Author: Josan
Beta: Skif
Date: August, 2000
Summary: Eli's new lover has to pass family inspection.
Pairing: Eli/Other
Rating: PG-13
Archive: Yes, to SKSA, Basement, Ratlover, RatB
*if* you want it.
Comments: jmann@mondenet.com OR, if you're getting bounced due to the anti-spam filter my server has added, try jmann@spam.mondenet.com


DISCLAIMER: Skinner and Krycek are the property of CC, Fox and 1013, but the others are all mine.

NOTE: Yes, I know. I swore that was it for the EATING Series. But Skif wanted to know what happened to Eli. And she gave me the hook this story hangs on. In keeping with my you-request-it-you-beta-it policy, Skif betaed. We hope you enjoy this story as much as we did playing around with the idea.

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Abby Skinner smiled at the elderly gentleman who found her a menu and led the way to the table Eli had reserved. His usual. In the back corner so that he could pursue his favourite pastime: people watching. He maintained that he got the inspiration for his best music from watching people.

She sighed as she looked around the small Italian restaurant. New York and all its foibles! She loved the place.

At the ripe old age of 19, Abby was off on her own. Not that she didn't miss her family, she did. Some more than others. Her grandmother had reluctantly let her leave, but that was more because she feared loneliness for she would be alone in the house now rather than the belief that Abby could not survive in the big bad city. Her parents, who alternated years in Middlebury with years in Africa, were used to not having her around, even when they moved back to the States. Abby had preferred the constancy of living with her grandmother.

She hadn't lived in Gram's pocket all that time. After graduation, the Uncles had given her a three month Eurail pass, a credit card and their recommendations of places to visit. Unbeknownst to Uncle Walter, Uncle Alex had slipped her an account number, a list of contacts and places to visit in Russia. She'd returned, finally knowing what she wanted to do. So, here she was, first year student at the Columbia School of Journalism, waiting for her cousin Eli to show up with his newest conquest.

Abby sipped the red wine she'd ordered. She was used to Eli. Even though he had told her to be at the restaurant for 12 sharp, she doubted she would see him much before 12:30. It was a family joke that Eli would be a half hour late to his own funeral.

As for the conquest, she wondered what Eli was into now. The last had been tall, almost waif-like, all arms and legs. About her age. He had lasted almost three months. Not quite par for the course for Eli's lovers.

Poor Eli.

No. Poor lovers. The first love of Eli's life was his music. When he was composing, all else ceased to exist for him. Eating. Sleeping. All that took a back seat. Lovers too. And they tended to resent that fact.

Except that this time, when he had called her to invite her to lunch, his voice had been different. Less sleepy. More like when he had won some coveted award for his composing. Not a tone she usually heard when Eli talked about a lover.

Not that there had been that many of them. But he was 28. And he was certainly attractive to men who went for the short, slim, creative type. Not to mention the hair. She did envy him that long hair. Dark chocolate brown. Straight. He usually wore it tied back, dangling between his shoulder blades. Once she had watched him mesmerize a room full of people as he had undone the tie and shaken his hair free. She doubted that he was even aware of the effect he had had.


Abby looked up to see Eli grinning at her from the entrance. She checked her watch, only 15 minutes late. Well, well, well.

And well, well, well, for the man accompanying her cousin.

The first thing that struck her was that he was older than Eli. Unusual for Eli's lovers. Not the usual Eli physical type either. Not tall and lanky, but just a head taller, almost stocky in build.

"Abby." Eli bent and kissed her cheek. "I knew you would be on time. Jamie wondered if you wouldn't just arrive a half hour later like he's learnt to do."

Abby smiled at the two men. Hmmm. Like he'd learnt to do, she thought. That sounded promising.

"Abby, may I present Jamie Forester." To Abby's amazement, Eli blushed slightly as he turned to the man at his side. Jamie, she was pleased to see, reacted to that with a softening of expression. My, my. "Jamie is a pianist, a studio musician I met when we were doing the music for that wildlife documentary. Jamie, my favourite cousin, Abby Skinner, who one day expects to be the top political columnist in the States."

Abby gave Jamie a thorough once over.

Jamie Forester had to be a good ten years older than Eli. From the golden brown colour of his skin, the ebony black of his hair, he was probably of mixed background. From the shape of his eyes, probably some oriental ancestry in there too. Startling in their colour. A blue, almost violet. As busy evaluating her as she was him.

She let Eli order for them, sat back and enjoyed her meal while she brought Eli up to date on her activities at school, the adventures she had had in Russia which she was not supposed to have had. He discussed the music he was composing for a Canadian-American co- production documentary film about the humourous misconceptions each had about the other's country. Jamie didn't say much, just watched the two of them interact, eyes mainly on Eli, occasionally speaking in his slight foreign accent when Eli drew him into the conversation.

Not typical Eli behaviour there too. Once Eli got started on his music, he was usually not concerned about his lover's inclusion in the conversation. Nor had she ever seen him look at a lover in public the way these two did. Like, she giggled to herself, the other was the reason sex had been invented.

They were considering dessert when Eli finally said, "Out with it."

"Out with what?" Abby tried hard to look as though she had no idea what he was talking about.

"You're wearing Gram's smile, the one she puts on when she thinks something is really funny but doesn't want to spoil the mood. The one that drives your mother crazy."

Abby merely raised her eyebrows.

Eli raised his back. "Spill it, brat."

Letting the suppressed grin out, Abby propped her elbows on the edge of the table, dropped her chin onto her clasped hands. She looked from Eli to Jamie's interested face and back to Eli.

"It's never going to work, you know."

Eli shifted in his chair. "What's not going to work?"

"Passing Jamie off as a mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. Not going to work."

Eli froze. Jamie didn't move. But the tension that had been underlying the whole lunch rose a degree or two.

Abby smiled reassuringly at Jamie. "Look, guys. I don't for one minute doubt the two of you are happy together, and frankly, I'm happy for you, Eli. I don't really know Jamie, but I'm glad that you've finally found someone.

"But passing him off as a studio musician...that might work in most families, but not going to happen in ours. Not with the Uncles."

Jamie rested his arms on the table and leaned over. "I don't quite understand. I am a studio musician. That's how I earn my living."

Abby ignored the subtle threat that Jamie was projecting. "Now maybe. But before? What were you? A mercenary? A terrorist?"

Jamie gave a soft laugh. "What an imagination you must have."


"Eli." Abby interrupted, her voice serious. "What do you think is going to happen the first time the Uncles get a look at him?"

"Jamie's a studio musician. Nothing more."

Abby cocked an eyebrow. "Eli. Have you really looked at Jamie?" She smiled at Jamie, inviting him to enjoy the joke. Jamie ignored the invitation.

"Yes, I really have looked at Jamie. I love looking at Jamie. I do it as often as I can. I know what I see."

"Eli. You look at him exactly the same way Uncle Walter looks at Uncle Alex."

"That's because Uncle Walter is in love with Uncle Alex. As I love Jamie."

She didn't doubt that. Nor that this time it was the real thing. "Yes. And he looks at you exactly the same way Uncle Alex looks at Uncle Walter."

"Maybe," Eli's tone bore an edge of sarcasm, "that's because he loves me the same way."

"And that's the trouble. He has the same look in his eyes. Think about it, Eli." Abby moved her focus to Jamie whose attention had stayed locked on her, a hint of menace in his eyes. "Jamie, has Eli told you about the Uncles?"

"Yes." Jamie shrugged slightly. "He's told me about your Uncle Walter who works for some think tank in Washington, that your Uncle Alex works for some company that specializes in computer security."

"Has he told you what they used to do?"

Jamie looked to Eli who made a barely audible sound and winced. "He said Walter used to be with the FBI."

"Assistant Director," stressed Abby watching for a reaction.

Jamie raised an inquiring eyebrow at Eli who shrugged. "I didn't think it was important."

"And what Uncle Alex used to do?"

Jamie looked from his lover who was rubbing his hands over his face, groaning softly. "No. Do tell, just what did Uncle Alex used to do?"

"Have you ever heard of an organization called the Consortium?"

Jamie gave a dismissive laugh. "The Consortium? Isn't that a fairy tale used to scare children?"

"You know better than that," Abby's voice was sharp. "Uncle Alex was one of their assassins." Her tone serious, she enumerated, "You walk like Uncle Alex. You hold yourself like Uncle Alex. Your eyes are like Uncle Alex's. You even dress," she pointed to the leather jacket that had been thrown on the fourth chair at the table, "like Uncle Alex. And as I said, you look at Eli the same possessive way Uncle Alex looks at Uncle Walter."


"Eli. If I can see it, do you think the Uncles won't?" She turned back to Jamie who was watching her with the same expression Uncle Alex wore when he sensed a threat to his lover. It gave her a shiver, but she shook it off. Jamie, she recognized, was irritated, not really a danger to her. "So, all I'm saying is, you two had better come up with a story that will satisfy the Uncles because all three of us know that with Uncle Alex's computer skills and both Uncles' connections, whatever is in Jamie's past is not going to stay there."

Abby sat back in her chair.

Eli and Jamie shared a look then, with a sigh, Jamie turned to Abby. "I'm in a sort of witness protection program. Actually an exchange one. The Brits thought I would be safer here...that I could melt into the background. My problem seems to be that I have chosen the only man in the States I can't hide that from to fall in love with."

Abby sympathized. "Welcome to the family."


Jamie signed for the rental car while Eli handled the luggage. Abby carried the box of gifts the men were bringing with them.

"Peace offerings?" she teased.

"Better than human sacrifice," Jamie muttered.

Abby reached over and kissed him on the cheek. "Don't worry so much. Eli gave his mother more than enough information to set the Uncles on their way. Better they all know the truth now then find out they've been deceived. Skinners don't handle deception well."

They were on their way to their Gram's for Thanksgiving. A Skinner tradition. Christmas was for families, Gram had announced to all the grandchildren who now had families of their own. She expected them to spend Christmas with their own families. She was more than satisfied to have as many of her horde as possible for Thanksgiving.

The Uncles would already be there. They usually arrived a few days early to see to the house and property. Gram always had a list of things she wanted them to do.

Her parents would also be there this year, one of their State-side years. Abby expected one good argument from her mother about her selection of career. She had wanted a doctor in the family: the older boys had settled on careers anywhere from teaching to stockbroking. But no one had gone into medicine. Still, thought Abby, she did have three younger brothers, her mother still had hope.

Aunt Louisa had been out on the West coast for the last few weeks, managing and babying a couple of promising musicians. She had been expected to arrive earlier in the day. Eli had insisted that she go ahead to Gram's rather than wait for them at the airport in Burlington.

Abby had decided to accompany the two men, feeling that they would probably be in need of some moral support on the tense trip ahead.

The drive was done in absolute silence. Eli was not talkative at the very best of times, and as Abby had discovered over the last two weeks, Jamie tended to be the strong silent type. But even for the two of them, this was bordering on the ridiculous.

"Jamie, see that scenic view rest area up ahead. Stop there, will you?"

Eli twisted to see her face. "You okay?"

Abby smiled. "Just stop. Okay. Now, everybody out."

Jamie looked to Eli who shrugged. All got out of the car.

The view was a familiar one, though the late autumn meant that some of the colours were still around. Abby waited until the quiet and the scenery got to the two men. Jamie rotated his head, as if trying to loosen some muscles. Eli placed a hand on his lover's neck and massaged. They shared a smile.

"Okay, guys, listen up." Abby was sitting on the top of the security railing. "You two have got to relax before we get to the house. You're both tensed up and the last thing we need is a major blow-up."

Eli took exception. "I am not..."

"Eli! Don't try and bullshit me. I know everyone thinks you're laid back to the nth degree, but remember, this is me, Abby. I've seen you lose your temper. And it's not a pretty sight."

Jamie mocked. "Something else you forgot to tell me?" Though he was joking, his tone was dry.

Abby immediately came to Eli's defense. "Doesn't happen often. Once every five years or so. Usually at something my brothers have said or done. But it is spectacular. What's yours like?"

"I'm still alive, aren't I? Can't have pissed off that many people."

"Or maybe they're just not around to be pissed," countered Abby. Then, "Sorry, that was uncalled for. But this has the makings of a pretty tense weekend so it has to start with everyone cool and calm." She paused. "So, do you guys want to stop at the motel on the way in, release some of that tension? I can wait in the car."

Eli's jaw dropped open. "Ab-bey," he wailed.

"Well," Abby shrugged. "I understand it's very relaxing, having sex in the afternoon."

"Jesus! Abby!"

"I'm serious, Eli. I have some books I can read. I don't mind waiting for you two."

Eli looked as though he was going to pull his hair out. He was ready to tear a strip off Abby when they both turned at the sound Jamie made. A choking sound. Abby jumped down to go help when they both realized that Jamie was laughing. Stifled at first, as though he didn't dare let any of his humour out. Then he saw the way both of them were looking at him and he just let go.

Abby and Eli exchanged shrugs, sat on the railing until Jamie finally got himself under control.

It took a few minutes. Every time Jamie got the laughter under control, he would turn to Eli and Abby who were watching him with identical looks of amused concern and he would start all over again.

"You all right now?" Eli asked when there had been a couple of minutes of silence coming from the man who stood his back to them.

Jamie turned around. "Yeah. You want to take her up on her offer?"

Eli was stunned, "Are you serious?" He shook his head, "No."

"Sure now? I mean this may be the last chance we ever get to fuck each other silly."

Eli went up to Jamie, wrapped his arms around the man's waist, raised himself onto his toes and gently kissed his lover. "I love you."

Jamie pulled Eli tight to him, one arm around his hips, the other clasped around a shoulder, fist knotted in the thick ponytail. He rested his forehead on Eli's. "I love you, too. But you're not the only one who's hidden a few things."

"Doesn't matter. Won't matter. Like the old cliche says: that was then and this is now. Now is all I'm interested in. I love you, Jamie Forester. And I will still love you tomorrow."

The two men melted into each other as Abby turned and discreetly checked out the scenery.

"Okay." Eli stepped back to the car. "Let's go face the family."


Nadia Skinner was thankful she had sent the others on errands so that she was alone in the house when her grandchildren arrived. At the kitchen door, Abby hugged her tightly, looked her over with those eagle eyes of hers -- where in heaven's name had the child gotten that gaze from? -- to be certain she was healthy and stepped aside for Eli's tight hug.

"They're not here," she answered his unasked question. "You've got about an hour to convince me that this is a good idea."

And then she turned to the man watching from the doorway. "Oh, dear."

The man stiffened slightly, but Nadia shook her head and addressed Abby. "You're right. I wonder what it is about the Skinner men that they're attracted to the same type."

Abby rested her chin on her shoulder, chuckled softly. "None of my brothers have so far shown any tendency towards bad boys. Or girls."

"That, Abby dear, is because your bothers are more Dempsey than they are Skinner. " She held her hand out to Jamie. "Please, I apologize. Abby did tell me, but this is just such a case of deja vu. Please, Jamie, do come in. Eli, I've had to give you two the TV room. Abby, you're in your bedroom. Ouisa is sharing with me."

The quick scurrying of her grandchildren left Nadia alone with Jamie in the kitchen. This one, she thought, is less damaged, no less dangerous. "Well, I think a snack is called for. I know Eli is a bottomless pit. Do you like apple pie?"

"Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Skinner."

She looked back to see Jamie take a place at the table, eyes still on her. She was certain that in any other household that gaze would certainly be disconcerting. But here, after nine years of Alex Krycek, she was rather immune to that look.

The others joined them at the table. Over the chatter that Abby and even Eli set up to cover the fact that Jamie was not speaking, Nadia watched him over the rim of her teacup. Oh, yes. This should prove to be quite a holiday. She wondered if the house would still be standing by the end of it.

Louisa arrived first, her arms full of boxes from the bakery. Once Nadia would have insisted on going all the baking herself. Now, nearing 80, she had no trouble at all letting professionals do all the work.

There were the usual Louisa happy noises on seeing Eli and Abby. And then she graced her son's lover with one of those cold looks she reserved for wayward musicians. "So you're James Forester. I've heard a great deal about you. From Eli, of course."

"And from others as well." Jamie confronted her.

Before there was a chance of escalation, the front door opened.

"The Uncles!" Looking just a little relieved at the interruption, Abby enthusiastically greeted the two men coming in with arms laden down with bags from the local grocery store. Eli was less enthusiastic knowing the reprieve was only temporary.

Nadia watched from the living room, perching on the arm of her favourite chair, felt the temperature in the entrance plummet as introductions were made. She decided to take matters in hand. "Ouisa, dear," pulling her daughter's attention away from her grandson's lover, "put the things you've got in the kitchen, will you? Walter, Alex. I would appreciate if you would put the groceries away before the ice cream melts. The rest of you, come in here."

Jamie looked impressed with the way everyone hurried to obey orders. Eli slipped his arm around Jamie's waist and pulled him gently into the living room and over to the loveseat in one corner. Room only for the two of them. Abby took up an ottoman that was near the loveseat.

From the doorway, Louisa swept the room with one of her evaluating glances. She took up a stance, sitting on the arm of Nadia's chair, long legs stretched out, one booted ankle over the other, arms crossed.

Lines, thought Nadia, are already drawn up.

They all waited in silence until the Uncles came in, took up the couch, both of them glaring at Jamie Forester.

Jamie, from his seat, saw two men, neither in the first bloom of life, whose age had not lessened their air of danger.

Walter Skinner was eyeing him like he was something that the ex-Assistant Director was considering taking apart. Jamie doubted that the man had lost any of his sharpness, or his ability to see through bullshit, even if he hadn't been with the FBI for ten years. Nor that he was still as good as the grapevine suggested he was.

Jamie found that he suddenly felt like some recalcitrant agent, about to be raked over the coals. And that, from the tightening of the lips that he supposed was meant to be a smile, Walter Skinner knew it.

As for Alex Krycek, the position the man was sitting in made him look as though he were only casually interested in what was going on. It took another professional to recognize that the casual pose was one that could easily change into an attack.

His research on "Uncle Alex" had turned up the probability that, in spite of the amputated arm, this was the same Alex Krycek whose name he had heard once or twice in Hong Kong. Moreover, in their business, one didn't survive long handicapped. The fact that not only had Krycek survived, but was still alive -- Jamie sighed, mentally -- nope, did not bode well at all.

Jamie could understand why they all felt protective toward Eli. Hell, he did too. And hell -- beginning to feel just a bit put out by his reception -- surely the fact that this was the first time Eli was bringing anyone with him to a family gathering had to tell them that they were serious about this relationship. That he and Eli loved each other.

The silence in the room was deafening.

Eli's sigh resounded loudly. "Okay. I have a couple of things to say and then you can all have your turn. This is Jamie Forester. And, yes, I do know about his background. All you need to know that I love him. Nothing you can say today will change that."

"You say," Walter spoke into the silence, "that you know about his background. Are you basing that on what the man has told you?"

Eli looked his uncle straight in the face. "Yes."

"And you believe him?"

Eli's face broke into his sleepy grin. "Well, I don't think that he told me about Hong Kong to show me his sweet, gentle side.

"Nor," he quietly emphasized, "about Macao. Certainly not about Indonesia."

Jamie kept an eye on Alex Krycek. Of the two men, he was the more dangerous. Though his focus was on Skinner, Krycek of course knew he was being watched. One predator recognized another.

"I just hope," continued Eli, "that all this digging around hasn't put Jamie's life into jeopardy. I would hate to go into hiding just as the music for that documentary is gelling."

"Eli," the long fingers of one of Louisa's hands drummed a beat against a shoulder, "is this man a wise choice?"

Eli grinned at his mother. "No. But he is my choice. In the past you've always respected my choices."

Louisa looked from her son to his lover. Jamie felt she was trying to read his soul. He knew from Eli that she had accepted Eli's preference for men over women. But he also knew that like any mother, she would have preferred anyone else to be her son's choice.

Looking him straight in the eye, she spoke to Eli. "Yes, I have. But this is a wolf. Do you really want a wolf in your life?"

Nadia silently patted her daughter's hand.

Walter was not so reticent. Over the next few minutes, he revealed what all their research had discovered about one James Montgomery Chu, aka James Forester. His involvement as a child with a Hong Kong tong, his capture and imprisonment under the British, being turned to provide them with inside information, his rise in a tong companion group run by Europeans who helped control the Asian black market. The gun battle and inferno that had left behind several blackened bodies, including the one identified as Chu.

Identified by his wife.

That, Eli hadn't known.

"Wife!" Eli blurted, unslouching suddenly. "You have a wife?"

Jamie hesitated. "I did. I needed a cover. Homosexuals aren't particularly liked within certain tong factions. Anyway, she was married to James Chu, now deceased. She didn't mourn him long. She married my keeper with the British a couple of weeks after I died."

"Kids?" questioned Eli, wondering what else Jamie hadn't thought to mention.

"No. She has a peke that she calls Baby. That's as close to motherhood as MeiLee will ever get." He looked at Eli and smiled. "I didn't think it was important enough to mention."

Abby snickered.

Jamie knew from Eli's grimace that she wasn't the only one who had caught the reference back to the lunch and his forgetting to mention the Uncles' pasts. He spoke to the room. "Let me make this easier for you. I was declared dead, but the Brits wanted more out of me before they would set me up with a new identity here in the States. That's why Indonesia. I gave them one year of my life and I've got the scars to prove it.

"I know you're worried about Eli. I would too in your place. Look. I don't take unreasonable chances. I keep my head very low. I want to stay alive. But I'm also selfish enough to want Eli in my life."

Jamie waited for reaction and got it. Not what he expected. The silent man on the couch finally spoke.

"How old are you?"

"Thirty-seven. I'll be thirty-eight December 26th."

Alex Krycek nodded, as if that satisfied all his questions. "Well," he stood, stretching, "Nadezhda, isn't it time we started dinner. There's one of those things that passes for football on TV this evening. I promised Walter I would watch with him."

"Silently," reminded Walter, knowing that they had done all they could. The choice was Eli's and if this man was what he wanted...well, who was he to protest?

"What? No commentary?" Abby grinned at Alex as she went to help in the kitchen.

"I lost a bet," he admitted.

"Must have been a beaut."

Alex and Walter exchanged looks and grins. Jamie watched the heat shimmer between the two men and wondered in passing if he and Eli really did look at each other that way.

"Eli, dear," called Nadia, "could you come with me for a moment?"

Nice moves, thought Jamie. They'd managed to separate them. And here he was alone with his lover's mother.

He stood when she did. Eli had made his choice, but he loved his mother and would want her approval at least. So Jamie stayed where he was as she took her time coming up to him. He watched her warily as she looked him carefully up and down, evaluating him. She was a name to contend with in the music business. If she put the word out, he would never again find work as a studio musician, probably not even in a flea-bitten bar in the far back of beyond.

Slowly, Louisa rested her weight on one foot as she shifted her posture to that side. Her hands fisted, rested on her hips. She gave a slight nod, as if she had answered a question that bothered her.

"He's not easy to live with," she said, her tone neutral.

"No, ma'am, he's not."

"Especially when he's composing."


"How do you handle that?" She sounded only faintly curious.

"I leave him alone. Except when I feed him."

Louisa nodded. "You feed him."

"He forgets to eat when he's working."

"What about sleep?"

"He forgets that too. But I figure I'm pushing my luck by insisting he eat, so I leave his body to tell him when he's pushing too hard."

Louisa nodded again.

"And you love him."

Jamie waited until she was looking him in the eyes to answer. "Yes, ma'am. I do."

The quiet avowal seemed to be what Louisa needed to hear.

"Well, we'd better go help them fix supper or we're going to be stuck with the washing up. And, Jamie, I hate washing up."

Jamie smiled and revealed a glimpse of the man her son had fallen in love with. "I'll remember that, ma'am."

"Ouisa. Call me Ouisa. That's what the family calls me."

"Ouisa?" Louisa paused at the door, turned to look at Jamie. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Now, remember the dishes," and led the way into the clamorous kitchen.


"The air out here is sweeter than city air, don't you find?"

Jamie looked over his shoulder to find Alex Krycek slouching against the closed door. He hadn't heard the man come out. He didn't assume that meant he was losing his touch, just that the other man was that good. Still.

"How did you get away from the football game?"

"Half-time. Doesn't count as part of the game."

Alex came and rested a hip on a side of the porch railing. The November air was crisp but refreshing. Jamie waited for the older man to begin his interrogation.

Alex just smiled. "You're expecting me to what? Rip out your guts for daring to fuck our poor, sweet, defenceless Eli?"

"Something like that."

Alex shook his head. "First of all there is nothing poor about Eli. His bank account is well padded."

Jamie's voice matched the air. "I pay my share, and my own way."

Alex continued as though nothing had been said. "As for sweet...Eli has a reputation as a perfectionist. Probably one of the reasons his cupboards are filled with awards. Perfectionists are many things, but sweet isn't one of them."

Jamie nodded. "He does have a certain reputation. But only with musicians who think they're too good. Or who think they deserve special privileges because of who they are. He's patient with studio musicians who give him their best. And he can make that best better than usual."

Alex leaned his head back against the support post. "As for defenceless. Both Walter and I have taught all the kids ways of defending themselves." He didn't need to mention that he and Walter were the next line of defence.

"Abby too?"

"Abby especially. She and Eli were the first of the kids to welcome me into the family. And she's adventuresome enough for the two of them. Do you think for a minute we would have let her loose in Europe without a few tricks up her sleeves?"

"Not to mention Russia."

"By all means, let us not mention Russia. Walter still hasn't decided if he's going to forgive me that."

Jamie grinned and then lost it as the tone of Alex's voice changed. "There are a few rules to joining this family you need to know about. To think about before making a final decision."

Jamie took a mirror position to Alex and waited.

"First of all, there is the fact that the Skinners expect fidelity. Whether you be male or female, partners are expected to fuck one body only."

"Does that work both ways?"

"Oh, yeah. The Skinners are really into monogamy. And even if Eli doesn't look like a Skinner, he is in upbringing. So you'd better think about that."

"Anything else?"

Alex nodded. "Sometimes relationships don't work out. That can happen. If it does happen in this case, you get in touch with me."

"You're also a marriage counsellor?"

"No. I'll just want to hear your side of the break-up before I decide if you live or die." He smiled and Jamie felt a chill that didn't come from the night.

"Will you listen, or just plain shoot?"

"I'll listen. Frankly, I'll listen anytime. Skinners take some getting used to and sometimes there are tricks to handling them that might make things a little easier. In fact, if you decide that all this is too much for you, say within the next two weeks, you can just take off without contacting me. Anytime after that, I'll consider you fair game unless you call."

Jamie looked over the yard and thought for a minute. "Okay. That's fair. It won't happen, but that is fair of you."

"Another thing."

"Yes?" There was an undercurrent of humour in Jamie's voice, one that Alex met with a grin.

"Has Eli warned you about his aunt Jilly?"

Jamie grinned. "No, but Abby has."

"Good. She means well, but you'll probably want to strangle her five minutes after you meet her. Her husband Gene thinks she walks on water even after all this time. See what I mean about monogamy?

"You just take it like the rest of us do. Grit your teeth and swallow your words. On the other hand, if the boys say anything that you feel crosses the line for you, they're open season. Just remember that Nadezhda loves them and do it out of her hearing."

"Uncle Alex, half time is over." Eli came out onto the porch and joined the men.

"Shit! Remind me never to bet on a sure thing where Jilly's involved, will you? The only thing sure about that woman is that she's full of surprises. Why the hell Walter can't follow soccer..."

"France," said Jamie.

Alex stopped in his tracks. Turned around to glare at the smiling man. "Italy," he insisted. Then he grinned at Eli, "Thank you."

Eli laughed softly. "My pleasure."

Alex closed the door behind him. With an exaggerated sigh, he joined his lover on the couch. "Jamie's a soccer fan," he announced with one of those shit-eating grins of his.

Walter took his eyes off the screen. "Effete sport," he growled as he wrapped an arm around Alex's shoulders and pulled until Alex lay on the couch, head on Walter's lap. It wasn't a bad way to watch a game he pretended he hated.

Out on the porch, Eli was far too busy to think about the game.