Familiar Stranger


The reporters stirred as the three of them walked into the room. Flashes went off as they made their way up to the front to the podium. Blair tried not to let it unnerve him, tried not to let it remind him too much of the last time he'd been in front of the press like this. But he couldn't quite help nervously clenching and unclenching his hands. He couldn't help the sick feeling that had settled in the pit of his stomach. The last press conference he'd given had succeeded in ruining his career and separating him from the most important person in his life. Only days ago, the papers had been dragging Jim's name through the mud, painting him as some kind of demented sexual predator. It was hardly any wonder that the sight of so many reporters crowded into one place set him completely on edge.

He just hoped that Simon would be right, that this would repair all the damage that had been done, that all the questions would finally be put to rest.

Simon took center stage, tapping the microphone to make sure it was on. He and Jim hung back a little, standing off to one side.

"I want to thank you all for coming today," Simon addressed the reporters. "I have a brief statement to read, and then I'll entertain any questions you have."

"Is this about the serial rape case?" a voice called out.

"What's the department planning to do to make sure its officers are more thoroughly screened?" someone else asked.

"Will Detective Ellison file suit for false arrest?" another person wanted to know.

Simon scowled. "If you'll listen to my statement first, I'll be happy to answer your questions afterwards."

The crowd quieted down, but Blair could still feel the buzz of their impatient curiosity in the air. It was like watching a bunch of vultures, at least that's how it struck Blair.

Simon cleared his voice and started to read the announcement the three of them had crafted.

"Approximately six months ago, the Cascade PD received intelligence from the Seattle and Spokane PDs that a dangerous serial rapist targeting young men was in all likelihood headed for Cascade. These other police departments had investigated crime sprees in their own cities, but had been unable to catch the perpetrator. They had little information about him and no description. However, a pattern seemed to be emerging that led them, and us, to believe that his next destination would be Cascade. At that time, the decision was made to put into action a new and advanced law enforcement strategy known as anticipatory policing."

"What's anticipatory policing?" asked one of the reporters.

"I'm getting to that," Simon said. "Anticipatory policing is a useful tool in dealing with serial crimes--murders, rapes and hate crimes, in particular. It requires a detailed profile of the perpetrator and the crime. Once we have that, the objective of anticipatory policing is to manipulate the perpetrator into striking at selected law enforcement targets who act as decoys. The obvious benefits are to decrease the risk to civilians and to apprehend the suspect more quickly."

"How was anticipatory policing used in this case?" a voice called out.

"The profile of this perpetrator indicated that he was looking for a role model. Detective Ellison very much fit this mold, and he agreed to take part in the effort. The profile also led us to believe that betrayal by a partner was a key issue for the perp. The department approached Police Consultant Blair Sandburg, and he also agreed to help out. Using his anthropology background, Mr. Sandburg concocted a story about Detective Ellison being a Sentinel, a mythological figure in certain South American cultures. He wrote so-called excerpts from a fake dissertation and used his contacts in the publishing community to have the information released to the press."

"You're saying that the Sentinel story was a police department plant from the start?" asked an astounded reporter.

"That's correct," Simon said.

"Why was that necessary?" someone else wanted to know.

"Our purpose was not to deceive the press or the public, but to add incentive for the perpetrator to channel his aggressive feelings toward Detective Ellison and Mr. Sandburg, to try to control where he would strike, so that we could keep civilians safe," Simon explained.

"But he attacked five men before he was killed," a voice contended.

"That's true," Simon conceded. "And we deeply regret this. Like any law enforcement technique, anticipatory policing is not foolproof. When dealing with a deranged mind, it's especially difficult to foresee all possibilities. However, if it weren't for this initiative, the perpetrator might have attacked many more men before he was apprehended. Or he might never have been caught at all. He did manage to elude authorities in both Spokane and Seattle. In the end, the perp did take the bait. He went after Mr. Sandburg, and that's how we were able to stop him."

"But what about Detective Ellison's arrest?" another reporter wanted to know. "Was that all part of the setup, too?"

Simon shook his head. "I'm afraid that was another of the unforeseen possibilities. Given the sensitive nature of anticipatory policing work, there were very few people who knew about the initiative. Without that knowledge, there was no way for other members of the police department and the DA's office to realize that Detective Ellison wasn't involved in these crimes. They acted in good faith and did their jobs appropriately. However, I do think it's important to state for the record that it's thanks to Detective Ellison's efforts, and Mr. Sandburg's, that this perpetrator was stopped and his crime spree halted."

"What about Mr. Sandburg? According to university sources, he was released from his teaching position and expelled from the Ph.D. program. Was this part of his cover?"

"I'm afraid not. Again, because of the sensitive nature of this work, everything pertaining to this operation was on a need-to-know only basis. Mr. Sandburg agreed to these terms when he undertook this assignment. He was aware that the phony story about the dissertation might cause the university to sanction him in some way. I can only hope now that we are able to disclose the truth about what happened that the university will restore Mr. Sandburg to his rightful place on the faculty and in his Ph.D. program. It would hardly be fitting for him to be punished when he's risked so much to help protect the people of this city."

"What's the real dissertation about?" the reporter from the Daily Herald wanted to know.

Simon turned to him. "You want to handle this one, Blair?"

"Sure," he said, stepping up to the podium. "In my actual dissertation, I explore the closed society of the police department and compare and contrast it with similar structures in tribal cultures."

"So you just completely made up this whole thing about Sentinels?" the police reporter from WKJB asked.

"Not at all," Blair said. "There are numerous sources that postulate the existence of ancient Sentinels, tribal guardians who used their extraordinary senses to help protect and guide their people. The most extensive and well-known among these sources is the monograph by Sir Richard Burton. The explorer, not the actor."

The press corps laughed.

Blair smiled. "I wrote an undergraduate paper on these tribal protectors. I had hoped to find a modern-day Sentinel that I could research. And there are some people who have one or two hyperactive senses. The most obvious examples are so-called 'noses', people who work in the fragrance and wine industries who have a highly developed sense of smell. However, I was never able to find anyone who had all five heightened senses. There was no one who even came close to the phenomenon Burton described."

"You're currently enrolled at Barton College in their Ph.D. program in forensic psychology. Will you continue? Or will you return to Rainier to finish your doctorate in anthropology?" the reporter from the local news radio show asked.

Blair smiled. "That's assuming Rainier would want me back."

The reporter returned his smile. "The hero of the hour? I can't imagine they wouldn't. What will you say when you get the call?"

"Working with the Cascade police department has been the most important experience of my life," he said. "These men and women do an excellent job, and I've been honored to work with them. My ultimate goal is to complete my education, so I can join the PD as a profiler. Ideally, I'd like to work out an intra-institution curriculum between Barton and Rainier that would combine elements of forensic psychology and forensic anthropology. I think that would give me the best background to be of use to the department."

"Have you been reinstated as a consultant?" another reporter asked.

"I-- Well--" He turned to Simon.

Simon leaned into the microphone. "Yes, he has. Effective immediately."

"And will you once again be partnered with Detective Ellison?"

This time Jim stepped forward. "Yes, that's correct," he said.

"Some aspects of this recent case have given rise to speculation that you and Mr. Sandburg are more than just colleagues. Would you care to respond to that, Detective Ellison?" Wendy Hawthorne asked.

Blair inwardly winced. Leave it to her to ask that. She'd seen them together in their underwear. He glanced nervously at Jim, wondering how he would answer the question.

"Mr. Sandburg and I are partners. That's all I have to say about it."

She arched an eyebrow. "No denial for the record?"

"You have my answer."

"Which could be construed in many ways," she said.

"That's not my concern," Jim said.

Blair stared at him in astonishment. He put his hands up to his face and pretended to sneeze.

"Are you sure?" he asked, softly enough so only Jim would hear him.

Jim only smiled.

"Well, I think that concludes all we have to say," Simon told the press. "Thank you for coming."

The reporters burst into a loud volley of questions, everyone talking at once. They ignored it and quickly made their way from the room.

When they were safely out of earshot, Blair said, "You realize that you just made your life very complicated, especially down at the precinct."

Jim grinned. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Jim, I'm serious here," Blair insisted. "If they thought we were doing it before, now they'll be completely convinced."

"And they'll be right. We are doing it."

Blair blushed furiously and tried to avoid looking at Simon. "It could be dangerous," he said. "That's the point I'm trying to make here."

"Sandburg's right, you know," Simon said.

"It's always going to be dangerous," Jim said. "That's just what it means to be a cop. It's what it means to be a Sentinel and a Guide and, hell, the boss of a Sentinel and Guide. I guess the bottom line is that there are only so many things I can stand to hide. To be safe and do my job, I have to pretend about what I am. I'm not going to pretend about who I love."

Blair blinked.

"Are you mad?" Jim asked softly. "I know we never discussed it. I pretty much outed us to every reporter in the city. Maybe you didn't want-- Maybe I shouldn't have--"

Blair quickly looked up and down the hall. There was no one around but them. He grabbed Jim's shirt, pulled him close and kissed him hard.

Simon cleared his throat. "Well, I guess that's that then," he said. "Let's go celebrate."

Blair knelt on the living room floor and unpacked artifacts, CDs, various knickknacks, returning them to the places they'd occupied six months ago.

"Hey, Hairboy, what is in this?" Henri asked, as he struggled through the door with a large box.

"Um, books, I think," Blair said.

"Figures." Henri laughed. "Where do you want it?"

"In there." Blair gestured with his head toward the spare bedroom. "Thanks, man."

Henri shook his head. "No problem, buddy."

He carried the box into the bedroom. Megan brought in a suitcase.

"I'll get that," Blair told her.

"I've got it, Sandy. I'll take it upstairs for you."

"Uh--" He stared at her.

She smiled at him broadly. "That is where you want it, isn't it?"

He blushed.

She laughed. "Yeah, that's what I thought." She headed up the stairs

Blair shook his head and smiled. The gang from Major Crimes had all volunteered to help him move back into the loft. He'd been quite touched by the gesture. He'd been even more touched when their friends had all just started carrying his clothes and other personal items up to Jim's bedroom, without being told, without making a big issue out of it, with just the hint of a smile that said they were really happy for the two of them. He and Jim were incredibly lucky to have such good friends.

Jim, Simon and Rafe clamored into the loft, overloaded with boxes.

"I think this is the last of it," Simon said, huffing a little breathlessly.

"You're going to have to start going a little easier on those cigars, sir," Blair teased him.

Simon scowled. "Do you want me to drop this, Sandburg?"

Blair held up his hands. "No way, man. Those are artifacts. They break. I take it back completely."

Simon rolled his eyes. "So where do you want your artifacts?"

"In the bedroom. Thanks, Simon."

As Simon turned away, Blair heard him muttering to himself, "I'm in as good shape as the day I started on the force. Have to give up cigars. Hah!"

Blair smiled to himself.

"Okay, Sandy, that should do it," Megan said, coming back down from the loft.

"Yeah. That's the last of it," Rafe said.

Simon came back out of the bedroom. "For someone who's supposed to travel light, you sure do have a lot of heavy books," he told Blair.

Henri laughed. "Tell me about it."

"I really appreciate all the help, you guys. I mean it. It was so great of you to volunteer," Blair said.

"Yeah, well, we've all been working cases with Jim these past six months while you were gone," Henri said. "Trust me when I say that we're all really happy to get you moved back in. Now maybe Ellison might actually be in a decent mood for a change."

"Hey! I heard that," Jim said as he came out of the kitchen.

Megan snickered. "Of course, you did."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Anyone could have heard that, Megan."

She nodded. "Sure. And there's no such thing as Sentinels anyway." She smiled mischievously.

"So you guys would rather spend your Saturday sweating and heaving Sandburg's three-ton boxes of books than work with me when Sandburg's not around," Jim said. "I find that very interesting."

"Nothing personal, big guy," Henri said. "But when Blair's not there, you can get a little-- well, testy."

"Testy?" Jim said.

"Uh--" Henri stuttered.

"Well, you see, Jim--" Rafe spoke up, trying to rescue his partner.

Jim threw his head back and laughed. "Had you going," he said.

"Man, that is not cool," Henri said.

"You shouldn't let down your guard like that, H," Jim told him. "And, hey, nobody's more glad than I am that Sandburg's back home where he belongs."

"Well," Blair said. "There might be one person."

He and Jim exchanged a smile.

Simon cleared his throat. "Maybe we ought to be going."

Blair shook his head. "Don't worry, Simon. We promise not to do anything too embarrassing. You guys stay. We'll get pizza. As a thank you."

"Pizza, huh?" Rafe said with interest.

"Sounds good to me," Henri chimed in.

"I'm starving," Megan said.

"Sounds like I got here just in time then," a voice called to them.

Jim's dad stood in the doorway. He held a stack of pizza boxes.

"Dad," Jim said, sounding surprised.

"Mr. Ellison, hi," Blair said. "Thanks so much." He took the pizza from him and carried it into the kitchen.

"There's a case of cold beer down in my car if someone wouldn't mind going down to get it," William said.

"Cold beer, huh? Hey, I'll go," Henri said. "You want to give me a hand, Rafe?"

"Sure, H."

They headed downstairs.

"I wasn't expecting you, Dad," Jim said.

"I know. It's just-- I didn't want to miss Blair's homecoming."

"Dad, that's so--"

"It's really nice, Mr. Ellison. I'm so glad you could make it," Blair said, coming out to join them. "Hey, man, could you start herding everyone into the kitchen. I have everything all set out."

"Sure, Chief." Jim motioned to Simon and Megan. "Blair wants people to start eating."

"Look, Jimmy, if this isn't a good time--" his father started to say.

Jim shook his head. "No, Dad. I'm-- Well, I'm glad you came."

His father stared at him a moment, and then he broke into a big smile. "How about we get some of that pizza?" he said.

Jim returned his smile and patted him affectionately on the shoulder. "Sounds like a plan to me."

Henri and Rafe returned with the beer. Everybody helped themselves to a bottle and to slices of pizza.

"Hey, Ellison, you gonna let us eat in the living room this time?" Henri asked teasingly.

Jim pretended to scowl at him. "Okay, but you know what happens if you get pizza sauce on the sofa."

"I'm scared," Henri said and laughed.

"You do realize he's not kidding, don't you, H?" Blair asked.

Henri's smile disappeared. "Uh, well-- Maybe I'll eat at the table."

Blair burst out laughing. "You are so gullible, man."

"Yeah, go ahead. Laugh it up, Hairboy. We'll see what's waiting for you down at the station on Monday."

"I'll be ready," Blair said, smiling.

They all wandered into the livingroom and took seats. Jim plopped down on the sofa, and Blair settled closely at his side.

"You know, I forgot to tell you guys. Good work on the old anticipatory policing thing." Megan snickered.

"Hey, we're proud of that," Blair said, pretending to be hurt.

"As you should be," she said. "Hell, it's a bloody masterpiece."

"Simon's masterpiece, actually," Jim pointed out.

"Simon?" Megan said, her eyes wide. "But it's got Sandy's fingerprints all over it."

"Inspector Connor, are you trying to say that I have no gift for invention?" Simon asked.

"Uh, no, sir," she said, hesitantly.

"Good. I should hope not," Simon said.

"I did come up with the name, though," Blair said.

"See!" Megan said. "I knew it."

Simon laughed. "Okay, so I'm busted."

"But the plan was Simon's idea," Jim pointed out. "He deserves the credit for it."

"A stroke of genius," William said.

Simon smiled broadly. "Thank you, Mr. Ellison. I like to think so myself."

"Oh, God," Blair said. "All this praise is going to his head."

Simon narrowed his eyes at him. "You know, Sandburg, we've been looking for somebody to go undercover on this case involving transvestites. I was thinking you'd be perfect for it."

"With that stubble? All that body hair?" Megan asked.

"You've never heard of waxing?" Simon quipped.

"Ouch," Rafe said.

Blair held up his hands. "I take it back completely. Your plan was brilliant, and the praise isn't going to your head at all."

"That's more like it," Simon said and chuckled.

"So, uh--" Megan said hesitantly. "Not to ask an unpleasant question, but did we ever get word back about who this Jeffrey person is that Walters was ranting about?"

"Yeah, we did," Jim said. "His name was Jeffrey Martin. He and Walters were involved when Walters was living in Portland. That's where he's from originally. The guy told friends and family members that he was planning to break up with Walters. Not long after that, he disappeared. No body was ever recovered."

"Geez," Rafe said.

"Yeah. I know. But at least, now his loved ones know for sure what happened to him. Hopefully, that will give them some closure. And the Portland authorities are doing a more intensive search of property Walters owned in the area. They have some optimism they'll be able to find the body. Hopefully, the family will finally be able bury their son."

"God, that's such a sad story," Megan said. "It's terrifying to think what can happen if you make the simple mistake of getting involved with the wrong person."

"Walters was definitely that," Blair said. "Bad news in the worst possible way."

"Did the police ever investigate him for the man's murder?" William asked.

Simon nodded. "He was their top suspect. But they could never find anything to tie him to the crime. He may have been a lunatic, but he was really good at getting away with shit."

"He was a cop," Jim said. "He knew what the investigators would be looking for. He knew how to get around it."

"He, uh--" Blair said, haltingly. "You know how we were talking about waxing before? Well, I think Walters may have done that. He had no body hair. That's why we never found any at the crime scene."

Simon's face went serious. "Blair, I'm sorry. I didn't think--"

Blair shook his head. "What you said before was a joke, Simon." He smiled. "Funny, too. 'Cause there's no way you're ever going to get me in a dress."

"We'll see about that, Sandburg," Simon said and smiled, looking relieved he hadn't upset Blair.

"What I don't understand is how he kept getting transferred from department to department with all the suspicions about him," William said.

"It happens all too often," Simon said. "A guy's a problem case, but there's never enough to take to IA. You investigate him, but you end up with nothing, like the cops in Portland. You don't want him in your department, but you don't want to put him out of a job entirely. So you tell him how it is, that things aren't working out, but you'll write him a good recommendation if he agrees to move on. You palm the problem off on some other sucker, let him try dealing with the guy."

"That's bullshit," Jim said, his jaw set angrily.

Blair rubbed his leg. "It's okay, man."

"No, it's not. His superiors were criminally negligent to let him slip through the system like that. There were terrible consequences. He brutalized five men. He-- He almost--" Jim broke off.

"Hey, hey, Jim," Blair said, holding onto his arm. "He didn't. He didn't."

"I know," Jim said. He let out his breath and closed his eyes. "It's just--"

"I know," Blair said.

"Sorry," he said.

Blair shook his head. "No need to be."

Everyone else had grown quiet, and they were all trying hard to look anywhere but at the two of them.

Jim cleared his throat. "So, um--" he said awkwardly.

"So--" Megan said, trying to help out. "Uh-- Sandy. What's it been like having people know that you didn't falsify your thesis?"

Blair smiled wryly and shook his head. "Interesting," he said. "You wouldn't believe all the people who came pouring out of the woodwork to let me know they always thought I was innocent. We're talking about people who up until a few days ago treated me like I had a bad case of Ebola."

"Typical," Jim said, mildly disgusted.

"Nobody wants to be around when you're the bad guy. But everybody comes running when you're the hero," Henri said. "That's just the way people are."

"So you handling it okay, Blair?" Simon wanted to know.

Blair shook his head. "I'm trying to be gracious."

Jim snorted. "Like they deserve it."

"Maybe not," Blair said. "But it's important to me to show that I'm a bigger person and not just react out of some quid-pro-quo mindset."

Jim smiled at him affectionately. "You're a class act, Chief."

Blair laughed. "I hope you'll remember that the next time I leave wet towels on the bathroom floor."

"So you've really forgiven all the people who let you down after the press conference? It's all forgotten?" William asked.

"Oh, no," Blair said. "I didn't say that. I really found out who I can count on and who I can't, who's a real friend and who's just going to be around during the fair weather. It was an eye- opening experience, to say the least. I won't be forgetting it anytime soon. And I'll definitely be more selective about who I make friends with in the future."

Jim's throat tightened. "I hate to hear you say that."

"It's really not a bad thing," Blair said. "It's not like it's made me afraid to trust or anything like that. There were plenty of people who hung in there with me and never stopped believing the best. I think I'll just have better judgement in the future, and that's for the best."

"Our Blair is growing up," Megan said fondly.

"Imagine that," Blair said and smiled.

"So what about Dean Tillman?" Rafe asked. "Have you heard from her?"

Blair laughed. "Called me herself to offer me my old job back, along with my place in the anthro program."

Simon chuckled. "So the old bat finally apologized, huh?"

"Oh, hardly. She basically let me know this was all my fault for not keeping the university appropriately informed."

Jim rolled his eyes. "Why am I not surprised?"

"So are you going back, Sandburg?" Simon asked.

Blair smiled, a little smugly. "Well, actually, I have something of a bidding war going between Barton and Rainier. I don't want to make up my mind too soon. I might be able to get something really good out of it."

Simon shook his head. "Don't make me have to bust you for extortion."

"Not to worry, Simon. I promise to keep all the negotiating perfectly aboveboard."

"So where do you think you'll end up?" William asked.

"Well, it would be great if I could work out a deal like I mentioned at the press conference. There are strengths to both programs. I'd love to be able to combine them and get the best of both worlds. That's what I'm angling for."

Simon nodded. "Sounds good. Sounds like I'll be getting a lot of hard work out of you. That's what I like to hear."

Blair groaned. "Sometimes I don't know why I signed on for this."

"Oh, don't even," Simon said. "You know you love it."

Blair only shook his head.

Rafe checked his watch. "Hey, sorry, guys. But I've got a racquetball date later on. I'm going to have to take off soon."

"Yeah," Megan said. "We should let these guys finish unpacking." She stood up and started to gather up plates and bottles.

"That's okay, Megan," Blair said. "You guys have already done enough. I've got this."

"You sure, Sandy?" she asked.

"Positive. But thanks."

"No problem. So who wants to take in a matinee? I'm dying to see that new action pic that's out?" she asked, looking around for any takers.

"Sounds good," Simon said. "I never miss that guy's pictures."

"It's showing every hour down at the Cineplex. If we get going now, we can just make the next one," she said.

"Thanks for the pizza, Mr. Ellison," Simon said.

William nodded graciously.

"See you guys on Monday," Megan said.

Rafe and Henri also stood up.

"We'll head down with you," Henri said.

"I'll walk you out," Jim said.

"Take it easy, guys," Blair said, starting to stack plates. "And thanks again."

"Our pleasure," Rafe said.

William got to his feet. "I'll help you clean up, Blair," he said.

"Hey, thanks," Blair said.

Jim walked their friends out to the elevator and waited with them until it arrived.

"I really appreciate everything you did today," Jim told them.

"We're looking forward to seeing you in a better mood," Simon said. "And that is an order, by the way."

Everyone laughed.

Jim smiled. "Yes, sir."

"See Monday," they all said.

"See you Monday," he answered.

He was about to head back into the loft when he heard Blair and his father in the kitchen cleaning up together and talking. He wasn't quite sure why, but he stopped to listen.

"I just-- I'm sorry I left you alone with that maniac. I still feel really bad about that," his father was telling Blair.

"There was nothing else you could have done. If you'd stayed, he would have shot you. You did the best possible thing. You got help. I appreciate that, Mr. Ellison."

"Bill. Please," his father said. "Hell, I'm practically your father-in-law."

Jim's eyes widened in surprise.

"Hey, thanks, Mr-- Uh, Bill," Blair said.

Jim could tell by the tone of Blair's voice that he was pleased, and that, in turn, pleased Jim.

"Blair, I-- Look, I don't mean to be interfering," his father said.

Jim bristled, ready for the worst, prepared to storm into the kitchen and defend his lover.

"But I know people at both Barton College and Rainier. People with influence," his father continued. "If you need any help getting the go-ahead for your joint degree, I'd be happy to make some calls for you. Only if you want, of course. It's leave it up to you."

Jim let out his breath and felt vaguely bad for expecting the worst from his father.

"That's really generous," Blair said. "I'll have to think about it, though."

"Of course. Just let me know what you decide."

"I will. But even if I don't end up taking you up on your offer, I want you to know how much I appreciate the thought."

"It's nothing," his father said. "I just-- I'd like to be closer to Jim. I'd like it if we could be family."

"I think we could work on that," Blair said.

"Thank you," his father said, and Jim had never heard him sound so grateful.

He headed back into the apartment and joined them in the kitchen. "Hey," he said.

"Hey, Jimmy," his father said. "I was just helping Blair clean up a little before I go."

Jim nodded. "Thanks. And thanks again for the pizza. I really appreciate it, Dad. And that you came by today."

His father smiled happily. "Glad to do it," he said. "Glad to do it. Well, I guess I'd better be taking off. I know the two of you still have a lot of settling in to do."

"Thanks for everything, Bill," Blair said.

"I hope to see you soon," his father said.

Jim walked his dad to the door. "Maybe you could come over one day next week for dinner?" he said.

"Really?" his father said.

"Yeah. Maybe Wednesday. I'll call Stephen. You could bring Sally."

His father nodded. "I'd like that. I'd like it a lot."

"Good," Jim said. "So Wednesday is okay then?"

"Wednesday is fine."

"So, good then," Jim said.

They fell silent, both of them awkward.

"I want to-- I really appreciate--" Jim started to say, but couldn't quite find the words.

So, instead he reached out and hugged his father. At first, his dad went stiff, caught off guard. But after a moment, he relaxed and hugged him back.

"I heard what you said to Blair in the kitchen," he said. "Thank you."

"Thank you, Jimmy."

They let go of each other, and his father reached for the door.

"I'm glad it all worked out okay," his father said.

"Me too, Dad. Me too."

His father smiled. "See you Wednesday."

Jim returned his smile. "Bye, Dad."

He closed the door behind his father and headed back into the kitchen to Blair.

"So that's a good thing that's happening with you and your Dad," Blair said, as he washed plates.

"Yeah. Who would have figured?"

He joined Blair at the sink and began drying the dishes and putting them away.

"Your dad loves you," Blair said. "And despite everything, you love your dad. I think this reconciliation thing has been on the horizon for a while now."

"You helped."

He shook his head. "I didn't do anything."

"Yes, you did. You gave us a way to feel comfortable together. That's important, Chief."

"Your dad said he wanted us to be a family."

"I, uh-- I was kind of listening."

Blair smiled. "Yeah, I figured that when I heard you invite him to dinner."

"It-- Well, it sounded nice," Jim said. "Being a family, I mean."

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I thought so, too." Blair handed him the last dish and dried his hands on a kitchen towel.

Jim stacked the last of the dishes in the cabinet and closed the door. "I like this, too," he said.


Jim waved his hand. "This. You know, the whole us being together in the loft thing."

Blair turned to look at him. Jim didn't think he'd ever seen such tenderness in anyone's face, not directed at him at least.

"Me, too," Blair said. "I really missed it. Missed you."

"Never go away again. Please."

Blair shook his head. "No. I won't."

"Welcome home, Chief," he said softly.

Blair's whole face lit up. "That may be the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me."


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