House of the Novelty T-Shirts by genteelrebel
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Author's Notes:
Special Warnings: Character death (of an original character, not Methos or Joe.) Also, part 3 of this story contains a graphic scene of child sexual abuse and some gory violence in the aftermath. Please avoid if this is an issue for you.

Spoilers: There are some references to Endgame and HL: The Raven.

Credit where credit is due: The song Joe sings in the hospital is Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind”, which appears on his “Lucky Time” album. Also, I made up one or two of the t-shirt designs quoted in this story, but 90% of them were either inspired by or stolen directly from shirts featured in the 2006-2007 _Signals_ and _Wireless_ catalogs.

Dedication: For Liz.

~Las Cruces, New Mexico, 2006~

It was the pair of leather library chairs that first caught Milly’s attention.

She’d been sitting behind the garden hedge for more than ten minutes, watching the moving men unload her new neighbor’s things. At first, all she’d seen was an extremely boring selection of large cardboard boxes, so boring that Milly had been about to give up her spying in favor of finding something more interesting to do. But then the movers started unloading the furniture, and suddenly she was fascinated. The huge leather chairs were shiny, colored a rich mahogany that shone richly in the sun, and liberally tufted with brass studs that to Milly’s six-year-old eye looked like a wealth of golden coins. Other treasures soon followed. A large and mysterious wooden trunk, bordered with iron corners and secured with a huge rusted lock that could have once guarded a pirate’s hoard. A huge and wondrous Grandfather’s clock, the pendulum carefully encased in bubble wrap. Bookcase after bookcase after bookcase, ranging from cheap fiberboard constructions to odd looking things with glass doors that flipped up–did anybody in the world really have enough books to fill that many cases? Milly watched curiously, and the next thing she knew, one of the moving men was emerging from the van with a genuine stuffed swordfish on a plaque, large and curving and heavy. The scales glittered magically in the early morning sunshine. “Where do you want this, Mr. Darwin?”

Milly followed the moving man’s gaze to the front porch, where a man with white hair and beard had just limped into view. He was wearing a sweatshirt that said “Don’t b sharp, don’t b flat, just b natural” and was leaning on a four-footed cane. “I don’t know, that particular monstrosity belongs to the other half,” he said, and called back into the house. “Alex! The movers want to know where to put your damn fish thing!”

“You mean the swordfish? It’s got to go in my study,” returned a voice from inside the house. Milly thought that the voice sounded funny, like the people on the Discovery Channel sometimes talked. A few moments later a tall, dark haired man appeared on the porch, a rakish smile on his face. He, too, wore a sweatshirt with writing on the front, one that read: “Sarcasm. Just one of the many fine services I offer.” Milly thought he had a very large nose. “You can’t have a really proper, masculine study without a swordfish on the wall,” he said. “It’s an unwritten law.”

“You’re a nut,” the first man said, but Milly thought there was more affection than annoyance in the words. “Down the hall, first door on the right,” he said to the moving man, and when the mover had nodded and disappeared through the front door the white-haired man lowered his voice. “Where did you get that thing, anyway? And don’t try to tell me you caught it fishing off the coast of Florida with Hemingway, either. I won’t believe you.”

The rakish smiled deepened. “Well, as a matter of fact…”

“Stow it. I don’t think I want to know.” The mover reappeared, and both men got a strained, subtly guilty look, as if they’d been caught talking about something they shouldn’t have. Milly frowned, confused. “Anyway,” the first man said, more quietly this time. “I thought you wanted to hang the sword collection in the study. Isn’t that what you said when we took them out of storage?”

“I did. It’s best to establish myself to the neighbors as a medieval weapons buff right away. Could save awkward questions later.” The white-haired man nodded soberly. The tall man smiled. “But there should be plenty of room on the wall for my little marine friend, too. It will be a nice visual pun, don’t you think? Swords…swordfish…”

“Nut,” the white-haired man said again, and this time there was no question: he meant it as a term of endearment. “That goes in the dining room,” he told the moving men, who had just navigated a large oak table out of the back of the van. When the movers had grunted their way with the table inside the house the white-haired man took a furtive look down the street–completely failing to see the six-year-old girl crouching behind the hedge–and slipped an arm around the other man’s waist. His voice lowered even further. “Going to be happy here, Old Man?”

“I think so,” answered the other, just as softly. “It’s a nice neighborhood, quiet. The house needs a lot of fixing up, but that will just give us something to do to keep us out of trouble while we’re settling in. And the university’s offered me a great salary, thanks to Dr. Porter’s impressive credentials…”

“Fake credentials.”

“Real credentials, thank you very much. I really did get an advanced degree in linguistics from Trinity College, once upon a time. Just sadly a bit too long ago to put the real date on my resume,” the tall man corrected. “Anyway, we won’t have to worry about money for a while. We can easily live on my paycheck without dipping into any of the Swiss accounts.” He looked around the yard sadly. “We may eventually regret coming back to the US if the political climate keeps going in the direction it is, but for right now…well, I think this will be a good place to spend a few years. We can get back on our feet, get used to not being Adam and Joe for a while before we set out for shores unknown. Besides.” The tall man turned around and looked into the white-haired man’s eyes fondly. “You’re here. What more do I need to be happy?”

The tall man’s fingers touched the other man’s face, lingering on the brilliant white beard. “You know I feel the same way,” the shorter man said, and then they both jumped as a very loud “THUD!” resounded through the house. The white-haired man sighed. “I’d better go make sure they haven’t destroyed mom’s dining room table,” he said, and clasped his companion on the shoulder. “Why don’t you start getting the guitars out of the van?”

“Your wish is my command.”

They separated, the short man limping into the house and the tall man walking out into the street, where he removed a battered guitar case from the back of an equally battered VW van with all the tender care of a man picking up an infant. Milly snuck a peak into the back of the VW. She saw a few more guitar cases, and a collection of extremely uninteresting old papers and books. Then she reluctantly slipped back home. It was time for lunch.

***

Grown-ups tend to forget just how long and boring a summer vacation can be for a six-year-old, to whom the three months between school years can stretch out into a tedious infinitum. Certainly the two grown-ups responsible for Milly’s care had no idea. Milly’s mother, who worked very long hours to support her young daughter and elderly mother as the bookkeeper for a local construction firm, was gone from six in the morning to seven in the evening nearly every day. Milly’s Abuela tried, but she was in her early eighties, and often closed her eyes on the couch with the stern injunction that Milly “just find someplace quiet to play so I can rest.” Living in a neighborhood that contained no other children under twelve, bored to tears by the scant handful of children’s books and movies her house contained, and firmly forbidden to go beyond the stop signs that marked the ends of her street, Milly found that she had a lot of free time on her hands. So perhaps it wasn’t any wonder that observing her new neighbors soon became her favorite thing to do.

She quickly developed a ritual. Every day when Abuela closed her eyes for her afternoon nap Milly would swing into action. She’d push her way out through her screen door, walk down her porch steps, and then she’d take up her position: hiding behind either the hedge in the front yard or the big butterfly bush in the back, which was located on a small hill that offered a perfect vantage point for looking down into the stranger’s back yard. In her heart of hearts, Milly knew it was wrong to spy, so she never told either Mama or Abuela about it, knowing she’d get scolded if she did. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to stop. The strangers were much too interesting.

It wasn’t just their belongings that fascinated her. There was something very appealing about the two men themselves. Milly couldn’t quite put it into words, but there was a warmth about them–a gentleness, a love–that shone through everything they did, whether they were mowing their lawn or retrieving the afternoon paper or puttering around fixing up their tumble-down home’s exterior. Milly spent one afternoon watching the couple carefully fix some broken tiles on the edge of the roof–the tall man up on a ladder while the older man handed up tools and encouraging words–and Milly thought that she had never seen two people be so *nice* to each other before. It was exotic, mysterious, and strangely comforting. It was also quite intriguing.

She was sitting in her perch behind the butterfly bush one day while the dark-haired man, who was wearing a t-shirt covered with strange symbols Milly didn’t recognize, planted bulbs in the backyard. Of the whole neglected, beaten-up house, that backyard had once been the most neglected thing of all. Over the last two weeks the two men had taken vanloads full of broken furniture, old tires, and other garbage to the town dump. They’d also removed an equally large amount of overgrown bushes and weeds. Milly had been watching when, much to both men’s surprise, the tall one had discovered the overgrown fish pond in the corner. Now the little water feature was clean and filled with brand new lily plants, the salvaged fountain pump creating a merry tinkling. It was along the pond’s edge that the tall man was now working, his hands moving with surprising skill as he planted tulip bulbs into the earth. The other man, who wore a grey sweatshirt that said “I’m here! Now what are your other two wishes?” came to look over the work. “You don’t have to do that now,” he said. “I could handle it myself, easy.”

“Could you? Getting up and down off the ground isn’t easy for you, Jobey. And the earth here is pretty uneven.” The white haired man nodded reluctantly. “Besides,” the tall man continued. “I want to have as much of the garden done as I can before fall term starts. No telling how much free time I’ll have after that.”

“What kind of bulbs are you planting?”

“A bit of everything. Crocus, hyacinth, daffodils. Even a few tulips that are supposed to do well in xeric areas. I thought I’d plant a variety, see what comes up in the spring, and then we could plant more of whatever does the best.” He looked up at the white-haired man. “It’s been a while since I’ve tried to grow anything in a desert climate. And reading all the gardening books in the world is no substitute for getting familiar with your own bit of land.”

The shorter man smiled down at him fondly. “And how many different bits of land have you been familiar with, Old Man?”

The dark-haired man looked wistful. “More than you can possible imagine,” he said. “I’ve pretty much stayed away from farming as a profession ever since I learned how to read–earning a living as a scribe or a bookkeeper was always much easier on the back–but I’ve had at least a small garden on five out of seven of the continents, I think. Dealt with droughts and monsoons and mildew and more kinds of unpleasant vermin than I care to recall. It’s all been rewarding, though. Getting into the dirt with your own two hands and making something grow is always rewarding.” He picked up one of the bulbs, a tiny thing wrapped in a purple papery exterior, and held it up for the older man’s inspection. “Look at this, Jobey. It’s a Violet Lady, especially recommended to grow in climates like Las Cruces. The thing is, the reason it does so well here is because it’s a throw back–about as close to the wild species as you can get. Isn’t that amazing? Several hundred years of human tinkering and hybridization, and we still can’t improve on the original.”

“Yeah, well, there’s another ‘original’ sitting here in this yard that I’m pretty fond of,” Jobey said. The dark-haired man smiled. Jobey patted him on the shoulder. “Look, you finish up here, and I’ll start weeding those old planter boxes on the patio. Sound good?”

“Sounds very good.”

The older man limped away, back to that portion of the large brick patio shadowed by the house’s tile roof. A calm descended. The dark-haired man went back to work, peacefully setting out a series of tiny white tubers that were completely unlike the big fat tulip bulbs Milly had planted at school during kindergarten. The white-haired man, his hands equally busy with his planter boxes, began to sing softly under his breath. After a moment the first one joined in, harmonizing effortlessly as the white-haired man began to tell the world about the town where he was born and a man who sailed to sea in a yellow submarine. It was such a quiet, peaceful scene that Milly quite forgot how precariously she was perched. She leaned forward little by little to hear better, and suddenly the butterfly bush stalk she was clinging to snapped under her weight. Milly found herself falling down the hill, the earth going topsy-turvy and continually swapping places with the sky as she rolled. She finished up by tumbling more or less head-over-heels into the center of the pond, which, fortunately for Milly, was less then two feet deep. She sat up uncomfortably, soaked to the skin, an unlucky lily plant dangling from her hair.

The dark haired man’s reaction to this was not at all what Milly would have expected. He stayed where he was, fingers still busily planting, and called over his shoulder to the other man. “Jobey! Why didn’t you tell me this house was built next to an inter-dimensional portal?”

“How’d you mean?”

“Well, it has to be *some* kind of rift in the time-space continuum. The Wise Races all left this plane a long, long time ago.” The dark-haired man nodded at Milly. “And it looks like a pixie has just tumbled into our pond.”

Milly stayed where she was, feeling her cheeks grow hot. She was fairly sure that the dark-haired man was teasing her, although it was hard to tell. He seemed as casual as if six-year-old girls splashed into his garden pond each and every day. His companion was equally relaxed. “Looks more like a mermaid to me,” he said, limping over from the patio to look Milly over appraisingly. “Hello, little girl. What’s your name?”

Milly’s lip trembled, but she made her voice as clear and proud as she could. “Millicent Carolita Margaretta Dido Alfonso.”

“All that? For a little sprout like you?”

The white-haired man shook his head and, bracing his body weight against his cane, took Milly’s hand and pulled her out of the water. The dark-haired man, however, settled back on his knees, a look of pleased surprise on his face. “Dido!” he exclaimed happily. “Most clever and honorable of women, legendary founder of the great city of Carthage. Jobey, we *have* struck gold today. We’re not just being visited by a pixie, we’re also entertaining a queen.”

“Or a pop singer,” the white-haired man said wryly, and led Milly over to a bench on the patio. “Here, sweetie. Sit here and drip for a minute. I’ll get you a towel.”

He limped inside the house. “Well!” the dark haired man said cheerfully, arranging his long legs tailor—fashion on the brick, looking up at Milly with a great sense of expectation. “My name’s Alex, and that was Jobey who pulled you out of the pond. I *am* glad to make your acquaintance, Miss Millicent Carolita Margaretta Dido Alfonso. I’ve had the feeling that someone was watching us very closely from the hedges for several days now. You have no idea how relieved I am to know that those eyes belonged to our very own pixie, not a private detective or rogue CIA agent.”

It sounded like a joke, so Milly smiled dutifully, although she was very aware of the water squishing inside her sneakers. “I’m not a pixie,” she said. The white-haired man returned, a large, thick towel in his hands. He wrapped it around Milly’s shoulders, and she snuggled into it gratefully, the soft cozy material making her feel braver. She looked at the two men with frank curiosity, realizing for the first time that talking to someone face to face was a much different thing from peering at them over a hedge. “What does your t-shirt say?” she asked.

The dark haired man blinked and looked down, as if he’d forgotten what he was wearing. “Oh. It’s written in Greek,” he said. “It says ‘If you can read this, you’re overeducated.’” He gave Milly an apologetic little smile.

“You can speak Greek?”

“I can indeed.”

“Is that why you talk so funny? Did learning Greek make your mouth work different?”

Alex looked startled, then amused. “No, although that’s a very good guess,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot of different languages over the years, and all of them have affected my speech a little. But mostly I sound different than you’re used to because I first learned English very far away from here. People who live in different places often sound different from each other even when the words they use are nearly the same.”

“Where did you learn, then?”

A soft smile. “A small village that no longer exists, but if it did, it would now be in a country called Wales. Do you know where that is, Pixie?” Milly shook her head, and Alex looked thoughtful. There were a number of large books stacked with a couple of newspapers on a table next to one of the patio chairs. Milly knew, from her weeks of observation, that Alex liked to work in the shady breeze on the back porch. He carefully wiped his dirty hands on his shirt and reached for a book. “Fortunately, I was looking at the atlas earlier this morning,” he said, and started flipping through the book, his long fingers elegantly caressing the pages until he opened to a map of Europe. “Right. This is Europe, and these are the British Isles,” he said, turning the book around and holding it up so Milly could see. “This is Wales. This is Ireland–I went to school in Dublin, here.” He pointed. “And this is London, where Jobey and I lived before coming here. And Paris, where we lived before that…”

“Alex.” There was a hint of warning in Jobey’s voice.

“It’s all right, Jobey. I wasn’t going to go into any more detail than that.” He looked at Milly expectantly. “Do you think, if I turned to a map of the United States, you could show me where we live now?”

Milly nodded shyly. Alex found the page. Milly carefully dried her hands on the towel’s edge–the big book looked expensive, much too expensive to get wet–and then timidly touched southern New Mexico, small fingers sliding to cover the town of Las Cruces. “That’s right,” Alex said, clearly impressed. “That’s exactly where we live. Can you show me the state capital?” Blushing now, Milly’s finger went to the little star enclosed in a circle with the words “Santa Fe” written next to it. “Very good,” Alex encouraged. “Now what about the capital of Texas? Can you find me the capital of Texas?” Milly nodded and pointed out Austin. They went through a half a dozen other capitals, after which Alex pretended to be exhausted. “Whew!” he said, mock-wiping his brow. “I think we may have an undiscovered geographical genius on our hands here, Jobey. How come you know so much about state capitals, Milly?”

“I like to look at maps,” Milly answered. “In school, I always like looking at the maps the best of anything. People make fun of me. But I like to know where things are.”

“So do I,” Alex said.

He met Milly’s eyes and smiled at her, a warm soft smile of shared comradeship, not the teasing grin he’d given her before. Milly found herself smiling back…and then shyness overwhelmed her once again. “I–I’d better go,” she said. “Abuela will be waking up from her nap soon. She’ll miss me.”

“Want me to go with you, Sprout?” Jobey asked, concerned. “Walk you to the door, explain to your grandma how you ended up so soaked?”

“No-ooo,” Milly said, blushing furiously at the thought of what Abuela would do if she found out her granddaughter had tumbled into the new neighbor’s lily pond. “No. That’s all right.” Milly got up, letting the towel slip back to the bench. “Thank you for showing me the book,” she said politely and fled, leaving damp footprints behind as she climbed back up the hill to her own backyard.

When she reached the top of the hill, screened by the wreck of the butterfly bush, she took a moment to look back. Alex had risen and was standing with his arm around Jobey’s waist. “Well. At least one of our neighbors isn’t too freaked out by our presence to talk to us,” Jobey said wryly.

“Mmm,” Alex said thoughtfully. “Bright little thing. I hope she deigns to visit us again.” The two, arm in arm, wandered back into the house. And Milly went home.

***

Abuela accepted Millicent’s soaked clothing and hair with no more than a token scolding, easily accepting Milly’s story about running through a neighbor’s garden sprinkler. Her only comment was a clipped “What, the Rodriguez’s are watering their garden at *this* time of day? In this drought? Tsk, tsk!” before she sent Milly to have a bath and change her clothes. Milly felt a little guilty about lying, but she wanted to keep the afternoon’s encounter to herself. Jobey and Alex were *her* secret, her discovery. Having Abuela know about them too felt like letting her trespass on something personal, something very special and sacred. Not that Abuela was completely unaware of the new neighbor’s presence as it was. The elderly woman had done a fair amount of peering out from behind the curtains since the two men had moved in, wondering aloud who they were and where they’d come from. She kept saying that she really needed to bake a tamale pie and take it over for a housewarming gift. But then she would grumble about the summer heat and the way her arthritis was acting up, so Milly knew she would never actually do it. The new neighbors were, for the time being, Milly’s exclusive property. Milly wanted to keep them that way. At least for a little while.

But eventually, all good things must come to an end. In early August Milly’s mother came home from work a little later than normal, after Milly and Abuela had already settled down to supper. “I met our new neighbors today,” Gabriella announced as she sat down at the table, slipping off her shoes with a tired sigh. “Or one of them, anyway. He was at the mailbox getting his mail when I drove up.”

Abuela pricked up her ears. “Really? Which one? The young one or the older one?”

“The young one. Dr. Alex Porter.”

“Doctor?” Abuela looked impressed. “We have a doctor living on our street? That’s good luck. We won’t have to go all the way to the hospital if there’s an emergency. ”

Milly’s mother rolled her eyes. “Not that kind of doctor, Mama,” she explained impatiently. “He’s got a PhD in linguistic science. He teaches at the University.”

“Oh.” Abuela thought about this for a few moments, then cocked her head curiously to one side. “Is he married?”

“Ma-ma.” Milly’s mother was exasperated. “Don’t even start. I’m not about to go down that path again. Not after–” Both women looked suddenly at Milly, who didn’t so much as glance up from her beans. She was very used to these kinds of stop-and-start conversations. Her mother and grandmother often held them in her presence. “Besides,” Milly’s mother finished after a long pause, speaking positively. “He’s not going to be interested in me.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Gabriella! You’re still a very young woman. Beautiful, hardworking, smart…”

“Mama,” Gabriella said in warning, and Abuela subsided, although Milly could tell from the way Abuela pursed her lips that the last word on the subject had yet to be said. “Anyway,” Gabriella said. “I’m not the first member of the family he’s met. Milly got there before me.” She shot Milly a half exasperated, half amused expression. “It seems our little girl fell into their lily pond last week.”

“Millicent Carolita Margaretta Dido Alfonso!” Abuela exclaimed, then looked at Gabriella apologetically. “Oh, Gabriella, I am so sorry. Did she hurt anything? Are they going to sue? This child, I try to keep an eye on her, but she is always getting into trouble…”

“Relax, Mama. Dr. Porter didn’t seem upset.” Gabriella took another sip of tea. “Quite the opposite, in fact. He said Milly was ‘a very charming companion, once she finished dripping.’ He offered to baby sit anytime you or I needed a break.” Gabriella looked thoughtful. “I might just take him up on it, one of these days when I’m working late and you have to go to the doctor. Mrs. Guerrero is so hard to get a hold of on short notice. And Dr. Porter seems nice, even if he isn’t dating material. Strange, but nice. I think he’ll make a good neighbor.”

“I think so too,” Abuela said warmly.

“Mama! You haven’t even met him yet.”

“No, but I’ve watched him through the window, haven’t I? I saw him helping his father out to the car yesterday. He was so gentle: opening the door for him, helping him in, finding a place for his cane. It’s rare to find a man willing to take such good care of his parents these days.”

Gabriella coughed slightly. “I don’t think the other man is Dr. Porter’s father, mama.”

“No?” Abuela looked confused. “Why not?”

“Well…” For some reason, Milly’s mother looked embarrassed. “They…they don’t have the same last name, Mama.”

“Oh.” Abuela waved a hand dismissively. “So they’re uncle and nephew then, or stepfather and stepson, or perhaps Dr. Porter was a foster child. There could be all kinds of reasons why they don’t have the same last name, Gabriella.” Gabriella merely raised an eyebrow expressively, patting her lips with a napkin. Abuela’s eyes narrowed. “Unless…oh, no, Gabriella. You don’t think they’re…”

Gabriella nodded. “Dr. Porter pretty much came right out and said so when I talked to him.”

“But–” Abuela looked absolutely flabbergasted. “But there’s such a large age difference between them!”

“I know, Mama. I *told* you they were strange.” Gabriella finished dabbing at her lips, put the napkin down meditatively. “But I got the impression from Dr. Porter that they’d been together for a very long time. He seems very happy. Whatever they have, it looks like its working.” She looked rueful. “Better than any relationship *I’ve* ever had, anyway.”

Abuela was shaking her head. “Oh, no. Gabriella, you must have heard wrong. They’re probably cousins, or…”

“Believe what you want, Mama. It makes no difference to *me.*” Gabriella pushed back her chair impatiently and picked up her plate, heading into the kitchen to start the dishes.

Abuela watched her go. “Gabriella?”

“Yes, Mama?”

Abuela fluttered her hands helplessly. “Do we need to be worried about them? You know.” She lowered her voice. “Keep them away from Milly? Until we know for sure?”

“Mama!” Gabriella’s shocked face appeared around the kitchen door. “Mama, it’s 2006. What century are you living in? Being gay does not automatically make somebody a child predator.” She shook her head in disgust, then brandished a wooden spoon in Abuela’s direction. “And don’t you dare say anything to them that even suggests you’re thinking such a thing! I imagine their lives are quite hard enough as it is.”

“Oh. Yes. I suppose you’re right.” Abuela looked subdued. Then she favored her daughter with a tiny smile. “So there’s absolutely no chance of me getting a doctor-of-linguini or whatever it was for my next son-in-law, then.”

Gabriella smiled. “Absolutely none.”

“Darn.”

***

Nothing more was said for several days. Every now and then, Milly would catch Abuela peering curiously out of the kitchen window when Jobey and Dr. Porter were outside, but she never made a move to go out and speak to them. Then came the afternoon when Milly’s mother called with the extremely unwelcome news that she had slipped on a patch of oil in the company parking lot and broken her ankle. “I’m at the Immediate Care Center now, Mama,” Gabriella said, sounding more exasperated then hurt. “They did the x-rays and put the cast on right here…but they won’t let me drive home alone, and I can’t possibly manage my briefcase and papers on the bus by myself. You’re going to have to call Mrs. Guerrero to watch Milly, catch a bus and come get me.”

“But Gabriella!” Abuela was close to hysterical. “I haven’t taken a bus by myself all the way across town in more than twenty years!”

“I know, Mama. You’re just going to have to gather your courage and do it. Somebody has to drive the car home, or they’ll tow it. And you know we can’t afford a cab.”

“Santa Maria,” Abuela said. But she gathered her hat and coat and called Mrs. Guerrero…only to discover that Milly’s usual baby sitter couldn’t possibly come to the house in less than half an hour. Abuela looked at Milly, then looked out the window…and then, with the air of a woman about to go where no woman has gone before, took Milly by the hand and led her next door, where she rang the bell. The door was opened by Jobey, who looked confused for a moment before smiling welcomingly. His t-shirt said: “Musicians Duet Best.” “Oh! It’s Mrs. Alfonso, isn’t it?” he said. “Alex met your daughter at the mailbox a few days ago. I’m Job Darwin, Alex’s life partner.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Abuela answered, painfully awkward. “Um, Mr. Darwin. I was wondering if you could do me a favor. I wouldn’t ask, but Gabriella’s had a little accident…”

She sketched in the story quickly. Jobey looked startled, then sympathetic. “So you’d like me and Alex to watch the Sprout for a little while?” he said. “Not a problem. We’d love to have her. But there’s no need for you to take the bus. Alex would be happy to drive you over to the medical center.”

Abuela turned bright pink. “Oh no no,” she said, and Milly understood at once. There was no way Abuela could be beholden to strangers for a favor that large. It was more then bad enough that she had to ask these odd men to look after Milly for the small space of half an hour. Accepting a ride all the way across the city, with gas prices so high, was way too much. “It’s all right. The bus goes right by the Immediate Care place. I just need you to watch Millicent for a little while…her normal baby sitter will be here at 4…”

Jobey looked confused, but nodded agreeably enough. “Fine. We’ll have a good time, won’t we, Sprout?” Milly nodded. Jobey put his hands on Milly’s shoulders. “Don’t worry about a thing, Mrs. Alfonso. We may not look like it, but Alex and I are both really good with kids. Everything will be fine.”

Abuela looked less than convinced, but she nodded sharply and told Milly not to make *too* much trouble for Dr. Porter and Mr. Darwin before Mrs. Guerrero arrived. A second later she was heading down the walk…and Jobey was leading Milly through the house and out into the back garden. “Alex, we’ve got company!” Jobey boomed. “Get your nose out of that book and come help me entertain her.”

Alex was, indeed, sitting on a bench with a thick leather-bound volume in his hands. When he saw Milly he set it aside at once, coming to his feet with a pleased expression. Today’s T-shirt read: “Books: The Original Laptop.” “Pixie!” he said. “What a pleasant surprise. Jobey and I were just talking about you.” He looked at Jobey curiously. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

“Sprout’s mom got into an accident at work, broke an ankle,” Jobey said. “Mrs. Alfonso’s going to pick her up. She needs us to fill in the gaps until the regular baby sitter arrives.”

“Oh, I see.” Alex looked faintly confused. “I didn’t know your family had more than the one car, Pix.”

“We don’t,” Milly said.

Alex looked even more puzzled. Jobey jumped in. “She’s taking the bus, Alex.”

“What?” Now Alex looked incensed. “But that’s ridiculous. My car’s big enough to fit everybody in. We wouldn’t even need to take the van.”

“Jobey said that too, but Abuela said no,” Milly said. “She doesn’t take favors from strangers. Not unless she has to.”

“Oh. I see.”

Alex looked at Milly thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded. Milly looked away, suddenly feeling very lost and uncertain. Jobey touched her gently on the shoulder. “Worried about your mom, Sprout?”

“A little,” she admitted. “Does it hurt a lot? Breaking an ankle?”

“Oh, no. Not really,” Alex said.

Jobey shot him a dirty look. “Not for *you*” he said, and returned his attention to Milly. “Sprout, yes, broken bones always hurt a lot. Your mom will have to take some pretty strong pain medicine for several days, medicine that will make her sleepy. But if the care center’s releasing her already, it’s probably a pretty simple break, one that will heal nicely without surgery. I’m sure she’ll be as good as new in a couple of months.”

Milly’s eyes grew wide. “Months?”

“It’ll go by faster than you think,” Jobey said kindly. “Here. You sit down by Alex. I’ll go get us all something to drink.”

He limped off. Alex patted the cushion on the bench beside him, and after a moment Milly joined him. She looked at the book Alex had been reading–it was inscribed with more of that funny writing she assumed was Greek–decided it was grown-up and boring, and surveyed the rest of the pile beside his patio lounge instead. “Where’s the map book?”

Alex looked startled. “Um, I put it back in my office. I didn’t need it for my work today. Why?”

“I liked it. We don’t have a book with maps in it at home. Just the ones from the gas station that Mama keeps in the car. And I--” Milly looked shyly down at her feet. “I was hoping you could show me where Springfield was.”

“Springfield, Illinois?” asked Jobey, who had just returned. He was carrying a large tray laden with three glasses of orange juice. Milly took one and shrugged, not really having any idea. Jobey frowned. “There are lots of cities named Springfield in the United States, Sprout. Why do you want to find it?”

“I heard Mama say that’s where my daddy went to live. That was a long time ago, though.”

There was a long silence while Alex and Jobey exchanged significant looks. “I see. Well, I’ll tell you what,” Alex said. “We can look it up anyway, find out just how many there are. Jobey, can you bring us the Illustrated Atlas of the United States? It should be on that shelf just to the left of my study desk, next to the dictionary and all the other essential references.”

Jobey nodded and limped away, returning a minute later with a big flat book under his arm and a wry expression on his face. “Found it tucked between Ashelbie’s Compendium of Medieval Profanity and the Annotated Wizard of Oz,” he grumbled. “Essential references, my--” Alex raised his eyebrows. “My sainted Aunt Sally,” Jobey finished weakly. He handed the book to Alex, who proceeded to introduce Milly to the concept of an index, and how to find things with it. Milly could read well enough to see that the list of Springfields stretched on for several inches of tiny type. As Alex began reading the longitude and latitude of each one out and finding them on their corresponding state maps, she got more and more discouraged. There just so many of them, and all of them were so far away. Jobey, noticing Milly’s increasingly downcast expression, came to stand behind them with a grave look in his eyes. “Maybe we’ve had enough geography for one day,” he suggested quietly.

“I think you’re probably right,” Alex said, shooting a concerned glance at Milly, who was sitting very small and still. “I’ll tell you what, though. Geography isn’t just the study of where things are–it’s also the study of *why* things are where they are. Have you ever wondered why it’s so hot here in Las Cruces, Milly? And why the city was built here, instead of ten miles to the north or south or west or east?” Milly shook her head. Alex flipped the book back to a more detailed map of the southwestern United States, and began to tell her all about climate patterns and rivers and natural resources. They were subjects which could have been dry in the extreme but which Milly found interesting despite herself, especially when Alex took pains to point out exactly where each thing he was talking about was located, and made up little stories to illustrate his points. By the time Mrs. Guerrero arrived to collect her–flustered and apologizing heartily for being nearly an hour late–Milly and Alex had traced out a map of the entire American Southwest and were busy coloring it in together. “Thank you,” Milly said, feeling sad that the afternoon had come to an end. “I–I had a good time.”

“Come back and see us soon,” Jobey said heartily, and Alex said “I’ll put the map in my flat file, Milly. We can finish it the next time you come to visit.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Well, that depends on what your mother says,” Alex said. “But we’ll see.” He nodded at Mrs. Guerrero, who was regarding both him and Jobey in exactly the same awkward, shy way Abuela had. “Please give Milly’s mother and grandmother our best, Mrs. Guerrero. Let them know we’d be glad to help out if they need anything. Broken ankles are no fun.”

“I–I will,” said Mrs. Guerrero, and hustled Milly off the porch and home.

Later that night Gabriella, lying on the living room couch with her new cast balanced on a pillow, asked Milly how her afternoon had gone. When Milly responded in babbling detail about the maps and the stories Alex had told her, Gabriella smiled, then looked very thoughtful. Nothing more about Milly’s adventure was said, at least not within Milly’s hearing…but when Milly asked if she could go over to play at Jobey and Alex’s the next day, Gabriella took a long hard look at her mother and gave her permission. Milly tripped over, knocking brightly on the door. Jobey opened it. “Hey, Sprout! I was wondering if we’d see you today,” he said. “Listen, we went shopping this morning, and Alex bought some better colored pencils for your map at the art store. He’s in the living room…” Milly flew past him. Alex, who was reading a newspaper, looked up and smiled. And that, more or less, was that.

For the rest of the summer, Milly was a semi-permanent resident at the little house, spending every moment there that she could. There was just so much to *do* at Alex and Jobey’s, so many strange things to look at and touch and learn about. She quickly discovered that both men were natural teachers, although their fields of expertise were very different. From Jobey, Milly learned basic arithmetic and the rules of major league baseball and that music used to come on circles of vinyl you bought at the store instead of bytes you downloaded on the computer. From Alex, she learned how to count to ten in Greek and the difference between a rapier and a broadsword and that books could unlock the mysteries of the universe, if you were willing to take the time to look. Both men read to her constantly, material ranging from King Arthur to the day’s community news to the popular history magazines Alex was perpetually sneering at….but what Milly loved best was the couple’s collection of atlases. Alex started making special trips to the university library to find special maps for her, maps that showed weird things like the annual rain fall of Mainland Spain or the concentration of bat populations in Alaska, and he hung them all close to the ground on his study walls so Milly didn’t have to climb into a chair to look at them. The day he took her on his lap in front of his computer and used Google Earth to show her a satellite image of their very own street would linger in the adult Milly’s memory forever as the afternoon that really changed her life. “I think we’ve found your life’s calling, Pix,” Alex said, as her fascinated childish hands clumsily moved the mouse to make the image zoom in and out. “Something tells me you’re not going to be content in your adulthood if you don’t have a reason to look at a map or satellite image everyday. We’ll have to send you to school, get you a PhD in geography…”

“What’s a PhD?”

“It stands for “Philosophiæ Doctor”, which is Latin for “teacher of philosophy”. It’s the most advanced academic degree you can get in the United States. Geography PhDs spend a lot of time teaching other people where things are and why things are where they are. And some of them specialize in making new maps, which…” Alex smiled around the office, which was already liberally decorated with Milly’s various map-like representations of the neighborhood–“you’re already becoming a dab hand at.”

“Nobody in my family has ever gone to college,” Milly said. It was true. As yet, Milly only had the vaguest idea what college really was, but she knew that neither her grandmother nor her mother had ever gone there. Gabriella had started working straight out of high school.

“You will. Jobey and I will see to that.”

By the end of August, Alex and Milly had embarked on a special project: drawing a huge, 20 by 30 foot map of North America. They couldn’t find any paper large enough for the project, so they drew it straight onto the cement of Alex and Jobey’s basement floor, using big fat colored markers that Alex said were originally intended for the dry erase boards at his school. Jobey didn’t help–getting up and down from a cold floor was much too hard for him. But he cheerfully supported Alex and Milly’s efforts, making special runs to the store for supplies, and he always had a meal ready for them when they gave up for the day. At least once a week, the scent of Jobey’s homemade chili would waft down the stairs as they were finishing, and for the rest of her life, Milly would associate that scent with comfort and love. Jobey and Alex’s house was becoming more home-like than home.

It worried Abuela. If she was honest about it, the elderly lady was just as glad not to be Milly’s sole caretaker. But she always remained a little uncomfortable around Jobey and Alex, questioning Milly thoroughly whenever she came home about exactly what the two men had done and said, listening to Milly’s stories with a pursed-lipped frown. When Gabriella mentioned that she’d offered to pay the men for their babysitting services, and that Jobey had refused outright, Abuela’s discomfort erupted into outright suspicion. “But they’re grown men, Gabriella!” she protested, raising her hands in the air. “Don’t you think it’s a little…strange…that they are being so generous? Surely they must have something better to do with their time then look after a six year old girl!”

“I don’t know, Mama. Maybe they don’t.” Gabriella said. “Jobey’s retired, after all. And now that they’ve gotten the house all fixed up there really isn’t anything for Alex to do until school starts.”

“But–”

“Stop trying to find evil where there isn’t any, Momma,” Gabriella snapped. “Can you honestly say Milly’s worse off than she was before they came? Have you ever seen either of them hurt her in any way?” Abuela looked doubtful, but she shook her head. “No,” Gabriella said, settling back into the couch with a sigh. “Alex and Jobey are just a nice couple who like Milly and want to help us out. Besides, they’re new to Las Cruces, and I heard Jobey say something about how neither he nor Alex had any family left. Milly’s visits probably give them something to look forward to.” Gabriella shrugged her shoulders. “I think they’re lonely, if you want to know the truth.”

Milly thought about this later. She knew, with a child’s sometimes surprisingly accurate perception, that Alex and Jobey were indeed lonely. No one besides Alex’s boss at the university ever called the house, no friends or family ever came to visit. And apart from Gabriella, all the other grownups on the street treated the couple with frosty politeness at best and outright rudeness at worst. Milly was confused by this, since she knew Alex and Jobey were the nicest two people in the world, but then everything about the way grown-ups acted was confusing. Milly decided to ignore the problem for now. All she knew was, Alex and Jobey were the best friends she’d ever had in her life. And they were always, always glad to see her.

***

The rest of the summer flew by. In September Milly turned seven and started the second grade, something of which she was fiercely proud. Unfortunately, Abuela came down with a bad chest cold right after the school year began, a very serious one for a woman her age. She had to stay in bed for the better part of a month, and Gabriella was on pins and needles for weeks worrying that the cold was becoming pneumonia. When Jobey heard about this, he marched right over and insisted on driving Abuela to his own doctor to have Abuela’s lungs listened to and her chest thumped. Abuela protested wildly, but quickly discovered what Milly already knew: a determined Jobey was a force to be reckoned with. “You can’t take any risks at your age,” he told her sternly. “You know how badly Gabriella and the Sprout need you; what will they do if you have to go to the hospital? Besides.” He leaned in conspiratorially and switched to speaking fluent Spanish, a language Milly hadn’t even known Jobey knew until that very moment. “You do know that you and I are the only ones over fifty on this entire street, don’t you? If something happens to you, I’ll be left to cope with all these children on my own. I can’t let that happen, now can I?”

Abuela stared at him…and then a miraculous thing happened. She laughed. By late October, two more miracles had taken place. First, Abuela had gone to the doctor and was feeling better. Her chest cold was healed and she’d even started on a new medication that made her arthritis easier to bear. Second, Abuela’s suspicions of Jobey and Alex had entirely disappeared. It was as if, in Abuela’s mind, all the differences of race and gender and orientation had suddenly vanished. All she cared was that Jobey, too, was the caretaker of a family, doing his best to keep the house clean and Alex fed despite age and arthritis of his own. She was more than willing to agree that Jobey should watch Milly for a few hours after school everyday, and she and Jobey quickly struck up a deep if somewhat unusual friendship. Often while Milly was doing her homework at the dining room table with Alex, Abuela would be in the kitchen with Jobey, chattering away in Spanish about cooking and housekeeping and how hard it was to be the only two people on the block old enough to remember President Eisenhower. Alex would smirk to himself whenever he overheard one of these conversations, which was confusing, but Milly didn’t much care. She knew that if Abuela was willing to sit in Jobey’s kitchen, drinking his coffee and even sharing Auntie Carolita’s much-guarded secret tamale recipe, Jobey and Alex had officially become family. And that made her happy.

All in all, it was a golden fall. Gabriella got a small raise at work, which made some of the tight worried lines around her eyes and mouth disappear, despite the fact that she still walked with a small limp. Milly, thanks to Alex’s reading and Jobey’s help with her arithmetic homework, started doing better in school than she ever had. In late November, she got off the school bus eager to show Jobey her latest spelling test, which had two big golden stars affixed to the top. Much to her surprise, though, Jobey wasn’t on the front porch waiting for her, so Milly wandered through the house until she reached the living room. She was startled to hear Alex’s voice; he usually didn’t get home until five o’clock at least. Then Milly remembered that it was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and Alex had the entire week off from school, instead of just the last two days like Milly. He and Jobey seemed to be deep in conversation and very excited about something. “Do you remember this?” she heard Alex say.

“What? Oh, oh!” Yes, Jobey definitely sounded excited. “It’s the stuff from London. The ‘Adam and Joe’s First Christmas’ Box.”

Alex sounded happy. “Everyone around us…all our Watcher friends…were so sad that we didn’t have any holiday ornaments to put up for our first Christmas together. Well, our first Christmas together as a settled, out-of-the-closet-to-everyone couple, anyway. 1999, wasn’t it? They all brought something to decorate our flat…”

Jobey snickered. “Little did they know we had boxes of stuff in storage in Seacouver.”

“Speak for yourself, Jobey,” Alex said. “*You* were the one with boxes of stuff in storage in Seacouver, thanks to all those years you made Joe’s Bar look like a gingerbread house on steroids. *I* never saw the point in collecting holiday memorabilia, myself.”

“No, you never did, did you? Not even at the country house. Well, we’re here now, and all that’s going to change.” Jobey sounded determined. “This house is at least five times bigger than our London flat. We can finally get everything out of storage and buy a lot of new stuff, too. Decorate with…”

“Gay abandon?”

“I was going to say with true seasonal, American consumerist spirit, but I like the way you think.”

“Are you going to wear a Santa hat for me later?”

“Only if you’re very, very good,” Jobey purred. “Go ahead. Open up the box.”

Milly heard the distinctive sound of strapping tape being pulled away from cardboard. She peaked around the archway just in time to see Alex holding up a Christmas tree ornament made in the shape of two men sitting together, one holding a guitar. The prisms hanging from the bottom edge twinkled merrily. “Our First Christmas” Alex read the inscription. “That was from Lindsey at the Great Library in Paris, remember? She and Mark must have had it custom made; it’s hardly typical holiday fair. And look…there’s the glass balls the Russells sent us from Italy, and the glass icicles from the Tokolavs, and those hideous dancing polar bears Mike Barette inflicted on us...”

“Hey! I like the dancing polar bears!”

“I know you do, Jobey,” Alex said patiently. “That’s why they’re in the box instead of a British landfill. Personally, I could never quite get used to the notion of an eighteen inch tall piece of plastic wildlife capable of swiveling its midsection like a belly dancer. But if you *must* have battery powered kitsch on the holiday mantle, I supposed the bears are less objectionable then some of the other things we could have.” He set the bears aside, picked up a porcelain disk painted with books and spectacles and the words “World’s Greatest Researcher.” “Look. This was a gift from Maya in the sword department. And this…” He drew out a glittering, golden egg, hanging from a silken ribbon. “From Amanda. Genuine Faberge.”

Jobey sniffed. “Stolen Faberge.”

“Most likely,” Alex agreed. “But it’s so pretty!” He dangled the ornament from his finger enticingly, letting the light play over the myriad gems encrusting its surface. Jobey remained unimpressed. “Jobey, you had better learn to treat the royal gems with respect. Or else Amanda will just steal them back when she visits.”

“Let her. I like these better.” Jobey said. He picked up a couple very obviously homemade cones of green construction paper with thick yarn hanging loops, liberally doused in poster paint and glittering confetti that was shedding all over the floor. Milly thought that they were meant to look like tiny Christmas trees, although it was a little hard to tell. “Remember?” Jobey said. “Cousin Margie’s oldest girl made these for us with her kids. It’s good to see that the family crafting talent is getting passed on.” He suddenly looked very sad.

“Something wrong, Jobey?” Alex asked, concerned.

“What? Oh, no. No, not really.” Jobey gestured at the pool of ornaments in front of them. “It’s just…we had some really good friends in our last life, that’s all.” Alex nodded. Jobey looked at him sadly. “Is it always this hard? Starting over?”

“Always,” Alex said somberly. “Especially around the holidays.” He wrapped his arm around Jobey’s shoulders. “But at least this time there’s still a few people who know the truth. Duncan e-mailed me this morning. He says he’d be delighted to spend Thanksgiving in the Southwest. And Amanda finally RSVP’d, too. She’s going to bring Nick, so we’ll have quite a full house.”

“Nick? Really?” Jobey looked surprised. “He’s finally forgiven her for killing him, then?”

“Apparently. Why else would she be bringing him home to meet the relatives?”

Jobey snorted. “Is that what we’ve become? The Immortal equivalent of great-grandma’s house?”

“In a strange sort of way, I think we have. We’re the only ones that are really settled, after all. It wouldn’t surprise me if Immortal Thanksgiving at our place became an annual event.”

“Just as long as everyone checks their swords at the door, I’ll be happy.”

“And miss the awesome sight of Mac carving the turkey with his katana? Really, Jobey, you’re still enough of a Watcher to want to see *that*…”

Milly dropped her spelling paper. It only made a soft sound, but both men suddenly jumped and swung around, faces tense as they scanned the room for intruders. When they saw that it was only Milly, they both visibly relaxed. “Oh, it’s just the Pixie,” Alex said. “Come on in, Pix. How was school today?”

“Good. I wanted to show you this.” Milly held out her paper.

Jobey took it and beamed. “Two gold stars, huh,” he said. “That’s my Sprout!” He set it carefully atop the piano. “Tell you what: we’ll put that up on the refrigerator later. Right now, you can help Alex put together the tree. And decorate it too, if you want.” He nodded at a green plastic Christmas tree, standing in pieces in one corner.

Milly frowned. “Isn’t it a little early? It’s only Thanksgiving.”

“That’s-what-I-said,” Alex chimed, in an annoying sing song.

Jobey glared at him. “Maybe it is a little early, Sprout,” he admitted. “But none of our friends are going to be able to make it for Christmas proper, so *we*” --a pointed look in Alex’s direction–“thought we’d do a combined Christmas and Thanksgiving celebration. It’s going to take a while to get this place into shape, so…” Jobey reached into the box, scooping out a trailing mass of paper garland, which he shoved into Milly and Alex’s hands. “Start hangin’.”

Dutifully, Milly and Alex hung, and by the time Milly left to go home the living room had been transformed into a veritable Winter Wonderland. Jobey didn’t stop there, though. Over the next three days he spent a small fortune, decking the little house with boughs of artificial holly and string after string of Christmas lights. He even invested in a huge six foot plastic Santa Clause which he proudly set up in the middle of the front yard. Alex said that the Santa was the tackiest holiday decoration he’d ever seen, and privately Milly agreed, although she would never have hurt Jobey’s feelings by saying so out loud. Still, she had to admit the humungous plastic Santa had its uses. In particular, it made a great place for a small girl to hide the afternoon that Alex and Jobey’s guests arrived.

Milly had been curious about these guests, this “Duncan” and “Amanda” and “Nick” ever since Jobey and Alex had first told her they were coming. She knew she’d be introduced to them eventually–Alex and Jobey had invited her, along with Abuela and Gabriella, to Thanksgiving Dinner the very next day. But Milly was too impatient to wait, and so she hid behind the Santa the moment she saw Alex come out onto the front porch, wearing a festive “Ho³” t-shirt. Alex had a cell phone pressed to his ear, giving directions: “No, no, I’m glad you called. It’s easy to get lost in the streets around here…yes, well, that’s Duncan all over for you, isn’t it? Tell him from me that ‘Death before Dishonor’ was never meant to apply to asking for directions…you’re turned around now? Good…now turn left at that stop sign…now right at the yellow house…there, can you see me? I’m waving…” He raised an arm, waving it in large circles in the air. A second later a large Toyota SUV pulled up to the curb, rental sticker plain in the back window. The door opened and a woman with dark hair emerged, jumping to the sidewalk before the car had even come to a complete stop. She sprinted across the lawn and up the porch steps with a merry shout, throwing her arms around Alex with exuberant glee. “Adam! Adam! It’s so good to see you!”

Milly stared in astonishment. The woman was, quite frankly, unlike anyone Milly had ever seen in real life before. She was clad in the clothes of a famous actress or rock star, from the luxurious low-necked cashmere sweater to the very shiny, very high heeled leather boots. Her makeup was perfect, as were the shoulder length waves of brown hair that framed her face. “It’s Alex, now,” Alex corrected quietly.

For a moment the woman looked worried. Then she nodded, smiled brilliantly, and squeezed Alex with all the strength of a bear. Alex “oofed” softly. “Of course, ‘Alex’,” she said. “I’ll be good and remember from now on.” She patted his tummy flirtatiously. “You look so good, darling! Put on a few pounds, if I’m not mistaken. Being an old married man clearly agrees with you.”

“Don’t get too self righteous, Amanda. I’ve heard rumors that wedded bliss may not be that far away for you, either.” Alex nodded at the SUV, where a tall man with brilliant blue eyes was just opening the back hatch. He was quickly joined by another tall, broad-shouldered man, although this one kept his back to the house so Milly couldn’t tell what color his eyes were. “Shouldn’t we help your ammiratori with the luggage?” Alex asked.

“Heavens, no,” Amanda said. “They’ve been trying to out macho each other ever since we first met up. You’ll break their hearts if you don’t let them compete to see who can carry the most suitcases. Besides. I’d rather steal a few moments alone with you.” She gave Alex another squeeze, much more gently this time. Her face settled into more serious lines. “I mean it, ‘Alex.’ It really is good to see you. It’s…it’s been lonely without you.”

“I know. It’s been lonely for us, too,” Alex said, just as seriously. “But you know how it is, when you’re starting a new life. We couldn’t risk an earlier visit. Not until we knew for sure our disappearance had been believed.” Amanda nodded soberly. Alex looked around the yard with a frown. “You three *did* manage to give your Watchers the slip, didn’t you?”

“Of course!” Amanda pouted prettily. “Really, dear, you *are* getting paranoid in your old age…”

“Amanda, paranoia is the entire reason I got to be this old in the first place.”

“…if you think that I’d ever risk your safety,” Amanda continued, utterly ignoring Alex’s interruption. “Duncan shook off his Watcher before he even left Heathrow, and then he helped Nick and me deal with ours before we left New York. Everything went according to plan.” She smiled broadly. “You should have been there, darling! Jason–that’s the new Watcher they assigned to me and Nick, such a dear boy, although sometimes I wonder if he’s really experienced enough to be Watching a wily old thing like me–was so appalled by our distraction that he never even noticed me slipping behind him with the chloroform. We took him back to our apartment and left him on the couch with a note asking him to lock up before he left.”

Alex smirked. “And what was this distraction?”

“Oh, darling, it was so brilliant! You would have loved it,” Amanda gushed. “It seems that one Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod finally came to his senses and decided he wanted me back. He and Nick staged quite the thrilling fight, all under the pretense that the winner would get free access to me. Jason was so shocked he could barely look up from the notes he was taking long enough to watch the battle.” Another pout. “It’s too bad that you and Joe–er, Jobey–no longer have access to the Chronicles. I can’t wait to see what the boy writes up. It’s going to be the talk of Watcher water coolers on at least three continents, don’t you think? Unless Jason figured out that it was all a trick.”

A sly smile from Alex. “What makes you think I no longer have access?”

Amanda laughed with glee. “You darling man! I *knew* you were still connected somehow. I told Duncan so in the car. Very well. After lunch let’s boot up your computer and check out all the gossip.” She frowned. “You *are* going to feed us, aren’t you?”

“Of course. Jobey’s been working in the kitchen all morning. He had to take something out of the oven, or he’d be here now…”

“It’s out. And it’s going to be wonderful, if I do say so myself,” Jobey interrupted, coming onto the porch. His t-shirt read: “Many People Have Eaten My Cooking And Gone On To Live Perfectly Normal Lives.” “Well, hello there, gorgeous! You’re a sight for sore eyes.” Amanda squealed and kissed both of Jobey’s cheeks, leaving two lipstick smears that Jobey didn’t seem to mind at all. He nodded at her hair. “I see you’ve gone back to your natural color. Or is that the natural color?”

“Pooh, Jobey, who can remember what was natural anymore?”

“I can,” Alex said softly. “I knew you when Rebecca had just taken you in, remember?”

“Yes, and thankfully, you’re the only one left who does,” Amanda returned flippantly. “And don’t you dare go writing up the real answer in the Chronicles for the sake of historical accuracy, either. A lady must have *some* secrets.” She turned back to Jobey. “Jobey, this brunette isn’t natural. I would never have the patience to grow it out. You’re looking at ‘Decadent Darkness Number Five’. I think it suits me, don’t you?”

“It does,” Jobey agreed. “But I can’t think of a look that wouldn’t, Amanda. Any era of clothing, any hair color, and you always manage to outshine every other woman in the room.” Amanda preened. Jobey quirked an eyebrow at Alex. “Although this time the Sprout might very well give you a run for your money, right Alex?”

Alex chuckled. Amanda frowned. “The Sprout?” she repeated. “I’m in competition with a vegetable?”

“That’s what I call our little next door neighbor. Seven years old and bright as a button,” Jobey said. “You’ll fall in love, I guarantee it.” He slipped an arm around her waist. “Now, come inside. I’ll give you the ten cent tour.”

Jobey and Amanda disappeared from view. A moment later the blue-eyed man arrived on the porch, bent nearly double under a weight of feminine suitcases. Alex, clearly trying to suppress a laugh, held the door open and waved him in with a little bow. The blue-eyed man threw him a sheepish grin before he, too, disappeared inside. Which just left the final member of the new arrivals, clad in a long dark overcoat, removing still more luggage from the back of the SUV. Alex heaved a heavy sigh Milly was sure he would never have used if he’d known anyone was listening, then strode across the lawn to the car. His hands were in his pockets and his shoulders were shrugged up high around his ears. “Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod,” he said softly. “Mi casa es su casa. Once again.”

There was a long moment of silence. Then the tall man turned around, and Milly would have gasped if she hadn’t been trying so hard to be quiet. She’d honestly never seen a man so handsome, not even on Abuela’s favorite Spanish-language soap opera. Short dark hair framed a very beautiful, very manly face, a face which contained a lovely pair of chocolate eyes unlike anything Milly had ever seen. But the eyes didn’t look happy as they gazed at Alex, sweeping over him from head to toe. In fact, they looked rather sad. “Methos,” the newcomer said stiffly. “Shouldn’t that be ‘*Our* house is your house’, now?”

“Oh, I took Joe for granted in the ‘mi’,” Alex said easily. “These days we’re pretty much two halves of the same person, anyway.” Mr. MacLeod nodded, turning back toward the car. Alex looked uncomfortable. “We were both very sorry to hear that Kate couldn’t join us.”

Mr. MacLeod glanced up from the luggage, a pained expression on his face. “No, you weren’t,” he said.

“No,” Alex agreed, nodding. “All right, if you insist, no we weren’t. Neither of us exactly have warm and fuzzy feelings for the girl, given who she was dating before she shacked up again with you. But don’t you dare tell Jobey I said so. He made me swear I was going to at least start out this gathering by being ‘civilized’.” Mr. MacLeod raised his eyebrows, and Alex shrugged in self-deprecating kind of way. “He’d be terribly disappointed to know that you caught me being impolitely honest before you even crossed the threshold.”

They stared at each other for a long, tense moment…and then Mr. MacLeod chuckled. It caused his entire face to soften wonderfully, a dancing twinkle coming into the brown eyes. Milly was glad to see it. Alex, for his part, seemed glad to see it, too. His whole body relaxed, and a light came into his hazel eyes that answered the one in the brown. “Come, Highlander,” he said, closing the SUV hatch with an emphatic thud. “Leave the rest of the bags. I’m sure young Nick will be more than happy to get them later; Amanda seems to have him very well trained. Right now I want to show you the house. Jobey will be heartbroken if you don’t have a chance to admire all his holiday decorations before lunch.”

Mr. MacLeod’s eyes scanned the yard, from the lights to the Santa Clause. Milly tried to make herself very small. “He really is taking this holiday spirit thing seriously, isn’t he?”

“Wait until you see what he has planned for dinner tomorrow. I can barely set foot in the kitchen for all the food he’s laid in.” Alex shook a finger warningly. “You’d better be prepared to eat half your weight in pumpkin pie, Highlander. Jobey’s been researching recipes online for weeks.”

Mr. MacLeod laughed. “Funny how things work out,” he said. “If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be eating a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner in a décor-draped New Mexican home with you, Joe, Amanda, and Amanda’s new boyfriend, who just happens to be an ex-cop…”

“What? You mean to tell me that you didn’t have it all penciled in to your long term diary?”

“Hardly.” They started walking toward the house. Just as they reached the porch steps Mr. MacLeod stopped and turned to Alex, placing one hand on Alex’s arm. “It’s–it’s good to be here, Methos. I mean that. Thank you for inviting me.”

A look of indescribable tenderness came over Alex’s face, a look Milly had only ever seen him give to Jobey in the past. For a moment she thought Alex was going to hug this stranger, but he just patted him affectionately on the arm. “You are very welcome, Highlander. Come inside, now. If you can brave the kitsch, I’ll show you where you’re going to sleep. Unfortunately, Amanda and Nick have our only guest bedroom…”

“Then where are you going to put me? The bathtub?”

“You are going to have the unprecedented honor of sleeping on the pull-out sofa in my study. Just think of all the fun you can have trying to guess my computer passwords after everyone else has gone to bed.” The two men disappeared inside the house. And Milly, knowing she wasn’t invited until tomorrow, reluctantly went home.