The Cascade airport was busy and loud. Travelers, desperately trying to either get in or out of Cascade for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, shoved and pushed and shouted as though any of those actions would actually get them in or out of the airport any sooner. The almost continual roar of jet airplanes landing and taking off only contributed to the air of mass confusion and chaos.
Detective Lt. Jim Ellison inwardly winced even as he automatically adjusted his internal dial for his Sentinel hearing. He glared at one overweight man, burdened by more luggage than any one person should carry, who had jostled the child at his side. Resolutely, Jim slid his arm around the girl and did a little pushing of his own.
“Too many people,” Becky Ellison muttered as she glanced up at her father.
Jim quickly nodded in resigned agreement. He repressed a grin at the expression on his daughter’s face. He had the feeling that if she could get away with it, she’d be kicking some of those “too many people” out of her way. His daughter had inherited his impatience.
“The plane’s landed.” Becky pointed to a nearby monitor. “Dad, we’re late!”
“They just landed,” Jim soothed. “They’ve barely made it to the gate. No way they’ve disembarked yet.”
Finding the correct gate just as the airline attendant started opening the door, Jim leaned against the wall and watched his daughter almost fidget with impatience.
Becky Ellison had inherited much from her father. His height. His brown hair (which mercifully covered more of her head than his). His impatience. His tendency towards silence. She had also inherited his broad shoulders. This, plus her height, had made her bigger than most children her age. At a time when the accepted and desired standard for 13-year old girls was petite frailty, Becky Ellison’s height and robust health made her obviously different from girls her age. The only feature Jim could see his daughter had inherited from her mother was her lovely hazel-colored eyes. Eyes that hid so much.
Once again silently acknowledging that perhaps William Ellison hadn’t been completely wrong in wanting to protect his son from being considered “different”, Jim knew Becky often felt uncomfortable with not quite fitting in with children her age.
The divorce of James and Crystal Ellison when the child was six hadn’t helped either. Always a quiet child, Becky had become a focal point for her mother’s war against Jim. It seemed it would take almost the entire one weekend a month he was able to spend with his daughter just to get her to relax enough to talk with him. Until he’d discovered she enjoyed fishing and camping.
Jim smirked as he recalled his ex-wife’s sheer howl of rage when Becky would enthusiastically talk about camping and fishing with her father. Not the least concerned about speaking (or thinking) ill of the dead, Jim mentally made a rude gesture at his ex-wife’s memory.
“Can you see them?” Becky demanded as she jumped into the air, trying to see over people’s heads and around their bustling bodies.
“Not yet,” Jim assured her. “They’ll be here as soon as they can.” He chuckled under his breath as his daughter made an impatient dismissive motion with her left hand. ‘Figures it would take a Sandburg to get a reaction from an Ellison.’
It had been during a visit to Mexico two years earlier to see the Sandburgs that had really brought Becky out of her shy shell. Much as Blair brought out the best in Jim, Blair’s daughter, Mariah, had found a way through Becky Ellison’s defenses. It had almost been a shock to Jim to see his daughter literally rolling on the floor of Blair’s living room, laughing until tears ran down her cheeks.
Becky’s sudden shout was all the warning Jim had as his daughter darted through the crowd.
“Becky!” Jim bellowed as he tried to follow.
“Becky!” The shrill cry came from somewhere deep in the crowd of people who were all trying to exit the hallway to the airport’s main corridor.
Jim heard Blair’s near-panicked yell for HIS daughter. Using his Sentinel’s sight, he saw the small miniature version of Blair expertly darting through the crowd. “Blair! I’ve got her!” he yelled. ‘I hope.’ Pushing through the crowd, he saw Becky grab Mariah and pull her into a hug that lifted the much smaller child off the ground. The smaller girl kicked her heels in the air in excitement.
“You made it!” Becky triumphantly cheered.
“I thought we’d NEVER get here!” Mariah dramatically sighed as Becky lowered her feet to the floor. She angelically smiled at Jim who stood behind his daughter with a look of exasperation. “Uncle Jim!” She stepped away from Becky and held her arms up towards him.
Jim inwardly sighed. He could no more shout at this little girl than he could cut off his arm. Small for her age with Blair’s curls, bright blue eyes, and bouncing energy, she reminded him too much of his best friend. “Hi, Mariah.” He obligingly picked up his goddaughter. “Sweetheart, you shouldn’t run away from your father like that.” His eyes twinkled as Blair appeared, pulling two suitcases on wheels behind him. Raising his voice so his best friend could hear, he continued, “He doesn’t handle stress well at his age.”
The presence of the two children prevented Blair from replying as he wanted. Instead, he smiled at Becky who was looking at him with hesitation. “At least Becky loves me,” he grinned, holding out one arm.
Shyly smiling, Becky slid both arms around Blair’s waist. “Welcome home, Uncle Blair.”
Blair glanced up at Jim, who was broadly grinning. “Yeah. It’s good to be home, Becky.” He grinned. “Hope you parked close, partner. I’ve got luggage to pick up.” He cheerfully waved a handful of baggage claim tickets.
“Jeez, Sandburg. Did you forget to bring anything?” Jim grunted as he shoved the last suitcase into the back of the blue Ford minivan.
“That’s just some stuff to tide us over until our REAL stuff gets here,” Blair chuckled.
Jim eyed him as he closed the back door. “Good thing the house is big,” he remarked. Ignoring the bouncing of the van as the girls climbed into their seats, he smiled down at Blair. “Welcome home, Chief.”
Ignoring the curious looks of the people passing by, Blair wrapped his arms around his friend. “God, I’m SO glad to be back,” he murmured.
“We won,” Jim whispered as he held his friend close to him. “Took a hell of a long time, buddy…but we won.” He held his friend in the embrace for a few seconds longer, then stepped back. “C’mon. We’ll stop by the house so you and Mariah can change before heading to the picnic.”
“Did you tell anybody we’re back?” Blair asked as he pulled his seatbelt around him. Automatically glancing back to make sure the girls were strapped in, he grinned when he saw their heads together.
“Thought I’d let it be a surprise,” Jim shook his head with a grin. “Knowing OUR luck, I wasn’t sure something wouldn’t delay you.”
Blair snorted. “Still as optimistic as ever.” He waited until Jim had steered the van onto the highway before continuing. With a sly smile, he looked around the minivan. “James Ellison. In a minivan. Who’d have thought we’d ever see the day?”
Jim grunted. “Think I was going to bring my truck just so you could load it down with all your junk?” He solemnly shook his head. “We would’ve had to put the kids in the back with the luggage.” He paused. “Not that I let kids in the truck to begin with.”
Blair glanced at his friend. “Not even Becky?”
Jim smirked. “I meant Sandburg kids. Of ANY age.”
“Ha-ha.” Blair grinned despite himself. “Very funny, Ellison.” He settled against the door. “So. Fill me in. Besides your on-going love affair with your truck, what else is going on?”
“Simon’s giving serious consideration to running for Mayor in two years,” Jim began.
“Mayor? Simon? Our Simon?”
“Yep,” Jim nodded. “He’s never really liked the Deputy Commissioner’s position anyway. Quite a few people have approached him. Daryl thinks he ought to go for it.” He glanced in the rear view mirror at the two girls and silently smiled as he saw their heads together, their conversation hushed in whispers.
Mariah bounced as she tried to take in everything at once. “I’m SO glad Uncle Jim finally got rid of that horrid Chancellor Edwards.”
“We thought it would happen a couple of years ago,” Becky murmured.
Both girls thought back to the events two years ago when it was almost assured that Dr. Blair Sandburg would be returning to Rainier University. When it had fallen through, Becky had witnessed one of the infamous Jim Ellison temper fits. Not that Jim had intended to lose control in front of his daughter. In fact, he’d asked her to go to her room first. As he later explained, it wasn’t his fault she crept back downstairs.
Becky hadn’t been sure about everything her father had said but knew it had to be bad when neither Uncle Simon, Uncle Joel, Uncle Rafe, or Uncle Henri would explain some of the words. Aunt Megan, however, had explained most of it, then tore into Jim for using that sort of language around his daughter.
Becky’s hazel eyes flickered towards her father, then she leaned closer to whisper in Mariah’s ear. “They finally got something on Chancellor Edwards and got her out of there.”
Mariah nodded in silent satisfaction. She, too, glanced at the men in the front of the van then looked at her best friend with a sunny smile. “Will everyone be at the picnic?”
“Married? Again?” Blair laughed. “What is this now for Connor? Four husbands? Five?”
“Number four,” Jim grinned. “But I never figured out why she married numbers one through three. She had them all buffaloed long before the marriage vows.”
“And this one?” Blair asked.
“This one has potential,” Jim admitted. “She tries bossing him around; and he just nods, smiles, and does what he wants.”
“Brave man,” Blair chuckled. He glanced out the window, wondering if he could still find his way around Cascade with his eyes closed. During his absence, the City Planning Commission had struggled to control Cascade’s growth by balancing economic prosperity while keeping as much of the city’s natural beauty intact as possible. “By the way, thanks for letting me ship our stuff to your house. That’ll be a big help until we find a place.”
Jim nodded, concentrating on finding a break in traffic in order to exit the highway. “All your old stuff from the loft is stored at the house anyway.” He missed the look of fond happiness on his partner’s face.
“Dad, didn’t you tell Uncle Blair?” Becky suddenly demanded.
Jim’s eyes found his daughter’s in the rear view mirror. “Not yet, honey.”
“Why not?” Becky calmly prodded.
Jim heard Blair’s muttered comment of “Oh yeah…she’s an Ellison, all right” and managed not to either roll his eyes or smack the man next to him. “Just haven’t had time.”
“Ummm…tell me what, Jim?” Blair asked.
“Well, since Connor’s getting married…” Jim began.
“She’s been renting the loft in between husbands,” Becky impatiently interrupted. “But she’ll be moving out when she gets married in a few months, and it’ll be that long until your stuff comes. So we thought you’d stay with us until that happens then move into the loft.” She turned to Mariah. “I bet Aunt Megan would let you take my place as a bridesmaid.”
“The loft? Really? Could we, Daddy?” Mariah bounced on the seat until Jim wondered if the seatbelt would hold her in place. Then the girl turned to Becky. “Why would she want me to take your place? She doesn’t know me like she knows you.”
“Well…you’d look nicer as a bridesmaid,” Becky muttered as she turned her head to look out the window. “I’m too…big.”
Blair glanced at Jim whose jaw was clenching and unclenching.
“Says who?” Mariah demanded. “I’d kill for your height.” She paused for a moment. “I’d do MORE than kill for your height. I hate being short. Everybody thinks I’m 8 or 9. And I’m almost 12! And these curls! Somedays I really hate being short and cute! I’d rather have height and presence like you!” She bounced in her seat to stare at the back of her father’s head. “Daddy, can I cut my hair short?”
Mariah’s blue eyes widened at the chorus of answers. Then she sweetly smiled. “Okay.”
“Jim, I’m really sorry we weren’t here when you dad died a few months ago.” Blair eyed his friend closely. He absently frowned when Jim shrugged.
“It’s okay. You guys were off at that dig winding things up. It just took time to get the message there by donkey and carrier pigeon,” the Sentinel assured him with a smile. “Dad and I…well, we’d made our peace.” He glanced in the rear view mirror and smiled, seeing the two girls with their heads close together again, obviously whispering and not wanting their conversation overheard.
Blair shook his head. “I still hate you went through all that without…” He remembered the deaths of his own wife and young son.
“It’s okay, Blair,” Jim softly interrupted with a smile at his best friend. “Believe me, okay?”
Blair slowly nodded. “I’m glad you and your Dad settled everything, you know?”
“No matter what was between us in the past, he more than made up for it by helping me get Becky.” Jim’s eyes strayed to the rear view mirror then back to the highway in front of them. “Without Dad, I might not have her.”
Blair uneasily glanced over his shoulder, then relaxed when he saw Mariah chattering a-mile-a-minute and Becky nodding at almost every word. Looking back at his friend, he lowered his voice. “Was there much of a court battle?”
“Not once Dad stepped in with the Ellison money and prestige,” Jim chuckled. “I thought I could be ruthless at times…” He ruefully shook his head. “I have to admit. He was the master.” He grinned at Blair’s expression. “When Crystal died, her parents just automatically assumed they’d get custody. After all, Crystal and Becky had been living with them since the divorce.” He frowned, and Blair suddenly saw an image of the man he’d first met years ago…cold and hard. “They’d half-convinced Becky I didn’t want her. But she’s a smart little girl and knew we had a lot of fun together. So she was confused about it. I never realized that was why it would take her so long to get relaxed around me.” He sighed when Blair gently touched his arm. “Don’t ask me why, but she and Dad always hit it off. She wound up crying on Dad’s shoulder after Crystal died, afraid she’d never see him or me again.”
“That’s when your Dad got involved?” Blair prompted after a moment’s silence.
“I guess you could say that,” Jim chuckled. He carefully maneuvered the van onto the exit ramp. “He brought in his attorneys and put them and the Ellison money at my disposal to fight for Becky.” He shook his head in mock sympathy. “Crystal’s parents never knew what hit them.”
“Do they see her much?” Blair asked in concern.
The hard look reappeared. “No. They told Becky that living with me would damn her soul. But if she came to them, they’d do their best to redeem her.”
“God!” Blair angrily hissed. His hands curled into fists even as he drew in deep breaths. “Some people…”
“I’m glad you and Mariah are back for her sake as well as mine,” Jim carefully continued. “I’d moved into the caretaker’s house behind Dad’s during the custody battle a couple of years ago. I thought it would be best if Becky and I lived there rather than at the loft. Somebody would always be available to watch her. I rented the loft to Megan who was between husbands at that time. Then…”
“Then your Dad died,” Blair softly finished.
Jim curtly nodded. “Heart attack. No warning.” He forced himself to relax. “I was just glad I was the one who found him and not Becky. Losing him was hard enough on her without having that added on.”
Blair frowned. “Jim, won’t you and Becky need the loft? I mean, once your Dad’s estate and stuff is settled, won’t the house be split between you and Stephen? Sold or something?”
Jim grinned. “Dad left the house to Becky.”
“Excuse me?” Blair’s jaw dropped.
“As her guardian, I’m in control until she’s 21. But at that point she can kick me out,” Jim cheerfully explained.
“How did Stephen take that?” Blair cautiously asked.
“Pretty good,” Jim admitted. “I think Dad had already told him what he was planning. Stephen and his family are spending half the year in Japan anyway. Dad left him mostly stock and stuff.”
Blair stared out the window for a few moments. “So, the loft just may be available to rent, huh?” he casually asked.
“Could be,” Jim replied just as casually. A small smile played on his lips as he turned the van onto a long brick driveway.
“Wow! Is this where you live?” Mariah exclaimed as she caught sight of the imposing white house.
“Yeah,” Becky shyly replied.
“Way cool!” The younger girl bounced in her seat as she turned her head from side to side, trying to see everything at once.
“Way cool?” Jim grinned as he glanced at Blair.
“What can I say?” Blair ruefully grinned back. “Naomi’s influence.”
“Right. Blame it on the grandmother, Chief.” Jim brought the van to a halt and turned off the engine. “Becky, why don’t you go ahead, unlock the door and show Mariah to her room? Blair and I’ll bring the suitcases up.”
“Okay.” Becky eagerly dug into the pockets of her jeans for a small keyring. “But we’re still going to the picnic, right?”
“Just as soon as Blair and Mariah change and take a breather, okay?” Jim nodded. He stood at the back of the van until the girls disappeared into the house.
“It’ll be great to see everybody again,” Blair quietly said as he reached for a couple of suitcases. Then he grinned. “Bet it’ll be a shock, too.” He laughed under his breath as he headed for the house.
“It’ll be way cool,” Jim chuckled.
Twenty minutes later, Jim heard his daughter’s impatient voice from downstairs. “Dad! We’re going to be late!”
“How can we be late for an all-day picnic?” Jim yelled back with a grin.
Blair raised his eyebrows in confusion as he closed the door to his room.
“We’ll miss the baseball game!” Becky yelled in reply.
Her tone of voice caused Blair to break into giggles. “She sounds SO like you, man.”
Jim’s glare turned into a grin as the two men started down the stairs and he saw the two girls standing by the front door.
Mariah was literally hopping from one foot to the other, her white sandals making little “clicking” noises on the dark green tile. Dressed in sky blue shorts with a white swirl decoration and a white blouse trimmed in blue, her auburn curls were partially covered by a gypsy-style blue and white scarf.
‘She just looks so damn cute,’ Jim silently admitted. His eyes shifted to his taller daughter who was clad in faded jeans and an oversized Cascade PD t-shirt. She scowled as she tried to shove her thick hair under a Jags ball cap. ‘But my baby’s beautiful.’
Mariah shook her head. “That’s not gonna work,” she pointed out. “I’ll braid it in the van. You’ll be cooler with it braided anyway.”
“If you two are ready?” Jim politely asked. ‘Where’d she get that t-shirt? It doesn’t look like one of mine.’
Mariah giggled as Becky threw her father such a familiar scowl that Blair nearly choked trying not to laugh.
“Do you want to stop somewhere to get some flowers or something?” Jim asked as he backed the van onto the street.
Blair shook his head. “Not this time. I’d just…like to visit for a few minutes.” He forced a smile. “I haven’t been back since the funeral.” He absently frowned. “And I don’t remember too much about that.”
“No surprises there,” Jim grunted. “You’d only gotten maybe one or two hours of sleep a night after they died.”
“I do remember the guys from Major Crimes showing up and fussing over Mariah,” Blair recalled.
“Well, she was a very fussable baby,” Jim evenly replied.
“Fussable?” Blair eyed his friend with amusement. “That’s not even a word, Jim.”
“Sure it is,” Jim argued with a smile. “Fussable. Adjective. One who encourages others to fuss over them.”
Blair laughed. “Man, your command of the English language is awesome.”
“True,” Jim cheerfully agreed. He eyed the two girls in the back of the van from the rear view mirror. Seeing the serious expressions on their faces, he let his hearing drift towards them.
“This is SO cool! Not that I didn’t like Mexico and the digs, but this is where we need to be. I’ve never really seen snow. Is there a lot of snow in the winter? And camping. I’ve never been camping in mountains like this. I know I said it before, but I’m SO glad Uncle Jim finally nailed that rotten Chancellor Edwards. I hope he made her life miserable,” Mariah chattered. “I hope she’s flipping greasy rotten burgers somewhere. No. Wait. That’s too good for her.”
“He did make her life miserable,” Becky solemnly nodded. “And for a long time, too, until she finally resigned. And the others at Major Crimes helped.” She shook her head and stared out the window. “What a bitch.”
Jim saw Mariah’s head nodding in agreement. “Rebecca Blair! Did you say something?” he evenly asked.
Becky’s hazel eyes widened in surprise. “I was just talking with Mariah, Dad.”
Jim’s eyes met his daughter’s. “Okay, honey. My mistake.” He saw her faintly blush then smiled when Blair turned in his seat.
“You girls okay back there?” he asked.
“Peachy, Daddy,” Mariah grinned.
“Peachy?” Jim murmured with a smirk.
“Naomi’s influence,” Blair quickly explained as he turned back around.
“You blame everything on Naomi?” Jim asked with a sly grin.
“Try to,” Blair happily nodded. “Until she shows up, that is.” He saw the entrance to the cemetery and forced his stomach to unknot. “She said she might show up around Thanksgiving or…” He shrugged.
“Or whenever,” Jim finished with a laugh. “It’ll be great to see her again. Maybe we can get her to stick around long enough to celebrate Christmas.” He shook his head and muttered, “Or whatever she celebrates.” He slowly drove towards the western side of the cemetery, finally rolling to a stop near a small grove of trees. Almost all the graves in this section of the cemetery were private plots. Decorative fences, ranging from wrought iron to carved stone, separated those plots.
“I’ll just be a few minutes,” Blair said as he opened the door.
“Can’t I come?” Mariah asked.
Blair looked over his shoulder for a moment then smiled. “If you want.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to?” Mariah muttered as she unbuckled her seatbelt. “It’s my mother and brother, too.” She gave her father a look of exasperation.
“Sorry, baby,” Blair apologized as he helped her from the van. He reached to help Becky then smiled as the older girl competently jumped down and slammed the door shut behind her. He suddenly looked at Jim in confusion, realizing he had no idea where to go.
“This way,” Jim smiled. He reached for his daughter and gently put a hand on her shoulder. They led Blair and Mariah off the road to a private plot surrounded by a four-foot high iron fence.
Blair glanced at the headstones as Jim opened the gate. ‘ Ellison? He buried my wife and son in the Ellison family plot?’
Becky pulled away from Jim and approached a fairly new headstone. She gently patted the top of the curved stone. “Hi, Gramps,” she murmured.
Blair silently looked at Jim who pointed to their right.
“They’re over there,” the Sentinel softly explained. He watched as Blair moved in that direction. Mariah looked from her father to Becky as though uncertain who she should follow. Trying to make the decision easier, Jim joined his daughter. He smiled when Mariah scampered after her father.
Jim easily rested a hand on Becky’s shoulder. “You okay, honey?”
“Yeah,” Becky awkwardly shrugged. “I just…miss him sometimes, you know?”
Jim slowly nodded. “Yeah, I do.” He glanced over at Blair who was kneeling between the graves of his wife and son. “Come on. Let’s give them a little privacy.” As they walked towards the gate, he raised his voice. “We’ll meet you at the van.”
“Okay.” Blair didn’t look up as he answered. He faintly heard the gate softly shut.
Surprised, Blair looked at his daughter who was sitting on the grass near the tombstones.
“Daddy, who brought the flowers?” Mariah indicated the fresh flowers in the vases on each side of the two tombstones.
Blair looked at the flowers then over his shoulder at the flowers in the vases on each side of William Ellison’s tombstone. “I bet Uncle Jim did it.”
“That was awfully nice of him,” Mariah slowly nodded. “Do you think he did it ‘cause we were coming home today?”
Part of Blair’s mind questioned his daughter’s use of the word “home” even as he turned his head to study his friend. Jim was slowly walking back towards the van. Becky walked just to his right, her hands shoved in the pockets of her jeans in an unconscious mimicry of her father. ‘Or is it unconscious?’ He shook his head as he turned back to his daughter. “No, Mariah. I think he’s always made sure flowers were here.”
Mariah smiled. “That is SO cool, daddy. I really love Uncle Jim.”
Blair chuckled. “Me, too, baby.” He glanced at the tombstones. “Why don’t you catch up with Becky? I’ll be there in just a minute.”
Mariah quickly got to her feet. “Okay.” She walked to her father and threw her arms around his shoulders. “Love and hugs, Daddy.”
Blair hugged his daughter in return. “Love and hugs, baby.” He watched as she skipped out of the fenced area towards the others. Looking back at the tombstones, he gently patted the grass between the graves.
‘Deirdre Cade Sandburg. 1979-2003’ He remembered the raven-haired beauty who had charmed him with her lovely singing voice. He’d met her in a Mexico City nightclub where she was singing four nights a week. Transplanted from Ireland with a history of living all over the world that rivaled his own past, Deirdre had cheerfully given up a stalled career in show business to follow Blair into the Mexican countryside. It was a choice that had given him two children and ultimately cost Deirdre and their son their lives. Blair would always hear Deidre whenever Mariah sang. She’d bequeathed her full-bodied singing ability to their daughter.
‘James Eli Sandburg. 2001-2003’ Blair remembered his son, named for both his best friend and his mentor. Born with a shock of thick black hair, he’d been more monkey that toddler. As soon as the boy could stand, he was climbing…always wanting to go higher and see further. Even as the fever had wasted his small body, he’d whined that he wanted to climb.
Sitting cross-legged, Blair rested his chin against his chest and remembered….
Eleven Years Earlier - Mexico City
Blair blinked to keep the tears from falling. He tried hard to focus on the wiggling baby on the bed.
“Come on, Mariah. Please, baby. Cooperate with Daddy. Let’s get the diaper on, okay?”
The three-month old baby fussed and wiggled even more. She whined as Blair gritted his teeth. “It’s just a diaper. I can diaper my daughter. I’ve done it before. I CAN do this,” he muttered.
For a few seconds he thought about asking Margarita Sanchez to put the diaper on his daughter but then took a deep breath. Margarita was a friend from the University of Mexico who’d met him at the train station the previous day and brought them to his apartment. She’d dealt with the officials and made temporary arrangements for the bodies. Blair was suddenly aghast to realize he didn’t even know where the bodies of his wife and son were at this exact moment.
He jerked as Mariah let out an ear-piercing scream. Startled, he glanced down to see his fingers tightly gripping his daughter's waist. “Oh, baby, I’m sorry! Daddy’s so sorry! Please…don’t cry.” He dimly heard Margarita’s voice in the next room as he patted her heaving tummy. “We’re fine!” he yelled in response.
Looking down at his shaking hands, Blair tried to calm himself. “Don’t worry, baby. It’ll be okay. Daddy’s just having a little breakdown right now.” He took a deep breath, not hearing the door behind him softly open and close. “And this particular diaper really hates me.”
“Why don’t you let me do that, Chief?”
Blair jerked as strong hands reached past him. “Jim?”
“Yep,” the soft voice answered. Capable hands easily diapered the squirming, sniffling baby.
Slowly Blair raised his head to stare at his friend. “Jim. This is Mexico City.”
“So it is,” Jim gently agreed as he picked up the baby. “She’s a cutie. The pictures you sent don’t do her justice.”
“She looks like me,” Blair woodenly explained. “Jamie looked like his mother, you know.”
The soft answer was the last thing Blair accurately remembered for several days.
July 3, 2014 - Cascade, WA
Blair sighed as he sat up straight. He vaguely knew that Jim had made all the arrangements for Deirdre and Jamie’s bodies to be brought back to Cascade. The only question Jim had asked was where Blair wanted them to be buried. Without a thought, Blair had said “At home”.
Blair looked over his shoulder to see Jim lounging against the front of the van, his arms crossed in front of his chest. He was grinning while he watched the two girls as they laughed and played a quick game of tag.
Jim had brought Blair’s wife and son back to Cascade and buried them in the Ellison family plot. For a moment, he wondered what William and Stephen Ellison had said about THAT.
He hadn’t realized it at the time, but Jim’s marriage had been in trouble. The time his friend should have used in resolving his own marital problems was devoted to Blair and his daughter. Blair remembered Crystal Ellison’s almost sickeningly-sweet sympathy during the funeral. He’d only learned years later she’d been angrily arguing with Jim over the time and concern the Sentinel had given his Guide.
Blair looked at the graves for several seconds then lithely got to his feet. Kissing his right forefinger, he gently tapped the top of both tombstones in silent farewell. He carefully closed the gate and walked towards the others.
Jim saw Blair approaching and straightened. “Come on, girls. We’ve got a picnic to get to.”
“We’ve got to stop and get drinks and ice,” Becky reminded him as she slung the side door of the van open.
“Both the small and big coolers are in the back. I got the stuff last night and loaded it this morning,” Jim assured her with a wide grin. He heard his daughter’s hissed ‘yessss’ as she climbed into the van. By the time Blair joined them, he had the van door shut behind the girls. The van bounced slightly as they jumped into the seats. When he turned around, Blair quickly hugged him.
“Thanks,” Blair mumbled. “I never realized…”
Jim hugged his friend in return. “Don’t mention it.”
Blair nodded and stepped back. “Uh…did your Dad and Stephen…”
Jim squeezed the younger man’s arm before he walked to the other side of the van. “They were okay with it, Chief.”
Blair relaxed, then widely grinned. “Okay. So….let’s go picnic.”
Cascade Municipal Park had been invaded. Jim winced as screaming children ran past him. He glared at them but decided to be grateful they were running and screaming towards the playground area on the other side of the park.
The Cascade PD had reserved a section of the park as well as the ball field for the Fourth of July celebration. The Cascade Fire Department had reserved a nearby section, and the two departments planned to square off in a game in the early afternoon. Because some people attending the picnic were scheduled to work later in the day, the adults would play the first inning, then let the children play the final inning.
Becky and Mariah walked ahead of their fathers, each holding one side of the smaller cooler. Jim and Blair followed, carrying the bigger cooler.
“Good Lord, Ellison. What’s in here?” Blair good-naturedly grumbled.
“You’ll be happy for all this when it gets really hot later,” Jim replied with a grin.
“Ha! Heat I can deal with, remember? It’s the cold that drives me nuts,” Blair shot back. Glancing ahead, he saw the tall erect figure of Simon Banks standing next to a short blonde-haired man as they both stared down at the grill in front of them. He glanced at Jim with a wicked grin. Jim rolled his eyes but obediently set the cooler on the ground.
Blair stepped around the girls. Sniffing the steaks sizzling on the grill, he took a deep breath. “Simon, you might as well just take a needle and inject all that fat and lard right into your bloodstream.”
Simon nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled around and stared wide-eyed at the smirking younger man. “Jesus, God, Sandburg! Are you TRYING to give me a heart attack? Who the hell let you back into Cascade anyway?”
“Ellison. You know it’s always been his fault,” Blair assured him with a straight face.
Jim snorted as the two girls snickered. He reached down and took the smaller cooler from them. He set it next to a picnic table then dragged the larger cooler over as well. He smiled to himself as Simon pulled Blair into a tight hug.
“Welcome home, Sandburg,” Simon murmured.
“Good to be home, Simon,” Blair quietly replied.
Pulling back, Simon turned to his left. “Taggart! Brown! Rafe! Connor! Over here! Now!” he bellowed.
Various heads automatically turned at the familiar bellow. Four pairs of eyes widened just before the stampede started towards them.
Megan, Rafe, and Henri all reached Blair at the same time. Jim laughed as his friend disappeared into their midst. Reaching into the depths of the cooler, he brought out a can of beer and popped the top. Stepping onto the bench of the picnic table, he turned and sat on the table itself watching the others with a satisfied smile. He saw Joel approach the two girls who stood watching the commotion around Blair with amused grins.
“Hi, Uncle Joel,” Becky greeted.
“Hi, yourself, Little E,” the large black man greeted, patting her shoulder.
Mariah looked at Becky in confusion.
“Little Ellison,” Becky explained with a sheepish grin. “This is Mariah. Uncle Blair’s daughter. You remember her, don’t you, Uncle Joel?”
“As a small baby,” Joel gently smiled. “It’s good to see you again, Mariah.”
“Daddy’s told me SO much about you. It’s good to see you again, too. Well, see you really for the first time ‘cause I can’t remember the actual first time ‘cause I was such a little baby. Can I call you Uncle Joel, too?” Mariah asked with a smile.
“Lordy, but you are your father’s daughter,” Joel grinned in open delight. “I’d be honored if you’d call me Uncle Joel.”
Mariah held up her arms, silently asking to be picked up.
With a grunt, Joel picked her up and settled her against his shoulder. He smiled even wider when the little girl kissed him on the cheek. “Now it’s official,” she proclaimed.
Joel laughed. He glanced to where Blair was finally fighting his way out of the greetings from the other members of Major Crimes. “Hey, Blair. You do good work here.”
Blair grinned, seeing his daughter safely held in Joel’s strong arms. “Was there ever a doubt?”
“Oh my. Look at those curls,” Megan breathed in admiration.
Mariah glared at Becky who was snickering under her breath.
“Well, I’m not going to call her Hairgirl,” Henri grinned. “I’m Henri, Mariah. H to my friends.”
“I know,” Mariah nodded. “And that’s Megan. And that’s Simon. And that’s…” She stopped as she stared at Rafe. “That’s Rafe?”
“That’s me,” Rafe grinned in reply.
“Curly-Locks,” Henri judiciously decided. “That’s your nickname.”
Mariah half-frowned in consideration. “And Becky’s Little E?”
Megan shook her head. “What is it with men and nicknames?”
“You mean like…Sandy?” Blair grinned.
“Don’t make me sorry to see you,” Megan threatened with a laugh.
“Okay. If Becky’s Little E, I can be Curly-Locks,” Mariah decided with a smile. “Can I call you Uncle H?”
“Sure,” Henri widely grinned. He looked surprised when Joel handed her into his arms.
“Gotta make it official,” Joel explained with a grin.
“Hey, what’s all the excitement? Ohmigod…Blair?”
Blair turned around with a grin. “Daryl?! Oh, man! You are SO grown up now!”
Daryl Banks grinned and wrapped his arms around the anthropologist. “Jim said he wasn’t sure if you’d get here this quick, but I KNEW you couldn’t miss a party like this!” He glanced past Blair to see Mariah in Megan’s arms giving her a kiss on the cheek. “That’s your little girl?”
Blair proudly nodded. “She’s making the rounds. Twisting people around her little finger.”
They looked around to see Becky standing behind them.
“Hey, sugar!” Daryl grinned. He gave her a quick hug then stepped back. “Looking sweet!” He grinned at her sudden blush. “You were right. That old t-shirt of mine does fit you.”
‘So THAT’S where it came from.’ Jim’s eyes narrowed slightly as he watched Becky first duck her head then glance up at Daryl with a slight blush. “You taken to wearing Daryl’s old stuff, honey?”
Becky’s hazel eyes widened as she looked at her father. “Ummm…yours is too big, Dad.”
“Yeah. Give the girl a chance to grow, Detective,” Daryl teased. He turned to see Rafe putting Mariah down. The detective was blushing slightly.
“Mariah, this is Daryl Banks.” Becky motioned her friend forward. “Uncle Simon’s son. Daryl, this is Mariah Sandburg. My best friend.”
“So this is who’s taking my place, huh?” Daryl teased. He held out his hand to Mariah who took it with a smile. “Nice to see the competition.” He saw the stricken expression on Becky’s face and released Mariah’s hand. “Hey, just teasing, Becky.”
“I can have two best friends, can’t I?” Becky quietly asked.
“Sure you can,” Daryl assured her. Patting her shoulder, he grinned. “You can do anything. Remember?”
Jim took a deep swallow of beer and narrowed his eyes even further.
“Oh, buggers! I almost forgot.” Megan grabbed Blair’s arm and pulled him towards the grill. “This handsome bloke is my intended, Michael Lake. Mike, this is Blair Sandburg.”
“Hi,” Mike cheerfully nodded. “Megan’s told me quite a bit about you.” About the same height as Blair, his blue eyes twinkled in greeting.
“Well, she’s been awfully close-mouthed about you. But then I think I only got one letter a year from her. The next one wasn’t due until October,” Blair teased. He held out his hand and found Mike’s grip to be firm.
“You prefer quantity over quality, Sandy?” Megan retorted with a sniff. When the two men chuckled, she took a plastic spoon and tasted the bar-b-que sauce simmering on the steaks. “Perfect, Mike. Don’t add another drop.”
“As you wish, love,” Mike nodded. “Could you go get another couple of bottles, though? I thought I’d set them out in case someone wanted to put more on their steaks. I think I left them in the car with the napkins and cutlery.”
“I’ll just bring it all,” Megan decided. She ran a hand through Mike’s short blonde hair and quickly kissed him on the lips before walking away.
“So. When’s the wedding?” Blair casually asked.
“Probably in September,” Mike answered. He reached for a nearby bottle of bar-b-que sauce. “Megan’s waiting to see how many people are taking a late summer vacation. She says it usually settles down after Labor Day. It’ll be a small ceremony, so there’s not a lot of preparation involved.” He carefully brushed more sauce over the steaks. “Since I’m self-employed, I can take off anytime.”
Blair silently watched. “Self-employed?”
Mike nodded as he capped the bottle and set it aside. “A computer programmer.” He smiled at Blair’s expression. “Megan’s a wonderful woman. But she has no sense of taste when it comes to food.”
Blair chuckled then clapped Mike on the shoulder. “Good luck.” He grinned when Mike laughed in return.
“Look, I gotta finish the sign-up sheets for the game,” Daryl announced. “I wish I’d known for sure you were going to be here, Blair. I remember you threw a pretty mean fastball.”
“Next time,” Blair promised with a grin. He reached into the cooler and brought out a can of beer then settled himself on the table next to Jim.
“Daryl, if Mariah wants to play, she can take my place,” Becky offered.
Daryl looked at Mariah who absently frowned. Then the little girl shook her head. “That’s okay. Becky’s gotta be a better player ‘cause I really suck at baseball.” Both girls grinned as Daryl choked. “I’ll just watch and cheer.”
“Right. Sucks at baseball. Gonna cheer. Got it.” Shaking his head, Daryl walked away. “Be back soon, Dad!” he yelled at his father.
Simon nodded. He turned towards his lounge chair then glared at the two men sitting on the picnic table. “Get off that table! We’re going to put our food on that!” He pulled the lounge chair over to the table so he could sit closer to the two men.
Both men quickly scooted down to the bench.
“I can’t believe Becky’s wearing Daryl’s clothes,” Jim grumbled.
“She’s got a crush on him,” Blair explained. He saw Jim’s narrowed eyes and tried not to smile. “Hey, anybody can see it. Well, except for Daryl. I bet he hasn’t a clue.”
“She’s only thirteen,” Jim grunted. “She’s too young for that.” He saw Blair’s barely repressed smirk. “I’M not ready for that.”
“You’ll just have to handle it with maturity, understanding, and sensitivity,” Blair solemnly advised. “And when you don’t…I’ll take over.” He smirked as he sipped his beer.
Jim eyed the two girls as they slowly walked towards the playground. He cocked his head to one side and extended his hearing.
“They all seem to like me,” Mariah said with a relieved sigh.
“Told you they would,” Becky grinned. “Now you’ve got a lot of aunts and uncles. Uncle Joel’s wife, Aunt Susan, will be here this afternoon. She’s a nurse at the hospital. I think she’s bringing their grandchildren. And Uncle H’s wife, Teesha, will be here, too, with their two kids. She’s a music teacher.”
“What about Rafe? He’s not married? Any kids?” Mariah casually asked.
“Nope and nope,” Becky shrugged. “I think he was engaged once, though.”
“I’m gonna have trouble calling him Uncle,” Mariah decided. “He is SO hot!”
“Uncle Rafe?” Becky looked at her friend in surprise. “Uncle Rafe???”
Mariah sighed. “Becky, he’s so hot he could melt all the ice in that big cooler.”
“Well, Sandburg, I’m glad you can handle Becky with maturity, understanding, and sensitivity,” Jim nodded. “I’m sure you’ll be able to handle Mariah, too.”
“Mariah? She’s only eleven,” Blair pointed out. He uncertainly eyed his own daughter.
“She thinks…and I quote…that Rafe is so hot he could melt all the ice in that big cooler,” Jim solemnly repeated.
Blair jumped to his feet. “MARIAH NAOMI SANDBURG!”
Jim snorted in laughter when both girls jumped. What made it even funnier was that Becky looked just as guilty as Mariah. He regained his composure and pulled Blair back down to the bench. “Don’t go too far!” he yelled at the girls. “We’ve got a game soon!”
Becky waved in acknowledgement and quickly pulled Mariah after her. Both girls glanced over their shoulders more than once as they headed for the playground.
Blair glared at his friend. “If you pulled a trick on me, that was a mean one. And if you didn’t play a trick on me, you eavesdropped on them.”
Jim shrugged, completely unrepentant.
Both men were suddenly aware of Simon’s low chuckle. They silently turned to eye the man reclining in the lounge chair.
“I’m really going to enjoy this,” Simon happily sighed. “All that advice I received when Daryl was going through those wonderful teenage years. I do remember that, you know. I’m so happy both of you will be able to deal with your OWN teenagers as well as you advised me on how to deal with mine.”
“Mariah’s not a teenager,” Blair weakly protested.
Jim snorted as he tossed his empty beer can into a nearby trash bag. “She’s like you, Chief. Precocious.”
Simon settled more comfortably into his lounge chair. “Ah…there IS justice in this world.”
By virtue of winning the coin toss, the Cascade Fire Department elected to bat first with the adults and last with the kids. Settling in on the bleachers next to Simon, Blair kept an eye on Mariah and Becky who were standing close to the fence. He saw several other teenagers starting to crowd around Mariah while ignoring Becky. Absently frowning, he saw the older girl step back and sit alone on a bleacher two rows from the fence.
Simon saw the frown and followed the anthropologist’s worried look. He silently wondered how Jim and Blair’s friendship would be affected by the ups-and-downs of their daughters’ relationship. “Looks like the ‘new kid in town’ is getting the once-over,” he joked.
Blair slowly nodded. “Jim said Becky doesn’t make friends easily.”
Simon neutrally shrugged. “She’s an Ellison.”
Blair suddenly grinned. “Does Jim know how much Becky imitates him?”
Simon silently stared at Blair until the younger man looked at him. “You HAVE been away a long time, haven’t you?”
Blair chuckled. “Point,” he acknowledged. He saw Simon smile as the older man looked past him. Blair turned his head and saw Mariah climbing the bleachers to join Becky. The younger girl gave her friend a sharp look and said something in a low voice.
The two men saw Becky slightly flush then slowly smile. Both men relaxed then exchanged sheepish grins.
“Don’t go off and leave me like that!” Mariah hissed as she sat next to Becky.
Becky flushed, her eyes glancing away. “They wanted to talk to you. Not me,” she mumbled.
Mariah eloquently smiled. “Becky, I’m your friend first.” She eyed the others. “And if they’re not your friends, then they’re not my friends.”
Becky looked back and slowly smiled. “You don’t have to do that.”
Mariah sniffed. “I have my standards.” Then she collapsed into giggles.
Despite herself, Becky started laughing. She was aware of the looks the teenagers gave them as they started cheering for the Cascade PD who was taking to the field.
“Wish Daddy was pitching,” Mariah sighed. “He’s really good.”
“Daryl’s a good pitcher,” Becky loyally defended.
“C’MON, DARYL! STRIKE HIM OUT!” Mariah shrieked.
Becky grimaced as she covered her ears, an act copied by several people around them.
“Sorry,” Mariah quickly apologized. She turned to the adults around them. “Sorry. So very sorry.”
“Just warn us next time.” Becky rubbed her right ear with a frown, then waved to her father who had been assigned to play third base.
“Cover your ears, people!” Mariah warned as she took a deep breath. “HI, UNCLE JIM!”
Jim glanced over his shoulder with a slight smile then waved. He saw Simon nearly falling off the bleacher as he laughed. Blair was grinning and slowly shaking his head.
“I think that little girls of yours is gonna get spoiled,” Simon warned as he caught his breath.
“You think?” Blair grinned in return.
“Well, we’ve tried to spoil Becky,” Simon admitted. “Joel became Uncle Joel the first time Jim brought her into Major Crimes.” He sighed. “The poor child was starved for attention but for some reason didn’t feel she deserved it. So, she became Major Crimes’ pet.”
Blair absently chewed on his lower lip. “And you think she might resent the attention Mariah gets?”
Simon shook his head. “I’m afraid she might fall back into the idea she doesn’t deserve attention.”
Blair slowly nodded. “Her mother did a real number on her, didn’t she?”
Simon nodded. “And Jim had no idea until she died. He’s always loved that child. But you know how he is about showing his emotions.”
Blair chuckled. He watched as the two girls groaned as the Fire Department scored. “So what’s on the line with the game this year?”
Simon allowed the younger man to change the subject. “First dibs on times and places to ring bells for the Salvation Army next Christmas.”
“Glad it’s nothing important,” Blair solemnly approved. He eyed the older man. “Are you seriously thinking about running for Mayor?”
Simon took the time to casually look around. No one seemed interested in their conversation. “Between the two of us? Yes, I am.”
Blair studied his friend. “To be honest, I would never have thought it. You always said you hated the politics you had to play in Major Crimes. I imagine it’s worse as Commissioner.”
Simon slowly nodded. He winced as the Fire Department scored another run. “What are you people doing out there?” he yelled. “Get them out!”
Blair chuckled as even the people in the outfield suddenly snapped to attention.
“I have no intention of standing at the corner of Seventh and Hall at 7am on a Saturday morning, Sandburg,” Simon growled.
“I’d say Chief Trent feels the same,” Blair grinned.
Simon glanced at the bleachers on the first base side of the field. “Well, he’s going to be disappointed.” He uncapped a bottle of water and sipped. “Think you’ll have time in your busy schedule as head of the Anthropology Department to be a consultant for Major Crimes?”
Blair’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?” When Simon silently stared at him, he took a deep breath. “I’ll make sure I have time.”
Simon nodded. “That’ll mean a lot to Jim. He wouldn’t ask for this, you understand.”
“What about Megan? I thought she and Jim were partnered,” Blair slowly asked.
“Only when Jim gets argued down. Those two work well together when they stop fighting each other,” Simon grunted. “He’s made no secret that he still considers you his partner.”
“He never stopped working to get me back,” Blair softly commented.
Simon nodded again. “To be honest, when you discovered that lost city, we all thought that would be your ticket back.”
Blair recalled the early days of his exile. Dr. Eli Stoddard had been putting together an expedition to Mexico. He would be working in conjunction with another anthropologist from Rainier University, Dr. Bertram Powell, who had been looking for a lost Olmec city for nearly two decades. When Eli had offered a place in the expedition to Blair, Rainier had threatened to pull the funding. Eli had told them he’d received a similar offer from UCLA. If Rainier pulled their funding this far into the planning of the expedition, he would exercise the option in his contract with Rainier that would allow him to accept funding from UCLA. Any discoveries, therefore, would be credited to UCLA and not Rainier.
Chancellor Edwards had reportedly thrown what was loosely called a “hissy fit” but had finally agreed so long as Blair was given the lowest possible position within the expedition. Eli had simply smiled, knowing that once they were in the Mexican jungle, there was precious little Chancellor Edwards could do about who did what.
Eli also knew Dr. Powell was a personal friend of Chancellor Edwards and realized Powell would be sending his reports straight to Chancellor Edwards. Eli had vowed to himself to run interference between the Blair and those who wanted to academically bury the young man.
Blair had first demurred as he’d intended to attend the Police Academy. Perhaps in retribution for Eli’s original offer…perhaps out of sheer spite…or perhaps Chancellor Edwards was innocent of any involvement…but suddenly the press got wind of Blair’s enrollment in the Academy. The next thing they knew, the furor over Blair’s dissertation was once again front page news…as was his intention to join the Cascade PD.
Jim Ellison had nearly gone berserk when Blair couldn’t hide his anguish over having the most miserable event of his life rehashed in the public forum. It had taken all of Blair’s persuasive techniques to convince the Sentinel someone WOULD miss Chancellor Edwards if the woman suddenly disappeared. Realizing he could no longer join the Cascade PD, Blair accepted Eli’s offer and began packing.
Jim had refused to allow Blair to store his belongings anywhere other than at the loft. He stressed that the loft was Blair’s home and always would be. Blair suddenly realized his partner needed the familiarity of Blair’s belongings to help him through what they assumed at the time would be a separation of twleve to eighteen months.
The morning Blair boarded the plane that took him to San Francisco where Stephen Ellison was waiting to help the young anthropologist pass the time until his flight to Mexico City later that evening was the morning Jim silently vowed to eliminate any threat to his Guide’s return.
Blair was suddenly brought out of his memories by Simon’s roar of approval as Daryl struck out a batter.
“That’s it! That’s it!” Simon yelled as he jumped to his feet.
Blair grinned at Daryl’s look of pleased embarrassment. “I think you’re embarrassing him, Simon.”
Simon snorted as he sat down. “I’ve been doing that from the day he was born…to hear his mother tell the story.”
“How is Joan?” Blair casually asked.
“Seems happy enough personally,” Simon answered. “She’s never forgiven Daryl for deciding to be a cop rather than a doctor.” He proudly smiled. “But he handles that okay.” He glanced at Blair. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time.” When the younger man silently nodded, he continued. “How in the hell did you find that lost city anyway? Hadn’t that other guy…Powell…Pyle…whatever his name is…hadn’t he been looking for years?”
“Powell,” Blair chuckled. “Yeah, he’d been looking. But he hadn’t been listening.” When Simon stared at him, he laughed. “He never took the time to listen to local legends or pay attention to the natives. He thought he knew more about their land and history than they did.” He shrugged. “I just listened to them. The poor guy had been running in circles all around the city for nearly twenty years.”
Simon chuckled as Henri tagged a runner at second base. Megan, playing catcher, called a quick time-out and trotted to the mound to confer with Daryl.
“You think this marriage will work for Megan?” Blair suddenly asked.
“I give it more of a chance than the others,” Simon admitted. “Mike doesn’t let her walk all over him. But he doesn’t argue that much with her either.”
“That’s gotta drive her insane,” Blair laughed.
Simon grunted. “From what Joel tells me, you’d think she’d get enough of THAT working with Ellison.”
The sharp crack of a bat connecting with a ball brought them to their feet. The ball seemed to be heading over Rafe’s head at first base. The detective jumped amazingly high in the air and caught the ball securely in his glove.
“YESSSS!!!” Mariah jumped up and down, waving her arms in excitement. “Did you see that? Becky! Did you see that!!”
Becky cheerfully nodded, adding her yells of approval as the Cascade PD headed for the dugout. “They’re only up by 3 runs! We can make it up!”
Excited, Mariah hopped from one foot to the other. She absently twisted the ends of her headscarf as she watched the Fire Department take to the field.
“Mariah, you’d see much better if you sat up there with us.”
Mariah immediately noticed the sudden tensing in Becky’s wide shoulders. She turned to see a couple of girls in their early ‘teens standing a few rows behind them. “Thank you. But I can see fine from here. I prefer to be closer to the action anyway.” She paused. “Do you want to sit with us?” She smiled at the look of near horror on Becky’s face as the older girl sat down.
The other two girls, each petite and impeccably dressed in designer outfits, glanced at each other for a moment. “I’m Beverly Franklin and this is Nanci Compton,” one of the girls finally answered. “All our friends are sitting up there.” She pointed to a crowd of teenagers sitting on the top two rows of the bleachers.
“You could all move down,” Mariah suggested. She tried not to smile at Becky’s muffled grunt.
The two girls exchanged another look. “We prefer to sit up there,” Beverly emphasized.
“I prefer to sit down here,” Mariah cheerfully answered. “But thanks for asking. If you change your mind, I guess we can find room down here for all of you.” She looked around as though considering which of the nearby adults she would ask to move.
Becky snickered under her breath.
Nanci’s face flushed. “We don’t just ask ANYONE to join us,” she pointed out.
“Oh. I guess that’s why you have to sit way up there, huh?” Mariah shaded her eyes with her hand as she stared at the confused girls.
Becky looked to her left as Blair called to his daughter.
Mariah turned and gave him a familiar smile. “Yes, Daddy?”
“Are you and Becky having fun?” Blair asked with half-concealed amusement.
“Yes, Daddy,” Mariah nodded, her curls bouncing against her cheek.
“Okay.” Blair’s blue eyes flickered to the other two girls then back at the field. He heard Simon chuckling.
“Think about it, Mariah,” Beverly suggested. “If you want to join us, we’ll save you a seat. For a while.” She turned to follow Nanci up the bleachers.
Mariah cheerfully nodded then turned to sit next to Becky. “So. Who are those little bitches?”
Becky snorted. “Part of the ‘popular group’. Beverly’s dad is a Lieutenant in Homicide. Nanci’s dad is a Captain in Narcotics. They and most of the others back there go to the same school I do.” She eyed her friend. “Same school you might attend so if you want to hang with them, I won’t mind.”
“Becky Ellison. Do I look like the sort of girl who wants to spend her time with bitches like that?” Mariah rolled her eyes.
“You’d better not let the adults catch you talking like that,” Becky warned with a snicker. “I thought Uncle Simon was going to wash my mouth out with soap when he heard me say ‘damn’.”
“Look! Rafe’s batting first!” Mariah excitedly bounced on the bleacher. As she opened her mouth, Becky quickly covered her ears. “HIT A HOMER, RAFE!”
Simon laughed. “She’s our own personal cheering section.” Then he laughed harder as Blair slowly lowered his head when Mariah dramatically put both hands over her heart when Rafe hit a double.
“She’s only eleven. She’s only eleven. She’s only eleven. Oh, God. I am SO NOT ready for this.” He raised his head and watched as Mariah alternated between eyeing Rafe with an interest he felt to be totally inappropriate for her age and biting her nails each time a new batter appeared. When Rafe finally scored and disappeared into the dugout, Mariah relaxed.
Becky absently pushed a stray strand of hair behind her ears. She watched as Daryl approached the plate. Automatically covering her ears when Mariah screamed encouragement, she nevertheless kept her eyes on him.
Blair silently wondered how both Jim and Simon were going to handle Becky’s infatuation with Daryl. He hoped the friendship between the two men wouldn’t be adversely affected.
“Wish we could have gotten you back sooner, Sandburg,” Simon quietly apologized.
Blair took a deep breath. “It just took time, Simon. I know that.”
Simon grunted. “Took damn near fifteen years. But I really thought we’d accomplished it two years ago. But that old adage of cutting off the head to kill the body just didn’t work. Chancellor Edwards had too many friends. We had to eliminate her power base before bringing her down.”
“Yeah,” Blair sadly sighed. “It was hard on everybody a couple of years ago.”
Blair’s discovery of the lost Olmec city within two months of his arrival in Mexico had buried the question of his Sentinel disseration forever. But Rainier’s refusal to grant him status as a full professor had pushed Eli Stoddard into a rare display of fury. Chancellor Edwards had used Dr. Powell’s objection to Blair being granted credit for the discovery as her basis for denying what many felt was only due the young anthropologist. At Eli’s intense urging, Blair had applied to UCLA and received his doctorate from that institution based on his discovery and subsequent thesis.
Dr. Powell’s objections were curtly dismissed by both UCLA and eventually Rainier as ‘sour grapes’. Most in the anthropology field dismissed Dr. Powell as an incompetent hack who only received backing from Rainier because of his personal friendship with Chancellor Edwards.
Every eighteen months, Blair’s supporters on the Board of Directors would resubmit a proposal to bring Blair back as a full professor in Rainier’s Anthropology Department. Even as each request was blocked by Chancellor Edwards, Jim and the other members of Major Crimes were quietly gathering information not only about Chancellor Edwards but her supporters as well.
It wasn’t that any of them were engaged in criminal behavior’ but in trying to ruin Blair, they had set themselves up as above reproach. Especially Chancellor Edwards. Having seen first-hand how deadly rumors and innuendoes could be, Jim decided to go on the offensive. Every problem at Rainier received special attention. News reports of problems at Rainier were given more attention, not only in the local press, but soon throughout the state of Washington.
One by one, Chancellor Edwards had seen her supporters either replaced or distancing themselves from her. Jim honestly though they’d succeeded two years earlier.
Blair and Mariah had been all but packed and his resignation as part-time Professor of Anthropology at Mexico City University ready to be submitted when Jack Kelso had called. Through his sources, he’d learned that Chancellor Edwards had managed to again block Blair’s return. Although many on Rainier’s Board of Directors felt it was time to bring Blair back if possible, she still had enough power to prevent any overt opposition to her wishes.
By the time Jim called later that night with the bad news, Blair had managed to compose himself, even managing to joke half-heartedly with his friend. But, as he’d quietly thought after his conversation with Jim, he wondered if he just shouldn’t forget about returning to Rainier and find a position at a different American University. Mariah was getting older, and he really wanted to provide a more settled existence for her. His own upbringing aside, he knew he’d missed a great deal by not putting down roots earlier in life. But the idea that giving up on returning to Rainier would somehow be the same as abandoning Jim Ellison kept him from following through. Instead, he made arrangements to return to the Fall Semester at Mexico City University.
He was astonished a week later when Jim turned up on his doorstep, Becky in tow. An off-hand comment about “the mountain coming to Mohammed” and a shrug were all the explanation he received. Blair had been in the field when Jim’s ex-wife had died. He knew Jim was involved in what was becoming a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife’s family over Becky. What he hadn’t known was that William Ellison had encouraged Jim to take Becky to Mexico to visit Blair while he began maneuvering on Becky’s behalf to allow the girl to remain with her father.
All Blair knew was he and Jim immediately reestablished their connection. Both men were silently relieved to feel the strong bond between Sentinel and Guide even as they watched their daughters establish their own friendship. Pictures and letters between the two men had always included their daughters. But this was the first time since the death of Blair’s wife and son that Becky Ellison and Mariah Sandburg had really met.
It hadn’t taken Mariah long to bring Becky out of her silent shell, a fact that earned her Jim’s eternal gratitude. The two men had talked long into the nights during that week…grateful their children seemed to be forming as firm a friendship as they themselves enjoyed. Jim was guilty and angry he hadn’t been able to bring Blair back home after so many years. Blair pushed aside his own homesickness to assure his best friend he could return to the States at any time but acknowledged he wanted to return to Rainier in order to put all the ugliness behind them.
By the end of the week, Becky and Mariah had become fast friends. They talked at least twice a week on their computers sometimes including their fathers although Jim preferred to pick up the phone and hear Blair’s voice rather than communicate through a slow hunt-and-peck system on a keyboard.
With a jerk, Blair brought himself out of the past. He and Mariah were in Cascade. They were home. It was time to forget how long it had taken them to get there and just enjoy it.
The inning went quickly with the Fire Department ahead 3-2. Becky headed towards the field as Mariah joined her father and Simon higher in the bleachers. She waved when Becky looked back over her shoulder. The older girl frowned when the other teenagers passed the younger girl, some giving her dark looks.
Jim hesitated, seeing his daughter staring at the bleachers. Noting her clenched fists, he put a gentle hand on her shoulder. Surprised when she jumped, he patted her shoulder. “Everything ok, sweetheart?”
“Yeah, Dad.” Becky took a deep breath. “Nice triple.”
Jim shrugged. “You guys’ll pull it out.” He noted the teenagers filing past them. “Sure everything’s okay?”
Becky nodded then hesitated. “I’m really glad Mariah’s here. And Uncle Blair.”
“Me, too,” Jim smiled. “Have fun.”
Becky nodded. She started to run towards the dugout then turned back around. “Dad!” When Jim turned, she grinned. “Cover your ears when Mariah starts to yell!”
Remembering the high-pitched shriek he’d heard more than once from the bleachers, Jim grinned and nodded. When he got to where his friends were sitting, he saw that Joel, who’d been helping Mike keep an eye on the bar-b-que, had joined them. Mariah was busily assigning seating. He wasn’t surprised to find she’d directed Rafe to sit next to her. As he took a seat next to Blair, he saw his partner regarding the small girl as though he’d never seen her before. He exchanged a sympathetic look with Blair, and they both ignored Simon’s chuckling.
The top of the inning passed quickly. Jim wasn’t sure but Mariah seemed far too pleased when both Beverly and Nanci struck out. Although she shrieked for Becky to “HIT A HOMER!”, Jim was pleased to watch his daughter hit a solid double allowing one runner to score.
The score was 6-3 when the kids of the Fire Department took their turn at bat. Becky was waiting in center field, her eyes fixed on the batter.
After watching the first few batters, Daryl leaned forward and patted his father’s shoulder. “Gotta run, Dad. Don’t have enough seniority to get the day off.” He grinned at Blair who adopted a confused expression.
“C’mon, Daryl. You gotta know somebody in authority who can get you off,” the anthropologist grinned.
Daryl grunted. “I wish.”
“Dream on,” Simon easily interrupted. “It’s called paying your dues.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Daryl laughed.
A familiar smacking sound heralded a ball flying into the infield. They all stopped to watch as Becky quickly ran forward, ready to catch the pop fly.
Jim proudly watched as she positioned herself for the catch. Then he frowned as she seemed to freeze. He glanced at the trajectory of the ball and jumped to his feet. “She’s lost it in the sun,” he muttered as he pushed past Blair and Simon to jump off the edge of the bleacher.
“BECKY!” Mariah shrieked just before the ball hit the older girl on the forehead.
Blair had immediately followed Jim, wincing as he heard the crowd’s reaction.
“No, Mariah. Wait here.” Simon caught the little girl’s shoulders as she tried to slip past him.
“I gotta go, Uncle Simon! Becky needs me!” Mariah wailed.
Simon half-smiled, remembering similar words from her father on more than one occasion.
“They’ll take her to the care station,” Daryl assured her. “I’ll take you there on my way out.”
“We’ll all go,” Simon decided, seeing the members of Major Crimes getting to their feet.
“Becky! Don’t move!” Jim ordered as he slipped to his knees beside his daughter.
Becky frowned as she tried to turn her head. “I’m okay,” she mumbled. “Where’s the ball?”
“Forget the ball.” Jim felt Blair’s hand on his shoulder and automatically began to relax. He saw John Axton trotting in their direction. “Let John check you out. He’s an EMT.”
“You’re not carrying me off the field,” Becky grumbled. Seeing the warning look in her father’s eyes, she lay quietly while the EMT carefully examined the knot on her forehead.
“That’s gonna be painful, but her eyes are responsive,” John deduced. “No nausea, Becky?”
“I don’t throw up,” Becky proudly answered.
“I always admired that,” John cheerfully replied. “Me? I toss my cookies on a pretty regular basis.”
“Which is why he’s had four partners in the past three years,” Jim confided with a slight smile.
“Let’s see if you can sit up,” John suggested. He and Blair helped her sit up while Jim gently braced her back. “Any dizziness?”
“Just a headache,” Becky muttered.
“She’ll probably have one through tomorrow,” John judged with a glance at Jim. “You might want to have her regular doctor take a look at her.”
“Dad, no,” Becky protested. “I don’t want to mess up the holiday.”
“You’re not messing up anything,” Jim assured her. “Let’s get you to the care center, and you stay there until time to eat. As long as you don’t get any worse, we’ll stay. But you gotta promise to let me know if you feel worse. Dizziness. Nausea. Worse headache. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Becky quietly answered. “Can I get up now?”
Jim wrapped an arm around her waist and helped her stand. A smattering of applause from the crowd reached their ears. John reached down and picked up Becky’s glove. “Is this one yours?”
“No. Borrowed from the dugout,” Becky grunted.
“I’ll take care of it,” John assured her. “Helen’s on duty at the care center. Have someone get me if she needs help.”
Jim nodded in silent thanks as he and Blair walked Becky towards the sidegate. She stared past Blair and groaned. “They scored, didn’t they?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jim said as he pushed the gate open.
“Yes, it does,” Becky grumbled. “I should’ve caught it. They shouldn’t have scored.”
“You just lost the ball in the sun,” Jim soothed her. “No big deal.”
Blair’s blue eyes flickered from Jim to his daughter. “Well, it’s a big deal to Becky. I say we demand a replay.” He patted Becky’s shoulders. “Without you getting smacked in the head, I mean.”
Becky weakly smiled. “I don’t think that’s in the rulebook, Uncle Blair.”
“Well, it should be,” Blair shrugged.
Jim flashed his partner a grateful look. “I know it’s important to you, Becky. But, for me, making sure you’re okay is more important.”
“We could lose,” Becky muttered, sneaking a look at her father.
“Then we lose,” Jim shrugged.
“Looks like we have a welcoming committee,” Blair grinned.
Becky looked up to see a crowd of people around the care center and groaned. “This is so embarrassing.”
Mariah ran to meet them. She silently stared into Becky’s eyes.
“I’m okay,” Becky muttered.
Walking backwards as they continued towards the care center, Mariah silently studied her friend for a few moments. Then she turned and ran to the others. “She’s okay!” she pronounced.
“Like Mariah said, she’s okay,” Jim smiled at Helen McCormack, the EMT on duty. “We’re just here as a precaution.”
“Glad to hear that, Becky,” Daryl grinned. “You take it easy, okay? I gotta get on duty.”
“Be careful,” Becky quietly admonished.
“Always do, Little E.” The young black man gently patted her shoulder. “You make sure this party doesn’t get too rowdy.” He glanced at the older officers. “I’d really hate to have to come back out here tonight,” he warned with a shake of his head.
The girls snickered as Daryl sauntered away.
“The rest of you. Out as well,” Helen ordered. “Jim, you can stay.”
“What about me?” Mariah asked with a pleading voice.
“Only Jim,” Helen firmly answered.
They all watched as the wheels turned in the little girl’s head. Blair simply crossed his arms across his chest and waited. Mariah delicately coughed then stared up at Helen with wide eyes.
“Nice try,” Helen nodded in appreciation. “But I have four little monsters of my own. Out.”
“Go on, Mariah. I’ll be out in a little while,” Becky assured her.
“Well. Okay. I guess we could watch the end of the game.” Mariah reached and took Blair’s hand in one of hers then reached and took Rafe’s with the other. “Come on,” she urged with a smile.
Jim’s eyebrows rose when he heard his partner muttering, “She’s only eleven. She’s only eleven.”
Like the good sports they were, the Cascade PD congratulated the Fire Department on their win. Resigned to standing on the corner of Seventh and Hall at 7am on a Saturday morning, Simon led his people back towards the picnic area. Walking in the rear of the group with Rafe and Henri, Mariah saw Beverly and her friends approaching. Amused, she saw they were intentionally ignoring her.
“We’d ‘ve won except for Becky’s screw up,” Nanci complained.
“Yeah, she let those two runs get scored,” a boy added.
“Well, what do you expect from Big Becky?” Beverly smirked. “She’s about as coordinated as a hippo on ice skates. Being so…big and all.”
Angrily, Mariah spun on her heel, catching both men by surprise. They watched with open-mouthed shock as she forced her way through the crowd of teenagers and got right in Beverly’s face.
“You think it’s funny? Getting smacked in the forehead with a baseball? You wanna see how it feels? I’ll show you how it feels.” She clenched her right hand into a fist.
“Whoa! Whoa! WHOA! Easy, tiger!” Henri grabbed Mariah around the waist.
“Let me go, Uncle H!” Mariah squirmed trying to get free. “I’m gonna cream her.”
Rafe smothered a grin as the teenagers began backing away.
“Better yet, I think I’ll put a curse on them.” Mariah’s blue eyes narrowed. “I can do that, you know. I learned a lot about curses on those expeditions in Mexico.”
“Now, Mariah, calm down.” Rafe assumed his most serious look. “I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it.” He glanced at the retreating teenagers. “Did you?”
“No,” one of the boys quickly answered. He grabbed Beverly’s hand and pulled her away.
Nanci glared at Mariah who cocked her head to her left.
“Rissen c’lara. Ola mahijal.” Mariah’s eyes half-closed as she chanted.
Henri managed not to laugh as the teenagers wrapped the shreds of their dignity around themselves and quickly disappeared. He heard Rafe snicker when Beverly tripped and nearly fell face-first into the dirt. “Just what language was that?” he asked.
“Sandburgese. Grandmama Naomi taught me.” With an angelic smile, Mariah looked up at Henri. “Can I go now, Uncle H?”
“Are they safe from your wrath, Oh Mighty One?” Henri teased.
Mariah stared at the retreating teenagers. “For now.”
Henri silently put her back on the ground and watched as she skipped back to the picnic area. “You know what this means, don’t you?” He glanced at his partner.
Rafe nodded. “Oh, yeah. I know.”
It was late afternoon when Becky was released from the care center with nothing more than a headache. Jim was glad when she silently stretched out for a nap on one of the lounge chairs that Henri’s wife had brought. Although the EMTs had assured Jim his daughter wasn’t suffering from a concussion, he still felt it was better to wake her periodically.
The first time he did so, Becky grumbled and snapped in such a true Ellison fashion that Simon had been hard-pressed not to laugh out loud. Becky had then rolled over to go back to sleep. After that, Mariah, Henri’s two small children, and Joel’s three grandchildren had taken turns waking her. The smaller children adored Becky who almost always made time to play with them, and the adults knew she wouldn’t snap at them. Mariah just cheerfully snapped back when Becky growled at her.
As the sun went down, Becky finally left the lounge chair and walked with Mariah and the smaller children towards the playground area.
“Don’t overdo, honey,” Jim called from where he sat with Blair and the others from Major Crimes.
“I won’t,” Becky grumbled. “Can’t sleep. Can’t play. Hell, might as well be in school.”
“Rebecca!” Jim reproached as he managed not to smile. “Watch it around the smaller kids.”
“Sorry,” Becky mumbled as she looked at her feet.
“You mean the ‘younger kids’, don’t you, Uncle Jim?” Mariah pouted. She stared at him, her eyes twinkling in mischief. “After all, I’m smaller.”
“And younger,” Blair quickly pointed out. He grinned when his daughter turned her pout in his direction. “Behave. Both of you.”
“We will,” Mariah cheerfully nodded.
“We’ll watch out for the littler ones,” Becky promised.
“Hey!” Mariah protested.
“I said WE,” Becky calmly pointed out as they walked away.
“I’m not sure we can survive those two,” Blair grinned.
Jim grunted. “I’m not sure I’ll survive fatherhood period.” He ignored Simon’s chuckle.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Henri grinned. “They’ll watch out for each other.” He and Rafe exchanged smug looks.
“What did I miss?” Jim sighed.
“Just a reaffirmation of an old rule,” Rafe chuckled. “Mariah overheard a couple of the other kids griping about losing the game.”
“Blaming Becky?” Jim’s eyes narrowed.
Rafe uncomfortably shrugged. “They were just mouthing off.”
Henri chuckled. “That little girls of yours is a spitfire, Hairboy.”
“What did she do?” Blair groaned.
“Got right in their faces,” Henri explained.
“Which is pretty impressive considering they were a lot taller,” Rafe added.
“Asked ‘em how they’d like it if THEY got smacked in the head with a baseball,” Henri continued.
“Then decided she’d just curse them instead,” Rafe laughed.
“Curse?” Simon asked in astonishment. His eyes widened as Blair fell backward onto the cooling grass and groaned.
“Naomi’s influence.” The anthropologist closed his eyes.
Jim grinned. “Right, Chief. Blame it on the grandmother.”
“She deserves it,” Blair assured him as the others chuckled. He opened his eyes and sat up. “She told Mariah a story about how she bluffed her way out of a bad situation in Nepal by pretending to curse someone.”
Rafe snickered. “Worked in Cascade, too.”
“I’ll have to remind Mariah that bad karma could result from doing something like that,” Blair darkly hinted.
Joel snorted. “Like you’d ever lay a hand on that child.”
Blair squirmed. “There’s bad karma and then there’s bad karma.”
“You’re actually going to punish her for taking up for her friend?” Henri protested.
“That doesn’t seem fair,” Rafe agreed.
“What was she supposed to do, Hairboy? Hit them?” Henri challenged, conveniently forgetting that had been Mariah’s original intention.
“I’m not the bad guy here!” Blair protested. He looked at Jim who leaned back on his elbows and lazily grinned.
“You keep this up, Sandburg, and I’ll tell you what I tell Henri,” Rafe promised with a twinkle in his eyes. “You don’t treat the kid right, and I’ll just take her home with me.”
“She’d probably go for that,” Blair muttered under his breath. His eyes narrowed when Jim burst into laughter.
“Hey, you can get away with that ‘cause Micha’s your goddaughter,” Henri pointed out. “Just wait until you have some of your own.”
“I’m not sure the world is ready for that,” Megan said as she and Mike joined them.
“Great bar-b-que, Mike” Joel complimented.
Mike exchanged a quick smile with Blair. “Thanks, Joel. Glad you enjoyed it.”
Simon curiously glanced at Rafe. “So what was the affirmation of an old rule?”
Rafe laughed. “Don’t mess with Ellison or Sandburg will nail your ass.”
Becky looked up from the playground swings at the sound of riotous laughter from the Major Crimes picnic area.
“What is it?” Mariah curiously asked.
Becky shrugged. “Adults. Go figure.” She shrugged again.
As the sun set, the adults cleaned the picnic area and loaded everything except Jim’s large cooler into various cars and vans. Becky and Mariah led the smaller children back to the picnic area where they settled in a loose circle in the twilight darkness, comfortably talking and quietly laughing. The smaller children settled close to their parents and grandparents as they struggled to stay awake for the fireworks. Becky and Mariah sat slightly apart, their heads together as they quietly spoke.
Simon leaned back in his lounge chair and observed the group with an air of satisfaction. After so many years, Sandburg was finally home where he belonged. ‘Where he should have been all along.’ Mentally consigning Chancellor Edwards and her spiteful nature to dark oblivion, his dark eyes drifted to where Mariah was sitting cross-legged on the ground, rocking back and forth as she chattered to her friend. ‘But if he hadn’t been forced to leave, he wouldn’t have brought that sweet child in to this world.’
Simon quickly glanced to where Jim and Blair were sitting, silently watching their daughters and sipping bottles of water. He firmly believed Jim would never have married Crystal if Blair had been around. The observer would have seen that relationship as detrimental to the Sentinel’s well-being and put a stop to it one way of the other. So Blair’s departure had resulted in Becky’s birth as well, he silently admitted.
He silently studied the two men. The years had only emphasized the lean and sharp features of Jim Ellison’s face. His body was the silent envy of some men half his age, and time hadn’t slowed either his step or mental sharpness. And while the years might have forced Blair Sandburg to learn patience, he still radiated almost raw energy in both his actions and words. Simon suddenly thought this night was merely the calm before the storm…the storm of Ellison and Sandburg.
Feeling exceptionally paternal at the moment, he leaned back and smiled. Things were going to be very interesting. For a moment, he resented not being in command of Major Crimes. He would love to watch the future upheavals from a front row seat. ‘But then Joel’s always been good to keep me informed.’ He allowed himself a brief chuckle and ignored the questioning looks he received.
The smaller children squealed as the first rocket was shot into the sky. The “ooohs” and “aaahhhs” that followed were music to any parent’s ear.
Mariah bounced on the ground as eagerly as the younger children. More than once, she grabbed Becky’s arm and pointed into the night sky, tracing the path of the rocket before it exploded into wondrous sound and color.
Jim winced at the loud claps of sound that heralded the fireworks finale. He sympathetically noticed Becky putting her hands over her ears. Mariah, however, was on her feet almost dancing in enthusiastic appreciation.
Afterwards, Jim and Blair carried the almost-depleted cooler back to the van. The girls slowly walked behind them, Mariah almost skipping to keep up with Becky's longer stride.
The two men sat the cooler on the ground as Jim fished in his jeans pocket for the keys.
“Drive safely,” Joel cautioned as he and his wife passed them. Both held a sleepy grandchild in their arms, and Simon followed with another.
“You, too, Joel. Simon,” Blair cautioned.
Jim unlocked the van and opened the sliding side door. “How’s your head, honey?” he asked.
“Hurts a little,” she admitted as she took her seat. “Just tired now.” She removed the Jags ball cap and tried to work her hair free of the braid.
“Here. Let me.” Mariah knelt on the seat next to her and started working her small fingers into Becky’s thick hair.
“We’ll be home soon,” Jim promised. “A quick shower and then both of you hop into bed.” He slammed the door shut, smiling as the van bounced slightly with Mariah’s motions. Unlocking the back door, he and Blair wrestled the large cooler into the rear of the van. With a sigh, Jim thankfully lowered the door and locked it. “We’ll unload it in the morning.” He grinned at his friend. “I’m tired, but you and Mariah must be out on your feet. You’ve both been up since way before dawn to catch that flight from San Francisco.”
Blair grinned as the van bounced. “Tired? Mariah? You MUST be joking.”
Jim grunted. “She’ll be out like a light when she gets into bed.”
“Now there’s some wishful thinking,” Blair muttered as he walked towards the front of the van.
They were silent as Jim negotiated the van through the park’s narrow roads and onto the main highway.
“Daddy, can I stay in Becky’s room tonight?” Mariah finally asked.
“I don’t know. I think both you girls need to get some sleep,” Blair answered.
“We’ll go to sleep,” Mariah promised. “Puulleezze?”
Jim tried not to smile. He glanced at Blair who seemed determined to play the role of responsible parent. Then his blue eyes flickered to the rear view mirror, and he saw the expression in Becky’s hooded hazel eyes. 'Damn. She’s STILL afraid to ask me for much of anything.’ He cleared his throat and threw a glance in Blair’s direction. “What about it, sweetheart? You want a roomie for tonight?”
Becky hesitated, then nodded. “We’ll keep quiet, Dad. I promise.”
Blair caught the look on Jim’s face even as he recognized the unconscious pleading tone in the child’s voice. “Well, it’s okay with me.” He looked over his shoulder with a teasing smile at his daughter. “But I want to see those peepers closed soon after you hit the hay, pumpkin.”
Mariah grinned as Becky glanced at her father.
“Sure, honey,” Jim nodded. “Might be for the best in case that headache gets worse during the night, huh?”
Letting out a slight sigh, Becky nodded. “Thanks, Dad.”
After a few minutes’ silence, Mariah started fidgeting. “Daddy, are we going to move into the loft?”
“I don’t know,” Blair admitted with a grin in Jim’s direction. “I haven’t had a chance to negotiate with the landlord.”
“Make an appointment, Sandburg,” Jim mock-growled.
“But they’re going to stay with us until all their stuff gets here, right?” Becky spoke up.
“Right?” Mariah echoed with a nod of her head.
“And that’s not going to be for at least a month, right?” Becky continued.
“Right?” Another nod of curls.
“And Aunt Megan’s gotta move out of the loft first, right?” Becky prodded.
“Right?” This time, the curls bounced almost in agitation.
Blair looked over his shoulder in concern. “Yes. Yes. And yes.” When he saw the two girls relax, he frowned. “Why?”
“No reason, Daddy.” Mariah gave an exaggerated yawn. “We were just…” Her small hands waved in the air. “…thinking.”
“Uh-huh.” Blair turned back around in his seat. “I know I don’t want to tackle THAT until tomorrow,” he muttered.
Jim grunted in agreement. He turned the van into the driveway. Coming to a halt, he turned off the ignition. “You girls get upstairs, shower, and get into bed.”
Becky gave her father another look as Mariah hopped out of the van. “It IS okay if Mariah sleeps in my room, isn’t it?”
Jim squeezed his daughter’s shoulder. “Of course it is. But it’s late, okay? And even Sandburgs run down eventually.” He matched his daughter’s sudden grin. Unlocking the front door, he stood aside as the two girls ran upstairs.
“You sure you don’t want to unload the cooler tonight?” Blair asked.
“Positive.” Jim stretched his muscles. “But I wouldn’t mind some coffee and company,” he added as he locked the door behind them.
Blair grinned. “THIS Sandburg hasn’t run down yet.”
Jim grunted in mock annoyance then grinned. “Been a long time since we’ve had a late night coffee and bull session.”
Blair studied his friend for a moment. “Yeah. I’ve missed it, too.” He followed Jim into the kitchen. Sitting at the small table, he watched as his friend dumped coffee grounds and water into the coffeemaker.
“You know, Chief, you and Mariah are more than welcome to stay here as long as you want,” Jim casually began. “God knows we have enough room.”
Blair slowly smiled. “I really appreciate that, Jim. You gotta know that.”
Jim glanced over his shoulder as he opened a cabinet and retrieved two mugs. “But?”
Blair shrugged. “No ‘but’ to it. Let’s just see how this plays out. Okay?” ‘You gotta let go of the past, buddy. You don’t need to make up for the time I’ve been away.’
Jim gave his friend a genuine smile. “Deal.”
They sat in companionable silence, sipping their coffee and simply enjoying being in each other’s presence.
“Guess we better check on the girls,” Blair sighed.
Jim nodded. “I’ve got stuff to make sandwiches if you’ve got the munchies.”
“That sounds good,” Blair grinned.
“C’mon. Let’s make sure the girls are at least in bed,” Jim decided as he stood. “Then we can each grab a shower and change before raiding the refrigerator.”
They quietly headed upstairs towards Becky’s room. They saw a light through the half-opened door and heard Mariah’s sing-song voice. Both men halted in stunned surprise.
“No. God, Blair, no,” Jim breathed.
Blair gripped the Sentinel’s arm.
They quietly stepped closer, and Jim opened the door.
Mariah was sitting on the bed, facing Becky and holding both her hands.
“It’s okay, Becky. Come back to me. I know you can hear me. Come on back. Follow my voice.”
Becky suddenly blinked and jerked away from Mariah’s grip. Her eyes slowly focused on the worried girl in front of her. “It happened again?” she whispered. Before Mariah could answer, Becky saw the two men standing in the doorway. Her face paled, and she caught her breath as Mariah looked behind her in shocked silence.
Jim saw the fear in his daughter’s face and quickly walked to the bed. Sitting next to his daughter, he patted her arm. “It’s okay, Becky. Nothing’s wrong. You understand? It’s okay.”
Mariah hesitantly looked up at her father, who silently approached the bed. “Hi, Daddy.”
Blair ran a hand through her damp curls. “You did a good job.”
“Come to tuck us in?” Becky managed to say. Her eyes silently pleaded with Mariah who bit her lip and stared down at the quilt beneath her.
“Becky. Look at me.” Jim tried to peer down into his daughter’s face.
“You didn’t lose the ball in the sunlight, did you, Becky?” Blair gently asked. He sat on the foot of the bed and put an arm around his small daughter.
“Sure I did,” Becky quickly answered. “But…I’m awfully tired now…and my head hurts.”
“Becky, listen to me. The same thing’s happened to me. More than once,” Jim quietly stressed. He met his daughter’s hesitant look with a calm nod.
“You were holding your ears during the fireworks,” Blair recalled. He felt the old rush of excitement building in him…the same excitement he’d felt when he’d first confronted Jim.
“And she heard you laughing while we were on the playground,” Mariah quietly added.
“Mariah!” Becky gave her friend an anguished glare.
“I promised not to say anything unless they knew,” Mariah sniffled. “But they heard us, Becky. They know!”
“And sometimes, like today, you just…zone out. Right?” Blair prodded.
Becky bit her lower lip.
“She did it when they visited us in Mexico,” Mariah answered. She flinched at Becky’s sullen glare. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Doesn’t matter,” Becky muttered with a peek at Blair. “It’s not Mariah’s fault. I made her promise not to tell.”
The two men exchanged understanding looks. The weight of their secrets had taken its toll on them a long time ago.
“How did you know how to bring her back, Mariah?” Jim finally asked.
The smaller girl shrugged. “It just seemed…she went away. I told her to come back.”
“Becky, you need to listen to us.” Blair leaned forward. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Your father’s right. The same thing HAS happened to him.”
Becky took a deep breath. “Mother and Granma said it was the Devil in me.” She choked back a sob. “I…I didn’t want you to know, Dad. I was afraid you’d send me away like Granma always threatened.”
Blair flinched at the cold hard expression on Jim’s face. For a few moments, he was glad Becky’s mother was dead and hoped her grandparents were beyond the Sentinel’s vengeful reach…not to mention a Guide’s vengeful reach.
Jim sat against the headboard and pulled his daughter completely into his arms. “Nobody is EVER going to take you away from me. I love you, Becky. Nothing’s ever going to change that.”
The young girl broke into sobs as she buried her face in her father’s chest. Jim slowly rocked her back and forth, trying to give her some sense of protection and security by enfolding her in his arms.
Mariah helplessly waved her hands in the air in front of her as she sniffled. She easily leaned into her father’s embrace but reached out to gently pat Becky’s leg.
Fighting his own tears, Blair cleared his throat. Waiting for Jim’s eyes to meet his, he weakly grinned. “Looks like we’ll be staying for quite a while, huh?”
“Thank you,” Jim whispered, silent gratitude shining in his eyes.
“What’s wrong me with me?” Becky whimpered. Making no move to leave the safety and comfort of her father’s arms, she twisted her head to look up at him.
“Absolutely nothing, honey,” Jim assured her. “You’ve inherited my enhanced senses, that’s all. Eyesight. Hearing.” Remembering his daughter’s reaction to spicy foods, he half-grinned. “Taste.”
“Spirit animals?” Blair murmured. He grinned at the shocked look on his partner’s face.
“What are enhanced senses?” Mariah prodded.
Blair squirmed until he sat cross-legged on the bed. Reaching out, he pulled Mariah onto his lap. He grinned at Jim who settled more comfortably against the headboard of the bed while securely holding his daughter in his arms. Taking a deep breath, he began.
“In every ancient culture, there were Sentinels…”
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