Flesh and Blood and Heart
Rated SAFE

Chapter One

"Is this James Ellison?"

"No, actually I'm his roommate. Just a sec," Blair answered. He held the phone out. "Jim, phone."

Jim barely kept himself from snarling. Damn Blair for answering the phone during the fourth quarter, anyway. He gave Blair an unhappy look as he took the phone. The little shit didn‘t even bother pretending to be intimidated. "Ellison," he answered.

"Detective Ellison?" The voice asked.

"Yes." Jim focused on the voice. She sounded stressed.

"I don't know if you remember me, but I’m Laura Smitherson's older sister."

"Oh, of course," Jim lied. Grabbing a piece of paper, he wrote the name and shoved it at Blair. Blair glanced at it and scrawled underneath, "burglary-homicide, December, neighbor's ex-husband." Jim nodded. Now he remembered the case. It'd been an ugly one because the victim's wife and sister were both nurses at the local hospital where the victim's body had been brought in before anyone realized that they were on shift. Both women had been emotionally devastated.

"I probably shouldn't be calling you," she said. Blair turned the television off and then planted himself on the end of the couch, watching Jim curiously.

Jim slipped into a reassuring tone of voice. "If something is going on, you can tell me."

The woman laughed. "This is not that kind of a call, Detective. You were tested for the national bone marrow registry, right?"

Jim frowned. "Yeah," he agreed. "Sandburg talked most of the precinct into the testing." He recognized that he was sounding a little defensive about that, but this whole situation was starting to make Jim more than a little uncomfortable. Blair scooted close enough that their legs touched, but Laura Smitherson's voice was so soft that Blair wasn't going to be able to hear without Sentinel hearing. As much as Jim would love to give Blair his special senses, even if for just one day, so far it hadn’t worked. Jim poked his thumb upstairs--toward the phone extension next to their bed. Taking that as permission, Blair took off for the stairs. Maybe if Blair was listening in, he could figure out what the hell this woman was trying to say.

Laura sighed. "Okay, this is a total breach of confidentiality, but I feel like I owe you something. You really went out of your way for my family."

"Was there a problem with my test?" Jim could hear Blair's heart start tripping along faster.

"No, there's no problem... exactly." Jim's frown deepened. The woman sighed again. "Okay, I know this could get me fired, but you mentioned that you only had the one brother, Steven. But one of the doctors here is doing a genetic sampling test, and he didn't remove the names from the samples, which is technically a violation of confidentiality rules."

"Ms. Smitherson," Jim said tightly.

"Ms. Dalton, actually," she corrected him. Jim probably would have yelled, but he could hear the stress in her voice. Blair started making small muttering noises that even Jim couldn't actually understand, but from the tone, he was trying to get Jim to calm down. Taking a deep breath, Jim tried to find the sort of patience he normally saved for victims.

"Ms. Dalton, I promise that I can and will keep your name out of any paperwork, but if there's a problem, you need to talk to me."

She laughed. "If I didn't, you'd probably come track me down by this point, huh?"

"Very likely," Jim agreed. He glanced over as people poured off the sidelines and onto the field. Someone had won the game, and he didn't even care who.

"Detective, I was running some samples though the genetic sequencer and I noticed a close familial match." Jim hadn't realized how tense he was until he sagged down, panic turning to relief. They hadn't found some deadly disease lurking in his DNA; they hadn't found some genetic equivalent to a sign pointing at him with the word "Sentinel freak" in neon. The relief was so great that it took a second for Jim to process what Laura had just said.

"A match? Why were you running my DNA for matches?" Jim demanded.

"You signed a consent form for your genetic material to be used in medical research."

"I did?" Jim cringed. Fuck. He needed to pay more attention to what he signed, but at the time, he'd been trying to rein in Blair who had been determined to browbeat Simon into donating with statistics on how African Americans were underrepresented in the bone marrow banks and how that could make finding a match more difficult for minorities. Jim had been fairly sure that Simon had been on the verge of blowing. Even if Blair was right that tissue matches were often difficult across races, Simon and Jim had come from the generation where racial equality had come from a sort of intentional blindness. Jim didn’t think of Simon as black, just as a damn fine captain. The Rangers had taught him a colorblindness since the only color in the army was green. Blair, however, was poking the racial button hard, and Simon had been close to giving Blair a piece of his mind. “I don’t remember signing that,” Jim admitted.

"Well, I was assisting with the tests. It’s pretty standard to run the DNA of test subjects to see if you have blood relatives and exclude them from the sample, but you said that you brother and your father were in Cascade."

"They are." Jim’s earlier relief was giving way to a duller sort of panic. Blair’s face appeared over the bedroom railing, staring down at Jim, the second phone still held up to his ear. “A kid?” he mouthed silently. Yeah, Jim’s brain had gone to the same place. It wasn’t like he’d been celibate when he’d been in the army.

“I just thought this result looked like a first degree relative. Maybe I'm out of line here, and if you tell me to mind my own—" Paula started equivocating again.

"What do you know?" Jim snapped the words out, his patience gone. Unless he was misunderstanding this woman, she was suggesting he had a kid out there he didn‘t know, a kid he‘d abandoned. His guts clenched at the thought of some ten or twelve or fifteen year old who believed that their father had left them. He'd made his share of mistakes when he'd been in the service. While he was better than most about using protection, he couldn't deny that there had been times he'd been too drunk or too horny to be as safe as he should have been. At twenty-two, it just hadn't seemed important. However, Jim never had would have left a child behind. Never. Not if he’d known.

“I have a record of a first degree relative in Tucson, Arizona.”

The breath left Jim as another possibility occurred to him. “I could be my mother,” Jim said slowly. He wasn’t sure how he’d feel about that. When his mother had walked out of his life, Jim had been desperate to get her back. However, as a grown man, he really didn’t want to open that emotionally messy can of worms. His mother had walked away from her family, and Jim was inclined to respect that choice and stay the hell away from her.

“It’s male,” Paula said, shooting down that hope.

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely," Ms. Dalton answered. "Do you want the name?" Her voice rose, stress driving the tone higher, and Jim realized that she had good reason for stress. If he told anyone where he'd gotten this information, she would probably lose her job. But he'd never turned in the nurse who had first called Blair and illegally given him Jim's medical records, and Jim wasn't going to turn Ms. Dalton in, either.

"I would like the name, and I promise you that as far as I'm concerned, this is an anonymous tip that I will deal with quietly and discretely unless some other information independently reaches my desk," Jim promised. And that other information would be hitting Jim's desk just as soon as he could get his ass to the station. If he had a kid out there, he was not going to play deadbeat dad. Well, not anymore, at least.

"Ezra Standish," Ms. Dalton said. Ezra. Jim wondered which of his lovers had hated their son enough to give him a name like that.

"Thank you."

"Don't mention it. You know, like the old joke."

"You mean really, seriously, don't mention it?" Jim asked dryly. "I can do that. And thank you." The woman had really stuck her neck out for him, and Jim knew how much trouble she would be in if anyone ever found out.

"I owed you this one." Before Jim could deny that or point out that he had only done his job when he’d helped her family, Jim heard the phone line click off. He was left standing with the dial tone in his ear.

Jim hung up the phone and took a second to collect his thoughts. "I might have a son," Jim said softly. His brain couldn't quite make sense out of that thought. He remembered what it had felt like as a kid—to know that a parent didn't love you enough to stick around. And Jim had inflicted that on some son out there in the world. Hopefully the mother would have told him that she never contacted Jim—never warned him that he had a son. Hopefully the mother hadn’t done something stupid like tell the kid that his father didn’t want him. Jim could feel his fury rise at even the chance that she’d done that. No matter what the mother had told Ezra, Jim had some serious amends to make.

"We need to go to the station. I want to see if we can find anything on Ezra Standish out of Tucson, Arizona." Jim looked up, and Blair was hanging over the rail looking as shell-shocked as Jim felt.

“You got it,” Blair agreed. He came running down the stairs at breakneck speed, his backpack already hanging from one hand. Jim was moving slower. He felt like an old man. He might have a son.

“Jim, you okay?” Blair was unexpectedly in front of him, a palm resting on Jim’s chest. Here Jim was, upending their lives with some potential child—hell, some potential teenager or near-teenager, and Blair was worried about him. No accusations. No blaming. No worries about how this would impact them financially. Jim looked down at Blair, at the confusion and worry on his face.

Reaching up, Jim stroked a hand over Blair’s cheek. “I love you,” Jim confessed. He didn’t say it often enough, he knew that.

Blair looked even more worried. “Totally. I know that. Man, you know I love the shit out of you, too,” he offered back. Jim smiled. Blair might have a reputation for chasing women down at the station, a well deserved one because he’d chased everyone from the head of forensic science to the donut girl before he’d landed in Jim’s bed. However, Jim was fairly sure that he had caught a pretty limited number of the ones he chased. The man’s idea of sweet-talk certainly wouldn’t have impressed Carolyn. Jim just reached out and caught Blair in a hug and held him tightly. “Oh man, this is freaking you out, isn’t it?” Blair asked, his words muffled against Jim’s chest.

“No,” Jim insisted. Blair’s only answer was a soft chuckle.

“Hey, we’ll deal with this like we have every other problem.”

“Together?” Jim asked. He let Blair go so the man had some breathing room.

“I was going to say one step at a time, but then, I’m not the mushy one,” Blair said with a teasing smile.

“Watch it, short stuff,” Jim warned.

“Yeah, yeah.” Blair moved closer, wrapping his arms around Jim and giving him a hug before he turned and headed for the door. “This is going to be so wild.”

“Only you, Chief,” Jim said, thinking of how his ex-wife would have reacted to this news. It certainly wouldn’t have been with this sort of amused energy, that’s for damn sure. Carolyn was an intelligent, articulate, sexually exciting woman, but she had a huge button marked “betrayal” and anything that came close to hitting it sent her into orbit. This would definitely have hit her button. Jim pulled his coat down off the rack and shrugged into it, following Blair out the door. Maybe that’s why he never could make it work with Caro: they were too much the same. Jim knew for a fact that he wouldn’t be this good natured if some woman showed up on their door step with little Blair, Jr. He’d probably act like an ass for at least a week. Luckily for Jim, Blair was a better man than he was.


Chapter Two

Jim stared at the computer screen and tried to figure out exactly when his life had gotten so strange. He'd like to blame Blair, but he was pretty sure this mess pre-dated Blair.

"Oh man, if that is your son, you started like..." Blair whistled, "seriously young. Terrifyingly young. There's a woman out there who is so very guilty of pedophilia."

Jim glared, but he had to admit that Ezra Standish was a little old to be Jim's son. He was five years younger than Steven and nine years younger than Jim, but he had a police file long enough to make a career criminal proud. Suspicion of securities fraud, illegal gambling, check forgery, illegal wire tap, gambling, and a dozen other charges, not a one of them stuck, not even one very odd case of stalking where the target had been a suspected Mexican drug lord. Jim couldn‘t figure out why anyone would want to stalk a drug lord. As a police officer, Jim could feel his blood pressure rise just looking at the records. This was a career criminal, and the police couldn't get anything to stick. Jim knew how frustrating that was. Standish's was fairly clean in Tucson--one case of firing a weapon inside city limits and that odd stalking of a drug kingpin. Even those had disappeared with no record of them ever going to trial.

"Either that nurse can't read a DNA test, or this is some con I just don't understand." Jim leaned back in his chair and stared at the screen.

Blair leaned over the back of Jim’s chair. "He doesn't look like someone who would get tested for the bone marrow registry."

"Not unless someone had a gun at his head," Jim agreed. That made it even more likely that this was a con of some sort.

Blair leaned in and hit the down arrow key to see the next page of charges. Ezra had been in Chicago for nearly five years, and the Chicago PD were seriously incompetent if they couldn't get something to stick on someone with this many arrests. Standish must have a memorial plaque in booking. Blair whistled in admiration. "So, what's the plan?"


"What?” Blair’s voice went up an octave. “No way. Come on, don't you want to know what's going on?" Blair turned on Jim, his expression caught somewhere between shock and disbelief.

"Nope, I really don't."

“Man, he’s a first degree relative.”

“No, Sandburg, he isn’t.” Jim reached over and closed the records window. “I don’t know what happened in that lab, but clearly he’s not my son.” Jim shifted in his seat.

For long seconds, Blair just looked at him. “Emotional roller coaster, huh?” he asked softly. Jim glared back.


Blair shook his head disbelievingly, but he also backed away so that Jim could turn his chair to face his desk. Shit. He should be happy to know that he hadn’t abandoned some kid, but Jim just felt unsettled. On the drive over, he’d come to terms with the idea of having a son. He’d mentally practiced introduction speeches, and now what he had was a con artist.

“Jim?” Simon walked in from the hall, a stack of paper in his hand. “I thought you and Sandburg were watching the game. You have a lead?” Simon walked over to Jim’s desk.

Pushing himself back, Jim stretched his back and suddenly realized how late it was. “Turned out to be nothing, sir. I just wanted to look something up.”

“One of Sandburg’s long shots?” Simon gave Blair a suspicious look.

“Hey, my longshots payoff,” Blair defended himself. Then he flinched. "Sometimes,” he added wryly.

“I never said they didn’t, Sandburg. Hell, sometimes it annoys me how often your crackpot ideas turn out to be right. I sit up at night and get ulcers over it.” Simon’s tone didn’t exactly make that sound like a compliment, but Blair beamed. Simon shook his head.

Simon turned his attention to Jim. “Since you’re here, I need to clarify some of your reports before they go up to the DA. You want to do it now or tomorrow?”

“Might as well take care of it now. I’m not going to be able to sleep,” Jim said. Simon and Blair both looked at him with some concern. Simon might not know what had happened, but he knew something had. He was also a good enough friend to not push matters, which is why Jim would rather spend time with Simon than Blair tonight. He might respect Blair’s habit of talking things through, but right now Jim felt a little emotionally raw. Worse, he felt stupid for being emotionally raw. How the hell do you get emotionally attached to a son that doesn’t even exist, and yet Jim could feel the harsh strains of loss pulling at him, and he’d never handled that emotion well.

“I can drive you home if Sandburg wants to take the truck back to the loft,” Simon offered. Considering that reviewing paperwork could take hours, it really wasn’t fair to ask Blair to hang around.

“I won’t even make you wash it, Chief,” Jim said with a smile, reaching for the truck keys.

“Hey, I have lots of work of my own. You two have fun with the red tape. I’m just going to amuse myself.” Blair pushed past Jim and sat down in his chair with an innocent expression on his face. Jim opened his mouth, on the verge of telling him to back off whatever weirdness was going on with Ezra Standish, but he didn’t.

The man had some sort of relationship to Jim, and he figured Blair knew just as well as he did that there was only one reasonable explanation. Jim’s mom had a third son. Ezra the career criminal and con artist was Jim’s half-brother. The last thing Jim needed in his life was some confidence man trying to take advantage of Jim’s police connections, but for Blair, family was important. His mother and Jim were the only family he really had.

Jim’s father had been downright shitty when he’d finally figured out that Blair was Jim’s partner at work and in bed, and Steven had pretty much stuttered through some big speech about how he was happy for Jim and then he’d never called back. Oh, when his dad had figured out that cutting off Blair was the same as cutting off Jim, he'd backed off. He'd issued dinner invitations that included Blair and made all the polite noise. However, whenever Blair showed up with Jim for dinner, there was this awkwardness the descended on the room. Every time Blair went to the house with Jim, he had this hope that things would be better, and every time, William Ellison screwed up. Jim couldn’t blame Blair for wanting to find one supportive family member; however, he didn’t think some career criminal who didn’t even know them was a good place to start. As far as Jim was concerned, he loved his family, but he didn’t want them around. He didn’t need his father or his brother or his mother with her other son.

His mother. Hell, he hadn’t indulged in fantasies about finding his mother since he was seventeen years old. He could still feel a twinge of pain at that thought, but he knew that trying to divert Blair would just lead to long discussions about emotional constipation, and Jim really wasn't up for that particular speech. “Don’t get in too much trouble,” Jim said as he started toward Simon’s office. Simon looked at them oddly, obviously trying to figure out what was going on. After a half-second, he followed Jim. In Simon’s office, Jim sank down into his normal chair.

“So, what’s the kid up to this time?” Simon asked, swinging the door shut. The squad room was quieter at night, but Blair seemed so hooked into the gossip vine that anything said with the door open did seem to drift back to him. Sometimes Jim wondered if Blair didn’t have the Sentinel hearing the way he seemed to know everything.

“Why do you think Blair would be up to anything?” Jim asked, raising an eyebrow. Simon was his oldest friend and a damn good captain, but Blair was his partner, and he had Jim’s loyalty. Jim cringed as he remembered his reaction when he’d thought Blair was hitting on a visiting professor from Africa. Well, his loyalty would be with Blair when he wasn’t being an insecure jackass, at least.

“Are you going to tell me he isn’t?” Simon challenged him.

Jim sighed. “We got a tip that I might be related to someone in Tucson,” Jim said, glossing over the details. Simon was smart enough to not ask for details.

“Really?” Simon sat down and looked over the desk. “Is he a Sentinel?”

Jim was so shocked that he couldn’t come up with an answer right away. "Why would you assume he was?"

"Because Blair looks like the cat that just figured out how to get the bottle of cream open. Besides, you two always say this is some genetic thing. If this is some relative, wouldn't there be a chance?"

Leaning back in his chair, Jim rubbed a hand over his face. Shit. That hadn't even occurred to him. Blair had done one or two subtle tests to check Stephen, and he was either normal or the genes were dormant, but if Jim had a half-brother, there was a chance that he could have the gene—assuming that the Sentinel stuff was from his mother's side.

Jim thought back to her. In his earliest memories, she was always smiling. She had this devilish smirk as she snuck him a cookie behind his father's back. It was like Jim and his mom were co-conspirators in whatever adventure she had planned. He still remembered the day that she lied to the school, saying he was sick so she could take him to the zoo for the opening day of a brand new baby tiger exhibit. Jim had missed some big state test, and when he went back to school, he'd bragged about seeing the tigers and even getting to go behind the exhibit and see the long hallways where the employees had fed the cats. He'd been six or seven.The school had called his father making all these noises about responsibility and attendance. His father had thrown a fit, yelling in that barely controlled voice he'd used before things got really bad. His mother had sat in her favorite chair with a drink in hand, absorbing all his father's anger.

Standing in the hallway, Jim had peeked around the corner, crying because his mother was in trouble. He'd felt like it was his fault, and he remembered being afraid that he was going to throw up on the floor. He was that upset. But right in the middle of his father's tirade, his mother had looked over toward him and winked. She hadn't cared about the trouble—they'd had their day of fun. But no matter how much Jim tried, he couldn't remember anything that would suggest she had extraordinary senses.


Jim looked up to find Simon looked at him with some concern. "Just lost in some memories, Simon."

"Because of some relative you don't know?” Simon leaned back in his chair. “I have lots of third cousins I don't know, Jim. None of them make me get an expression on my face like someone just shot my puppy."

With some effort, Jim cleared his expression and slipped into the sort of neutral mask he used when he went undercover. So much for Simon being a good enough friend to not push for information.

"Shit, Jim, that isn't what I meant, for you to close yourself off. We're friends. What the hell is going on here?" Now Simon leaned closer, his gaze flicking to Blair on the other side of the glass wall. If Jim didn’t talk, Simon was going to try and get information out of Blair, and Jim would rather avoid that.

Guilt forced a grimace out of Jim. "It's more than a relative, Simon. I have some pretty reliable source that thinks it's a brother."

Simon reared back, not even bothering to hide his shock. "A brother? How reliable is this source? And who is this mysterious brother of yours. No offense, Jim, but when you past shows up, it's rarely pretty."

Jim gave a dark laugh. That was too true for comfort. "And it's not pretty this time, either. He's a con artist, a felon who would be in jail if the cops in Chicago or Tucson had two active brain cells still firing,” he admitted.

"And your source?"

"Doesn't have any reason to lie, Simon.” Jim rubbed his hand over his face. “Shit. I would just as soon ignore this whole mess, but I'm afraid that Blair is going to want to poke it until a happy family reunion falls out."

Simon nodded and worked his fingers as if he wanted to holding a cigar. "So, will one?" Simon sounded oddly neutral about the idea.

"He's a white collar criminal. Securities fraud, forgery, gambling—of course, recently he seems to be branching out. Tucson has him with a weapons violation and a case of stalking, so who knows what he's into."


"Stalking a Mexican drug lord, no less," Jim said with a wry expression.

Simon gave a bark of laughter. "Well, he does have the Ellison habit of overachieving. What? He couldn't start with an ex-girlfriend like the rest of the stalkers?"

Shaking his head, Jim rubbed his face again. It was like this was a really odd, tofu-inspired dream and he just couldn't pull himself free of it. "Something like that. None of it makes sense, Simon. I mean, sure, my mother could have given birth to another son, but his police record doesn't make one bit of sense. There's no reason for a career white-collar criminal to start carrying a weapon. If he did, and if he fired it inside city limits, there's no reason for the Tucson cops to cut him any slack. The only thing that would make any sense is if he's a bigger player than he looks like, someone who can buy off the police."

"Someone who might be big enough to take an interest in a Mexican drug lord?" Simon asked in a tone of voice that meant his police instincts were kicking in. Jim had the same thought—that his brother might be a bigger player than he looked on paper. Now that Jim had a chance to say all this out loud, it made sense.

"I don't want to think about it, Simon." The more Jim talked to Simon, the more convinced he was that this was a problem—potentially a huge problem. "And Blair is out there trying to find out something about him." Jim looked through the blinds and looked at Blair madly typing away on the computer. Jim had more faith in Blair's ability to scrounge information from informal sources than he did in any official records.

"Are you comfortable having him poke a hornet's nest? He has a bad habit of attracting hornets."

"I noticed," Jim said dryly. "But if I told him to drop it, he'd just keep digging and hide it from me. I'd rather he do his poking when I'm around to keep him out of trouble."

"Or get pulled into the trouble with him,” Simon warned.

"Considering that this Ezra might be my brother, I think any trouble is my fault."

"Ezra?" Simon’s eyebrows went up.

"It's a pretty stupid name," Jim agreed.

"Very. So, does he have a last name to go with that first name? Calhoun or Hollingsworth the Third, maybe?"


"Ezra Standish.” Simon thought about that for a second, and Jim knew he was filing the name away. More than one person would be digging into Ezra Standish’s past. “He sounds like the main character from one those novels my ex-wife was always reading,” Simon finally commented.

"It does, doesn't it? What are the odds it's a pseudonym?"

"If it is, he's breaking a pretty basic rule of the con—he's going to stick out like a sore thumb with a name like that." Simon drew in a long breath and got that expression that meant he was thinking about something important. "Would you mind if I did a little poking around?"

Jim studied his captain. "This isn't your problem, Simon."

"It feels like someone is trying to set up a friend. That feels like my problem," Simon quickly retorted.

Jim nodded. Blair might be out there looking for evidence that Ezra was a good man, a brother that Jim could embrace. But if this was some sort of con—a scam to use Jim's connections—then Simon would find that quicker than Blair. Jim loved Blair, but the man did try to find the good in everyone, and Jim… well he was either mature enough or cynical enough to believe that some people were just evil. "Thanks, Simon," Jim said.

"Right now we need to review these files. The new DA is about to drive me to drink." Simon pulled a drawer open and pulled out a huge stack of files. The problem with Ezra Standish would have to wait until later. Right now, Jim and Simon had criminal files to deal with so that criminals didn't get off on some technicality. If Ezra Standish were ever to come to Cascade and fire a gun in the city limits, Jim would make sure he didn't get off, but right now, he had about a dozen other criminals to nail to the wall. With a grim determination, Jim opened the first file Simon handed him.



Chapter Three

Jim listened to Blair cheerfully describe having verbally eviscerated some student unlucky enough to have plagiarized a paper in a week when Blair was really feeling frustrated. Jim almost felt bad for the twerp, or he might have if not for the fact that he was distracted.

They'd had a shadow for three blocks now. The man was older, gray hair and a calm expression suggested that he was just one more person enjoying the rare sunny weather. However, he moved with a caution and attentiveness that jangled Jim's nerves and made him think of the military. Jim had turned twice, his hand on Blair's shoulder aiming him in a new direction, and Blair had shot him an odd look, but he'd kept right on with his story, his hands moving to punctuate the high points.

If even half of Blair's story was true, his student was going to need therapy. More importantly, he was going to be too afraid to ever cheat again. At each turn, their shadow lagged behind them, leisurely following only after Jim and Blair were some way down the block. The behavior was too casual to be truly casual.

"So, I'm pretty sure he'll never be cheating again," Blair finished as they got to the loft.

"I'm pretty sure he's going to be in therapy, Chief," Jim pointed out.

Blair snorted. "He deserves it." His voice dropped to a faint whisper. "What's up, Jim?"

Jim turned so that he was casually leaning against a car. The stranger was there, still strolling as he went by them on the sidewalk. However, Jim suspected he was going to only go as far as the next corner and then find a nice place to settle down and watch. Jim turned his head away from their watcher. "Blair, go up to the loft and call Simon."

"Call him what?” Blair asked in a sort of playfulness, but the voice was strained. Blair knew something was wrong, but he hadn't spotted their follower. “Oh man, okay," Blair whispered after a second, "What am I telling him?”

"We have a stalker."

"We… what?" Blair started to look around, and Jim reached out and caught his head, cradling Blair's cheeks between his palms in a lover's touch. Blair immediately settled, his eyes focusing on Jim. Anyone passing by on the street would assume they were lovers sharing an intimate moment, which wasn't exactly wrong. Jim leaned closer.

"Tell him there's one man, following for three blocks; he moves like military."

Blair closed his eyes for a second, blocking Jim from seeing the fear. Blair might have more guts than almost anyone Jim had ever known, but he wasn't a cop—he wasn't a soldier. He'd never been trained to deal with emergencies, so there was always this moment when he needed to gather himself. Only then did he turn stubborn.

"No way am I going upstairs if there’s trouble down here," Blair hissed, his stubborn streak showing up right on schedule.

"I need you to call Simon."

Blair brought his own hand up to cup Jim's cheek, his expression softening as if listening to some endearment. "Use your damn cell phone." The contrast between Blair's love-struck appearance and his words nearly made Jim laugh.

Jim shifted his hands to Blair's shoulders and leaned in closer, his mouth beside Blair's ear as he whispered. "I don’t want to tip this guy off."

"For all he knows, you’re calling for pizza."

Jim leaned down until their foreheads touched. "Sandburg," he said wearily.

"Ellison," Blair returned in exactly the same tone. His hands were resting on Jim's waist now, holding on as Blair silently shouted his unwillingness to leave Jim alone to deal with their watcher.

Jim clenched his teeth and counted to ten. Maybe he could have pushed Blair around a year ago. Maybe. But now that he was Jim’s lover, Blair’s stubborn streak was front and center. Not that it had been all that deeply hidden before. “Blair, as a cop, I am asking you to go for backup,” Jim said, his voice as tightly controlled as he could make it. They'd made a deal when they'd first found themselves sharing a bed. If Jim resorted to using his status as a cop, that meant that Blair needed to stop thinking like a lover and listen like a ride-along who had an obligation to follow his partner's lead. The other half of that was that when Blair resorted to his status as a researcher, Jim had to back off his knee-jerk habit of shoving his lover away and tell Blair the truth about the senses.

“That’s playing dirty,” Blair muttered, but he headed for the loft, moving as fast as he could. Jim knew without a doubt that he’d be back down on the street as soon as he made that call, which gave Jim a very limited amount of time to work. Jim sure as hell wasn’t trying anything with Blair in the middle. With Blair safely upstairs, Jim turned to head back toward his truck

The man was standing in the shadow near the bakery’s entry. His head was bowed, but his head had a slight angle that allowed him to watch Jim in the reflection of the plate glass window. It was an old trick. And the man looked the type to know all the old tricks. He was a large man with curled gray hair and a weathered face. He hadn’t shaved in a day or two, but his clothing was neat and pressed, so he wasn’t roughing it. He had a sort of quiet in the way he moved that made Jim nervous. This was a man who had been taught to be aware of his body, and very few people ever had that kind of training.

Jim strolled toward his truck, trying to lure the guy away from the building. If he had backup, they would have to shift to account for the fact that Jim and Blair had split up. Either that, or they would have to focus on Jim. He strained to hear any chatter, any whisper of radios with a team leader redirecting his men. Instead he caught the whir of tires against asphalt and the clicking of the mechanics inside the crosswalk sign and the distant cry of a child. He had his hearing dangerously open, but Jim still couldn't get any information on their tail.

Maybe the guy was working alone. With a wolfish smile, Jim hoped that was the case. If it was, Jim was going to rip him a new asshole. If this was some process server trying to get a signature, Jim was going to scare him out of a year of life, that’s for damn sure. And if he was a random stalker, Jim was arresting his ass.

Jim leaned against the side of his truck and watched the man. At first, the guy just kept browsing the bakery window as if wedding cake designs were the most interesting thing in the world. Eventually, though, he turned to look at Jim. With a nod of his head, the guy acknowledged Jim and started moving slowly and steadily toward the truck. His hands hung loosely at his sides, so either he wasn’t armed or he was trying to make Jim feel at ease. It wasn’t working. Jim waited as the man finally got close enough to speak.

“It’s either a brave man or a foolish one that invites trouble over for a conversation,” the man said. Jim’s eyebrows went up.

“So, you’re trouble?”

He shrugged. “I try not to be, but I fear that I fail on a regular basis.” He grinned, the expression self-depreciating. “Josiah Sanchez.” He held his hand out, but Jim only looked at it. If the man wanted polite manners, he should have introduced himself before stalking them.

Josiah dropped his hand and moved to lean on the truck next to Jim. “I did warn Chris; I’m out of practice.”

“Oh?” Jim’s skin was crawling from having Josiah at his side, but he was far enough away to not pose an immediate danger, and Jim wanted something solid at his back, particularly if there was another player involved.

“I prefer construction work… that and saving the occasional soul. I’m afraid that my days of gathering intel are past.”

Jim looked around, his guts knotting as this guy talked without actually saying much. “Why are you following me?” Jim flat out demanded.

Josiah didn’t answer right away. He looked off into the sky and seemed to think about that for a long time. “I suppose I was wondering why you were so interested in Ezra.”

“Ezra Standish?” Jim pushed away from the truck and took an aggressive step forward. Josiah kept staring at the sky, his hands crossed over his chest and a peaceful look on his face. The man had moved like a soldier a few minutes ago, but now he looked like a stoner watching the clouds drift past.

“That is the only Ezra I know,” Josiah agreed after an uncomfortable silence.

This man knew Jim's brother. While Jim didn’t expect that to make a bit of difference, it did somehow. How was his brother connected to this very odd character? Was this Ezra’s father or an uncle? Was this the man Jim’s mother had hooked up with? Jim studied Josiah more carefully. If his mother had gone from William Ellison to this man, she had a wider range of tastes than even Naomi. Jim's father was controlled, impeccable, the sort of man who had a million emotions inside and who showed none of them. Josiah had a hippy vibe going, a sort of casual interest in watching the world go by, but then when he moved, Jim could see the military training. He wore jeans that had the marks of a man who did hard labor, and his hands were scarred, but not with the knuckle scarring of a fighter.

“What’s he to you?” Jim demanded.

“A friend,” Josiah said, and that answer told Jim nothing. Josiah smiled. “A friend who is very concerned about why a police officer from Washington would be interested in him and his past.”

“I stopped looking. He doesn't have to worry about me,” Jim answered. A few days after he'd started poking around, Simon had received an official request from the FBI that he stop his background search, so Jim figured Ezra was target of a pretty big investigation. Jim had no intention of tipping his brother off--if he was a criminal, then Jim had no more loyalty to Ezra Standish than he had to any other criminal.

“All humans have reason to worry,” Josiah said. Blair appeared on the sidewalk, looking around. The second he spotted them, his whole body went stiff. Jim sent up a prayer that Blair would be smart and go right back up to the loft. Clearly his power of prayer was lacking because Blair’s face set in a stubborn expression and he came striding over.

“Hey!” Blair broke into a trot, and Jim moved to the side so his body was between his idiotic guide and Josiah. “Hey,” Blair repeated when he reached Jim’s side. “I’m Blair Sandburg.” Before Jim could stop him, Blair stuck his hand out. The only way Jim could minimize the damage was by grabbing Blair’s arm and keeping him close. That forced Josiah to step forward and take Blair’s hand.

“Josiah Sanchez.”

“Josiah, whoa. That is a seriously unusual name.”

Josiah’s eyebrow twitched, but he managed to not make a comment about Blair’s name. “My momma didn't name me that,” Josiah admitted. It was more information than Jim had gotten out of him so far. “My generation forged a new path, and the group I fell in with decided to take the names of heroes whose beliefs we wanted to emulate.”

“So, Josiah…?” Blair waved a hand, obviously waiting for the full name of this guy’s patron namesake.

Josiah gave a slow smile. “Josiah Wedgwood, an abolitionist who put his beliefs ahead of his professional aspirations," answered, his tone making it clear he admired the man. Either that or he was making up a story that was sure to appeal to Blair, and from the look on Blair's face, the story was working.

“Cool,” Blair said. “My mom named me after the Battle of Blair Mountain, not that she admired the fighting, but she totally respected the working classes for standing up for their rights.” Josiah backed away a step while still smiling at Blair’s enthusiasm, and Blair might have followed him, except Jim kept a tight hold on his arm. “So, what’s up?” Blair asked, looking from Josiah to Jim and back.

“I’m still trying to decide that,” Jim said as he studied the man. “Stalking a police officer is a serious crime.” Sadly, Jim also knew that it was a crime that wasn’t going to get anyone too upset. His last stalker had dumped a load of horse manure in Jim’s loft, blown an undercover operation, and nearly gotten Jim killed, and the judge had given him four months. This time Jim was determined to keep his cool and not aggravate the nutcase.

“I'm simply curious about why Detective Ellison would show such interest in a friend.” Josiah leaned against Jim’s truck and watched them. “And now that I'm here, I am inclined to believe that you aren’t a threat.”

“A friend?” Blair was still looking confused.

“Ezra Standish,” Josiah said before Jim could figure out a way to cut this conversation short. Blair’s eyes went big. Josiah took some interest in that reaction. “Ah, you know our Mr. Standish.”

“Know about him,” Blair said carefully. He looked at Jim, and Jim could tell that he was itching to tell Josiah the truth. However, Jim did not plan to deal himself into the middle of an FBI investigation. If the FBI wanted Standish’s ass, they could have it. They could have Josiah Sanchez’s, too.

"We don't know him," Jim said firmly. He figured his tone would make it pretty clear that he wasn't interested in getting to know him, either. Josiah turned his head and truly studied Jim, making Jim itch to put his hand on his gun. After a long and tense moment, Josiah returned to studying the shapes of the clouds.

“A wise man understands that none of us can truly know each other,” Josiah offered. “Judge not, lest ye be judged, for with what measure you judge, so shall ye be judged.”

“I leave the judging for others. I just arrest criminals,” Jim said before Blair could go off onto some philosophical discussion.

Josiah nodded. “But how does one define criminal?”

“Someone who breaks the law,” Jim said firmly. If his brother was putting out feelers to see if Jim was vulnerable to bribery, Jim was going to go all the way to Tucson to break a few heads.

Josiah watched the sky and sucked air through his front teeth. “If I leave my country to avoid becoming a killer, am I a criminal? If I follow the law and kill for my country, does that make me an innocent man?” Josiah kept his eyes on the sky.

“Oh man, nothing is that clear-cut,” Blair said.

“When it comes to the law, it is,” Jim said firmly. He pulled Blair back toward the door. In the distance, he could hear the sirens of the world’s slowest backup. “Come on, Chief.”

Josiah Sanchez remained standing next to Jim’s truck, watching them.

“Geez, he’s not doing anything,” Blair whispered furiously.

“He’s annoying me. It’s enough,” Jim answered. Blair gave a big sigh. The patrol car pulled up in front of the building and Jim nodded at the officer who got out.

“Sir, you called for backup?” The officer seemed confused, so Jim was guessing Blair hadn’t pushed the panic button when he called--either that or Simon had chosen to assume Blair was exaggerating the danger.

“Yes,” Jim said. “Josiah Sanchez over there is loitering. Ticket him.” Jim looked over at Josiah, daring him to argue with just a look. Josiah didn’t even bother moving away from Jim’s truck.

“Sir?” the officer asked, still confused.

“And get official identification. He already admitted that Josiah is an alias.” Jim crossed his arms and waited for some sort of protest, but Josiah just watched with a sort of detached amusement that annoyed the shit out of Jim.

“Maybe we should--” Blair whispered, but Jim cut him off. “Forget it, Chief. He’s hiding something.” Jim didn’t bother keeping his voice down, but Josiah certainly didn’t deny the charge. Jim watched as the officer pulled out his ticket book and headed over. Jim corralled Blair while the officer got the man’s identification. Jim would run a background check later. Right now, Blair looked ready to explode, so Jim urged him into the first floor lobby of the building.

“Man, you are some piece of work,” Blair blurted the minute they were safely inside. “He knows your brother!”

“The brother that’s being investigated by the FBI? The one with the police record a mile long? That brother?”

“Hey, he’s never been convicted,” Blair said, but his tone was a little less confrontational and a little more wary now.

“Which just means he’s a smart criminal,” Jim said. “Blair, you know as well as I do that no one gets a record that looks like that without some sort of criminal involvement.”

Blair chewed on his lip. “Naomi has a police record.” Blair wasn’t even bothering to sound convinced himself.

“For protesting, not for securities fraud and check forging.”

Blair could only shrug. “Still.Josiah came all this way.”

“Because he wants something.”

“You are one suspicious bastard,” Blair pointed out.

“Yep.” Jim wasn’t even going to deny that charge. He was suspicious, more so when a criminal showed interest in him and Blair.

“So, why annoy him with a loitering ticket?” Blair looked honestly confused about that.

“To get his real information,” Jim admitted. “Now stay here.” Jim turned back toward the door and headed out into the parking lot. He needed to make sure the officer sent a copy of the ticket to him up at Major Crime.

“Manipulative and suspicious,” Blair muttered, but Jim couldn’t really disagree. He was both, and he didn’t plan to change for anyone, not even Blair.

The officer was trying to write the ticket, and Jim headed over toward them. “Any form of identification will work; it doesn’t have to be a driver’s license,” the officer was saying. Blair followed Jim back out, and Jim turned to glare at him, silently warning him to stay in the lobby. Blair crossed his arms and just glared right back. Jim finally gave in with a sigh because he needed to get back out there. Josiah Sanchez was giving the officer some grief.

Josiah raised his hands in a shrug. “Unfortunately, the only thing I have is my word.”

The officer got a sour look on his face. “Maybe you have some identification at your hotel?”

Josiah only gave the officer a bemused look. “What’s the problem?” Jim asked, not revealing to the officer or this new stranger that he'd been able to hear their conversation from across the street.

“He doesn’t have any identification, sir,” the patrol officer said.

Jim looked at the man, still annoyed by the calm way Josiah just looked back at him. “Well, it’s pretty simple,” Jim said, giving Josiah a smile. “Either you need to present some sort of official identification or this officer is going to put you in cuffs, take you down to the station, and fingerprint you.” Jim waited for the inevitable capitulation.

“Not cool. So incredibly not cool,” Blair muttered so softly that it would have taken a Sentinel to hear it.

“Everyone must do what he feels is right,” Josiah said without moving. Jim’s smile faded as the man called his bluff.

“Officer, arrest him,” Jim said.

“For loitering?” The cop looked caught between confused and alarmed.

“Yes.” Jim clenched his teeth. Yeah, Simon was going to give him crap about this, but Jim was going to find out who this guy really was, come hell or high water.

The officer hesitated for a second and then turned back toward Josiah who still had that same annoying, calm expression on his face. “Sir, turn around and put your hands on the truck, please. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law….” Without a word of complaint, Josiah turned and put his hands on Jim's truck.

Jim left the officer to arrest Josiah and he headed for the loft. He needed to call Simon and warn him before this hit the grapevine down at work.

“I seriously hope you know what you’re doing,” Blair hissed when Jim caught him by the shoulders and pushed the man toward the building.

“So do I, Chief,” Jim admitted. Josiah rang too many alarm bells in Jim’s head to let this slide, though. Whatever the hell Ezra Standish was up to, Jim was starting to fear that he was going to get pulled in, one way or another. If Jim was going to get dragged into some mess, he’d rather do it with his eyes open and with an understanding of the players involved.


Chapter Four


"Well, that’s a record, even for you. Within three minutes of meeting this guy, you have a uniformed officer arrest him.” Simon dropped a file on Jim’s desk. The tab had "Josiah Sanchez" in black block letters

“He was stalking me.”

“He was on a public street. If he chose to push this, he could demand a written reprimand be put in your file.”

Jim looked up. “Is he?”

For a second Simon looked at him. Then the man seemed to sag. “For some reason, no. However, that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with you playing cowboy.”

Once he knew Josiah wasn’t filing a complaint, Jim focused on the man’s background check. He hadn't been lying about the name. He'd been born James Stefan Sanchez in 1950, and he'd served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1973 with "Josiah" listed as a known alias. Shit. No wonder he had set off Jim’s internal alarms. The man was E company 9th Infantry Division Ranger in Vietnam. Twice decorated for meritorious service above and beyond the call, he had the sort of vague wording in his file that would suggest the man did work the Army didn’t want to make public. He’d left Vietnam and settled into life in Tucson where his life turned into a mystery. He had no arrests, no warrants, not even a speeding ticket. He also had no driver’s license issued to him, and he hadn’t worked since leaving the Army in the 70s.

Jim flipped through the pages that detailed Josiah's life. Newspaper clippings showing an old adobe church described him as a minister. Paperwork filed by a man named Carl "Buck" Wilmington listed the church as a non-profit organization serving food and spiritual instruction to an impoverished neighborhood in Tucson. “This is a more than a standard police file,” Jim commented. Simon had done some digging.

“I figured if you thought he was trouble, I’d ask records to dig a little deeper than normal,” Simon admitted. “Any reason why someone like this would be following you?”

Leaning back in his chair, Jim studied the picture of a young Sanchez in his Ranger uniform. “He said he wanted to know why I was checking on Ezra Standish.”

“The guy the FBI warned you off?”


“Jim, if you kept investigating--” Simon warned darkly.

“Simon, I didn’t,” Jim cut him off. “I haven’t even typed his name into my computer for the past week, and Blair swears that he hasn’t either.”

“Do you believe him?”

Jim glared at Simon.

Simon held his hands up. “I’m just saying that the kid is curious, Jim. Sometimes too curious. You know, we wouldn’t have so many rumors about you two if you would just let the kid fight his own battles and not act like he’s some damsel in distress that you have to protect.”

“Trust me, I don’t think that. And if I did, he’d rip me a new asshole,” Jim said wryly. Blair might not be a match for Jim physically, but he was a master of verbal evisceration. “But he knows how important this is, and he would not lie about it.”

“Not even a little obfuscation, as he likes to call it?”

Jim snorted. “Not when we have the FBI involved. Blair’s too smart for that.”

With a sigh, Simon shook his head, but he didn't seem interested in continuing to argue his point. “Okay, I’ll trust your judgment on that. But there’s something else you should know.” Jim looked up, his guts tensing. “Josiah Sanchez was already picked up and his ticket paid.” Simon took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I know the guy who showed up to get him.”

“Who?” Jim asked.

“I don’t have a name,” Simon said, “but I’ve seen him over at the FBI offices. Jim, he’s an agent.”

Jim let Josiah’s file fall to his desk. “An agent?”

Simon nodded. “I can’t tell you his name, but he is not an easy man to forget.”

“So, Ezra Standish is under investigation. Josiah Sanchez claims to be his friend, but he doesn’t have any identification, and a known FBI agent comes to get him out of the local jail.” Jim frowned as he tried to make sense out of those pieces.

“And he did it quietly. When was the last time you knew an FBI agent to handle something quietly?” Simon put his glasses back on.

“When they were working undercover,” Jim answered. It made sense, but if Ezra’s criminal background was part of some cover, the FBI had gone out of its way to make one hell of a perfect background for this guy. It was so perfect that it would throw up flags with anyone who looked at it—no one could get arrested that much without at least some jail time. He even had notations for a sealed juvenile record and sealed child protective services case file. This was no simple cover. But when Josiah had talked about Ezra, he'd acted like the man was a friend; that wasn't something Jim expected if Josiah was part of a team trying to bring Ezra down. None of the pieces made any sense, and Jim was the first to admit he got a little cranky when pieces didn't fit.

“What the hell did you stumble onto, Jim?” Simon demanded.

“I have no idea,” Jim had to admit. He thought about Blair at Rainier. If these people were this deep undercover, that meant they were targeting some major players. And major players had no trouble taking out anyone who seemed even peripherally involved. “I think I need to go check on Blair.”

Simon frowned. “Why Blair?”

“Simon, if we’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest this big, they’re going to target Blair as the weak link,” Jim said honestly. It wasn’t that he thought of Blair as weak; it was just that Blair tended to seem less dangerous. He was like poison ivy… it looked innocent enough until you grabbed a handful of it. Jim just didn’t want anyone grabbing Blair before they discovered that he was more dangerous than he looked.

“Whatever this is, you need to get yourselves clear, Jim. We have cases, and they will not wait until you’ve cleaned this up.”

“I know, Simon.” Jim picked up Josiah Sanchez’s file and stood up. He had open homicide cases and leads to follow up, but he couldn’t do that if he was wondering if Blair was in eminent danger, especially since it was his fault Blair was in the middle. Well, it was his DNA’s fault anyway. “I just need to follow up on this. If they’re FBI, then I’ll tell them that I’m willing to back off as long as they stay away and don’t bring their trouble up here.”

Simon snorted. “If you can get the FBI to listen, I’m promoting you to captain and retiring.”

Jim smiled. “I could never survive the paperwork, Simon.”

The only answer Simon gave was a snort before he walked away. Jim headed in the opposite direction. If there was trouble, Blair was going to find the center and pitch a tent in it. Jim had spent his adult life around soldiers and cops, petty criminals and gang lords—and Blair managed to find trouble more consistently than all those people put together. In the elevator, he tried calling Blair's office, only to have the phone go to an answering machine. Jim cursed colorfully just as the elevator opened on the second floor, and two uniformed officers were standing there with wide eyes. Both backed away from the elevator, and Jim gave them a cold glare as he punched the 'close doors' button. If they were such children that they were shocked with a few choice pieces of profanity, they were in the wrong profession.

Jim tried the new cell phone he'd bought for Blair as he walked across the parking level, but Blair didn't answer. If the man didn't start carrying it, Jim was going to handcuff it to Blair's wrist. The logical part of Jim's brain pointed out that Blair was probably out having a long lunch with a friend or grading papers on the lawn where he could enjoy the sun and rare good weather. The little primitive part of Jim's brain wanted to find Blair and shove him in a little room where Jim could guard the door.

Instead of doing either, Jim tried to drive reasonably safely as he dialed Jack Kelso. The wheelchair might keep Jack from going on missions, and his tell-all book might have led some in the intelligence community to shun him, but if Josiah Sanchez was still in the game, Jack could find out. No way would someone with the kind of special ops training his file hinted at go home and play minister and hand out food. Jim knew better than most that once you learned to get in and fight, you didn't walk away. Even when Jim tried, even when he quit the service, he still ended up a cop. In some ways, he'd put himself in even more danger working vice than he did doing special ops because he'd worked undercover without backup with some of the most disgusting slime in the city. His transfer to Major Crime had changed how he fought, but he still fought. Unlearning the sorts of lessons covert ops taught you—it wasn't possible, and Jim refused to believe that Josiah Sanchez had earned commendations in the middle of one of the nastiest arenas of war only to come home and become some sort of saint.

Jim cursed softly as he listened to Jack’s phone ring several times before he picked it up. "Hello?"

"Jack, it's Jim Ellison."

There was a moment’s pause before Jack answered. "Jim. How nice to hear from you, but do I take it from the tone that this isn't entirely a social call?"

"I was hoping you could check on someone for me."

There was a longer silence from the other end, and Jim cursed softly when he hit a red right. "Is this for an official case?" Jack asked carefully.

"Not exactly," Jim admitted. "Someone is just showing a little more interest in me and in Blair than I like."

"Blair?" That was the magic word. Jim could hear Jack start to type. "Do you have a name?"

"He goes by Josiah Sanchez now, but in the service he was James Stefan Sanchez, born January 18, 1950. He's living in Tucson, but he came up here because of a background check I did on an Ezra Standish, a two-bit criminal with a talent for avoiding convictions."

"You think they're working together?"

"Or Sanchez is investigating Standish and he doesn't want me getting close. I don't know. But I don't like the fact that he was doing surveillance on me at home and he was a little too quick to introduce himself to Blair. He gave Blair some line about taking the name Josiah from an abolitionist, because he admired the man."

"A line that would appeal to our Blair," Jack said with a sigh. Jim could feel his guts unknot just a little. At least Jack was taking this mess seriously, and seriously worrying about a man who would tailor a story to Blair’s emotional soft spot. With Jack on his side, Jim might be able to talk a little sense into Blair, convince him to stick closer to the loft and answer his damn cell phone.

"Exactly. I don't like the fact that it appealed so well. If he's here targeting us, I want to know who he's working for. Jack, if it's the FBI, they can have Sanchez and Standish for all I care. I am not trying to get in a pissing match over jurisdiction."

"That's a bit of an unusual stance for you to take," Jack interrupted.

"Yeah, well I don't want to have anything to do with a Tucson case—it's a little out of my jurisdiction."

“And you sound less than comfortable that they are targeting our Blair,” Jack said in a sympathetic tone of voice.

“You could say that,” Jim admitted. He figured Jack knew about them. Blair was certainly less circumspect than Jim when it came to coming out of the closet. “Anyone who goes for Blair first worries me.”

"Understood,” Jack said, his voice all business and the sound of computer keys clacking in the background. “Give me an hour or so and I should be able to get you some preliminary information. Are you at the station?"

Jim checked his blind spot before cutting off a Toyota to make a right turn. "I'm actually heading your way. Sanchez got bailed out by an FBI agent trying to move quietly, so I'm heading over to the university."

"You think he could target Blair?" Jack spoke softly, but his voice had a wariness to it.

"I think Sanchez was quick to try and make friends with Blair."

"Which is not a good sign. I'll get you something in a half hour," Jack promised. "Unless you'd like me to head over to Blair's office…."

"No, I'm heading to campus, and I already know he's not in his office—either that or he's not picking up his phone. I'm probably just being paranoid, so no need to hit the panic button," Jim confessed.

"With Blair, a little paranoia is justified," Jack said with a grim laugh. "I'll call your cell with the intel."

"Thanks, Jack." Jim cut off the phone and tucked it into a pocket as he headed into the campus parking lot. The campus had a police parking spot, and Jim was hoping the campus cops weren’t squatting there as they ate lunch. He wanted the parking space. Luckily for them, they weren't and Jim parked his truck right outside Blair's building. He trotted up to the building, his hearing already searching for the familiar sounds of Blair. Jim walked faster as a familiar voice caught his attention. “Oh man, that is wild. Naomi would have loved that place!”

“The wonders of the universe did seem to open to us." That was Josiah Sanchez. He gave a chuckle and Jim slammed the front doors open. "But that might have been the drugs.” Jim was almost running when he hit the stairs. “Today, I try to find peace with the universe without the chemical assistance," Josiah offered in a conspiratorial tone of voice.

Blair laughed. “I hear you. I mean, growing up, I watched people do all sorts of stupid things. It turned me off drugs forever. At this one commune, this guy insisted he could fly when he did Transcendental Meditation, and even at five, I knew bullshit when I saw it.”

“A child had to point out that the emperor’s new clothes were nothing but a fabrication of the imagination,” Josiah said. He sounded friendly, but the idea of an ex-soldier with a covert-ops background in the same room with Blair was giving Jim hives. Even though he recognized the irony of that, Jim still wasn’t about to let Josiah near Blair if he could help it. He’d arrest the man again if he had to, FBI agent or not. Jim hit the third floor hallway and paused as he tried to orient himself. They were in a part of the building Jim didn't know well. Putting his hand on his weapon, Jim cast out his hearing to check for any backup teams.

“Exactly!” Blair shouted excitedly. His enthusiasm distracted Jim for a split second. As Jim closed in on the two of them, Blair was still talking enthusiastically. “Man, my mom was humiliated when I pointed out the guy was just stoned and his butt never left the ground. She totally lectured me. That is the only maternal lecture I think she ever gave me. She wasn’t that upset when she found Bobby Heifetz and me experimenting with our bodies behind the kitchens when I was eleven.”

“Every culture has its expectations.”

“Oh yeah! And man, my mom’s world was all about acceptance, even if you were talking to a total fruitcake.”

Josiah gave another of his dry chuckles. “Our parents were so concerned about condemning others that acceptance was the ultimate rebellion.”

“Yeah, but man, it did not leave me much to rebel against.” Blair laughed, but the sound was cut short as Jim turned the corner so that he was looking into a student lounge tucked between two offices. Jim was slightly out of breath, and he could feel his anger rising up like a tidal wave.

“Detective Ellison,” Josiah said with that same damn smug smile he’d had as the patrol officer had arrested him. Jim moved forward, his hands clenched into fists. “Listen, Sanchez, I don’t know what game you’re playing--”

“Whoa there,” Blair interrupted. Standing up, Blair held his hands out as if trying to hold Jim back. “I invited him up, Jim. He came and listened to part of one of my lectures, and I just thought some open communication might clear this up. He’s friends with Ezra back in Tucson.” Blair gave Jim a hard stare. Clearly Blair still cared about Jim reconnecting with this long-lost brother, but Jim never wanted to hear the name again.

“He’s a soldier with a background in covert ops,” Jim told Blair, but he stared at Josiah, daring him to deny it. Josiah just gazed back with that same annoyingly calm expression. It’d been a long time since Jim had such a strong desire to hit someone. “Do you normally invite trained killers to sit down for a chat?” Jim demanded. Maybe it made him a bad person, but Jim was glad to smell the slight sour stench of shame and hear Josiah’s heart pick up speed. The man might still look calm, but that barb had sunk home.

Blair crossed his arms. “Actually, sometimes I don’t invite them at all. Sometimes the trained killer comes into my office and slams me into a wall because he doesn’t like what I’m saying.” Blair glared at Jim. Even though Jim kept his poker face on, he could feel the shame as he remembered doing exactly that. "Man, you don't know Josiah, so back off."

Josiah stood and looked from Blair to Jim. "He is right about my past. I've never hidden that." Josiah pursed his lips and seemed to lose focus for a second. "However, every day I strive to rise above my mistakes."

Blair sighed and moved to Jim's side. Reaching out, he rested a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “Jim, I asked Josiah up here because I don’t think he’s a bad guy. And yeah, I’ve been spectacularly wrong on that before, but maybe you could talk to him before arresting him for loitering again.”

When Jim looked over, Josiah was just watching. “I doubt it would do much good since the FBI would probably just send another agent to bail him out.”

A flicker of shock danced across Josiah’s face so fast that Jim wasn’t sure he would have caught the micro expression without his Sentinel abilities.

“FBI?” Blair turned to Josiah with wide eyes. “Holy shit. You totally had me going. You’re FBI? Man, I usually spot them from a fucking mile away.”

“I don’t know what you’ve been told, detective, but I am not FBI,” Josiah said, his voice slow and carefully controlled--too carefully. They were treading on dangerously thin ice and Josiah was trying to not say too much. That implied that he knew things.

“You’re either an agent or an asset,” Jim said bluntly. Josiah’s pupils dilated and his heart went a little faster. Bingo.

“Actually, I’m neither one,” Josiah said. Now his heart was steady and the tiny tremors in the muscles along the eye quieted, suggesting he was telling the truth. Jim really hated this guy. There was something here, and either Jim hadn’t hit the exactly truth or this man had an ability to lie that was putting him on Jim’s 'most annoying' list.

“So, you claim to be friends with Ezra Standish, the FBI warns me away from your friend--a friend who has mysteriously avoided conviction on more crimes than I can even keep track of, you get bailed out by an FBI agent, you have almost no official records connected to either of your known names, and I should believe that all this is coincidence?” Jim pursed his lips and watched to see how Josiah would react to that.

Josiah smiled and straightened up. He was an incredibly tall man when he wasn't slumping over—tall and physically imposing. “Ezra is quite good at staying clear of trouble on his own, and if I don’t have records, that’s because I have chosen a simpler way of living. I freed myself from the illusion of belonging to this world and sought peace in the wider community of man.”

Jim hated the spiritual bullshit when Naomi was spouting it, and she was basically his mother-in-law; he sure as hell didn’t feel like taking it from Josiah Sanchez. “Skip the bullshit,” he suggested. “Ezra Standish was picked up for stalking a drug dealer. Either he’s working for the FBI and he got too close to his target or he’s the dumbest man in the world.”

“There could be some debate over that point,” Josiah said, nodding his head. “I tend to believe that Ezra is a good man, at least deep down in his heart, who makes questionable choices. But sometimes Ezra's goodness is buried a little deeper than most. Then again, I am not one to judge.” Josiah had the nerve to actually look amused at his own comments.

Jim, however, was not amused at all. This smelled like a fairly major criminal sting, and he wanted these players out of his city and away from his lover. “And you came all this way because I did a background search?” Jim demanded sarcastically.

Josiah shrugged. “Ezra is bothered by the idea of anyone looking into his past. Given that you’ve seen his arrest record, I’m sure you can appreciate that he has no love of authority.”

“And he sends you?”

“I am not likely to allow things to get…" Josiah tilted his head, "out of hand,” he concluded.

Blair snorted loudly enough that both of them looked over. “Man, if this is what happens when things aren’t out of hand--arrested for loitering, your cover blown, general suspicion and verbal poking between two people who are supposed to be on the same side--I do not want to see what your life looks like when things are going bad. Because this,” Blair gestured between the three of them, “is feeling pretty damn out of hand. If Jim is right, we’re totally on the same side.”

“Forget it, Chief,” Jim reached out and put a hand on Blair’s shoulder. “The FBI are always going to be arrogant jackasses. If you want to keep your cover, then leave,” Jim told Josiah. “I’m not going to show up in Tucson. I just want you the hell out of our life.”

Josiah studied them, looking from one to the other for long minutes. “Ezra would be more reassured if he knew why you were so curious,” he finally said.

“Ezra can die of curiosity for all I care,” Jim said coldly. He could feel Blair go stiff, but Jim wasn’t about to let a brother he’d never even met push his buttons. Soft footsteps in the hall hesitated, and Jim pulled Blair to the side so that their backs weren’t to the open archway to the hall.

Josiah stood, and Jim pulled Blair closer. Yeah, Blair would lecture him later, but it was worth it to get Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish out of his life forever. “Blair, I enjoyed our conversation.”

“Me, too. Hey, you have my email, right?”

Jim clenched his teeth.

“I do. I’ll convince JD or Buck to help me with the computer,” Josiah promised. He headed for the hall, stopping just as he reached the edge of the lounge. “Chris,” he said, clearly surprised. Jim’s spine stiffened as he recognized the name. Chris. Josiah had said that a ‘Chris’ had sent him to do surveillance on Jim and Blair. Well shit. Jim pressed Blair toward the wall and waited to see what new trouble this brought.



Chapter Five


“Josiah,” the new man answered with a tilt of his head toward them. Chris had a hard look to him. He took a step forward so he was standing in the entry to the lounge before he leaned against the wall. Even though he appeared to be uninterested in the room, his body was tight and his eyes never stopped traveling as he searched for something.

Josiah seemed to relax at the sight of this Chris, so Jim was guessing these two had worked together for some time—long enough to build trust. “I didn’t expect to see you up here," Josiah said.

Chris let his gaze linger on Jim. “Thought I’d see if you’d gotten lost. You were up here quite a while.”

Blair pulled away from Jim, shrugging off Jim’s hand so that Jim either had to physically restrain his partner or let him go. Jim let him go.

“Blair Sandburg,” Blair offered as he moved forward so that he was between Josiah and Chris. Jim’s hand moved toward his weapon. If Simon was wrong about these guys being FBI, or even worse, if these guys were dirty, Jim did not like having Blair in the middle.

“Chris Larabee,” Chris offered after a half-second pause. He was surprised. Good. If Blair kept these guys off-balance, they wouldn’t be as quick to act. Josiah moved to the side. At least Blair wasn’t between the guys now. Both of them were at least a half-foot taller than Blair and Jim just wanted to pull Blair back to his side.

“This is Jim Ellison.” Blair made the introduction with his usual cheerfulness, but Jim could hear the stress in his voice. Even Blair recognized that the odds were not in their favor at this point.

“Forget it, Chief,” Jim said. Reaching out, he caught Blair by the shoulder and pulled him back. “If the FBI doesn’t want to play nice, I’m more than okay with that.” Chris’ eyebrows went up and he looked over toward Josiah.

“The universe has, once again, conspired against you,” Josiah offered with a shrug, essentially confirming Jim's guess.

Chris sighed and managed to look even wearier than before.

“My captain recognized the person who picked Sanchez up as FBI,” Jim said before Larabee could go blaming his partner. “Like I told Sanchez, I don’t want to have anything to do with you or your operation, so feel free to pack up and leave town.”

“What should we tell Ezra?” Chris asked. He gave Jim a second look, and Jim bristled under the open curiosity.

“I don’t give a shit what you tell him.”

Blair put an elbow in Jim’s side, but he ignored it.

Chris nodded his head slowly. “So, you don’t want him to know you’re brothers?”

Blair sucked in a breath, but Jim just froze. He felt like time had slipped out of his control and everything just stopped. Shit. Most days, Jim only hated the fibbies, but today was one of those days when he went farther and truly loathed them.

“I don’t care what you tell him,” Jim said with a feigned indifference.

Chris nodded again, his movements slow and deliberate.

“Well, I certainly didn’t see that coming,” Josiah said. “God does appear to have a sense of humor. So, our Ezra has a brother.”

“That’s funny?” Blair asked. Jim tightened his hold on Blair. He really didn’t want to have this conversation. However, Blair never had been one for taking subtle hints--or even unsubtle ones. “Why’s that funny?”

Josiah seemed to think for a second. “Until Ezra came to Tucson, he seemed to lack roots, I suppose.”

“Yep,” Chris agreed. “Roots and any sense of responsibility.Seems like you inherited most of those.” Chris looked at Jim for a long time, and Jim realized that the man had been looking up Jim’s files even as Jim looked up Josiah. He was even more annoyed to realize that they’d gotten a lot more than he had. FBI requests trumped local law enforcement every single time.

“That’s kinda uncool to say if he's really your partner,” Blair said, his voice taking on a bit of a scolding tone. Chris Larabee looked surprised to get taken to task.

“I wouldn’t exactly call Ezra a partner,” Chris said slowly.

“An asset then?” Jim guessed. If Ezra wasn’t FBI, he might be a criminal they turned to work for them. Jim wasn’t sure which option horrified him more.

Chris gave a low chuckle and shook his head as if that was the most ridiculous and amusing thing he’d heard in a long time.

“Ezra would not call himself an asset to anyone except himself,” Josiah answered Jim, “which is particularly amusing considering that he is always there at our backs when the situation gets dangerous. He is one of those men with more goodness in him that he is willing to let the world see.”

Jim frowned as he tried to figure out exactly what the hell that meant.

“So, now that the cat’s out of the bag, maybe we can all talk without growling at each other. For example, maybe you could tell us why you came instead of Ezra himself," Blair said.

Chris scratched his neck and watched a professor unlock a storage room down farther down the hall. He wasn't a big talker. It was like he had to really plan out what he planned to say. “I doubt you’d get him away from the club for long enough to come up here.”

“And if he wanted to come, Vin would have sat on him,” Josiah answered. “Ezra is sometimes a little high-strung, and the idea that a detective was running background checks on him and his mother had him…” Josiah’s words trailed off.

"His mother," Jim said, his voice flat as he looked down at Blair. Jim knew for a fact that he had avoided including his mother in any searches, but Blair's face was turning a subtle shade of red.

"Ezra is a mite touchy when it comes to his mother," Chris said. That got another amused shake of the head out of Josiah.

“Wound tighter than a tick, you mean," Josiah commented. "He is not in touch with his inner balance. He would have cursed you out in two minutes and been arrested inside three."

"At least Josiah here got to five minutes before getting arrested.” Chris and Josiah shared an amused look, the sort that Jim recognized from any one of a dozen military and police units he'd worked in. These two were long-term partners.

“Well, you can tell him that my curiosity is satisfied and he doesn’t have to worry about me ruining whatever setup he has with you guys,” Jim said firmly.

Josiah looked like he might have something to say about that, but Chris nodded and pushed away from the wall. “Fair enough,” he said. “Josiah, we have a plane to catch.”

"Jim, you're letting them leave?" Blair demanded.

"Yep," Jim agreed. Josiah paused, but when Jim didn't add anything, he left, following Chris down the hall. Josiah was the older partner, but Chris definitely had the rank. "Let's go see Jack."

"Jack?" Blair frowned. "Jack Kelso? You had Jack Kelso check into them? Oh man, that is so not playing fair."

"Chris Larabee checked my background, including finding out that Ezra Standish is my brother. I'd like to know how he did that."

Blair snorted as Jim herded him out of the room toward Kelso's office. "That might have worked, only you called Kelso before you found out that Chris did that."

"Call it a preemptive strike."

"I’d rather call it manipulative."


"Yeah, yeah, keep telling yourself that, Ellison. If these guys are Ezra's friends, you are so totally destroying any chance of having a relationship with your brother."

"You're assuming I care," Jim pointed out.

Blair reached out and caught his arm and pulled Jim to a stop. "Man, I know you do. He's your brother."

Blair looked up at him with dark blue eyes full of concern. Jim wanted to deny it. He wanted to say that he didn't care if Ezra Standish fell off the face of the fucking earth, and there was a part of him that didn't. However, this little nagging voice wouldn't let him totally dismiss this new sibling, and the voice sounded a lot like his mother.

When his parents brought Steven home, Jim had rebelled in his five-year old way. He'd dropped grape juice on the carpet of his father's den and he'd left a big pile of his fishing worms on the table where his mother had changed the baby. Jim remembered his mother calling him in and going down on one knee to smooth his hair back from his face.

"Honey, I know this is hard."

"I hate him." Jim had scowled at the squirming pile of brother that everyone kept cooing over.

"No, you're jealous of him," his mother had corrected him. She pulled a blanket down off the chair and spread it out on the floor before putting Steven in the middle of blanket. He'd just stuck all his arms and legs up in the air and squirmed like an overturned beetle. Then his mother had pulled Jim into her lap. "Honey, there is nothing wrong with being jealous. Jealous just tells you that you want something. And once you know what you want, then you know what you need to do. So, what do you want?"

Jim had laid his head on his mother's chest and looked at this horrible little brother. "I want you to love me," he finally confessed in a small whisper. He'd felt horrible as he'd looked at his brother with all this childish hate and felt so totally unloved. His mother's arms had wrapped around him as she laughed.

"You silly. I will always love you best. You're my big boy." Her arms had held him so tight that Jim believed her. He'd clung to her wanted to believe that she would always love him best. "Steven is going to love you to, just as soon as he's old enough to know what it means to have a big brother. The world is a cold place, James. People out there will always want what you have, but brothers stick together. You're going to protect your brother from getting hurt, and when he gets big enough, he will always protect you. Family is all we have. You never trust anyone who isn't family. Promise me that, James."

Jim had agreed. At five years old, he'd promised to never trust anyone because he'd wanted his mother's love just that much. Ironically, it turned out that you had to worry about family betraying you a lot more than you had to worry about friends.

Blinking away that memory, Jim reached out and pulled Blair close. "Chief, I don't want to care about this brother." For a second, they just stood in the hall holding each other, and Jim marveled at having found a partner who gave his own strength so freely and easily. After long seconds, Jim gave Blair a little push and aimed them toward Kelso's office, a hand still on Blair's shoulder.

Blair sighed. "Your family did a total number on you, didn't they?" Blair asked eventually. He never could stand the silence.

"Would you be talking about the mother who put me in the middle of her fights with my father before she abandoned me or the father who turned me against my brother?" Jim asked. He wondered how differently his life would have turned out if his mother had stayed around. She'd called not long before his wedding to Caro. His father had told him that she'd gone into a convent and taken the name Mary Margaret, but his father had taken it on himself to make it clear that she wasn't welcome at the wedding, and Jim had never bothered to contradict his father. He didn't want to open this can of worms.

"And you complain about Naomi."

"At least my father didn't dump me at some friend's house while he went out of country."

"I thought we were complaining about your mother issues, not mine," Blair said. They stopped outside Kelso's office.

"We have enough issues for us both to do a little wallowing," Jim admitted. There wasn't another person on the face of the planet he would admit that to, but Blair was his partner—the one person he did trust. Blair had given up his dissertation and changed the topic to minority interactions with police just because Jim had admitted that the dissertation on Sentinels scared him. Jim had never had someone react to his needs like that—he'd never had a lover who reacted without artifice or manipulation. The man had earned a little honesty.

Blair knocked at the door. "Yeah, well, you got to see me fall apart when Naomi was less than enthusiastic about the two of us. Man, I did not think she knew that many curse words. So it's your turn to have your total emotional meltdown."

"Just don't expect tears," Jim said. He didn't have a problem with Blair crying over his mother's reaction, but he wasn't going to cry over a mother that left him decades ago or a brother he'd never known. Blair shot him one sharp look and then Jack swung the door open.

"Blair!" Jack Kelso said with delight in his voice. "And Jim. I should have known to expect you two. Come in." Jack rolled backwards, inviting them into his office.

"Hey Jack, thank you so much for helping Jim out, even if he is just being paranoid." Blair headed into the office and dropped down into one of the chairs. Jim headed for the other one.

"I'm not so sure it's paranoia," Jack said. Jim cocked his head and studied the man. He'd found something. The stress tones in his voice were making the hairs on the back of Jim's neck stand up.

"What did you find?"

"Josiah Sanchez is in the middle of a whole lot of trouble down in Tucson. He was involved in a bust of a kidnap and blackmail ring. The report says they kidnapped him because he was making trouble, but he broke two men's necks with his feet, and the report doesn't make any sense. A bounty hunter supposedly stumbled on the house when tracking a bounty."

"Isn't that what bounty hunters are supposed to do… track bounties?" Blair asked.

"Yes…." Jack said it slowly. "Only this bounty hunter, Buck Wilmington, has a long history with Josiah. He volunteers in the man's soup kitchen, files his taxes for him, and just about every bounty that turns ugly, Josiah somehow turns up in the middle of the fight. And he has more than a few gunfights on his record. Normally, a bounty hunter who resorted to his weapon this often would lose his license." Jack slid a folder over the desk, and Jim opened it. There were close to a dozen reported cases of Buck Wilmington having gunfights in the city limits, and most of them had Josiah listed somewhere in the police report. Chris Larabee, J.D. Dunne, Ezra Standish, and Vin Tanner were all frequent flyers in the police reports with a Nathan Jackson showing up in a couple of them.

"Chris Larabee is FBI," Jim said. Tucson might be the Wild West, but Jim could not imagine a city where FBI was allowed to set up shop and just get in gunfights in the middle of town… not without getting forcefully invited to leave by the local law enforcement.

"Is he?" Jack leaned forward. "I haven't had a chance to do much digging into the players on the periphery, but I have to say, Buck and Josiah have interesting backgrounds. Josiah is military, decorated for meritorious service four times. And the first group he helped when he returned to the states was Vietnamese refugees."

"Really?" Jim leaned back and studied the file more carefully. He had to admit that he sometimes got uncomfortable being around too many people who spoke Spanish. The tribe in Peru had spoken Quechan, so his brain sometimes associated Spanish with soldiers who wanted him dead. Jim tried his best to quash that kneejerk reaction, but he couldn't imagine coming out of a war zone and immediately working with people who reminded him of the horrors. And Jim didn't go through half as much as the covert ops guys in Vietnam.

"Really," Jack agreed. "He also came home from war and embraced Buddhism."

"He went native," Jim said quietly. It made sense that he'd gone native with some South Vietnamese group. "But that doesn't explain why he ends up in the middle of gun fights with this bounty hunter."

"Man, if he's Buddhist, he shouldn't be touching a gun," Blair agreed. "But then he said that he had enough flaws that he worried more about his own soul than others'."

"You talked to him?" Jack's voice sounded shocked, and he looked over toward Jim. Jim could only shrug. He'd given up an illusion that he could control Blair a long time ago. Blair might bend over backwards to do things for Jim—like give up the Sentinel dissertation—but if Jim told him to do something, Blair would do the exact opposite.

Blair rolled his eyes. "He's a good man."

"Who gets in gunfights and breaks men's necks even with his hands tied behind his back," Jack pointed out. Jim looked over to Blair to see if this was making any kind of impression on him, but Blair was shaking his head.

"No way am I okay with killing, but after riding with Jim for three years, I have to admit there are times when it is you or the bad guys, and I am even less okay with dying."

"Here's the really weird part," Jack said.

"I thought that was the weird part." Jim flipped through several more pages.

"Not even close. The incident where Josiah was kidnapped only to kill two of the assailants—the report lists a police officer as being shot in the line of duty."

"Oh man, those were seriously stupid criminals," Blair muttered. Jim agreed. Shooting a cop brought the weight of the entire city down on you.

"Yes, but no one was ever charged with attempted murder, and I can't find which police officer was shot. I even had a friend look into long-term leave to see who might have taken time off after the incident, and no names turned up."

Blair frowned. "They lied about a cop being shot?"

"Or they had a cop in so deep undercover that they couldn't compromise his cover," Jim said.

"That would explain why this record was under a judicial seal," Kelso agreed. "It wasn't easy to get ahold of."

"Oh man, your brother's a cop?" Blair asked. "What are the odds?"

Jim knew exactly what Blair was thinking—if Ezra was driven to become a police officer, one who worked a dangerous undercover operation, he might be acting on Sentinel instincts.

"Brother?" Jack looked from one of them to another. "Now I understand why you didn't use department resources." Rolling out from behind his desk, Kelso headed for the door. "I think I'm going to give you two some time to talk."

Jim tried to come up with some excuse to keep Jack from leaving because he really didn't want to be alone in a room with Blair. The man was going to try and browbeat him into going to Tucson, and Jim just did not like his odds. He eyed his partner, wondering if he could just stuff a sock in Blair's mouth. Jack headed out the door, closing it behind him.

"Ellison, do not give me that look," Blair said, crossing his arms.

"What look?" Jim asked.

Blair snorted. "Yeah, well this is Blair Sandburg the researcher saying that we need to check on your brother. He's a cop. Man, if he has the territorial imperative to protect the territory, he may be a Sentinel, and there is no way I am leaving a Sentinel to suffer alone. I mean, you remember what it was like when you were coming online and you had no idea what was happening with your body."

Jim got up and headed for the door. Behind him, Blair scrambled to get his legs uncrossed and get out of the chair without falling.

"Are we going to talk about this?"

"Nope," Jim said. As he opened the door, he saw Blair with his mouth hanging open. "But don't expect me to be happy, and if he's not a Sentinel, we're on the next plane back here."

Blair’s mouth fell open. "Wait… we're going?"

Jim clenched his teeth and glared at his partner. Unfortunately, Blair was still grinning like a loon as they left Jack's office.



Chapter 6

Players Only was the sort of place Jim wouldn't have given a second look when he worked Vice. The front was freshly painted and cigarette butts littered the ground. Tiny hoses run under the wide porch misted customers with a cool vapor that evaporated almost immediately in the hot desert air and cars half-filled the parking lot, even though the hour was early. However, there weren't the gang tags that would have announced whose territory this was. There weren't any crack pipes or little baggies thrown away in corners. There weren't any hookers lounging on the corner looking to find a five-minute customer. In short, the place looked legit. Even the cool breeze that drifted out the doors when a customer opened them smelled of booze and cigarettes, but not gunpowder or pot or the sour stench of aggression.

"Well?" Blair asked quietly.

"We sit in the corner and you do your tests. Nothing else," Jim warned. He didn't really want to meet his brother, but if there was a chance Ezra was a Sentinel, he deserved to have the answers Jim didn't get until Blair had shown up in his life.

"Oh man… I promised about a million times that I wouldn't try and play matchmaker. What? Do you want a blood oath?"

Jim looked Blair up and down as if considering it. Rolling his eyes, Blair planted an elbow in Jim's side before pushing past and heading into the bar. Jim followed.

The inside was starting to show a little wear. The brass fixtures had some spots rubbed dull and the pattern on the carpet was fading. The chairs had bald patches where the varnish had worn away leaving pale wood to peek through. But the pool tables were in good condition, eight of them lined up with their green felt. Each had a small group of men around it, and from the sounds, more than one serious bet was getting placed the winners on a couple of the tables. Given the amount of illegal gambling going on, maybe Jim would have had an interest in the place back during his vice days.

"There he is," Blair whispered, his excitement coming through even though he was trying to be quiet. Jim didn't react as he continued to scan the room. However, he spotted Ezra right away. He was sitting playing cards with three other men, his expression carefully neutral. The table had chips on it, but once Jim piggybacked scent onto sight, he could focus in on the men and smell their excitement. One man was sour with fear, but the others were lost in the sort of adrenaline rush only real gambling provided. At the end of the day, they were going to change those plastic chips in for money, which would be where the crime came in.

"Let's get a table," Jim suggested, guiding Blair with a hand under his elbow. He wanted something in a quiet corner where he could watch the door to the kitchen and the front door. The men in this place didn't look like the sort to start trouble, but looks—and even smells—could be deceiving.

"Man, this place is great. The vibe in here is like… whoa."

"These are serious gamblers, Chief. They aren't coming here to get drunk and dance." Most of the customers were men, and the only jukebox was not only silent but unplugged. There was a young man in the corner strumming on a guitar and laughing with a friend who was downing his beer at a pretty fair clip, but they were the exception. Besides a few people getting happily drunk at the bar, this place really was for players only. Anyone who walked in here was going to figure out pretty quick that this wasn't a place that welcomed shit-faced drunks making trouble. These guys wouldn't give the law an excuse to come in here, and they were being careful enough that a casual customer wouldn't notice the heavy gambling going on in the corners.

"I'll get the beers," Blair offered, and his hand slipped into his jeans where he had the materials for his test set up. Jim nodded and settled back into a chair to watch. Threading his way through the tables, Blair nodded to a half dozen customers, bobbing his head in time with the guitar player. That got him a bright smile from the kid playing, and Jim had an urge to go over and card him. However, just from the way everyone was being so careful about not giving any probable cause for suspicion, he was guessing that the kid was either older than he looked or drinking Coke. If this was a cover for an undercover officer, they were going after a damn big fish. Jim never got the green light to overlook much less participate in this much illegal activity when he was undercover. Then again, Jim wasn't a feeb.

Blair was at the bar a little longer than necessary, chatting with the bartender, his head still bobbing enthusiastically enough to make his curls do a little dance. The bartender gave him two beers in old fashioned mugs, and Blair was still talking to him, drinking his beer between words. Jim could have eavesdropped, but he chose to focus his hearing elsewhere. Despite scanning in every direction, Jim couldn't catch any hint of hidden rooms or backroom gambling. The small machine in the car producing asymmetrical rhythms might be throwing off his accuracy, though. God knows it was annoying the shit out of him. Jim dialed down hearing and focused more on smell. He could identify more than one source of gun oil, but Jim had smelled that on a good quarter of the population. Arizona had to be one giant NRA stronghold because he'd spotted more people carrying guns in one day than he normally spotted in a month back in Cascade. As a cop, he didn't like the odds of making a simple traffic stop or answering a domestic dispute call with so damn many guns in circulation, but luckily, he wasn't a cop here.

Blair finally finished at the bar, and gathering up both beers in one hand, he started back toward the table. Jim focused his hearing on his partner. Sure enough, Blair wound his way around toward Ezra. This might be part of the plan, but Jim's guts tensed at the idea of what Blair might say.

"Hey, great place here. Sam says you own the place."

Ezra looked up, surprised at the interruption. "Yes, well I appreciate the offer of good will, but as you see, I am in the middle of a hand here."

"Yeah, that's cool. I just wanted to say that this place is awesome. Totally awesome." Blair was nodded and backing away from the table.

"I will file that adulation away for a day when I feel a need for affirmation," Ezra said, his eyes already going back to his poker partners. Jim knew one thing: his brother was an ass. His brother was an over-educated, heartless ass because no one ignored one of Blair's friendly overtures. Without losing his smile, Blair just nodded and headed for Jim's table.

He put the beer down in front of Jim and slid into one of the open chairs.

"I don't like him," Jim said.

That earned him a snort and an eyeroll from Blair. "Man, you don't know him."

"I know how he just talked to you."

"You don't know the hand he was holding. If I was holding aces over jacks, I'd tell me to go fuck off."

Jim gave Blair a cold look.

"Not that I'm defending him because clearly you need someone to affirm your right to unreasonable sibling rivalry." Blair's tone made it entirely too clear what he thought of that.

"Why is it that you were nicer to me before we started having sex?"

"Because now I know you'll forgive me anything if I shake my ass at you," Blair pointed out. Jim could feel a smile tugging at his lips.

"You have a high opinion of your ass."

"You have no idea. My ass can stop wars. Entire wars, man. It's just that good. If I had been in Vietnam, I could have shimmied my way through a belly dance, and the two sides would have declared peace."

Jim couldn't hold back the smile that slipped free. And then Blair was smiling at him, and Jim could feel his aggravation sliding away. "You dork."

"Do not get me started on the etymology and mythology of that word."

Jim retaliated by reaching over and tugging at a curl, and Blair's smile got wider. Jim might have gone for the full noogie, but something caught his eye. He pulled his hand back and wrapped it around his beer as he gave a small nod in Ezra's general direction. Blair's eyes went right there.

At the table, Ezra was wiping his hands on his pants, over and over. The expression on his face was almost amusing in its annoyance, and he finally threw his cards down on the table and got up.

"No way could someone feel those microspores without hypersensitive touch," Blair whispered, "especially when I could only drop about half of them. I did not expect to get brushed off that fast."

"Well, he feels them," Jim said with a sigh. The microspores had felt like harsh sand rubbing into his skin when Blair had tested them on him, and from Ezra's expression, he was feeling the same way.

"Totally," Blair agreed. "That's one down. When he gets to the bar, we'll see if he has scent."

"If he can't smell that fish oil, he's got a dead nose," Jim pointed out. It hardly took a Sentinel to smell that shit.

Blair looked at him oddly.

"What?" Jim asked a little defensively.

"Man, you need to dial down scent because I couldn't smell the stuff when I was right there at the bar."

Jim blinked and concentrated on himself for a second. Sure enough, his sense of smell was far too high. He had to concentrate to move it back down, and then the relief from the stink of bodies and gun oil and pool chalk just about made him sag.

"Oh yeah, you're not emotionally invested in this. Not at all," Blair said as he drank his own beer.

"Don't go there, Shorty."

"Okay, that whole warning tone has totally lost its effectiveness. You use that tone for everything from suitcases of nuclear materials to the last slice of pizza, so I’ve pretty much learned to ignore it."

Jim ran a hand over his face. "When did you turn into such an annoying little shit?"

"Day two of you knowing me.I would have been annoying the first day, only I was too busy impersonating a doctor and illegally accessing your medical files." He gave Jim a wicked smile before taking a drink of his beer.

That was true. Jim watched as Ezra headed behind the bar to wash his hands at the sink. "You really should find something that doesn't stick to everything like that shit."

"I needed to find out fast. That stuff… no one without enhanced senses can feel it, but you guys with the extra special touchy-feely going… you all hate it."

Jim looked over at Blair. "How many people did you find with enhanced touch?"

"Not as many as with enhanced taste. That was the most common, but touch came in second with eyesight third. My guess is that enhanced smell would be less and less common because industrialization stinks. Seriously stinks. Enhanced smell would probably be more disadvantage than advantage."

"Pre-industrialization probably stunk worse," Jim pointed out as he thought about having to navigate a city full of horses and their shit. Ezra was turning his head from side to side now, clearly searching for something.

"Not if you weren't in the city. Most documented cases of enhanced smell come from rural or undeveloped areas. I mean, if you think about it, a lot of people with enhanced senses can't turn them off. A taster is going to have that sense when trying to identify spices in a competitor's food, but they're also going to have it when they go home and the wife or husband burns the stew. They can choose to just not eat the stuff. But how do you handle enhanced smell if you can't control it? And man, of all the people I tested, the ones with fewer than five senses had no control over it. None. They were just stuck with the dial on seven or eight or nine, and they had to learn to live with it. The senses may be natural, but no way are they easy to live with."

Jim thought about what it would mean to have just one or two senses and to be stuck with them wide open all the time. He preferred his control.

"Whoa, he smells that," Blair whispered.

Jim frowned. "And if he has enhanced hearing, he's caught every word of this."

"Totally," Blair agreed with a happy nod. Jim groaned as he realized that Blair had been giving his mini-Sentinel lecture for Ezra. "But so far, he's not reacting at all. I don't know whether he doesn't have enhanced hearing or if he's just dialed down."

Clenching his jaw, Jim bit down on an urge to rip Blair a new asshole. If Ezra was a Sentinel, that didn't mean Jim wanted to meet him and compare notes. Right now, he pretty much hated Ezra, so discussing something as personal as his senses was not going to happen.

"Oh man, check it out," Blair whispered. Ezra had a bar towel and he was furiously wiping down the bar near where Blair had been standing. "Two senses are definitely checked off: touch and smell. So, time to check for hearing. Are you dialed down?" Blair rested his hand on Jim's arm.

Jim nodded. "Go for it, Chief."

Blair reached into his pocket for the long-distance remote and triggered it. Even dialed down, Jim jumped as the background noise of the asymmetrical drums that had been playing for half an hour suddenly went wild. According to Blair, the modified recording had all sound shifted into the ultra-low range so that no one else could hear it, but Jim felt like a marching band took up residence in his skull.

"Not even a twitch," Blair said sadly.

"Then maybe you could turn that crap down," Jim suggested.

"Oh. Sorry." Blair hit the remote and the percussion faded, leaving only an echo in Jim's head. "So, we have two senses, so either he doesn't have the full Sentinel genetic code, or he's a Sentinel with damaged hearing."

"A hard of hearing Sentinel?" Jim just looked at Blair.

"Hey, deafness is the only disability on the rise. If he stood too near a bomb going off, that alone could have damaged his hearing."

"A bomb? What are the odds of that?"

"I don't know. If his luck is anything like yours, he's been near several," Blair pointed out. "But without cooking for him, taste is going to be a hard one to test."

"Heads up," Jim said as a new man walked in the bar. Chris Larabee looked just as wary walking into the Players Only as he'd looked walking into the middle of the conversation with Jim and Blair and Josiah. He had the sort of hyper vigilance that Jim associated with soldiers or cops who had been under far too long, but he covered it with slow, even sluggish gestures that made him look supremely unconcerned about anything.

"Aw fuck. So much for subtle." Blair slumped down in his seat a little, but Jim didn't bother. Chris was going to spot them whether they tried to hide or not. Sure enough, Chris ambled toward them, his thumb hooked in his belt. Jim suspected that he had a weapon at the small of his back. Either Chris really didn't trust them or he was just in the habit of keeping a hand near his gun. Either option said something about his life.

"Ellison, Sandburg," Chris greeted them, an almost amused look on his face. "Fancy seeing you here."

"We were just in town," Jim said, taking a drink of beer.

"You're in my seat."

"It didn't have your name on it," Jim retorted.

Chris shrugged and pulled out the chair opposite Blair and sat down next to Jim. "Doesn't need my name. About everyone in here knows my table."

Jim didn't bother to answer as he took another drink of his beer. Blair had that fascinated expression on his face, like when he watched some documentary about spear-shaking tribesman, and Jim sighed at the realization that Blair had slipped into that role of observer. When he'd first met Blair, he'd really been offended at the idea that Blair considered him a test subject first and a friend second. These days it was easier for him to see that Blair just considered the world one huge anthropological puzzle. Even if he was Blair's friend and lover first, Blair just couldn't turn off that scientific brain of his.

"Hey, Chris!" a man called out. It was the one who had been sitting with the guitar-strumming boy. He was heading toward them, the boy in tow. Now that he was facing Jim, Jim was guessing the boy's age at eighteen or nineteen. He was starting to lose the lankiness of adolescence, but he hadn't yet lost that baby-faced roundness to his face. Then again, the other man, who was clearly in his thirties, had a bit of the baby-face to him as well. Maybe the huge smile on his face just gave him the impression of being young despite the small wrinkles beginning to appear at the corners of his eyes. Both men were dark haired and dark eyed, so Jim was guessing brothers—cousins maybe.

"Buck, J.D.," Chris greeted them. He tilted his head their way and got an honest warmth in his voice, even if he wasn't all that demonstrative. Buck. Jim recalled that a Carl "Buck" Wilmington was Josiah's closest friend as near as Jim could tell from the paperwork. He was the bounty hunter with the bad habit of shooting first and taking names later. The research Jim had read really didn't match this man with a smile as wide as his face.

"Who are your friends?" the younger one asked.

"Buck Wilmington, J.D. Dunne—these are Jim and Blair," Chris introduced them.

"Jim and Blair?" Buck swung a chair around and straddled it before giving a long, low whistle. "Jim Ellison? Oh yeah Chris, you handled that real well. Remind me to not have you get involved if I have any long lost brothers pop out of the woodwork."

Jim just about choked on his beer as his spine went ramrod straight.

"Wow. You're Ezra's brother," J.D. said, his eyes going big as he pulled a chair away from another table and plopped down near Buck.

Carefully putting his beer down before he could throw it at someone, Jim turned on Chris. "Larabee?" he asked darkly.

"You said to not tell Ezra. I haven't," Chris said without a trace of apology.

"Secrets don't last too long around this place," Buck said. "It just seemed reasonable for us to know just in case you showed up. Normally, people looking too hard at one of us leads to shooting, and it'd be a shame if we mistook your interest in our Ezra."

"You're threatening me?" Jim was about ready to grab Blair and get the hell out of Dodge.

"Seems like that was him promising to not threaten you," J.D. offered. "Buck isn't one for threats… not unless people are harassing women. Then he gets a little irrational." He smiled at Buck.

"He was asking for it," Buck snapped, so obviously they were talking about a real case. "She was a special case."

"All the women are special cases for you," Chris interrupted.

"Damn right," Buck agreed, his smile getting even wider as he leaned back.

Blair's fingers twitched like he wanted to take notes on the interaction. J.D. stuck his hand out toward Blair. "Hi, I'm J.D. I help Buck out with the skip tracing and bounty hunting when I'm not cleaning Ezra's floor. I'd give up cleaning floors for a living, but Ezra pays better than Buck, and that ain't saying much."

"You get paid when I do," Buck defended himself without looking too upset.

Blair shook hands, his own smile in place. "Wow. That has to be exciting work."

"The floor cleaning or the bounty hunting?" J.D. asked with a laugh. "Buck's good to train me, though. It's more than I expected to be doing with my grades in high school. So, I know Jim here's a detective. What do you do?"

Blair seemed a little surprised to get the verbal attack aimed at him. Usually he was the one throwing the words around as he distracted others. Jim wondered if J.D. was intentionally trying to get them off guard or if he really was as young as he seemed. Blair shrugged. "I'm doing a dissertation on how the police interact with minorities, and Jim got stuck babysitting me, I guess."

Buck gave another long whistle. "Dissertation? Wow. That means you're going to be Dr. Sandburg here soon, I suppose."

"Hopefully," Blair said with a laugh.

Buck leaned back, his arms draped over the back of the chair. "So, why are you down here? It's not that we don't have a whole heap of minorities, but I daresay the cops aren't going to roll out the red carpet for anyone who's interested in how they interact with them."

"He's my partner," Jim said quickly, his glare daring Buck to make something out of it.

"I didn't know you could partner up with a cop without being a cop," J.D. said with that same wide smile. Buck's eyebrows went up a bit, but he didn't look particularly shocked or upset.

"Wrong kind of partner, J.D.," Chris offered. "I think he means something more personal."

"Oh." J.D. slowly turned a violent shade of red. "Geez. Got it."

Buck burst out laughing—a big belly laugh that made him grab the back of the chair before he could fall out of it. Most of the men in the place turned to check out the disturbance, and J.D.'s face turned even redder. Even Chris managed to find a small smile.

"I didn't—" J.D. stopped and just glared at Buck.

"Subtle, kid," Buck offered, patting J.D. on the back to soften the insult, but instead of being insulted, J.D. just sighed.

"He's my partner at work and at home," Jim corrected them with a glare for all three men. Chris just looked right back at him without blinking.

"Well, that explains why he's tagging along with the attitude here," Buck said, his laughter down to a quiet chuckle as he poked a thumb in Jim's direction. "Jim, are you sure you're not related Chris maybe? You two have the matching glares down."

Jim had a scathing retort, but he completely lost it when Ezra came walking up to the table with drinks in hand. "If you reprobates are chasing off my paying customers, I'm going to start charging you for these," he said as he sat beers down in front of Chris and Buck.

"Where's mine?" J.D. asked, the color starting to leave his face as soon as the topic changed.

"Where's your legal and valid identification stating that you're twenty one?" Ezra demanded. He pulled a chair from one of the other tables and set it between J.D. and Blair. Jim's brain couldn't come up with an excuse fast enough, and Blair scooted over to make more room so that Ezra could have a seat.

"You cut it into pieces," J.D. complained.

"That was neither legal nor valid. Even worse, it was a poor excuse of a forgery. If one is going to forge identification, it pays to invest in a reputable artist… or a disreputable artist with talent." Ezra turned toward them, and Jim could feel his guts curl into a small ball. "Ezra Standish. As your friend surmised, I am the owner and manager of the Players Only."

Feeling like he was trapped in a bad dream, Jim reached out and shook the man's hand without offering a name in return. Blair solemnly did the same, his gaze sliding back toward Jim several times. Jim could practically hear Blair telling him to just fucking introduce himself, but he kept silent.

"Ezra, this is Jim…. He was in the Rangers," Chris offered. "And his… friend."

Ezra seemed to just stare at Chris longer than he really needed to. Eventually he let his eyes drift half-shut as he shook his head in an exaggerated form of disappointment. "I often wonder about your manners, Chris Larabee."

"My momma was fine with them."

Ezra's expression turned pinched. Turning toward Jim and Blair, he got a much more pleasant expression on his face. "No matter what idiotic things these three cretins have managed to say in the space of five minutes, Players Only is open to everyone. And if someone is making a joke out of others' sexuality, I'm sure I could find a sewer line that needs to be snaked." Ezra gave Buck and J.D. a glare cold enough that Simon Banks or William Ellison would have been proud.

Jim wasn't sure exactly how he was supposed to feel about having a brother defend his right to be gay. His father had tried to accept it, but that acceptance had come with awkward pauses and even more awkward questions. Not even Blair with his silver tongue had been able to smooth things over when they'd tried the family dinner thing. Steven had just avoided Jim and his sexuality. Hell, even Naomi had thrown a fit, although in her case it had a lot less to do with sexuality and a lot more to do with Blair losing himself in Jim's shadow. Jim still wasn't sure if she was more upset about Blair pulling the plug on the Sentinel dissertation or his work with the 'pigs', but she had gone up like Mount St. Naomi ready to wipe out entire villages unlucky enough to be in her path. And here was Ezra Standish, a man who was looking more and more like a criminal asset being worked by the FBI, and he was defending Jim's right to be gay. The universe clearly needed a good laugh today, and Jim was the butt of the joke.

"I think they were laughing more at J.D.'s reaction than us," Blair said. "And hey, when you're young, the world can totally catch you by surprise. My mom was a big fan of communes and this one time, she took us to a place where they had this wild set of beliefs. It was like this blend of totemism and animism and personal empowerment and everyone spent one hour a day channeling their inner spirit animal. So here I am, a kid in the middle of all these adults who are crawling around on the floor mooing and growling. Wild. Absolutely wild. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, you know?" Blair's hands were going, and Ezra had the wide-eyed expression of shock that people often got when first confronted with Blair's ability to distract, but it gave Jim time to collect his wits.

"Blair, it's about time for us to head back to the hotel and meet Cameron," Jim said, offering up the first name that came to mind.

"Oh, yeah. Totally. I guess you guys are going to have to do your soldier reminiscing thing later, huh?" Blair looked over at Chris as if disappointed. "Man, I am so sorry we got our timing wrong. I'm sure you have lots of great stories. I would love to hear them some time. Really love." He got up and stood close enough to Jim that Jim could feel the heat of him.

Buck stood up. "If Chris won't share those stories, I will. Chris was my corporal, always trying to keep my ass out of trouble with the sergeant."

"And I usually failed," Chris said, standing up as well. "Jim, I hope we have a chance to share those stories."

Jim frowned, surprised at the emotion he could see behind the words. Chris wanted him to come back, and Jim wasn't sure how he felt about that. Ezra wasn't the ass Jim had thought at first—at least not totally; however, Jim wasn't ready for any family reunions. This was about Blair getting his data and making sure that Ezra wasn't suffering with the senses.

"We'll see," Jim said. Chris gave him a nod and then backed away so Jim could get out of the corner. When Jim had picked that table, he really hadn't been expecting to have so many men crowd in around him. With a nod for the men still gathered around the table, Jim rested his hand on the small of Blair's back and hurried them out of the Players Only.

"Whoa." Blair breathed the word only once they were out in the parking lot with the heat rising at them from the blacktop.

"Yep," Jim agreed, fishing in his pocket for the keys.

"Man, are you okay?"

"Not even close," Jim admitted.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Jim paused before answering. "Not right now, Chief. Later, okay?"

"Yeah, no problem," Blair agreed, and then the man who could talk a mile a minute fell silent and they went out to the rental car in silence.





Chapter 7

Jim lay in bed with the faint first light of morning cutting through the air where the curtains weren't pulled all the way shut. Motes of dust hovered in the light, and Jim watched the slow dance. His brother. Jim didn't even know how he was supposed to feel, much less how he did.

Blair shifted in bed, rolling over and throwing an arm over Jim's waist without waking up. Jim brought his own hand down and laid it on Blair's forearm. He'd always had difficult relationships with men, and Jim had enough psychology credits to know it came from his history with his father and brother. William Ellison was such a firm believer in capitalism and competition that he honestly thought that Jim would be a better man if he felt an endless need to beat his brother. Steven had soaked in more of that lesson than Jim. Even after his mother had left, Jim had tried to be the kind of man his mother wanted him to be.

When Steven had broken his toys and dropped caramel sauce on Jim's baseball glove, Jim kept telling himself that one day Steven would grow up to be his best friend. His mother had promised him that, and Jim wanted so much to believe her. After all, it had been his mother that sat in his bed and read stories late into the night. Sometimes Jim had gone to school so tired that he'd doze through class, something that always got him in trouble with teachers and his father, but it was worth it. On those nights when his mother sat and read him Tom Sawyer, using different voices for the different characters, on those nights Jim felt like he was the center of her world. He'd take all the groundings and spankings in the world to get that time with his mother. So, long after she disappeared, Jim had believed she would come back, that she'd show up at school and whisk him away to some adventure that his father would disapprove of.

Instead, she was off having another son. She'd raised this Ezra, taught him to be the sort of asshole that didn't love Blair at first sight, taught him to respect others' choices in lovers, taught him to dress like a model out of a fancy magazine while Jim put white socks with black shoes. Ezra seemed to have a love for designer suits that rivaled Rafe's, and that was pure Grace Ellison.

"Sweetie, having a good inside is fine," Grace said as she carefully lifted her gown so she could go to one knee without getting the delicate blue fabric dirty. Jim must have been five or six at the time. "But if people look at your outside and make a judgment about you, they'll never get to know the real you." She had her blonde hair swept up and she sparkled so that Jim had brought his fingers up to touch her brilliant necklace. She'd laughed. "That's my son… always go for the diamonds. Colored gemstones are entirely too ostentatious. Diamonds are classic and dignified."

Jim could unroll the memory like a little treasure and remember her soft finger stroking his cheek, the musk and fruit of her perfume, the beading sewn into the top of her evening gown.

"Make an impression, James, always make an impression."

Blinking away the Sentinel-sharp memory, Jim wondered what other lessons she'd taught Ezra. The discomfort and disinterest he'd felt for his brother earlier was quickly turning to dislike. Jim knew that it was unreasonable to resent Ezra when the man hadn't had a choice. He certainly couldn't have, as a baby, told his mother to go back to her first family. Jim doubted that Grace Ellison or Maude Standish--or whatever she was calling herself now--had ever admitted to having two sons that she'd abandoned to a man who had the emotional depth of a goldfish.

"Man, you are thinking way too loud," Blair muttered.

"You're supposed to be asleep."

Blair groaned and pushed himself up onto one elbow. "You could help wake me up," Blair offered with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

Jim pursed his lips and made a game out of studying Blair. "And what would I get out of this deal?"

"Access to the best little ass in Arizona."

"I don't know, Chief. Did you see the girl at the check-in desk? She had a sweet ass on her." Jim laughed when Blair landed a punch right in his stomach.

"The check-in girl?" Blair got out of bed and threw the pillow as hard as he could at Jim's head. "Man, you are going to be couch surfing for a month. The check-in girl?"

Jim swung his legs out of bed. "I helped you wake up, though," Jim pointed out.

"The check-in girl?" Blair put his hands on his hips and stood right in front of Jim, glaring down.

"It was a very round ass," Jim said as he ran his hands up Blair's legs. "Maybe I should inspect your ass. If you're making claims without evidence, that might be fraud, Chief." Jim let his hands wander up to Blair's ass. The thin cotton pajamas allowed him to feel every curve and every twitch of every muscle.

"Fraud, huh? I could get arrested for that." Blair's voice was soft and husky now; his hands came to rest on Jim's shoulders as he leaned closer. Jim squeezed Blair's ass and then ran his hands up Blair's back, feeling the hot skin under his fingers. Leaning even closer, Blair massaged Jim's shoulder before letting his hands dip down to stroke over his back. Jim breathed in Blair's musk, his cock getting harder.

Then a knock came at the door.

Blair sagged, letting Jim's shoulders catch his weight. "Fuck. Man, if that is some weird travelling salesman who tortures hotel guests, I'm killing him and letting you hide the body."

"You kill 'em, you hide 'em, That's the rule," Jim said. With a pat on Blair's side, he urged Blair out of his way before reaching for his weapon. Without even being asked, Blair moved to the wall where someone at the door wouldn't have quick access to him, and Jim double checked that the heavy duty latch was in place and his weapon's safety was off before he cracked the door open.

"Yes?" Jim asked suspiciously. The man outside looked respectable. He had on a nice button up shirt and smelled of antiseptic and soap—the unmistakable scents of a hospital.

"Jim Ellison?"

"Yes?" Jim narrowed his eyes in a warning for this guy to get to the point.

"I'm Nathan Jackson. Chris Larabee asked me to drop by."


"There's a small problem, and he wanted you to have a heads up."

"Oh?" Jim didn't move, but Blair did. He pushed the door closed and flipped the security latch off before Jim could offer even a token protest.

"Ignore him. He really does know how to do more than just offer monosyllabic grunts," Blair said as he swung the door wide open. "Blair Sandburg." He stuck his hand out.

"Nathan Jackson. I've heard a lot about you."

"And now he's seen a lot of you," Jim pointed out. His own pajamas were constructed a little better than Blair's. One glance down, and Blair started blushing.

"Oh man. Okay, that is…. I'll be in the bathroom." Blair grabbed a pair of jeans off the floor and headed for the bathroom.

"Hey, I’m a medical student. Trust me, I've seen a whole lot of naked parts. Don't worry about it," Nathan shouted after him. The door slammed and Nathan sighed. "Please let him know that I'm really not offended. After you have to irrigate open sores on a six hundred pound man's infected penis, a naked body doesn't even cause a twitch."

Jim just put his weapon on the top of the dresser where he could access it easily and then crossed his arms. "What's the message?"

Nathan looked him up and down for a second, and Jim just glared right back. Blair might react, but the army had pretty much driven any modesty out of Jim. As long as he had a gun, he was dressed enough.

Nathan looked away first. "Yeah, you're as subtle as Ezra. I can see the family attitude." Nathan walked in and moved toward the table, giving Jim space, which was good because Jim was starting to get cranky about the number of people who knew his business. "Unfortunately, Ezra found out that you're in town, and he recognized your name as the cop who ran his records."

Jim's lips tightened into a thin line as he tried hard to not shoot the messenger. "Found out? Exactly how did he find out?"

Nathan shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe he browbeat it out of J.D. or Buck said something stupid when he was distracted by some pretty girl or Josiah decided that he had some higher calling that required him to tell Ezra about you. Who the hell knows? I just know that secrets don't last very long around here, not with the seven of us."

Jim rubbed a hand over his face and considered the damage. Ezra was not going to let them near the Players Only now, so Blair's tests were out of the question.

"So, what's up?" Blair asked as he came out of the bathroom, this time fully clothed. Now Jim was the only half-naked man in the room.

"Ezra knows I'm the cop who ran a background check on him," Jim said. Blair's face twisted with horror.

"Oh man, that is so not cool. Who spilled the beans?"

"If I find out, someone's going to regret it," Jim warned in a dark voice.

"Well he knows more than that." Nathan sat down in one of the hotel chairs. "He called his mother to warn her that a cop was checking up on them."

Jim's guts twisted like someone had punched him, and then Blair was there at his side, warm hands supporting him.

"Yeah," Nathan said softly. "It's that bad. Maude told him that you were his brother. Apparently she flew into Phoenix in the wee hours of the morning and she's driving down right now. Ezra's over at Players Only getting shit faced drunk and complaining about his mother's ability to drop the verbal equivalent of a nuclear bomb onto any conversation"

"Fuck." Jim breathed the word like a prayer. He found it more than a little ironic that Ezra was complaining; Ezra never came home from school to find that the bomb his mother had dropped was a quick case of abandonment.

"Yeah," Nathan agreed. "Chris didn't think you needed to get hit with that without at least a little warning and a chance to get the hell out of Dodge."

"Jim?" Blair leaned closer, his hand resting on Jim's arm as he looked up in concern. Jim didn't have any reassurances for Blair; he didn't know how he even felt. After a second, Blair turned on Nathan. "Man, you guys are way beyond the pale. Way. You have crossed so many lines I don't even know where to start. If Jim wanted that asshole to know they were brothers, Jim would have told him."

Holding up both hands, Nathan started to shake his head. "Hey, I didn't tell him anything. That's why Chris sent me—because he knows I wasn't the one who screwed you over. But let me tell you something about that asshole." He paused for a second and then shrugged. "And Ezra is a first-class asshole."

Jim blinked. He'd expected some impassioned defense of Ezra, not agreement.

"If you want to find out how much of an asshole he is, get him started on the topics of race and poverty some time. That man is so far right he thinks Newt Gingrich is a liberal. As far as he's concerned, the government should leave people on the streets, and that would teach them to go out and get jobs. And his attitude on affirmative action…?" Nathan let his voice trail off, but it was clear that he didn't exactly agree with Ezra. "However, he's also a damn good man. The first time he met Buck and Vin, those two were knee deep in shit and wading deeper in. He could have invited them to get the hell out and called the cops." Nathan frowned. "Of course knowing Ezra's allergy to law enforcement, he wouldn't have called. However, he could have locked himself in the club and avoided the whole mess. Instead, he followed Buck; he held Vin and protected him after he got shot by asshole drug dealers who'd kidnapped Josiah. He went wading into the middle of a fight because it was the right thing to do. So before you go focusing on all of Ezra's negative qualities, and he does have more than most men, you make sure you're seeing the whole picture." In the middle of his speech, Nathan had gotten up from his chair and he'd started poking the air with a finger.

"Vin. Vin Tanner?" Jim asked.

Clearly Jim had surprised Nathan because he seemed to lose a little of his fury. "Yeah. He took a bullet trying to get Josiah out of the drop house where they'd taken him."

Jim turned and gave Blair a look. From the way Blair's eyes went big, Blair was thinking about the same little piece of trivia Jim was.

"Is that the time that Josiah broke man's neck with his hands tied behind his back?" Jim asked.

Nathan narrowed his eyes and a sort of defensive blankness fell over his features like a poker face. "Yeah," he agreed, but the man who had just delivered a tirade was now silent.

Jim nodded. If that was the same event, then the cop who'd been shot, the one mentioned in the report Jack Kelso got his hands on, was Vin Tanner. What the hell kind of operation included a local undercover officer, an FBI agent, a retired war hero, and an asset like Ezra Standish? The longer Jim was in Tucson, the less any of this made sense.

Blair cleared his throat. "So, it sounds like you're good friends with Ezra."

With an incredulous look, Nathan shook his head. "Friends… not exactly. Do I trust him at my back? Every damn time. So if you're Ezra's brother, you should be proud of the fact that he stands up for what's right when the time comes. He'll go walking into hell with a gun in hand if that's what it takes to get the job done. Now, until that time, he'll con you out of money, cheat in cards, talk you into investing your life's savings in some crazy scheme, and generally annoy the crap out of you. But that's just part of Ezra's charm."

Jim studied this man who seemed to know his brother so well. The description didn't fit the man Jim had met last night. Oh, he could believe that Ezra carried because he could smell the gun oil all over his hands, but Ezra had struck him as the type to hide in the bathroom while other people did the shooting.

"Look," Nathan said with a sigh, "I'm running on three hours sleep, and I'm about ready to collapse, and I've got another long night tonight. My ER rotation is kicking my ass, so if you don't mind, I'm going to let you two decide how you want to handle this, and I'm going to go find a very soft bed that I can collapse in."

Nathan turned to leave and Blair called out. "Nathan?" Blair gave Jim a quick glance before he went to Nathan and held out a hand to shake. "Thank you for the perspective on Ezra. This has all been a little… well… surreal. You know? But you didn't have to give us any sort of warning. Thank you for that."

Shaking Blair's hand, Nathan gave Blair a small smile. "Hey, trust me, I understand family drama. I've seen plenty of it myself. But look at it this way…" He turned to Jim. "You have a chance to decide whether you want to have a brother. Ezra may talk crap, but a lot of weird shit goes on around here, and he's the sort of man you want at you side through that. Before you give up on him, give him a chance to show that."

Blair was already nodding his agreement, but Jim just frowned. "Weird shit? Do you mean the sort of weird shit that would lead to a dozen different reports of Buck firing his weapon in town? Something that would explain why a local minister ended up tied up in a drug dealer's house? Maybe an explanation for why so many of you are carrying guns?" Jim looked down at Nathan's right leg before he looked back up at the man.

To his credit, Nathan didn't even try to deny that he was carrying. "There's a side of this town that is still the Wild West, Ellison. Our crime statistics are…."

"Embarrassingly bad," Blair finished for him.

Nathan gave a shrug. "It's worse than the numbers make it look. The illegal population and the legal immigrants who have family members who are illegals—they won't go to the cops. Ever. The politicians encourage that because they don't want a bunch of illegals diverting police resources away from the suburbs or increased crime statistics to make the city look bad. The gangs know they have a pool of victims who won't complain, working people who are targets for all sorts of shit. Some of these ghettos are as bad as you'd find in any third world country."

"And you seven, you step in the gap. You're vigilantes stepping in where the real cops don't bother to patrol," Jim guessed, putting the pieces together.

Nathan got a satisfied expression on his face. "Oh, I don't think anyone could call us vigilantes, but we do perform a certain service to the community. And Ezra's part of that. He puts himself out there to protect people—ironically, he protects the same people he then turns around and offends by suggesting they're all welfare-sucking liberals out to destroy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The neighborhood cuts him some slack for being an asshole. You might want to consider doing the same." With that, Nathan nodded at each of them and headed for the door.

Jim watched the man leave.

"Man, and I thought Cascade was one weird-ass town. It has nothing on this place," Blair said quietly. Jim tended to agree.





Chapter 8

Jim came out of the shower, a cloud of steam following him as he rubbed the aftershave into his face. "You ready?" he asked Blair. Blair had his hair pulled back into a ponytail and his laptop propped up in his lap.

"Yeah, sure." Blair's voice had that distant quality that meant he'd found something interesting. Jim grabbed a hand towel to wipe his hands as headed for the bed. Over Blair's shoulder, he could see the department search window open.

"You hacked my police account?" Jim asked.

Blair barely glanced up. "Hey, if you don't want me to use your computers, stop using Jags players as your passwords."

"Considering you somehow got my bank PIN number, I think I'm just admitting defeat and not worrying about it," Jim said as he sat next to Blair and studied the screen. His mother's face was in the suspect box on the left side, her eyes had tiny lines at the corners, but her forehead and cheeks were entirely too smooth for a woman of her age, and her blonde hair was swept up into a loose bun, like she was about to step into a ballgown and go out for a night on the town instead of being booked.

"Is that her?" Blair asked softly. Jim didn't answer; reaching over, he scrolled down to read the charges.

Maude Standish AKA Maude Williams AKA Margaret Williams AKA Mary Stanfield had a half-dozen charges against her, but no convictions and no outstanding warrants. A knot in Jim's stomach loosened. For a second, he thought he was going to be faced with having to arrest the mother he hadn't seen in decades. That wasn't the reunion he'd hoped for when he'd been young.

"Whoa, she is seriously on the grift. Check forging, fraud, extortion… there are a lot of charges here."

"Ezra learned at his mother's knee," Jim said. Shit. His brother never had a chance at a normal life after being raised by a mother with this kind of record. "After the divorce, she must have started conning to make a living. She always did like to spend money. Most of their fights were about something she had bought or something she'd done that he didn't think matched his upstanding social status." Jim remembered sitting on the stairs listening to his father rant, and he'd hated that his mom had just taken all the hateful words without even trying to defend herself. Jim had rushed in exactly once. He couldn't remember how old he'd been, but Steven hadn't been born yet, and he'd flown at his father, crying and telling him to stop being mean.

His father had given him a good spanking and sent him up to his room. Laying in the dark, Jim had cried as he listened to the fight continue. His father had barely even paused long enough to give Jim the spanking before he'd gone right back to verbally attacking his wife.

It had been late when Jim's door had cracked open. His mother came in and sat on the edge of his bed and smoothed the hair back from his face, her thumb tracing the tear marks on his face.

"Sweetie, I know you were trying to help."

"He was yelling at you," Jim defended himself.

"Oh James. Yelling is pointless. When other people yell, you just remind yourself that anyone in control never has to yell. Yelling is for people who feel out of control. Sometimes your father feels out of control, and we forgive him. In fact, every time he yells, I want you to try to be extra nice to your father so he'll feel better, and then he won't yell so much. Okay, sweetie?"

Blair interrupted Jim's memories by giving a low, long whistle. "Check it out."

Blinking away the image of his mother looking down at him with sympathy in her eyes, he looked at an unrelated case. It was an old file that had been scanned as part of the department's goal to digitize the back records. The complaint was from late 1956, and a Peter Colfax described a young woman named Mary Sheffield who had conned him into investing in an advertising agency only to disappear. "Why…?" Jim frowned as he read the rest of the complaint. Peter Colfax had been an employee of the shipping company his father worked for.

"I searched for female white-collar suspects in Cascade around the time your mother lived there."

Jim narrowed his eyes at his partner.

"Hey, it's better to know, right? I mean, this agency con looks a lot like Maude Williams' insurance agency con from 1972. But Colfax dropped the charges and refused to cooperate with police after March of 1957."

"Shit." Jim rubbed a hand over his face. "My father was an executive at the company where Colfax worked. Do you want to make a bet about whether he ordered the guy to shut up or paid him off?"

Blair shrugged. "The detectives' notes say that Colfax left town in April of '57 without leaving a forwarding address."

"Which suggests bribery," Jim said wearily. "I was going to show up four or five months later, and my father made this go away." Jim wasn't sure how he knew that, but he did. It was just like his father to throw money at something to make it go away. When Carolyn had put their wedding announcement in the paper, his father had shown up to pay for most of the wedding—he'd planned it, writing checks to various venders, but he'd never really talked to Jim. It was like spending the money was supposed to fix things between them. It hadn't.

"So, she was a grifter before hooking up with your dad. Whoa. That's heavy."

Jim felt like his limbs were made of lead as he sat on the bed and stared at his mother's face. He'd always thought of her as getting gray hair and smile lines around her mouth, but plastic surgery and hair dye seemed to be keeping up with time for the most part. Who was she? Jim couldn't reconcile his memories of her with the suspect described in the police files. He was still staring at the screen when Blair closed the laptop. Setting it to one side, Blair let his hand rest on Jim's knee.

"Should we head home?" he asked, his voice soft.

Jim considered it. Part of him wanted to start running, and keep running, but another part just knew that wouldn't work. Eventually, he shook his head. "She'd follow us."

"Really? Okay." Blair seemed to think for a minute. "Maybe we could leave a note saying you're just not ready to have this discussion?"

A dark laugh slipped out of Jim. "Trust me, Chief, she wouldn't care. I remember when my father would throw some fit, and she'd smile and make all the right noises, and then the minute his back was turned, she'd go and do exactly what he didn't want her to do." As a kid, there had been something exciting in the way she always thumbed her nose at William Ellison. Now, Jim wasn't quite as amused by the thought of being dismissed the way his father always had been.

"Do you really think she'd follow… I mean, even if she knew you didn't want to talk to her?"

"Yes." Jim pressed his eyes closed. "And I don't want her in Cascade."

"Oh man. That… that really sucks."

"Yeah, it does."

They sat on the bed, the silence growing longer and Blair's hand creating an island of warmth on Jim's knee when the rest of him was feeling unnaturally cold.

"So, we're still going to go meet her?" Blair asked.

Jim sighed and ran a hand over his face. He didn't want to, and he felt backed into a corner by the knowledge that she would push a meeting. For the first time in his life, Jim felt a little sympathy for his father. Not a lot, of course, but some. His father had made a difficult situation a whole lot worse by refusing to talk to Jim—refusing to explain anything or even let him talk about his mother. However, there was a little sympathy in there because getting backed into a corner was uncomfortable, to say the least. Jim pushed himself upright. "We might as well get this over with."

"Should we wait until they—"

"We're going now," Jim said. Striding across the room, he grabbed his wallet off the dresser. If he was going to have to deal with his mother, he was going to set some of the terms. The last thing he wanted was to turn over the details of this little meeting to Ezra and his mother. Right now, Jim figured the less time he gave her to make up some story, the more likely he was to get the truth. "You're driving," he said, and he threw the car keys toward Blair. Blair was so surprised he dropped them and had to grab them off the floor.

"I'm liking this woman less and less with every passing minute," Blair muttered as he followed Jim out of the room. Jim was feeling about the same. He had no idea what excuse she had for abandoning him and Steven, but it wasn't going to be good enough. "Where are we going?"

"Players Only. She'll go to Ezra first," Jim said with confidence. When his mother had been out for the evening or with his father on a trip, the first thing she did when she got back was to come up to his room while his father checked the mail.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Blair chased after him, but Jim continued to walk as fast as he could toward the elevator.

"No," Jim admitted in a tone that also made it clear he wasn't changing his mind. Sometimes Blair could be absolutely obnoxious in his willingness to push an issue, but right now he was silent as they got on the elevator. The rental car's keys jingled in his hand as he fidgeted, but he didn't comment as they got out at the lobby and headed out into the desert heat.

The car ride over was silent. Jim could feel Blair's concern with every glance and nervous cough out of Blair, but Jim focused on the streets. Watching the neighborhoods pass by, watching neat lawns give way to graffiti and broken down cars was a more pleasant way to pass the time than thinking about his mother. Jim didn't even know her. He never really had known her, but he could suddenly feel the distance between them far more sharply. Before Jim was ready, Blair pulled into the Players Only lot and turned the car off. The parking lot was nearly empty with only three cars sitting in the lot. Next door, a nail salon was open for business, a bouquet of balloons waving in the sluggish breeze, but the place was empty.

"We don't have to do this," Blair said.

"Yeah, we do." Jim opened the door and headed for the bar. Ezra used the place as his home address as well as business, so Jim was guessing there were bedrooms in the second story. The lights were off, but when Jim pulled on the front door, it swung easily open, the little bell above it ringing merrily. It was a surreal moment, standing in the middle of a worn bar waiting for a mother he hadn't seen in thirty years. Blair came in the door behind him, and Blair's hand found Jim's back, resting there in silent support.

Jim walked slowly into the bar, stretching out his hearing until he found two people whispering furiously upstairs. "I'm here," Jim called out loudly, and the whispers stopped. Jim tilted his head toward the back of the bar. Behind the employee kitchens, there was a stair up to the second level, and Jim could hear footsteps coming down. One was heavy—the angry near-stomping of a grown man. The other was the click-clacking of a woman's heels against wood. Jim stiffened as he realized that he was hearing his mother. Grace Maude Mary Williams Stanfield Standish Ellison was coming down to meet him, and Jim didn't know what the fuck he was supposed to say to her.

"Shit, shit, shit, shit," Blair muttered, his voice almost too soft for even Jim to hear. Jim clenched his teeth and watched as the employee door swung open.

His mother. Jim's mother stood in the bar, backlit from the kitchen her face in shadows since the bar itself was lit only by the windows set high into the walls. For a second, Jim could imagine he was ten and she was standing at his bedroom door. She had the same figure—the same upswept hair—the same tilt of her shoulders and arch of her neck that he could never forget.

"James." She breathed the word like a prayer, and Jim felt a rush of emotion that threatened to swallow him. He wanted to open his arms and he wanted to curse at her and he wanted to be out of the damn room, so he did nothing. He stood, silent and motionless, as she slowly came into the main part of the bar. Someone hit a switch, and the lights over the pool tables came on so that Jim could see the way time had changed her. Despite the obvious plastic surgery, time was starting to catch up with her. Her skin was thin and flushed so that Jim could trace tiny blood vessels dangerously close to the surface. Her hands shook as she moved closer.

"Oh my James. My beautiful James," she said, her voice thick with emotion. Jim wanted to believe it—he wanted to think that his mother would react like this, but his cop instincts also pointed out that she was a con woman. She used emotions and her looks to cheat men out of money. She was the type of woman Jim had sworn to stop.

"It is you," Jim said, his own emotions carefully locked down.

"This is a rather inopportune time," Ezra said as he walked in the room. He was disheveled, his hair sticking out at odd angles like he'd been running his fingers through it. "Perhaps you'd like to come back later." Jim could hear the sharp edge of emotion in his voice, so clearly Ezra hadn't known anything until recently.

"Ezra, do not be like that. James is your brother, and you should offer him something to drink," Jim's mother said in the same sort of scolding tone she'd once used to get Jim to not put his elbows on the table. He looked at her, and her chin went up a little.

"Perhaps I would feel more charitable had he not presented himself under false pretenses."

Blair's snort suggested that he'd also seen the irony in that. Jim figured Ezra and his mother both had more experience with false pretenses than ever Jim had, even with all his undercover work.

"I never presented myself as anything," Jim pointed out.

"Yes, well you managed to get my supposed friends to do that for you, didn't you? I would be impressed, only I'm a little too annoyed right now to feel anything else."

"I never asked your friends to do anything," Jim snapped without taking his eyes off his mother. She was studying him with this lost expression that made his mouth go dry.

"I suppose that Josiah choosing to offer his opinions on faith and forgiveness is a simple coincidence?" Ezra demanded.

"Doubt it," Jim admitted. "He's a manipulative bastard."

Blair poked him in the ribs for that, and Ezra jerked upright in surprise.

"Now James, I was hoping we could be civil," his mother said with a smile that Jim couldn't bring himself to trust.

"Actually, Mother, I think manipulative bastard is a rather benign description for our Josiah. He might even agree with it himself. However, I would prefer if you left my establishment."

"Afraid I'll find something criminal in here?" Jim asked. "That was your first assumption when I did a background check."

Ezra narrowed his eyes. The charming man from last night was gone, and Jim suspected he was seeing his real brother—a man who seemed caught between fear and aggression. "While I admit that I have a certain flexibility with what I consider victimless crimes, I am not someone who normally worries too much when the law comes around."

"Really?" Jim crossed his arms. Blair sucked in a quick breath, but Jim just focused on this little family reunion. "And do you two consider fraud and theft to be victimless crimes?"

"Well, you are a prince," Ezra said sarcastically. "You come into my place of business and accuse me of a crime."

"Your rap sheet did that," Jim shot back. Jim could feel his guts knot as the situation spiraled away from him, and he couldn't seem to get control of it. He was a trained officer. He knew how to deescalate domestic violence, but his mouth seemed intent of doing the opposite. "But I didn't come here to see you," he said to try and change the topic.

"I don't actually care why you came. I've asked you to leave, and as an officer of the law, you must understand the concept of private property."

Jim's mom put her hand on Ezra's arm. "Now, Ezra, enough is enough."

The touch sent a wave of anger through Jim that he couldn't quite control. His hands curled into fists and Blair moved closer, his warmth an anchor of sanity that Jim was trying hard to hold onto. It was stupid to be this angry thirty years later, but Jim couldn't get a hold on his own emotions.

Her hand fell away from Ezra and she stepped forward, her heels clicking against the wood. "James, who is your friend?"

Jim didn't answer, and after a second, Blair took a half-step forward. "Blair Sandburg, and you are…" Blair let the words trail off.

There was a moment of hesitation, a doubt that flickered across his mother's face. Her chin went up a little. "Maude Standish. I am very pleased to meet you. Have you been friends with James for long?"

Jim grimaced at the awkward conversation she was having around him, and Blair glanced up, clearly not sure how he was supposed to react to her.

"I would have gone back to Cascade, but I suspect you would have followed," Jim said shortly. "I'm here so we can each have our say before going our separate ways."

His mother's smile failed her. When she frowned, she suddenly looked her age. “James, I never wanted to leave…”

“You don’t owe me an explanation,” Jim cut her off. He’d wanted to hear an explanation for so long that he didn’t trust himself to handle this logically. This was his mother. This was the woman who would come to his room and sit on the edge of his bed and read to him after his father had missed a game. This was the woman who had disappeared without any explanation. Jim really did not want to deal with this.

“Oh, Sweetie,” she said. She took the final step toward him, closing the distance between them before reaching out to rest her hand against Jim’s arm, but he jerked away and nearly flattened Blair as he tried to escape her touch.

“Look, the past is past. As far as I’m concerned, you’re one more con woman,” Jim said coldly. “And I’m a cop.” Blair’s fingers fluttered against Jim’s back, but he didn’t actually say anything or even really touch Jim. Maude… or Grace or Margaret or whatever the hell she wanted to call herself… she turned deadly white.

“Well, isn’t that charming? No doubt you learned verbal abuse at your father’s feet.” Ezra stepped up to stand next to his mother, his face twisting into a sneer.

“Now, Ezra,” Maude put her hand on her son’s arm. Her son. Ezra was clearly her son far more than Jim ever had been. He was the one she chose to keep. “We have all had a difficult day. There is never any excuse for rude behavior.”

Jim crossed his arms. He remembered his mother telling him that. Little Ronnie from down the street had thrown a rock at Jim when Jim rode past on his bike. His father had been adamant about Jim avoiding fights, so Jim had said something bad enough to make Ronnie go running home to his parents. Late at night with his butt still hurting from the spanking, Jim had been laying in bed when his mother had come in to sweep the hair back from his face. She’d told him that an Ellison didn’t need to be rude. Rudeness was for people who didn’t have faith in themselves.

“As much as I would normally agree, certain people do tend to inspire it in others.” Ezra glared at Jim.

“Hey, you are not exactly being a paragon of virtue, buddy,” Blair snapped.

“Oh, the little one is insulting me now.” Ezra turned to glare at Blair. “Perhaps you should allow Detective Ellison to fight his own battles.” Jim stepped forward, his temper frayed so badly that he wanted nothing more than to take a swing at the man.

“If I’m going to fight my own battles, I’ll start by investigating how you’ve managed to avoid jail this long.”

“James!” Maude gasped.

Jim turned a cold gaze toward her. “You lost your right to tell me what to do a long time ago, lady. And considering your past, you should be careful about who you annoy.”

Ezra puffed up like an angry porcupine. “Now see here, you are far outside your jurisdiction and even you, with your obviously limited intellectual capacity, must realize that.”

“Really?” Jim crossed his arms and really studied Ezra. He was just as annoying as Steven ever had been. “It seems to me that her cons are an ongoing criminal enterprise which started in Cascade. That means I can investigate.” Jim gave Ezra his sweetest smile. Ezra stared back, the hatred clear in his face.

“How about we all just go to our own corners,” Blair suggested. “I think we’re all saying things that tomorrow we are all going to wish we hadn’t said.” When Jim turned to look at Blair, he noticed his mother’s face. She looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. Her eyes shone with tears that she wasn’t crying, and Jim could feel his stomach twist. He hated the guilt that clawed at him. She had no right to make him feel guilty, not after she walked out.

“I think that might be a good idea,” Maude said. “We should just all go to our own spaces and reconsider anything we might want to say to each other. Perhaps we might have a more civilized conversation tomorrow.”

"I—" Jim started to talk, but his mother turned and swept out of the room with the same grace Jim remembered from his youth. His mother had been exciting then. Now she just seemed like a manipulative shrew.

"I shall leave you to find your own way out," Ezra spat. Jim's jaw was aching from having clenched it too hard, but if he didn't keep his mouth closed a lot more hate was going to come spilling out. Ezra turned and followed his mother. Jim had to admit that this woman wasn't Grace Ellison; she wasn't his mother.

"Man, he is a real piece of work," Blair complained softly. "I know he's your brother, but he is a first class schmuck."

Jim didn't bother answering. Resting his hand on Blair's back, he steered Blair toward the door. Heat radiated off the building, and the air seemed to shimmer. Either that or Jim's vision was playing tricks on him.

"So that went well," Chris said. He was leaning against the adobe wall of Players Only, a thin cigar in hand. He puffed on it while Jim glared at him.

"If you've had your fun, the show's over," Jim snapped. Blair's hand wrapped around his arm, but Blair didn't say anything.

Chris turned to look at him, a frown on his face. "It was never about fun, Ellison." He pursed his lips. "Maude's a difficult woman to deal with. I just thought I should be here in case she pushed too many of your buttons."

Blair's patience ran out. "What? You thought he'd take a swing at his own mother or something? Man, you don't know us. Do not pretend to have our best interests in mind. Just don't."

Chris dropped the stub of his cigar to the ground and crushed it under a boot. "I'm protecting my own, here, Junior. If Ellison had done something stupid, like arrest Maude, Ezra would have gotten himself in more trouble than I could easily get him out of."

"And you thought you could stop me if I wanted to do just that?" Jim crossed his arms and squared off against Chris.

Chris sighed. "I hoped that I could talk to you--one law enforcement officer to another."

"Cops generally don't like feds," Jim pointed out. "Why not send Vin Tanner? I'm a lot more likely to listen to a local than some fed who just wants to protect his cover." The second Jim mentioned Vin, he could see Chris stiffen up. So he'd thought he was keeping that little piece of intel secret. Jim wondered how many of this little band of brothers knew that Vin was a local cop.

Looking Jim up and down, Chris nodded. "You're better than I gave you credit for."

"Yeah, I am," Jim agreed. They stared at each other for long seconds.

"Vin was steering clear so you didn't have a chance to blow his cover."

"Too late for that," Jim said with grim satisfaction at having gotten in a blow with one of Ezra's friends. Blair gave a little evil chuckle, too. Blair might talk big about forgiveness and love, but he had a mean streak as big as any other man's when push came to shove.

Chris looked at them both for a long time. "I guess it is. However, arresting Maude would still cause a whole lot of trouble."

"And why's that?" Jim asked. "Is Ezra paying you to watch his back? Is that why a fed is out here without backup drinking his way through the day?"

Blair whistled. "He's drunk? Oh man, now that is uncool."

Chris didn't bother to deny the charge. "I have backup; if it's not FBI backup, that's my choice."

Moving forward, Jim pressed his advantage. "Are you even on a case or did your bosses just stick you here to drink yourself to death?" Jim could smell the alcohol on Chris' skin, he could smell the poisons put out by an overtaxed liver that turned his body odor rancid. Jim expected an explosion. Instead, Chris looked almost amused.

"I spend less time at the bottom of a bottle these days than I used to. And if I still drink a little too much, I happen to think I have a right. You don't know anything about me, Ellison. You're in there feeling sorry for yourself because you found your family, and they're not everything you want them to be. I lost my whole family, Ellison. One houseboat fire and everyone I loved died. So before you set up your pity party, you take a second to consider that a lot people don't ever get the chance to try again. As for my job… well, that's above your pay grade. So I guess you're just going to have to keep wondering." With a curt nod, Chris turned and headed toward the parking lot. Jim watched as he got in a car and pulled out of the lot with a squeal of tires.

"Well shit. That could have gone better." Blair made a face and started for the parking lot, but Jim reached out and caught him by the arm. Blair looked at him curiously.

"Chief, am I overreacting here?"

Blair blew out a large breath. "I don't think anyone gets to tell you how to feel. I mean, your mom left you. That's huge. That's bigger than huge. I mean," Blair made a face, "mom says that she doesn't know who my dad is, and that means that he never knew about me. Back in those days, mom was a bee going from flower to flower." Jim had a word for a woman like that, but out of respect for Blair, he didn't use it. "But if my father knew about me… if he'd known me and then just walked away. No amount of processing in the world would ever make me okay with that. None. No way. So, if you want to hate your mother for doing just that, I think you're entitled."

Entitled. That wasn't quite the same thing as right, and Jim had been around Blair and his obfuscations to recognize one when he saw it. "So, I'm in the right?" he asked.

Sure enough, Blair broke eye contact. "Hey, she really did a number on you."

"So, you think I'm right?" Jim pressed.

Sighing, Blair looked up at him. "Hey, I am not here to pass judgment. I'm your partner, Jim. I am going to be on your side in this no matter what happens. No exceptions. Well, unless you decide to murder her or something, and then we really need to talk." Blair grinned at his own joke, but Jim didn't smile. Reaching out, he caught Blair around the back of the neck and pulled him close. For a long time, he just held Blair and enjoyed the feel of Blair's arms around his waist. Jim had searched the world for the sort of acceptance Blair just offered. As a child, his mother had promised that family would provide it, but Jim had learned early that he couldn't rely on his family. In the army, he'd found a camaraderie that had only lasted until his commanding officer had betrayed him and he'd buried his unit in the Peruvian jungle. But here was this neo-hippy who put up with all Jim's moods and offered the sort of love Jim hadn't felt… in a really long time.

"I'm being an ass, aren't I?" Jim asked. He rested his cheek against the top of Blair's head.

"A little bit," Blair admitted, but his arms were just as tight around Jim's waist. "But man, you are entitled." After that, Blair fell silent. Jim wanted Blair to talk, to fill all the empty silence with random words that kept him from thinking about the fact that his mother was inside the club with the son she'd chosen to stay with. He wanted the random spill of words that could distract him from his pain. Instead, Blair offered silence.

"Maybe we can stay another day and try this again." Jim wanted to grind his teeth at the thought of a repeat of today, but Blair let out a big sigh of obvious relief.

"Cool. I know how this must be eating you alive, so the fact that you're willing to do this… You are my hero. To hell with Hercules and Beowulf, the real hero faces his past. Because *that* is a horror way worse than Grendel's mother or some seven headed monster."

Even though Jim didn't answer, he agreed. He'd rather face any monster than have this conversation with his mother again tomorrow. "Let's go out for a nice lunch. I'll treat you to something nice."

"Thai or Indian?"

"Chief, we're in Tucson, I think our choices are burgers, steaks or Mexican."

"Oh please, there are Thai places everywhere. We just have to look."

Jim released Blair from his embrace and gave Blair's ponytail a tug. "Let me put it this way: you have a choice of burgers, steaks or Mexican because that's where I'm going."

"Philistine," Blair complained, but he did it with a laugh. Feeling a little better, Jim swung his arm over Blair's shoulders and started toward the parking lot.

"You'll change your tune once you have a nice big steak in front of you, Chief."

"Yeah, yeah," Blair laughed, his arm going around Jim's waist. Jim might not have the mother he wanted, but he did have the lover he'd always needed. Maybe Chris Larabee was right; maybe he needed to cancel the pity party before he lost himself in it. Jim would just have to—he'd have to be calmer tomorrow.

"So, am I still driving?" Blair asked almost hesitantly.

Jim thought about that. His vision was still wavering a little, and he wasn't totally convinced it was the heat. "Yeah."

"No problem. I can drive any time you need. Any time. I'm always here, you know."

"I do know, Chief." Jim tightened the arm he'd thrown over Blair shoulders. "Even though I don't say it enough, I love you for that."

"Hey, I totally love you right back… even when you're being a little…" Blair waggled his hand in some sort of gesture Jim didn't understand. He suspected it wasn't a compliment.

"I'll try to be better tomorrow," Jim promised. He frowned as something tickled the edge of his senses. He turned and his mother was already nearly to them, tennis shoes masking her footsteps and an unfamiliar perfume drifting from her.

"So, I told Ezra not to disturb me because I was lying down for a nap. Where are we going to lunch?" she asked brightly as she covered the final distance between them and stopped by the rental car. Jim traded a confused look with Blair. "If you don't know Tucson, I would recommend Ha Long Bay, a wonderful little Vietnamese restaurant over on Broadway Boulevard. The food is exquisite." Reaching out, she pulled on the door to the backseat, but it was locked. "Blair, would you open the door, please, I find standing in this sun quite unbearable."

Blair looked over at Jim, and unsure about what else he could do without creating more conflict, he gave a nod. When Blair hit the unlock button, Maude smiled and slipped right into the backseat. Jim's guts twisted. Well, shit. He was going to lunch with his mother.



Chapter 9

Jim stared out the front window as Blair followed his mother's directions to the restaurant. The way his stomach was feeling, he wasn't going to be able to eat anything.

"I can't believe the traffic in this place," his mother commented with a disapproving sigh.

"The traffic isn't the most unbelievable thing here," Jim said. Blair had been keeping up a string of small talk, but now he fell silent. Immediately, the air in the car turned hostile; at least, that's what it felt like.

"I suppose it's not. You always were honest, James, and sometimes Ezra had a problem separating honesty from hostility, that's why I wanted us to talk without him."

"Oh, he was recognizing hostility just fine," Jim disagreed. Usually when he felt this hostile toward someone, he was pointing a weapon at them or arresting them, so this was a more subtle form of hostility for him, but he was feeling hostile, alright.

"James," she said, her voice thick with disapproval.

"Hey, how about this weather?" Blair blurted out. "Which is a much safer topic than, I don't know, expressing disapproval for the son you abandoned."

"I never—" She stopped.

"Abandoned me? Yeah, mom, you did." Jim turned around in his seat and looked at her.

She dropped her gaze away from his. "I never meant to."

"So, you accidentally left? You wandered away from the house and forgot how to get back?" Jim couldn’t keep the words from slipping out of him.

"James, there is no need for sarcasm."

Jim snorted. "If I'm not sarcastic, I'm going to turn mean, mom. So if you want to do this little lunch, those are your two choices."

"You were never this rude as a child."

"I was never this angry as a child," Jim countered. That seemed to make her pause. He could practically see her gather herself up, her back stiffening until she could meet his gaze directly.

"While your anger is certainly justified, to show anger is always a sign of weakness, James. To get what you want—"

"Enough with the life lessons," Jim snapped. "What's the point? I'm looking for honest answers, and you're giving me lessons on how to control my emotions to manipulate others. Chief, we might as well head back because I'm going to have bleeding ulcers if I try and have lunch with this woman."

"Your father threatened to have me arrested if I didn't leave town," she blurted out, and Jim twisted around in his seat so fast that his back muscles sent up a warning twinge.

"He what?"

"Oh man, that actually sounds like your dad," Blair said. Jim noticed that he wasn't even trying to turn the car around.

"I don't know how much you know about my past—"

"The fact that you're a grifter? I know you were conning men before you ever met Dad. You conned some guy named Colfax at the place where he worked. Is that how you met him?"

She closed her eyes and shook her head like she wanted to deny some or all of it, but Jim wasn't buying that. A person didn't get accused of cheating that much without there being at least some fire behind all the smoke. "I was working with someone," she finally admitted. "Your father thought he could save me from that life, and I suppose he did… for a while. We were both young and stupid and we thought that if we wanted something badly enough, we could have it. Time taught us differently."

"So, you decided to dump me and Steven along with Dad?" Jim could understand the divorce. He'd grown up listening to their fights turn more and more vicious, so he approved of their divorce; however, she hadn't just left her husband. Jim just couldn't understand that.

"I didn't have a choice."

"Because you wanted to start a new life." Jim spit the words out in his disgust for her.

"Because your father said that if I showed up, he was going to have me arrested for theft and sent to prison. James, I would never have left you… not you and not Steven. I even tried to have a friend get you from the school, and your father nearly caught her. If I could have stayed and fought for you and gotten even partial custody or visitations, I would have. However, had I stayed, I would have ended up in prison on evidence that your father had a private investigator both dig up and invent." She looked around the car like she expected something to pop out and save her from this conversation. Nothing did. "I always taught you to cover your tracks, and that is exactly what I always did," she said fiercely, "but that didn't stop your father's henchmen from creating tracks where I hadn't left any."

Jim frowned, not sure how much he should believe. He wanted to believe this so much that he just didn't trust his own judgment.

Blair spoke up. "You couldn't afford to go to prison because you were pregnant with Ezra, weren't you?" He was using his gentlest voice, and Jim, struggling with his own shock, watched his mother for some sort of reaction.

Her face lost all expression. "Leave Ezra out of this."

However, Blair was shaking his head. "I mean, I'm not an expert in genetics, but I don't think a half-brother would qualify as a first degree relative. No way. Second maybe, maybe third… I'd have to look it up, but Ezra and Jim are first degree relatives."

"You can't know—"

"Yeah, mom, we do," Jim interrupted before she could change the topic. "Is Ezra one of Dad's sons?" Jim might not be a fan of his father, but he remembered the sinking horror when that nurse had called—the fear that he had a son out there that he'd unintentionally abandoned. He wouldn't wish that on anyone, and while his father had made plenty of mistakes as a father, he had never abandoned his children. This would kill him.

"Your father…." Her face twisted with anger. "He made his choices." Her chin went up and her face slowly settled into a resolute expression that masked most of the anger—most, but not all.

"Fuck." Jim rubbed his face. Why the hell had he ever come down here? Curiosity killed the cat, and Jim was feeling halfway dead already. If his mother kept talking, she might finish the job.

She looked from one of them to the other. "How could you know? I gave birth to Ezra at home and had a doctor falsify his birth certificate so that his birthday is off by two months. How could you know that he was William's son?"

Jim didn't bother answering, so Blair had to step into the conversation. "He was tested for a bone marrow bank. Genetically, he's Jim's first degree relative, and when we first got the news, we thought Jim had a son out there from his days in the army. That's why we ran checks on his name."

"Ah." Leaning back in the seat, she seemed to have aged a good decade in the space of five seconds. "Well, Ezra does have more heart than common sense. Look at his friends if you question that."

Jim snorted. He was pretty sure that Ezra's heart was as shriveled as Scrooges', but he didn't feel like getting into that conversation, not when his head was spinning.

"He does have some weird friends. Totally weird. Completely and entirely weird," Blair agreed. "What is up with them?"

Maude seemed to pull an aura of grace around her shoulders like a shawl as she gave a little laugh. "If you want to pump me for information, you'll have to be more clever than that, young man." She reached into the front seat and gave Blair's shoulder a little pat. "Ezra's friends are his business. And if I happen to think that he would be better off moving somewhere else and developing relationships that are less likely to involve gunfire, that is between Ezra and me. This is our street." She pointed to the right and Blair aimed the car where Maude pointed him.

Jim still hadn't quite rearranged his feelings to match his new reality as they walked into a restaurant that clearly had found a clearance sale on topical lawn accessories. The back wall was a huge mural of a bay in vivid blue and bright green and bamboo "trees" and plants randomly strewn about made it difficult to thread their way through to the tables to the back where the hostess offered them a seat.

"Man, kitsch central," Blair breathed, his voice not even a whisper.

"Ah, but they have excellent food," Maude answered as she sat down and picked up a menu. "You should try the BúnChảGiòGàNướng. Grilled lemon grass chicken with a crispy roll and this wonderful nuoc mam sauce. You will not regret ordering it."

The woman seating them smiled at her. "You have been before?"

Maude nodded. "Indeed. My son, Ezra Standish, brought me… apparently, this is a favorite of his friend Josiah, and Ezra wanted to share the treasure he'd found."

The woman's face lit up. "Josiah Sanchez?" Jim narrowed his eyes at his mother as the hostess's face broke out into a delighted grin. "HìnhbóngĐạođức. Yes, Josiah. And I know of Ezra. He is your son?"

"He is," Maude said with undisguised pride. The woman caught the arm of a passing waitress and they talked to each other in words so fast that they blurred together. Jim, however, focused on glaring at his mother. While Josiah annoyed Jim in general, he respected the man's work in the community and his past as a soldier. Jim's mother was simply abusing Josiah's name to get good service at a restaurant. It offended Jim's sense of fair play, and he might have said something, except Blair kicked him under the table.

"Yes, yes, we will bring you something special," the hostess said before she darted off toward the kitchen. Now they were alone, and Jim kept right on glaring at his mother.

"That is a very unpleasant expression, James."

"It matches how I feel then," James pointed out.

Maude had been opening her obnoxiously turquoise napkin, but now she paused to study Jim. "I haven't hurt anyone by doing a little name dropping."

Jim crossed his arms. "You're just abusing the name of a man who fought for his country."

"Oh good heavens. What is it with Josiah that makes people so sanctimonious? I will have you know that the last time Ezra played that particular card, Josiah told him not to bother. Josiah finds me refreshingly self-interested." Maude's words shocked Jim a little since he hadn't expected Ezra to take Josiah's side in that conflict.

"So selfish?" Blair asked.

"Selfish implies that I am taking from someone else. I am simply looking out for my own interests. Using Josiah’s name does not diminish his reputation," she said with a little handwave.

"Well, when you leave, make sure that you pay for your own self-interests, because if you take food from these people, that would be selfish," Jim warned.

Maude sighed and arranged her napkin in her lap. "I knew your father and his afternoon morality would be a poor influence."

"My father?" Jim demanded, his voice getting louder as she insulted the only parent that had bothered to stick around.

"Hey," Blair said loud enough to cut him off. "Let's just calm down. So, Maude, not to change the topic to something less likely to result in assault charges, but you have some seriously impressive hearing."

Jim could see the way every little muscle in her face and neck tensed. "Oh?" she said with indifference that didn't match her reaction.

"I mean, I barely whispered my comment, and you heard it. You must be able to hear a pin drop."

"Yes, well I am blessed that way." She smiled, but now Jim could smell the first hints of distress under her perfume.

"She's hiding something," Jim said. She turned a furious look toward him, and Jim just raised an eyebrow as he dared her to contradict him.

"Actually, I was wondering if this was a topic better discussed another time," she said with an artificial calm. Her scent, however, continued to sour."Perhaps when it's just the two of us," she finished.

With a laugh, Jim shook his head. "You think I have a problem trusting Blair? Oh, that's rich."

"James, you can show as many bad manners as you like, but that will not—"

Jim cut her off. "Don't you dare—"

"So, your hearing," Blair said loudly as he gave Jim a truly hard kick under the table. "You're hiding something about it?"

For long seconds, the table was silent. Jim met his mother's glare without flinching. He wasn't a ten-year-old boy crying because the mother he'd loved more than life had disappeared on him. He wasn't going to beg for her love or compromise his beliefs. Eventually, she sighed. "Hiding? No. I was just trying to not mention anything, out of deference to James." She tilted her head toward him.

"Because you know he can do the same thing?" Blair guessed.

Some of the tautness left her body. "Perhaps Ezra is correct about you two being more than just friends. He always did have a better nose for that than I did. If so, I'm glad that James managed to escape his father's Puritanical streak long enough to make his own choice about who to love."

"Ezra, you know about his sense of smell?" Blair asked. Now that the conversation was getting into the senses, Jim could see the nervous energy start to build.

His mother shifted uncomfortably. "Of course I know. I'm his mother."

"Oh man. I mean, I always thought the senses were genetic, but I didn't have any proof. The perfume smellers and tasters I tested… they generally didn't have family with the senses."

Maude's eyes narrowed, and for the first time, Jim got a sense that she could be a dangerous woman if she set her mind to it. "You have an interest in the senses?" she asked, her voice slow and calculated.

Despite the rather overt hostility, Blair grinned and nodded. "Before I switched my dissertation to minority interactions with the police, I was studying people with enhances senses. That's how I found Jim."

Jim watched as his mother's face lost most of its color. A little part of him, a sadistic part, rejoiced in making his mother so uncomfortable. She certainly deserved a little punishment. Jim picked up his glass and stared at the water. "Blair helped me with the senses when they were out of control," he said, taking a drink and watching as his mother’s vital signs surged wildly. Sweat gathered in tiny beads along her hairline and her heart pounded.

She gave a slight frown. "Out of control?" she asked as though the answer were trivial.

Jim nodded. "I thought I was losing my mind."

"Why?" Now she seemed genuinely confused.

Blair glanced over, and Jim gave him a small nod. If they could get some information out of his mother, Jim didn't care what she knew about his senses. It seemed that both she and Ezra had some enhanced senses of their own, and one thing Jim believed in was his mother's ability to cover her own ass. "He was having zone-outs where he focused too much on one sense, and then these spikes where a sense suddenly turned all the way up—they really screwed with his head," Blair explained.

"One sense would go out of control? You have multiple then?" she asked carefully.

"All five," Jim agreed.

"Oh god." Her face lost all color and she grabbed for the edge of the table. Either she was a superb actress or she was close to collapsing. Jim tensed, caught between wanting to move to her side and wanting to dismiss it all as some sort of con woman's trick. Blair shifted his chair over and put a comforting hand on Maude's shoulder. When she looked up, her eyes were glassy. "James, I am so sorry," she said. "I never dreamed you would have all five. I knew you had sight and hearing, but I didn't see any signs of the others when you were young. I would have spent more time working with you on control and focus." Her hands came halfway up to her face before they dropped back down to the table. "I would have found a way to steal you away from your father if I'd known. I swear, James. I never would have left you to struggle with that."

"You know people with all five," Blair said, his voice shocked.

Maude nodded. "My grandfather. My family calls the senses 'the touch.' If a baby is born with the touch, it's said that he will grow up to be an expert at working a mark. I've used my hearing to work a situation more than once, and Ezra's enhanced touch makes him an unbeatable card player; however, when someone is born with all five, the touch is so much harder to control." She ducked her head and was silent for a moment. When she looked up, she seemed to have found some of her composure again. "Oh, it can be done. My grandmother used to tell stories of the ways she helped grandfather uses his touch, and he was an expert. The family still tells stories about him." She smiled.

"He was a con man?" Jim guessed.

Maude sat up a little straighter. "He was a businessman."

"Would that be a businessman who has to run from the law?" Jim asked without mercy.

"The law? No." Maude smiled. "When a man has all five senses touched, his ability to cover his own trail is very well developed. However, he might have run from one or two tar-and-feathering parties." She smile turned wry.

"Great. I come from a long line of crooks." Jim leaned back in his chair. Blair had been so convinced that being a Sentinel included some moral imperative to protect the tribe, but if his mother was right, it was more like a moral imperative to use the senses to their best advantage in order to steal from the tribe.

"There is not a conviction in the whole family, James Ellison. Children born without the touch are never allowed to get involved in family business, and if we are sometimes outside the traditional confines of the law, then perhaps that is because we have unique needs." The starch was back in her voice now, and she'd blinked the glassiness away so that her gaze was calm and in control again.

"All criminals say that," Jim pointed out. There were only two things you could count on from criminals: they would always claim innocence and they would always insist that they were unique and the law shouldn’t apply to them.

Maude gave an offended sniff. "You talk like I'm some common thief."

"You are," Jim pointed out.

"Man, enough," Blair hissed as the waitress showed up with a large tray of food. Jim bit his tongue and smiled as she loaded dish after dish onto their table.

"For the friends of Josiah. On the house," the waitress announced happily.

"Josiah would rather the free food go to the homeless. We can pay," Jim insisted, giving his mother a sharp look.

"Of course we'll pay," Maude said as if she'd never considered anything else. "One simply doesn't take advantage of friends. James is quite correct."

"Oh no," the waitress said. The hostess came over, and the waitress went off in Vietnamese.

"No, we insist. This is a gift," the hostess said.

"Thank you," Blair said before Jim could protest. "But we insist on leaving a gift in return."

Both the waitress and the hostess smiled and gave a little bow as they moved away from the table.

"And the trick is to leave a gift of equal or greater value," Blair said softly. "So, maybe we can table the big issues until we eat because, man, this smells wonderful."

"It does. I'm glad I thought to recommend this place." Maude reached for one of the dishes.

"You heard Blair talking, didn't you?" Jim asked.

"Pardon me?"

"You heard that Blair wanted to go to a Thai place and that I was going to go for burgers or steaks."

Maude had been putting sauce on her plate, but she carefully put the small dish back down. "I did."

"Why?" Jim couldn’t figure out whether his mother truly hated steaks that much or if she'd just been feeling petty enough to want to manipulate Jim into eating something he didn't like. Sometimes he'd caught her doing things like that to his father, and at ten years old, it'd been a great game.

She flushed and looked down at the table. "I see a lot of your father in you. I wanted to see how much."

"Uncool," Blair said with a snort.

She looked over at him and rested a hand on his forearm. "William made a point out of never trying anything new and avoiding anything I loved. It was a poor start to a relationship. I thought I would see if James had inherited any of that petty behavior. And now I see that he hasn't." She looked over at Jim and smiled, and Jim tried very hard to not feel proud that he had passed his mother's test.



Chapter 10

"Oh man, that was wild. I mean, your mother knows craploads of people with enhanced senses. When I was doing the sentinel dissertation, I would have killed to meet her." Blair sat down on the hotel bed, his eyes sort of glazed over in shock. Jim knew how he felt, even if the reasons he felt that way were a little different. When he'd dreamed of finding his mother, this reality had never even crossed his mind.

"Yeah, but her family shoots holes in your theory, Chief," Jim pointed out.

"How's that?"

Jim sat next to Blair on the bed. "You always said that a Sentinel is driven to protect the tribe."

"Yeah? And?" Blair looked at Jim blankly.

Maybe Blair was just too tired to track logically, but Jim could see a huge hole in that theory now. "Chief, they're all criminals."

"Criminal would imply they'd been convicted."

Jim glared at Blair. "Do not start with me."

With an eye roll, Blair just shoulder bumped him. "Man, you are wound tight. Come here," Blair squirmed back onto the bed and patted the spot, inviting Jim to join him on the bed.

"I have a headache," Jim said dryly even though he sat where Blair suggested. The fact was he couldn't think about sex when his mother's misadventures were still making his stomach churn.

"You are just going for the title of schmuck king tonight. I'm trying to offer you a backrub," Blair got his hands on Jim's shoulders and started working the hard muscles.

Just that pressure made Jim cringe. "Actually, I wasn't kidding about the headache," Jim admitted as he realized that he could feel his heart pounding through his whole body. It was like he was one giant, oversensitive mass.

"Considering you're tied into one giant knot, I’m not surprised." Blair gentled his touch, but he continued working on Jim's shoulders and neck. For a long time, they were quiet. Blair rubbed, and Jim tried to unclench his tight body.

"They're criminals, Chief. Maybe they haven't been caught yet because they're using the senses, but they are definitely not out to protect the tribe," Jim said sadly. He'd liked the whole myth Blair had created—the sense that he was destined to serve and protect. Then again, when he was seven, he'd liked to pretend to be Superman, and that wasn't exactly the case.

"Sure they are," Blair said with more confidence than made sense.

"Okay, did we have lunch with the same woman? I'm pretty sure my mother is a cold manipulative…" Blair's thumbs dug into his back a little too hard. "Ow. Shit," Jim cursed.

"Sorry,” Blair offered immediately, but his tone was less than apologetic.

"Yeah? You don't sound sorry," Jim pointed out.

"Well then, sit still before we have another accident." Blair's hands gentled again, and Jim looked over his shoulder suspiciously before settling down again. "Did you hear the way she talked about the family?" Blair asked.

"You mean like they were a giant criminal enterprise?"

"Yeah, well she left them to marry your dad and it seems like they kept their distance, so it's not like their some gang of thugs, but I have to admit, the way she talked about them, I expected her to start referencing Don Corleone and horseheads. But the family is her tribe. She was doing her best to protect them."

Jim snorted. "She'd flip on them in a second if she thought she could make a profit out of it."

"Really? Are you sure about that?"

"I’m not sure of anything anymore," Jim admitted.

"Yeah, well it sounded like she just had a different definition of tribe than you. Of course, it also sounded like she had a different definition than Ezra."

"You caught that, huh?" From the various complaints and snide comments, it was pretty damn clear that his mother didn't like Chris or Buck or any of the other men who regularly hung out at the Players Only. She didn't like the violence, and as far as Jim could tell, she didn't like that Ezra occasionally stuck his neck out to help someone else.

"Oh man, she seriously hates the guys he hangs with," Blair said in an amused voice.

"They interfere with her theory that people should be manipulated and discarded." Blair's fingers dug a little deep. "Ow," Jim complained again.

"Sorry." Again, he didn't even try and sound sorry.

Jim went to push Blair's hands away. "Maybe we should stop."

Blair batted Jim's hands aside and went back to the massage. "Just relax, you big baby. Anyway, not to poke a hole in your theory, but she stayed married to your dad for ten years. That's a little long to stick around if you're just setting up a mark. It sounds like they really loved each other, and it sounds like her family gave her space to follow her heart."

Shaking his head, Jim quickly disagreed. "Trust me. Growing up in that house, there was yelling and screaming and manipulating and lying, but there was not a lot of love."

"Hey, the more you love someone, the darker it can get if it goes wrong."

Jim pushed away from the bed and turned to face Blair. "That's bullshit."

"Hey, it's the people we love that we let close enough to hurt us." Blair's confident expression slowly faded as he looked at Jim. "Jim?" he called, his voice soft and confused.

Jim's stomach was churning. "It's bullshit, Sandburg. That whole crap about being destined to hurt the one you love—I don't believe it." He shook his head like he could make it untrue if he denied it vehemently enough.

"Whoa, hey." Blair held his hands up in surrender and started knee walking to the end of the bed. "That is so not what I said. No way do I believe that all love twists. I only meant that *if* love twists, the greater the love, the uglier it gets. No way do I think all love goes bad."

Jim just stared at Blair, his guts in knots and he thought about their love ever turning that ugly.

Crawling off the end of the bed, Blair walked toward him slowly, his hand reaching out for Jim, but Jim stood statue-still.

Blair shook his head. "Oh man, your fear complex is showing again. No way are we ever going to turn on each other. I love you, you big idiot." Blair moved close enough to rest his hand against Jim's chest.

"It's just… neither one of us has good role models for this, you know?" Jim asked. He slowly brought his own hand up and placed it on the back of Blair's.

"I totally know. I've been winging it for years, in case you hadn't noticed." Blair gave a little laugh and a shrug.

"Yeah, me too."

"Oh, I noticed. Trust me, if I was going to turn on you, it would have been the day you threw away my durian fruit." Blair's eyes twinkled with laughter.

Jim shook his head, his fear and bad mood dispelled by one of Blair stupid jokes. "Chief, the whole building cheered me on when I threw that shit in the dumpster. Hell, mice abandoned the dumpster when they caught a whiff of it."

"Har, har. So it smells a little."

"I've smelled corpses that aren't that rancid."

"It tastes wonderful," Blair said without denying the stink. Jim had come home gagging, and he was pretty sure Blair had only gotten them because the new woman in the building had been vamping over Jim like a fox in heat. The topic of pheromones still got Blair a little twitchy, but one thing Jim knew for sure, he hadn't been able to smell any pheromones over the rotten flesh smell of the exotic fruit.

"I wouldn't know since I’m smart enough to never eat something that smells like it died last week."

"Whatever. My point was that love doesn't have to turn bad. No way. Look at what we've gotten through."

Jim sighed. "Me freaking out over your dissertation." He still felt some twinges of guilt over that, and Naomi's complete and total meltdown hadn't done anything to alleviate the fear that he'd really screwed Blair by reacting to the dissertation so strongly. At the time, he had no idea that Blair would tank the whole thing just to make him happy. Hell, if he'd known that, he would have been tempted to plaster on a fake smile and live with it.

"Okay, that was a tough one," Blair admitted, "but now that I changed topics, man, there were so many problems that I know I did the right thing."


"Totally. I had a sample size of one… yeah, that's really good science,” Blair said sarcastically as he rolled his eyes at himself. “And the anthropological guidelines demand I protect the identify of my subjects. Exactly how was I supposed to do that when you're the only cop I worked with? No way. That was one of my more boneheaded moves. And hey, we survived me being idiotic enough to try and push the dissertation. "

"We survived Laura," Jim pointed out.

"Pheromones from hell," Blair agreed, nodding. "And we survived my golden fire people. Man, there is nothing more embarrassing than trying to shoot your hallucinations in front of an entire station full of cops. I'm surprised you didn't pull my ride-along after that stunt."

"Hey, that wasn't your fault. Besides, I'm the one who was walking around with a gun pretending to be fine when I was blind. Trust me, you weren't the only one who should have been benched that week."

Blair fell silent, but he moved closer so that he could lean into Jim. "We're a pair."

Jim wrapped his arms around Blair. "We are."

"So, I guess we're stuck with each other."

Jim pretended to think about that. "If not, we're going to end up with two random people who probably deserve better."

Blair snorted. "Damn I'm tired," he whispered as he leaned more of his weight into Jim. "It's not even my family drama, and I'm ready to collapse."

"It is your family, Sandburg. If I have to put up with Naomi, you get to put up with Maude."

"Man, that is not fair. I already have to put up with William." Blair had him there. Of course, now Jim was starting to have an odd sort of sympathy for his father. Being married to Grace or Maude or whatever her name was—it couldn't have been easy.

"We'll put finding your father on the agenda and even it out later," Jim joked gently.

"After this?" Blair made a choking noise like the very thought was killing him. "No fucking way. I am done with family, thank you very much."

"Well, I don't think family is done with us. We have footsteps in the hall."

Blair groaned and leaned his forehead into the middle of Jim's chest. "Maybe it's just another guest," he said hopefully.

"He's muttering our room number," Jim pointed out.


"Not with company coming, thanks." Jim smiled as Blair drove an elbow into his side. Letting go of Blair, Jim moved to the door, waiting for the knock. When it came, Jim immediately opened the door, the safety bar still in place. The man on the other side was handsome, blond, blue-eyed, and young enough to perhaps even qualify as cute. Jim recognized him immediately.

"Vin Tanner,” Jim said wearily. “I wish I could say I was surprised, but—"

"You're not," Vin finished for him. He flashed a bright smile. "I was hoping you'd have a minute to talk."

With a sigh, Jim closed the door and flipped the bar open so he could let Vin inside. "So, I think you're the last of the seven to show up."

"The seven?" Vin asked.

Blair offered his hand. "Hey, Blair Sandburg," he introduced himself, "and every time we tried to look into one of you, we kept hitting roadblocks in the official records and all these mysterious references to ‘the seven’ through more informal channels. If I believed half of what's said in some of the chat rooms, I'd have to think you guys were setting yourselves up as the next incarnation of Robin Hood. I mean, I am seriously tempted to call Adrienne Clarkston. She does work on the creation of cultural mythology in an urban setting, and you guys are right up her alley."

"And you're Jim's partner," Vin said with a smile. It still didn't make Jim like him.

Jim closed the door. "I've had about all I can take for one day, so if you're here to say something, say it."

Vin looked over in surprise. "Well, I can see a day with Maude left you in a good mood. Actually, you're in the same mood Ezra's usually in when his mother visits. Before moving here, I never did have the opportunity to be grateful for being an orphan."

Jim just crossed his arms without answering.

"He's not the type for small talk, is he?" Vin asked Blair.

Blair shook his head. "Not even a little bit."

"I can respect that. Anyway, Chris said that he thought he'd made a bad impression on you. He also said that my cover is blown to hell."

"What?" Blair's back went stiff at what he perceived to be an insult. "No way would we blow someone's cover. No fucking way. You're cover is totally safe."

"He means that we know, not that we've told someone else," Jim explained. Blair wasn't a cop, and he tended to think of all law enforcement as working together in some sort of brotherhood. The reality was closer to a whole bunch of siblings who generally didn't like each other, got jealous, and threw terrible tantrums when one of them got a toy the others wanted. The whole reason most local law-enforcement hated the feds was because they had so much more funding and better toys. It was like having a brother with a medical degree. You just naturally hated them.

"Oh." Blair gave Jim an odd look, and Jim mentally scheduled time to explain the reality of inter-agency relationships to Blair. Clearly, Blair still thought that Jim was the only one with an attitude when it came to other cops pushing in on his cases.

"Yeah, well my captain said that you two check out, so since you know who I am, I thought I'd introduce myself."

"You did a background on us." Jim was too tired to even care.

Vin nodded. "Seems fair since you did one on me. So what gave me away? If I have a hole in my cover, I'd rather know before some crook with a gun finds it."

Jim pursed his lips. If he told Vin, it might come back on Jack Kelso who had gotten ahold of the records, but Vin had a right to protect his cover. "I might have seen a record of a cop being shot on scene at a drug dealer's house," Jim admitted.

"Shit. My name was on that?" Vin lost about half his color.

"No," Jim assured him. "But when your friends started talking about Ezra helping when you were shot that day, it wasn't hard to put the two facts together."

Vin nodded. "And most people down here know that story, so I'd better get Captain Rodriguez to do a little housecleaning in the files."

"Before Ezra finds out?" Jim guessed.

Vin laughed. "Ezra knows. Hell, most days it amuses the hell out of him that Chris and I spend so much time at his place. He says it keeps him on his toes, and you know, he actually manages to keep everything illegal out of my line of sight. He's an impressive man."

"He's a criminal."

Vin frowned and studied Jim. "Captain Rodriguez and Chris both said you were some sort of hard-ass, but if that's all you see when you look at Ezra, I don't think hard-ass is a strong enough word."

Jim could feel his temper start to fray, but Blair jumped in before Jim had a chance to say anything offensive. "Hey, maybe that's because of what you guys are letting us see. I mean, everywhere we turn, someone is trying to corner us. It's a little unsettling."

Vin didn't answer that immediately; he seemed to think it over for a second. "Okay, I have to give you that one," he admitted. "The gang can be a little overpowering. Even Josiah who does his best to never get in anyone's face. He still makes these little comments that keep you up at night worrying at things." Vin looked back toward Jim. "Look, I didn't mean to show up and back you into any corners. I just wanted to know if I was compromised and how I could plug any leaks. I would have sent Chris since he knows you better, but he said that you two weren't exactly getting along. And Buck… well, he plans to avoid you until you get over being mad about the fact that he let it slip that you were the same Jim Ellison who was doing a background check on him."

"That was him?" Jim demanded. His fraying temper frayed a little more.

"Yep," Vin agreed.

"Oh man, he has a streak of suicidal, doesn't he?" Blair made a face at the very stupidity of that move.

"He's a bounty hunter who has a local cop and a drunk FBI agent backing him up, I think suicidal is a safe bet," Jim agreed.

Vin tilted his head to the side and got a look on his face that came close to amusement. "You're still trying to figure that out, aren't you?"

"I don't give a shit," Jim quickly answered.

"You lie as well as Ezra,” Vin said with a short laugh. “Oh, Ezra can bluff and he can embellish, but when it comes just flat out lying, he doesn't have it in him. But if your Ezra's brother, you're family, and you already know I'm a cop, so I figure I can't compromise my position any more than it already is. If you want to ask something, ask." Vin leaned against the wall like he was settling in for the long haul.

"Anything?" Blair asked suspiciously.

Vin seemed to think about that. "As long as it's about my time in Tucson, yeah."

"Okay… what are you and Chris investigating?" Jim crossed his arms and waited to see what kind of lie Vin would come up with. He focused on the detective's pupils and the muscles around his eyes and the scent rising from his skin.

"What aren't we?" Vin asked with a laugh. His body didn't show any signs of deceit. "It actually started with Josiah."

"Whoa, you're investigating Josiah?" Blair demanded.

"No, but the investigation started with Josiah. He's been down here with the poor for decades. They trust him. So when the illegals and the poor have a problem and they don't trust the police, they go to Josiah. If they need money for bail or a loan, they go to Buck. He's about the only man down there who will treat the poor fairly. So those two are so deep into the underground community, that they get information no one else can."

"And you found a way to tap that fount of information," Jim guessed. Cascade had its own underground, and when Jim had worked Vice, he'd spent most of his time trying to get close to smugglers, dog fighters, drug dealers and con artists who all used this hidden society and its network of semi-legal businesses and laundering schemes.

Vin nodded. "Yep.At least that's what my superiors think. Chris showed up a little later; he knows Buck from the army, so they sent him in to try and figure out why Tucson PD suddenly had a better hold on the drug and money trafficking through the area."

"They wanted in on the busts." It was just like the fed to get jealous that someone else was getting more glory.

"Probably," Vin agreed. "Chris insists they just wanted a quiet place to dump him."

"Because he's a drunk?" Blair asked the question without any accusation in his voice, which was better than Jim would have done, but Vin still looked at him in shock for a second before answering.

"Because his family was killed and no one wanted to watch him slowly commit suicide."

Blair cringed. "Oh man."

"Yeah, Chris has his demons, but then, we all do. But I'll tell you this, I trust these men at my back, and I don't say that easily."

Jim studied Vin as he asked his next question. "Including Ezra?"

"Yes," Vin answered immediately and without showing any signs of a lie. "Look, I understand why you have a problem with him. I'm lucky. The first time I met him, I got shot. It let me see what kind of man your brother is. He'll talk big about covering his own ass, and if he can get away with it, he'll cut corners—no question. But when I was bleeding, he ran me across a parking lot under fire instead of staying safely inside. He pitched a fit and called us all crazy when we decided to go after Josiah instead of calling the police, but he was there with us, gun in hand, complaining the whole way. I only got to see his record later, after I'd already decided that I liked him, despite his mouth and his attitude."

For some reason, that proclamation of support just made Jim more uncomfortable. "What do you want me to do, sing a chorus of kumbaya with you?" Jim demanded.

Blair turned away like he was looking for something on the bedside table. "Man, your cynical is showing way too much," he whispered Sentinel-soft.

"I tell you what," Vin offered. "Buck has a job tonight, and I was going to play backup. I'm going to suggest that I'm busy and have him call Ezra. Maybe if you see them in action, you might have a different impression of your brother."

"Action?" Jim studied Vin. This man might be a cop, but he wasn't one to play by the books. Jim's first partner in Major Crime had been the same, before he'd ended up dead, stuffed in a trunk with his good name ruined. As a cop, if you played it too close to the edge, you risked falling over, and that could be a nasty fall. Vin might be willing to overlook a few indiscretions in order to keep his cover, but Jim wasn't willing to live in that morally gray and dangerous place. "If I see something illegal, I will report it," he warned Vin.

"Fair enough," Vin agreed with a nod. "Just make sure you keep quiet because Buck gets twitchy when someone mentions your name right now. Oh, and avoid aftershave. Ezra has a nose on him like a bloodhound. I'll call about nine and let you know where they're going to be."

Without another work, Vin tilted his head toward each of them, an odd gesture that Jim had noticed in several of the others as well. He suspected they lived together as well as working together—that was about the only way men picked up each other's habits. Sometimes in the army, units would do that—develop a unique tic that marked them as part of a particular group. His silent farewells over, Vin headed out the door."

Jim stood and looked at the door for a second before turning to Blair.

Blair had a bright smile on his face, like this was somehow exciting. "Okay, I am officially dying of curiosity."

"Why do I have a bad feeling about this?"

"Because you're in a bad mood?" Blair guessed with an even wider smile. Jim narrowed his eyes and lunged at Blair, but the man danced backwards. "Hey, I'm just calling 'em like I sees 'em," Blair said with a lilt to his voice. Before Jim could come up with a retort, Blair grabbed a book off the nightstand and headed for the bathroom. "The spa tub and I have a long and intimate date. If you go down for an afternoon snack, grab me some fruit, okay?"

Jim didn't comment as Blair disappeared. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jim toed off his shoes and stretched his neck. So, they had several hours before Jim would supposedly get a whole new view of his brother. Glancing at the clock and then the bathroom door, Jim made up his mind. Stripping off his shirt, he headed toward the bathroom to make it a threesome with the tub.


Chapter 11

"This is idiotic," Ezra complained, but then he hadn't been doing much else since showing up outside the small house with peeling paint and bare spots on the roof where the shingles had fallen off in some storm. "Why don't you simply have J.D. out here if backup is so necessary?"

"He's doing that firearms class to get his official P.I. license." Buck sat on the edge of the crumbling concrete porch and looked around with a wide smile as if he was just out to enjoy an evening. It was cooling off more than Jim expected, but it was still hot enough that he'd be inside if he had a choice.

Jim thought Blair would get antsy sitting and just watching—god knows he did on stakeout, but he was sitting behind the world's thorniest flower bushes scribbling away in his little notebook. You could take the researcher away from the Sentinel dissertation, but you couldn't take the obsession with Sentinels away from the researcher.

"And Vin?" Ezra asked. He looked a good deal more uncomfortable than Buck.

Buck shrugged. "Don't know. He just said he couldn't make it."

"So I am stuck out here wasting my time. I am a business owner, you know. I have responsibilities."

"Funny thing, I'm pretty sure I do too."

"Yes, well your business is to wander the streets at night."

Buck laughed. "You make it sound like I'm out walking the streets. Most times, I sit behind a desk and fill out paperwork, Ezra."

Ezra just gave Buck an unhappy look that made it clear he considered owning a bar a step up from owning a bail bonds company. Jim still didn't know why Vin insisted that he listen in on this… so far he'd collected evidence that his brother was a snob, an asshole, and really short on patience.

"Are you sure he's coming tonight?" Ezra asked for the third time. Jim was starting to think the man was related to Sandburg instead of him.

"Yep," Buck answered. Jim still didn't know who "him" was, but Buck seemed pretty convinced he was going to show. If Jim was going to guess, he'd say that someone jumped bail and Buck was looking to pick him up. Hopefully this wasn't a case of him doing creative collections on some loan.

For a time, Buck was quiet, but Jim had noticed the man did like to talk. He seemed to consider silence a challenge. "So, that's really interesting, you having a brother."

Jim sat up. Now this was a conversation he wanted to hear.

"Interesting is not the word." Ezra's face twisted with disgust. "He's a police officer."

Buck grinned. "Oh, I have it on good authority that not all officers of the law are bad." From the wink he gave Ezra, he was well aware of the fact that his little gang of seven had a couple of officers in it.

Ezra sighed. "No wonder Mother worries if I've taken leave of my senses. Sometimes, I think she's right."

"How's she taking this?"

"That is a private concern," Ezra said, the starch back in his voice.

"I just figured that she had to be struggling, is all. It can't be easy to get forced away from her kids like that."

"I doubt William Ellison gave much thought to her feelings in the matter."

"Probably not," Buck agreed. "Still, seems like there are a whole lot of people trying to do right and screwing up along the way. I suppose we both know a thing or two about screwing up."

"If you're attempting to get me to feel sympathy for either William Ellison or his manipulative, back-stabbing son, you can stop. I assure you that I will not be changing my mind about either of them in the near future."

Jim frowned, not liking the tone he was hearing. Blair looked over at him and mouthed the word "whoa," his eyes huge.

"And I will not soon forget that the rest of you conspired to conceal his identity," Ezra said, his voice cold.

Buck held up a hand as if trying to protect himself from Ezra's glare. "Hey, I'm the one who told you."

"You're the one who was so besotted by Maria and half-drunk that he let slip the truth. That does not absolve you in this deception."

"Ez, no one wanted to deceive you—maybe just keep you from going off at the mouth. If you'd known who he was, you would have thrown him out before he got a foot in the door."

"Yes, I certainly would have. And I would not have pulled Mother into the middle of this."

"At least this way, you got to know your brother."

"Yes, what a wonderful experience. He illegally accessed my medical records—records created because I was attempting to help a child with bone cancer—he used his position to search my past, he showed up with no warning without the courtesy to identify himself, and he made assumptions about my character without ever meeting me. I am thrilled to have such a brother. Were I any more blessed, I would have Charles Manson for a brother."

Jim could feel hot fury start to rise in him. He stiffened, on the verge of standing up and coming out from behind the bushes, but Blair's hand fell on his arm.

"Man, he has a point."

Jim turned his fury on Blair, glaring coldly at his partner.

"Dial down the testosterone, Jim," Blair whispered. "The Manson thing is over the line, but the rest—we kinda did that. Cut him some slack, because he is just calling a spade a spade. You've been known to do it once or twice."

"I never—" Jim stopped. He was too angry, and if started saying something now, he was going to end up yelling. The last thing he wanted was one more ugly scene, and Ezra would probably accuse him of stalking or some shit like that. "You get whatever notes you need and we are never coming back here," Jim said, his voice feeling rough as he tried to whisper when he really wanted to bellow.

"I hear ya," Blair agreed, ducking his head so that Jim couldn't read his expression. Jim sighed as he realized he would not be getting unconditional support from Blair tonight.

"Chris says he's a good guy," Buck was saying.

"Chris is a drunk."

"Chris is a good man, Ezra, and he's fished your ass out of more trouble than the rest of us put together."

"I never meant to imply he didn't. I am just suggesting that his judgment—"

"Is as good as ever. If he's still feeling the sting of having his whole family taken from him, he has that right. I trust him with my life, and I've never seen him get so drunk that he—"

"Accidentally blurted out the secret identity of someone's brother?" Ezra finished for him with a nasty smirk. Most men would have taken offense, but Buck just shook his head.

"That wasn't whiskey, that was the beauty of Maria distracting me from my better judgment."

"Is there any woman whose beauty doesn't distract you?"

"Can I help it if I find the fairer sex charming? They are more charitable, warmer, and they have such lovely curves."

Ezra shook his head. "And they turn you down with such regularity that one starts to wonder if you have a masochistic streak."

With a laugh, Buck gave Ezra a wink. "Oh, I don't get turned down near as much as you might think. Some people just prefer to be a little more discrete."

"I didn't think you were acquainted with that word." Ezra looked almost amused.

"I can be, under the right circumstances."

Jim had no idea what to think of the easy banter. Buck was the sort of man Jim had spent most of his life around—he reminded Jim of Henri Brown so much that Jim almost felt homesick for the practical joker with his horrible taste in shirts. They both joked a little too much, but they had a way of carrying themselves that suggested that they also knew who to take care of business. Watching Ezra so comfortable with someone Jim might like… it was weird.

"You're going to crack a tooth," Blair said softly. Until that moment, Jim hadn't realized just how hard he was clenching his jaw. Forcing himself to relax, he could feel the muscles in his face ache. He really was going to crack a tooth at this rate. Blair put his notebook on the ground, resting it on a pile of pink, papery petals from the thorny bush. Leaning closer, he slipped his hand around Jim's back and rested his weight against Jim's side. "Hey, worst case, we just go home. It doesn't matter. It totally doesn't matter. Blair rested his head against Jim's shoulder, and Jim reached around, hugging Blair with one arm. It did matter, but then Jim had learned to live with disappointment when it came to family.

"See that?" Ezra asked. Jim's head came up at the tone in his voice. That was a worried man. Jim looked around, and Blair, sensing the change in mood, scooted to the side and retrieved his notebook.

"I saw it the first time he drove by," Buck agreed. He didn't sound half as worried, but there was an edge to his voice Jim hadn't heard before, and his hand was resting on his thigh near where Jim suspected he kept his gun. "You're going blind in your old age, Ezra," he teased.

"As long as I'm not as ugly as others."

"Now I know you're not talking about me because I have it on good authority that I am a cute man, nearly as cute as Vin," Buck shot back, but his eyes were sweeping the street, and Jim changed his focus. He'd chosen this spot because the bushes blocked anyone from seeing them easily, and they could get to the alley behind where the rental was parked, but it wasn't as easy to see the street as Jim would like, and the bushes were a poor cover if any real trouble showed up.

Buck and Ezra both stiffened as an old blue car pulled up. It had driven past before, and now Buck and Ezra shifted so they were farther apart and had a better line of fire. Jim put a hand on Blair's shoulder, urging him toward the block wall where they'd left the car. Blair was unarmed, so if this got ugly, Jim wanted him out of the way. Of course, just because Jim wanted it, that didn't mean Blair was going to go along. Even now, Blair was digging in his heels and refusing to get pushed back. Jim spared his partner one unhappy look before he focused on the scene in front of the old house.

The man who got out of the car had his hair slicked back. He closed the car door and leaned back against it in a exaggerated sprawl. "Hey, vatos. I heard that cunt of mine hired some dudes who called themselves badasses." The man made a point of raising his shirt to show the butt of a gun. Jim could feel his guts tighten as the situation turned dangerous.

"And I heard you had an ounce of good manners, clearly we are both sorely uninformed," Ezra said. Jim could feel a smile tug at the edges of his mouth. That had been good. A flash of confusion crossed the man's face, but then he pushed away from the car and swaggered up the path. This kid couldn't be more than twenty, and he had all the stupidity that went with youth.

"So, are you some sort of bodyguards? How much would it cost to hire you? Then again, maybe she's paying you in something more interesting than money. What? Do you share her? She's a good fuck." The guy got a nasty smirk on his face.

"Now, I'm starting to think we're going to have a problem," Buck said. "I know I'm idealistic, but I like to think of women as being just a little better than us, a little purer…."

The man gave a nasty laugh at that announcement, but Buck kept right on going. "And you're offending my sense of gentlemanly duty. And to answer your question, she's not paying us at all. I volunteered to teach a young man how to show some manner. First, you never use the word 'cunt' for a woman. They are ladies or women or sometimes even beauties, but not ever 'cunts.' Now Ezra here will tell you that 'bitches' is equally off limits."

"I will," Ezra agreed. "A gentleman would never use such a word."

"Now I tend to be a little more modern. I believe that you can call a woman a bitch if you use a respectful tone and if you're describing her impressive ability to verbally shred some idiot of a man. In fact, I find some women even appreciate having a man notice their talent at being a bitch."

"Do you need to take notes?" Ezra asked. "I fear you're not getting all this, and there will be a quiz."

The man looked from one to the other. "You're fucking nuts."

"You know, more than one person has suggested that very thing," Ezra said with a mock seriousness as he looked over at Buck. "Does it concern you that so many people seem to question our mental acumen and stability?"

Buck shrugged. "Nope. I do get a little worried when I consider that the state of Arizona lets us carry big fucking guns, though." Buck pulled the last button of his shirt open and pushed the edge aside to reveal the butt of a rather large gun in a belt holster. "You'd think guys as crazy as the two of us would be on some sort of list."

"You would think," Ezra agreed seriously. He had his own weapon out and he was running a finger up and down it lovingly.

The man was backing away now. "Before you leave, you need to understand something," Buck said as strolled toward the retreating man. "You need to ask around, ask people what they think of the Tucson seven. You tell them that you managed to make them very unhappy by verbally and physically harassing a woman who is trying to start a new life. You see what they think about your life expectancy."

"I dare say most people would question his sanity for going up against us," Ezra said sadly. "The Juarez cartel would definitely advise you to find another place to make trouble."

"They were pains in the ass to get rid of," Buck said.

"Quite," Ezra agreed. "And I am still aggravated that they had the audacity to call the police. You know, my police record actually has in it that I was charged with stalking a drug lord. Do you have any idea what that does to your credit rating? I am paying inflated interest rates on my business loans because of that man. If they want to shoot at me, fine. But attacking my credit rating and involving the police is really quite beyond the pale."

Ezra hadn't quite finished his speech before the man had gotten into the car. He started the engine with a roar and hit the accelerator so hard that the tires screamed against the pavement and the car jerked into the road and nearly hit a mailbox before straightening out and disappearing into the night.

"We didn't get to shoot him," Ezra said sadly.

"Chris and Vin will be just as happy." Buck started toward the house. "I'm going to tell Margarite that he's gone."

"Do you think he'll stay gone?"

Buck stared off down the street. "I think so. J.D. and I can swing by a few times and make sure he keeps his distance."

"Next time, I'm shooting him. Anyone who can beat up a woman like that deserves to get shot." Ezra sounded firm on that point.

"I'm not disagreeing with you there. Just, don't let Vin and Chris catch you. I mean, I'd visit you in prison, but I’m not sure the others would. You know how Josiah is about leaving that church of his. And you'd miss all his Sunday sermons."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "The last time I went to Sunday sermon, it consisted of a bus and Josiah saying that anyone who didn't get tested as a potential bone marrow donor for a dying child was risking eternal damnation. I still haven't thanked you for insisting I come along that day."

"She found a match," Buck said without apology.

"You know, I'm not entirely sure we're bluffing when we call our own sanity into question." Ezra headed off down the street, away from the bushes where Jim and Blair were watching.

Buck watched until Ezra reached a dark car parked nearly at the corner. "Oh, I know we aren't," he said to himself softly. Then he turned and knocked at the door of the house.

Jim pushed at Blair again, urging him back toward the alley.

"Oh man. Shit. Whoa. I mean… whoa." Blair blurted the words out when they hit the alley. "That was…."

"Unbelievable?" Jim said. He'd think it was a set up, but the smell of fear from the young man, the aggravation from Ezra, the testosterone from Buck and Ezra as they drove the kid off… these were not smells that a person could fake.

"Fucking amazing," Blair corrected him. "I mean, talk about thinking outside the box. Talk about unconventional power sources and the use of bluffing in status fights. Although…. Were they…. Would they have shot him?"

Jim thought about that. The aggression had been enough to make his nose itch. "Maybe," Jim finally concluded. He wasn't comfortable with the thought of civilians taking on the power of police, but considering that Vin was a detective and he gave his tacit approval to this little operation, Jim wasn't going to tell anyone, either.

"Seriously, I want to go home and write about five articles over the interactions I just saw. I would, only no one would believe me. I mean… wow. Just wow. I know your brother is an asshole, but he's kind of a cool asshole."

Jim didn't answer. He wasn't sure how he felt about his brother anymore. He wasn't even sure how his brother should feel about him. It was uncomfortable having reality bent and twisted around you. Maybe Blair understood that because he fell silent, jotting things in his notebook as Jim drove them back to the hotel. His brother was certainly… unexpected.



Chapter 12

"So," Blair said. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked at Jim. Jim knew exactly what Blair was asking, but he didn't have an answer. What the hell was he supposed to say to Ezra? After spying, he thought he should probably apologize for crashing into the man's life and making a whole lot of assumptions. Part of him just wanted to go back to Cascade and mark this up as one more family relationship that wasn't going to work.

"Are you going to tell your dad?"

Leaning against the wall, Jim turned his head so he could see out the hotel window. The sidewalk shimmered in the heat and the sun’s glare made him miss the cooler and cloudier climate up north. "Chief, I don't even really talk to my dad. Why would I inflict him on someone else?"

Blair made a face. "He has issues."

"To say the least," Jim agreed. He wondered what his father had been like as a young man—falling in love with a known con woman with a personality as large as his mother's. For decades, Jim had blamed his father for their marriage falling apart, although he had blamed his mother for walking out. Now, he was starting the think the divorce had been a mutual effort. And Ezra… William Ellison would have a fit if he knew what his son had become. Steven was the golden boy—the one who had gone into the nice respectable business world. Jim with his “cop” friends and gun and history of violence—well, most days Jim knew that some part of his father respected him, but it seemed to be a pretty damn small part. Jim wouldn’t be talking to the man at all if it weren’t for Blair. But if his father knew about Ezra with his criminal background and vigilante friends, the old man would have a heart attack.

“I’m starting to appreciate being an only child,” Blair said softly. Considering that Steven couldn’t deal with Jim’s sexuality and Ezra just couldn’t deal with Jim at all, Jim was starting to feel like an only child himself. And if that’s the way his brothers wanted it, that was fine. Jim didn’t need them. Steven was a big boy, and Ezra…. Jim sighed. If he were honest with himself, he liked Ezra more. It took guts to stand up for a battered woman. Guts and a little stupidity, but he had partners to keep him from getting in too much trouble. Steven sure as hell wouldn’t have been out there.

Jim pulled out his cell phone and started dialing. Blair stood up and walked to Jim’s side, silently resting a hand against Jim’s back. Honestly, Jim really didn’t need his brothers—he had the love he needed. The phone on the other end rang several times before someone picked up.

“What?” Ezra asked, none of his usual charm in place. Jim sighed. He wished he knew the Ezra he’d seen last night—the one with the sharp sense of humor and unshakable courage. All Jim knew was that when people pushed him, he set his heels in and got stupid. The only reason his relationship with Blair worked was because the man had mastered the art of dodging around issues instead of trying to plow his way through. If Jim insisted he wanted to three kinds of meat at every meal, Blair would nod and agree and make sure that two forms were so disgusting that Jim didn’t touch them. It was just how he dealt with conflict—from the side. Jim didn’t even try to pretend that he controlled the relationship. He put his foot down and Blair went right around him and did what he wanted.

“If you’re going to say something, I suggest you do so before I hang up on you,” Ezra snapped.

“You have caller ID,” Jim commented. Obviously the man did because he didn’t strike Jim as the sort to be this rude to just anyone.

“What do you want? I am trying to run a business here.”

“I’m leaving town,” Jim said. Blair’s fingers pressed a little deeper into his back.

“Good. Don’t let the car door hit you on the ass on your way out of town.” Ezra sounded almost satisfied. Jim could respect that. If the situation had been reversed, he would have paid good money to get Ezra out of his hair.

“Fair enough,” Jim answered. He could hear the slight suck of air on the other end that suggested he’d caught Ezra off guard. “You know, I suspect the woman who broke confidentiality on both our bone marrow tests thought the same thing I did—that I had a son—that I had an obligation to my son. If I’d known you were a grown man with your own life, I wouldn’t have started this whole process.”

“You could have simply stayed out of Tucson,” Ezra said, still looking for a reason to fight. Jim smiled at Blair while taking a play out of his lover’s playbook. It was time to go around the side instead of picking a fight head-on.

“You’re right. I could have. Curiosity got the best of me. But I’m heading back up to Cascade today, and before I left, I wanted to apologize for not being up front with you.” Jim gave a grim laugh. “Actually, you’re the only family that doesn’t disapprove of Blair or my relationship with him, even if you do hate me. That means something. Steven, the brother in the middle, doesn’t even want to think about it, and dad….” Jim let his voice trail off. From the silence on the other end, Ezra was hungry for information, but Jim was guessing he’d chew off an arm before asking any questions.

“Dad feels guilty about a lot of the shit he did when we were kids, so now he bends over backwards to try and make things right.” Jim was giving a con man the keys to their father’s guilt, but hopefully Jim had judged Ezra right, and the man wouldn’t take advantage of it. If he did… well, Jim would cross that bridge when he came to it. “But he can’t hide his disapproval. He wanted boys who would be clones of himself, and I never did fit that mold.”

Blair’s arms slipped around Jim’s waist—his head resting against Jim’s back. Despite the comfort that offered, Jim almost wished Blair would give him some space because baring himself like this was hard, and Blair’s comfort was making too many emotions rise up at once. He’d hang up now, only he figured he had once chance of showing Ezra he wasn’t a chip off the old Ellison block.

“I fail to see any reason why I should care.” Ezra sounded almost confused.

“Good. If you decide to ever meet him, you’ll need that attitude, because Dad is going to disapprove of you as much as he does me. We aren’t good little corporate lawyers and managers. That’s more Steven’s thing. He never could stop caring about what Dad thought.”

“Will you tell them?” Most of the hostility had left Ezra’s voice.

“No. That’s for you to decide. If you want to get to know them, they’re both still in Cascade. You’re welcome to come up and tell them, or if you want, you can just come along as a friend during one of the rare family dinners where my father and Blair conspire to try and make us all forgive each other. It hasn’t worked so far, but those two are determined. Just bring lots of antacid.”

Jim leaned forward and rested his head against the window sill. There wasn’t anything else he could do to offer an olive branch, and he felt so damn vulnerable with all his offers out there between them. He probably would have hung up by now except he could smell that special salt and sweet scent Blair got whenever he was really, really happy. Jim would risk a little of his own pride for that.

“Trust me, I have no interest in socializing with the man who drove Mother out of the state. His heavy-handed and unethical actions prove his is a bully.”

With a sigh, Jim nodded. “He was. Now he’s a sad old man who can’t figure out why his sons don’t like him.”

That made Ezra paused. If Jim had to guess, he would say Ezra expected Jim to defend their father. Hell, the man probably thought Jim was a chip off the old block considering the way Jim had bent the truth. Ezra finally answered. “That proves only that he is an intellectually and socially challenged bully, not that he has, in any way, reformed.”

Jim didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything he could say. His father wasn’t the bully he had been when Jim was young, but defending William Ellison wasn’t going to help in this situation. Besides, their father had made this mess, or at least fifty percent of this mess. There was a long silence. In the background, Jim could hear voices whispering: it sounded like Buck and J.D. Jim wondered if these men were ever alone, or if, like some sort of bizarre military unit, they always travelled with backup. If they were out there challenging the drug cartels, hopefully they always had backup.

“Mother is convinced that you need some sort of guidance after years of William Ellison’s influence. I should probably warn you that she intends to make you a priority in the near future.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Jim answered. The last thing he wanted was another round of Maude Standish in his life, but he’d take that up with his mother. Ezra certainly couldn’t control her. There was another of those pregnant pauses.

Ezra sighed. “She can sometimes be a little….” He stopped. Jim could almost feel the distress through the phone. “Oh for God’s sake,” he finally said in the same tone another man might say ‘fuck it.’ “She is utterly insufferable at times, both in her unshakable belief that she is always right and in her very annoying penchant for actually being right. Lord knows she’s done her best to get me to give up the Players Only. She says that owning property makes one less mobile and sluggish, and her forms of persuasion have gone past the simple heart-to-heart talk.”

Jim wondered exactly what that meant. From the tight tone and carefully controlled emotions that still slipped through well enough for Jim’s Sentinel ears to pick them up, Ezra and Maude had a major conflict sometime in the near past. Even more surprisingly, Jim felt a flash of aggravation that someone would bother his brother. He hadn’t felt that since Steven was seven and got beat up.

“I’ll keep the deed to the loft in the lockbox,” Jim joked, ignoring his own tangled feelings.

“That might be a good plan. A bank’s safe deposit box would be even better,” Ezra said. Jim’s eyes flew open at that bit of advice. So, his mother would screw him over if she thought she was doing it in his best interest. Yeah, Jim figured his father had at least some cause to complain in the marriage.

“Well, please do not drop in uninvited again, and if I am ever in Cascade, I shall look you up,” Ezra suddenly said in a tone that made it clear the conversation was over. Before Jim could say anything, the line went dead. Jim closed his cell phone and reached over to put it on the dresser.

Blair’s arms tightened around him. “Man that was… that was fucking amazing. When we get home, I’m signing you up for the negotiating team because that… that was a masterpiece of negotiation and compromise. A fucking masterpiece.”

“I just channeled you, Chief,” Jim pointed out.

Unexpectedly, Blair started laughing. “Me? You have your wires crossed. I’m the one who can’t see that he’s stepping all over other people’s hopes and fears without someone shoving a big sign in my face. Trust me, if I had tried to negotiate that, Ezra probably would have shot you.” Blair walked over and sat on the bed. “So, what now?”

“Now we pack and get our tickets changed for a late afternoon flight,” Jim said.

Nodding, Blair got up and headed for the suitcase in the closet. “I can do that.”

“No, you can’t,” Jim said, stepping in front of him so that Blair nearly crashed into him. Grabbing the phone off the dresser, Jim shoved it at him. “You make the calls; I’ll pack the bags.”

“What? You don’t trust me to pack? What do you think I’d do? Steal the towels?”

“I think that last time you packed my wrinkles had wrinkles, Chief. You don’t know how to fold a shirt any more than I know how to shake one of your ceremonial spears. So you change the tickets, and I will pack the bags.”

“Has anyone ever accused you of being anal retentive?”

“Only you, Chief. The rest of the world thinks I’m normal. If you ever tried to pack Rafe’s bag, the man would be forced to shoot you in defense of innocent suits, so I’m not the odd one here.”

“Yeah, yeah. You just keep on telling yourself that, Ellison,” Blair said with a healthy eye roll as he started dialing the phone. Jim smiled as he pulled shirts off hangers and carefully laid them out on the bed to fold them. Blair had changed the tickets, and Jim was working on the packing when a knock came at the door. Jim traded a look with Blair as he tried to figure out which of the seven were going to pay one last visit. It wouldn’t be Ezra, Jim knew that.

Going over to the door, Jim checked through the peep hole, shocked to find his mother in the hall. He swung the door open.


Maude Standish, the woman who had once upon a time been Grace Ellison, swept into the room before turning to catch Jim’s face between her palms and pulling his head down so she could kiss his forehead. “You always were my favorite, James. Even before I knew you had the touch, you were the one who could always see what people needed. You hid it, but you had the ability to read people. I’m your mother. I could see it.” She smiled at him, and Jim could feel some cold spot in his heart thaw, even if he was still confused.

“Is this about Ezra?”

“Of course it’s about Ezra. Do keep up with the conversation.” She let him go and turned toward Blair, holding out her hand. Blair looked confused, but he went to shake it only to find Maude clasping her hands around his. “Blair, I am so glad we’re having a chance to say goodbye before you left. I know that you wouldn’t have let Jim sneak out of town without a call at least.”

“I would have suggested it,” Blair agreed. Maude smiled at him and sat on the end of the bed, pulling Blair down to sit next to her.

“I want you to know that you’ll always be family,” Maude said, patting Blair’s leg. Blair was looking almost amused.

“Mom, I would have called you,” Jim said as he closed the door.

“Of course, you would have, James. You know, I have collected every newspaper clipping about you. I always told your father that he was an idiot, and that his insane desire to make you into someone average was going to backfire. I told him that. But no, William Ellison didn’t want a son that was so unique—so willing to give his heart to everyone from a homeless man to a bird that had fallen from its nest.” She turned to Blair. “He couldn’t have been more than four, and we were going to one of William’s fancy parties in the city at one of those hotel ballrooms, and a homeless man came up to ask for change so he could buy food. William just ignored him. But halfway through dinner, James turned up missing. He had taken his plate right out the front door and gave it to that man.”

Jim blinked, surprised as the memory surfaced now that his mother was telling the story. He remembered the smell of the man, the look on his father’s face when he came out, the confusing laughter of adults.

“Young James charmed a state congressman with his altruism, but William was furious at having the dinner interrupted, first by a widespread search under the tablecloths to find a missing child and then by the amusement of all the guests that James had decided to take up a one-man crusade to feed the homeless in Cascade.”

Blair was looking up at Jim with a huge smile on his face. “Oh man, I would kill to have seen that.”

“I was never so proud of him in all my life.” Maude’s smile got a little teary. “But from the time he could walk, that boy of mine never could bear to see a wrong. If there was a bully, James would put him in his place. If there was someone hurt, he’d be right there offering comfort. William never understood what a beautiful child he had fathered. Never. And I hated him for not appreciating James or me… and for trying his best to make sure that Steven turned out more boring. The minute Steven was born, suddenly I wasn’t enough. Suddenly we had to have a live-in nanny, and he had to have me on his arm for all his boring business evenings, and god forbid we bring the children. He wanted to keep me away from my own sons, as if I was the bad influence.”

His mother’s expression slipped, and Jim could see the raw pain underneath.

“He meant well, but he was….” Jim stopped. He loved his father, even if he didn’t like him much.

“He was wrong,” his mother said firmly. “And I was equally wrong for not fighting harder. I should have. I should have found a way to blackmail him right back—or invented one as he did. I should have recognized that you had more than just a simple case of the touch. I should have…. I should have done so much more for you, James. Loving you from a distance was never a substitute for being there.”

Jim shook his head. “If you’d stayed, you two would have turned that house into a war zone, and Steven, Ezra and I all would have ended up in the middle.”

She looked up at him. “So, you forgive me?”

He thought about that. He wanted to. He wanted to feel forgiveness in his heart, but as much as he understood her more, he was having some trouble forgiving her for not doing something to let him know that she was out there somewhere, still loving him and missing him.

“I’m trying to,” he finally said.

She stood up and walked toward him, smiling with tears shining in her eyes. “That’s enough, James. It’s more than enough.” She opened her arms, and before Jim knew quite what was happening, he was hugging her, holding her against him. The last time he’d hugged her, he’d been a child, and now she felt so small next to him. She wasn’t this larger-than-life woman who had made every outing into an adventure. She was just a simple woman who had been through a divorce nastier than most.

Pulling back, she looked up at him. “I assume the invitation to come to Cascade is open for me as well as Ezra.”

“Of course it is,” Jim agreed.

Blair stood up. “You can have my old bed under the stairs.”

She frowned as she looked from one to the other. “Under the stairs. Why in the world would you be under the stairs?

Blair’s face broke into a big grin. “Oh man, you have got to hear the story about how I moved in on Jim. You see, I was staying at a warehouse with this Barbary ape…”

“A monkey?”

“No way. A Barbary ape. Totally different thing, although they do both have a habit of throwing their own shit as a form of self-defense, but that’s… anyway—”

“Chief, she doesn’t need to hear the story,” Jim warned.

“Oh, but I do,” his mother contradicted him.

“Yeah, Jim, she does. Beside, you have to pack,” Blair said with a wicked expression, but he was also watching Jim closely, probably looking for some sign that Jim was actually upset.

“Just remember, I have all the good stories on you, Blair. I think your mother even left me some of those naked baby pictures she seemed so fond of.” Jim mock-glared at Blair.

Before Blair could threaten Jim, the way he normally did when the subject of naked baby pictures came up, his mother took a step closer to Blair and slipped an arm under his arm. “So, you have this Barbary ape in the warehouse and then what happens?”

Blair focused on Maude. “Well, what I didn’t know what that a drug dealer had set up a drug lab next door….”

Jim went back to folding the clothes as he watched his mother and Blair migrate over to the small table where they sat down and talked with the sort of joyous abandon Jim couldn’t quite manage with his mother—not yet, anyway--maybe not ever. However, even if this whole adventure to find his flesh and blood relative had been a little unusual, it was worth it. Watching his mom with Blair, he could see the woman he'd known... all her life and passion and idiocy.

His mother looked up at him with such love in her face that Jim could see that no matter how much time had passed and how many mistakes she’d made, he was still in her heart. It was a start. Now if he could keep her out of Cascade, it’d be an even better start.


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