I really must stop meeting fellow writers. I really should. Emerald and I went to the rally together, she drove, and I made like a tour guide. Every time I picked up my California Thomas Guide, shouts of "Oh, No, we're lost!" would echo from the rear of the van. We never got lost, twisted around a couple of times, but never lost. I swear that one of those maps is in the book upside down or backwards. I finally got my Pastrami fix from the Hat. I'm still remembering how wonderful it was. Of course, I brought two of the giant sandwiches back with me, I had the last one for lunch, yesterday at work, with half a dozen people drooling on my desk, and that was with a cold sandwich.

Anyway, Emerald and her wonderful children (14, 12, 10 and 6 years old, best behaved children I've met in the past twenty or so years. Although, Emerald and I were having so much fun, much to her eldest daughter's embarrassment.), Nickerbits and her husband Steve (token male demographic at the rally), and I went to Disneyland. We were in Toontown, and I lay forth the challenge, Jim, Blair and Jim's six-year-old niece. We decided the niece was really Carolyn's, and that Jim was still recognized as 'Uncle' by the rest of her family. Emerald was working on it on Wednesday, so she's got this huge head start on me. The rally was fun, but meeting with everyone was even better. Especially my fellow denizens of Wolfpup's page, particularly, Wolfpup.

The disclaimers are still standard. Not mine; no money, I'm grateful that the owners don't sue me. Thanks to Pet Fly et al. Special thanks to Wolfpup for the lovely home. And also, thanks to all the nice people who have written to me.



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"Thanks, Jim. I really owe you one for this."

"Yeah. I guess you do." He smiled.

"You've changed. You're more...relaxed, I guess. Still hanging out with that hippie?"

"Yeah. He lives here, now, in case you couldn't tell." He smiled. Calm, amused.

"I noticed the changes you've made. It looks good. So do you."

"I'm fine. So, tell me again what we have to do?" Seeing her like this, knowing that she was going to owe him big time for this particular favor he couldn't keep the smug grin from his face.

"Oh, of course. Here are the plane tickets, hotel reservations, and passes. Everything's already paid for. You just have to go and enjoy." Her smile was strained. He'd been her last choice, but the only one available at the last minute, like this.

"Two adults?" He glanced up at her, curious.

"Well, I was going to go with Tom, but then work interfered, I thought you might have someone you might want to take..."

He smiled. "Yeah. I can think of a couple of people." That was inaccurate. He could think of half a dozen people he'd be willing to take the trip with.

"So, it's not a problem?"

"Nah. It's fine." He crouched down to the eye level of his new charge. "Hi, Jessica. Remember me?"

"Uncle Jim." She stated in a soft, shy little girl voice.

"Uh-huh. So, are you ready for this, Sweetheart?" He smiled reassuringly as she shyly nodded. He stood back up. "OK. So, we leave tonight, come back Monday evening and who's going to pick her up on Monday night?"

"Either I will, or her parents will. I can't tell you how much this means to me, Jim. I really do owe you on this."

"Forget it, Carolyn. We'll be fine." The six-year-old grasped his fingers as they waved good-bye to her aunt.

"Hey, Jim. I'm...Hello. Who are you?" The young man stood in shock, staring at the little girl. He glanced around for his roommate, wondering what was going on.

"Hey, Chief." Jim called from upstairs in his bedroom.

"Uh, Jim? Who...?"

"Oh, that's right. You haven't met. That's Jessica. Jessica, this is Blair, my friend."

"Uh, Hi, Jessica." Blair said softly, smiling.

"Hi. Are you going, too?"

"Uh, going? Going where?" He looked from the little girl to his roommate, who was coming down the stairs carrying a suitcase.

"Yeah. We're going to LA for the long weekend. Uh, you want to come?" He was uncertain whether his friend would want to, under the circumstances.


"Why what?" Deliberately being obtuse.

"Why do you want me to go? Why are you going to LA? You know, why?" His hands gesturing expressively.

"Oh, well, we have tickets for two adults and one child. We're going to Disneyland. I can understand if you don't want to go. But I thought...well, maybe I didn't really think " he trailed off, uncertain.

"You want me to go with you to Disneyland?" A huge grin spreading across his face.

"Only if you want to go, Chief."

Blair's grin split his face. "I'd love to. I've never been to Disneyland. Have you?"

"No. Jessica's parents are out of the country and Carolyn was taking care of her, but she got called in on a really heavy-duty case, and I was the only one available to take off for the weekend." Jim set his suitcase by the door and stood there, waiting for Blair's final decision.

"Cool, man. Let me get packed. What's the weather like?"

"Seventies. Clear. Possible showers on Monday. We've got a suite at the Disneyland Hotel, two-day passes, tickets for Knott's, plane tickets, everything."

"Wow. This is going to be fun." He was practically bouncing as he headed for his room to pack.

"EEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!" Jessica shrieked, clinging tightly to her uncle's arm wrapped protectively around her as they dropped down the steep water slide at the end of the ride at Splash Mountain. Blair was sitting behind them, yelling at the top of his lungs as well, while Jim laughed at them both. They had already been on the wet ride twice, as well as three trips through the Pirates of the Caribbean, once through the Haunted Mansion, and once through the Indiana Jones ride. They were all having a wonderful time, although Jim had to force his senses down to keep a nascent headache at bay.

When they finally disembarked from the log ride, Jim suggested finding something to eat and taking a few less strenuous rides afterward. Jessica screamed "Toontown! Toontown!" in her strident six-year-old voice. Wincing in pain, Jim put his hands over his ears at the sudden shock of her shrieks. Blair knelt down beside her and softly insisted that she not scream, because it made Uncle Jim's headache worse, and she didn't want to have to end her fun early because he got sick, now, did she? She glanced up at her tall uncle and took in the expression of pain on his face. Biting her thumb, she shook her head, then reached up to tug at his pocket, as his hands were too far up for her to reach.

Jim looked down into the apologetic face of his niece. Crouching down to bring his face to her level, he brought his hands down from his ears and smiled a little ruefully at her. "What is it, Sweetheart?" He asked, his voice still soft, in spite of his aching head.

"I'm sorry. Does your head hurt a lot?" Her concern made him smile.

"Yeah. There are so many people and they're all talking at once, it makes my head hurt. But I'm OK, we can still have fun. But first lunch, OK?" He smiled at her serious expression as she nodded her agreement.

"I wanna hotdog, please." She asked.

"I think we can do that." Jim agreed, ignoring Blair's rolling eyes.

"Well, I guess I should be glad that they don't have Wonder Burger here." The smaller man muttered under his breath, smiling snidely when Jim gave him his patented 'I heard that' look.

They found their hotdog stand in Toontown. Jim bought two hotdogs apiece for himself and Blair and the child's hotdog meal for Jessica. They sat down at one of the umbrella covered picnic tables and ate their lunch. Jessica was fascinated by the bold little sparrows that would hover just out of reach, begging for crumbs. Jim was dive bombed by one of the bravest of the little birds; only, much to the bird's dismay; Jim's quick reflexes allowed him to capture the obnoxious little creature. Holding it carefully, so as not to hurt it, he allowed Jessica to gently pet the tiny creature. When she was satisfied, he let the bird go, watching as it flew off to find a safer place to haunt.

After they finished their meal, they wandered around Toontown, followed the signs and finally reached Mickey Mouse's house. Following the line through the maze to finally meet the great mouse, himself. Jessica was thrilled, having her photo taken with the 'real' Mickey Mouse. She insisted that Jim and Blair have their pictures taken as well. Jim begrudgingly complied, although Blair seemed to be totally taken with the notion. They finished their first day with a relaxing ride on the jungle cruise, followed by taking the monorail back to their hotel.

They were exhausted. The crowds, noise, and smells had worked on Jim's senses all day, from the moment they entered the park until they reached the blessed quiet of their hotel suite. Fighting a losing battle with his migraine, Jim mumbled something about lying down for a while, and would Blair please take care of Jessica for a bit. Blair handed Jim the aspirin bottle and winced as he watched Jim take half a dozen tablets at once dry, before shuffling off to his cool, darkened room.

"How about we watch some TV, Jessica?" Blair asked, once Jim's door had closed and he didn't need to worry too much about making any noise.

"Is Uncle Jim sick, Uncle Blair?" The childish six-year-old voice asked.

"Well, his head hurts from all the noise at the park. So he's going to lie down for a while and try to rest, so it will stop hurting. Did you have fun, today?"

"Uh-huh. Can we go back?" She turned her tireless little face up to him, not yet ready to stop playing.

"Well, we're going back tomorrow." Blair admitted.

"Can't we go back after dinner?" She begged.

"We'll see how Uncle Jim's feeling, OK? We have to ask him, remember. He's in charge." Blair reminded the little girl, who pouted and plopped herself down with a scowl to watch television.

Blair tried to entertain the child, but she was adamant about going back to the park and riding on more rides. As the afternoon slowly dragged its way toward evening, her formerly sweet demeanor worked its way toward 'tantrum'. When she asked for probably the hundredth time in four hours to go back to the park, Blair finally had enough.

"If you ask one, more time, I'm going to say 'no' instead of 'wait until Uncle Jim wakes up'. If you want to have a tantrum, you can go sit on the bed in my room and have it all you want, then, when you think you can behave like a human being again, you can come out and we'll talk. But I will not be told what to do by a six-year-old. Are you listening to me?" He never raised his voice, but he did enunciate clearly. Jessica responded by screaming a blue streak, shrieking at the top of her lungs.

Jim had managed to fall asleep fairly quickly. He was troubled with strange dreams of Roger Rabbit chasing him with a sledgehammer and smacking him on the top of the head at every opportunity, but he put that down to his headache. Eventually, the air conditioning and the semi-darkness of the room, along with the half dozen aspirin tablets, did their job and he fell more deeply asleep, the tension easing from his body and the headache fading away. It wasn't to last, however. He was abruptly awakened by a blood-curdling scream from a child. Reacting, he grabbed his pistol and leaped from bed for the door, certain that crazed killers had broken in

The sight that greeted his eyes pulled him up short. Blair sat calmly on the couch, his fingers in his ears to protect them, while little Jessica shrieked. Jim quickly pulled back, as soon as he realized that there was no danger, he shakily re-engaged the safety on his pistol and put it away. Rubbing his temples as his headache came back, he shuffled back into the other room to confront the pair and find out what was going on.

Blair noticed him as he came from his room the second time. He grimaced in commiseration at the obvious signs of Jim's continued pain. He did not, however, remove his fingers from his ears. When Jessica paused to take another breath, Jim asked, "Is there any particular reason for this?"

The six-year-old spun toward her uncle and began to cry, "He's mean to me. He-he-he said I-I w-w-w-was bad," she hiccuped.

"What happened, Chief?" Jim asked wearily as he sagged onto the couch next to his friend, watching his niece closely for any signs of the reoccurrence of her screaming.

"Hissy-fit." Blair explained. "I told her that we had to wait until you woke up to find out whether or not we could go back to the park. It got later; she got madder. She finally blew up. Oh, I told her that if she asked me one more time when we could go back, that the answer would be 'no' instead of 'wait until Uncle Jim wakes up'. Man, who knew that such a little kid could have such a pair of lungs. Sorry, Jim." He added as an afterthought, upon seeing Jim rubbing his eyes in pain.

"Jessica?" Jim asked softly.

"Y-yes, Uncle Jim?" She was pouting, now; suddenly unsure of getting her way. It had always worked with her aunt and parents.

Jim pinned her with his eyes. She swallowed hard and took a half-step back. "I will not be manipulated by a six-year-old. You are not in charge, here. Tantrums will not be rewarded." His head was aching abominably again, and his voice was harsher than he intended. "My headache has come back, thanks to your screaming, so the answer is 'no' we will not be going back to the park today. If you can manage to control yourself, we will go back tomorrow, but for now, I'd like you to go to your room and sit quietly for a while." He watched as the child stood up and, sniffling, headed for the other bedroom.

"I'm really sorry, Jim. I never thought that "

"It's OK, Chief. I do understand. Man, my head. Got any more of that aspirin?"

"I've got something better." Blair stood up and went into the little kitchenette. "Hot tea, with brandy." He smiled at his friend, who gratefully accepted the cup of the hot beverage.

"Thanks, Chief." Taking a careful sip, he swallowed, and a slow smile spread across his face. "There's a lot more brandy in this than tea, Chief."

"Yeah. I was going to make it for me, but you woke up and obviously need it, too." Blair smiled as he picked up his cup and inhaled the fragrance of heavily laced tea. "Oh, yeah. Just what the doctor ordered." They made their way back to the living room and sprawled on the couch. Jim cocked his head to the side, obviously listening to Jessica. Smiling at what he heard.

"What?" Blair asked, seeing the smile.

"She's threatening to run away, Chief. That we're mean, because we won't let her do what she wants." He glanced at his partner. "Think she needs a lesson?"

"Only if you make sure you can keep track of her. She's too little to really let go very far." Blair admonished.

"We can do that." Smiling. They clinked their cups together and settled back to watch some television, surfing until they found some sports.

It was very late. Dinner had been hours ago. Jessica thought to herself. She was sure that Uncle Jim and Uncle Blair were asleep. Even if they were still sitting on the sofa. As quietly as she could, she made her way toward the door. She was a big girl; Mommy said so. She was sure she could simply follow the path they took that morning and go back to the park to ride more rides. She'd show them. Her little jaw still clenched in anger at being thwarted by her uncles. She wasn't used to anyone making her obey. She'd become an expert at manipulating adults, from her parents to her grandparents, to her aunt. These uncles were about to learn who was really in charge. She'd show them! She flounced from the room.

As soon as the door closed, Jim was up and ready to follow, Blair at his heels. They'd heard her muttered imprecations and had barely contained their laughter. Like enormous shadows, they followed at a discrete distance, always keeping her within sight.

The monorail was still running, although it was nearly closing time in the park itself. Jessica got on board and rode in a car all by herself. It was getting pretty dark outside, but she was determined to go, it was the principle of the thing, although she didn't think in such sophisticated terms. When they came to a stop by Space Mountain, she disembarked, never noticing her two shadows. She was surprised to find all the rides shut down. It only made her angrier to realize that they had kept her from the rides all day, never taking into account that they had spent six hours in the park. She wandered around for a while, wondering where all the people had gone. Noticing how dark it was, now that the lights were off. She found her way to Sleeping Beauty's Castle, but there was no one there, either. Only the three swans who lived in the moat. Even they were on the bank, heads tucked beneath their wings to sleep. She stamped her foot, angry still. She found the carousel and played on the horses for a while, but it wasn't any fun without them moving, without the music. Without people. She wandered around some more, but none of the rides were working and it was dark, and quiet, and spooky After an hour or so, she had seen everything. She had found her way back to Toontown, and was once more sitting at the table where they had eaten their lunch. Her stomach rumbled and she remembered how she had refused to eat her dinner, even though Uncle Jim had gotten her favorite food for her. She had still been angry and had thrown her tray on the floor. Uncle Blair had cringed when she did it and then watched in surprise as Uncle Jim had simply cleaned up the mess and thrown it away without saying a word. Now, she was wishing she hadn't been quite so hasty. It was getting cold, too. And it was awful dark. And she was all alone And starting to feel afraid. She found her way back to the monorail station, and waited, and waited, and waited. She was shivering, now, partly from cold, mostly from fear. She looked around and realized just how alone she was. She started to cry softly, big, fat tears. It wasn't any fun to be alone, in the dark, when it was cold. She didn't even have long sleeves

Jim and Blair had tailed Jessica all through the park. They had contacted Security and explained the situation, and (probably because Jim was a cop) they agreed to allow the child to get her fill. Now that she was realizing her folly, Jim signaled the Security Guard who had stayed with them to make sure that Jessica didn't get hurt, to approach the lost child.

"What are you doing here, young lady?" The guard was heavyset and powerful. His face was not very friendly. Jessica looked up at him and was afraid. "I asked you a question, kid. What are you doing here? The park's closed. How did you get here? Where's your family?" He purposely made his voice harsh in order to make the lesson even more pointed.

"I-I-I-I-I'm losted!" She wailed, bursting into noisy sobs. "I-I-I r-r-ran aw-w-way 'cause my Uncles w-w-wouldn't let me come back, but...but but..." she totally dissolved into tears. "I want Uncle Jim and Uncle Blair!" She shrieked in despair. Jim winced, his ears hurting, even with his hearing turned down and the distance of fifty feet. He felt sorry for the security guard, having to take the brunt of the ear-splitting noise.

The guard looked over at them, waiting for them to do something. Blair looked up at his partner, "So? Do we let him escort her back to the hotel? Or do we let her know that we followed her to teach her a lesson?"

Jim stared at his partner, uncertain, "What do you suggest?"

"Well, she's screaming pretty loud, I guess we should probably go over there and make like worried uncles." Blair obviously wasn't sure of this, but it seemed like the best idea, at the moment.

"I have a better idea." Jim's jaw was spasming, and his eyes were narrowed and glinting in the reflected light of the few lights.

"Oh?" Blair asked, confused.

"Yeah. Come on." He stalked over to the beleaguered security guard and his niece. Knowing the moment when she spotted them. His expression becoming grim as he recognized that she was still manipulating them. He smiled, a little grimly, as they approached the little girl.

"Happy now, Jessica?" His voice was cold, as cold as if he were speaking to a criminal, not a little girl. "Well, this little stunt is really going to cost you. You may have managed to manipulate everyone in your immediate family into allowing you to rule them, but I'm not them."

"You can't spank me." Jessica declared, having already learned how to combat the threat of corporeal punishment.

"Well, I'm sure I could. But I have a better idea. We're going back to the hotel, where you are going to go to bed. If you cause any more trouble, any more tantrums, any more screaming, any more misbehavior, and you can scream your head off all the way home. Because I will not be dictated to by a spoiled little brat." Jim never raised his voice. He glared, pinning the child in place with his expression and the way his eyes seemed to drill holes into hers. She swallowed, frightened of him and not understanding why.

"Do you have any idea of how dangerous it was for you to take off on your own like this?" Jim demanded. "You are six years old. You could have been hurt. Don't you know that there are people who like to hurt children?" There was almost a plaintive tone in Jim's voice, showing just how upset and worried he had been, even though he had kept her in sight the entire time. He glared at the unrepentant child. Shaking his head, sadly, he stood up and grasped her hand. Sighing, he turned to the security guard. "Thank you for your help. Can you get us back to the hotel?" They were silent all the way back to their hotel suite.

They put Jessica to bed and then sat quietly watching television. Neither man particularly interested in anything that was on.

"Jim?" Blair asked, softly.

"Yeah, Chief?" Jim replied. He was leaning back in an armchair, his eyes closed, grimacing in the pain of his headache.

"I'm sorry."

"You don't have anything to be sorry for, Blair. I'm the one who's sorry. I'm sorry I agreed to take her. I'm sorry I dragged you along. I'd have been a whole lot happier staying at home and scrubbing grout."

Blair couldn't repress the chuckle at that thought.

"I'm serious, Chief." Jim replied, plaintively.

"I know. It's harsh, but I can understand. Man, how can parents let their kids run them like that?" Blair shook his head in wonder. "I mean, talk about a brat."

"Yeah. I've only seen her a few times; the last time was over a year ago, when Carolyn's sister finally remarried. But still " He scrubbed at his face with his palms, trying to ease his headache, which was again reaching astronomical proportions. "I'm not sure I can handle two more days of this." Jim sighed.

"We'll manage. Remind me to pick up a roll of duct tape tomorrow, just in case." The words were teasing, but the tone of voice was serious. He glanced at his friend. "So, how's the headache?"

"Blinding. I'm having trouble even following this conversation." Jim murmured in response, still rubbing at his throbbing head.

"Well, let me see if I can help with that, at least." Blair stood and crossed over behind his friend, knelt behind the chair and began to rub Jim's temples.

Jim sighed. There was something about Blair's touch that soothed the pain; allowing him to relax and that lessening of physical tension easing the pain in his head. Fifteen minutes later, Jim was nearly asleep. Blair smiled and quietly urged his friend to his feet, nudging him toward his room and bed. Blair watched to make sure his friend actually made it to bed before making his way to his own room and his own needed rest.

Jessica lay in the dark, tears trickling down her face. She had heard every word they had said. She was shocked at the realization that her uncles didn't like her, that they wished that they hadn't come Even at six, she was old enough to recognize the disapproval; something to which she was unaccustomed. Her entire life had been one of approval and manipulation. Most of the manipulation had been from her, but still She thought long and hard, as she silently cried in the darkness, and came to the conclusion that she wanted the approval of her uncles Wondering how to regain their acceptance; which in her mind equated with being liked She spent a restless and nearly sleepless night, trying to work it out.

Blair was the only one of the three who got any real rest that night. He slept the quiet, restful sleep of the just. Jessica tossed and turned, which, although didn't keep Jim awake, did keep that small, watchful, 'Sentinel on Guard', portion of his brain on alert, so that when he awoke, he was still a bit tired. At least his headache was gone

It was still dark when Jim awoke. The first thing he noticed was that his headache was gone. He sat up, puzzled. The last thing he consciously remembered was Blair rubbing his temples. How'd he end up undressed and in bed? He shook his head, remembering a dream where he went to bed 'Guess it wasn't a dream'. He thought, slightly bemused. He consciously extended his hearing, taking in the steady breathing and heartbeats of his companions. Satisfied, he rose and silently made his way to the bathroom for a shower.

Showered, shaved, and dressed, Jim called for room service. Ordering coffee and cinnamon rolls, he settled down in front of the television to watch the news. When room service arrived, he was up and opening the door before the waiter had a chance to knock. Smiling, he accepted the tray and, handing the waiter a generous tip, closed the door and carried the tray to the coffee table and set it down. He'd ordered two carafes of coffee, one of tea, and both milk and orange juice. Pouring his first cup of coffee for the day, he settled back down, picked up a giant cinnamon roll and, with a sigh, took a bite, a sip, and returned his attention to the morning news.

'Coffee'. Blair dreamed. 'Not just any coffee, but something rich, and fragrant, and ' he awoke. Rising up, following his nose out into the living room, where he found Jim watching the news and drinking the source of the marvelous smell. Still groggy with sleep, he slumped down beside his friend. Jim glanced at him and sat forward to pour a new cup of coffee and hand it to him. Blair smiled his thanks and inhaled the aroma before he took a sip, his sigh indicating his pleasure.

"Good morning, Blair." Jim's voice indicated his remaining weariness.

"Hey, Jim. How'd you sleep?" Taking a bigger sip, his eyes opened and contemplated the cinnamon rolls and other refreshments on the tray.

"Well, I'm not quite sure how I ended up undressed and in bed, but other than that, not too bad. The headache's gone, at least. Thanks. How'd you do?"

"Slept like a rock, man." Carefully setting his cup down, Blair stretched, then reached forward and picked up a cinnamon roll, daintily starting at the ending fold and peeling off a couple of inches, he popped the sweet morsel into his mouth, chewed silently, eyes closed, beatific expression on his face. Swallowing, he shifted forward to pick up his coffee to take a sip. "These are good, Jim. Thanks."

"Well, I wanted something that could safely sit around for an hour or two until you guys woke up. Which reminds me, what are you doing awake at six-thirty in the morning, anyway?"

Blair looked surprised. He glanced at the window and realized that the sky was just starting to lighten up. He shook his head; smiling faintly. "I dreamed of Juan Valdez." He grinned. "The coffee, man. Smelled great. Woke me up." He took another sip and peeled of another inch of his pastry to nibble.

"Well, why don't you go ahead and finish up your roll and then catch your shower? That way, we can both be ready to beard the dragon in her den." Jim suggested, wanting his Guide as backup when next facing his brat of a niece.

"I can do that." Blair smiled at his friend, then relaxed back into the couch cushions and worked on slowly peeling his roll and eating it, one inch at a time, each bite followed by a sip of the excellent coffee, while they silently watched the local news.

They stood in the doorway and watched Jessica sleep. Jim frowned when his enhanced vision focused in on the dried tearstains on the child's cheeks. He moved forward to kneel beside the bed and gently stroked one finger down the tracks marring her face. He looked up at Blair, his worry showing.

"She's been crying, looks like for most of the night." He whispered.

"Do you think she heard us last night?" Blair asked, his own concern showing in his frown.

"I don't know. Maybe." Gently, Jim stroked the tangled mass of hair from the child's face and softly patted her cheek until she woke up. Her eyes opened slowly then widened dramatically upon seeing her uncle. She blinked once and the tears began to form and fall. There were no histrionics, just the crumpling up of her face as she watched as Jim's expression became concerned.

"What's wrong, Jessica?" He asked.

"Y-y-y-you d-don't l-l-l-l-like m-meeeeee!" Her stuttering whimper rising to a wail of anguish.

"Why do you think that, Sweetheart?" Jim asked, his hands gently picking up hers, his thumbs rubbing the backs of her tiny, chubby child's fists.

"I-I-I-I h-h-h-h-heard y-you. Y-y-you d-d-d-d-don't l-l-like m-m-me." Her voice dropping into a whimper as she sobbed.

Jim looked up at Blair in consternation, unsure of what to do. Blair came over and sat on the edge of the bed. "Jessica?" He asked. She looked up at him, the tears still brimming over her eyes. "We do like you. But we don't like the way you behaved yesterday. You were acting like a spoiled little brat. Screaming for your own way, not caring about anything or anybody else. You are not an adult. You are not in charge. Jim is. And if Jim isn't around for some reason, I'm next in charge. When you go home, your mom and dad are in charge. Just because you've discovered that you can throw a tantrum and get grown-ups to give in to you doesn't mean it's going to work with every adult. It is not going to work with me and it certainly won't work with Uncle Jim." He paused to check the effect of his words, both on the child, who's tears were drying up, her sniffles punctuating her every breath; and his partner, who was nodding in silent agreement with him. Jessica glanced from one man to the other and back again. Blair continued, "Now, on top of throwing a big tantrum yesterday, you snuck out last night. You could have been very badly hurt. Luckily, we heard you leave and we followed you, to make sure you stayed safe. But, what if we hadn't been there? What if the security guard hadn't found you? You might have frozen to death out all night. You could have gotten very sick. Running away is no way to win an argument.

"Uncle Jim had a real bad headache yesterday, but we stayed for several hours longer, just so you could ride on everything. When we came back, Jim was only planning on trying to get rid of his headache, just a couple of hours of peace and quiet, but you threw that tantrum that woke him up and made his head hurt even more. He didn't even sleep very well last night because his head hurt so bad. Of course he doesn't want to suffer through that again. No one would want to put up with that." Blair looked at Jim for support, Jim nodded faintly and continued the lecture,

"My headache was going away when I woke up to your screaming. I thought something bad had happened, only to find out that you were throwing a hissy fit. It was like your screaming drove a sharp knife into my head. There was no way I wanted to do anything but lie down after that. I had planned on going back to the park for dinner, but after your little scene, there was no way. You may have learned to manipulate other adults, but it's not going to work with me, with us." He caught Blair's eye and smiled, slightly. "I don't dislike you. But I really hated the way you acted yesterday. I don't ever want to have another day like that. If you don't either, I suggest you control yourself. You ask, not demand. You say 'please' and 'thank you'. No more screaming for attention. No more tantrums. Understand?" His voice had remained calm and soft throughout his lecture, just as Blair's had. He watched the six-year-old closely, wondering if she were old enough to figure out the new game rules. "Otherwise, the next two days are going to be really boring for all of us, because I won't be seen in public with a poorly behaved child."

"I don't think any of us wants to be cooped up here for the rest of our trip. I know I don't." Blair added.

They waited. The thought processes could be easily read in the expression of the child. Finally, she looked up at them, a little uncertain, "You like me?" Her voice still trembling a bit.

Both men smiled at her, eliciting a return smile as their charms worked even on this exceptionally young member of the female persuasion. "I like you, too. I'll " She furrowed her brow in concentration. "I'll try to be good." Knowing, even at six, that it might be a promise she couldn't keep.

"Just as long as you try and remember that any tantrums will get you brought immediately back here for the rest of the trip." Blair admonished gently. Jessica nodded and smiled shyly at them.

"Now, how about you get a shower and dressed? We have cinnamon rolls for breakfast, milk, orange juice " Jim pulled the covers back and lifted her to her feet, gently pushing her toward the bathroom.

They spent the day at Knott's Berry Farm. Jessica was on her best behavior, only once threatening a tantrum. Blair only mentioned that maybe it was time to go back to the hotel and she quickly staunched her tears and got herself back under control. Once she was again calm, they discussed their options, treating the six-year-old as an equal, almost as an adult. Listening to her views. Agreeing on some points, making arbitrary adult decisions on others. Teaching the child the fine art of negotiation and compromise, of which Blair was a master.

By the time they got back to the hotel, they were all tired, but pleasantly so. Jim had managed to control his reactions to the noise and smells of the amusement park, partly due to the more natural setting, there being quiet, out-of-the-way spots where they could rest for a few moments and regroup. It was enough to keep them all on an even keel. They went out to a big, fancy restaurant for dinner, allowing Jessica to choose her own meal, only insisting that she have milk with it. Blair was pleased when she chose a nice healthy dinner, unlike Jim, whom he chastised over his choice.

"Chief? I need some red meat. Something with a lot of protein."

"Yeah, but a full pound? Come on, man. I can hear your arteries hardening from here." Blair was only partly teasing.

"Well, I'm also having the baked potato and a salad." Jim argued. "That should satisfy your 'health consciousness'."

"Baked potato with both butter and sour cream?"

"Well "


"Blair?" Jim asked softly. "How often do we hit a steakhouse?"

"Once a month or so, why?"

"OK, how often do I give in to your insistence on 'health' food?"

"Uh ."


"Well, a lot, I guess."

"How often do we do Chinese?"

"Couple of times a week."

"Isn't that pretty healthy?"

"Well, except for the fried stuff "

"How about those lunches at the deli?"

"Well, you have started to order lighter sandwiches "

"Yeah. How often have we gone to Wonder Burger in, oh, say the past six months?"

"Uh " He actually had to think hard to remember the last time "Maybe twice?"

"And Mr. Tube Steak?"

"Once or twice a month, usually when we're taking a break in the park."

"And what usually happens to most of mine?" Prodding.

"You feed some stray dog." Blair started smiling as the realization that his campaign to change Jim's eating habits had actually worked.


"So, I guess you can have a steak." Blair conceded.

"Thank you." Jim smiled triumphantly.

Jessica just watched the interplay and giggled at the two grownups, recognizing what Uncle Blair had tried to explain to her about negotiation

She made it easy, she ordered the baked chicken. Not having the ability or the desire to have to go through what Uncle Jim had to, in order to get her dinner.

By the time they returned to the hotel for the night, it was quite late and they simply went straight to bed. Jim came in to tuck Jessica in.

"Thank you for being so good, today, Jessica." Jim whispered to her as he kissed her forehead goodnight.

"I'm sorry I was so bad, yesterday." She apologized.

"I forgive you, Sweetheart." He murmured, smiling as he stroked her hair back from her face. "Sleep well, Jessica."

"Goodnight, Uncle Jim." She snuggled under the covers, then called out as Jim left her room, "Goodnight, Uncle Blair!"

"Goodnight, Jessica." Blair called back in reply.

They slept in fairly late, the next day. Jim was, as usual, the first one up. It was nearly nine when he opened his eyes. He'd managed to make up for the poor sleep he'd had the night before. He stretched, extending his senses to check on his charges, pleased to note the soothing sound of their deep, relaxed sleep. He debated getting up, when he heard Jessica stir. He listened as she awoke, sensed her worry when she didn't hear them already up. Smiled as he listened to her get out of bed and come padding through the suite in search of them. Heard her worried breathing pattern as she stood in his doorway, looking in to make sure he was there. Felt her hesitation before she crept in and carefully crawled up beside him, snuggling carefully against him.

"Good morning." He whispered. He was treated to her giggle as she turned to look him in the eye.

"Good morning." She replied.

"So, do you want the first shower?" Smirking at her confused expression.

"But I had a bath yesterday morning." She complained.

"So?" Nonplused.

"Well, why do I have to take another one already?"

"Because we're used to taking at least a shower every day." He shrugged. "Sometimes, two." He admitted.

Her eyes widened. "You take two baths a day?

"Sometimes even three or four." He agreed; a teasing glint in his eye.

"But then you don't have time to do anything else!" She insisted.

"Sure, we do." He gave in, "All right. I'll take the first one. If you don't want to shower this morning, you'll have to have one tonight, when we get back to Cascade." He warned. She smiled. She was starting to like this 'negotiation' thing.

When Jim got out of the shower, he got Jessica to go and bounce Blair out of bed. Smiling gleefully, she immediately ran into Blair's room and jumped in the middle of the sleeping lump. Blair 'oomphed' as the air was knocked out of him, causing Jessica to burst into childish laughter.

"Come on, Chief. Let's get a move on."

"I thought our flight didn't leave until six-thirty this evening?" Blair's sleepy voice groused from beneath the mound of covers.

"It doesn't. I want to get ready to go, put the luggage in the rental car and head back over to the park for breakfast. Then hit some more rides, maybe. Then lunch, then pick up some souvenirs for the folks back home." Jim was obviously in a good mood this morning. Blair sat up and took a good look; smiling when he saw that his friend had gotten some much needed rest.

"Cool. Give me half an hour "

"I'm hungry now." Jessica not quite whined. The two adults looked at her. She wasn't pouting, just stating her opinion. Jim looked expectantly at Blair.

"OK, OK, fifteen minutes. I need a shower." He struggled from his bed and shuffled off to the bathroom. Jim smiled and headed back to his own room to pack, telling Jessica to get her things together, as well.

When Blair was dressed and packed, it actually had been half an hour, but now they had the rest of the day to visit the park and enjoy themselves. They checked out of the hotel, put their luggage in the trunk of the rental car, and caught the monorail to the park, arriving just after the park opened. Their first stop involved breakfast, followed by several of the 'tamer' rides. After they had a chance to digest their breakfast, they headed for the rides they'd missed on their previous visit. All three were enjoying themselves. The adults were secretly pleased that Jessica was tall enough to go on all the rides, as there were a few that were pretty frightening for the six-year-old, but with her two escorts, she was made to feel safe and secure.

They finally had had enough of the rides. It was shortly after one in the afternoon and Jim declared that it was time for lunch and that lunch should be something healthy, because he didn't want to have to fight with Blair about it. But he smiled as he said it. Blair found a relatively healthful restaurant, where they decided on salads and grilled fish. Jessica thought about putting up a fight, but Blair's excitement was contagious and she quickly gave in.

When they had finished their meal they cruised the multitude of gift shops, carefully choosing gifts for various people. At one shop, near the Jungle cruise ride, Blair spotted something he felt he just had to get Jim. It was a stuffed panther, lying down, head resting on its paws and its eyes were closed. Glancing to see that his friend remained distracted by Jessica, he quickly grabbed the creature and purchased it, without Jim seeing him. Since he was carrying most of the shopping bags anyway, he figured that Jim might not notice.

It was perfect. The little stuffed wolf, sitting on its haunches, its head tilted back and howling. He glanced surreptitiously at his partner, who was busy on the other side of the shop. He quickly grabbed the beast and made his purchase, then pretended that he hadn't found anything of interest and herded his companions out, just in case Blair should happen to spot the wolves.

Blair was glad that Jim decided to leave the shop before he had a chance to see the sleeping panthers; they continued on their way, checking out just about every shop in the park. For Simon, they bought a sweatshirt with Donald Duck and Goofy on it, laughing at what they thought his reaction would be, as it had Goofy holding up a roll of duct tape, Donald wrapped in the silvery stuff, and a caption that read: DUCK IT! For Joel, they picked out a sweatshirt with Eyore on it, being hugged by the rest of the Winnie the Pooh crowd. For Megan, they purchased Mouse Ears and a Mickey Mouse shirt. For Brown, they found a cell from one of the old musical cartoons, with Mickey as the conductor and all the barnyard animals as the members of the orchestra. For Rafe, they managed to find a beautiful silk tie; they argued over whether to get the one with the Winnie the Pooh characters, or the one with Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto. While they debated, Jessica pointed out the ones with Roger Rabbit, the characters from Aladdin, and the beasts from The Lion King. Comparing all the choices, they changed their minds and bought him a muffler with Mickey Mouse and Pluto on it, instead.

"At least it's black." Jim declared, as they laughed over the purchase.

For himself, Blair found a Mickey Mouse pocket watch, and for Daryl, they bought a 'My friends all went to Disneyland and all I got was this *#@(*& shirt'. Chuckling at the knowledge that Daryl was at the age where it wasn't cool to go to Disneyland, but that the teen would have probably had a good time, in spite of the uncoolness of it. Jim noticed Jessica staring at a little beanbag dragon. It was small, and red, and cute, and she never said a word about it. Jim and Blair exchanged a look. Since their talk the previous morning, the child had worked with them, learning to negotiate, instead of throwing a tantrum. Both men knew that the moment she returned home she would probably revert to her normal self, but for now

Jim smiled at Blair and gestured for him to distract the child for a few minutes while he made the purchase. He also bought a Winnie the Pooh for her, just because. Finally, it was time to leave for the airport. They bundled their purchases into the trunk of the rental car, belted Jessica securely in the back seat, and then got in and fastened their own restraints.

"So, Jessica. Did you have fun?" Blair asked. Noticing how tired the child was.

"Uh-huh. I liked the stores. They have lots of stuff." She replied, stifling a yawn.

Jim had kept one of the bags with them, reaching in, he pulled out the Pooh and handed it over the seat to her. "I got you this. For being such a good girl." His voice uneven, blushing a little in embarrassment, not realizing that it was OK to give gifts to a child. He was rewarded with a big smile and a squeal of joy as Jessica reached for the plush bear.

"Pooh!" She nearly shrieked. "He's my favorite!" Pulling the bear close and hugging it to her. "Thank you, Uncle Jim and Uncle Blair!" she even remembered to say. The trip to the airport had her attention entirely absorbed by the new toy. Jim and Blair exchanged smiles at her reaction. No real surprise that Pooh was her favorite after all, his picture was on all her pajamas.

Jim had brought an extra, small, carryon bag, which was just large enough to place their purchases. They barely made the requirements, but they were able to get by without having to check any of their luggage through.

The flight took nearly four hours, as they had stops in Fresno, Sacramento, and Portland, before landing at SEA-TAC, after which they still had another hour and a half drive back to Cascade; it wouldn't have taken so long, but they hit all the commuter traffic. It was midnight when they arrived back at the loft. Jim carried their bags up, while Blair carried the sleeping Jessica. There was a message on the phone, indicating that they wouldn't be able to pick Jessica up until Tuesday afternoon. Blair settled the child on the couch, pulling her shoes off and wrapping her in the afghan, making sure she was comfortable.

"Why don't you hit the shower first, Jim?" Blair offered, wanting a chance to sneak his gift up to his friend's bed.

"Thanks, Chief." Jim smiled a little wearily and headed for the bathroom. As soon as Blair was sure his friend was in the shower, he opened his backpack and removed the bag with the sleeping panther in it. Quickly, he ran up the stairs and gently set the stuffed animal on Jim's pillow. Smiling as he admired how nice the black cat looked on Jim's pale blue covered pillow. Hearing the water spigot as Jim turned off the water, he dashed back down the stairs, hoping that Jim didn't notice his accelerated heartbeat.

"I left you some hot water, Chief." Jim called out as he exited the bathroom, towel wrapped around his waist, his hair nearly dry, already.

"Thanks, man. I can hardly wait to get cleaned up and to bed. The hotel was nice, but I like my bed better." Jim just chuckled in agreement. As soon as Blair was in the bathroom and Jim heard him climb into the shower, he quickly picked up his spare bag, which was filled with their purchases. Removing the little red dragon and the howling wolf, he placed the dragon on the coffee table where Jessica would be sure to see it when she awoke, and then slipped quietly into Blair's room to place the wolf on his friend's pillow. Smiling at how good it looked there, even with the tousled covers of the unmade bed. He was in the kitchen, bent over and perusing the contents of the refrigerator, when Blair came out of the bathroom.

"You want a beer?" He asked, as he pulled out one for himself.

"Sure. Thanks." Blair accepted the bottle Jim opened for him, smiling. They leaned against the island, side-by-side, drinking their beer, relaxing and settling into the safety and comfort of being home. They didn't need to speak, content to be where they were, right then. When they finished their drinks, Jim took Blair's bottle and placed it in the recycling bin and headed for the stairs.

"I'll see you in the morning, Chief."

"Goodnight, Jim." Blair replied, as he headed for his own room, hesitating to watch his friend, wondering how he would react to his gift

Jim lingered on his climb up the stairs to his bedroom, wanting to watch as Blair found his gift, but Blair seemed to be dragging his heels as well. Frowning a bit in concern, Jim mentally shrugged and went on up the stairs, at the same moment Blair decided to walk into his own room

He stood at the top of the stairs and stared

He stood just inside the door to his bedroom and stared

Taking a hesitant step toward his bed, Jim reached out and picked up the stuffed animal from his pillow

Taking a hesitant step toward his bed, Blair reached out and picked up the stuffed animal from his pillow

Examining their new acquisitions, each man smiled, thinking of their friend, who had so carefully chosen this most appropriate of gifts

Hugging his sleeping panther to his chest with one hand, his other stroking the soft fur, Jim turned and slowly made his way back down the stairs

Hugging his howling wolf to his chest with one hand while his other hand stroked the soft fur, Blair turned and wandered back into the living room, lifting his eyes to his Sentinel as his friend came down the stairs, Jim's expression matching his own. They smiled at each other, mirth in their eyes, as well as a deeper, more important emotion.

"Thanks, Blair. It's wonderful." Jim said, his eyes shining.

Blair spoke at the same moment, "Thanks, Jim. I love it," his own eyes glistening in the subdued light of the backwash from their respective bedrooms.

Their eyes met, exchanging all the words that they would never say to each other, but were understood and heartfelt, just the same. Smiling, they each turned back toward their own rooms, content in the knowledge that the other felt the same things they did and that word's weren't necessary.

Each man slept with his new pet in his arms, smiling through their dreams.


Carolyn was a little worried when she arrived with her sister to pick up Jessica, knowing just how awful her niece could be. Wondering just how much she was going to owe her ex-husband Her worry increased when she couldn't hear anything but the low rumble of the television from the door to Jim's loft. Her sister exchanged a worried look, knowing that her daughter could be a little terror

The door opened before they had a chance to even knock. "Come on in." Jim invited. He was wearing rubber gloves and, upon entry, the women could see that he was in the process of cleaning the oven Blair was working on some tests, and Jessica was using an old toothbrush to clean the tile on the kitchen counter?! They froze in shock.

Jessica looked up and smiled. "Hi, Mommy, hi, Aunt Carolyn. Uncle Jim's letting me help!"

"Jim?" Carolyn asked hesitantly, "Who is this child, and what have you done with Jessica?" She had to struggle to keep her voice calm. She couldn't imagine her niece ever willingly helping with chores.

"We 'goat-she-ate-ed." Jessica explained. "Uncle Jim let me have pizza for lunch, an' I gots to help clean the kitchen." The child smiled brightly up at her mother and aunt.

"Jim?" His former sister-in-law asked, he turned to her, an expectant expression on his face as he gave her his undivided attention. "How on earth did you " She indicated her daughter.

"Well, we had a little trouble on Saturday, but we had a pretty good discussion on Sunday and worked everything out. Didn't we, Jessica?" He smiled at the small child.

"Uh-huh." Jessica looked up at her uncle, her gaze worshipful. Then, she frowned, looking at her mother and aunt, realizing what their presence meant. "Do I have to go home, now?" Her lower lip began to tremble.

Jim finished his task and stood up. He closed the oven door and pulled off the latex gloves, dropping them in the trash. "I'm afraid so, Sweetheart. It's time to go home, now." Seeing her face clouding up, he warned her, "Hey, you knew that this was only for the weekend. We had a deal, remember?"

Jessica controlled herself, fighting back the tears. She nodded, her gaze still locked with her uncle's. "I remember," she whispered. Jim smiled and held his arms out to her. She ran to give him a hug, clinging tightly to him. He whispered in her ear and she nodded in reply, the tears leaking from her eyes and slowly trickling down her cheeks. Jim released her and smiled fondly down at her as he stood. When she turned around, Blair was waiting for her. She threw herself into his arms and hugged him hard.

"Be good, OK, Jessica?" Blair said softly as he released her. She could only nod her agreement. Silently, she stopped by the coffee table to pick up her Pooh and her dragon, then she went to her mother and took her hand, ready to go. Jim handed Jessica's suitcase to Carolyn and escorted them to the door.

As Jessica and her mother went to the elevator and pushed the button, Carolyn turned back to her ex-husband, "I know I owe you for this one, Jimmy. Anything I can do " she was uncomfortable owing him anything, but still.

"Don't worry about it. We had a few problems, but we managed to work them all out." Jim's smile was fond. "Actually, once the boundaries were set we got along pretty well."

"You. Got. Along." Carolyn carefully articulated. "You mean you didn't have to kill her or put her in a cell or something like that, right?" Knowing exactly how her niece was.

"No. We had a few disagreements, but we negotiated an equitable solution. Like she got pizza for lunch in exchange for scrubbing the tile."

Carolyn stared. First at Jim and then at Blair who stood smiling benignly at her, rocking back and forth from heel to toe. "You're serious, aren't you?" She couldn't imagine how he had put up with the child's tantrums and screaming.

"Well, she did have one tantrum." Blair admitted. "But when she calmed down, we talked about it and let her pick some things she wanted to do, within the guidelines we set up."

"Do you think it will last?" Carolyn asked wistfully.

"That depends on whether or not you keep it up. We let her know that a tantrum wasn't going to get her anywhere, then we gave her options to choose from. It worked really well, once she realized that we weren't going to give in." Blair explained. "It's a matter of making a stand and holding your ground."

"I'll take your word for it." Carolyn dryly replied, just a bit disbelieving. "Thanks again, Jim. I really do owe you one for this."

"Hey, any time, Carolyn. She's a nice kid." He didn't add 'after you set some ground rules'. "See you around." He smiled as she turned and joined her sister and niece, looking back at him standing in the doorway, marveling at the changes she could see. Wondering what she had given up when she took the job in San Francisco She returned his smile as the elevator door closed.

"Kind of quiet, isn't it, Jim?" Blair asked softly. Jessica had been gone a couple of hours and the silence was wearing on him.

"Only comparatively, Chief." Jim replied. "But, yeah, I kind of miss her."

"Well, now you know how you'll deal with a kid of your own." Blair smiled, realizing that he had also answered the same question for himself.

"Well, I learned that it takes two adults to handle kids. I could never have managed it without you, Blair."

"Oh, sure you could. It just would have been harder." They exchanged smiles and settled back in their respective corners of the couch while Jim changed the channel on the cable box to watch the movie they had decided upon. Yeah, it was a little quiet, but it was a peaceful, friendly, quiet; a silence filled with the warm, pleasant feelings of two good friends just able to sit back and relax. Preparing individually to face the real world but not until tomorrow. For now, they had all they needed.

Upstairs, a panther yawned sleepily, purring as he listened to his friend the wolf in the room below him stretch and softly breathe out a sigh of his own.

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