Actions

Work Header

Shades of the Past

Work Text:


I -

'Your daughter has been kidnapped' were the words that bounced around Dolph Lambert's head. He'd been horror-stricken the moment these words sank in, leaving him staring vacantly for what must have been a good part of the hour.

"Mr. Lambert?"

Dolph blinked. He half-heartedly glanced around the room.

Police officers were meandering about – some in uniforms, some were in civilian clothes but had badges bearing the local police department's insignia hanging from the chains around their necks. Hissing noises and shrill voices that crackled from handheld radios sliced through the atmosphere that had gone thick with apprehension. The burst of activities triggered by the shocking news had blown into chaotic proportion.

A man sat across from him and Dolph cringed inwardly upon meeting his reproachful gaze. Questions were thrown at him one after another, making Dolph's head spin. It was then he remembered that the man was a police detective. He rummaged through the back of his mind, trying to recall his name. Detective Marc Vidal, he thought.

One thing he didn't fail to notice was how the man hadn't shown any hint of congeniality from the moment he'd walked through Dolph's front door. Now Detective Vidal was making Dolph feel like he was the criminal that had been subjected to a burning interrogation. Everything the detective had uttered, though coherent, passed through Dolph like a breeze, remnants of it barely stuck in his mind.

"Have you noticed anything suspicious lately? Or have you received any threats?" were among the hundred questions raised and he just simply shook his head in response. "Have you been in a fight or an argument recently?" The detective went on, his tone hard-edged and demanding. "Is there someone here who knows your family background?"

Dolph's gaze sprang back to Detective Vidal who seemed to be observing him like he was some sort of rare artifact; deep-set eyes bore into him. He found it quite difficult to lie for some reason so he decided to play ignorant instead. "H-how did—what exactly do you m-mean?"

Then something he hadn't thought possible occurred – Detective Vidal's face softened. "I'm sorry, Mr. Lambert. But one of the standard procedures in cases like this is to do background check on the victim's family. That way it would be easier to narrow down the list of possible suspects."

"Oh." Dolph's mind was too exhausted to come up with a perfect cover-up. But lying about his family background was no longer an open option since his daughter's life was on the line.

"So…" Vidal shifted on his seat, bringing one leg over his knee. "Does anyone here know who your father is?"

Without thinking much about what the detective meant, Dolph shook his head. "Not that I'm aware of." His mind drifted to his past. A past he'd worked so hard to tuck away deep into the dark corners of his mind. "Just my cousin Luke and his boyfriend Josh."

Detective Vidal nodded and scribbled on his small notebook. "If you don't mind then, I'm sending a couple of my men over to bring them in for questioning." He went on explaining how it was likewise standard procedure and Dolph couldn't bring himself to care what they did as long as it would help find his daughter. Fast. He gave Luke's address and watched as Detective Vidal muttered instructions to one of the cops in uniform.

The interrogation went on and on, stretching minutes to hours and Dolph was on the brink of losing his patience. Chancing a glance at the clock, he made a mental note that another ten minutes had passed. Five more questions were asked. And Dolph could no longer bite his tongue, so… "Am I expected to just sit here and do nothing? I should be out there looking for my daughter."

"Would you know exactly where to look?" Vidal might have meant to sound sarcastic, but he had a point as well. Fairfield may not be a huge town but it wasn't small either. And logically, the kidnappers would certainly not stick around the area where they could easily be tracked.

With his shoulders sagging in defeat, Dolph shook his head. "I feel useless," he muttered, more to himself.

"I could only imagine how you feel. I have a five-year-old daughter myself." The change in Vidal's feature was only momentary but it made Dolph shed a layer of wall around him. "Do you know anyone in the past who could possibly seek revenge on you?" The detective's tone was back in that resolute manner and Dolph wasn't sure why it sounded confusing but he just looked at Vidal blankly. "Bitter rivals, angry ex-girlfriends?"

"I'm gay." The words slipped out of Dolph's mouth on impulse, and the detective looked up from his notebook with a raised eyebrow.

"O…kay," the man said, drawing the word out like he was fumbling for his next question. "How 'bout ex-boyfriends?"

At the mention of 'ex-boyfriends', the image of the man that was once the center of Dolph's life flashed momentarily in his head. No, it couldn't be… not possible was all Dolph could think and it was quite a struggle to shake the image off.

"Mr. Lambert?"

Dolph lifted his eyes. The way the detective looked at him clearly told Dolph that he was waiting for a response. He shook his head. "No. None comes to mind."

"Is the child—" Detective Vidal paused and seemed to be considering his next words carefully. The leg that was resting on his knee slid down as he sat up then cleared his throat before saying, "Is she biologically yours?" His voice was low, sounding wary and calculated. Eyes fixated on Dolph obstinately, as if he was gauging Dolph's reaction.

"Of course" was Dolph's quick response without faltering. He initially thought it was an absurd thing to ask but when Detective Vidal leaned forward, he had a feeling he knew where this inquiry would lead up to.

True to his instincts, the detective did ask, "Where's the child's mother?"

It was a usual question Dolph had been asked a hundred times and he had a fabricated story he'd often use to cover up the truth. But judging from the current situation, lies were not an option.

"The-there is no mother." The truth wasn't that easy to convey, after all, so Dolph naturally stammered. "I'm… I uhm…" Damn, spit it out and get this over with. "I w-was the one who carried and gave birth to her." A sigh of relief or held breath escaped him.

The bewildered expression that masked the detective's face was a reaction Dolph was quite used to. Not that many people knew about his nature. He was grateful, however, when Vidal didn't fuss over the topic. The wordless minutes left him to dwell on the current predicament though.

Dolph's eyes sought out anything he could focus on. Anything that might give him a clue that all this was nothing but a dream, that he'd soon wake up and find his daughter safely tucked in her bed.

Never, in the last three years of his life, did Dolph expect something horrible like this would come crashing into him like an avalanche. There wasn't anything remarkable about his way of living to attract anyone's interest. His life had been nothing but a simple, boring routine – working a few hours in a day and being a dedicated single father for the rest of it.

"The babysitter's story checks out, we managed to speak to several witnesses," a voice broke through Dolph's reverie. One of the uniformed cops was speaking to Detective Vidal.

"I guess we can take her out of the suspect list," Detective Vidal stated while he scribbled on his small notebook that he'd been holding since he stepped into Dolph's home. "Thanks Alex. Let me know if you come up with anything new."

"Suspect list?" The idea of the old baby sitter being a suspect on the kidnapping sounded preposterous. "You mean Mrs. Keener is a suspect?" Dolph raised the query with utmost incredulity.

"Was… a suspect," the detective corrected. "At this point, Mr. Lambert, everyone can be a suspect," he added, his voice back to being hardened and impassive.

"But she's…" Dolph paused, realizing he didn't know how old his daughter's baby sitter was. "What? Fifty? Sixty years old? And she's been my daughter's babysitter for three years. Since she was a baby. How could she possibly be involved?"

"Well." Detective Vidal tapped the tip of the pen on his chin. "There was the possibility she could be a mastermind. Or informant. Luckily, we've just proven that she's unlikely to be involved in any way."

"Dolph?" The babysitter in question walked in, her eyes bloodshot from crying. Her hands, which were still clutching on his little girl's blanket, were visibly shaking. "I—" She sucked in a breath and her shoulders shook before she broke into sobs.

Dolph sprang from his seat and rushed over to the babysitter's side. "Cora, please." She easily fell into his embrace, burying her face into his chest. He wasn't entirely sure what to say. It would be ironic that he would pacify the woman while he himself was having an internal breakdown.

"Uh-I… I should've been m-more careful," she said in between sobs. "I-it was my fault, I'm s-sorry."

"It wasn't your fault. Please don't say that," Dolph coaxed, apparently finding the situation ironic since he was equally devastated. It was his daughter that had been snatched from her nanny's arms for fuck's sake.

"Dolph, what hap—" His cousin, Luke Hamill, walked in with his boyfriend in tow. Words died down from Luke's lips when his eyes fell on Dolph. And Dolph wondered if he looked lurid enough to make his cousin gaze at him with intense worry. "Why were these cops asking me if I've seen Lexie?"

Seconds, maybe minutes, hung without anyone uttering a single peep before Dolph found the courage to enunciate the words that he wore heavy in his heart. "Lexie's been," he started before drawing in a sharp, painful breath, as if he'd run out of air, "Lexie's been kidnapped, Luke."

As soon as the words left his mouth, Dolph felt he had just released the remaining strength that kept him on his feet. With weakened, shaky knees, he took a couple of strides toward the nearest chair and sank on it. Saying what exactly had happened to his daughter seemed like an acknowledgement on his part, which meant that he had finally accepted this was all real.

"Oh God." Luke slid on the chair's arm and wrapped his arm around Dolph's shoulders, pulling Dolph against his side.

"She was snatched from Mrs. Keener while they were taking their usual walk at the park this morning," Dolph explained wearily. There were so many 'shouldn't haves' that he could rally on but he had no strength left to express regret. Besides, he hadn't known what would happen so he couldn't have thought twice about attending a meeting with a potential client.

"The kidnappers might have been observing you for days, learning your routine " was what Officer Vidal had said earlier when Dolph told him there wasn't anything different from their activities that day.

The most baffling thing was, the kidnappers seemed to know when to move in without being detected. A ransom letter was found in Dolph's mailbox during a thorough search around the perimeter. And none of the neighbors could claim they had seen anyone lurking around Dolph's property. The letter contained specific instructions including the amount Dolph was required to surrender in exchange for his daughter's life.

With Luke and Josh around, the investigator at least had someone to divert his attention to and bombard with basically the same rattling questions. Dolph needed a break from what seemed now was a pointless interrogation. It was short-lived though when the detective turned back to him, this time with questions that were more sensitive and personal.

"You said earlier that you had her yourself?" Detective Vidal sounded dubious but he pushed through with whatever he meant to say. Just for the sake of responding, Dolph lowered and raised his head slowly to confirm. "Where is her other father then?" This was what Dolph dreaded.

He should have seen it coming. The only honest answer he could give was "I don't know," which was the same response he gave when Vidal asked where they could find him, where he lived or something to that effect.

"I think I know someone who does." It was Josh who spoke up and all heads turned to him.

"You do?" Luke asked skeptically.

"Yeah." Josh narrated how their common friend, Kris Evans, ran into Brandon in Manhattan not too long ago. So Josh pulled out his phone and called Kris to ask if he knew how to contact Dolph's ex-fiancé.

They all watched Josh nod and mutter "uhuh" every now and then. A bolt of anxiety coursed through Dolph's body when Josh grabbed a notepad from a nearby desk, borrowed Officer Vidal's pen and began scribbling.

When the call ended, Josh tore the sheet of paper from the bundle and handed it to the detective. "Here. I hope this helps."

=====

The typical construction site noises were muffled as soon as the trailer's door was shut close. Brandon Manilow removed his hard hat and wiped the sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand.

"What is it Tracy?" He asked his personal assistant the moment he walked into the inner office.

"These people are here to see you, Mr. Manilow," Tracy said, gesturing to the two men seated on the couch.

Both men stood as if on cue and one spoke, "Mr. Manilow," while he reached into his back pocket. The man pulled out a black leather-looking case and flipped it open to show a steel badge bearing the insignia of the local police department. "I'm Detective Tommy Hansen." Then he gestured over to the other man beside him. "This is my partner Detective Yves Carradine. We were hoping we could have a word with you."

Apprehension gripped on Brandon's guts, not that he was guilty of any crime but was more worried that one of his men might. He could feel creases on his forehead forming. "What's this about?"

"I was actually hoping we could speak in private." The detective's eyes roamed around the room where only Brandon's secretary and two of his architects and the police detectives were present.

Brandon couldn't help but narrow his eyes while he contemplated whether to concede to the request, but he figured if he refused then he would certainly creative a negative impression.

"Sure," Brandon finally acquiesced, lifting one shoulder in a half shrug and took a few steps towards the door leading to his small private office. "So what do you guys wanna know?"

It was Detective Carradine who pushed the door closed behind him. "We just have a few questions to ask. We hope you don't mind."

"If I do mind, will it stop you from asking?" Brandon settled on his plush chair and asked the two men to take their seats as well.

"Honestly? No" was Detective Hansen's response and the hardened façade he wore since Brandon laid eyes on him was somehow alleviated. He flashed Brandon a smile, one that looked menacing rather than friendly.

Of course, Brandon was quick to get the message and he knew the detective wasn't up for playing games. Brandon was just glad that his brain-to-mouth filter was working at the time so he was able to swallow any snide remarks that were swirling around his head.

Detective Hansen began firing questions pertaining to Brandon's whereabouts earlier that day.

"I was at a meeting with a client" was Brandon's response and he nodded in confirmation when the detective returned with "all morning?" Brandon was compelled to give brief details about the meeting but decided to withhold information when he was asked to provide the names of the people he was with. "If I may ask, why are you interested to know who I met with? I feel rather uncomfortable disclosing confidential matters unless you give me a valid reason."

"We just want to make sure your alibi checks out," Detective Hansen explained and he leaned back on his seat, obviously waiting for Brandon to spill out the details they were practically demanding.

"Why would I need an alibi?" The apprehension churning inside him was threatening to erupt now that he'd established the fact that he was the one in the hot seat and this had nothing to do with any of his employees. He quickly dug into the deep recesses of his mind for any possible criminal act, even as little as neglecting parking tickets, that he might have done but he couldn't come up with any.

"You're actually a suspect to a kidnapping, Mr. Manilow." If Detective Hansen didn't look so serious, Brandon would've laughed and thought this was all a practical joke.

"Kidnapping? Who the fuck's been kidnapped?" Now this sparked Brandon's curiosity and instead of feeling infuriated, he began to worry. Someone he probably knew might be the victim, and he hoped to God it wasn't any of his family.

"I'll let you know once I have your story validated," Detective Hansen stated resolutely. Brandon seemed to have been left with no choice but to concede to the detective's request. After he'd given the names of the people he was with early that day, Detective Carradine stepped out of the room.

It was a bit uncomfortable being left inside the small room alone with Detective Hansen. The other police detective appeared to be more genial and he seemed to diffuse any discomfort that Detective Hansen caused.

"Are you ever gonna tell me what this is all about?" Brandon did not bother hiding his now growing annoyance.

The detective's lips thinned and stretched into a mischievous smirk. "Patience, Mr. Manilow. Patience."

It felt like a lifetime before Detective Carradine returned to Brandon's office. "Well," he began, pulling the seat across from Detective Hansen, "your story checked out. I've spoken with all the people whose names you've given and they did confirm where you were." He turned his gaze to his partner. "He's definitely covered until two this afternoon.

"But that doesn't get him off the hook yet." Detective Hansen leaned on Brandon's table. "You may not have done it yourself, Mr. Manilow. But we couldn't ignore the possibility that you could be an accomplice or a mastermind even, and had someone else snatch the Lambert kid for you."

"Accomplice? What the fuck? Why in the world —" Something in Detective Hansen's words suddenly struck a chord. "Wait. Did you say Lambert kid?" The detective's nod barely registered. Tide of memories from a past he'd practically closed his doors on suddenly engulfed him. Dolph, he thought. Much as he didn't want to be reminded of the man who had ripped his heart apart, a tinge of concern surfaced. "Oh God. You mean Dolph's been kidnapped?"

"I'm sorry?" Detective Hansen tilted his head, his eyebrows meeting at the center.

"Dolph? You said the Lambert kid was snatched." It was only then Brandon wondered whether it was Dolph they were referring to. But who else could it be? Dolph was the only Lambert kid he knew and his father couldn't possibly be the kid Hansen meant.

But the detective shook his head. "No, Brandon. Mind if I call you Brandon?" When Brandon told him it was fine, Detective Hansen carried on. "It wasn't Dolph Lambert who had gone missing. It was…" He paused and drew his eyebrows together. "You don't know, do you?"

"Know what?"

=====

'Surprised' would have been somewhat an understatement; a milder reaction to the news and what struck Brandon was beyond the categories of 'surprised'. Too shocked to speak, he hadn't said a word since they left Pittsburgh. His brain was rather busy trying to form something out of the thousand thoughts floating inside his head.

Dolph has a daughter.

When Detective Hansen revealed that it was Dolph's daughter who had been abducted, the wheels in Brandon's head started spinning. It seemed that the detective had more to say but he obviously held back when he stated, "I don't think I'm in the position to disclose any other information," which left Brandon utterly intrigued.

The scene played back in Brandon's head. The police detective stood at a corner of Brandon's office when he made a call. But Brandon could still hear him utter, "I don't think he knows" and "what do I do?" Everything else had been a blur.

Brandon did, however, recalled agreeing to go with the detective but whether he was informed where their destination would be, he couldn't remember. He shook himself out of his musing and for the first time since they started the long drive, he began to pay heed to the road signs that stood every few meters along the side of the highway. He blinked when he saw one that read: 'Welcome to Fairfield' .

Fairfield. Fairfield. Brandon's mind struggled to get a grip on why the place sounded familiar. He was certain he hadn't been there before. But something about the name of the place seemed to pull a thread off of his web of memories.

His mind once more wandered off, inevitably falling back to where his thoughts had been earlier.

Dolph has a daughter. The voice inside his head recited it like a mantra, something he needed to do so that the reality would sink in. Dolph has a daughter.

Brandon couldn't help but wonder if he really knew Dolph well enough. As far as he could remember, between the two of them, Dolph was admittedly straight gay and wasn't the least bit interested in women. Had he changed?

Buried deep in his own thoughts, Brandon hadn't noticed that the vehicle had stopped until he heard the door open. Detective Hansen had stepped out and Brandon pondered if he should follow. They were parked in front of a bungalow house. A few police cars were lined along the side of the paved road. When he got out, his eyes wandered around the neighborhood, noting the simplicity and the homey atmosphere it projected.

He saw Detective Hansen saunter along the driveway where a couple of cops and two men in civilian clothes stood. It didn't take Brandon long enough to realize that the men who weren't wearing uniforms were not police officers at all. Brandon recognized them as Dolph's cousin Luke and his boyfriend Josh. No wonder why Fairfield sounded familiar. Brandon remembered hearing several times that this was where Josh lived when he met him and Luke back in New York.

There was no need for Brandon to ask whom else he would find. The moment he stepped into the cozy little house his eyes immediately fell on the person sitting on the couch, hugging a stuffed animal against his chest. The young man abruptly looked up and their gazes locked. Brandon could feel his heart pounding wildly against his ribcage.

Despite his tear-streaked face, Dolph still looked beautiful as he remembered. And the state Dolph was in made him look vulnerable like he did at most times when they were still together. The eyes that were as blue as the deep sea were stained with streaks of red. When Dolph saw him, his eyes started to shine with unshed tears, pale lips trembled while they moved, seemingly struggling to form a word.

"Brandon." It sounded more like someone was calling out to him in a dream when his name slipped out like a silent prayer past Dolph's lips. And Brandon rummaged through his nearly paralyzed brain to form a response, something noteworthy to fill in the black hole that years without contact had created.

"Hey." Brandon could just imagine how stupid he must've looked when he stood motionless near the door.

If Detective Hansen hadn't said, "Maybe you'd like to take a seat," Brandon wouldn't have thought of moving from his spot. But he was afraid that if he dared move, the restraints that had kept his heart in place for years might break and he would fall helplessly under Dolph's charm.

But then Dolph moved aside as if expecting Brandon to sit beside him. And Brandon could just feel the restraints melting away. He kept a good distance between him and Dolph though when he settled on the couch, and was glad that he had to divert his attention to the man who introduced himself as Detective Vidal.

The people around Brandon took turns in giving a rundown about the kidnapping, even Luke and Josh. But he couldn't ignore the fact that Luke appeared to be indignant of his presence. Despite the details he'd gathered, there was still one thing that Brandon couldn't fathom.

"I don't mean to be insensitive but…" Brandon met Dolph's eyes, hoping that his ex-fiancé would be able to give him a straightforward answer. "I don't see what any of this has to do with me." The pain that reflected on Dolph's face was unbearable so Brandon had to shift his gaze over to the detectives. "I mean, how did I become a suspect in the first place?"

It was as if Brandon had chanted a spell that had rendered everyone mute. He could sense the exchanged looks between the other occupants of the room. What the fuck is going on?

"We could leave the room if you wish," Detective Vidal told Dolph, who shook his head and with a gruff voice, had asked everyone to stay.

"I don't even know where to start, Brandon," Dolph said, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat before he went on. "Lexie is…" His eyes darted across the room before meeting Brandon's once more. "Lexie is your," he paused, swiftly gliding the tip of his tongue across his upper lip before softly muttering, "she's your daughter."

The words were clear enough, regardless of how Dolph's voice was almost inaudible. But it took a while for the meaning to seep into Brandon's psyche. And among the million questions that swirled around his head, what came out was, "Can I have a glass of water?"

Brandon was half-expecting someone would just grab what he'd asked for and hand it to him, but instead, he felt a tug on his arm. He wasn't strong enough at the time to resist so he went along and later found himself in a cramped kitchen with Luke and Josh.

"I just," Josh began, crossing his arms against his chest. "I just don't think any inappropriate reaction from you would help ease Dolph's trauma at the moment."

"Dolph's trauma? What about my trauma?" Brandon tried his best not to raise his voice, but he couldn't help it if his tone has somewhat taken an ascent.

It was Luke who spoke next. "I know this… this news might have come as a shock to you."

Light laughter rippled through Brandon's chest. "Shock, Luke? I am beyond shocked! Now quit beating around the bush and tell me how the fuck did Dolph's daughter end up being mine."

"Will you please just lower your voice?" Josh chastised. Both men did nothing but stare at Brandon for a while before Luke finally cleared his throat.

"Dolph has a condition." Luke heaved a sigh and leaned against the kitchen counter. "He's got this some sort of extra chromosomes or something. I forgot what it's called. I'm not a medical person, you know." He waved his hand perhaps to give emphasis to what he was saying. "To make it simple though, Dolph was born with a female uterus, he's not a hermaphrodite because his dual reproductive system is only internal."

This revelation reminded Brandon that Dolph did mention having imbalanced chromosomes years past. "Does this have anything to do with why he was regularly taking hormone treatment before?"

"Mhmm." Luke nodded. "Specifically androgen treatment. The doctors claimed it would help render that single female part of him useless. But some sick substitute of his regular doctor decided to reverse the treatment and gave him some sort of fertilization thing. If I remember correctly, I think it was specifically designed to stimulate the ovaries." Brandon gaped at Luke, who rolled his eyes and said, "Yes Brandon, Dolph has ovaries too. He told me about the time he bled, when you were at a romantic fuck away in the Bahamas. I'm sure you remember that."

"I thought I was just being rough on him," Brandon said thoughtfully.

Both Luke and Josh sniggered. "Of course, it was a perfect excuse," Josh said, slightly shaking his head. "But to make the story short, that was when Lexie was conceived. By the time Dolph's real doctor returned from his international convention, you whisked him away to Bahamas for more than a month so no one really knew what was happening to him, even Dolph himself."

"But he left me after that." Bitter memories had resurfaced. "Why didn't he tell me?"

"He tried Brandon." Luke's face had turned solemn. "He tried. But he said you ignored all his attempts."

This was all fucked up. Brandon was about to say so but then the shrill ringing of the phone – the landline phone (fuck, does anybody still use that?) – made him jolt. The first thought that rushed through him was, shit, the kidnappers. When Brandon gazed at Luke and Josh, both men might have been thinking the same thing since they both uttered "oh God" and Luke added, "That must be them. The ransom letter says they have the number here and that they would call to give more instructions."

Dolph was clutching on the handset, earpiece pressed against his ear when Brandon, Luke and Josh returned to the living room. The cops were all on their feet, a couple of them stood by a table with what Brandon guessed was a tracking equipment on top.

A choked "yes" was all Dolph uttered repeatedly throughout the call. Then Dolph finally blurted, "Wait, I want to talk to her, please, just to make sure she's alright." Then Brandon watched as Dolph drew in a breath and released it a desperate "no." He dropped the handset and fell weakly back on the couch.

When Dolph's shoulders began to shake, Brandon found himself rushing to his side. Brandon's arms were instantly around Dolph, pulling him close and guiding Dolph's head over his shoulder. He felt Dolph's hand clung tightly on his shirt as he sobbed.

"I want my baby back" were the whispered words breathed against his neck. "I want our baby back, Brandon."

Fuck, this shit is real.

All Brandon could do was make 'shushing' sounds, rub circles on Dolph's back and whisper words to assure him that they would get their baby back. And the mere fact that he'd acknowledged the little girl as their daughter bowled him over.

Once Dolph had calmed down, a man who had introduced himself as Sergeant Dano Sulik came up to them.

"Mr. Lambert," Sgt. Sulik bent enough to level himself with Dolph, who was still clinging on Brandon's shirt. "We now have instructions from the kidnappers." The sergeant went on explaining that they could procure fake bills to use as ransom and rely on their confidence that they would get Dolph's child back. "But there are risks."

"Risks?' Brandon quickly reacted. "What kind of risk are we talking about here?"

Sgt. Sulik pointed out that they hadn't been in contact long enough with the kidnappers to help them determine how these felons would operate. "There are some who are wise enough to identify fake bills and it usually ended up with unpleasant encounters."

"I-I don't want that," Dolph nearly gagged on his words.

"Of course," the sergeant said. "Which brings us to our second option. To raise the money, we might need your father's help."

"No." Brandon was taken aback when Dolph bolted upright. "We're not getting my father involved." The resoluteness in the way Dolph had spoken was something Brandon had never seen in him before.

"How much is the ransom anyway?" Brandon asked.

Dolph settled back on the couch, half leaning on Brandon when he dejectedly stated, "Five hundred thousand dollars."

Brandon was about to say, "I can come up with that amount" but then Sgt. Sulik interjected before he even had a chance to utter a single word. The sergeant had told Dolph that he already had someone contact Councilor Devlin Lambert.

"How could you?" was all Dolph could mumble before he buried his face in his hands, his elbows resting on his knees.

There were so many words of comfort Brandon could offer, but all he could do was reach out and squeeze Dolph's shoulder. Dolph lifted his head, eyes filled with vulnerability that Brandon was so familiar with. And fuck. Just as he feared, it was luring him in. But Brandon chose not to fight it right then. There were more important things that he should focus on. He just learned he had a daughter. And his daughter had been kidnapped.

"Would you," Dolph's voice dragged Brandon out of his rumination. "Would you like to see her pictures?"

It didn't take a genius to figure out that Dolph was referring to their daughter. And he was up before Brandon had a chance to fully nod. Dolph came back with a large album, resting it gently over Brandon's lap. An embossed pink nameplate glistened at the cover, which read: Alexa Kamile Lambert.

Dolph was the one who lifted the cover, showing the first page filled with photos of a tiny infant lying in what looked like a hospital nursery crib. Brandon felt a pang in his heart. He had missed this, had missed the first days of his own child's life.

"This was taken at the nursery. Josh took the pictures." There was a slight tremble in Dolph's voice that was hard to miss and Brandon could tell he was trying his best not to cry.

Brandon took over flipping the pages, each side were filled with captured moments of the little girl who seemed to look more like him as she grew up. As if reading his mind, Dolph said, "She looks so much like you, you know. Everything about her, she got it from you. Her laugh, her smile, her eyes." Dolph's thoughts seemed to drift away, his fingers tracing the edge of a photo of the beautiful child hugging a stuffed animal.

Ever so gently, Brandon placed his hand on top of Dolph's. He gave him a tiny squeeze and said, "We'll get her back, Dolph. I'm with you on this."


II –

The day wore on and it was dusk when Dolph's father had arrived. In a fucking limousine. It irritated Dolph to no end that his dad had chosen to come in a limousine with a handful of bodyguards who came riding in a black SUV and dressed like a bunch of secret service agents.

So much for living inconspicuously. There would be a hell lot of explaining to do with the neighbors about one – why there were police officers swarming around his place, and two – who the man was that came in an elegant car.

"Dolph, what did I tell you?" Devlin Lambert's voice bounced off the walls when he stormed into the tiny living room, poised and seemingly ready to lash out with I-told-you-so lectures. But whatever his next words were failed to come out when his eyes landed on Brandon, who had just gotten back from the kitchen with a glass of water. "What the fuck is that son of a bastard doing here?"

"I asked for him to be here, Dad," Dolph said in Brandon's defense.

A menacing shadow gleamed across the surface of his father's eyes. "Of course. Now he's going to think he could just hop back into your life, into my granddaughter's life."

"Lexie is his daughter too, Dad; he has every right to be here." The growing tension was beginning to take its toll on Dolph and he wished his father would just drop off whatever he came for and leave right away. But he knew that was impossible. "Dad, please," Dolph said, not even giving his father a chance to let out a single peep. A quick glance at Brandon alerted him that the other man was trying to control his temper, his hand forming into a fist at his side. "I just want to get Lexie back."

The directive was for Dolph to bring the money, which was supposed to be placed in a nondescript plastic bag, then leave it in a garbage bin nearest the side entrance of the town church at exactly seven o' clock that evening. It was half an hour away.

"The kidnappers know the police have been contacted," Dolph told his father when he began instructing a couple of his bodyguards to go with Dolph. "So they specifically said that there shouldn't be any police officers or some other form of authority tagging along. If they see these guys with me—"

"You are NOT going alone, do you hear me?" was Devlin's brash reaction, his face a mask of pure rigidity.

"Of course he's not going alone." Brandon was quick to interrupt. Damn hell if he'd stand back and let Dolph go through this alone. There wasn't any time to ponder if he was being rational. The truth now stood that it was his daughter's life hanging on a thread. "I'm going with him."

After wasting some fifteen precious minutes debating ("The kidnappers specifically said no police officer or any form of authority; well, I'm neither," Brandon had argued so Dolph had no choice but to say, "Fine. Just stay low and keep out of sight.") Dolph and Brandon made their way to the site with Brandon driving Dolph's old hatchback.

"You should get a new car," Brandon said as he turned to the street where the church stood. There was a diner beside the church so there were a few patrons loitering around. Dolph feared that some curious bystander might poke through the bag and ruin the entire operation. But he knew better than to underestimate the kidnappers, even if Detective Vidal or Sgt. Sulik insisted that the simplicity of the process suggested that these kidnappers were nothing more but amateurs.

Dolph could care less whether the kidnappers they were dealing with were amateurs or professionals. The point still stood that as long as his three-year-old child was in the hands of these people, they were considered dangerous and Dolph certainly wasn't taking any risks.

The garbage bin was in a dimly lit alley. Dolph surveyed the area warily before he did as instructed, dropping the blue plastic bag containing half a million dollars inside. The police gave him an assurance that the place would be kept under surveillance. He reluctantly returned to the car and could tell that Brandon was equally reluctant to drive away.

Waiting was the hardest part. Driving around aimlessly was making Dolph edgy. So when his cell phone went off almost an hour later and the screen only showed 'unknown number', he quickly pressed the button to receive the call with trembling fingers. "Hello," he said and a silent prayer went along with it.

"Well played, Mr. Lambert," a deep, modulated voice spoke. The way every syllable was articulated made the person sound creepy. "You shall find your daughter at the back of the slide at the community park over at Speers."

After the call, Dolph told Brandon exactly what the kidnapper had said. And Brandon stepped on the gas, speeding up across Fairfield over to the next town with Dolph giving directions every once in a while.

The kidnappers, however, were one step ahead of them. When Dolph called Detective Vidal to let him know where they were headed, he learned in return that Sgt. Sulik's men had lost track of the hooded person who retrieved the money from the bin.

"I'll have Sgt. Sulik send some of his men over," Detective Vidal was saying but Dolph was quick to interrupt.

"No!" He remembered the kidnapper's strict instruction that there shouldn't be any police around. Having Brandon with him was risk enough as it was, and that was exactly what he'd told the detective.

No more words were uttered during the rest of the drive.

When they reached the small town of Speers, Dolph struggled to recall where the playground was and when it finally came to view, Dolph didn't even wait for the car to come to a full stop. He quickly jumped out and sprinted over, searching for the slides. It was dark and quite late, so the ground was empty with just a few residents walking a few feet away. A silhouette was hunched behind one of the smaller slides and Dolph could hear the little whimpers. It made him run even faster and when he was a few feet away he slowed down, not wanting to startle his little girl.

"Lexie?" he called out softly. And when the little head lifted to reveal a tear-streaked cherubic face, Dolph took large strides and swept her into his arms. "Oh God, baby. Daddy's here. Daddy's here now." He buried his face on her dark brown hair, breathing in her scent.

The sound of a car horn reminded Dolph that he needed to get his daughter out of the cold night air. He rushed back to the car where Brandon had stepped out to open the back door for them.

Soon they were on the road once more with Brandon constantly glancing through the rear view mirror and asking how Lexie was.

"I'd like to bring her to her pediatrician to make sure she's alright," Dolph said once they reached Fairfield. He wouldn't take any chances, not with his daughter. He'd placed a call to Dr. Bonnet, who told him they could meet at the local town hospital. Dolph gave Brandon directions.

Not long after, they had pulled up near the entrance to the emergency department and Dolph got out, telling Brandon to "meet us inside after you've parked the car, okay? And please call Detective Vidal, let him know we've got Lexie."

With Lexie tucked safely against his chest and his arms protectively wrapped around her, Dolph went straight to the nurse at the front desk and asked for Dr. Sebastian Bonnet.

"The doctor called in to let us know you were coming, Mr. Lambert," the nurse said. She led him to an empty cubicle at the emergency ward, told him to lay his daughter on the bed, then pulled the curtain close around them.

The moment Dolph started to pull away from Lexie, the toddler squealed and clutched tightly on his jacket. Dolph swept her up and rocked her in place when she began to cry. "Sshh. It's okay, sweetie, Daddy's here. Daddy's not gonna leave you." He pressed a kiss on her temple, and Dolph drew in a breath.

The nurse was watching them when Dolph glanced her way, one hand still clasped on the curtain. "Dr. Bonnet has told me briefly what happened. She's most likely still in shock. I suggest you keep her close for a while." She offered a sympathetic smile. "I've seen similar cases, Mr. Lambert. And in most, children at that age recover pretty well in time."

"In time," Dolph murmured under his breath. He nearly jumped in place when the curtain was drawn back and a blond man wearing a white robe stepped into their little space. "Dr. Bonnet."

"Hey, Dolph." The doctor's eyes flicked instantly to the toddler in Dolph's arms. "Hiya Lexie, how's my little princess?"

The little girl lifted her head up from Dolph's chest and gaped at the doctor, her brown eyes wide. She shoved her thumb inside her mouth and Dolph could hear the little suckling noises she made.

The routine examination proved to be quite a task when Lexie refused to let go of Dolph's shirt. Dolph had to lean into the bed half the time to assure her that he wasn't going to leave. It took a good part of the hour to get everything done – x-ray, blood samples, skin tests and some other procedures that Dolph could no longer keep track of.

"I don't see any physical injury other than the scrape on her elbow. She'll be fine once the shock wears off," Dr. Bonnet said then added that it was perfectly all right to bring her home. "Although I'm a bit more concerned with how this ordeal will affect her psychologically." The fact that Lexie seemed to cling more to Dolph than normal made her pediatrician worry. Dr. Bonnet scribbled something on a pad then tore off the top sheet and handed it to Dolph. "I suggest you see Dr. Paulik and have him evaluate her."

There were a couple of policemen waiting for them at the receiving area and a woman who claimed she was a social worker. They asked Dr. Bonnet several questions before one of the policemen turned to Dolph. "We could provide you escort all the way to your home."

Dolph's "thank you" sounded nonchalant, but he was too tired to care.

Brandon was at the waiting room pacing around like he was trying to dig a hole on the floor. As soon as Dolph stepped out with Lexie still in his arms, Brandon rushed over to them. "How is she? What did the doctor say? Is she going to be all right?"

"Not a scratch, not a bruise." Dolph simply reiterated what Dr. Bonnet had said. "Can we go home?" He could no longer hide the weariness in his voice. He was just too exhausted – emotionally, mentally and physically.

=====

It was pretty late by the time they got back to Dolph's house. The place was only half as chaotic as it was when they left.

Some of the officers were reportedly surveying the areas where the ransom money was dropped and likewise where Lexie was found. Among the few people who stayed behind, Brandon was disgruntled that Dolph's father was one of them. His annoyance only heightened when the man opened his mouth.

"Dolph! How is she? Is she hurt? Does she have any bruises? Scratches?" Brandon gritted his teeth while Devlin Lambert fussed over Lexie. The insincerity in the man's voice could clearly be distinguished and Brandon remembered that it was one of the many things he hated about the man.

Dolph settled on the couch with Lexie on his lap. The toddler was sucking her thumb, her face buried against Dolph's chest. Brandon hadn't had a chance to get a good look at her since she had been pressed up against Dolph from the time they picked her up at the playground.

"Dad, please." Dolph pulled Lexie closer, using his arm to keep his father at a distance. "You're scaring her even more."

"You should come home with me." Devlin was quick to suggest and Brandon did his best not to roll his eyes or huff in annoyance. The manipulative bastard would, of course, take advantage of the situation and tap into Dolph's vulnerability. "You're not safe here. Who knows if those kidnappers won't come back seeing as they got away pretty quickly?"

"What? No." The glare Dolph threw at his father was rather disconcerting and if Brandon would have been on the receiving end, he would certainly recoil.

"I'm afraid I will have to agree with your father, Dolph," Detective Vidal spoke up, settling himself on the chair across from Dolph. "The fact that these people got away without any trace only proves that they're not amateurs."

Brandon was tempted to say 'this likewise proves that you're all good-for-nothing amateurs as well' but thought better not to challenge the detective.

"Do it for Lexie's sake, Dolph. It's for her own safety," Devlin coaxed and Brandon could just hear the hidden shrewdness in those words.

Punching someone sounded like a good idea at the moment, preferably Devlin.

Dolph's eyes darted everywhere. It was quite palpable that he was about to be consumed with whatever internal battle he was going through in his head. And Brandon's heart sank when Dolph's gaze shifted to him. The word 'help' seemed to flash across the surface of Dolph's deep blue eyes.

"I'll stay here with them." Brandon had no clue what just slipped out of his mouth but it was too late to take it back because everyone in the room was looking at him. "I'll make sure they're safe for the night."

The unmistakable anger blazed through Devlin's eyes. He glared at Brandon like some crazed animal that was about to kill its prey. "How can we be so sure that you did not plan this all along? That you did not orchestrate this kidnapping so you can get Dolph back in your miserable life?"

"I'm sorry?" Brandon's eyebrow arched up and he dared not look away. "But I think you have this the other way around." His hand waved between him and Devlin.

"What's that supposed to mean you good-for-nothing—"

"Dad!" Dolph's voice was loud enough to silence the entire town, leaving Devlin flabbergasted. "Please. Just…" Lexie grumbled and squirmed against Dolph's hold but quickly quieted down when Dolph pressed his lips on top of her head, making shushing sounds. "Please, Dad. I want to stay here. I don't want Lexie to be some place not familiar. She had enough of that for one day." It was spoken with a certain resoluteness that Brandon had rarely seen in Dolph.

"Son, I just want you and Lexie to be safe, that's all."

"I know that, Dad. But let me do this my way." Dolph shifted his attention to Sgt. Sulik who was standing behind Detective Vidal. "Will it be all right if a couple of your men stay around and maybe patrol the area just for the night, Sergeant?"

"You don't need to ask, Mr. Lambert—"

"Please. Call me Dolph."

"Dolph." The sergeant gave a curt nod and went on to explain that he was obliged to leave at least two of his men to stand guard.

"Thank you," Dolph told the sergeant before turning to his father. "Brandon can stay. I really appreciate it if everyone else will leave though. No offense." The last words were directed to Luke and Josh who were both silently observing the scene from the corner of the room.

"Can we stay a while, help clean up at least?" Luke was just as stubborn as Dolph, no doubt, and he had this look on his face that he wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. Luckily, Dolph assented and, much to Devlin's chagrin, he had requested Sgt. Sulik to escort everyone out of the house. Det. Vidal had informed Dolph and, to Brandon's surprise, him as well that he would be contacting them once they came up with any information about the kidnappers before joining his colleagues outside.

As Dolph had agreed, Luke and Josh remained along with the babysitter, Mrs. Keener. While the others were busy cleaning up, picking up Styrofoam cups from every table, Dolph excused himself. "I'll just get Lexie ready for bed." Mrs. Keener took the child from his arms and followed the babysitter to Lexie's room.

"Do you need any help?" Brandon didn't want to impose, didn't want to jump right into his ex-fiancé and his daughter's daily routine, but he thought offering help was the polite thing to do.

"It's okay." Indifference suddenly veiled over Dolph's face, his eyes not meeting Brandon's. "Can… can you just… I mean if you don't mind, help Luke and Josh?"

"Okay." At least Dolph wasn't asking him to leave, wasn't pushing him away.

It was way after midnight when Mrs. Keener, Luke and Josh left. They'd bidden Dolph, who had been stuck at Lexie's room for hours, 'good night'. Brandon was so tempted to take a peek in Lexie's room to let Dolph know he had locked up and ask if there were anything else that needed to be done. But he felt that setting even a foot at the hallway leading to the bedrooms was crossing the line.

Privacy was something sort of sacred to Dolph. And even if he and Brandon had a past, and a living reminder in a form of a little girl to go along with it, there were still four years of nothing but a void that stood between them.

Defeated by exhaustion and unwillingness to indulge in a debate with his conscience, Brandon resigned himself to turning in for the night. It was only logical that he should settle on the couch and was about to recline when Dolph's voice startled him.

"What are you doing?"

"Uh." Brandon paused, his back hovering above the cushion. "About to get some sleep? I-is there something you need?"

The soft beam from the desk lamp touched the prominent curves of Dolph's cheeks when he took a couple of steps closer, saying, "No. What I meant was…" He paused a moment, gaze dropping on the floor. Then the tip of his tongue peeked through the tiny gap between his lips, gliding from one corner to the other. "You don't have to sleep here in the couch, you know. You can sleep in my room. I'll just," he said, waving his hand, gesturing at the hallway, "I'll just stay in Lexie's room."

The alarm in Brandon's head went off. Bad idea. Bad idea, the voice from deep within his conscious mind chided. "I'm perfectly fine here, Dolph. But thanks for the offer."

It was through Dolph's glazed eyes that Brandon belatedly realized he must've sounded dry and distant. He was thinking of a way to backpedal but Dolph suddenly spoke. "Are you sure? I don't have the coziest couch, I'm afraid."

"I'm sure. Couch is fine with me." If Brandon's attitude was in any way offending him, then he had to applaud Dolph for acting unaffected. Or maybe he was oblivious to Brandon's indifference. Or Dolph probably didn't give a care about Brandon's mood at all.

"Well, good night then." There was a light spring in Dolph's tone and this just reminded Brandon that his ex-fiancé had patience longer than the River Nile. A most notable characteristic Dolph possessed, considering he had to put up with his father during his younger years. That train of thought pulled out another string of questions Brandon wanted to ask, but Dolph was walking back to his room. Or Lexie's room. So Brandon just made a mental note to ask in the morning.

"Good night, Dolph," he murmured to the dimly lit room. As soon as he closed his eyes, images of Dolph poured into his thoughts.

=====

A high-pitched scream roused Dolph. He bolted upright, the sound still ringing in his ears. The bed was shaking. His mind went overdrive and was about to jump out, thinking there was an earthquake but—

"Cartuns! Cartuns!" Lexie cried out while bouncing on top of the mattress. "Daddy! Daddy! Spunch Bob!"

"Alright! Alright!" Dolph pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes and groaned. "Lexie. Stop bouncing around, sweetie. You're gonna give Daddy a headache." He blinked. The sun was barely up but it wasn't anything unusual for his daughter to wake up that early. "Let's get you some breakfast first before you watch any cartoons, okay?"

"Nonono!" The protest was clearly expressed when Lexie threw her body across the bed and began waving her arms and kicking at the same time, chanting, "Nonono! Cartuns!"

Now that was something unusual. Lexie had never thrown tantrums. Not even when Dolph had been warned about terrible-twos, which he never saw happen.

"Okay, okay." It probably was a bad idea to give in to his daughter's demands while in her current state, but damn, he certainly didn't have the heart to practice Child Discipline 101 right at that moment. Not after what Lexie had been through. Reaching out, he gathered his daughter in his arms. "How 'bout watching cartoons and having breakfast at the same time?"

Dolph could only sigh in relief when Lexie agreed. "Pancakes?" The little girl peered into him with pleading eyes.

"Pancakes it is."

They were walking past the living room when Dolph caught sight of a hump at the couch through the corner of his eye. Before he could say anything, Lexie asked, "Who's that?" while pointing at the sleeping figure. Dolph was about to shush her but Brandon had already stirred.

Brandon sat up and brought both his arms up then stretched. A small smile formed on his lips when he glanced Dolph's way. "Mornin'," he managed to say before he broke into a yawn.

"I'm sorry. Were we too loud?" Dolph asked sheepishly. Seeing Brandon with his hair tousled and eyes barely open reminded Dolph how he loved seeing him in the morning.

"No. S'okay." Brandon's voice was a bit gruff and laced with sleep. Then he smiled at Lexie and said, "Hey sweetie." But Lexie pressed herself against the side of Dolph's thigh, her little arm wound around it while the thumb on her other hand found its way into her mouth.

Dolph ruffled her dark brown hair. "Baby, that's Brandon. He's…" He fumbled for the right words, uncertain whether he should drop the bomb on her or gradually introduce her other father. It wasn't something he was prepared for. He never really expected that he would see Brandon again, not that soon at least.

"I'm a friend of your daddy's," Brandon supplied then the corner of his lips curled up and Dolph couldn't seem to pry his eyes away. "I hope we can be friends too." Brandon continued to speak to Lexie and seemed to be working his way into the little girl's heart.

Lexie tilted her head, her eyes boring into Dolph's like she was seeking for his approval. So Dolph simply smiled at her reassuringly and nodded.

The grip around Dolph's thigh loosened and the thumb wedged inside Lexie's mouth slipped out. A tentative, shy small smile teased at Lexie's lips when she met Brandon's gaze. With uncoordinated, toddler steps, she walked over to Brandon and said, "You like pancakes?"

It was heartwarming to watch Brandon wait a few heartbeats before saying, "I love pancakes," quite animatedly. Dolph remembered seeing him interact with children before and that was one of the things he found endearing. So it wasn't a surprise to see his usually shy and timid daughter bond with Brandon instantly. Or maybe it had something to do with the common theory of being blood-related. Whatever it was, he felt his heart swell when Lexie tugged at Brandon's arm, asking him to get up and join her for breakfast.

"You've grown taller." The low drone in Brandon's voice sent waves of prickling along Dolph's skin. And it took a while before he could react.

"I did?" The split-second moment that Dolph's eyes met Brandon's made his heartbeat race. Dolph was quick to look away and pretended to be preoccupied with the pancake he had cooking in the pan.

"Yeah." Brandon moved closer, leaning against the kitchen counter. The proximity made Dolph nervous, making his hands a bit uncoordinated. He spilled a few drops of the batter on the stove before the rest of it made it safely into the hot pan. And when Brandon said, "Yeah. I see we're the same height now. I remember you being a couple of inches shorter," then leaned toward Dolph to emphasize what he meant, the grip Dolph had around the pan's handle tightened.

Personal space! Personal space! Dolph's mind screamed, hoping that Brandon would get the message. "Uhm…" Dolph wanted to break the awkwardness that spanned between them but his brain must've frozen because he couldn't think of a single word to say. Having Brandon close by stirred up emotions and thoughts that Dolph thought he'd long buried deep in his core.

"Branen!" The shrill voice of his daughter startled Dolph out of his thoughts and he jerked, grazing his finger against the side of the hot pan.

"Ow." Dolph stuffed the burned finger in his mouth on impulse, but then Brandon grabbed Dolph's wrist.

"Don't do that, let me see," Brandon coaxed while he tugged on Dolph's wrist gently, pulling the injured finger out of Dolph's lips.

Dolph gave an involuntary shudder when Brandon leaned in to look at the burn closely, only half aware that Lexie was tugging at the hem of his shirt, and her whines of "Daddy, Daddy, you hurt? Wanna see, wanna see" vaguely registered in his about-to-explode brain.

"No, sweetie," both Dolph and Brandon said and their eyes met. Dolph could feel his lips curving up, reflecting the smile that formed on Brandon's lips. "Sorry about uhm… about Lexie" was Dolph's lame attempt to break the awkwardness that was creeping in between them. "She can be persuasive at times."

Brandon still had one hand wrapped around Dolph's when he turned to Lexie, who was tugging on Brandon's shirt this time and was saying, "Come Branen, let's watch T.V.! Come!"

"Later, sweetie. I'll put a band-aid on Daddy's finger first, okay?" When Lexie finally agreed and ran out of the kitchen, Brandon's gaze returned to Dolph. "I see what you mean," he said. "I guess she got that from you." Something flickered across Brandon's eyes, which Dolph interpreted as mischief.

"Excuse me?" It was quite a task not to grin but Dolph played along, thinking it was helping ease his nerves. "From what I remember, you were the more persuasive one."

"Really?" One corner of Brandon's lip turned up into a playful smirk. "As far as I can recall, you were pretty much persistent at everything. Remember Bahamas?" He was teasing now. But he was likewise verging on a dangerous territory.

The past.

Something was then triggered in Dolph's memory, switching on the slide show of a past he chose to forget all shaded in gray. In a lowered voice, he muttered, "Of course I remember. That was the time Lexie was conceived." It was also his last memory of being happy with Brandon before his life completely changed its course, but Dolph didn't go further down that road.

"Yeah." Brandon's voice turned soft. And distant. The hand around Dolph's wrist pulled away. "Do you have something for the burn?"

Allowing the moment to distract him, Dolph pointed at the first-aid cabinet on the wall and watched as Brandon fumbled through it until he found the burn ointment.

Tingles ran up Dolph's arm when Brandon took his hand once more. It was only then that Dolph noticed the red blotch on the side of his finger. Brandon carefully dabbed the cotton tip covered with ointment along the surface.

"What happened, Dolph?" Brandon said while attending to Dolph's injury. Dolph had no clue what Brandon meant and Dolph was about to ask but then Brandon spoke once more. "Why did you suddenly change your mind about us when we got back from Bahamas? I thought…" Dolph turned to meet Brandon's gaze when he paused. "I thought you agreed to marry me."

The anguish that once crippled Dolph was back swirling in his chest when he saw Brandon's eyes glassy and filled with so much pain. Guilt crept out of his core. Dolph knew he caused that pain, because he had been weak. Because he had been stupid.

"It's a long story." Dolph pulled his hand away and went back to his earlier task. He stared at the stove, wondering when he turned it off and when he emptied the pan. Brandon must've done it when Dolph was busy trying to suck the heat off his finger

"I have time." Brandon grabbed the coffee pot and refilled his mug.

"You have to understand though, I was young. Stupid. I still believed in everything Dad said." Dolph heard Brandon snort. "He—"

"Daddy, I'm hungry." Lexie stood by the entryway with her thumb shoved in her mouth.

"It's almost done, baby," Dolph told his daughter and she nodded before disappearing once more. The batter in the pan turned bubbly and Dolph slid the metal spatula underneath and flipped it. "Uhm..." He began when Brandon prompted him to continue what he was saying, "He threatened to have you arrested. For kidnapping. Or… or sexually abusing a minor. I…" He turned only to see Brandon staring at him like he had just said the most ridiculous thing Brandon had ever heard. "Like I said, I was stupid, okay? I know you were striving to become an architect and Dad said he could destroy your reputation with a snap of his finger if I didn't stop seeing you. So I was forced to do whatever he said and…" Tears started streaming down his cheeks.

"Hey. Hey." Brandon pulled him close and Dolph melted in Brandon's embrace. "Did he also force you to write that letter?"

Dolph lifted his head abruptly. "What letter?"

"The one where you wrote that you made a decision and chose to study in London as your father wished." Brandon's brow furrowed, his lips pursed before he went on. "And you also told me to forget about you, that I should move on and… and… You don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"

Confusion was probably written all over Dolph's face. "No. I never wrote any letter."

"Fuck," Brandon muttered under his breath, making Dolph whirl his head to check if Lexie wasn't within hearing distance.

"Watch your language," Dolph berated, his eyes flicked over to the living room once more where his daughter was silently watching cartoons.

"Sorry."

"What letter are you talking about?" Dolph was beginning to think that his father had done more than merely lie to him. His dad could have gone through all lengths possible to make Brandon think it was Dolph's idea to throw their relationship away.

"We'll talk it about later." Brandon gently rubbed Dolph's arm. "Let's eat first before our little princess start seeing Sponge Bob as a teen heartthrob."

To Dolph's surprise, Lexie complied when Brandon asked her to have breakfast at the kitchen table and not in front of the T.V. He was again amazed when she had let Brandon cut her pancakes into small bites, although she had recoiled when Dolph had asked the two officers who were on a stake out at the driveway to come in and join them.

Breakfast was relatively quiet. The conversation revolved around Lexie when Dolph and Brandon took turns to tell her to drink her milk or to chew her food properly or not to dab her syrup-covered finger on the table. Lexie had decided to forego television and played with her dolls on the living room floor instead.

"You know, I never imagined you'd be living in a place like this," Brandon said after they had cleared the kitchen.

"Why? Is there anything wrong with my house?" Dolph hoped he didn't sound too defensive. He just didn't get what Brandon meant.

"No, of course not." The playful nudge Brandon gave him made Dolph's heart flutter. "I think it's a lovely home. But you've always been such a princess so I'd imagined you'd be living at an upper-class neighborhood."

"Princess?"

"Yeah." A grin spread across Brandon's face, his brown eyes twinkled. "Princess."

The towel Dolph was using to dry the plates flew right into Brandon's face, making Brandon laugh. "So… How did you end up living here?"

"Well…" The past unfolded like a scene on television that played clearly in Dolph's mind and he had to take a deep breath to push away the pain that the memory dragged along with it. "When Josh decided to come back here, he asked Luke to move in with him. And. Well, you know how my cousin's too protective of me. He didn't want to leave me in Philly. And he knew I wanted to get away from Dad badly. So…"

"Were you still pregnant then?"

"I was in my last term." It was strange to talk about his pregnancy with the other father of his child. Dolph wished Brandon had been around to witness it, but he knew it was absurd to wish for something that was well buried in the past. "My obstetrician did advise that I move here to avoid prying eyes. She was kind enough to request to be transferred at the local hospital here and she stayed until after I had given birth. Other than having Luke and Josh to keep me sane, I've been practically on my own since then."

"You should have—" Whatever Brandon had meant to say vanished into thin air when they heard a car pull up in the driveway. He took a peek from the kitchen window. "It's Luke and Josh," Brandon announced. "Listen, I have to call my secretary and let her know I won't be in today—"

"Oh no. You don't have to, I mean," Dolph said waving his hand around, trying to get the proper words out. "You don't have to place your life on hold just because of what happened." Brandon looked at him in a reprimanding way. "We'll be fine. Luke and Josh are here to keep me company." He gestured at the couple walking through the front door. "Luke and I will be working on our web design project anyway."

Brandon seemed to be contemplating. "Alright," he said, pulling out his phone from his jeans pocket. "Take my number and let me have yours as well. If anything, and I mean anything weird happens, please promise you'll call me."

"You can, uhm… You can use my car if you want," Dolph offered, knowing that Brandon was driven by the police the night before and had no way of getting around. "I'm not going to need it anyway. If I need to leave, I'll just have Luke drive me or something."

"It's okay. I'll just take a cab and drive back in my own car."

It took about an hour before Dolph could convince Brandon that he had nothing further to worry about and Dolph had to make a handful of promises that he would call should anything happen.

"So…" Josh started when they were clearing the table after lunch. "It looks like Brandon had been working out quite a lot. He looks beefy."

"And meaty, I suppose," Luke added.

"Shut up, you two." The pun in his cousin's words made Dolph's cheeks burn.

Josh and Luke laughed.

It was true though. That was one of the first things Dolph had noticed. Brandon looked more ripped than he ever was four years ago. And Dolph would be a hypocrite if he didn't admit that his attraction to the other man was rekindled. But things were different now.

"Is he seeing someone?" Luke looked up from his laptop, his fingers drumming on the kitchen table while waiting for Dolph's response.

"You two are impossible, you know." Dolph used the spatula he was holding to point at Josh and Luke alternately. "I am not in any way interested in getting back with Brandon. And besides, he's here for Lexie, not me." Dolph went back to the salad dressing he was mixing and tried to focus on preparing lunch instead.

"How can you be so sure about that?" Josh's eyes twinkled, like it always did when he was planning something that would knock Dolph off his feet.

At mid-afternoon, the police officers who had taken over the other two who'd spent the night in Dolph's driveway had informed Dolph that all units were being summoned downtown where a hostage situation was taking place.

As soon as they left, Dolph managed to get Lexie to take her afternoon nap. She had been quite insistent on being around him and his uncles for the most part of the day that Dolph and Luke couldn't concentrate well on the program codes they were working on for their client's website.

"I think I need a break," Luke said after he had completed a debugging task. "I'll just go out for a smoke." He hadn't been outside longer than five minutes when Dolph heard him yell, "Hey! Stop right where you are! Stop!" Then Luke's voice became distant, as if he was farther from the house.

Dread crept up Dolph's spine and he and Josh shared an intense look of astonishment before Josh said, "Stay here with Lexie," and went out the front door.

It was a good thing the noise didn't wake Lexie up but Dolph did as Josh had said and he curled on the bed beside his daughter, staring at the cell phone in his hand. There was a chaotic debate in his hindbrain whether he should call Brandon or not. But before he could even press a key, Josh appeared at the doorway.

"Luke said there was a man hiding behind the bushes and he seemed to be surveying the house," Josh said in one breath, his voice laced with pure terror.

"Where's Luke?" Dolph's heart hammered against his ribcage.

"Calling the cops."


III –

Blue prints were laid on a wooden table where Brandon, two of his architects, an engineer and the contractor gathered around. Brandon and Engineer Hamilton were in the middle of discussing why more pipes were necessary on the south wing of the building when Brandon's phone rang. The smooth-flowing melody of a ballad rock music blended with the construction noises and nonsensical yelling among the people around him.

"Excuse me," Brandon told his companions before fishing his phone out of his pocket and nearly dropped the phone in his hurry to press the 'answer' button after seeing the caller ID. "Dolph?"

"Oh God, Brandon" were the only words that Brandon was able to hear coherently. The rest were undecipherable run-on sentences that Dolph spilled out in one breath.

"Whoa, wait. Calm down, Dolph. Breathe." Silence from the other end of the line followed. The only sound filtered through the device was heavy breathing. Then there were some faint voices in the background, whispering. "Dolph?" When Brandon heard an almost inaudible 'yeah', he said, "Now, what were you saying? And please slow down a bit."

Upon hearing the story about someone lurking in Dolph's property, fear settled in Brandon's chest and he muttered a quick "excuse me, family emergency" to his colleagues before dashing over to his SUV. The drive to Fairfield probably took half the normal time and Brandon could only hope he didn't break that many traffic rules.

Luke's car (or was it Josh's? ) was still in Dolph's driveway when Brandon arrived. Josh had the front door open even before Brandon could reach it. "Where are Lexie and Dolph?" he asked, a bit breathless.

"They're in Lexie's room" was Josh's response. "The police just left," he added just as Brandon strode over to his daughter's bedroom.

Luke was sitting on the floor looking up at Dolph who was on the bed with Lexie on his lap.

"Oh thank God." Luke looked relieved upon seeing Brandon.

"Are you guys okay?" Brandon went straight to Dolph and Lexie, laying his hand on Dolph's thigh without a thought. "Josh said the police just left. Did they find anything?"

There wasn't anything reassuring with the responses Brandon got from either Dolph or Luke. Josh wasn't any help either.

"They just took some dust samples from the spot where Luke saw the man hiding and they said they'll call as soon as they get the results." From the way Josh spoke, Brandon could tell he likewise doubted if the police were being helpful at all.

Luke recounted what happened when Brandon asked for details.

"Have you talked to Sergeant Sulik?" Brandon was a bit uneasy about the fact that the officers who were given the responsibility to watch over Dolph and his daughter would just leave without anyone else replacing them.

"Yes," Luke said with uncertainty. "He told us that he didn't ask the officers assigned to keep watch here to report at the crime scene, or hostage scene." Luke had a hard time explaining in details so Brandon ended up calling Sgt. Sulik instead.

The two officers who left their post apparently claimed they heard a dispatch calling all officers on duty to report to a scene where a robbery was taking place. Dolph pointed out it was opposed to the hostage scene they used as an excuse to leave. Sgt. Sulik gave his word that he would get to the bottom of this.

"Listen." Brandon's instincts were kicking in. "I know a private investigator that might be able to help get this case solved." He laid a hand on Dolph's shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze and he could feel Dolph tremble underneath his touch. It was quite a feat to pull his hand away but Brandon had to. "I have to make a call. Excuse me."

Brandon made his way to the living room, the feel of Dolph's muscles still fresh on his palm. That mere contact seemed to have reignited a flame inside him that had long been extinguished. Brandon could feel his heart hammering against his ribcage and… Damn it… His hand was shaking. He couldn't even keep his fingers still to press the right keys on his cell phone.

"Ridgeston Investigations." A female voice at the other end announced after three rings.

"Is Mr. Lukas Ridgeston around?" Brandon crossed his fingers, hoping his brother's friend would be able to help. After giving his name, he was left listening to a ballad he often heard over the radio, teasing his mind to wander off to a place he had long buried into the deepest corners of his subconscious.

"Lukas here." The voice yanked Brandon out of his musing.

"Hey Lukas, it's Brandon." There wasn't any time for small talk, so Brandon went straight in stating his purpose. He racked his brain for anything he could possibly miss while telling Lukas the entire story.

"Police conspiracy in such cases isn't anything new," Lukas said after Brandon had expressed his suspicions about the police being involved in the kidnapping. "I'll have to look into this case further before I can declare that this could possibly be an inside job."

"Does that mean you will take the case?" Brandon paused by the window and closed his eyes, hoping that Lukas would concede. He held his breath while waiting for the other man's response.

"Of course," Lukas finally said. "I have extra time tomorrow afternoon. I think we should meet."

It was Saturday the next day and Brandon didn't have to be at the construction site. He couldn't ask Lukas to come by Dolph's place because if Lukas was right, then Brandon was certain that whoever was involved in the conspiracy would be most likely watching the house at all times.

"How 'bout my place?" Brandon gave his address and listened intently to Lukas' instructions. The thought of taking Dolph and Lexie away from Fairfield had just crossed his mind even before Lukas suggested it.

"Just be careful, Brandon," Lukas said before they hung up.

Just as Brandon had pressed the button on his phone to end the call, Devlin Lambert stormed through the front door making Brandon jump slightly from his spot. Devlin's eyes narrowed the moment he saw Brandon.

"What the fuck are you still doing here? Don't you have better things to do than hang around my son?" were the first words that spilled out of Devlin's mouth.

There were a hundred ways Brandon could meet Devlin head-on with equal sarcasm. But he settled for, "Funny, but, shouldn't I be the one asking you that?" then tugged at the corner of his lips to give Devlin his most devious grin.

"Why you—"

"Dad!" Dolph appeared at the hallway, exasperation masking his face. "Please. I have enough to worry about without you adding weight to the problem."

"Well, you wouldn't be having any problems if you had stayed at home" was Devlin's return, and Brandon could see the veins protruding on the man's temple.

"I'm not going to get into that argument again, Dad. Just…" Dolph's shoulder dropped. Frustration clouded his usually calm face. Brandon was so tempted to wrap his arms around him, but he knew such a gesture would only add fuel to the fire.

"Look, son. All I'm asking is for you and Lexie to stay with me while the investigation is taking place." The thread of deceit hung loosely on every word that slipped out of Devlin's mouth. It took great self-control for Brandon to hold in his temper. "Keep in mind that they have not caught the kidnappers yet. And Sergeant Sulik did say since they got away with the money so easily, there's a possibility they might do it again. I'm just worried about you, you know."

Brandon couldn't help but grunt in disbelief. Fortunately, tension seemed too thick for anyone to notice. When his gaze landed on Josh, the other man rolled his eyes and Brandon realized that Josh was probably having the same thoughts.

"I know you're worried," Dolph said. "But this is my problem, so please let me deal with it in my own terms."

A string of sinister laugh floated out of Devlin. "Your own terms? You couldn't even keep your daughter safe. The police called me and told me what just happened earlier."

"Nothing happened, Dad." Dolph was on the brink of losing his temper, Brandon could tell. "For all we know, that was probably just some reporter who got a tip that there's been a kidnapping and decided to snoop around." That was the police officers' theory, according to Luke.

The debate went on and Brandon wasn't the least bit surprised. Devlin was a manipulative bastard who would go to any lengths to get what he wanted. But what left Brandon astonished was the way Dolph handled his father.

It was amazing to watch Dolph plant his feet sturdily and stand his ground. He refused to go back to what his father kept referring to as 'home'. But Devlin's stubbornness was no match for Dolph's decisiveness, and Brandon stood witness to a whole new side of Dolph that he had never seen.

In the end, Dolph won.

Although, of course, Devlin wouldn't leave without saying, "Let's just hope your poor decision won't cost you your daughter's safety" as his last thought-provoking words. "I doubt these gentlemen here," he added, gesturing to Brandon, Josh and Luke (and Brandon knew that 'gentlemen' for Devlin Lambert was his subtle term for sons of bitches in a conversation like that) with a condescending wave of his hand as he spoke, "will always be around to protect you both."

The plan to bring Dolph and Lexie with him back to Pittsburgh was at the tip of Brandon's tongue, but something inside him, perhaps gut instinct, stopped him from telling saying anything about it. Besides, he hadn't told Dolph yet and telling Dolph's father before Dolph himself even knew might ignite tiny flames into a raging fire.

When Brandon did tell Dolph about his plan later that day, he was glad that Luke backed him up. "I'll feel more at ease if you go with him," Luke had said. "You may want to have Lexie see Dr. Paulik as well." Dolph did mention that the child psychologist Dr. Bonnet had recommended had an office in Pittsburgh.

"But…" There was a gleam of hesitation that flashed momentarily in Dolph's eyes and Brandon felt crestfallen thinking that Dolph might decline. "But I don't want to impose. I mean, don't you have a girlfriend or boyfriend who might not like the idea of me being around you or something?" Brandon had to laugh, and this made Dolph glare at him with his hands on his hips, lips forming a thin line. Dolph was obviously trying to sound pissed when he said, "I don't see what's so funny about that."

It took only a couple of strides for Brandon to reach Dolph. Then he pressed a finger against Dolph's lips. "I'm sorry," he said, pulling one corner of his lips into a lopsided smile when he heard Dolph gasp softly but didn't so much as back away. "And no, Dolph, I'm not currently involved with anyone."

A comfortable silence fell between them, gazes locked, and Brandon could hear their heartbeats mingling. Not even the sound of a throat clearing could break the moment. Not until—

"Daddy, I'm hungry." Dolph jolted upon hearing Lexie's voice and he whirled his head a little too quickly.

"I'll go and fix you something sweetie," Dolph told Lexie before turning back to Brandon and timidly asked, "Would you, uhm, like anything?"

"No, thanks, I'm fine."

When Dolph made his way to the kitchen, Brandon noticed the look both Josh and Luke were giving him. It was the kind of look that seemed to say 'I know what you're thinking' and Brandon simply smiled at them before placing a call to his secretary to let her know that he wouldn't be returning to the site and to tell his project assistant, Architect Mark Aubrey, to "finalize things as we discussed with Engineer Hamilton and the contractors. He can brief me on what they've agreed on tomorrow."

After dinner, they packed everything that was necessary and decided to drive through the night.

=====

When they got to Brandon's place, Dolph did his best to hide his awe. The house was huge, not large enough to be considered a manor but a bit over the edge for someone like Brandon, whom he'd always known as the practical type.

Dolph's eyes scanned the living room, balancing his sleeping daughter on his arms.

The porcelain vases and crystal lamps that adorned the tables were similar to his mother's collection. Antique drawers lined the walls and a rare design of Persian carpet covered the floor. With just one glance, Dolph could tell that the living room held many expensive furnishings and fixtures. Growing up in a mansion himself, he was quite adept at recognizing luxury.

Brandon led them to the guest room and helped them settle in. Dolph had to decline Brandon's offer to show him around. He was worried that Lexie might freak out if she woke up in a strange place so he didn't want to leave her side.

It was around midnight when Lexie woke up. Dolph had been lying awake for hours pondering the last four years of his life and thinking what a huge mistake it was for him to keep Brandon out of the picture.

"Daddy, I'm thirsty," Lexie whined, tugging on the front of Dolph's shirt.

"Okay, baby. We'll go get something to drink." Once they stepped out of the hallway with Lexie clutching tightly at Dolph's hand, Dolph realized that he didn't know where the kitchen was. Now he regretted not having Brandon show him at least some parts of the house.

Thinking that it wouldn't be so hard to find their way around, Dolph led Lexie downstairs. Fortunately, wall lamps along the hallway were left on so they didn't have to stumble through the dark.

There was a humming sound, like a machine, somewhere at the ground level and Dolph decided to follow the source. Barely a minute had passed when Dolph ambled into the kitchen with Lexie where they found Brandon pouring a dark liquid that Dolph presumed was coffee into a large mug.

"Hey," Dolph started softly, careful not to startle Brandon because he might end up spilling the steamy liquid.

After a quick glance at them and throwing a genial "hey" back, Brandon settled the pot he was holding at the coffee machine. "Can I get you anything?"

Dolph looked down at his daughter who was pressed close at his side. He brushed a few strands of her hair away from her face then encouraged her to tell Brandon what she'd like.

"I'm thirsty," Lexie said, loosening her grip on Dolph's sweat pants and actually taking a step toward Brandon. "Can I have water please?" She looked up at him with her big brown eyes and Dolph couldn't fight the smile teasing on his lips as he witnessed Brandon falling under Lexie's charm.

"Sure sweetie." Brandon ruffled her hair before walking over to the refrigerator to grab a pitcher of water. "Would you like some hot chocolate?" he asked Lexie while handing her what Dolph hoped was an unbreakable glass.

Lexie's head bobbed up and down with intense enthusiasm and she broke out into a toothy grin when Brandon asked her if she'd like marshmallows in her drink. "I do, I do," she said excitedly and Dolph had to take the glass from her hands quickly before she started clapping.

"Do you need help?" Dolph watched Brandon move around with practiced ease.

Brandon glanced at Dolph with a rather sensuous smile. "Nah, I'm good." There was a glimmer in Brandon's eyes that made Dolph's stomach twist. "Or maybe you can grab some mugs from the cabinet?" he added, pointing at one of the overhead cabinets.

"This is a nice place you've got." Dolph placed a couple of mugs on the counter near the stove. His eyes darted across the kitchen and noticed how it was lavishly furnished like the living room.

"Thanks." The chocolate was now boiling in the pot and Brandon stirred it with a wooden spoon. "I, uh… I've been filling the place up for the past couple of years. Some of the things I got from my travels. I sort of got into the habit of collecting interesting things." Brandon set the wooden spoon aside and started gesturing over at the various objects he had acquired from Paris, Switzerland and Greece.

A playful mood had hit Dolph. He flicked his eyes over to Brandon and said, "Who are you and what have you done to the practical Brandon I used to know?" and this started a comfortable rhythm between them. His words apparently pulled light laughter out of Brandon and Dolph had to smile in comfort while Lexie… Well, she was pounding on the kitchen table, screaming for her hot chocolate.

In that brief moment, the thought that they were much more like a family crossed Dolph's mind and this pulled a bigger smile on his lips, but then he wondered how long this would last. He could feel his smile fading as soon as doubt settled over his happy thoughts.

"I, uhm…" Brandon started out uncertainly. He turned the stove off and carefully poured hot chocolate in the mugs. "I don't know. You'll think it's silly."

"No, go on. Please." Dolph waited patiently for Brandon to speak while trying to get Lexie away from the counter, where she was now trying to climb.

"I wanted to prove something to myself, that I'm not as worthless as your dad saw me." Brandon shrugged and these words somehow ripped a crack in Dolph's heart.

"Brandon." Whatever Dolph meant to say next never made it past his lips.

"Hey, don't worry about it." Brandon took the mugs over to the table. "It's all in the past." He asked Lexie to drop some marshmallows in the beverages and the little girl gladly complied.

"If only things could've happened differently." Dolph remained leaning against the counter and watched as his daughter and her other father bond. "If only I was brave enough to fight for us back then."

"Look, Dolph…" Brandon ambled over to him then placed a hand on his shoulder. "Let's make a deal." Dolph lifted his eyes and saw the earnestness in Brandon's own. "The past? Let's leave it where it should be, okay?"

A strident sound interrupted the unrestrained ambiance building around them before Dolph could agree. Music reverberated across the kitchen and Brandon muttered, "Excuse me," before picking up his phone from the shelf and pressed the unit against his ear. The only words Dolph heard were "hey mom, how are you?" before Brandon walked out of the kitchen.

It was only when Lexie called out "Daddy?" that Dolph snapped out of his trance. He had been staring at the spot where Brandon had disappeared. He joined Lexie at the table, settling on the chair beside her.

"Yes, sweetie?" He reached out to feel the mug of chocolate in front of Lexie and realized that it was still too hot.

Lexie looked up at him, a piece of marshmallow wedged between her teeth when she smiled. She mumbled something through her marshmallow-filled teeth that Dolph did not understand so he asked her to chew the fluffy sweet first while he blew on her still steaming drink.

After taking a sip to test if the drink was cool enough, Dolph handed it to Lexie and helped her bring the mug up to her lips. When she placed the mug down, she lifted her head and said, "Daddy, I like Branen."

"That's Brandon, sweetie. Can you say Bran-don?" Dolph coached, wiping a smudge of chocolate at the corner of Lexie's lips with his thumb.

"Bran—Bran—Bran-don." Lexie looked up at him, smiling triumphantly. "I like Bran-don," she repeated.

The smile that tugged on Dolph's lips was pretty hard to resist and he began running his fingers idly through his daughter's dark brown hair. "So do I, baby," he said dreamily, thinking whether he should teach her to call Brandon 'Papa' instead. "So do I."

Dolph was startled by the sound of a throat clearing and he whipped his head around to see Brandon leaning against the doorway.

"How long have you been standing there?" Dolph lifted an eyebrow when Brandon smirked.

"Just long enough to hear your confessions." Brandon went behind Lexie's chair where he leaned over and said, "And I happen to like you too," then pressed a kiss on her cheek, causing Lexie to giggle.

It was undeniable then that Lexie did feel comfortable being around Brandon. And Dolph couldn't be any happier. The knot that had settled in Dolph's stomach had tightened when Brandon shifted his gaze to him. "Listen. That was mom on the phone and…" He straightened up and rubbed at the back of his neck. "I haven't told her about Lexie yet, but I did tell her I have a surprise. So, uhm, we'll be driving down to Richmond tomorrow to pay them a visit, if it's alright with you."

Dolph initially thought that 'we' meant Brandon and Lexie. And despite the fact he'd seen Lexie bond with Brandon so easily and she had never shown any signs of apprehension around her other father, Dolph was still uncomfortable with the thought of Lexie meeting new people without him around, especially after what had just happened.

The conflict that went through his head must have shown on his face because Brandon started saying, "It's okay if you don't want to. I'm sure there'll be plenty of other times."

"Oh, it's not that I don't want to." Dolph then told Brandon what really worried him and the smirk that broke through Brandon's face made Dolph rethink what Brandon had said earlier.

"Of course I won't be taking Lexie alone." Brandon then explained that he wanted Dolph to come along.

Which was worse because… "Uhm, don't your parents hate me? After what happened between us, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't want to see me again."

There was no dissent whatsoever on Brandon's behalf but he did smile reassuringly. "Don't worry about them. They couldn't possibly hold a grudge against someone forever."

That didn't help ease Dolph's worry.

=====

The drive to Brandon's parents was historically nerve-wracking. Brandon knew that his parents, his mom especially, detested Dolph and Dolph's father. When Brandon went through a depressive breakdown for more than half a year after Dolph had left him, his mom was his constant shoulder to cry on.

When Brandon began to pick up the pieces and mend his life back together, they never talked about Dolph anymore and so Brandon had no clue how his parents felt about him now. Brandon was more than tempted to turn back and just call his parents to tell them he had an emergency at the site or something, but that would be such a cowardly act.

Besides, he wanted them to meet Lexie badly, let them know that they have a granddaughter. He would probably know what to do once they get there.

But first…

"There's something I'd like to ask, Dolph." He didn't mean to make Dolph more nervous than he'd already seemed to be since they left the house, but Brandon had to fill in the four years worth of gap that still stood between them. When he was certain that he had Dolph's full attention, he asked, "Why didn't you tell me that you were pregnant? Or at least try and contact me when Lexie was born."

The pained look Dolph gave him was unbearable and somehow Brandon knew deep inside that he had just reopened old wounds.

"I did." There was a crack in Dolph's voice. "But you practically erased all your tracks and left no trace." Dolph gazed out the window, remaining quiet for a while, and Brandon just let the hum of his car's engine fill the void. "You cancelled your old number. The emails I sent you kept returning back with an unknown email address notification. I must've sent you dozens of letters until they started coming back to me with an ink stamp stating that the addressee had moved. So I finally went to your old place in Brooklyn and your landlord said you'd moved out without leaving any forwarding address. I called your parents but your mom made it clear that you didn't want anything to do with me anymore so I stopped trying."

There was a sharp tug in Brandon's heartstrings when he saw a single tear rolled down Dolph's cheek. "I, uh…" He was at a loss for words. In his own need to cope with the pain of losing Dolph, it never occurred to him that he was shutting out his past, burning bridges and building walls around himself in the process. Putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, Brandon was now swept with the realization that Dolph might have hurt more than he did. "What did you do then?" His voice was low and barely audible, afraid that if he spoke any louder, his voice would break.

No words were uttered. Only the sound of the traffic and the constant babbling of the little girl strapped in the car seat at the rear broke the unenviable silence.

"I had to get away from Dad, especially after he asked me to terminate my pregnancy." Dolph nearly choked on his words. "When I got back from London, I lived with Luke and Josh in Queens. The doctor who had been helping me in London recommended an obstetrician in New York who likewise specialized in cases similar to mine. Dad didn't stop trying to take control of my life though and there were times that I almost surrendered to him. I felt so alone."

The tears that had welled up in Dolph's eyes strolled down his face. Brandon could feel the prickling at the back of his own eyes.

"I'm sorry" was all Brandon could say. The pain he'd felt, the bitterness he had carried with him for four years melted away and guilt crept up to take its place. "Fuck, I'm so sorry, Dolph."

"You don't have to apologize, Brandon. You didn't know."

When they pulled up in front of his parents' house, Brandon no longer felt the trepidation that had been polluting his mind. He was now armed with the truth. And seeing as Dolph had changed and had stood up for him against his father, Brandon was more than willing to stand up for Dolph in return.

Dolph was working on getting Lexie out of her car seat when Brandon's parents came out of the house. Brandon swept his mother in his embrace and planted a sloppy kiss on her cheek. His father gave him a one-armed hug, which Brandon returned.

"So what's this surprise you can't wait to tell us about?" His mother asked but the smile that graciously adorned her face quickly disappeared and Brandon knew she who she saw before he even turned around to see Dolph a few feet behind him with Lexie squirming against Dolph's hold.

"What the hell is he doing here?" It was his dad who managed to break the awkwardness that was rising around them.

"Look, Dad, it's a long story. Before I get to that though, I want you to meet someone." Brandon tilted his head, gesturing at Dolph to come closer and Brandon took Lexie who willingly clutched onto Brandon's shoulders. "Dad, Mom. I want you to meet Alexa Kamile. We call her Lexie. She's…" He paused to watch his mother's expression morph into something that resembled a child waiting for Santa Claus to appear. "She's your granddaughter."

The look on his mom and dad's faces were priceless. It made Brandon wish he had his camera with him. He thought of whipping out his phone but then Lexie was clinging tightly around his neck and she had buried her face on his shoulder.

"Huh-wha—" His mom looked lost. She sighed deeply before bellowing, "Brandon Manilow, is this some kind of a joke?"

Brandon let out a bark of laughter that startled the little girl in his arms. "Oh, sorry sweetie," he told Lexie then he shifted his attention to his parents. "Why don't we all get inside and I'll tell you all about it?"

Apparently, relaying the story to his parents in a concise manner wasn't enough. They bombarded Brandon and, to his dismay, Dolph with questions that made Brandon feel like he was back in his office with Detectives Hansen and Carradine.

The worst was that, despite the sugarcoating Brandon did, his parents didn't take Dolph's story too kindly. And Brandon had to fight the urge to pull Dolph in a hug when the other man seemed to be on the brink of tears.

He couldn't blame his parents though. They knew exactly what he'd been through when he had lost Dolph. They both witnessed what must've been a painful display of losing his spirit and the struggle to get back up on his feet.

Although the way they deliberately left Dolph out of their conversations was way too much of a mental torture, especially when they bluntly said things like "it's sad we didn't get to see Lexie as a baby, I'm sure she was just as adorable" and his mom's sneaky remarks of "I hope you're not teasing us, Brandon, making us fall for Lexie then we won't get to see her anymore," which Brandon could bet pierced right through Dolph's heart.

Fortunately, Lexie warmed up to his mom later in the day, so she had her as a distraction while Brandon followed Dolph out to the front porch. He'd seen the vestiges of guilt and pain in Dolph's eyes before Dolph asked if he could be excused, and Brandon couldn't just leave him at that state.

Now that he'd heard Dolph's side of the story, Brandon had thought things through. It would be a risk to believe Dolph after everything, but he didn't doubt for a second when Dolph told him all the threats that Devlin used to manipulate his own son.

Dolph was young then. Too young. Brandon consciously knew what he was getting into when he met Dolph at the ripe age of eighteen, but he'd ignored the warnings from the voice inside his head and gave his heart out to the younger man without any reservations.

Everything started out perfectly. Regardless of his youth, Dolph did show an admirable level of maturity. The downside of it though was Dolph's manipulative father who Dolph apparently respected and feared at the same time.

The sight that greeted Brandon the moment he stepped out onto the porch pulled at his heartstrings. Dolph seemed lost in thought, tears streaking down his face.

"Hey, stranger." Brandon nudged Dolph's thigh with his knee and the younger man started. He stared up at Brandon for a fleeting second before his hand flew up to his face to wipe the tears off.

When Dolph didn't budge, Brandon squeezed through the space beside him and forced him to move over. The swing shook perilously.

"Brandon!" Dolph clutched at the steel support. "We might break this thing."

"Nah." Brandon wiggled his butt, making the hinges screech. "This thing is guaranteed durable."

"Says you."

"How are you holding up?" Brandon thought the abrupt change of topic would make Dolph spill out what was going through his mind. Instead, Dolph seemed to fold into his shell.

Brandon knew he shouldn't. Fuck, he really shouldn't. Because this would mean he would be breaching his own 'don't-get-too-close-to-anyone' rule. But he couldn't help it. He laid an arm around Dolph's shoulders and pulled Dolph closer, guiding his head to rest against Brandon's.

"Give them time. I'm sure they'll soon learn to love you like they did back then," Brandon said, running his fingers through Dolph's sandy blond hair.

They had decided to forego dinner when Lexie threw tantrums after noticing she was left alone with her grandparents. She had practically screamed for her daddy and it took nearly an hour before they could pacify her.

"We'll pick up something on the way home," Brandon had said, but of course his mom wouldn't have it. She packed some pasta and salad and reminded Brandon that he should be eating healthy.

Lexie had slept during the entire drive back but was up and about by the time they got home. Soon after they had dinner though, she had started yawning again.

"Read me a story, Brandon, pleeeeease," she begged in a singsong voice after Dolph had washed her up and had gotten her ready for bed. She looked up at him with 'puppy-dog' eyes and how could Brandon say no to that?

"Sure, sweetheart," Brandon said after he had loaded the last of the plates in the dishwasher. He heaved Lexie in his arms and balanced her on one hip before his gaze glided over to Dolph. "You coming?"

What Brandon didn't expect was for Dolph to ask Lexie if she needed him around. When Lexie pointed out she was fine having Brandon alone, Dolph said, "I'll stay here and finish cleaning up."


IV –

Lexie was first brought to the child psychologist on Monday afternoon. Dr. Johan Paulik, or Johan as he preferred to be addressed, was some kind of a miracle worker. With his unconventional approach in dealing with children (by means of acting like a child himself apparently), he was able to coax Lexie back to her bubbly, carefree self within a couple of visits.

"I don't see any signs of prolonged psychological trauma," Johan told Dolph during their second visit. "At least it's not severe and nothing that she won't overcome in time. You did say the separation anxiety started even before the kidnapping began, right?"

Dolph nodded. Johan scheduled another visit later in the week to monitor Lexie's progress.

This had been their routine. Brandon would drop them off at Dr. Paulik's office before driving over to the construction site. Then Brandon would pick them up after. Dolph had suggested that they could just take a cab back but Brandon wouldn't hear it. "No fucking way am I letting you both out of my sight other than leaving you with Dr. Paulik."

Dolph wished he had his car with him. But Luke had pointed out, "Sergeant Sulik thinks it wouldn't be a good idea for you to drive around in something that the kidnappers might be familiar with," during one of their phone conversations. He'd actually been ripped of everything that could possibly be used to lead the kidnappers to his current whereabouts including his cell phone, but Brandon did give him a new one and only a handful of people knew his number.

The changes in their daily cycle, thankfully, had not been a burden. Dolph eventually stopped feeling oddly misplaced at Brandon's home, which, after a week, had become their home as well. Lexie had fallen into an instant bond with Brandon and Dolph often wondered if she knew somehow that Brandon was also her father.

"You mean you hadn't told her?" was Josh's reaction when Dolph made the mistake of asking him for advice. He ended up being more confused when Josh had asked, "What are you planning to do when this is all over? Are you still going to see Brandon?"

If it were all up to Dolph, then he would prefer to continue seeing Brandon. If only…

If only…

Being with Brandon flooded Dolph's mind with scenes from their past. He tried to divert his focus on other things, like the web site project he and Luke were working on, before he lost all control and fall for Brandon all over again.

Yet it hadn't been an easy task especially when Brandon often walked around the house wearing a tight tank top and gym shorts. There had been countless times when Brandon had caught him staring and Dolph had to tear his eyes away.

One night, Dolph had just ended a call with Luke and was thinking of retrieving the messages from his answering machine at his own home when a pair of arms coiled around his waist. He jumped in surprise and was about to strike in defense but then he caught Brandon's scent. A warm breath bathed the back of his neck, sending shivers down his spine.

Pulling away was what he initially intended to do but his instincts led him to relax and lean against Brandon's broad chest. "Is Lexie asleep?" he asked. Jealousy should be gnawing inside him because Brandon seemed to be Lexie's new favorite now when it came to reading her bedtime stories. But his heart swelled with joy instead.

"Yeah." Brandon's deep voice sent vibration rippling in his chest where Dolph's back was pressed against and it sent tiny prickles crawling up Dolph's arm. "I was hoping we could talk?"

The arms around Dolph's waist loosened allowing him to turn and face Brandon. "Sure," Dolph said with a shrug and one look in Brandon's eyes gave Dolph a glimpse of what this could be about.

"I…" Brandon sighed. "I just…" His eyes drooped before he pressed his forehead against Dolph's and hummed in a way he often did when carefully choosing his words. "Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately and," Brandon uttered but then he seemed to lose his breath and Dolph saw Brandon's chest rising as he heaved a sigh. "I was wondering if… I know this might not be the best idea but I was hoping we could, you know, pick up from where we left off? Or maybe we could start over?"

Despite the broken phrases, what Brandon meant was clear enough and Dolph could not believe his ears. "Start over?" Dolph had actually resigned to the fact that Brandon would only want to be friends after the predicament they were currently in was over. It was to be expected that Brandon would still want to be part of Lexie's life. But Dolph had never thought, or perhaps was afraid to presume, that he would still be in the picture.

Brandon didn't even falter when he muttered, "Mhmm," and leaned closer. "I know that I was wrong to judge you then and I know now that I was equally at fault for not doing everything in my power to fight for you. I just…" The hands that had been resting on Dolph's hips warily slid to the small of Dolph's back. "When one of your father's goons handed me that letter, the one I thought you wrote, I just believed everything written on it without stopping for a second to give you the benefit of the doubt."

Anger boiled inside Dolph. He had nothing but hatred for his father at that moment. All those years, he'd let his dad manipulate his life to the point of driving away the only man that he had ever loved. "I should have—"

"Sssh." The tip of Brandon's finger brushed against Dolph's lips, silencing him. "No more 'should haves', okay?" Brandon's gaze was locked on Dolph's eyes, like he was peering into Dolph's soul. Dolph's heart skipped erratically, like it was doing cartwheels inside his chest.

Breathing became difficult then, having Brandon at such proximity. The remaining strength and willpower that had held Dolph all these years went right out of the window the moment Brandon's mouth descended on his. Cool lips, which Dolph didn't fail to notice smelled and tasted like peppermint, brushed against the chapped surface of his own. Tentatively. Cautiously.

Warmth surged throughout Dolph's body, his toes curling, mind wiped out of every single thread of rationality. It might have taken a while before he could respond to the prodding kiss. But Brandon patiently waited. So when Brandon's tongue poked through the tiny gap, seeking permission, Dolph parted his lips.

Every swipe of Brandon's tongue along the walls of Dolph's mouth poured a bucketful of promises that filled Dolph's heart with certainty. This was what he wanted, what he hoped for – to be back in Brandon's life. Dolph melted in Brandon's embrace when Brandon's strong arms tightened around his middle.

A small whimper escaped Dolph's throat when Brandon pulled away.

"Dolph, I…" Brandon chewed on his lower lip and Dolph instinctively laid his hand on Brandon's shoulder, kneading lightly on the hardened flesh. He could feel the muscles move under his touch. Brandon seemed to relax. In a voice too low and soft he said, "I never stopped loving you, you know. Fuck, I'm shit scared right now that I'm giving in to this after… No. Hell with that. I'm willing to take the risk."

The weight in Dolph's chest grew heavier as he watched the conflict pranced across Brandon's face. He'd caused that pain, that uncertainty to let go of burden-filled emotions. And by everything holy, Dolph would do anything to chase all that away. He loved Brandon and now he realized that he still did, always had. "Likewise" was all Dolph said and the weight had been lifted when he saw the smile that curled in Brandon's lips.

=====

Brandon woke with a start. He lay still for a while, trying to figure out what was happening or what jerked him awake from what seemed to be a dreamless sleep. It took a while before he finally perceived the music reverberating around the room.

He grabbed his phone and didn't bother checking the screen since his vision was still blurry. "Yeah?"

"Brandon?" A deep voice cracked through the earpiece and Brandon bolted upright, swinging his legs around the edge of his bed.

"Lukas." His heart began to hammer against his ribcage. It had been three days since he last spoke to the private investigator. Lukas had said he needed to make a trip to Philadelphia to dig out some information but left out the details.

"Can you meet me at my office in two hours?" There was a trademarked resoluteness in Lukas' tone. Brandon had thought of asking Lukas what the reason was but thought better of it. Lukas had often refused to divulge information on the phone if meeting in person was possible.

"Sure."

From the time he'd hired Lukas to look further on the kidnapping case, the P.I. had probably accomplished more than the police investigation team in Fairfield had. What struck Brandon was how odd it seemed that the Pennsylvania councilor's granddaughter had been kidnapped and was kept for nearly a day, yet none of the law enforcement agencies were lifting a finger to speed up the investigation.

It was hard to believe that they would simply drop the case because Lexie had been returned the same day. There had been obvious signs that the danger wasn't over. The police hadn't been able to find out who the man lurking around Dolph's place was and it had been two weeks since then. It infuriated Brandon when they just concluded it as a reporter snooping around for a story.

Then there were the threat notes. A couple of threat notes were retrieved from Dolph's house. One was wrapped in a stone and was deliberately thrown right through the living room window. The other was found in the mailbox.

Brandon had to coax it out of Luke when he'd called because he had a gut feeling that Luke was hiding something. Later, he learned that it was Dolph who had asked his cousin not to tell Brandon. "He didn't want you to worry more than you've been already" was Luke's excuse.

Fuck.

The delectable smell of bacon teased Brandon's nose while he made his way down the stairs. He could hear the banter between Dolph and Lexie at the kitchen. He stopped in his tracks before he could reach the entryway when he heard Dolph say, "He's also your daddy, you know."

Then Lexie's voice rose with "but you're Daddy."

"Well, you can call him Papa so we won't get confused" was Dolph's return.

"Okay."

Brandon could feel the weight of bliss inside his chest. If he hadn't heard Dolph's side of the story, he'd probably still hate Dolph for keeping their daughter from him. But he quickly reminded himself that not everything was Dolph's fault. He'd in fact decided to bury the grudge and found the feelings he'd long kept inside him resurfacing.

"Good morning," Brandon greeted, pretending he hadn't been eavesdropping. "How are my princesses?" He planted a kiss on top of Lexie's head, making the little girl squeal, and then walked over near the stove where Dolph was placing some strips of bacon on a plate covered with paper towel to plant one on Dolph's cheek.

Dolph crossed his arms over his chest. "Princesses?" he asked with a frown and Brandon barked a laugh.

"You look absolutely cute when you're annoyed." Brandon slipped his arm around Dolph's middle and pulled him closer.

Before their lips met though, Dolph pulled back almost instantly, his hand splayed across Brandon's chest. "Not in front of Lexie," he whispered.

But then Lexie was clapping her hands, saying, "Kiss him, Brandon. Kiss Daddy!"

And who was he to deny her? So Brandon did press his lips against Dolph's, prodding with his tongue until Dolph parted his lips and swept it inside Dolph's mouth briefly before pulling away with a grin cutting across his face. "I don't wanna get carried away. I have an appointment in a couple of hours."

Dolph raised an eyebrow. "You're such a tease, you know?" He placed the plate of bacon beside the stack of pancakes on the breakfast table and reprimanded Lexie for picking up tiny slices of pancake from her plate with her fingers. "Use your fork, sweetie. Would you like some bacon?" Dolph offered but Lexie shook her head.

The scene playing before him made Brandon's heart swell. For the first time since he'd brought Dolph and Lexie home, he truly felt that they were a family. Perhaps it was because he and Dolph had finally broken down the barriers that stood between them. "So what are you two planning to do for the rest of the day?"

"I don't know." Dolph half-shrugged, his blue-eyes gleamed as he quirked a smile. It was one of the changes in Dolph that Brandon had noticed since they started rediscovering each other. He seemed more at ease. "I need to work on the website so Luke could present it to the client before the week ends."

That was one of the advantages of him being a web designer. Dolph could work at home and didn't need to go anywhere else. Luke could visit their clients in his behalf.

"Okay." Brandon took a sip of his coffee. "I'll be in a quick meeting with a potential client this morning. Are you guys going to be fine all by yourselves?" There was a pinch of guilt inside him for lying, which he tried to ignore.

It hadn't been often that Brandon left Dolph and Lexie alone. He'd stayed with them for a couple of Lexie's sessions with Dr. Paulik the week before and had brought them with him at the construction site almost everyday. At times when he needed to meet with Lukas, he'd asked his half brother to stay with them, which initially turned out as a bad idea because Rick didn't take Dolph too kindly. And Brandon didn't like the idea of asking Rick over only to see Dolph looking dejected later on.

He won't be gone long.

The second that Brandon walked into the building where Lukas' office was, he quickly dialed Dolph's number. "Would you just focus on your meeting? We're perfectly fine here" was the rebuke he got from Dolph when he had told Dolph that he was just calling to check up on them.

There was a sudden change of air the moment he'd entered the P.I.'s office. Anxiety rushed throughout Brandon's system the moment he caught the seriousness that masked Lukas' face. A queasy feeling took up residence on his stomach.

"Have a seat." Lukas gestured over to the chair adjacent to his table. "I'm gonna go straight to the point" was how Lukas started and without giving Brandon a chance to brace himself, Lukas went on explaining that someone had come up to him after he'd gone to Fairfield the other day.

"I thought you were going to Philadelphia?" Brandon said, recalling their last conversation.

"I did" was Lukas' return and the certainty in his tone made Brandon not raise any questions further. "It just so happens that when I was in Philadelphia, I discovered that the police detectives who were present the day your daughter was kidnapped were in fact part of the Philadelphia Police Department."

"They're not from Fairfield?" Now Brandon wondered why the town's local police didn't mention anything about that. He bade to be excused and made a quick call to Luke and Josh. It was Luke who Brandon spoke with, and Luke said they were often told that the detectives were always out working on several cases whenever he'd ask for Detectives Vidal or Hansen. But not once were they informed that these detectives weren't from the town.

"That's enlightening" was Lukas' reaction when Brandon relayed what he had learned. "And I don't doubt that one bit." He was nodding at the opposite direction so Brandon followed his gaze. There was a man who came through the door from the small room where Lukas' electronic devices were kept. He looked awfully familiar. "This is Lieutenant Alex Orioli. He's from the Fairfield Police Department. I believe he was at Dolph's place the day Lexie was kidnapped."

Brandon did remember him. He was one of the few cops who looked accommodating enough and not as menacing as the rest.

"He came to see me last week after I had done a bit of snooping around in Fairfield," Lukas explained before formally introducing Brandon to the cop, who looked different in just a blue T-shirt and jeans. "He has some interesting stories to share."

=====

The default ring tone of Dolph's cell phone resounded and the unit skipped along the marble top of the kitchen counter. Dolph snatched it while balancing a bowl filled with marinade mixture on his other hand.

Without looking at the screen, he brought the phone to his ear, presuming that it was Brandon calling. Again. His boyfriend (and Dolph felt elated referring to Brandon as his 'boyfriend' now) had been calling practically every half hour to check on them.

"Hey, I'm just getting lunch ready," Dolph greeted, pressing the phone between his ear and his shoulder while he continued to work on the mixture with both hands.

There was nothing but static.

"Brandon?"

A few seconds of silence hung in the air before a voice came through.

"Hello, Mr. Lambert." It wasn't Brandon. The voice was modulated, like the person spoke through a device, something similar to what Dolph had seen in the movies.

"Who is this? How did you get this number?"

A bloodcurdling laugh ripped through the phone's speaker causing chills to crawl up Dolph's skin like tiny predatory insects. "It's not important. What's important is for you to know that we're coming after your little girl. We now know where you are, Mr. Lambert. You're staying at your old boyfriend's house in Pittsburgh." Dolph felt his heart leap up to his throat when the mysterious man (or woman, he wasn't entirely certain) cited Brandon's complete address.

Not wanting to hear the voice any further, Dolph practically stabbed on his phone in his attempt to end the call. He tossed the phone over to the table as if he were scorched by it. The plastic bowl he was holding slipped out of his grip and bounced off the floor, spilling the contents across the tiled surface.

"Lexie!" He charged through the house, straight to the audio-visual room where Lexie was watching a cartoon movie. "Lexie." She gave a start when Dolph dashed inside and swept her up without a warning.

Brandon. It almost slipped his mind that they were staying with Brandon. The fear that coursed through him momentarily overwhelmed his conscious thoughts. He rushed back to the kitchen, balancing Lexie on one hip, then grabbed his phone and pressed the key assigned to speed dial Brandon's number.

An automated voice response saying that the number was either unavailable or was out of the coverage area was what he heard. Damn it! "Brandon, where the hell are you?" he muttered under his breath, trying his best to remain calm enough not to alarm Lexie. He dialed Brandon's number again and again but had finally given up after his fifth try.

Once they were in Lexie's room, his little girl asked, "Where are we going Daddy?" Her eyes were wide while she watched Dolph tear around her bedroom, randomly grabbing things to stuff in a duffle bag.

"We need to—" Dolph had no idea. He hadn't stopped for a moment to think, to come up with a plan. Brandon was supposedly his only hope but he didn't know where he was. Last they spoke, he was still in a meeting and wasn't certain what time it would adjourn.

With a silent prayer, Dolph tried Brandon's phone once more but without any luck. Brandon's phone must've run out of battery or… whatever. Out of desperation, Dolph called Luke. His cousin answered on the third ring.

"Luke!" Dolph must've poured out everything that had happened in a run-on sentence.

"Whoa, whoa, slow down." Luke cut him off and Dolph took a deep breath before repeating what he'd just blurted in a slower pace. "What the fuck?" was Luke's reaction and Dolph heard someone else speak, asking Luke if it was Dolph he was speaking to.

Fuck. That voice. Dolph froze when he realized it was his father. He was about to tell Luke he would just call back when his father spoke.

"Dolph?" When Dolph didn't respond, his father spat, "Where the fuck are you?"

It took a while before Dolph could calm his mind and started thinking rationally. This was his last resort, his last hope. If Brandon wouldn't be home soon enough, he wasn't certain what might happen. For all he knew, the kidnappers might be lurking outside right at that moment.

So he had no choice. He'd told his father where he was.

"Hang tight, I'll be there right away" were his father's last words before silence echoed in his ear.

=====

"Damn." Brandon tossed his phone at the passenger seat. He had meant to call Dolph before leaving Lukas' office but when he fished his phone out of his jean pocket, it was off. It wouldn't turn back on. He did remember the last time he'd called Dolph that the battery indicator had only one bar left.

The traffic jam he'd been stuck in for the past fifteen minutes finally showed signs of gradual flow. Anxiety streamed through him like blood rushing through his veins. Pessimism wasn't something Brandon would succumb to but hell… some bizarre feeling was churning in his belly. He'd been gone longer than what was acceptable in his own standards.

He hadn't noticed that nearly three hours had slipped by when he'd been testing theories with Lukas and Alex. They were neck to neck in putting all the pieces of information that Lukas had been able to obtain together.

Apparently, he'd heard enough from Alex to prove that there had indeed been a conspiracy. Alex claimed that when he ran into Luke the week before and learned that there hadn't been any result with the investigation, he'd been prompted to look into the Lambert case himself. That was how Alex had discovered that the case had actually been closed. Curiosity got the best of him so he decided to conduct a little investigation of his own.

Alex further explained that the record showed it was Sgt. Sulik who personally closed the case as requested by the team of Philadelphia police detectives. That didn't sit well for Officer Orioli.

Further digging had led him to the fact that the money used as ransom had not been tracked yet. "Which was odd since the money was placed in a special bag that should release an invisible ink when opened. So the money would be marked without the fugitives knowing but banks would be able to detect," Alex had relayed. "Unless they decided to take the money elsewhere."

When asked how he knew the money was placed in a special bag, Alex revealed that it was him who personally placed the money brought in by Dolph's father inside the bag and sealed it, despite the fact that Sgt. Sulik specifically instructed him to do otherwise.

Brandon shook his head to rid of the dark fog creeping into his brain. Lukas did say they couldn't point fingers just yet. But he was glad that at least the P.I. agreed with his list of suspects.

A heavy, unsettling feeling sank down his gut as soon as he drove up to his driveway. This feeling evolved into panic-inducing anxiety when he'd entered the kitchen. The sight that greeted him froze him on his spot. His eyes took account of the spilled dark liquid on the floor. The bowl, which he guessed held the liquid, lay upside down.

"Dolph!" He called out but the only response he got was his own voice bouncing off the walls. "Dolph!" He dashed throughout the house, tearing through every room but there was no sign of Dolph and Lexie. Then he rushed to his bedroom and rummaged through the drawers of his desks in search of spare batteries.

When he found one, he pulled his phone out and was about to slide it open when he noticed a piece of paper on his bed. His knees sank on the mattress when he hurriedly climbed on top to grab the paper. A message was scribbled across it almost illegibly so Brandon had to squint to read:

Hey,

Sorry for bailing out when you weren't around. Got a call from the kidnappers. They know my new number and they know exactly where we are. Tried calling but couldn't reach you. I'm just so scared for our little girl, Brandon. The kidnappers said they would come after her again. I had to tell Dad where we were. He's coming to get us.
Love,
Dolph


"Fuck you, Dolph!" Brandon couldn't contain his anger. Or more like his frustration. He grabbed some random thing from his bedside table and flung it across the room. He listened to the sound of metal clattering before burying his face on his hands.

Before he could give in to the rage that was starting to shake his body, he realized that Dolph wasn't entirely at fault. If anything, he was just another innocent victim. It would probably never cross Dolph's mind that his own father might possibly be involved in the kidnapping of his daughter. Even if Brandon knew that Dolph detested the man for manipulating his life, Brandon doubted that Dolph would ever imagine his own father was capable of doing something that could harm him or Lexie.

When he was no longer shaking from anger, Brandon tried his phone once more. But all he got was a familiar tone that indicated that the line was no longer working. He'd bet a million dollars that Devlin Lambert had already gotten hold of Dolph's phone, which meant that Dolph had unknowingly surrendered himself back under the clutches of his father.

=====

"Are we going to see Brandon again?" The tiny voice was laced with sadness that inevitably gripped on Dolph's heart.

"Of course we will, sweetie," he told Lexie while tucking her in for the night. Dolph was hoping he could call Brandon, but his dad had taken his phone with a promise to give it back as soon as his security people had checked it for any tracking devices.

Once settled comfortably beside his daughter, he began humming a song, something that was on top of his head. And before he could even finish, Lexie had fallen asleep. Her breathing was steady and deep.

After making sure that Lexie wouldn't stir awake, Dolph slid out of bed and soon stepped out of the bedroom. He was half startled to see his father standing by the door. "Dad."

Something went past Devlin's eyes and the smile that Devlin wore was somehow sad. "Your mother used to sing you that song when you were little," Devlin said and Dolph presumed that his father might have been referring to the song he was humming.

"I see." To be honest, Dolph couldn't remember. He was only eight when his mother had given up on her battle against pelvic cancer, and the trauma of losing her must've veiled some of his earlier memories. But there were more pressing matters at present and Dolph couldn't let nostalgia distract him. "Uhm. Are your people done checking my phone, Dad?" He was supposed to add he needed to call Brandon but then something told him he shouldn't mention Brandon's name.

"Oh, not yet, I'm afraid." The hardened façade was back as his father straightened up and brushed a non-existent dust on the front lapel of his suit. "I think it's best if you keep it away from you for a while. After all, that's the number where the kidnappers called you."

"I can get a new number, I just need a phone, please." Dolph could recognize the familiar game they were playing. He'd remained blind from his father's manipulative ways until he stepped back and decided to take control of his own life.

Dolph remained resolute on his decision to stay out of his father's grasp even when Devlin had tried to convince Dolph after Lexie was born that he had changed his opinion over Dolph having a child. Devlin did seem genuinely fond of Lexie, but that didn't make Dolph change his mind either.

"I can ask Samantha to get you a new one," Devlin said; then he fished his phone out of his pocket to call his assistant.

Dolph chose not to argue.

Coming back here at his father's house was a big mistake, he now realized. But his main concern right now was Lexie's safety and this was the only safest place he could think of. At least from the people who meant to do them harm.

=====

Hours had passed since Brandon left home to drive across Pennsylvania. He'd just received a text message from Luke with the phone number at Devlin's residence, which Luke had to coax out of his mother. So Brandon had to stop over and place a call.

A woman answered after four rings and Brandon asked for Dolph as politely as he could. He wasn't the least bit surprised when the woman said, "I'm afraid Mr. Dolph cannot come to the phone at the moment. He's already resting."

"Yeah, right." Brandon didn't believe her. "Look, lady, I'd really appreciate it if you could get Dolph on the phone. I promise you, this isn't going to take long."

There was another voice. A man's. And even if it was nearly inaudible, Brandon recognized it as Devlin's. The rest Brandon heard were muffled sounds, like the mouthpiece was covered to block the conversation that was going on at the other end of the line.

Then Devlin was on the phone. "What the fuck would it take to make you leave my son alone?" he spat.

Brandon didn't speak for a while. He weighed the pros and cons of the situation. But then decided that he didn't give a fuck whatever Devlin would dare do to him. He just needed to get Dolph and Lexie back. He couldn't lose them now.

"Nothing."

He could feel the heat of Devlin's anger through the phone, could hear the low, rumbling sound that Devlin made. "You son of a bitch."

Brandon didn't even flinch. He was used to all sorts of profanities since he had heard a fair share thrown at him. "Let me talk to Dolph, Mr. Lambert. I just need to make sure he and Lexie are all right."

"They're more than fine. They're a lot better now that they're both home," Devlin hissed and Brandon couldn't help but clutch tightly on his phone while he was overwhelmed with a rush of distrust for the man. "So do yourself a favor, Mr. Manilow. Stay away from now on. Dolph doesn't want to see you ever again."

The sound of the phone being slammed resounded in his ear. Fuck. Brandon had a flash of the past, like he was reliving what happened four years ago.

This time though, Brandon was not going to be dissuaded. He was determined to fight for Dolph. For Lexie. Let all hell break loose.

That was exactly his goal when he'd finally reached the residence of the councilor.

When he drove up the gate, a familiar dark-skinned and balding security guard walked up to the SUV with one hand up. Brandon lowered his window, hoping that the man still remembered him. "Mr. Manilow?"

"Hey, Frank, good to see you again," Brandon greeted in a nonchalant tone, his eyes wandered beyond the closed steel gates to see if Devlin had actually called an army to stop him. The bastard had done it before, there was no doubt he'd do it again.

"It's good to see you too, sir," Frank said and Brandon could feel the sincere accommodation that the man offered. Frank had been the one who had helped Brandon slip into the house to see Dolph countless times before. "Is it safe to assume that you're here for the younger master?" There was a hint of apprehension in Frank's tone however, and Brandon didn't miss that either.

"Yeah. And I know he's here, Frank."

"I wasn't going to say he's not, sir. But you know I can't let you in. I have my orders." Frank looked apologetic. And Brandon understood Frank's position.

"I have to see him, Frank. Him and our daughter" was Brandon's plea and he could see the conflict flickering on Frank's eyes.

The security guard was about to speak but was interrupted by a firm, suave voice. "What's going on, Frank?"

Fuck. Trepidation crawled up Brandon's skin like static when the other man stepped out of the shadows. It was Detective Hansen. With him were four others who Brandon had not seen before.

"Well, well. Look who we have here." Every word that slipped out of the detective's mouth was laced with menace. "Haven't you heard, Mr. Manilow? The councilor had a restraining order against you. You are not to come within fifty yards near him, his son, his granddaughter or even his property."

"Fuck him," Brandon spat. He could feel the flames of his anger seeping out of his eyes. "And fuck you." Without any care what the detective might do, Brandon stepped out of his vehicle and made his way toward the slightly opened steel gate. But a tight grip on his arm stopped him on his tracks.

"Where do you think you're going?" Det. Hansen hissed. "Didn't you hear what I just said?"

The grip tightened. And it burned through the cotton sleeves of his shirt. But Brandon wasn't going to be deterred. He yanked his arm out of Det. Hansen's hold.

Stupidity must have wormed its way into Brandon's head because he failed to consider that what the detective had said might have been true, considering the councilor's influences. Instead, he rushed through the gates, only to be stopped by the five men. Frank only stood by, unable to help.

Brandon called out to Dolph, yelling his name. Before he could yell again though, something was pressed against his mouth and nose. The smell burned through his nostrils. And soon enough, his vision had gone blurry and everything around him faded.


V –

The digital clock on the bedside table read '1:34'. Dolph had been tossing and turning all night. Sleep seemed to have eluded him completely.

He lay still, staring at the ceiling. He watched shadows flicker into different patterns until he resigned to the fact that the task would not bring him to 'lala land'.

The floor felt cold at his feet. It wasn't carpeted like most rooms were, but he got up nonetheless and quickly slipped his sneakers on.

No one was at the hallway, thank God. His father's security team must have retired for the night. And he was glad. It didn't sit well with him seeing men in suits, looking like they were bred to look threatening, loitering around like a pack of hyenas waiting for a kill.

Lexie was sound asleep when he came to check on her. She'd woken up crying twice already and Dolph wasn't even taken aback when she'd screamed Brandon's name both times.

The restlessness was beginning to weigh him down and Dolph had to get his feet moving. He meant to go downstairs, but thought he saw a light flicker from his father's private study at the end of the hall. Maybe he should talk to his father, try to convince him to give his phone back. He'd never felt so desperate to talk to anyone as much as he wanted to talk to Brandon right at that moment.

When Dolph got to the room, however, he realized that the light flickering was a reflection from the hallway lamp. The room was in fact empty. His eyes landed on the silhouette of the computer resting on top of his father's desk. Without raising his hopes up, he went over to the desk and turn the unit on, hoping that it wasn't password-protected.

It wasn't. But he could easily identify some of the files that were locked for some reason. He didn't give a damn about them though, all he wanted was to get a messaging system up and hoped that either Brandon or his cousin Luke was logged on.

His fingers flew across the keyboard, typing commands to make a thorough system check. It was habitual. Something caught his eye. There was a secured file, not heavily protected though. And he was able to access it in no time.

It was a bank transaction report.

The combination of words and numbers didn't seem anything remarkable at first. Dolph was used to seeing his father's bank transaction reports so large numbers wasn't anything unusual. But when he took a second glance at the amount, which was the same as the ransom amount, he was inclined to look through it further.

There were other files he was able to retrieve and Dolph's head was spinning by the time he got through it all. He wished he had a zip drive with him but they left in such a hurry. Then he remembered the server he and Luke shared. Once he was able to access it, he saved the files without leaving a trace that it had been touched.

Quickly, he closed all programs and cleaned up the browsing history then hurried back to his room.

Without further thought, he grabbed his bag and was glad that he didn't bother unpacking. He pulled out a pair of jeans and shirt. After he had gotten dressed, he went over as quietly as he could to Lexie's room and packed her things.

"Lexie? Wake up, baby," he whispered. The little girl grumbled in her sleep when Dolph shook her little frame. So he heaved her up and carried her instead all the way to the hidden staircase at the back of the manor. She only stirred when they reached the garage.

"Daddy?" She lifted her head off of Dolph's shoulder and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. "Wherrre weee going?" she asked looking around her.

"Sshh, baby. We have to be quiet." Dolph considered telling her that they were going back to Brandon's place but then he remembered how desperate his daughter sounded when she'd asked for her other father. She would likely make a noise if she heard Brandon's name.

Dolph had grabbed the keys he had seen lying on a hall table but had no idea which of his father's vehicle it was for. So he pressed a button on the keychain and heard a beep from the car on the opposite side. It was the old silver BMW that he hadn't seen his father use in over a year (not that he'd often seen his father for the past year). He hoped it was enough to get him through security.

When he was driving through the lengthy driveway, Dolph saw the gate up ahead and one of the security personnel stood guard beside it. His heart began to race. He threw a silent prayer in the air that they make it out of the place with little effort.

They had to. Because after everything he'd discovered, he realized that he had actually walked into the lion's den, with his daughter in tow. He took a deep breath as he slowed the car down. He will see us, he will see us. Dolph regretted not having taken one of the heavily tinted cars. If only he knew where to find the keys.

The man now stood a few meters away and was looking through the windshield. Dolph recognized him as one of the few people who had been working for his father for as long as he could remember. To his surprise, the man – Frank, if he remembered correctly – just nodded when Dolph caught his gaze. Then he stepped aside and pressed a button on the control panel.

Soon, the steel gates moved and Dolph nodded back to the man whose eyes never left the car until they drove away.

=====

Sunlight bathed the edge of the makeshift bed that stood on one side of the holding cell. The soft glow crept across the rumpled sheets, forming shadows of the parallel bars on the window where the light pierced through.

Brandon's eyes struggled to adjust to the brightness, rubbing them with the pad of his fingers. He stifled a yawn when he heard his name and quickly sat up, the denims stretched against his crotch painfully. This was why he hated sleeping with his jeans on.

"Come on." The cop unlocked the cell. "I don't have all day."

Brandon hadn't heard what the cop said before that so he was at a loss but judging from the cop's gestures, he presumed that the man was beckoning him to follow. So Brandon dragged himself out of bed.

"You're lucky someone cares enough to bail you out this early," the cop said and Brandon wondered who the 'Good Samaritan' was. He hadn't really been able to get in touch with anyone since he was knocked out cold and woke up to an empty cell.

The cop brought him to a table where he got his things back then led him out into the main office where several officers were chattering about some headliner story he couldn't care enough to pay attention. At the far side, he saw Lukas and Alex speaking with another cop. Lukas waved at him.

"Thank you again for your assistance," Lukas was saying as he shook the hand of the cop who in turn thanked Lukas.

"We're the ones who should thank you. We've been trying to get to the bottom of this case for so long, you have no idea," the cop – Sgt. Marty Stevens, according to his name tag – said. Not one of the police detectives who had brought Brandon in was around.

"Well, I don't think I can take all the credit." Lukas rubbed the back of his neck, looking all flustered.

"Right." Sgt. Stevens gave a curt nod. "Please extend our gratitude to Mr. Lambert. " Then he turned to Brandon and shook his hand before asking to be excused.

"You ready to go?" Lukas had his arm extended as if he was going to usher Brandon out of there. "Alex will be driving your car, if you don't mind. I can drive you in my car back to Pittsburgh. There are some things I need to tell you."

"Sure." Brandon tossed his car keys over to Alex who agreed to meet them both at Brandon's house. Brandon was about to get into the passenger side of Lukas' car when he caught a glimpse of Det. Hansen, Det. Vidal and the other police detectives who he'd recently met being dragged into the station by other cops. "So what's going on?" he asked Lukas as he slid into the car.

It was only after they'd pulled out of the parking lot and were cruising the busy roads of Philadelphia when Lukas finally spoke. "We were right about the conspiracy," he said, easing the car into the highway that would bring them out of the city and into the conjunction roads. "Alex's suspicion about Sergeant Sulik was right all along. He was indeed involved in the kidnapping. Or he was, at least, an accessory to the crime."

"Fuck." Fury coursed throughout Brandon's body and the hands resting on his thighs clenched into fists.

"There's more." Lukas' voice had gone low and was tarnished with solemnity. Brandon could feel Lukas watching him through the corner of his eye, could feel the pressure of Lukas' stolen glances. "I'm not sure if you're ready to hear it but you have to, one way or another."

"Lukas?"

"Yeah?"

"Just fucking tell me what it is." Brandon was counting in his head, trying to hold back his temper.

"Sulik wasn't alone in this of course. He was just a puppet." Lukas spoke of the sergeant like he was stupid enough to get himself involved in a conspiracy that almost turned around to bite him in the ass. "But when he learned that the mastermind of it all was planning to set him up, he began to sing a different tune. He named every person involved in the fiasco."

"The detectives?" As if Brandon needed to ask.

"Hansen, Vidal, Carradine," Lukas cited and went on mentioning others whose names didn't ring a bell. "They got paid with quite a sum. If you'd recall, I told you that my hacker managed to trace bank transactions under Hansen and Vidal's personal accounts a few days back." Lukas explained that it was a rather unusual amount because police detectives didn't earn that much.

They were passing through the city of Harrisburg. The sun was almost directly above them. Fortunately, the cool morning breeze still lingered.

"Do I have to ask who the mastermind is?" Brandon had thought of it once, but then he dismissed it as a ridiculous presumption. The man might be manipulative, but he wouldn't do something extreme, right?

Wrong.

"I think you know who he is" was Lukas' conclusive response. The P.I. glanced at him twice then he sighed in what Brandon guessed was resignation. "He'd been brought in for questioning the moment we received the information. He said he only did it because he wanted his son to realize that he still needed his father."

"Fuck." Several strings of curses slipped past Brandon's lips before he could get a grip on himself to say something coherent. "What kind of sick excuse is that?"

"I know." Lukas further conveyed what went on during Devlin Lambert's interrogation. He said the man didn't seem to feel any remorse over what he'd done, only stated that he never meant to do his granddaughter any harm.

"Does Dolph know already?"

"He was the one who tipped Alex." Brandon could've had whiplash when he turned his head abruptly. Lukas gave a low laugh. "Trust me. I had the same reaction when Alex called me."

Dolph apparently had stumbled on several files that showed Devlin Lambert had withdrawn the exact amount needed for the ransom the day Lexie was kidnapped. Then four days later, the same amount was transferred back to the same account from a bank in Switzerland. They later found out that the Swiss account was under a false name that the councilor used to hide some of his income from his business to evade tax.

"It was Dolph who found out that his father had likewise planned to set up Sergeant Sulik," Lukas added. "He'd taken the first step by asking Sulik to close the kidnapping case so anyone who would find out would suspect that Sulik may have been involved in the crime."

They reached Pittsburgh in no time.

"How did Dolph find those files anyway?" Brandon shifted on his seat. The bunk at the holding cell wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep in and now he was starting to feel the strain on his back.

"He said he meant to send you an email, but then he found some protected files on his father's computer so he got curious and hacked on it." Lukas sounded amused. "Your boyfriend has some skills. And guts."

"You have no idea."

They drove in silence for the next few minutes until they reached Brandon's house. There were a couple of cars parked at his side of the street and he glanced at Lukas inquiringly.

"Alex sent some of the civilian cops from his district to keep an eye out on Dolph and Lexie" was the explanation Lukas gave. He drove the car up Brandon's driveway. "He thought marked cars might cause alarm around the neighborhood and he didn't want to raise such attention."

Brandon couldn't be more grateful for Alex's rationality. "Remind me to thank him later." He caught a glimpse of his SUV climbing up his driveway. He got out of Lukas' car and nodded toward Alex who was just bringing his own vehicle to a stop. Eager to see Dolph and his daughter, Brandon mumbled an excuse and rushed inside his house.

It was Josh who Brandon ran into first. A smile graced Josh's lips the moment he saw Brandon and yelled, "He's here!"

Then Lexie came running into the foyer yelling, "Papa! Papa!" just as Brandon was slipping out of his jacket. Before Brandon could even get his thoughts together, he dropped on one knee and was arm-filled with a three year old who kept chanting, "Mishu Papa. Mishu Papa," and peppering him with butterfly kisses across his face.

Brandon felt like his heart was going to burst when he held Lexie tight and buried his face in her hair, breathing in her baby scent. She smelled like strawberry and vanilla. When he found his voice, he whispered, "I'm here now, baby. Papa's here."

When Brandon finally lifted his face, he saw Dolph watching them, his eyes brimming with tears. He had one hand pressed against his chest and the other over his mouth. Brandon got to his feet, heaving Lexie up with him. "Hey you," he told Dolph, whose hands dropped to his sides and walked over to where Brandon stood.

"Hey, stranger." Dolph's voice cracked although Brandon could tell he meant to tease, and Brandon could feel one corner of his mouth twist.

"Missed me?" Brandon could swear he heard someone squeal. He took a step closer to Dolph until they were a hair's breath in proximity. Lexie was quietly resting on his side.

"More than you know" were the words that went past Dolph's lips before it met Brandon's own in a gentle, sensual kiss.

Everything around them ceased to exist for a while and all Brandon could hear were the beating of their hearts. But then—

"Me too! Me too! Papa, Daddy, kiss me too!" Lexie screamed, tapping her little hand against their cheeks.

=====

"They say the initial hearing will be in two weeks." Brandon tossed his phone over to the bedside table. "Alex thinks it will really help expedite the court's decision if you testify."

It was a difficult decision to make. Testifying against his father never occurred to him but Dolph knew the hearing was for the crime that could've caused psychological damage to his daughter. Regardless of the selfish reason behind it all, the thought that his father risked Lexie's life made his blood churn.

Conceding seemed to be the most probable option for Dolph. Not wanting his thoughts to dwell on his father, he said, "So when are you going to tell me you hired a private investigator?"

"Well." A small smile played on Brandon's lips as he climbed on the bed, prompting Dolph to set the paperback he'd been reading aside. "I was supposed to tell you that day when I got back from Lukas' office. But then you were gone by the time I got home. I should've told you sooner, I'm sorry."

"Hey." Dolph leaned back against the headboard and reached out to cup Brandon's face. "You don't need to apologize, you know. I was just wondering how Luke and Josh knew about it before I did." It was Luke whom Dolph first ran to after he had escaped from his father's clutches. Dolph drove all night, or rather, all morning. Once Dolph had explained to his cousin what he had discovered as concisely as he could, Luke suggested they contacted Lt. Orioli and Lukas.

"I didn't tell them either actually." Brandon leaned into Dolph's touch. "They sort of just figured it out when they've met Lukas." He took hold of Dolph's other hand and began rubbing on Dolph's palm with his thumb.

"I'm just glad it's over now." Dolph raised his shoulder in a half shrug and when Brandon leaned back on the headboard, Dolph rested his head against the other man's shoulder. He snuggled closer when he felt Brandon's arm coil around him.

Wordless minutes passed like a breeze humming hushed lullabies while they wallowed in each other's embrace, letting the bliss of their rekindled romance blanket them.

It wasn't until Brandon nudged him, saying, "Hey, don't fall asleep on me," that Dolph stirred.

"I wasn't." Dolph buried his face in the crook of Brandon's neck, his fingers tracing circles on Brandon's chest. A smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth when he heard Brandon whimper. He felt Brandon's hand crawl underneath his shirt, gliding lightly along his skin, his cock reacting to the touch.

"Hmm…" Brandon hummed, his fingers exploring the plains of Dolph's abdomen. Light, soft touches sent goose bumps down Dolph's arms and rose rapidly to the back of his neck. When Dolph issued out a strangled whimper, Brandon pulled his hand away and shifted, tilting his head to peer into Dolph's face. "Was that okay? I mean…"

Dolph curved his mouth up into a lazy smile. He blinked, batting his eyelashes flirtatiously, pushing his lower lip between his teeth, then bopped his head up and down in a single nod. "I, uh…" Dolph started, feeling the heat rise across the surface of his cheeks, "it's been a long time… I mean, I've never really done it with anyone else after you." He tugged playfully at the fabric of Brandon's tee shirt that was caught between his thumb and forefinger.

"Seriously?" Brandon had one eyebrow raised, his face lined with incredulity. "For four years?"

"Well, yeah." The reasons why Dolph hadn't had any sex for so long ran through Dolph's mind. Some of which ran along the lines of - one - him being a single father. Two - he couldn't lie about Lexie, so whenever someone he was dating found out about her, they were out the door faster than Dolph could say 'it's been nice knowing you'. Three - he had never really gotten over Brandon; and – "Wait. Why do you sound skeptic over the fact that I haven't had any sex for so long?"

"Because…" One corner of Brandon's mouth twisted and he had this... this look that could only mean he was flirting. Or teasing. He fixed Dolph with a heart-melting gaze, which made Dolph feel like Brandon was undressing him with his eyes. "It's unlikely you wouldn't. It's so not you" was Brandon's response and it was Dolph's turn to arch an eyebrow.

"Excuse me?" Dolph sat up on his knees and grabbed a pillow, attempted to smack Brandon on the head. But Brandon clutched on it, laughing and struggling to speak.

"Weren't y-you—" The words came out choked and in between breaths. Brandon's eyes had began to water. When his laughter finally simmered down to erratic chuckles, he went on, saying, "Weren't you always horny and insatiable?"

"Me?" Dolph yanked the pillow out of Brandon's grasp and aimed to smack Brandon on the chest this time. But Brandon had his arms up in defense and was quick to snatch the pillow away from Dolph. Again. He grabbed Dolph by his arm.

Dolph lost his balance when Brandon pulled him down and he was soon trapped in Brandon's arms. He felt Brandon's thigh against his hip, guiding him to slide further on top of his boyfriend. A stifled moan rippled through his throat when his cloth-covered length brushed against Brandon's.

"What about you?" Dolph said, trying to sound unaffected. No other words tumbled out, Brandon's forehead creased and confusion was written all over his face. Dolph cleared his throat before attempting to rephrase. "I mean, did you find someone else? After we, uhm… we broke up?" Dolph hoped Brandon would be able to read between the lines, would know that Dolph specifically wanted to know if Brandon had sex with anyone after they had gone their separate ways.

A shadow went past Brandon's eyes furtively. Something Dolph couldn't decipher. But whatever it was that struggled to break free out of Brandon's hindbrain was soon masked with a carefree façade. With a shrug of one shoulder, he said, "I've had flings here and there. You know how irresistible I am." Brandon then wiggled his hips, his half-hard cock rubbed against Dolph's in the process, causing Dolph to gasp.

"And you said I'm the horny one." Dolph couldn't help but tease.

Brandon raised his head and claimed Dolph's mouth. Dolph soon fell into the kiss, parting his lips when prodded; then he felt Brandon's tongue curling around his own. Brandon only pulled away when he yanked Dolph's undershirt up over his head and before Brandon could kiss him again, Dolph tugged on Brandon's tee shirt, urging his boyfriend to take it off. Then Brandon's lips were back on his, brushing and gliding and-

Brandon rolled them over until Dolph's back was pressed against the mattress.

Warm hands glided along Dolph's sides, making Dolph quiver with want. Every inch of his skin burned under Brandon's touch. And when he felt the pad of Brandon's thumb brush across his nipple, thrill shot throughout his body all the way down to the tip of his toes.

The feeling of Brandon's soft, wet lips against his neck set his whole body on fire. Dolph could feel the ripples of longing surging underneath his skin. Brandon paused to suck on Dolph's pulse point, and the initial reaction that hit Dolph like lightning was oh God, it would leave a mark. But then... then he realized that it shouldn't bother him, that he shouldn't mind at all. He had offered his heart to Brandon, now he was willing to surrender his body, like he did four years ago. This was where he truly belonged. In Brandon's arms. On Brandon's bed – their bed.

The slightly coarse, velvet-like surface of Brandon's tongue licked a wet trail down Dolph's chest, pulling out sounds from deep within Dolph that he didn't recognize was his own. He had his eyes closed, feeling lost in the heedful caress of Brandon's hands and the stimulating feeling of Brandon's lips when it closed around his nipple. The tip of Brandon's tongue teased his hardened nub, making Dolph squirm and mewl.

Dolph's felt his cock stir when Brandon started tugging at the waistband of his boxers, pulling it off of him in one swift movement. A soft gasp went past Dolph's lips when he felt the warmth of Brandon's palm rubbing his balls, palming and rubbing and oh... oh...

Brandon's hand left the curve of his groin and through half-lidded eyes, Dolph watched Brandon hover above him. His toes curled when he felt Brandon's hand wrapped around the base of his cock and he squeaked when Brandon gave his length a gentle tug.

A cloud - white and passion red - settled in Dolph's mind, leaving him dazed and wanton and hungry for more, more, more. He was too caught up in lustful thoughts that he didn't catch what Brandon had uttered. But then Brandon spoke again, said, "I want you," his voice low and rough, almost growling against Dolph's ear.

Dolph squeaked in response, his heart raced, blood rushing through his ears, his mind screaming. Begging. Pleading. The words "take me, pleeeassse" poured out of his parted lips.

A low, salacious growl tore through Brandon's throat like a hungry predator's. Or maybe it was him, Dolph couldn't tell anymore. He was too lost. Too lost in the riptide of sensations that overwhelmed him.

Brandon dove down to nip and bite and suck on Dolph's collarbone while the fingers around Dolph's cock tightened, tugging twice before getting into a steady rhythm of stroking. Incoherent words rained from Dolph's lips, his fingernails digging on Brandon's back.

When Dolph felt Brandon descend, his mind went haywire. Trying to keep his eyes open and his mind intact was quite a task. Something twisted in Dolph's stomach when he felt Brandon's tongue trace a path down Dolph's torso, setting every inch of his skin on fire. Then Brandon moved further down south, pausing only to lick inside the hollow of Dolph's navel before gliding down to Dolph's erection.

This was it. Dolph was now surrendering his whole self – body, heart and soul – to the man he loves. Brandon's burning touches once had unleashed his inner lust, leaving him debauched and unhinged.

Dolph's eyes sprang open when he felt Brandon's hot breath against his crotch. A lump lodged in Dolph's throat when he looked down to see Brandon's face right beside his erection, a half smirk sitting on his lips, eyes glazed and dark. Dolph wedged his lower lip between his teeth when he saw Brandon's tongue touch the tip of his cock's head. But Dolph couldn't bite back the whimper that escaped from him.

The soft sounds Dolph made evolved into a long-drawn um... something that sounded like a tortured animal when Brandon pressed the warm flesh of his tongue against the underside of Dolph's penis. And when Brandon's mouth - warm and wet - wrapped around Dolph's length, Dolph suddenly lost the ability to think straight.

Deep guttural moan rumbled in Dolph's chest as soon as Brandon started moving, bobbing his head, swallowing Dolph's cock and - and- Brandon's lips hardened around the shaft as he went down on Dolph, licking and sucking, tongue teasing the underside of the cock head before sliding down and taking Dolph's entire length deep into his warm mouth. Heat surged through Dolph's body, blood pooling at the bottom of Dolph's belly.

Dolph reached down by impulse, fingers tangling in Brandon's hair. Then he threw his head back against the pillow. He was close. "I want…" Words couldn't form, not even in his head. All Dolph could do was moan in pleasure. Orgasm swirled - hot and burning in his belly. Dolph writhed and squirmed but Brandon held him down, hands clutched tightly on Dolph's hip.

Then it happened - hot burst of white flashed behind Dolph's closed eyelids. His whole body trembled as heat flowed through his veins with Brandon's mouth coaxing his cock to release, jets of cum streaming down Brandon's throat.

Sated, Dolph remained still, eyes closed. He parted his lips on impulse when he felt Brandon's own. "Oh God" was the first thing Dolph said after breaking out of his euphoria. Brandon was still on top of him, rubbing his erection against Dolph's now flaccid cock. The friction caused Dolph's penis to stir but he knew it would be a while before it came back to life. "Brandon," he said, his voice edging on uncertainty. "I want- I... Please."

"Please what, babe?" Brandon's voice was soft, barely above whisper.

Dolph could see the depths of lust and something else in Brandon's eyes. "I want to feel you inside me."

As if Dolph had uttered a magic word, Brandon's mouth was all over him in an instant, licking and kissing and gently nipping along the sensitive spots on his neck down to his clavicle. Then Brandon pulled away. And Dolph's eyes widened when Brandon pushed his boxers down, releasing his fully erect cock, all swollen and red and... and absolutely mouth-watering.

Dolph's tongue slipped past his lips and swiped along the surface. His mouth had suddenly gone dry. He pushed up with his elbow and crawled over to where Brandon was kneeling. The thirst burned inside Dolph and he wanted to taste Brandon, feel his lover grow even harder inside his mouth.

His eager, trembling hand reached out and coiled around Brandon's cock and guided it to his lips, loving the way he twitched when Dolph wrapped his lips around him then sucked slowly, gently, easing the shaft deeper into his mouth. How he missed the way Brandon tasted - so masculine. So, so Brandon. Soon Dolph was bobbing his head in a steady rhythm, enjoying the layer of pre-cum coating his tongue. The musky, heady smell of the patch of dark hair where Dolph's nose was buried was intoxicating, leaving him too entranced that he sucked Brandon's cock deeper until the head hit the back of his throat.

Dolph could hear Brandon grunting, breathing heavily and then felt Brandon tense, felt Brandon's hand grope at the back of his head, fingers carding through his hair. A strangled "fuck, Dolph" resounded above him.

Brandon gently pulled Dolph's head away until his cock slid out of Dolph's mouth. "Not yet, baby. I still want to be inside you," he said before sliding off of the bed. He rummaged through the drawer of his bedside table then made his way back to Dolph with a couple of condoms and lube in hand.

Before Dolph could ease his mind and convince his heartbeat to slow down a bit, Brandon's lips were on his and his boyfriend was slowly lowering him until Dolph was lying flat on his back. He heard the snapping of the tube and soon felt something cold against the crack of his ass.

The feeling of Brandon's finger circling his entrance was nearly undoing Dolph. He spread his legs lewdly and clutched helplessly on the sheets beneath him to keep himself under control. Brandon took his time, kissing Dolph, teasing the sensitive spot behind Dolph's earlobe with his tongue.

The distraction worked somehow and Brandon was soon pushing a finger inside Dolph, stretching him and it didn't take long for Dolph to get used to it. Then Brandon added another finger. And another, pushing deeper. When Brandon's fingertips grazed against Dolph's sensitive spot, Dolph's hips bucked and he almost screamed. "Oh! Oh Brandon! Fuck meeeee!"

A string of profanities spilled out of Dolph's mouth while Brandon continued to plow through him with his fingers and Dolph was soon begging and begging and begging. "Please, now. Please."

Dolph's vision glazed over but he could still see Brandon, see him tear at the foil wrapper with his teeth then roll the condom over his thick, long shaft. The sight sent a wave of anticipation surging through Dolph's entirety.

Brandon's face twisted in some sort of struggle - perhaps with self-control - when he raised both Dolph's legs against his shoulders. He leaned in to capture Dolph's mouth in a fiery kiss and the first words that skipped out of him when he pulled away were "You okay?" Dolph didn't offer a response, not even a nod. Instead, he wedged his lower lip between his teeth and bucked his hip high enough to rub his ass against Brandon's crotch.

"Fuck, Dolph. You'll be the death of me." Brandon clutched at Dolph's hip with one hand while he guided his cock (Dolph presumed) toward Dolph's entrance with the other.

Feeling the tip of Brandon's cock push inside him gave Dolph a fleeting reminiscence of the past. Maybe this was fate – that they were meant to be together. And the empty void that grew inside him throughout the years without Brandon by his side was soon filled with a sense of belonging.Promises were whispered in his ear while Brandon continued to push deeper and deeper and Dolph felt himself come undone. Dolph looked up at his lover, thin film of sweat coated Brandon's body, the swell of muscles along Brandon's arms and shoulders moved while he continued to thrust his cock inside Dolph, grunting with every push. And Dolph's moans mingled with the sounds Brandon made.

They soon fell into a rhythm, with Dolph meeting Brandon's thrusts. Dolph could feel Brandon's cock throbbing inside him, filling him, creating a delicious friction that sent chills up Dolph's spine.

"I'm close," came Brandon's voice, rough and distant.

Dolph likewise needed to release. Again. So his hand crept between them, wrapping around his own cock.

But then Brandon grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand away to replace them with Brandon's own. Brandon began stroking, slowly at first. Then the pace of Brandon's strokes soon matched his thrusts. Brandon's forehead was pressed on Dolph's shoulder, sucking lightly on a spot, spurring Dolph to come.

When Dolph's orgasm tore through him violently, his fingers dug into Brandon's arms, mouth parted in a silent scream.

Not long after, Brandon followed. With his last thrust, Brandon bit on Dolph's shoulder and Dolph could feel Brandon's teeth sinking into his skin while Brandon's body shivered. Then Brandon collapsed beside him, pulling him closer with what he presumed was Brandon's remaining strength.

The fingers that were idly combing through Dolph's hair was lulling Dolph to sleep. "Brandon?" Dolph felt he had to say something before completely falling into slumber. He felt Brandon hum against the top of his head. "Thank you. For giving me a second chance."

Dolph lifted his head from Brandon's shoulder when Brandon shifted and he was soon looking into Brandon's brown eyes. "No, Dolph," he said, brushing some strands of hair off of Dolph's face with his finger. "Thank you. Because it was you who gave me a second chance."

A new promise was made and was sealed when Brandon's mouth descended on Dolph's, burying the painful memories and clearing the shades of their past so they could face a brighter future ahead. Together.

=====

Epilogue:

"Can we put Christmas lights on the bushes as well, Papa?" Six-year old Lexie asked, her little finger pointing at a Hydrangea bushes that lined along the fences.

"Sure, princess. After Papa's done with this tree, okay?" Brandon carefully coiled the remaining yard of Christmas lights around the lower branches of a Mimosa tree.

It was their first Christmas at their new home. Brandon had decided to expand his business up north, leaving his Pittsburgh office under his brother's management. Besides, Dolph wanted to move out of state so they found a peaceful suburban area in Albany early that year. It was likewise an ideal place to raise their children.

"Papa, look! There's a big car coming."

Brandon's eyes followed the direction where Lexie's finger was pointing at and saw a long black limousine rolling into their street. He watched with utmost curiosity as it stopped right in front of their lawn. But his heart began to pound wildly when a heavy feeling settled in his gut and his senses went overdrive, filling his mind with a vague idea on who he was about to see.

And of course, his instincts never failed him. The driver had rounded the car and Brandon watched as the young man opened the rear door, revealing the man whom he had not expected to see after everything that happened several years ago.

"Lexie, sweetie," Brandon said, waving his arm toward the front door. "Why don't you run inside and see if the cookies Daddy's baking are done?"

"Okay." But before Lexie could move, the man called out her name. She quickly clung on Brandon, her little arms going around his hips. "Who is he, Papa? Why does he know my name?"

Brandon wasn't surprised at all that Lexie didn't remember her grandfather. She was three years old when she last saw him and Dolph made sure he was never mentioned when Lexie was around. Brandon couldn't blame Dolph for holding a grudge against his own father. After all, Devlin Lambert was selfish enough not to think of the consequences of his actions when he had Lexie kidnapped hoping that Dolph would realize he still needed his father's protection.

"What the f—" Brandon managed to stop the word from slipping out of his mouth, remembering that his daughter was with him. His husband would have a fit if he found out that Lexie had heard him curse. "What in the world are you doing here, Devlin? And how the he—how did you find us?"

The man visibly recoiled and Brandon thought that he might've sounded too hostile. But why the fuck would he care?

"Please, Brandon, uh-I just want to see my granddaughter and my son." Like hell. Although the voice that came out of Devlin took Brandon by surprise. It wasn't the authoritative, firm voice he was used to hearing. Instead, it was timid and weak.

The irony of the scenario was laughable, if Brandon didn't feel pity for the man. He was half tempted to blurt out, like you listened to me when I came begging you to let me talk to your son, but instead, what came out was, "Aren't you supposed to be in jail?" Which he belatedly realized was equally harsh.

"I." The vulnerability that veiled over Devlin's face was noticeable. "I got out on parole for good behavior."

Brandon couldn't help but snort. His gaze dropped on his daughter, whose hands were still clutching on his pant leg and the back of his shirt. "Get inside, baby." And Lexie seemed reluctant but she nodded nonetheless and went hastily inside their house. Brandon could hear her yelling for her daddy. "We have a restraining order against you, Devlin, you know that." Oh man, how the tables had turned.

But Brandon couldn't stay heartless for long. He felt his resoluteness melt away when Devlin raised a wrinkled hand and clutched at a bar on the gate. "Please, Brandon." It was then Brandon noted the changes on Devlin's features. He looked older than he did before, even though just three years had passed, the man still looked frailer than Brandon would've expected. And the tough exterior was replaced with a fragile-looking facade.

"Hun?" Dolph's voice broke into his reverie. He whipped his head in time to see his husband sauntering into the lawn carrying their ten-month old son, Russell, and Lexie at his heel. Then their yellow Labrador, Felix, came bounding after Lexie. Brandon noticed that Dolph's eyes were immediately on his father and he couldn't help but raise an eyebrow when Dolph blurted out, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Devlin stuttered out his response, pleading Dolph to speak with him. Then Devlin's gaze fell on their son. "I-is th-that my grandson?"

"Please. Just leave" was Dolph's stern response. And even Brandon cringed at the firmness on his tone. He hadn't heard Dolph so austere, not even when they argued. When Devlin opened his mouth to speak, Dolph cut him off, saying, "Don't make me call the police. I can charge you for harassment." With that, Dolph turned on his heel, grabbed Lexie's hand and walked back into the house without another word.

Nothing was said about the surprise visit the whole day. Brandon didn't want to provoke Dolph so he chose not to bring it up.

Brandon was in the middle of feeding Russell when Dolph finally said something about it. "I can't believe he had the nerve to show up after everything he did." Dolph dropped the knife he was using to cut the meat they were having for dinner at the kitchen counter. Brandon could see him trembling.

"Babe." Brandon wiped Russell's face with his bib before getting up and moseyed over to his husband, sliding his arms around Dolph's middle from behind. "Hey. Don't let it upset you," he cooed, pressing a kiss on Dolph's temple.

"Eeww." They both spun around to see Lexie standing in front of her brother. Russell apparently rubbed some applesauce on his head and chunks of it were stuck on his blond hair.

"Oh no," Dolph said, wiping his hand with the kitchen towel. The baby looked up at them innocently with his big blue eyes. "I'll go clean him up. Can you finish getting our dinner ready?"

"Of course." Brandon gave Dolph a quick peck on his lips and slapped his butt cheek before he sauntered out of the kitchen holding Russell at arms length.

Night soon draped over them. Once the kids had climbed into the comfortable embrace of slumber, Brandon slipped into bed and waited for his husband to finish brushing his teeth. He was staring up at the ceiling for some time, his thoughts lingering to what had happened earlier when Dolph finally came to join him. Dolph snuggled into his arm and nuzzled the side of his face.

The lack of reaction from Brandon probably prompted Dolph to ask, "What are you thinking?"

Brandon didn't respond right away. He contemplated whether to bring it up or just shove it at the back of his mind and forget about it eventually. But he knew it was going to consume his conscience sooner or later, so…

"Love, didn't it ever cross your mind that— I don't know," Brandon said with a half shrug as he met his husband's gaze. Dolph had his brows furrowed. "Didn't you ever consider forgiving your father?"

What Brandon didn't expect was for Dolph not to put up any defense. Instead, his eyelids drooped and Brandon didn't utter any word, deciding to give Dolph time to think.

After what seemed like an eternity, Dolph's eyes were back on his. "I have. Actually. But I wasn't sure you would agree." The sincerity that danced across Dolph's face was enough to make Brandon's heart melt.

"Hey." Brandon raised his hand to stroke Dolph's cheek with the back of his fingers. "I may despise him for what he did, but I think he deserves a second chance. Just like the chance I was given to make things right with you." Brandon somehow thought that everything Dolph's father did was a blessing in disguise. If Devlin had not come up with a scheme to have Lexie kidnapped, Brandon wouldn't have found his way back to Dolph's life. For that, he was somehow grateful.

Shivers rippled down his spine when he felt the cool tip of Dolph's finger gliding along the edge of his lips. "Alright," Dolph said, hope flashing in his eyes. "I'll… I'll call him tomorrow. Maybe invite him over for Christmas dinner so he could meet Russell and get to spend time with Lexie."

Brandon brought his hand at the back of Dolph's head and pulled Dolph close until their foreheads were pressed together. "I love you."

Dolph's breath ghosted over Brandon's lips. "And I love you," Dolph whispered before closing the gap.

As an afterthought, Brandon hoped that they would have something more to write about that Christmas in their 'Book of Milestones' so that his children would learn the value of second chances regardless of how dark the shades of the past had been.

- end -