than you."

Jim ignored Bank's comment. A noise in the distance had grabbed his attention. "Simon, I can hear voices."

"A search party?"

"Yeah," Jim muttered. "But I think they're heading in the wrong direction. Quick, hand me a flare."

"Absolutely not," Banks groused. "I think I'm quite capable of setting off a flare, and I'm less likely to drop it."

"Ha, ha, everyone's a comedian," Ellison retaliated.

"No, Jim." Simon slapped Ellison lightly on the back. "It's just that some people know how to keep hold of a gun." Simon retrieved the flare gun and pointed it toward the sky.

Blair jumped a little when it first went off, but was then mesmerised by the flash of light streaking across the sky. "Can I hab a turn?" he asked, hopefully.

"No," both men chorused.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because," Simon replied, "any direct blood descendent of your father's should not be allowed to be responsible for a gun."

"What Uncle Simon meant to say," Jim clarified, "is that guns are very, very dangerous and you should never, ever touch them."

"Um, yep." Simon's face took on a guilty expression. "That's exactly what I meant to say."

Despite meeting the rescue party halfway, the trip back to a road with vehicular access had been a long and harrowing one, especially for Jim. He'd refused painkillers and, although Blair's touch seemed to be helping, by the time they'd reached the hospital, he was suffering badly.

Blair was snuggled on Simon's lap, dozing lightly while Jim was in an examination room down the hall. After a thorough examination, Blair had been diagnosed with a slight case of dehydration and exhaustion, but had been released to go home as soon as his father was ready.

"Captain." Sheriff Winslow ambled into the waiting room and took a seat. "How's he doing?"

Simon gently ran his hands through Blair's hair. "He'll be fine. Nothing a decent night's sleep and a few good meals won't fix. He's a tough little guy, this one."

"Takes after his father, then?"

"Something like that," Simon replied.

Winslow scratched his lightly whiskered chin. "I've taken the liberty of arranging some accommodation for you at the motel on the way outta town. It's nothin' flashy, but it's clean and the food ain't half bad. After what you folks have been through, I thought you'd appreciate a good night's rest before you head off."

"Thanks," Simon replied, sincerely. He observed Winslow's face and got the feeling that the man had other business to discuss. "Something else on your mind, Sheriff?"

Winslow got to his feet and paced the small room. "Well actually, yes. I've been speaking to the doc about the boy. He's still critical, but they think he's got a good chance."


"Well, I was just wondering if you're planning on pressing charges?"

Simon looked at Winslow in total bewilderment and wondered how long the man had really been in law enforcement. "Sheriff, do I have to remind you that he kidnapped a child? I hope you're not suggesting that we just let that slide."

"And do I have to remind you, Captain, that he also saved that child's life, and will be minus one kidney for the rest of his because of that?" He lowered his voice. "I won't even mention the psychological effects he could suffer because of the rape, 'cause I sure as hell ain't got no answer to that question." Winslow deflated and sat back down next to Simon. He was a father and a grandfather, but most of all, he had a big, compassionate heart. Sending a boy like Lucas to jail just didn't sit right, especially after he'd been given the rundown on the kid by old Bill. "Look, Captain Banks, all I'm saying is that what this boy is going to have to endure just to overcome his injuries will be a punishment in itself. If Lucas Wilder has to spend time in a juvenile facility and then possibly jail, I just don't know how he's gonna survive."

Blair had stirred when the Sheriff had entered the room and, unbeknownst to Simon, had been half-listening to the conversation. The words 'jail' and 'Lucas' had piqued his interest, and it didn't take him long to put two and two together. He pushed back suddenly. "Wheuh Lucas?" he asked. "Is he heuh?" Simon barely managed to catch Blair as he scrambled off his knee. "I want to see him. I want to see Lucas, Uncle Simon." He stamped his foot and crossed his arms. "I won't let you send him to jail. Lucas is my friend. My bewy bestest fwiend."

Although the nurse tending to Jim had been around for a very long time, she was no match for the likes of Ellison. "Detective," she called out, her hands still sticky and wet with plaster, "I haven't finished."

"Daddy!" Blair smashed into his father's legs as soon as he spotted him. "Lucas is heuh. I want to see him. I think he hu't."

Despite the pain in his arm, Jim scooped Blair up and gathered him close to his chest.

"Please, Daddy." Blair pushed himself back. "They said Lucas is going to jail just like Tom did, but Lucas not bad. He need to come home with us. I promised he could. I promised him he could sleep in my bed."

Feeling slightly wobbly on his feet, Jim took a seat on the nearest chair.

Blair roughly and angrily swiped at the tears that were trickling down his cheeks. "You not let them take Lucas away. You promise, Daddy!" he demanded.

Jim pushed Blair's hair out of his eyes. He wanted to take away his son's pain, but it was a promise he simply couldn't make. "Blair, I can't make that promise," he said. "Lucas broke the law when he took you from Jessie's house, and it will be up to a judge to decide what happens to him."

"You talk to the judge, Daddy. The judge will know that Lucas not bad if you talk to him. He looked afteh me, and didn't let the man make me drink beeh."

Jim looked over at Simon, pleading for help. His exhaustion, combined with the pain he was still feeling, was catching up with him; he was just too worn out to try and explain to Blair why it was impossible for Lucas to come and live with them.

"Squirt, why don't you come with me and we'll see if we can track down some ice cream." Simon began to ease Blair from Jim's arms, but backed off when Blair protested. He wrapped his arms fiercely around his father's neck. "Please promise you talk to the judge, Daddy?"

Ellison leaned his head back and closed his eyes to try and get a handle on the nausea that was pulsing through him. "I promise," he finally relented. It probably wasn't the right answer, but he'd come to learn that sometimes, with children, the road less travelled was an easier one to take.

"You want a pill?" Simon had been laying in the single bed, listening to Ellison toss and turn for close to an hour.

"I'm not in any pain," Jim answered. He gently eased Blair away from his side and got out of bed. "I just can't sleep, that's all."

Flicking on the bedside light, Simon adjusted the glow so it wasn't shining near Blair. "So what are you going to do?"

"About what?"

"About the Wilder boy. You're going to have to tell Blair something tomorrow, and you know that you could make a recommendation to the judge."

Too worn out to argue and too drained to get angry, Jim shrugged his shoulders. "And what exactly am I supposed to say to the court, Simon? Because, at the moment, I'm torn between ripping the kid apart limb by limb with my bare hands and giving him the biggest hug of gratitude I can muster. On one hand, he saved my son's life, but on the other hand, Blair wouldn't have been in that position if he hadn't kidnapped him in the first place."

"Are you sure about that?" Simon sat up and pushed a pillow behind his back "Think about it, Jim. Naomi was hell-bent on taking Blair away from you, and she would have done it whether or not she had the kid's help. In reality, maybe you were lucky that Lucas was the one to take him. Imagine what could have happened if she had enlisted the help of one of the other 'family' members."

Jim slumped back down on the bed. "I don't ever want to think about that." Avoiding Banks' eyes, he flicked back the blanket and lifted his feet off the floor. "You mind if we talk about this the morning? I'm really beat."

"Thought you said you weren't tired?"

"Yeah, well, I'm full of shit." Turning away from Simon, Jim gathered Blair close. He didn't want to think about what would have happened to Blair if it weren't for Lucas Wilder, because imagining life without Blair was simply unthinkable.

Jim carried Blair into the darkened room and stood a reasonable distance from the bed. Lucas was lying on his stomach, covered by a thin sheet that did little to hide the tubes and wires that snaked in and out of his body. A fever had taken hold, and the boy's skin was slick with sweat and assaulted by fine tremors that were barely visible to the naked eye. Despite the severity of his condition, his eyes were at half-mast and they meticulously tracked the intruders in his room. "Lucas," Blair whispered, urging his father to take him closer to the bed. "I found my daddy, Lucas. He comed to save us just like Incacha sayed." Blair wiggled to get even closer and Jim reluctantly let the youngster sit on the very edge of the bed. "We didn't even need our plan, Lucas."

"Blair." Lucas fingers brushed across Blair's jeans. "You okay, Sport?"

"I okay, Lucas, and the doctuh sayed that afteh you get some rest. you will be feeling betta too." He reached down and took the teenager's hand in his own. "Then you can come live at my house like I promise." He turned over the boy's hand. "We can make a spit promise if you want."

Struggling just to keep track of the conversation, Lucas didn't have the energy to answer and Jim intervened. "Come on, Chief." He lifted Blair off the bed. "We need to let Lucas get some rest."

"We come back tomorrow, Daddy?"

"We'll see." Jim took one long -- and what he hoped would be last -- glance at the teenager. He'd made Blair a promise he'd talk to the judge, but talking was all he intended to do.

Sheriff Winslow nodded as Jim entered the waiting room. "I was just saying to your Captain that the doc is going to arrange to transfer Lucas to Cascade General in a few days, so he can get the specialised help he's going to need. Until that time, he will be kept under police guard. Not that he's capable of going anywhere," he added. "We've also arranged the successful transfer of Naomi Sandburg to the state psychiatric hospital. Apparently she'll be a resident there until she's fit to stand trial."

Simon held out his hand. He hadn't thought much of the small-town Sheriff when he'd first met him, but the man's compassion and willingness to delve before he judged did make him think about just how 'uninvolved' his police work was. "Thank you for all your help, Sheriff," he said, shaking the man's hand sincerely.

"Detective, before you go, I was wondering if you've had any thoughts about Lucas. I've made a few initial inquiries, and apparently if someone were willing to be appointed the boy's guardian, then he would stand a better chance." Winslow hesitated, knowing he was pushing the envelope, but his daddy had always told him that you 'never know until you give it a go'. Deciding to at least try, he continued, "And an even better chance if that guardian happened to be you." Looking at the expression on Ellison's face, he doubled his ammunition, hoping for a sure aim. "Now before you go bustin' a boiler, I thought you might like to take a look at this file. I was able to track Lucas down through child welfare, and... well, let's just say I think it's important that you read it before making a decision."

"You're totally unbelievable," Jim stated, shaking his head. "I have no decision to make, because as far as I'm concerned, there is no decision to make." He held Blair close, cradling his son's head in his large hand in a futile effort to shield the child from the harshness of his next sentence. "I don't know what you're thinking, Sheriff, but that kid is not my responsibility, and I'll be damned if I'll let myself be sucked into a guilt trip by some small-town cop who wants to play Mother Teresa." Still holding Blair close, he headed toward the door. "Simon, if you have any intention of staying to chat with the good Sheriff, then you either give me the keys, or I'm hot wiring the truck."

Simon took the file and shook the man's hand again. "I'll make sure he reads it," he assured. "Thanks again for all your help."

Jim strapped Blair into the car seat before taking a position behind the wheel. "You needn't have bothered," he said watching Simon approach with the kid's file in his hand. "I'm not going to change my mind."

"Sure, Jim, absolutely. I didn't think you would." He turned around and gave Blair a quick wink. "I mean, once your mind is made up, I know there's no changing it." He tossed the file on the dash. "Now would you get out from behind the wheel? If you think I'm going to let you drive all the way back to Cascade with a broken arm, you're mistaken, detective."


"Jim, I need some coffee." Simon pulled off the road and into a gas station. "You want one?"

"No, I'm good, but can you grab a bottle of juice for Blair? He'll probably be thirsty when he wakes."

"Sure, I'll be back in a minute." Ambling across the lot, he plucked his cell from his pocket and dialled the office.

"Captain, I'm so glad you called. I was just about to contact you."

"There a problem?"

"I've just had a call from Jim's brother, who's been urgently trying to contact him. I have some bad news about his father."

"Father," Simon repeated. "I didn't even know Jim still had a father."

"Well, apparently he does and he's had a stroke. It doesn't look good, sir. They don't think he'll make it through the night."

"Did he leave a number?"

"Yes sir."

"Rhonda, I need you to do me a favour and call Jim's brother back. Let him know that we're on our way back to the city. I'd rather keep Jim in the dark until he gets Blair back home and settled."

"Yes, sir," she said again."And give Jim and Blair my best."

"Will do," Simon muttered before hanging up. He knew that Jim had a brother who he'd been estranged from for a number of years, but he'd had no idea that Jim's father was still alive. Since he was never mentioned, he'd just assumed the guy had already passed away.

Whatever had happened between Jim and his family, Simon knew that he'd probably never find out, but he did know that if it were enough to keep Ellison from letting his family know he had a son, then it couldn't have been good. "It never just rains," he muttered, as he pushed his way through the cafe door. "It pours."

The End

TBC in Picking up the Pieces

Back to The Loft