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Two Faces

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Two Faces by Alyjude

 

 

Chicago, Illinois

The man stepped out of his hotel room and hitched his bag higher up on his shoulder. He bent down and picked up the free USA Today, rolled it up, stuck it under his arm and started down the hall. At the elevator he waited patiently while a small boy, belonging to the family of four standing not so patiently in front of the door, punched the up and down buttons relentlessly. Fortunately the elevator had a mind of its own and the down light came on. Seconds later, a bright, cheery ping signaled the arrival of the elevator.

The tall, rangy, brown-haired, blue-eyed man let the family precede him, then he got on, punched the 'L' and they were on their way down.

At the lobby, the family hustled their way out, the father picking up the rambunctious button-punching boy. As the four moved away, the tall man moved to the counter to check out. The clerk took his key card, murmured the usual platitudes about hoping he'd enjoyed his stay, then presented him with his receipt. Pocketing it, he moved away and headed for the exit to the underground garage.

"JIM!"

Turning at the sound of his name, the man spotted a tall redhead rushing toward him. He stopped and smiled as he waited for the redhead.

"Man, I'm glad I caught you. Mardoni forgot to give this to you the other night."

Jim took the offered package, turned it in his fingers, then glanced up, a frown marring his handsome features. "What is it, Buck?"

"Damned if I know. He just said 'give it to your boss'. He also said to thank him for loaning you out. Maybe it's a thank-you gift?"

Looking skeptical, Jim said, "Oh, sure." Then he held it up to his ear and grinned. "Well, it ain't ticking so it must be safe."

The man called Buck slapped Jim on the back and chuckled. "Come on, you know Mardoni worships your boss. You take care and hopefully we'll see each other again. Have a good flight."

"Thanks Buck. Watch your back."

"Always, always."

The two men shook, then Jim took his leave after stuffing the small package in the pocket of his bag. Once in the garage he headed for the rental, a Ford Taurus. After stowing his luggage in the backseat he slid in behind the wheel, started up and carefully backed out. He made a left onto the street and headed for the airport.

Traffic on the expressway was light and he made surprisingly good time. At this rate, he'd have better than two hours before his flight would be called. Time to make a call to Rainier.

Ahead of him and one lane to his right, an SUV bounced merrily along, completely unaware of both loose and missing lug nuts. As the SUV hit 70 MPH, the last of the lug nuts spun away and the tire flew off. At the same moment, the Volkswagen in front of the Taurus moved over one lane to the left, leaving the Taurus vulnerable to the flying missile that the tire had become.

Jim spotted the black object far too late. It smashed into the driver's side of the windshield. There was an explosion of safety glass, incredible pain -- and Jim knew nothing else.

*****

Seattle, Washington

Carl Levy stared at the fax in his hand. This was fucking unbelievable. Talk about breaks. Rushing out of the communications room, he went first to his office, rifled through his files, spotted the one he needed, grabbed it, then nearly ran to the Director's office.

"Janet, I need to see him. Now."

The woman frowned, then picked up the phone. "Sir, Agent Levy is here and says he must see --"

"Tell him it's about Morrison."

"He says it's about Morrison." She nodded and put down the phone. "Go on in, Carl."

"Thanks."

FBI Agent Carl Levy moved into Director Phillips' office, a huge smile on his face.

"Well, you look pretty happy, Carl. Some magical informant pop up that will help us put Morrison behind bars for the rest of the century?"

"Better sir, better. His number-one man was just killed in a freak accident in Illinois. My counterpart in the Chicago office was on it right away and has put the kibosh on any information leaking out. We have the opportunity of a lifetime."

Director Robert Phillips, twenty-nine years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, frowned as he regarded one his best agents. "How does the death of James O'Keefe deliver the opportunity of a lifetime to us, Carl?"

Opening the manila folder in his hand, Carl took out an eight-by-ten glossy and set it down in front of his boss. "This is how, sir."

Phillips stared at the picture before him. His frown deepened. "Explain."

"That is a photograph of Detective James Joseph Ellison. Major Crime detective out of Cascade. He made quite a stir in law enforcement a couple of weeks ago when he shut down the Sunrise Patriots."

"Yes, I remember. Kincaid got away though."

"Thanks to some bumbling by our own field office in Cascade, sir."

"Always the blunt one, Levy?"

Carl shrugged. "The truth is the truth, sir. And with Morrison opening up his operation in Cascade, well, you have to admit, we truly have a golden opportunity here."

"Are you suggesting we put Detective Ellison in Morrison's operation as Jim O'Keefe?"

"Yes, sir, that's exactly what I'm suggesting. Here's the man's file and he's perfect. Ex-Army Ranger, Covert Operations, and a record with Major Crime that more than speaks for itself. We can get him ready, sir, I'm certain of it."

"And how do we buy the necessary time?"

"Well, nature has already supplied us with some of it. A storm just moved in and all flights out of O'Hare are grounded. The estimates stand at forty-eight hours, maybe more. If we move now --"

"Go. You're in charge, Carl. Make it happen."

Carl Levy smiled.

*****

Cascade, Washington

 

"Simon, there are two FBI agents here to see you."

Captain Simon Banks glanced up from his paperwork in surprise. Two FBI agents and no phone call? "All right, Rhonda, show them in."

The tall blonde nodded, then stepped aside, allowing two men to enter Simon's office. Before she could say a word, the taller of the two stepped forward, hand extended. "Captain Banks, Carl Levy, and this is Agent Sheffield from the local office."

Simon stood and as he shook with both men, he said, "And to what do I owe this visit?"

Shooting a glance at Rhonda, who still stood by the door, Levy said, "If we could have some priv--"

"Rhonda, thank you. Hold my calls."

"Yes, sir."

The moment the door shut, Carl Levy started right in. "Captain Banks, I'm from the Seattle office and one of my cases involves the Morrison Family."

One eyebrow arched as Simon whistled. "Morrison, eh? We've been getting a few rumors around town about the man."

"The rumors are true. He's moving his operation into Cascade. And we have been given the ace of spades, sir. The method to bring him down. But we need your help."

"I'm listening."

"Morrison's number-one man was killed earlier today in Chicago. A traffic accident. His name was James O'Keefe."

Simon frowned. The name was completely unfamiliar and he prided himself on his ability to stay current with any possible threats to his city. Levy, seeing the frown and correctly interpreting it, said, "Don't worry about not knowing who O'Keefe was. He was a master of keeping to the shadows and, until several weeks ago, was in South America. Morrison pulled him out to put him in charge of Cascade. And this is where you come in."

Levy set his briefcase on the edge of Simon's desk, popped it open and removed two pictures, which he promptly laid in front of Banks. Pointing at the one on the right, he said, "O'Keefe." Then he pointed at the one on the left and said, "Ellison."

Simon sucked in a breath. The resemblance was astonishing. "Holy shit."

"Yes, sir," Carl Levy said with a grin.

 

*****

Jim Ellison stood on the sidewalk rubbing his ungloved hands together, trying to get warm. Beside him, Henri Brown moved from foot to foot, his impatience obvious.

"The men's room is just inside, Brown."

"Yuk-yuk, Ellison."

In front of them, two cars sat nicely wrapped around each other, smoke drifting up, colored by the whirling red and white lights of squad cars that now surrounded the collision site. Glass crunched under foot as firemen worked to pry the bodies out, and crime scene investigators walked about snapping pictures from all angles.

"Banks is gonna have our asses, Ellison."

"Why? We stopped them, didn't we? And isn't your car intact?" At Brown's nod, Jim went on. "Yeah, and so is mine. We managed to keep the city safe while ensuring that the only people those guys took out -- were each other. I'd say a job well done."

Brown couldn't argue with the logic. He'd leave that to their captain.

A chirp from Ellison's pocket alerted both men to the fact that maybe their boss had already been informed of the high-speed chase that had resulted in the crash they were staring at now. Jim took out the cellphone, flipped it open and said tersely, "Ellison."

"I need you back here, pronto. Wrap it up, Detective."

"Already have, sir. Mendoza, Rawlings, and Hernandez won't be giving us any more problems."

A sigh on the other end told Jim that Simon had figured out that he wasn't gonna want hear about the hows and whys.

"Get back here, now.

"On my way, sir."

Smiling, he pocketed the phone. "Looks like I'm leaving this in your capable hands, Brown. See you back at the station."

"Asshole."

"Yep."

*****

As Jim drove back to the station, he tried to ignore the signs of Christmas that already adorned the streets and buildings, even though it wasn't even December. God, he hated the holidays. At least Major Crime had so far managed to escape. No one had set up so much as a reindeer -- yet.

He pulled into the garage, then his parking space. As he climbed out of his Jeep, he tossed the keys into the air, then caught them neatly. It had been a good day. A day when the bad guys had lost. And even though he'd had to work with Brown, well, still, not bad at all.

Whistling, he stepped into the elevator and as the door closed with its characteristic chime, he winced. His senses again. Damn. Just when he believed he had a handle on them -- they spiked. Fuck. If only he could make them disappear...

*****

"There are a few things you need to know about Ellison. He's a loner, rarely works with a partner and is barely controllable. He's a good man, one of the best detectives I've ever worked with, but he likes to do things his way."

"Captain Banks, he's going to be deeply undercover. The person you just described is the person we need."

Giving Levy a skeptical look, Simon simply said, "Uh-huh."

A knock on the door forestalled any response. A second later, Jim stuck his head in and said, "Sir, you wanted me?"

Simon stood and motioned the man inside. "Jim, this is Agent Levy from the Seattle office of the FBI, and this is Agent Sheffield from our local office."

Jim stepped in, and immediately scowled, his customary expression when dealing with the Feds. Simon motioned Jim to sit but he shook his head and stepped to the edge of his boss's desk, where he folded his arms across his chest and waited.

Simon coughed a bit, then said, "It seems these gentlemen have a possible way of bringing down Morrison. It also appears that those rumors about the man moving into Cascade are true, Jim."

*****

"So what you're saying is that I go in as O'Keefe?"

Levy nodded. "Basically, that's it. You know what we need to bring the man down. You're our ace in the hole, Detective. And O'Keefe has absolutely no relatives. Up until about three months ago, he was in Bolivia running the drug pipeline into the States. He has no friends here, no one that can trip you up. Only five people here even know the man. Morrison himself, Morrison's lawyer Abel Donovan, Morrison's bodyguard Tony Cohan, his chauffer Joe Wiley, and Morrison's second in command Jeff Leahy. We have time to bring you up to speed, Captain Banks has agreed, Detective. All we need is you."

Jim fingered the picture of his look-alike. The only real difference between the two was the hair. O'Keefe wore it short, in a military brush cut. Jim had worn his hair the same way in the Army. According to the paperwork, O'Keefe had no scars to speak of, nothing that would tip anyone off. And he was a dead ringer for Ellison. And the opportunity to bring down Morrison? Oh, yeah.

"You got me, gentlemen."

*****

For two days the storm raged, and for two days, O'Hare was shut down. For two days, Jim Ellison was penned up in a motel room near the Cascade Airport with Levy, Sheffield and, at Simon's insistence, Simon himself. If this was going to happen, if Jim Ellison was going under cover, it would be with Major Crime in charge.

The Feds were so eager for this to happen that they readily agreed. And of course, thanks to the fiasco with Garett Kincaid and the Sunrise Patriots, they were in a position to owe Major Crime.

Now Jim was learning everything there was to know about James O'Keefe. And it wasn't much.

O'Keefe was close in age to Jim and had been born in Los Angeles, California, the only child of Melinda O'Malley and Sean O'Keefe, a small numbers runner. O'Keefe went to Lakewood High School, graduated top of his class, then went on to UCLA where he majored in economics and minored in chemistry. Like Jim, he'd served time with the military; in his case, the Navy.

It was while in the Navy that he received word that his parents were dead; victims of a fire that swept through their home. Arson was suspected, but never proved. In 1985, O'Keefe left the Navy and ended up in South America. It was common knowledge that it was in Bolivia that he'd met up with Tommy Morrison.

In '85, Morrison was second to Brian Fitzsimmons, the leader of a weakening Irish crime family. It was Morrison's idea to move the family's drug business into the Pacific Northwest and the idea proved to be a boon to the family's coffers. When Fitzsimmons was killed in an ambush supposedly organized by the Corona family, Morrison took over. And a bloodbath followed. Seattle took months to recover.

O'Keefe, for the most part, remained in South America and the Morrison drug operation ran smoother than many believed possible. And now, they were getting ready to move into Cascade.

Jim learned and memorized.

When O'Hare Airport was reopened, Jim Ellison was ready. He now wore his hair in same brush cut, had an entire new wardrobe and with some clever FBI intervention, a man by the name of James O'Keefe supposedly boarded flight 238 out of O'Hare for Cascade on Tuesday, at 10:30 in the morning.

*****

"When is he due in?"

"Six-thirty, Tommy."

"You'll have a car waiting for him?"

"Of course."

"Call Rainier. Let's have his 'fun' here and waiting for him. He's been gone awhile, and he deserves it."

Jeff Leahy, a short, thick, black Irishman, nodded. "Will do."

Tommy Morrison grinned and downed his glass of single malt liquor. "You know, O'Keefe would be a perfect Irishman otherwise. You know that, don'cha Jeffy?"

"Nearly perfect otherwise. Although, his toy is something special, you gotta admit."

"Do I have to start worrying about you now, Jeff?"

"I think I'll go make that call."

*****

Blair Sandburg hurried across campus, but not so fast that he couldn't enjoy the fall air, the changing colors of the trees, or the decorations that had begun to spring up around the university. Ahead of him, adorning the brick walls of Hargrove Hall, were two huge green wreaths and, bordering the double doors, a garland of greenery. Yep, the holidays were here.

He breathed in deeply and smiled. He'd had three whole weeks of peace. Three weeks of being able to pretend his life was normal. Three weeks of uninterrupted school, studying and -- nights. He prayed that they'd continue.

Maybe -- indefinitely.

Blair charged up the steps, burst through the doors, turned left and headed to his office. Or should he say, the storeroom that served as his office? As he walked down the hall, students passed him, some nodding, some mumbling a quick, "Howdy, professor," or "Hey, there, teach!" and some just smiling.

Blair wasn't a professor -- yet, but he was a teaching fellow and his students loved teasing him by calling him 'Professor'. Although he was well aware that they called him the 'little professor' behind his back. It was said with affection and it didn't bother him. He was short. At five foot seven and one hundred and forty-five pounds, well, hey, he was happy with who he was -- most of the time.

As he approached his door, he grinned. His makeshift nameplate welcomed him. A piece of cardboard that proclaimed in his broad scrawl -- Blair Sandburg.

He let himself in just as his phone started to ring. Throwing down his books, he reached, snagged the receiver and said, "Sandburg."

"A car will pick you up tonight at five thirty. Be ready."

A few words, a voice he hated and Blair's happy mood was gone. A click told him the man on the other end had hung up. Slowly Blair put the phone down. He noted absently that his hand was shaking.

*****

"We've hit a snag, Captain Banks."

Simon turned to stare at Levy. They were minutes away from opening the gate on the operation and those were not the words Banks wanted to hear. Jim was dressed and ready and in less than ten minutes, he'd be leaving for the airport. Simon glanced away from Levy to Jim, who rolled his eyes.

Levy moved toward Simon, his hand holding out a sheet of paper just taken from the fax machine. Simon stared at it as if it were a snake.

"Something was found in O'Keefe's wallet. Something we can't explain."

Jim stepped to Simon's side and peered down at the paper. His icy blue eyes widened. He and Simon were looking at a picture of a young man. An incredibly beautiful young man.

"Where in the wallet --"

"In the rear slot, Captain Banks. Tucked in tight. Nothing on the back, no name, nothing to give us a clue. We don't know who he is. This could be a problem."

For a reason he'd never be able to explain, Jim couldn't stop looking at the photo. The face was young, the eyes light. Jim would guess blue, maybe slightly darker than his own. The young man smiled up at Jim, capturing him completely. Long hair curled wildly, its length just below the young man's square jaw. Thick full lips grinned, and in one ear, two hoops beckoned.

"What do we do, Levy?" Simon asked, clearly worried.

"We're doing what we can to find out who he is, but so far, we've got zip. And as you can see, there's nothing in that picture to tell us where it was taken. Just trees."

"I noticed. I'm betting they're green trees too. The world is full of them." Simon glanced down at the photo again and said, "Could it be a fluke? A nothing? Insignificant?"

"Doubtful, Captain. O'Keefe wasn't into insignificant."

"Maybe a target?"

"That's possible, but O'Keefe wasn't an enforcer."

Simon glanced to his right. "Jim? It's up to you now. Do we pull the plug?"

Eyes still fixed on the picture, Jim shook his head. "No."

*****

Jim waited. His 'flight' was due to land in minutes and when it did, he would join the crowd streaming down to the baggage claim area. O'Keefe's luggage had been removed from the wrecked car and checked in by an agent who, from a distance, looked enough like O'Keefe to pass. That same agent had boarded the flight and upon arrival in Cascade, would turn left as the deplaning crowd turned right. Said agent would then board another flight back to Chicago and Jim Ellison would become Jim O'Keefe.

All of O'Keefe's personal effects were in the luggage and Jim would take a few minutes before meeting the limo to pull out the wallet -- and check a certain picture that had been returned to its spot in the wallet. A picture that continued to haunt him.

*****

Blair ran down the hall of the warehouse, knowing what being late could cost him. He skidded to a stop in front of the freight elevator, stepped inside, pulled down the barrier and punched the button. Two minutes later, he rolled the barrier back up and stepped out, then walked to the side door and unlatched it.

The car was waiting for him. Without thought, he automatically slowed down. A man got out of the driver's side and opened the back door of the limo. It was empty. Blair sighed in relief. His bag was taken from him as he got in. The driver slid in behind the wheel, the divider was raised and Blair was alone.

He rested his head back against the soft leather and closed his eyes. It never ceased to amaze him, all the things he could get himself into. Blair felt the usual knot of fear and anxiety in the pit of his stomach and started meditating. At times like these, he hated himself. It never occurred to him that he should hate someone else.

*****

Jim stepped onto the escalator with the rest of the passengers from the O'Hare flight. So far, all had gone according to plan. At the bottom, he turned right with everyone else, then walked the few steps to the American Airlines carousel. He had a description of the bag and as the various pieces of luggage tumbled out the chute, he was grateful for his enhanced vision. He spotted the tag immediately. As the black bag came within reach, he snagged it and slipped the strap over his shoulder, then headed for the men's room.

He moved to an empty stall, stepped in and locked it. Then he unzipped a side pocket and pulled out the wallet. Before putting it in his trousers, he searched -- and found -- the picture. It was in color.

Blue eyes. He'd been right. Incredible blue eyes. The hair -- his vision picked up at least fifty different shades of red, black and brown in the curly hair. And this was only a photograph. One-dimensional. Flat. And yet, the young man staring up at him was anything but flat or one-dimensional. Slowly Jim replaced the photo, stuck the wallet in his rear pocket and headed out to a waiting limo and his temporary new life.

*****

Blair was surprised when they didn't take the Price Street off-ramp -- which meant that he wasn't being delivered to Jim's apartment. And that meant -- Morrison's.

Fuck.

He reached forward and opened the bar. A decanter of amber liquid sat in its cubbyhole, two glasses on either side. He poured himself a stiff one and downed it in one gulp. Then he poured another one.

Twenty minutes later the limo turned left, drove up a short driveway and stopped at a large electronic gate -- which opened almost immediately. The car drove through, then up and around a circular driveway to stop in front of a wide porch.

Tommy Morrison's home was a two-story Georgian mansion on three acres of pricey land on the outskirts of Cascade. Blair hated the house. Even now, staring up at it, his stomach threatened to revolt. It had been here that he'd innocently come to visit his mother and her newest boyfriend, and it had been here where he'd first been introduced to Jim O'Keefe.

A face from a dream. A handsome, chiseled face with pale blue eyes. The dream that had been a part of Blair's life from his first anthropological expedition to South America, Peru to be exact.

He'd been working in the Chopec Valley and the dream came on his first night. He'd been running in the jungle, his skin tingling with the warm tropical air. He wore no clothes, his hair wild and free. And alongside him ran a coal black jaguar. Eventually they came to a stop and ahead of them -- a temple. The jaguar shifted shape and slowly became a man. A man whose face now haunted Blair's waking life. But back then, the beauty of the man had taken Blair's breath away. Eyes so sky-blue that he'd believed he could see the earth below in them, and a smile so special, so warm and loving that Blair had immediately moved into open arms.

The man in his dreams never left him from that first night, and Blair held the hope in his heart that the dream was a harbinger of his future.

Little did he know.

When the 'face' had been introduced to him, well, Jim O'Keefe had turned out to be Blair's worst nightmare. The face was there, but so far there'd been no loving and warm smile. Only pain and humiliation.

Blair squared his shoulders and followed the chauffeur inside.

*****

"Hey, toy, good to see you again. You know where to go. Best get yourself ready, he'll be here in about two hours."

At that moment, Blair Sandburg would have liked nothing better than to smash his fist through Jeff Leahy's face. But that would simply have bought him more trouble than he already had. Ignoring the man, Blair moved up the stairs, walked down the hall to the first bedroom and walked inside, shutting the door behind him.

He wasn't surprised to find his duffel on the bed -- open. Wiley had undoubtedly searched it thoroughly.

Slowly Blair sank down on the edge of the king-size bed and dropped his head in his hands.

*****

It was strange. The entire drive to Morrison's home had not been spent planning or rehearsing. Jim had spent the entire ride wondering about the face. The photo. Who the hell was he? And if he showed up, what would Jim do? And why would a man like O'Keefe have such a picture in his wallet?

But Jim thought he knew the answer to that. Because -- he would have that man's picture in his wallet. In fact, he intended to keep the picture when this assignment was over.

Jim snapped his fingers. That was the answer. Apparently Jim O'Keefe and Jim Ellison had more in common than their faces.

*****

Jim followed Wiley into the house, grateful now for all the floor plans and pictures he'd been forced to devour. He felt as if he knew the house inside out. He watched Wiley head upstairs and knew that he would drop his luggage off in the first bedroom; the room where O'Keefe stayed whenever he remained overnight.

"Jimmy, you're looking good."

Jim turned... to find himself facing Tommy Morrison. The man was walking toward him, a smile gracing his handsome Irish features.

Morrison was tall, almost as tall as Simon Banks. He had a thatch of hair the color of burnished copper and green eyes that were now twinkling at Jim. The sprinkling of freckles across the pug nose had fooled many a man into believing Morrison to be harmless. Most men found out the hard way just how harmless he wasn't.

Jim allowed himself to taken into a bear hug, then the two broke apart.

"It's good to see you, to have you back, Jimmy."

"Good to be back, Tommy."

"The windy city too much for you, Jimmy?" Morrison said with a grin.

One of the few things that was known about O'Keefe was his hatred of the cold. Jim gave a mock shiver and said, "I could have used more sunshine."

"Aw, poor boy. At least now you're back in good old Cascade. Much warmer, eh?" Morrison joked.

"Oh, yeah. Much," Jim said sarcastically.

"At least no wind chill in the double minus numbers, Jimmy boy."

The new voice came from behind Jim and he turned. Jeff Leahy was walking toward him, his expression one of superiority. As he got closer, he said, one eyebrow arched, "Your toy is upstairs -- ready and waiting, Jimmy, me boyo."

Jim didn't have a clue to what Leahy might be talking about, but fortunately, Morrison interrupted. "Jeff, make yourself scarce. Jimmy and I have things to discuss."

The command was friendly, but a command nevertheless. Jeff shrugged and walked out of the living room. When he disappeared, Morrison took Jim's arm and led him to one of the couches that flanked the large and lit fireplace. Sitting him down, he said, "I believe you have something for me, Jimmy boy?"

Eternally grateful to the curious Feds who'd found a small package in O'Keefe's luggage and had opened it, then deciphered that it was a gift for Morrison, Jim reached into his jacket pocket and took the item from where he'd put it while still in the men's room of the airport. He held it out to his 'boss'.

Morrison took it and to Jim's disappointment, dropped it into the pocket of the cream-colored cable-knit sweater he wore. The Feds might have correctly deduced the package to be a gift, but its significance was unknown and apparently -- for awhile longer -- would remain so.

"I'm very glad to have you back, Jimmy. Now why don't you go upstairs and... rest."

Jim didn't miss the emphasis on the word 'rest' and again found himself wondering. But then Morrison went on.

"I have a special dinner menu planned for your return and we'll be sitting down at nine. That should give you enough time. Go. Enjoy. We'll talk later."

As close as Morrison and O'Keefe were purported to be, Jim understood that he'd just been dismissed. He rose, smiled, was taken back into another bear hug, then when released, he headed up to -- his -- room.

He was halfway up the stairs when he stopped dead.

Breathing.

In his room.

Someone was in his room.

*****

Jim walked the rest of the way up cautiously as he tried to concentrate on the heartbeat...

Fast.

Too fast.

And -- fear. As Jim drew closer he could actually smell it -- pungent and acrid -- and that surprised the hell out of him. He knew that no one could be in his room who didn't belong. Morrison's house was guarded better than Fort Knox. So...

The 'toy'.

Jim turned the door handle, pushed open the door and came face-to-face with -- the picture. The same square jaw, the electric blue eyes, the curly hair framing the beautiful face...

*****

Blair stood on the balcony waiting. He'd spotted the arrival of the limo and had watched as Jim climbed out and walked indoors. It wouldn't be long now. He closed his eyes and prayed to the gods that had, up to now, ignored him. But even as he prayed, he knew that freedom could only be purchased with a death. And the only death he'd accept would be his own.

He heard the door open and knowing his place in this house, he turned and stepped back inside. The moment Jim walked in, Blair started for the bed, fingers already working at the buttons of his shirt --

*****

Jim watched in amazement as the young man walked to the bed, fingers busy with buttons. What the hell?

Moments later the man was naked and pulling back the bedspread. When the bed was ready, he walked over to Jim and started undoing his belt buckle.

Jim was paralyzed. This was not what --

No, that was a lie. All the clues had been there and Jim had been right. He and O'Keefe did have more in common that their first names and faces. But he couldn't let this happen --

and yet -- if he didn't, he could very well give himself away. This was obviously expected and the norm.

As the young man stood close, fingers working at his zipper, Jim could smell everything about him. He inhaled deeply and even the fear couldn't keep out the inherent scent of the man. Wait.

Fear.

This was not a man who was doing what he wanted to be doing. Or was fear a part of the game? The man moved with assurance, but there'd been no sign of pleasure or welcome in the depths of those blue eyes. What the fuck was going on?

The answer became evident as the slender man dropped down, bringing Jim's slacks and boxers with him. Shit, he was going to --

Jim had to stop him. But how? How could he without tipping his hand? Without giving the game away?

His dick was not of the same opinion that anything had to stop. It was eagerly bouncing free and Jim felt himself flush red. Fortunately the young man, now on his knees in front of him, was too busy to notice.

Breathing so loud it filled his ears, Jim felt himself drowning in sensations. He tried to focus elsewhere, anywhere, but when those lips closed around the head of his dick and he felt the man's thumbs rubbing gently on his the soft skin of his inner thigh -- he was lost.

*****

Blair realized almost immediately that something was wrong. Where one moment Jim was responding -- electrically so -- now, nothing.

Blair let the suddenly unresponsive cock slip from his mouth and glanced up. Shocked by what he saw, he immediately rose.

Jim was staring vacantly ahead, mouth slightly open. His breathing seemed normal, but when Blair waved a hand in front of his face -- nothing happened. Not even a blink.

Jesus. What the hell?

Blair stepped back and thought. Epilepsy? No, he'd have known. Jim took no medications on a regular basis.

This was ridiculous.

Blair moved back and without thinking, took Jim's hand and placed it over his heart. Blair held the hand to his chest and waited.

Slowly, color started to return to Jim's face; he blinked, closed his mouth, then opened it and said, "What the hell?"

Blair let go of Jim's hand and waited. Blue eyes blinked in confusion and Blair frowned. The face -- so different at the moment. Almost vulnerable and... and... soft. Then Jim looked at him and the eyes went to ice. This was more like it. This was the Jim O'Keefe he knew.

"What happened?"

"I don't know, Jim. You seemed to just -- phase out. Has this ever happened before?"

Jim closed his eyes. The voice. Like -- honey. Thick, warm, rich, dark honey. He shook his head, but knew it was a lie. This had happened -- several times. But fortunately some loud noise always brought him out of it. And so far, he'd always been alone.

Footsteps approached out in the hall and Jim quickly brought up a finger and rested it against the man's lips, then cocked his head to listen. Somehow, the young man knew to keep quiet.

The steps stopped in front of the door and Jim recognized the aftershave belonging to Leahy.

Blair watched the intent manner in which Jim seemed to be -- listening? He turned his head toward the door and cocked his own head. But he heard nothing. Blair looked back at Jim and waited.

Leahy moved away from the door and continued down the hall. Jim waited until the footsteps faded, then returned his attention to the young man.

"He's gone."

"Who?"

"Leahy."

"You know he's a pervert. He likes to listen. Gets off on it. But how did you know --"

"I heard his footsteps. Couldn't you smell his aftershave? He must load it on with shovels."

Blair couldn't help the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth. The fact that Jim and Leahy weren't friends was no secret, but Jim had never talked about the man like that before. "Yeah, well. So I take it he's gone now?"

"His own room."

"Well, then, shall I go back to where we left off?"

The question was not asked erotically, it was simply asked. Jim checked his watch. It was a little after eight. Dinner was at nine.

"No. Tommy has dinner planned for nine. I'm grungy and could use a shower. I figure we have enough time to get ready and that's it."

Blair hid his shock at Jim's answer. A break for him, but definitely unusual. Maybe his prayers had finally been answered? Maybe O'Keefe was finally tiring of him?

"All right. What do you want to wear?"

Jim stared down at the man, flummoxed by the question. The man was already moving toward the closet.

"You pick it out. I'm going into the bathroom."

It was apparently the right thing to say as the kid nodded and started rifling through the clothes. Jim stepped into the bathroom and shut the door, then leaned against it and closed his eyes. This was not going well.

After a moment, he pushed himself away and started the water. He really did need a shower, if for no other reason than to give himself time to collect his thoughts.

*****

Blair laid out the dinner jacket, the shirt and slacks, then the picked up the boxers and carried them into the bathroom. Jim was already in the shower so he set the clean underwear down on the closed toilet seat, opened the stall door and stepped in. He didn't look at Jim, just picked up the soap and washcloth and started to bathe the man.

For Jim, it took all his will power and strength not to jump several feet into the air when the door opened and the kid stepped in and started to wash him. What the hell was he supposed to do now?

Competent hands moved over his body, soothing, working out the tenseness as the soft cloth worked over his skin. He was going crazy. He had to stop this and yet he couldn't. Dared not.

"Bend down."

Jim couldn't have refused that voice even if he tried. He bent at his waist and the young man began to wash his hair. Fingers and thumbs massaging his scalp, his temple, behind his ears... Bliss.

"Turn around."

Jim did as instructed and the nozzle was removed as the man began the process of rinsing Jim off, from head to toe.

"Bend down again."

He did and this time a conditioner was added to his hair and rubbed in -- luxuriously rubbed in. Then the kid took the washcloth again and adding a bit more soap, began to wash Jim's genitals. Softly, gently, knowingly. This was so wrong -- and so fucking right.

No one's hands had ever felt this good. No one. When the kid was done, he rinsed Jim off again, then began to wash himself. When he was soaped up, he handed the shampoo to Jim and like a lamb being led to the slaughter, Jim took it. He squeezed some out onto his palm and without so much as a blink, began to do what he'd wanted from the moment the kid stepped into the shower -- he shampooed the younger man's hair.

Blair turned at one point so that his back was to Jim and, almost on autopilot, Jim brought the pliant body into his own and continued to massage the thick curly hair. The silky strands teased him and played hide and seek with his fingers, sometimes wrapping themselves around him, and he relished the feel and texture of the hair.

Gradually, his hands, almost of their own volition, moved down to the man's chest and Jim began to shampoo the curling hair that spread out across the surprisingly broad expanse of skin. Eventually, he moved lower still, to the arrow of hair that led to the younger man's groin. Then his fingers were in curling pubic hair and his sudsy hand was stroking the cock that sprang to life under his ministrations.

Blair's eyes popped open as he realized what was happening. He was -- responding. Without thought, without his usual fantasy. The man behind him was gentle and sensual, and it had never been like this. By now, Jim would have taken him roughly, with pain and force, biting and thrusting so hard that Blair would be certain the man's dick would force its way through Blair's stomach. But this -- this was -- different.

Warm water sluiced over him and his body was turned and suddenly Jim's lips were over his and a warm tongue was pushing its way inside his mouth and Blair knew that this was his fantasy. Jim was pounding into him, but with his tongue and Blair's fantasy had become so good, so real, that it was all he knew --

The kiss went on and fingers delved into his crevice, teasing, and he found himself moaning into Jim's mouth, his own hands now exploring, running up the back of Jim's neck, pulling the head down, intensifying the kiss.

Steam swirled around them, the scent of soft pine and mild sage enveloping the two men

as the water continued down...

*****

Jim needed more. He wound his arm around the slick waist and hitched the man up. He was grateful when one leg wrapped around him and lifted higher until the other leg joined the first. He maneuvered them so that the younger man's back was now against the rear of the stall and their cocks were in perfect alignment to bounce and rub and Jim began to thrust -- hard, even as he attacked the beautiful mouth.

Soon, his tongue was matching the rhythm of their bodies and he could feel it coming, for both of them. He moved faster, harder, and the man took his tongue, sucked relentlessly and moaned. The sound of that moan traveled from one mouth to the other, down through Jim's body to end up at his dick and he came hard.

As his body shuddered, he dropped his head down and latched onto the man's shoulder and he bit. The response was immediate as Jim felt the hot come hitting his chest and the man's head dropped back, a low moan ripped from his throat.

Slowly, they sank down with Jim turning them so that he now had his back to the wall, the man between his legs. He dropped his head on top of the wet mass of curls and closed his eyes.

"Who are you?"

The question forced his eyes to snap back open just in time for the question to be repeated.

"Who are you?"

*****

"That's a strange thing to say. Who do you think I am?"

Neither man had moved and Jim hoped his response was enough. He was wrong.

"I know you're not Jim O'Keefe. O'Keefe doesn't kiss -- ever. And he never makes love; he fucks. Ruthlessly. Now who the hell are you?"

The words shocked Jim to his very core. So much said in everything that hadn't been said. But this was no time to give in because he'd just had the best sex of his life.

"So I've learned a few things. Chicago was very educational. And if you want me to go back to plain old everyday fucking, well, I'd be happy to oblige."

The wet, slick body turned in his arms and he found himself being observed by laser-smart eyes. And there was nothing he could do about it.

"You're a cop. Jesus, you're a cop."

Busted by an unknown. A nobody. The one uncontrollable factor in the whole deal.

The man stood, turned off the now tepid water, then moved as far away as the large stall would allow.

"You don't have to worry about me. I won't tell."

The words were spoken softly and simply and Jim glanced up. "There's nothing to tell."

"Right. Nothing to tell. My name is Blair Sandburg, by the way. You never use my first name though, you hate it. You always call me Sandburg. Just that. Nothing else."

Jim's jaw dropped open.

Blair opened the stall door and grabbed two big towels. He tossed one to Jim, who caught it, then wrapped the other around his waist. "I'm an anthropologist and a graduate student working on my doctorate. I attend Rainier. You might call me O'Keefe's beck and call man. I heard that once -- in a movie. Thought it was pretty funny actually. Beck and call -- whatever.

"You have his luggage so he must be what? In jail?"

Jim was an excellent judge of character and while he didn't usually base his judgments on sex, well, there was always a first time.

"No, he's dead."

Slowly Blair Sandburg sank down to the floor of the shower. "Dead? As in -- dead?"

"As in killed in a traffic accident. A tire smashed into the windshield, killing him instantly. There was nothing left of his face."

Blair rested his forehead on his hand. "Well, I'll be damned. I'm -- this is -- he's dead."

"I think we've established that."

Blair looked over at him, studied his face again. "Are you for real, or is that the product of plastic surgery?"

"He died two days ago. Hardly time --"

"So your face is yours?"

"Mine."

"And O'Keefe's."

"Not anymore."

"Right, not anymore."

*****

They were both shivering, so Jim took the lead. He stood, wrapped the towel around his middle, then held out a hand. Blair stared at it a moment, then took it and Jim hoisted him up. They got out, took more towels and quickly dried themselves off. As Jim slipped into his boxers, the ones left on the toilet seat by Blair, Sandburg moved into the bedroom and began to dress.

Jim listened to the movements in the other room as he brushed his teeth with another man's toothbrush and shaved with another man's razor. And as he shaved, he thought of the sex in the shower with another man's -- beck and call -- man.

A prostitute. The man of Jim's dreams was a prostitute. Okay, a highly-educated prostitute. A hooker who also happened to be an anthropologist, but a hooker just the same.

Jim ran a warm cloth over his face, then searched for the aftershave. He found it and immediately discarded it. It would send his sensitive skin into overdrive. He walked out into the bedroom to find his 'roomie' dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. A blue on blue flannel shirt that deepened the color of his eyes. He was running a pick through his hair and Jim found himself unable to stop watching or to say anything. Finally Blair himself broke the spell by turning and walking past him to return to the bathroom.

Jim shook himself and noticed the clothes laid out on the bed. He gave a fleeting thought to the idea that maybe Sandburg would dress him too.

*****

Blair stood before the mirror staring at his reflection but picturing the face of his dreams. Not O'Keefe, but the man in the other room?

Suddenly feeling those hands on his body again, remembering the kisses -- Blair closed his eyes. Oh, yeah. He was the one.

Only -- it was too late.

Blair opened his eyes and pulled his hair dryer out from under the sink. He attached the diffuser and lost himself in the sound and motions of drying his hair.

*****

Jim checked his watch. Eight forty-five. And the bathroom door was still closed. The dryer had been shut off several minutes earlier but still no Sandburg. Jim smiled wryly. He'd already begun to call the young man, 'Sandburg'. O'Keefe all the way.

Jim walked over to the French doors, opened the right one and stepped out into the cold night air. The grounds were decorated, lit up and looked festive. It was hard to reconcile the house, the grounds and the neighborhood with a major crime family. A crime family that decorated for Christmas.

Geesh, what was the world coming to anyway?

"Pretty terrific, isn't it?"

Jim glanced down, surprised to find Sandburg by his side. He'd never heard him coming. Not good.

"Yeah, I guess so."

"Hey, even I appreciate the place. And you'd better get downstairs. 'You're' never late."

Jim was about to turn away when something caught his eye. "Do you see that, Sandburg?"

"What? See what?" Blair moved to the railing and peered out but could see nothing.

Jim focused and, by the far gate, he spotted two men, one of whom was Leahy.

"Jim, I'm serious, you --"

"Ssh."

Jim leaned over the railing and once again, Blair watched him cock his head as if listening to something only he could hear...

Only he could hear.

Blair held his breath.

Jim listened, shocked at what he was hearing...

"You're taking a big risk, Jeff."

"Like I don't know that? But it's worth it. I should be running this operation, not O'Keefe."

"You're playing with fire. I'm not sure --"

Leahy's voice took on a decidedly sharp edge. "You're already in this thing, Wiley. Don't even think about backing out now."

At that moment, a horn blaring out on the street sent pain shooting through Jim's brain and he grabbed his head with both hands as he tried not to yell out in frustration. But then there were hands on his arms and he was being moved while a soft voice in his ear told him it was okay. Warm breath caressed his cheek as he was seated on a chair. He felt the hand on his forehead and fingers rubbed small circles on his temples...

The pain receded and all he could hear was Sandburg's voice.

"It's okay, concentrate on just this sound, nothing else. That's it, just one sound, one sound only."

Jim closed his eyes and leaned into the magical hands and the sweet voice. After what seemed to be a wonderful eternity, Jim opened his eyes and looked into Sandburg's concerned gaze. As he searched that face, he could see every laugh line around Blair's eyes, the long lashes, the creased brow, even the small scar just below Sandburg's lower lip. As he took it all in, he decided that he didn't care if the man was a prostitute or not. It was that simple. And considering that nothing in Jim Ellison's life had ever been simple, this was truly astonishing.

And somehow -- freeing.

"Thanks," he said quietly.

"You're welcome. What were you listening to?"

"Leahy and Wiley. Seems they're working against Morrison."

Blair frowned at that. "That almost makes sense. Leahy hates you, or should I say, O'Keefe. He's been a very angry man since your return from South America. I got the distinct impression that he felt he should have been given Cascade."

Jim's hand shot out and he wrapped his fingers tightly around Sandburg's arm. "How much do you know? How involved are you exactly?"

Blair paled as the fingers dug in, and suddenly there wasn't such a big difference between O'Keefe and this man.

"I'm not. But I am an anthropologist and my job is to observe. I do it pretty damn well."

The smell of fear hit Jim again and suddenly Blair's skin seemed to be on fire. Jim quickly removed his hand and stood.

"Look, if O'Keefe can buy you then what should make me think Morrison can't? Or anyone else who waves a few dollars under your nose?"

Sandburg stepped back and the grin that spread across his face made Jim want to vomit. It was not a pleasant smile.

"Well, I'll tell you what, man. If someone offers me anything, I'll come to you first, so you can counter. How's that for a deal?"

The honey-coated voice was gone and in its place was ice with coldly-controlled anger floating underneath. Jim felt as though he'd just made a serious tactical error but was in the dark as to what it had been. And it was nine o'clock.

"Look, we're due downstairs, now. We can talk about this later. Let's go."

"You're expected downstairs. Not me. I'm never included in family meals. They'll send up a tray. Go. Get out of here."

So far the day had delivered one shock after another, but Sandburg's words about not being invited downstairs seemed to be the highlight of shocks. Although Jim shouldn't have been surprised. Hookers weren't usually invited to family meals, were they?

"I see. Well, then. I guess I'd better get down there."

Blair simply crossed his arms over his chest and Jim, feeling like a naughty child, left.

*****

"You're late. You must have really enjoyed your -- reunion, Jimmy."

Jim smiled at Leahy as he followed him into the dining room. Morrison was already seated, as were seven others. But of the eight people in the room, Jim could only identify five from his two days of coaching. To Morrison's left sat Abel Donovan, the lawyer. To his right but two chairs down, sat Teddy Skeever, one of Morrison's most trusted soldiers. Behind Morrison stood the bodyguard, Cohen. Leahy took his seat next to Donovan. Seated next to Skeever was Joey O'Malley, another trusted soldier and skilled businessman. As Jim took his place at Morrison's right, he prayed that he wasn't supposed to know the other men.

As soon as Jim sat, Morrison stood and raised his glass. The others followed suit but before Jim could reach for his, Morrison said, "To Jimmy O'Keefe, whose trip to Chicago will ensure our success here in Cascade."

As everyone drank and nodded at him, Jim let his hand drop away from his glass to land on his napkin. He smiled as he dropped it on his lap. When Morrison retook his seat, Jim sensed that he was supposed to say something so playing it safe, he raised his glass and said, "It's good to be back, but the real success in the upcoming days lies with you, Tommy." He saluted, everyone doing the same, then he drank the champagne in one swallow. The men around the table applauded heartily, but Jim took note of Leahy's less than enthusiastic clapping.

The door from the kitchen opened and two men entered, both bearing trays. Jim's nose told him that they were about to indulge in O'Keefe's favorite meal -- Lamb Follain.

Jim had no idea if he'd like it, but the ingredients were pretty sure-fire. A leg of lamb was coated with Follain Irish Whiskey Marmalade. Jim was fairly certain that he'd be able to handle this dish.

As the meal was served, talk remained general, and Jim started feeling more at ease. Cutting into his piece of lamb, he wondered if indeed a tray had been delivered upstairs. That thought immediately ruined his appetite. Something was wrong with this entire scenario. He just wished he could figure out what.

"What do you say, Jimmy?"

Jim was shaken from his thoughts of Blair by Morrison's voice and he blinked, then turned to his boss. "Sorry, I didn't catch that, Tommy."

Leahy snorted into his drink and said, "I think Jimmy's -- mind -- is elsewhere."

Jim ignored the man and that was obviously the right thing to do. Morrison slapped him on the back and said, "What do you think about our plan?"

Uh-oh. What plan?

Donovan leaned over and said, "I think you're crazy, Tommy. It'll never work."

"Of course it will, Abie. It's a zoning problem and," Morrison winked at Jim, "I have an in, if you know what I mean."

The 'plan' suddenly made sense. And it had nothing to do with drugs or O'Keefe's trip to Chicago.

"Tommy, I think you gotta go for it. Becoming the Robin Hood of Cascade can only help us. And saving that park -- well, we couldn't buy the publicity." Jim sat back, supremely pleased with himself. Knowledge was a good thing.

"Actually, Jimmy boy, we could buy it," Leahy added snidely. Jim could see why O'Keefe disliked the man.

"No," Abel Donovan interrupted. "We couldn't. Saving that park puts Tommy in the public eye and in a good way. It's just the beginning."

From that point on, the dinner proceeded without a hitch. Leahy continued to try to bait him, but Jim either blocked the lobs or someone else stepped in as goalie. By meal's end, the score was Jim - five, Leahy - zip. But now the hard part. Stalling Morrison. Keeping the conversation from moving into territory that would leave Jim vulnerable.

As everyone moved into the living room, one of the butlers followed with a cart that held brandy and the appropriate glasses. Jim took the opportunity to watch the men closely. At least he now knew who his fellow diners were and he was kicking himself for not recognizing them. Councilman John Nesbitt from the twenty-third district and Councilman Paul Gaylan from the fifteenth. Both men apparently in Morrison's pocket. My, the things an undercover cop could learn.

The butler, after ensuring that each man had a snifter, began to pass around a cigar box and when it got to Jim, he had to suppress his surprise. The cigars were not only Cuban, but top of the line.

The men lit up and for a few minutes, the room was silent as they enjoyed their brandy and cigars. All Jim could think was how very civilized. He was sitting with men who would kill him instantly and they were enjoying the finest French brandy and Cuban cigars.

Crime families just weren't what they used to be.

Wiley entered the room and whispered something to the bodyguard who immediately whispered into Morrison's ear. The man stood.

"Gentlemen, something has come up and I find that I must excuse myself. Please, continue to enjoy the brandy and, when you're ready, Councilman Nesbitt and Councilman Gaylan, Cummings will show you to your rooms. Tomorrow will be a very productive day. Good-night."

Morrison left, obviously headed for his office and Jim wondered what could have come up that didn't require his services. But at least this gave him his opportunity to take his leave. Amid a few rude winks from Leahy, he managed to escape.

He didn't know what to expect when he got to his room, but it certainly wasn't what he found. Blair was in bed, pillows stacked up behind him, blankets pulled to his waist, a book on his lap and -- completing the appearance of normality -- the kid was wearing glasses.

The picture he presented was so contrary that it literally took Jim's breath away. Sandburg's face, his demeanor, all said youth and Jim figured he couldn't be more than twenty-five. In addition, there was, amazingly enough, an air of innocence about the man. But there was also that chest hair, the sexy Adam's apple, the strong chin and the capable hands. He was slender of build, short, but strong and graceful. Blair Sandburg was a study in contradictions.

Jim liked the contradictions. All of them.

As he wondered what to do about the sleeping arrangements, Blair took off his glasses and held up the book.

"I thought you might be interested in this. It's a monograph written by Sir Richard Burton and it's about -- Sentinels."

*****

A book? Sandburg wanted him to look at a book while the kid sat there wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and his glasses? And God damn it, could he look any sexier?

Taking a stab at controlling himself, Jim asked tersely, "A book? It's after midnight and you want me to read a book? And what's a Sentinel?"

"Yes, a book and you're a Sentinel, unless I'm badly mistaken, and you should know, I'm never wrong."

"Oh, really?" Jim didn't skimp on the sarcasm.

The kid shrugged. "Yeah. On things important. And in case you're interested, a Sentinel is someone with all five senses heightened to an incredible degree. That would describe you quite well."

The room tilted and by sheer force of will, Jim hung on. The kid knew. He knew.

Jim needed to sit down. Anywhere. He started for the bed but immediately thought better of it and veered left for the chair. He dropped down and concentrated on his breathing.

Five heightened senses.

Blair threw off the covers, got out of bed and padded to Jim's side. Holding out the book, he said, "Burton ran across these guardians in his travels. He called them Sentinels because, thanks to their enhanced senses, they could protect their tribe. You know, track game, warn of encroachers, that kind of thing."

Jim lifted his head and found himself staring at a picture of some native. He looked -- noble. Strong.

"I've been studying people with enhanced senses for years; it's the subject of my doctoral thesis. But I've never found anyone who had all five. One or two, but not all five."

"Well, aren't you the lucky one. And what makes you think I'm this," he waved his hand at the book, "Sentinel thing anyway?"

"I told you, Jim -- and what is your first name anyway? Or is that classified?"

"Anyone ever tell you that your brain is a minefield?"

Blair actually shuffled a bit as he answered. "Well -- yeah. Once or twice."

Looking back at the picture, Jim said, "Believe it or not, my name is Jim. Makes it easy, eh?"

"Can't slip up that way, that's for sure."

Jim glanced up at the young man and for the first time he was able to really glimpse Sandburg's youth and suddenly he needed to know... "How old are you anyway?"

"What does that have to --"

"Hey, humor me. How old?"

"Not that it matters, but I was twenty-six last May."

Jim nodded, feeling not one whit better. Twenty-six. He was a kid. A smart kid, but still...

"As I was saying, I observe and as I told you earlier, I'm good at it. You heard Leahy coming up the stairs, you could smell his aftershave and you spotted him across the grounds, in the dark, and I know you were listening to his conversation. And earlier, when I started to -- you know -- you zoned. That's four senses. Hearing, sight, touch and smell. I'm betting you've got a highly developed sense of taste too."

"You had something with lobster in it for lunch. Maybe a soup or something. And fruit. Pears and apples. And you drink a weird coffee."

Blair squatted down in front of Jim, his eyes suddenly soft and understanding. "I had lobster bisque. A friend brought it from home. The coffee was hazelnut and cinnamon. Not my usual. She brought that too. You were right on about the fruit." Blair put his hand over Jim's and added softly, "You are a Sentinel."

Jim tore his gaze from Blair's. "Yeah, so what? And you said -- before -- something about a zone?"

"It's kind of an occupational hazard of Sentinels. You can focus so hard on one sense that you lose yourself in it and consequently -- zone out. It can be very dangerous, which is why, among other reasons, a Sentinel always had a partner -- someone to watch his back, to --"

"Bring him out if he zoned?"

"Yes. But even when not zoning, a Sentinel is vulnerable while concentrating. Hence, partners."

"I see."

"Have you zoned before, Jim?"

"Yeah," Jim grudgingly admitted, "I have. But always alone and, to the best of my recollection, a loud noise would snap me out of it."

"Can't always count on loud noises, can you? Be pretty gruesome if one day that loud noise turned out to be a gun, and the bullet found you."

"Like I haven't thought about that? Most of the time my senses are all over the map, zipping in and out, and about as reliable as a watch you buy off the street for a buck."

"But since you've been here? I mean, everything seems to be working fine. Other than --"

"My little zone?"

Flushing scarlet, Blair nodded.

Jim glanced back at the book and, as he stared at the Sentinel, he realized that Blair was right. Almost since his arrival, his senses had been working great. He'd felt better too. Everything was sharper, clearer and for the first time, it was as if the weirdness of his senses actually -- belonged. As if he should have them.

His senses hadn't been part of his game plan in going undercover; they were, as he'd already explained to Sandburg, too unreliable. But now -- maybe they were just the edge he'd need to succeed.

"Can you help me control them?"

"Yes. I think so."

"You think? In case you missed it, you already did. When that horn interrupted my ability to listen to Leahy the pain was incredible until you started talking."

"Sensory overload. Another example of how a Sentinel is vulnerable when concentrating."

"How do I keep it from happening again?"

Blair stood, replaced the book in his backpack, then walked over to the bed and sat down. Jim, as interested as he was in the whole Sentinel thing, was still extremely aware of Sandburg, of the way the soft boxers clung to his ass, of the stocky legs that he could immediately picture wrapped around his waist...

"There are a couple of methods, actually. One, you learn to separate out the sounds you hear. That way, you aren't concentrating all of your sense of hearing on one thing. But that will take time and practice. For now you need someone with you, speaking softly, helping to keep you from the dangers of a solid focus."

"Gee, Sandburg, why don't I go downstairs right now and ask, oh, say, Morrison?"

"Well, you certainly could, but then that might defeat your purpose in being here, don't you think?"

"Duh, Darwin."

"So I guess that means you're stuck with -- me. And thanks, I'd love to be your backup."

Jim looked at the man and all he could do was shake his head. The guy was crazy, just plain crazy. Doesn't every undercover cop have a hooker playing backup? Sure. Newest law enforcement technique.

"You keep telling me how smart you are -- so why do you keep saying such stupid things, huh?"

"I can help you, Jim. I think -- I might be the only one who can. So let me."

Jim rubbed his eyes. Did he really have a choice? Slightly bleary-eyed, he glanced over at Sandburg and asked, "Do you know why O'Keefe went to Chicago?"

"The exact why, no. But I do know that Morrison kind of loaned him out. To Vito Mardoni."

At that, Jim shot up. "Mardoni? Are you sure?"

"Yes. And it makes sense in a way. If Morrison is going to be successful in moving into Cascade, he either has to work with Nick Tupertino or wipe him out. I think he's decided to work with him."

Jim started pacing, his mind putting it all together at last. The two councilmen, their districts controlled by Nick Tupertino, Mardoni, Tupertino's father-in-law -- oh, yeah, it was all coming together. Suddenly he remembered the gift. He turned back to Sandburg and regarded him a moment before asking, "You're an anthropologist, right? You study old things, cultural things, right?"

"Well put, Jim." Sandburg was pretty good in the sarcasm department himself.

Waving it off, Jim asked, "Look, I delivered a package, apparently from Mardoni. The Feds opened it, but couldn't figure out its significance other than being, maybe, a thank-you gift --"

"What was it?"

"It was a small hand-carved box. Sicilian, antique. And it was empty."

Blair frowned, then asked, "Empty?"

"Yep."

"I'd say -- Mardoni was welcoming Morrison into the family. I remember in some research that I helped one of my professors with a couple of years ago --"

"Let me guess -- he was working on the Mafia?"

Blair chuckled and it was the first totally free and uninhibited moment that Jim had so far witnessed from the young man. He liked it.

"Yeah, but his area of expertise was on some of the lesser known traditions. Those started outside the five families. And what's interesting is that I distinctly remember that some families bring in outsiders, or those not tied to the Italian heritage by blood or marriage, by giving them what they called an Omerta box."

"Omerta, that's the Mafia code of silence. How does that tie into some box?"

"By accepting the box, the receiver was accepting --"

"The code of silence."

"Exactly. But, you said the box was empty."

"Totally."

"That adds another dimension. See, whatever was inside the box usually told the receiver their position in the family."

Jim stopped his pacing in front of Blair. "Okay, so by having nothing in the box, Mardoni was telling Morrison that he has no position?"

"I don't think so, Jim. I think Mardoni was telling him that he owes Morrison by showing him that he can have any position."

"Okay, let me get this straight. Mardoni has accepted Morrison into his family and he owes him. Is that what you're saying?"

"Yeah, that's what I'm saying."

"Damn, I should have tried to listen in when Morrison excused himself after dinner. I just didn't trust myself."

"Well, it doesn't take much to figure that the call was probably from Tupertino. As sotto capo, he'll be obligated to meet with Morrison now. And it isn't much of a stretch to figure that Morrison will show him the box and claim his favor from Tupertino."

Now everything really did make sense. Jim walked over to the windows and stared out over the expanse of lawn. He spotted one of the guards leading a Doberman and he watched absently as his mind continued to put it all together.

Blair wisely kept silent and waited.

After several minutes, Jim finally spoke. "This isn't good. If Morrison is successful and he merges with Tupertino -- all hell is gonna break loose in Cascade."

"Tupertino isn't going to go against his father-in-law."

"No, he isn't. So how do we stop this? How do I bring Morrison out into the open and shut him down before the merger?"

"You need to find out what was said tonight. What arrangements were made. I have no doubt that Morrison will tell you -- eventually, but do you have the time to wait?"

"That's an easy one. No. The Feds might have believed this to be a deep undercover operation, but I knew better. With only two days to prepare, with no inside help or information, no way. I have to open this up in the next few days or risk discovery."

Blair stood. "Then you need to go downstairs now, get into his office and see what you can find."

"Easier said than done, Sandburg."

"For some, sure. But you're a Sentinel. Time to put it to good use. Give me a few." With that, he turned, walked to the closet, took out a shirt and then from a drawer, a pair of jeans. He started to get dressed.

"Um, Sandburg?"

"You don't think you're going alone, do you? Backup, remember? You can't go down there and risk a zone."

Damn, the kid was right.

"The only problem, as I see it, will be Cohen. He makes rounds throughout the night. No set schedule. But you should be able to hear him. And while I'm getting dressed, make yourself useful. Is everyone in bed? Do we need to wait a while longer?"

"How the hell --"

Blair stopped buttoning and gave Jim a look that clearly said, 'are you crazy?'

"Right," Jim said sheepishly. He immediately started to focus...

"Best I can tell, everyone is down for the count. Except --" he tilted his head and closed his eyes -- "other end of the house, a radio."

"That's Cohen. His room is next to Morrison's, which is at the opposite end of the house. Only two bedrooms at that end. Leahy's room is two doors down. You sure he's asleep?"

"Heartbeat says yes. Slow and even like his breathing. But once I step out in the hall, I can check for lights."

Blair sat down and pulled on a pair of thick socks, then glanced down at Jim's feet, then back up, his eyebrow arched.

"What?" Jim asked, exasperated.

"It's always amazed me in movies when the good guy goes sneaking around in the middle of the night -- wearing his shoes. Socks are better. Muffles sounds, you know?"

"Let me guess, you were a junior Dick Tracy wanna-be?"

"Common sense, man. Just common sense."

Jim snorted -- then toed off his shoes. Smiling, Blair stood. "After you, Oh, Great Sentinel."

Jim rolled his eyes heavenward, then shut off the lights. "Grab my shirt and hang on, Sandburg. In case it's missed your notice, it's gonna be dark out there."

A hand grabbed onto his belt as Sandburg said, "Hell, it's damn dark in here. Go forth and conquer."

Shaking his head, Jim listened a moment, then slowly opened the door and stepped out into the hall, Sandburg right behind him.

*****

Once out in the hall, Jim paused long enough to assure himself that there were no lights on in any of the bedrooms. Satisfied, he started toward the stairs, Sandburg attached to him like a leech. Jim decided he liked leeches. This one was warm and smelled terrific. And Jim felt -- oddly... protective.

Oddly -- fiercely -- protective.

At the bottom of the stairs he felt a tug, followed by a soft whisper that was barely there. "To your right, down the hall. Double doors on the left."

Jim turned right and continued to the double doors. He tried the knob and wasn't surprised to find the door locked. He reached into his back pocket, took out his key chain, fumbled a bit, found the small pick and inserted it into the lock. Seconds later -- they were in.

As he moved toward the desk, the whisper came again. "He keeps a memo book next to the phone. And he doodles."

Jim paused mid-step and grinned. He didn't know why the grin, but damn. Once at the desk he started to turn on the light when a hand on his arm stopped him.

"Um, Jim?"

Right. No light. He was a Sentinel.

The memo book was indeed next to the phone. He picked it up, rifled through it and half-way in found that a page had been torn out. Swell.

"What's wrong?"

"How did you --"

"You tensed up."

"You sure I'm the Sentinel?"

"Yuk, yuk."

"A page is missing."

"Feel the paper after the missing page. If he wrote anything, there should be indentations that you could pick up."

Jim was fast becoming a believer. He could easily see the depressions left by the heaviness of Morrison's hand. Running a finger over them, he closed his eyes and concentrated --

"Let your fingers send the letters to your brain, then put them all together."

Jim nodded in the dark, forgetting that Sandburg couldn't see him. Slowly it started coming together.

"Tupertino meet. The Winston, Thursday, 5:00."

"That's good, isn't it, Jim? Gives you time?"

"Ssh, someone's coming."

Jim moved quickly to the door. Someone was coming downstairs.

"Cohen is big," Blair whispered.

Jim nodded and noted that the footfalls were heavy. So was the breathing. Combined with the strong odor of onions and -- sausages -- yeah, Cohen.

"He's turned into the living room," Jim whispered.

"He'll unlock all doors. He's the only one with keys besides Morrison. The only one Morrison trusts completely."

"What," Jim whispered back, "He doesn't trust me completely?"

"You sure you're first name isn't Jay? As in Leno?"

Jim would have rolled his eyes again but the action would have been useless, Sandburg couldn't see him. Jim went back to listening. "Fuck, he's coming back. Got any ideas?"

"The kitchen is just down the hall, is there time?"

"Yeah, just."

 

 

"Let's go."

Not sure what the kid had in mind, Jim nevertheless found himself trusting. He opened the door, waited a second, then moved, Sandburg still attached at the belt. A few quick steps and they were passing through the kitchen swing door.

"Okay, now what?"

For his answer, Blair turned on the light and headed for the refrigerator. By the time Cohen walked in, he had the makings of a lamb sandwich and had already started stacking.

"Dijon?"

Leaning back against the counter, Jim said lazily, "Yeah. Heap it on."

Cohen walked in and blinked. "Whaddaya doin?"

Blair looked up and smiled. "What can I say? He's hungry. Still."

Somehow Sandburg managed to look and sound very sexually charged when he said the word 'still'. So much so, that Jim felt it -- in his groin. Cohen didn't get it.

Blair put the sandwich on a plate, added a nice helping of the curried rice that had gone with the lamb earlier, then pulled out a beer. He lifted it all, then smiled again.

"Night, buddy. See you in the morning."

He walked out, Jim following. Cohen continued to blink.

As they walked to the stairs, Blair whispered back, "You did relock the door, right?"

"Ye-ss," Jim hissed back.

"Good."

*****

Back in their room, Blair sat down cross-legged on the bed and started eating the sandwich. Mouth full, he said, "Youm cam hab the beer."

Stunned, Jim sat down in the chair and stared. As the sandwich was devoured and the rice shoveled into Sandburg's mouth by the heaping forkful, Jim shook his head in wonder. Then it struck him. "They didn't send up a tray, did they?"

Blair swallowed and said, "Nope. Leahy probably didn't tell them and of course, you wouldn't know to double check. Not that you would have anyway."

"'You' meaning him?"

"Yep." Then Sandburg looked at the beer and said, "Don't you want it?"

"No, no, all yours."

"Cool."

Sandburg proceeded to guzzle as if he hadn't had anything to drink in days. Five minutes later, the plate was clean and the bottle empty.

"Feel better now?"

"Yeah, much. I haven't eaten since --"

"I know, since lunch. Lobster bisque."

Blair grinned hugely. "Yeah." He unscrambled his legs, got up and put the plate on the table, then started removing his clothes.

"Sandburg, I'm not O'Keefe."

Blair's fingers froze on the button. "Shit." He turned and said, "I don't wear anything to bed here. Don't have anything. Well, I mean, you know, my boxers..." his voice trailed off as his eyes lowered.

Jim stood, uncertain of what to do. Finally inspiration struck. "Look, I'll camp out on the floor. Just go into the bathroom and take a pair of my -- of his sweats with you."

Blair shook his head. "Won't work, man. Cohen opens every door during his rounds. Every door. And you might as well know -- Leahy likes to, well, you know, at night, he'll look in. Like I said, he's a real pervert."

Fuck. That meant --

"Yeah, Jim. We have to share the bed. Don't worry, you'll survive. I don't have cooties."

Several emotions flirted with Jim Ellison at that moment, among them disgust and anger directed at Leahy. And his own chagrin at the idea of sharing the bed with the kid. The thought of feeling Sandburg's heat, or hoping that incredible hair would brush against his skin -- then Sandburg's words hit him again and he arched one eyebrow. "Um, did you say cooties? Do all anthropologists going for their doctorates use such technical jargon?

Blair grinned and said, "It's Mayan. Ancient language. Only a handful of us know what it means."

"Uh-huh. And what does it mean?"

"Now, Jim, if I told you that, I'd have to kill you."

"Go get undressed."

Still smiling, Blair turned and went into the bathroom. While he was gone, Jim got out of his clothes and quickly climbed into bed. He figured it would be easier this way -- on Sandburg. At the last minute, he turned off the light. A few minutes later, the bathroom door opened. Blair stopped in the doorway, his body backlit.

"It's okay, just -- climb in. Is this the side you usually sleep on?"

Sandburg gave a small cough and nodded. Then he quickly climbed in and pulled the covers up.

For a few minutes, there was no sound other than their breathing. But Jim was very uncomfortable and at the moment, his discomfort had nothing to do with the closeness of Sandburg. His unease was so intense that he finally had to say something.

"Look. I -- need -- to switch places."

"Huh?"

"Oh, God. This is gonna sound stupid, but I need -- I need to sleepbythedoor."

For a moment there was no response. Then, "I understand."

Blair got out of bed, let Jim move over, then walked around and got back in.

"Thanks."

"No problem."

Jim stayed on his back and after a few minutes, he put his hands behind his head. He had a lot of thinking to do. Blair rolled over onto his side -- facing away from Jim -- and hiked the covers up to his neck.

Just when Jim thought the kid must be asleep, he said, "You know, if you could screw up Tupertino's operation in the next few days, you could stall Morrison, force him into doing something stupid."

"Damn, you are Dick Tracy."

"What, you don't think that's an idea?"

Jim turned his head to look at the lump that was Sandburg's back. "Actually... it could work. If Major Crime concentrated on Tupertino, put everything into it for a few days, used every snitch and source we have -- yeah, we could force Morrison's hand. Get him scrambling. Of course, I just have to get word to my boss."

"I could -- do that."

"Sandburg --"

"Do you think you could not call me that? And it would be easy for me. You send me off on an errand tomorrow. You often got -- um -- he often got the keys to one of Morrison's cars and sent me out running down something or other. I could contact your boss."

Jim turned his attention back to the ceiling as he processed what he'd just heard.

Sandburg -- no, starting here and now, Jim thought, no more 'Sandburg'. Okay, Blair was often sent off to run errands. He bathed O'Keefe, fed him, laid out his clothes -- just what kind of fucking relationship had existed, for God's sake? Hell, whatever it was, it sure wasn't like any hooking job he'd ever heard of before. Which brought Jim right back to the suggestion.

"Look, it's too dangerous and you're not a cop, Sand-- Chief. I can't risk --"

"Jim, it's no risk. It's common. A done deal. No one will even blink." Blair turned over to face Jim and propped his head on his hand. "Look, O'Keefe has been gone for three weeks. He loves the Islands' Salt Water Taffy. You know, that place on the pier? Send me for some taffy. He'd do that."

"And if you're followed?"

"I'm never followed, Jim. Never. No one pays the slightest attention to me, or hadn't you noticed? I'm wallpaper, man, wallpaper. Let me do it."

Jim considered the idea, turned it around in his mind and could find no real fault with the plan. Nodding, he said, "All right. We'll do it your way. Islands opens at eight on Saturdays. You can be gone and back before anyone thinks too much about it. I'll give you Simon's home number."

"Maybe -- you'd better give me something that will convince him, you know? He's not gonna know me from Adam."

"You don't look or sound anything like Adam."

"Huh?"

"Never mind. Inside joke. Okay, tell him you're calling for 'Slick'. It's an old nickname from when I first started working in Major Crime." Jim could see Blair's smile in the dark and he grinned in return, knowing exactly what was coming.

"Slick, huh? Yeah, that fits. I like it."

Suddenly the intimacy of the moment hit Jim like a ton of bricks. He felt incredibly comfortable, safe and -- it was a good moment. He couldn't remember feeling anything like this in his short-lived marriage to Carolyn Plummer, the proof being the fact that he didn't mind in the slightest that Blair would probably call him Slick at some point. And nobody had used that name since -- Jack.

"Yeah, well, Simon will get it and that's all that's important. Give him everything, Chief."

"Okay. I should be back by ten at the latest. Stay out of everyone's way til I get back. Pretend to be sick or something. Or I can tell them you're ill when I go downstairs. That'll work because O'Keefe was known for his weird wants."

"That's not why I'm here, Chief. I need --"

"Listen, while you were all wining and dining downstairs, Cohen grabbed Leahy's golf clubs and then came in and took your -- O'Keefe's bag too. That says that all that's happening tomorrow is business entertaining. Morrison doesn't like early tee-offs so I can easily cover for you. And you know, you can accomplish a great deal without ever leaving this room, Jim."

Ellison mulled it all over and he finally had to admit that maybe the kid had a good point. And they were only talking two hours -- tops.

"Okay, okay, you've convinced me. I'll leave tomorrow morning in your hands."

"Good." Blair turned back around and after punching the pillow a bit, finally settled back down. "By the way, remember, if you're going to listen in tomorrow morning, concentrate on more than one sense."

"How?"

"Um, try working it with your sense of touch. Use one of the fur throw pillows, hold it and -- you know -- pet it while you listen."

"Let me get this straight, you want me to pet a pillow while I eavesdrop?"

"Um -- yeah."

Jim could hear Blair's grin. God damn him. Jim smiled in the dark.

"Go to sleep, kid."

"Goodnight -- Jim-boy."

"Twerp."

Blair's deep chuckle rumbled through the bed.

*****

Creaking floorboards woke Jim for the second time since he and Sandburg had finally fallen to sleep. The first time had been, as promised, Cohen, who'd opened the door, checked, then quietly closed it again before moving on. But this time the footsteps were slower, more cautious -- and Jim felt the hair on his arms rise.

He turned his head toward the clock on the nightstand and noted that it was after four. The footsteps stopped just outside.

Slowly the door opened and with eyes closed to mere slits, Jim immediately recognized -- Jeff Leahy.

The God-damned, mother-fucking prick.

Sandburg was right -- he was a pervert. Why the hell would he want to look in on O'Keefe and his 'toy'? At that moment the moon broke through the clouds and at the same time Jim heard a sharply inhaled breath coming from Leahy. The gasp was followed by the sharp tang of arousal.

Fuck.

It took all of Jim's willpower to remain in place and unmoving. Two minutes later the door was closed as slowly as it had been opened. Jim let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, then turned over, afraid that Sandburg had wakened.

But he needn't have worried. Blair Sandburg was sound asleep and now Jim knew exactly why Leahy had gasped.

The moon's glow had captured Sandburg, who lay on his back, covers casually gathered at his waist. His furred chest offered an alternating vision of dark and light, thanks to the softly curling hair breaking up the expanse of silvery pale skin. His face was turned toward the door and Jim almost found himself gasping at the dark lashes against more silvery pale skin. His hair was fanned out on the white pillow and at that moment, Jim wished fervently that he had the ability to draw.

Blair Sandburg was a youthful, masculine, beautiful study in black and white, and Jim knew that however the case ended, he'd carry this sight with him to his grave.

Jim rolled onto his side and continued to -- look.

*****

Blair felt good. He was in that world of early morning haziness of being half-awake and half-asleep. He was warm, cocooned within the blankets and soft warm breath caressed his neck.

Blair's eyes popped open. Warm breath? On his neck?

He started to move and realized that he couldn't, that the cocoon was not blankets, but rather -- arms. He glanced down to find Jim's arms wrapped around him. They were spooned together, Blair's back to Jim's chest and for just a moment, Blair pretended. It was wrong, it was useless, but he did it anyway.

He closed his eyes, smiled and commenced with his pretending...

They were in love and -- he'd found his face. The man to whom it belonged was everything and more.

Because it was his dream, their lovemaking was passionate and caring. No pain, no humiliation, no degradation, no torture for the pure joy of seeing another man's face twisted in agony and shame. No power games.

Blair floated in his never-never land until he felt salty moisture tracking its way down his cheeks. Careful not to disturb the man in whose arms he was nestled, Blair swiped at the wetness. Just a few more minutes. He'd stay like this for a few more minutes, and then -- he'd move to his side of the bed.

*****

Jim was only half aware of his surroundings as he winced at the early morning light filtering in through the front windows. What he was aware of was the man in his arms.

Early morning muskiness tantalized his nose and he burrowed deeper, his chin grazing a sensitive neck. He gave a small moan and moved on autopilot. His lips slipped over the skin in small kisses and he was rewarded when the body moved back against him. His dick, which had been at half-mast, quickly went to full alert. The allure of a warm chest and the thrumming just under the skin that signaled the heartbeat drew his hand like a puppet. He smoothed over the flesh, fingers playing with the mass of chest hair.

Once more, the body thumped back, a little harder this time and Jim responded with a moan and small nips at the sweet juncture between shoulder and neck. Who needed alarm clocks? Not him.

Slowly Jim came fully awake and he almost froze. Then Blair turned in his arms and he found himself staring at sleepy blue eyes.

"It's all right, Jim," Blair whispered as he slowly reached down between them. He rested his hand against the bulge in Jim's shorts, then began to massage gently even as he moved in closer, eyes fixed on Jim's mouth.

Their lips were about to meet when Jim said a terse, "No."

The effect was immediate. Blair shut down, rolled over and got out of bed. A moment later the bathroom door was shutting behind him.

Jim closed his eyes and silently cursed himself. He didn't completely understand what had just happened, but once again he felt that he'd made a huge tactical error. But damn it, a cop doesn't get involved while undercover, and he sure as hell doesn't get tangled sexually with a hooker, male or female, no matter how strong the temptation.

Jim crawled out of bed and slipped into the robe that, so many hours ago, Blair had placed on the back of the chair by the window. As he belted it, he wondered how he could face the kid when he finally came out of the bathroom.

*****

What an asshole, Sandburg, Blair thought as he turned on the shower. For just a moment, he'd really believed that Jim had wanted him. That it was more than simply waking up in bed with a warm body within easy reach and forgetting where that body had been. How stupid could he be?

Climbing into the shower, Blair stood for several minutes under the hard, hot spray, hands braced on the tiled wall of the stall. He had a job to do today and that was all that mattered.

That and helping Jim in his role and thus keeping the man -- alive.

*****

Jim heard the dryer shut off and not much later the bathroom door opened, allowing a patch of warm air to filter out, quickly followed by Sandburg.

"It's all yours, man. I'll get dressed and head downstairs with the heartbreaking news that you're a bit under the weather and that you want me to run an errand."

Jim watched, stunned, as Sandburg moved to the closet and took down a shirt, then turned back to him, clearly surprised that Jim hadn't budged.

"Go. Shower. I won't be back up since it's almost eight now and I don't want to be out any later than necessary. And don't forget the pillow if you find the opportunity to listen in on anything."

Jim stared at the kid, then at the pillow, then shrugged in defeat. Silently he walked into the bathroom and shut the door.

Minutes later, just as he was just about to climb into the shower, he heard Sandburg leave.

Fuck, fuck and double fuck.

*****

Blair hurried down the stairs and into the kitchen, knowing that Cohen would be there stuffing his face. He wasn't disappointed. The big man was at the butcherblock table, as usual, eating his breakfast.

"Hey, man, Jim wants me to go into town. He's a bit under the weather and is his usual petulant self." Blair smiled as if sharing a secret, knowing damn well it would go right over Cohen's head. "Naturally he just has to have his salt water taffy. Can you give me a set of keys?"

Cohen nodded toward the keyboard by the back door and as Blair started toward the pegboard, he said, "Matter which set?"

"Take the Beemer."

"Got it. And can you let Morrison know? I don't think Jim is gonna be up to any golf this morning."

"Tommy'll be upset."

"Well, who knows, maybe Jim will improve. What time are they due to tee off again?"

"Noon."

"Okay then, just let Jim lie low for the morning and we'll see how he feels after his taffy fix." Blair grinned again and Cohen nodded slowly. "Thanks, man. Be back in a couple. Need me to pick up anything while I'm out?"

"No. Just get back here so I don't have to deal with O'Keefe's pissy mood when you go missing too long."

"Sure, no problem. Like I said, a couple of hours -- tops. Catch ya on the back side, man."

Blair left via the back door and headed for the massive building that housed all of Morrison's cars. As he approached the door, a voice halted him mid-step.

"Hey, toy, you're up early."

Gritting his teeth and putting on a smile, Blair turned to face Leahy. "Errand for Jim. He's in serious taffy withdrawal. And he's under the weather to boot."

Leahy's eyes narrowed. "Under the weather? We tee off at noon and Morrison needs Jimmy there."

"Yeah, so I've been informed. He might be just fine by noon. Not up to me, man."

Leahy stepped in close, invading Blair's space, his breath wafting over Blair's face. "Did you ever think -- that you could do better than O'Keefe?"

Eyes widening in mock surprise, Blair said with a sly grin, "Better than the Great O'Keefe? I don't think so, Leahy."

"Well, I'm telling you -- you can. Someone stronger, with more pull, someone who could do more for you."

"Gee, I didn't think Morrison swung that way, Leahy. Learn something new every day."

Anger suffused Leahy's face as his dark blue eyes went almost black. "You'd better watch yourself, Toy. I can be your friend or I can be your enemy. Your choice."

Blair wondered where Leahy got his lines and gave a fleeting thought to mentioning the triteness of them. But he also had to acknowledge the chill that raced up and down his back at Leahy's words. This was not what he needed.

Putting on a worried expression that wasn't all that fake, Blair said, "Look, right now, I've got all I can handle with O'Keefe. Give me a break. You want to work something out on the side, fine, we can talk -- later. You don't mind risking Jim's ire, cool, but right now, the guy is in serious need of his -- taffy. I'm outta here."

Leahy backed off, but his next words were cryptic. "I don't think I'll have to worry about Jimmy's ire for much longer, Sandburg, and then -- I'll come knocking."

Blair waved absently and moved past the man, praying that he wouldn't follow him into the dark garage. His prayer, for once, was answered.

As he disappeared inside, he was totally unaware of the man on the balcony who'd heard every word.

*****

Scowling, Jim turned away and walked back into the room, almost slamming the door closed as his anger leaked out. Whether the anger was directed at Leahy or Sandburg -- well, that remained a mystery.

Inside, he started pacing, working off the sudden surge of frustrated energy. When that didn't work, he removed the robe, then dropped down and started to do push-ups. He'd lost count when someone knocked on his door.

Standing quickly and slipping back into the robe while trying to regain his breath, he moved to the door and opened it to Tommy Morrison.

"Hey, Jimmy. Got the word you're not feeling well. Thought I'd check on you. See if you needed anything?"

"No, no," Jim assured, his breath barely controlled.

"You look like hell, Jimmy. I'm worried."

With a start, Jim realized that he was probably flushed and sweaty from his spontaneous workout. Wonders never cease.

"No, actually, I'm feeling better than I did this morning. Probably picked up something on the flight."

"Is -- Blair -- taking good care of you?"

Puzzled at the pause and the soft way in which Morrison said Sandburg's name, Jim could only nod.

"Good, good. And don't worry about the game. The important meeting is later this afternoon. Let's hope you're up to it. I'll check in with you before we leave for the club."

"Thanks, Tommy."

"Get back into bed. I'm going to send Corky up with some juice and a great antibiotic I've got. Okay?"

"Sounds like a plan."

Morrison patted Jim on the arm, then left.

Sighing in relief, Jim sat down on the edge of the bed, grateful that he'd decided to put on only his jeans. He was just considering another shower when voices in the hall captured his attention.

"No, he's out of the game. He looks like he might be coming down with the flu."

"Can we afford it if he misses the game?"

"It's social and we can keep all discussions away from business until later, when we meet back here for dinner. Our councilmen have legitimate concerns and Jimmy is the best one to allay their fears right now. But we're talking Jimmy O'Keefe here and he isn't going to let anything stop this. He'll make it for the dinner meeting, Abie. Don't worry."

"Look, Tommy, you're putting a great deal of faith in Jimmy. Are we sure he's the man to control this?"

"Abie, he's the only man. He can work with Tupertino's people, they know what he did in Chicago. And you know how our guys feel."

The voices were fading and Jim swore under his breath -- then remembered. He focused, then Blair's voice telling him about the pillow interrupted. He shook his head, got up, grabbed the damn thing and moved to the door. With fingers absently rubbing the soft fake fur, he listened --

"Abie, have a little faith."

"Faith I have, Tommy. In abundance. But we're walking on eggshells here. This whole thing could blow up in our faces on the turn of a dime."

"Tupertino is in the bag. We're on our way, my friend. It won't be long before the entire state is ours."

"Right now, I'd settle for Cascade while remaining strong in Seattle."

A door slammed shut and while it was jarring, Jim was almost prepared for it. He winced

a bit, moved to the French door and stepped outside. He watched Morrison light up a cigar, then he and Donovan walked the grounds in the front of the house.

"Just remember, Tommy, you have to keep to the background. Rumors are on the street, and you can bet your granny's potato farm in County Cork that both the cops and the Feds have their periscopes up."

"I know, Abie, I know. I'm here to save a park, remember? I'm the kind, caring benefactor."

Donovan chuckled, but more words were lost as a lawn mower was revved up. Jim was able to handle the sound, filter it out, and once again concentrate on the voices --

"-- and Leahy?"

"Leahy will do what's best for the family, Abie. And yes, I'm fully aware of his ultimate goals, but to be frank, he just doesn't stop to think. He's dangerous in that regard and I've got my eye on him."

"Well, at least he's the devil you know, which is more than I can say for Tupertino."

"Ray will do as his father-in-law instructs. He'll honor the favor."

"Even though he knows damn well it means giving up control?"

"I'm not saying he won't try something, I'm just saying -- we're ready."

Their voices were finally drowned out completely as the lawn mower stopped, apparently right next to them, and it was too painful for Jim to continue to try to focus, pillow or not. But he'd already learned a great deal, and Sandburg's idea of wreaking havoc on Tupertino was sounding better by the minute.

He just hoped the kid would be able to connect with Simon.

*****

Blair walked the pier, enjoying his freedom. The air was cold and brisk and he breathed in deeply, then coughed slightly. Smiling, he continued on his way, enjoying the decorations. The fact that the pier was still relatively uncrowded even though Christmas was only a little over a week away, thrilled him even more. How many shopping days left? Eight? Yeah, eight shopping days left till Christmas.

Thanks to the demands made by O'Keefe, Blair had few remaining friends and he'd been able to shop for them and his mother in these last peaceful weeks. As a result, he was able to ignore the lure of the shops.

There was a pay phone a few stores down from Islands and while he'd passed several, this was the only enclosed booth. He ducked inside, shut the door, then plugged in his two quarters and dialed the number he'd memorized. While the phone rang, he prayed that Simon Banks was home.

*****

Simon dropped the morning paper onto the coffee table, ambled into the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee, added the sugar and cream, then headed back to the living room. Halfway to the paper and his brief foray into current events, the phone rang.

"Banks."

"Um, Captain Simon Banks?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"Who I am is unimportant. I'm calling for Slick." Simon frowned. Slick? He didn't know any... Wait. Jim. Jack Pendergast had called him Slick and was the only one allowed. Fuck.

"You're calling for Ellison?"

"Ellison? Um, he's -- Jim. And he said you -- oh, you mean Ellison is his last name?"

Simon closed his eyes and counted to ten. No way would Jim screw this up... "Yes. Detective Jim Ellison. Is he all right?"

"He's fine, sir. Please listen. I don't have much time. There's about to be a merger between Morrison and Tupertino. They meet next Thursday. The idea is that between now and then, you crack down on Tupertino's operation -- force Morrison's hand."

Simon considered what he'd just been told and had to admit, the idea made sense. Good sense.

"All right, we'll get on it. If we're successful, Jim should begin to feel the fallout real quick."

"Okay, good. I'll tell him."

"Listen, who are you?"

"Like I said, I'm unimportant. He also said to keep the crush on Tupertino confined to Major Crime, and he said you'd know what he meant. I've got to go now."

Before Simon could do or say anything else, there was a click and he knew the man had hung up. Damn. He put the receiver down and stood silent and thinking.

Jim wouldn't trust just anyone to deliver a message, so Simon had to trust the messenger as well. It also meant that Jim had a voice, which was one less worry for Simon. And the Major Crime remark? Pure Jim Ellison, because Simon knew exactly what Jim had been referring to and he intended to follow through.

Banks glanced longingly at his morning paper -- then turned away. He had work to do.

*****

It had only been six hours since the strange phone call from an unknown young man and yet the ball was rolling. Simon sat back in his chair and surveyed his office. Other than the fact that his conference table was littered with Styrofoam containers -- leftovers from lunch -- no one could have guessed what had gone on in the last hours, let alone the intensity of the discussions and plans.

Getting his people together had taken a few phone calls, since most of his chosen detectives had been off duty. He'd called in only five, but he trusted all of them with his life, hence Jim's. He'd then made a cryptic call to Agent Levy, asking him to come in, and explaining the need with a small white lie. He trusted Levy, but that was as far as his trust of the Feds went, thanks to the whole Garett Kincaid fiasco.

Once Levy had shown up, Simon had spent over thirty minutes with the man, giving him Jim's idea, and receiving Levy's full support in the process. Simon had been mildly surprised by that, but then Levy had dropped a nugget that had really gotten the ball rolling -- Tupertino was taking possession of a large quantity of cocaine on Monday.

Now, six hours later, Simon was satisfied. This was going to work. His people -- Henri Brown, Ralph Peterson, Carla Hatch, Mike Cole and Sasha Washington -- had all been very enthusiastic, in spite of being called in on a Saturday. Every single one of them had immediately hit the streets, their intent to get the word out to snitches, Jim's included.

Monday was now a done deal. They had the location and Simon, with his people, would be there, ready to shut the exchange down cold. It would be the first volley in a war that had to end before Thursday.

Tupertino was about to experience a touch of Hell as delivered by Major Crime.

Simon opened his drawer and took out one of his prized cigars. He'd earned it today. As he stared at it, he took a moment to pray for his inside man -- and the unnamed kid on the phone. He also admitted to himself that he was curious. The voice had been young but strong, deep, but with no hint of fear.

Was there a God for undercover cops? And their helpers? Simon prayed it was so.

*****

Blair hung up, then remained in the booth a few moments, fingers drumming nervously on the small counter below the phone.

Ellison. Jim's last name was Ellison.

Blair liked it. It fit. Jim Ellison. James Ellison.

Somehow having Jim's last name gave Blair an extra piece of Jim himself. And that felt good and safe and -- warm. Jim was real now. He had a first and last name, and a boss.

Blair finally opened the door to the booth and started to walk back to the BMW when he remembered the excuse for his being there to begin with. He ran back and quickly purchased

a pound of the stuff. Blair didn't know if Jim -- Ellison -- liked taffy, but if he did, Blair would just bet he'd be more the root-beer-flavored kind of guy. And chocolate, of course. Blair chose for this Jim.

On the way back, his step lightened and he actually smiled. There was none of the usual dread or fear, just this -- need -- to get back to Jim. A good need.

As he drove through the marina district, he reached over and turned on the radio, then punched a few buttons trying to find his station. When he hit 104.5, he stopped.

Christmas music. He sighed and left the station alone.

Bright wintry blue sky, Saturday shoppers on the streets mingling with tourists, gaily-decorated windows and Brenda Lee singing 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree'. So at odds with Blair Sandburg's life and what was happening in a house in the Malvern Estate section of Cascade. And yet, Blair drank it all in and even started singing along with Brenda.

His mom, a Jewish flower child who now embraced bits of just about every religion out there, loved this song.

Brenda finished singing and was quickly replaced by Perry Como singing 'Home for the Holidays'. As Blair listened, he could remember being ten years old and watching his mother trimming the tree -- right after setting up the Menorah. He could see her dancing and waving her hands the same way Como had in a rerun of some old special they'd both watched. Blair wondered if he'd see her this Christmas. If he'd be -- able -- to see her.

He checked his watch and immediately pressed down on the accelerator.

Jim was waiting for him.

*****

It was already after ten and still no Sandburg.

As Jim paced in front of the French doors it suddenly struck him... There was no reason for Sandburg to come back.

Jim stopped dead, his heart thudding so hard he could feel it in his ears.

Jim almost panicked. He turned to his right, then his left, then back to the right.

He was a Goddamn fool. And -- he couldn't -- didn't think he could -- without -- him.

Don't be an ass, he scolded mentally. Could anyone blame Sandburg if he skipped out now? He didn't have to stay; O'Keefe was dead, for Christ's sake. There was nothing keeping him here except danger and the imminent threat of death if discovered. Oh, yeah, that was worth coming back.

Jim had to sit. He made his way to the bed and sank down. God, he was breathing as hard as if he'd just finished a two-mile run. Which was ridiculous. So what if Sandburg didn't come back? Jim would be no worse off than when he'd arrived. He'd never expected to find a sympathetic insider anyway. So if Sandburg never showed his face again, Jim would simply go with the original plan. No big deal. Yeah, no big deal. He was a cop. This was what he did.

He didn't need Sandburg.

Feeling better, Jim stood walked nonchalantly back to the door, opened it and stepped out onto the balcony. He gripped the railing and breathed in deeply. No problem.

Then he spotted the BMW.

He zeroed in on Sandburg and his entire body relaxed. He could see Sandburg's lips moving so he decided to listen in and received the shock of his life. The kid was singing.

Sandburg was singing fucking Christmas songs.

And -- he had a good voice.

As the car made the turn toward the back of the house and the garages, Jim grinned.

"... while Eskimos play --"

Yep, the kid had a good voice.

And he was -- back.

Suddenly feeling calm and relaxed, Jim walked inside, sat down, picked up the book by Sir Richard Burton and started to read.

*****

Jim glanced up from the monograph as Blair almost ran into the bedroom. "Hey, you're late."

"Yeah," Blair said breathlessly. "I almost forgot the stupid taffy and had to run back, then I hit holiday traffic, only two more weekends for holiday shopping, you know, but the important thing is that I connected with Captain Banks and it's a go. And do you like taffy?"

Jim blinked a couple of times as his mind worked to keep up with everything Sandburg had just said. And when did the kid breathe?

"Do you? Like taffy? 'Cause I got root-beer and chocolate-flavored. Figured you'd like those. O'Keefe didn't."

The grin that suffused Blair's face floored Jim. The guy looked almost -- happy -- that he'd bought taffy that O'Keefe would have hated.

"I like taffy well enough."

"Oh, good. Here."

Blair held out the bag and almost grudgingly, Jim took it, sniffed, smiled, then reached in and pulled out one of the root-beers. He unwrapped it and popped it into his mouth. As he chewed, Blair shook his head.

"Man, you are something else. And you should be getting ready. I suspect Morrison will want to leave in about twenty minutes."

As if his words had been a signal, someone knocked and a slightly embarrassed Jim glanced up at Blair and shrugged sheepishly, then mouthed, 'I didn't hear a thing'.

Blair smirked, gave a smug look at the taffy, then walked over to the door and opened it.

"Morrison wants to know if Jim is feeling better. Is he going to make the game?"

"Sure, Cohen, sure. He's getting ready now, man. What time does he need to be downstairs?"

"In twenty."

"No problemo."

"I'll tell the boss."

Blair shut the door, turned around and put his hands on hips as glared at Jim.

Holding up his hands in surrender, Jim said, "Okay, okay, I'm getting up, I'm getting ready."

"Good. The argyle pullover sweater vest is his lucky golf sweater. He usually wears it with a yellow oxford shirt. I'll pull everything out while you change out of those jeans."

"Blair?"

Sandburg had been about to open the closet door when Jim said his first name. His hand froze on the handle. Slowly he turned. "Um -- what?"

"I can get my own clothes. Relax."

"I -- okay."

Blair moved to the bed and sat down. Jim smiled in satisfaction as he opened the drawer

of the large oak dresser.

"Second drawer."

"Right." He opened the second drawer and pulled out the only item that matched Blair's description of the lucky sweater. Then he moved to the closet, opened it, rifled through the hangers until he found a yellow oxford shirt. He took it down and laid it on the bed next to the sweater.

"The tan Dockers."

"What about socks, Mr. Blackwell? Or can I choose those myself?"

Smiling, Blair said, "Well, he wears -- wore -- the argyle socks that match the sweater."

"Naturally."

Jim took out the Dockers, then arching an eyebrow at Blair, he gestured at the dresser.

"The top right-hand drawer."

Jim opened said drawer and pulled out the appropriate socks. He took off the jeans as easily as if he'd been alone, then slipped into the Dockers.

"He always wore an undershirt. They're in the top left-hand drawer."

Rolling his eyes, Jim grabbed a sleeveless undershirt, took off the robe, dropped it on the chair and pulled on the undershirt, then the oxford. He buttoned it up and tucked it in. Blair tossed him the sweater and he pulled it over his head and, after adjusting it, sat down and put on the socks.

"His golf shoes are on the floor of the closet, right side."

Jim nodded, walked over, picked them up and nodded at the sight of them. Good choice. Calloway's brown and white saddle golf shoes.

"To the club?"

"The matching pair on the other side."

Jim got those and put them on. "What, no shoebag?"

"In the golf bag, but Cohen took it --"

"I know, you told me. So I carry these."

"Yep."

Jim stood in front of Sandburg and hitching his shoulders up, said, "Well? How do I look?"

"Good. Perfect. And can I ask you something?"

"Shoot."

Blair grinned. "You do play, right?"

Chuckling, Jim nodded. "Since junior high school."

"Well, don't beat the councilmen. You can slaughter Morrison, but not the bigwigs."

"Got it. I can out-drive the crooked politicos but have to let them putt all the way to the bank."

"'Fraid so."

"Well then, I'm off. Any last minute tips?"

"Yeah. Let Morrison take the lead. You know O'Keefe's history in South America, right?" At Jim's nod, Blair went on. "Then just be prepared, either while on the course or later, to sell O'Keefe's organizational skills."

"Got it. And I assume you're not invited, right?"

Blair made a gesture of shooting a gun as he said, "Bull's-eye."

"So while I'm gone?"

"I sit up here and read. Like always."

"Who'll be around?"

"No one. Wiley will drive you all, Cohen will follow. Leahy will probably be teamed with Donovan and you, leaving Morrison teamed with the councilmen. Leahy is good, Donovan likes to play in the sand."

"Shit, the CIA'd love you."

"Feeling isn't mutual. Get downstairs."

Jim saluted and, with some unease, left. As he walked downstairs he wondered once again about the relationship between O'Keefe and Sandburg. And how much the kid had earned.

For what he appeared to do for O'Keefe, the kid should be millionaire.

*****

Once the bedroom door closed behind Jim, Blair got up and hurried out to the balcony. He waited patiently and was finally rewarded. Jim came out with Morrison, who was slapping him on the back.

God, Blair wished he could be with him. What if he zoned out on the back nine or something? He watched the limo pull up in front of the men, and a few minutes later watched as it pulled out onto the street.

He was alone, other than the cook and butler. But what a different kind of alone. This solitude was easy. He really could relax. Even during the three weeks of relative peace he'd known while O'Keefe had been in Chicago, he'd always known that O'Keefe would return, that his downtime was limited. But now with the knowledge that the man was dead, that he, Blair Sandburg, was truly free... well, he found that he couldn't grasp it.

Blair gave himself a quick mental shake. Enough Freudian psycho-babble. He had several hours before their return, which meant that basically -- he had the house to himself.

With Morrison gone, both Edwards and Shep would go to their rooms over the garages and Blair could investigate with little to no risk.

Maybe he was Dick Tracy.

*****

Blair walked slowly downstairs, cautious in spite of the fact that he knew he was alone. In his hand -- Jim's key ring. The idea had come to him when Jim had tossed his jeans on the chair, but had never gone back to retrieve the keys. Blair figured that if Jim could get Morrison's office open, then so could he.

Stopping in front of the double doors, Blair took the ring and held up the small oddly shaped item that he knew had to be the pick. He inserted it, wiggled and jiggled it, and finally succeeded in tripping the lock. Stepping inside, he quickly closed the door and headed to the desk.

The memo book was no longer next to the phone; it now sat in the middle of the desk. Blair sat down and picked it up. He opened it and grinned, thanks to the lengthy note that had to have been written that morning by Morrison. Blair started reading.

Send Dumphy to Stirrups, check out the betting action. Password -- 'Seabiscuit'. Get Connelly to check out The Royal Flush Club. He needs to see the dealer at the Diamond table and the password is 'King Room'. Also the Bicycle Club, password with the cashier is 'According to Hoyle's wife'.

Blair frowned. Stirrups? Hell, he'd actually been there a couple of times. It was a bar about a mile from Rainier and pretty popular among the teaching associates. So Morrison was saying what, that the place was a front for off-track betting?

Blair drummed his fingers on the desktop, his mind whirling. Finally he picked up the phone and punched in a telephone number. It rang on the other end and he hoped -

-

"Hello?"

"Cuz? It's me, Blair. Got a favor to ask."

"Hey, man, long time, no see. Whatcha need?"

"There's a bar on Elm called Stirrups. Know it?"

"Hell, yeah."

"Is that one of your spots?"

"Sure is, why?"

Blair closed his eyes and sent up a prayer of thanks. Then he turned his attention back to his cousin. "Listen, stay away from it for a few days, okay?"

"Blair?"

"Just do it, Robert, okay?"

"Okay, will do. Not that it matters, I have other avenues --"

"Like actually betting at the tracks? You could try that."

"Ha-ha, Blair, very funny. But now that you mention it --"

"One more thing --"

"Anything, Blair, you know that. Shoot."

"Is there illegal gambling going on at the Bicycle Club and the Royal Flush?"

"Well, you know, I've only heard rumors, of course, but -- yeah. And we're talking heavy. Very heavy."

"You don't --"

"Can't afford it, Cuz. Trust me."

"Okay, thanks. Catch you later. And take care."

"I always do, Blair. And is there anything I should know?"

"Just stay clean and away from Stirrups."

"Got it. Talk atcha later."

Blair disconnected and immediately dialed another number.

"Cascade Police Department. If this is an emergency, please dial 911 --"

Blair listened to the automated voice and since he didn't know the extension for Major Crime, he had to wait until the whole spiel had been given before he was turned over to an operator. "Cascade Police Department, how may I direct your call?"

"Captain Simon Banks, please."

"Just one moment."

Another two rings, then a female picked up.

"Captain Simon Banks's office."

"May I speak with him, please? Tell him it's a friend of Slick's. He'll want to speak with me."

"Just one moment, sir."

Blair waited nervously, certain that every sound he was hearing heralded discovery.

"This is Banks."

"Sir, we talked earlier this morning?"

"Yes, I remember -- well. Is everything all right? Is Jim all right?"

"He's fine, sir. I just have -- more information for you. A bar near Rainier called Stirrups. It's a front for off-track betting. And The Bicycle Club has illegal gambling, as does the Royal Flush. In the King Room. All being checked out by Morrison's people this week. I'd have to assume that they're part of Tupertino's operation. If you have a pen handy, I can give you the necessary passwords, etcetera."

"I'm ready, go ahead."

Blair quickly repeated everything from Morrison's memo.

"Okay, got it all. This is perfect, kid. And don't you think it's time you gave me your name?"

Blair bit down on his lower lip, then sighed heavily. "It's Blair. Blair Sandburg."

"Thank you, Sandburg. It's nice having a name to go with the voice and tell Jim we'll move on this immediately. You should be hearing the fireworks soon."

"Yes, sir."

"Take -- care, you understand?"

"I -- yes, and I'll take care of Jim. Don't worry."

"For some reason -- I'm not. Thank you."

"Goodbye."

"Goodbye -- Blair."

Blair replaced the receiver and leaned back in the chair, all of his energy suddenly gone. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, then exhaled slowly. When he felt his pulse slowing, he opened his eyes and looked at the book again. After making sure there was nothing else of importance, he closed it. He scanned the desk and finding nothing to write home about, he decided to try to the drawers. No shock to find them all locked.

As he started to push himself away from the desk, his hand slipped and the blotter shifted just enough to disclose a picture. Blair's mouth dropped open. The picture was of his own mother.

Blair slid it out and stared at it.

Tommy Morrison still had a picture of Blair's mother, Naomi. It had been weeks since she'd left Morrison to move on as she always did. And yet -- the crime czar still had her picture.

A door slammed shut and Blair jumped nearly three feet out of the chair. He quickly replaced the picture -- in the exact same spot, then stood and moved away. He opened the door a crack and listened intently -- The kitchen. It had been the kitchen door. Shep. Probably getting things ready for dinner.

Blair stepped out into the hall and after making sure it was locked, he closed the door and hurried down the hall and back upstairs. Once back in the bedroom, he collapsed on the bed and decided that a career as a spy was not on his future agenda. He'd just aged at least ten years.

*****

Simon walked out into the bullpen and over to Cole, who had just hung up the phone.

"Mike, I need you to run a name for me. Blair Sandburg. Get me everything you can on him. Got it?"

"Yes, sir. Is this tied into --"

"Could be, could be. Just get me something pronto."

"You got it, Simon."

*****

Jim sat down on the bench in the locker room and took off his golf shoes. Morrison was at his locker and stripping down for a shower. When he noticed Jim changing into his street shoes, he raised an eyebrow and asked, "What, no shower?"

Jim grinned in a manner that he hoped conveyed ulterior motives and said, "I'm thinking... when we get back to the house."

"You are a horny bastard, aren't you?"

"Apparently."

Morrison grinned, then after wrapping a towel around his middle, he gave Jim a hearty slap on the back. "You did good today, Jimmy boy. I think you calmed their fears and unless I'm sadly mistaken, they even appear excited."

"No kidding. They stand to turn a nice profit from some of your ventures, Tommy. Yeah, they're excited all right."

"Yeah, but thanks to you, they now realize just how secure their positions really are. I knew you were the right one for this city, Jimmy."

Jim gave him a Cheshire grin and bent down to tie his laces. Morrison went into the showers and Jim was left alone. Leahy and Donovan had already come and gone and were currently wining the councilmen in the club bar until he and Morrison were ready. It was already dark outside and in fact, the last two holes had been played in the glow of a spectacular sunset. A sunset that had made it easy for Leahy to cheat on eighteen.

Jim had spotted the move, thanks to already knowing exactly where Leahy's drive had landed, namely out of bounds. With everyone else concentrating on finding their balls in the waning light, Leahy had simply walked over to his, picked it up, stepped back out onto the fairway and then let it drop unobtrusively from his hand to land in a very nice spot for his second shot to the green. But of course, Jim had seen it all. And Leahy's action had forced Jim to screw up his shot onto the green in order to ensure that the councilmen, with Morrison as their partner, won.

If Jim weren't predisposed to dislike Leahy based on the man's chosen profession, and if he didn't already dislike the man thanks to his voyeurism, well, Jim would certainly have had cause to do so after today's golf game. The man had no sense of honor and Jim recognized that the real danger in this whole operation was Leahy. He was the wild card.

Jim slipped his golf shoes into the shoe bag, then hung it from the loop on the edge of his golf bag. He knew Wiley would come in later to gather everything and store it all in the limo

while the rest of them relaxed in the bar. Not that Jim would experience any ease. He was worried about Sandburg and had been surprised to find that he actually missed the young anthropologist. But just thinking about him throughout the day had kept his senses in line.

Which was kind of -- weird.

At that moment, Jim realized that he had a golden opportunity to contact Simon. He knew where everyone was located and there wouldn't be a safer moment. He left the locker room and made his way to the restaurant, which was located at the opposite end of the clubhouse from the bar. When he walked in, he spotted the sign that directed people to the restrooms and phones. He weaved his way through the room and after pulling out two quarters, he plunked the coins into the slots and dialed Simon's cellphone.

"Banks."

"Simon, it's me."

"Jim? You okay?"

"Couldn't be better. We're at the country club. Are you working on --"

"Jim, we've got it all in the works thanks to the additional information from Sandburg the second time he called --"

"Sandburg? You talked to him again?"

"Yes. Around two. We're moving in on the Bicycle Club and the Royal Flush tonight. And on Monday, we're busting up a drug exchange. I think you're gonna get everything you need, Jim."

Jim found himself speechless. Sandburg had called Simon a second time? What the hell had the kid done? And could he kill him?

"Jim? Listen, do you know who this Sandburg kid is?"

That got Jim's attention. "What do you mean?"

"I had Cole run the stats on him and he's got quite a reputation at Rainier. Got his Masters at the obscene age of twenty-one, already has a reputation as one of the brightest in his field -- Jim, what the hell is this guy doing with Morrison?"

"Look, I don't have time to go into it now. I've got to get back before I raise any questions. I'll try to get in touch on Monday, one way or another. In the meantime, start checking the private holdings on the councilmen. I think you'll find some interesting information. Gotta go."

Jim didn't let Simon respond, he simply hung up. Moving quickly to the counter, he caught the eye of a waitress and remembering a remark made earlier in the day about O'Keefe's love of French fries, he ordered some. When she'd bagged them, he paid and headed to the bar, his excuse for being absent in his hand, hot and smelling pretty damn good.

*****

Blair heard the crunch of gravel and stepped quickly out onto the balcony. The limo had just pulled up in front of the house and Blair sighed in relief. They were back. Jim was back.

Fifteen minutes later Jim was walking in, his jaw granite hard. "You called Simon again. Why and how?"

"Well, hello to you too. And how? Well, you see, they have this new device called a t-e-l-e-p-h-o-n-e. Works good too."

"Don't get cute, Sandburg. What did you do while we were gone?"

Blair got up, walked over to the jeans that now sat on the dresser, and took out the keys. He tossed them over to Jim, who caught them easily. "You left them, so I used the pick and got into Morrison's office again. Found some additional info and simply passed it onto Banks. End of story."

"You had no right to take such a risk, Chief. You could have blown the whole operation. Gotten yourself killed."

"I was alone in the house, Jim. There was no risk. The butler and cook were in their own rooms above the garage. There was no risk."

Somewhat mollified by that fact, Jim let his temper calm. He took several deep breaths as he tore off the sweater and started unbuttoning the oxford shirt.

"Um, Jim? Don't you want to know --"

"I know. I talked with him. How do you think --"

"Oh, yeah. Of course. Stupid me."

"Not stupid, Chief. But don't do anything like that again, all right?"

"Sure. No probl--"

"I know. No problemo. Look, I'm gonna shower and change for dinner. It seems the wives have been invited tonight and someone named Lorena is joining Morrison as his date for the evening. Cocktails in an hour."

"Okay. And Jim? I'm -- sorry."

Ellison stopped halfway to the bathroom and turned back to look at his partner in crime. "That's okay. I just don't want to see you -- hurt."

Then he walked into the bathroom, leaving a stunned Sandburg behind.

*****

The evening was tedious, as Jim found himself forced to entertain several women. Leahy's date was a tall, buxom redhead who glided about leaving a trail of very expensive French perfume in her wake. The councilmen's wives were elegant, both much younger than their husbands, and both schooled in the art of looking bored but beautiful.

Donovan's wife was a small brunette whose eyes betrayed her. She acted as hostess and while her words and actions were perfect, her eyes held glints of both fear and a dislike for her job. Morrison's date was a model and she seemed to feel that her sole purpose for attending was to sit and look regal. She did it rather well.

As the only man without a woman on his arm, all the ladies, other than Mrs. Donovan, took it upon themselves to lavish him with attention. Since O'Keefe was known as a flirt and had charm to spare, Jim turned it on and the ladies lapped it up. But throughout the entire evening, Jim found himself wishing that Blair was beside him. And this time, Jim made sure that food was taken up to the young man.

After what seemed an eternity, the evening finally ended, as did the stay of the two councilmen, Leahy and Donovan. As Jim and Morrison stood on the porch watching all the cars drive out, Morrison said, "I know you were planning on going home tonight as well, but would you mind staying? I need to go over some items with you and tonight, well, to be honest," he glanced back at the young model standing in the foyer and grinned as he went on. "To be honest, well --"

Jim held up a hand and smiling devilishly, said, "I get it, boss. We'll talk tomorrow. I'm going upstairs now which leaves you two -- alone."

"Thanks, Tommy. I'll have Shep put together something easy for breakfast since it will be just you and me. Let's make it -- oh, hell, whenever."

"Got it."

Jim started to go inside, but Morrison stopped him. "Jim? Why don't you bring -- Blair -- down with you tomorrow morning?"

Jim hid his surprise and just nodded. Then he went in and upstairs. To Blair.

*****

Jim knew before he opened the door that Sandburg was sound asleep so he entered quietly and carefully. The lamp by the bed was on and the kid was on his back, still dressed, an open book on his chest, glasses perched on the end of his nose. Jim's breath caught in his throat. No one had ever looked better.

Walking softly to Blair's side, Jim gently removed the glasses, folded them, then placed them on the nightstand. He did the same with the book, but not before reading the title, 'Bibliography on the Tragedy of the Commons' by someone named Charlotte Hess. Okay, sounded -- interesting. And most definitely not the reading material of the typical hooker, but then, Jim was learning that Blair Sandburg was anything but typical.

As he tenderly lifted the totally out-of-it man, it hit him -- he suddenly couldn't care less that Blair Sandburg had been Jim O'Keefe's beck and call man. It simply didn't matter. As he carefully removed the red Henley, Jim understood that he was involved with Sandburg and that he wanted that involvement to go deeper, that he wanted to be involved in every way. Their pasts, even their present, mattered not one bit to him. It was tomorrow, next week, next month -- and next year that mattered. And Jim had every intention of spending all them and more with the man he was currently undressing.

Jim unzipped the kid's jeans and slipped them off, making sure he didn't wake Sandburg. Although he doubted that even an earthquake could do that at this point. When Blair was in nothing but his boxers, Jim managed to get him under the covers with the only movement of the younger man being to curl up on his side and hug the pillow. Smiling, Jim turned off the light and by the soft glow of the winter moon, he undressed, then climbed into bed. Feeling comfortable and at ease, he slipped into sleep, content to feel Sandburg's warmth a few inches away.

*****

Sunday fell apart for Morrison. For Jim, it was everything he could have hoped for, following all that he and Sandburg had accomplished on Saturday.

The day had started out well with Jim waking up to find a lump attached to his back. Somehow, in the early morning hours, Blair had turned over, spread out and now occupied the entire bed with Jim holding down a slender edge. But the nice part had been that Blair's head was butted up against Jim's back. The kid had somehow molded himself to Jim and the older man didn't mind one bit. But remembering the morning before, Jim wisely got up, got his shower out of the way, shaved and by the time he came out of the bathroom, Blair was finally stirring.

With a towel slung around his neck, barefoot and wearing only his jeans, Jim rubbed at his hair and smiled down at the groaning man still in bed.

"Come on, sleepy head, rise and shine."

"go 'way, mom."

One eyebrow rose. "Mom? Do I look like a mother to you, Chief?"

Blair stretched, then rubbed at his eyes. He sat up, looked about him dazedly, then reached for his glasses. Jim had to put them in his hand. As Blair slipped them on, he blinked up at Jim and smiled. "Hey, man. How did last night go? Any problems? And thanks for the dinner. That was -- cool."

Shaking his head fondly, Jim finished drying his hair as he said, "Everything went fine. Smooth as silk. The wives were boring, the dates were boring, everyone is gone and Morrison expects us both downstairs for breakfast."

That lit a fire under the kid, all right. At Jim's words, Blair's mouth dropped open, then he snapped it shut and jumped out of bed.

"What? Tell me you didn't say yes. Just tell me that?"

Sensing the changing pace of Blair's heartbeat and noting the sudden beads of moisture that dotted his upper lip, Jim frowned as he asked, "Why shouldn't I say yes? What's going on, Sandburg?"

He hadn't meant to sound so short, but judging by Blair's reaction, he had been. Blair backed off instantly. Waving a hand, he said, "Nothing, nothing, Jim. Sorry. I'm going to take that shower now."

Jim reached out and carefully took Blair's arm and in a softer tone, said, "Wait. Just tell me why it's a problem that I said yes."

Eyes downcast, Blair mumbled, "O"Keefe wouldn't have. He would have made up some excuse. He didn't want to risk -- um, he just wouldn't have."

Jim's frown deepened. Risk? Risk what? But before he could ask, someone knocked on their door. As he moved to answer, Jim motioned for Blair to go. He knew by the aftershave that it was Cohen and as he opened the door, Blair shut himself up in the bathroom.

"We gotta problem. Morrison wants you downstairs now."

"Tell him I'm on my way."

Cohen nodded, turned and almost ran down the hall. As Jim closed the door, he smiled. He could guess the problem. He quickly pulled on a gray sweater, stepped into a pair of loafers, then knocked on the door before opening and stepping inside. "Sandburg?"

The shower was on and thanks to the steam, not even Jim could see more than the vaguest outline of Blair's form. At his voice, Blair cracked open the stall door and poked his head out, hair dripping over his face. "Yeah?"

"I think Morrison's just received some bad news, thanks to Major Crime. I was just ordered downstairs. I'm on my way. I'll have breakfast sent up to you, all right?"

Blair nodded and was about to close the door when he realized that Jim was still standing there, shifting from foot to foot, eyes down and clearly -- embarrassed.

"Jim?"

"Look, about earlier? I was just reacting to -- your -- reaction, you know? You seemed so panicked and, well, I just --"

"It's okay, Jim. Honest. You'd better get downstairs."

"Right. Okay, then." Jim turned and grabbed the knob, but before turning it, he said, "Maybe you should go home today? You deserve some peace."

"Morrison wouldn't believe it, Jim. Even during the week, the normal procedure would be for Wiley to drive me to school, then pick me up when I was finished. And I pretty much had to -- I pretty much got my teaching classes covered. If I go home now -- well, it wouldn't look right. The tougher the situation, the more -- relaxing -- O'Keefe required."

"Oh. Okay then."

Jim watched Blair pop his head back in and shut the door. Jim headed downstairs.

*****

"This is not good, Jim. Both clubs were hit last night and were shut down along with Stirrups. Tupertino is doing some fancy footwork right now, but the bottom line is -- last night took a big chunk out of his operation. We're now in the unenviable position of providing damage control."

"Unenviable? Seems to me that this little mess of Tupertino's increases the favor factor, boss. But of course, there's no reason to assume that we need to step in now. I'm thinking a wait and see policy might be more prudent at this point."

"It might. Certainly would decrease the chances of exposing ourselves too early, Jimmy."

"Exactly. Why don't we just sit back and see what happens? If things go farther south, then we take advantage."

Morrison pushed himself away from the table, rose and went to stand by the large bay window that fronted the dining room. With his back to Jim, he said quietly, "You're the spine that holds me together, Jimmy boy. I'm glad you're back here with me. We'll wait."

Satisfied, Jim nodded. "You calling the others in today?"

"No. But this does change a few things." Morrison turned around and with a grin, said, "I think I need to call Lorena back here. Or maybe meet her in town. Will you call Donovan, give him the plan?"

"Sure thing, boss. On my way."

Jim got up and headed for the phone in the study, thankful again for all the names and numbers he'd been forced to memorize.

*****

Morrison watched his man head out, then he glanced into the hall and toward the stairs. He made his decision.

*****

Blair was munching on a piece of bacon when someone knocked. Frowning, he walked to the door and was surprised to find Tommy on the other side.

"Blair. May I come in?"

"Of course, Tommy." He stepped aside, allowing Morrison in.

"I see Shep sent up breakfast for you?"

"Oh, um, yeah."

Morrison walked over to the small table by the window and glanced down at the plate, at the half-eaten omelet, the fruit and the two remaining pieces of bacon. "I'm glad." Still eyeing the food, Morrison said easily, "How's Naomi?"

"She's fine. In New Orleans right now."

"Ah. Great town to be in over the holidays. Ever been there?"

"Yes, when I was about -- fifteen, I think. Mardi Gras."

Smiling, Tommy turned to face Blair. "Even better. Nothing like New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Any chance she'll be visiting you soon?"

"I -- I'm not sure, Tommy. She's showing no indications of it."

"Not even for Christmas or Chanukah?"

"We haven't spent -- a lot of holidays together, not since I was sixteen. Once I settled in at Rainier, well, she really let the wanderlust take over, you know?"

Morrison's face clouded over for a moment as he said, "Yes, I do know."

And just like that -- it hit Blair. Tommy Morrison was still in love with his mother. Which explained a great deal.

"I'm sorry, Tommy."

Plastering a fake smile on his face, Morrison said, "Oh, yeah, don't worry about it. Give her my love if you talk with her, all right?"

"I will."

"Thanks. And -- take care."

"My mantra, man."

Tommy grinned and headed out. At the last minute he turned back to Blair and placed both hands on the younger man's shoulders. "I'm fond of you, Blair. Is everything all right? Are you really happy with Jimmy?"

"Of course. I wouldn't be here otherwise."

Morrison shook his head. "Sometimes, well, it seems you two are just -- I just don't see it."

"You mean you don't see your number one man as gay?"

"Damn, you caught me."

They both smiled but Blair's discomfort was increasing. This was too close to the man. Too close to a man he was helping Jim destroy.

"Jimmy's a good man, but I have to be honest here. You make him vulnerable and I worry. You also haven't always seemed completely happy. Those first couple of weeks, when your mother was here, you were -- very different. Always moving, talking, joking, full of energy, anxious to see everything, be a part of everything -- but that's not how -- I'm not making any sense, am I?"

Thank God Blair was good at obfuscation. "Not really."

Morrison dropped his hands from Blair's shoulders and opened the door. "Just ignore me, Blair."

With that, he walked out and closed the door behind him.

Blair's appetite gone, he sank down on the edge of the bed and stared at the floor.

*****

Jim started upstairs, his calls completed. Halfway up, he met Morrison coming down.

"Jimmy, join me for a few minutes."

Jim couldn't very well refuse. He nodded and followed Morrison into his office. He took a seat in front of the large desk and watched as Morrison opened up his office bar and poured them each a generous shot of Jameson's. As the man walked back to his desk he handed off Jim's drink. When he sat down, he held up his glass.

"To us, Jimmy. To us and the world."

Jim smiled encouragingly and lifted his glass, letting it just touch Morrison's. "To us, Tommy."

They both drank, then Morrison said, "I'm thinking I shouldn't keep you."

"That's all right."

"I think I'm entering one of the famous Black Irish moods. I should feel on top of the world, yet all I can think about is..."

When Morrison's voice trailed off, Jim prompted him. "Is?"

"A woman, Jimmy, my boy. A woman. Something you wouldn't understand."

"Why not?"

Morrison looked at him over the rim of his glass and then slowly put it down. "Good question. Why not indeed. Although, to be frank, I never pictured you as a man to give his heart. Truth to tell, never knew you even had a heart. It's what made you so good."

"And now?" Jim challenged.

"And now -- nothing. You're still the best."

Jim held up his glass and giving Morrison a little salute, he said, "And don't you forget it, boss."

Laughing, Morrison waved Jim up as he said, "Get upstairs. Why don't you and the kid get out of the house today? The surf is good; go, take advantage. This wait and see shit is good for at least one thing; peace and quiet."

"You talked me into it, boss. We're on our way."

*****

Well, that was different, Jim thought as he walked upstairs. And surfing? Was there no end to the things he and O'Keefe had in common? As he opened the door to the bedroom, he said in a falsely cheerful voice, "Pack up for the beach, Chief. We're going surfing."

Blair glanced up from the spot on the floor that he'd been 'investigating' since Morrison's departure to say, "Huh?"

"We're on hold. I persuaded Morrison to take a wait and see tack with Tupertino. Both clubs and Stirrups were shut down last night. Morrison suggested we go surfing."

Blair groaned. "Don't tell me you surf too?"

"As a matter of fact, I do. And the weather is perfect today."

"Aw, Jim, it's freezing outside."

"So bundle up. I assume I have wetsuits and boards here?"

"Oh, yeah. Most everything of O'Keefe's is here. He has an apartment in town, in the Wilkenson Tower, but since returning from South America, he's spent most of his time out here."

"Well then, buddy, bundle up. We're off to the beach."

Blair huffed a bit, then said cheekily, "My, but it's tough being a cop, ain't it?"

"It has its perks, Sandburg, it definitely has its perks."

*****

Blair should have been miserable. The sand was damp, the wind cold and the sun had decided to take a dump behind several murderous-looking clouds. But he wasn't. In fact, he'd never been more content. He was bundled up, had a thermos of hot coffee in his lap and was watching Jim surf. O'Keefe should have been this good. O'Keefe should have looked this good.

Jim was clearly happy and in his element. He surfed aggressively but, unlike O'Keefe, he surfed with respect. He melded with the ocean instead of trying to conquer that which he never could. As a result, the view was beautiful.

Blair's only regret was no camera. He'd have loved to capture this for those nights when he'd once again be alone. When this was over and Jim a cop again. A cop who'd have no need for whatever the hell Blair had become. But he didn't have one, so instead he drank his fill, committed every move to memory and held them tight within his mind.

Alone on the beach, Blair could admit to himself what had happened in only forty-eight hours. He'd fallen in love. Hard. This man was the man in his dreams, the man he'd believed O'Keefe to be in those early days. This was his Sentinel, his other half.

Blair still understood that it was too late, but that knowledge didn't dampen his love or enjoyment of the hours he had left with Jim. He'd take however many hours he could get, savor them, store them up -- and then in the empty days to come, he'd bring them out and remember. It was more than most folks had, and more than he probably deserved.

Seeing Jim heading to shore, Blair quickly uncapped the thermos and poured into the spare cup. By the time Jim ran up to where Blair was sitting, after burying the tail of his board in the sand, Blair was holding the steaming cup out. Jim took it with a grateful smile even as Blair handed him his towel.

"Man, this is terrific. His board is pretty good. I have the Yater speed longboard but this one isn't bad for these waves."

"Gee, Jim, I'm so glad," Blair said facetiously.

Jim grinned. "Smartass." Then he dropped down in the sand beside Sandburg and running the towel over his face, said, "A brief respite in an otherwise tense couple of days, eh, Chief?"

"Yeah, it's been fun. In spite of the cold."

"Cold? You call this cold? Get real. This is perfect surfing weather."

"I'm not surfing. I'm sitting on damp sand. In a nice wind that reminds me of the North Pole. But hey, I'm not complaining. It's peaceful."

Jim took a sip of the hot coffee and looked over at Blair. "You know, you're a pretty good sport, Sandburg."

Blair snorted and said, "You have my heartfelt thanks."

Chuckling, Jim stood and started to strip out of the wetsuit. Blair found that he couldn't keep his eyes from the expanse of skin as it was revealed in almost painfully erotic increments. God, but the man was beautiful. If only --

"Toss me the sweats, would you?"

"Huh? Oh, sure." Blair quickly reached behind him and grabbed up the items, then threw them up at Jim.

"I love this, but man, there are definite drawbacks to this Sentinel stuff. The sand is going to drive me crazy before we get back and I can get into a shower."

"Just dial it down."

Jim froze in the process of slipping into the bottoms of the grey sweats. "What?"

"Turn it down. You know, like -- well, picture a radio dial for your skin, for feeling. Right now, it's on about, say, eight, ten being the most uncomfortable. Start turning the dial to maybe four or five."

"A dial?"

"Yeah. A dial. Try it."

Jim gave Blair a skeptical look, but shrugged as if to say, 'What the hell?' He pulled up the sweat bottoms, tied them off, then closed his eyes and tried to picture this elusive dial.

Well, hot damn. He opened his eyes and smiled. "It worked."

Blair just grinned in return, stood, gathered everything up and nodding at the board, said, "Don't forget that. Unless you're not ready to head back?"

"Oh, I'm ready all right. But not to head back to the house. I'm starving and we're stopping at a little place I know. Your fault too. With this dial turned down, I can hold out a while longer before getting that shower."

"Man, I'm down with that. I could definitely eat."

*****

"This is that little place you know?"

"Yeah. You gotta problem with WonderBurger, Chief?"

"Not for those who want to die early from hardening of the arteries."

"Give it up, Sandburg. This place is great. And you can have the veggie burger if you've got a problem with hamburger."

Jim stepped up to the counter to order, then glanced at Sandburg. "Well? What'll it be?"

"Um, I'll take the double avocado burger -- with everything."

Smirking, Jim ordered.

When their food was ready, they carried the two trays to a table by the window and sat down. Hamburgers were checked and taken, fries split and the colas set down. For several minutes both were too busy eating and enjoying to speak, but they did share smiles and fries. Finally, after the last of both burgers had been swallowed, faces wiped and the juicy, greasy mess cleaned up, they sat back and let out happy breaths.

"WonderBurger and surfing. Gotta have 'em and one right after the other."

"I see. This is a rule, is it?" Blair asked, hiding a smile behind his coke.

"Sure. What, it's not a rule for you?"

"I'm deprived. But hey, after finals week, it's pizza and beer. A rule."

"Guillano's?"

"Is there any better pizza in Cascade?"

Jim held out his hand and Blair slid his over it and they both laughed.

*****

The young man checked his reflection in the window, and then -- in spite of the sign that proclaimed the place closed -- he opened the door and stepped inside. The five men who occupied Guillano's immediately stood.

"Ray."

The larger man of the five stepped forward and took the hand of the young man. "Welcome to my restaurant. Please, we're ready. Come in. Sit."

Ray Tupertino followed Henry Guillano to the large table that had been set up in the middle of the otherwise empty restaurant. He took his seat and watched as another man, Carlos Malzotti, poured a fine Chianti into his glass. He sipped it, nodded, and then said, "We have a problem, gentlemen."

Henry nodded. "Ray, we're covered for tomorrow. The buy will go smoothly, you have my word."

"That isn't enough, Henry. Not because I do not trust you, but because -- it is possible that we are being set up."

He waited for his words to have the desired impact, then said, "And not by the Feds. I think we're being set up by -- Morrison."

The talking was immediate and Ray Tupertino let it continue for several minutes, then with the simple move of raising his hand, silence descended.

"Louis, how do we protect tomorrow? You know that buy is critical. If it falls through, we lose big and Oshida will never deal with us again."

Louis Gamboza knew an answer was expected, but more importantly, the right answer.

He thought a moment, then said the only thing that made sense. "You ask Morrison to assist us. To give us his muscle and his presence. To protect the buy."

The silence around the table was almost -- deafening. Then Ray steepled his hands, touched his nose with them and everyone breathed again. "That is the answer."

Henry held up a hand and Ray nodded in his direction.

Taking a breath, the man said, "Ray, if we ask Morrison to join in this buy, then you can do no less. That places you in a very precarious position. I don't like it."

"No more precarious than Morrison, Henry. How can we ask the man to do more than Ray? There is honor at stake here as well," Gamboza insisted. Ray Tupertino allowed the discussion to flourish, then after several minutes of listening to the pros and cons, he once again raised an elegant hand.

"I will make the call and I will be a part of the buy. It is only right, since Oshida himself will be in attendance." He turned to Louis and said, "You have your men in place, Louis. I depend on you to keep us all safe."

"It shall be done, Ray."

"Good. Good."

*****

Morrison put down the phone, sat back and pinched his nose. He didn't like it. Not one bit. And yet -- he understood Tupertino's concerns. If the buy fell through tomorrow, it would hurt them both -- severely. And of course, it gave him a chance to meet the ultra-secretive Oshida. While Morrison supplied the best South American coke, Oshida supplied the finest opium and heroin. He was one of the reasons Morrison had decided to merge with Tupertino rather than bring him down. And yet -- he had a bad feeling about the whole thing. He wished at that moment, that Jimmy were here...

*****

"Hey, is now a good time to check in with your boss?"

They'd just stepped out onto the street and Jim's answer to Blair's question was to -- burp. Loudly.

"You are the epitome of cool, Jim."

Grinning, Jim bowed. "Thank you. A man can but try. And I think calling Simon right now is a very good idea. Come on, there's a phone booth over there."

Jim grabbed Blair's arm and dragged him to the glass kiosk. He then ducked in and flipping Blair the finger, he chuckled and closed the door. Blair shook his head. The man was nothing but a great big kid.

Which was pretty cool, actually. While Blair stomped his feet in the cold, Jim dialed Simon's home number.

"Banks."

"Simon, it's me."

"Thank God, Jim. Listen, word on the street is that Tupertino is wary about tomorrow. The buy may be called off, Jim."

"Doubtful, sir. Tupertino can't call it off."

"I hope you're right. I'm counting on tomorrow to tip the scales and give you what you need to bring them down."

"Same here, Simon. Look, I'll see what I can do about having Blair check in with you tomorrow, if I can't."

"Works for me. We're getting close, Jim. Very close."

"Yes, sir."

"Take care, Jim."

"Will do."

Jim hung up and opened the door. Blair turned and hunched his shoulders, holding his hands out to his side. "Well?"

"They're worried. The street is buzzing. It's working, Chief."

"This is a good thing."

Patting the younger man on the back, Jim said, " A very good thing."

*****

When they arrived back at the house, they were met by Morrison.

"Jimmy, my office -- now."

The command was given gently and quietly but both men knew something serious was up.

Worried, Blair put his hand on Jim's arm. "It's okay, Chief. It's about tomorrow, I'm sure. Go upstairs."

Blair nodded and as Jim turned right, Blair turned left. At Morrison's office, Jim was greeted by a pacing Morrison.

"Come in and shut the door, Jimmy."

Jim did as instructed and took what was becoming his usual seat. "I received a call from Tupertino. He wants our help tomorrow, Jimmy. And he wants me with him, on the front line. I don't like this."

Jim frowned. A wrinkle, but one that they could take very good advantage of if Morrison did, indeed, comply. It could be over tomorrow.

"This makes some sense, Tommy. Especially if he's worried about -- you."

"What do you mean?"

"Come on, boss. I come back from Chicago, you're set to meet him on Thursday and suddenly three of his places are hit? He's got to think it's you."

Morrison continued to pace and digest Jim's assessment. "Okay, I can see that," he finally agreed. "So why this particular solution?"

"It's what I'd do. Hell, it's what you'd do. How else to ensure someone's honor and intentions?"

Morrison stopped in front of Jim and grinned. "You're right. It is what I'd do if I suspected Tupertino. The only good news is that Oshida is going to be there."

Jim's surprise was his own, not O'Keefe's. "Oshida himself?"

"Yes. In that sense, this couldn't work out better if we tried. But I'm still worried. The only other thing that makes me feel better is that -- you'll be with me. Jeff too."

Jim wasn't surprised at that. He'd assumed as much. This was going down tomorrow, and he had to get word to Simon.

*****

"So how do we do this?"

Jim was the one pacing now while Blair sat on the bed. It was after eleven and Jim had just managed to get away after a prolonged planning session with Morrison and Leahy, who had arrived a little after six and was staying the night.

"It's gonna be tight, Blair, I'm not going to kid you. I have to leave around two. I'm meeting with several of O'Keefe's people before the buy. Leahy, who's got a few errands to run for Morrison, will leave at the same time. But Morrison will remain here right up to the time he'll need to get to old rail yards and it's only a ten-minute drive from here.

"That means you need to call Simon's cell the minute they leave, Blair. Then you get the hell out of here. Understand?"

"Leave?"

"Blair," Jim moved to the bed and sat down beside the younger man. "I won't be coming back. Tomorrow, this will all be over. One way or the other."

"Of course. So I pack up and I'm out of here."

"Yeah."

They sat side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Silent.

"Where's home, by the way, Chief?"

"Home? Oh, my home. I have an old warehouse over on Mitchell. Eight-fifty a month, a real steal."

"A warehouse? You're kidding?"

"Nope. It's great. Big, roomy, the rats keep me company, it's real homey. What about you?"

"I have a place on Prospect. A loft. Big, roomy, no rats. Well, if you don't count the Poindexter in 207."

Blair punched Jim lightly in the arm. "Hey, they used to call me 'Poindexter'. Watch it, Bub."

Jim chuckled, then went serious. "Just make sure you get the hell out of here, right after the call. No loitering, Sandburg, understood?"

"Oh, like I would want to loiter? I don't think so."

"Yeah, well. Just get out."

Blair nodded and they continued to sit. Side by side.

 

*****

Sometime during the night, Jim, still awake, rolled over and deliberately took Sandburg into his arms. Blair, unable to sleep, let him.

*****

Monday dawned dreary and cold. The house was like a mausoleum, with every staff member moving about almost on tiptoe. Morrison was quiet, his face dark. Leahy was also unusually silent and Jim had the distinct feeling that Leahy's plans for taking over O'Keefe's position had just been seriously upended by the newest developments. That knowledge made Leahy even more dangerous and Jim intended to watch his back later at the rail yards. It would be a perfect opportunity for Leahy to pull something before Simon and the rest of Major Crime made themselves known.

At one-thirty, with just half an hour before he'd need to leave, Jim found himself standing in the bedroom that had been his home for three days, and staring at the young man who'd been his roommate.

"I guess this is it, kid."

"Kid? Kid?"

"Sorry," Jim said with a smile. "But you are younger."

"By what? A few years?"

"Sandburg, try ten."

One eyebrow shot up and Blair gave him a quirky smile. "You're thirty five? Oh man, this is rich. You're older than O'Keefe. He was only --"

"I know, Sandburg, I know. Thirty-three. I'm ancient compared to his youthfulness."

"Well, I wouldn't say ancient exactly, maybe just -- decrepit. Yeah, decrepit."

Jim stepped in close, mischief sparkling in his blue eyes in spite of the danger he'd soon be facing. "Did you just say decrepit, Chief?"

Backing away, hands in the air in mock surrender, Blair shook his head. "No, sir, not me. You must be hearing things."

"Hearing things? Moi? I don't think so, Chief." With that, Jim lunged.

Laughing, Blair spun away but not quickly enough. Jim reached out, snagged his shirt and tugged powerfully enough that both fell to the bed, Jim on top of Blair.

Laughing, Blair said, "Uncle! I give up!"

Jim narrowed his eyes dangerously, the glint turning to something more than mischief. "Give up? Nuh-uh, Chief. I don't think so." Then he ran his hands under Blair's shirt and began -- to tickle.

"Oh no! Come on, man, don't do this -- aw, please --"

Blair struggled to get out from under the relentless fingers, his laughter spilling over even as he tried to push Jim away. But Jim was bigger and stronger and he just kept at it. Until something changed.

He'd moved his fingers toward Blair's heart and had found it -- the missing ring of gold. He reared up slightly and stared down at the laughing face.

Blair, sensing a change, stopped all movement and stared back as he fought to catch his breath.

"A nipple ring?" Jim whispered.

"Yes."

Jim ran a finger over the smooth, cool metal and Blair gave a little shiver.

"Why?"

"I'm -- not -- sure."

Face hovering just above Blair's, Jim said, "Was this originally for him?"

Blair shook his head. "I've had it for about a year. But I'd wear it here because --"

"He wanted it."

Blair nodded, his eyes darkening.

"And now -- you wore it for -- me?"

"I -- think so, Jim."

Jim moved his hand away from the ring and let it smooth across the quivering chest, enjoying the tickling hair. Then he lowered himself enough to allow his lips to rest against Blair's -- until the younger man opened his mouth to receive him.

The kiss was urgent and messy, both men trying to say something before Jim had to leave, but whatever either of them were trying to say was lost in the erupting passion. Jim buried his hands in Blair's hair and his tongue in Blair's mouth. He reveled in the movement below, thrilled as Blair thrust up in reaction to the kiss as well as Jim's hands and body.

Jim was pushing Blair's shirt up, trying to get clear access to the man's chest when he was jolted from the moment by someone at their door and the creaking of said door --

"Well, well. Aren't you two happy."

Jim's face hardened even as Blair blinked and tried to focus.

"You want something, Leahy?"

"Just came up to get you, boyo. It's time to go." The words themselves were harmless, but Leahy's tone was dripping with sarcasm and jagged edges.

Keeping his body at an angle that protected Sandburg, Jim hissed out, "Downstairs. I'll meet you downstairs. Get out."

Leahy stayed where he was for a moment, his eyes fixed on the revealed chest and ring.

"I said -- get out," Jim repeated, his voice cold as death.

"Five minutes, Jimmy boy." Then Leahy was gone.

The mood broken and confusion muddling Jim's thoughts, he scrambled up and immediately straightened his clothes.

"Jim?"

Blair was still lying on his back, feet on the floor, face flushed, shirt pushed up to his armpits, hair in complete disarray.

Unable to look at him, Jim said, "I've got to go. Remember, when Morrison leaves, you make the call, then get out."

Slowly Blair sat up, pulling his shirt down as he did. He watched Jim move to the door and just as the older man was about to step into the hall, Blair said, "After -- well, you know where to find me."

Jim never looked back.

*****

As Jim ran down the stairs, he tried to convince himself that he'd just done the right thing, the best thing for Sandburg. After all, he didn't know what would happen later at the buy. But at the same time, replaying in his mind, Jim could hear the conversation between Leahy and Sandburg, the offer of letting Leahy be a side job.

If the moment had been calmer, Jim would have recognized his emotion for what it was -- jealousy.

Leahy was waiting in the foyer and as Jim hit the tile, he opened the front door and they both stepped out, neither saying a word. While Leahy got into his Lotus, Jim slid into the backseat of the limo. Both vehicles headed for the city.

*****

Simon gazed around the table, pausing slightly at each of his people. "This will go down fast, ladies and gentlemen. Our job is to bust the buy to hell and gone, thus throwing another monkey-wrench into Tupertino's business. Any questions?"

No one moved.

"All right, you all know what to do. Let's make it happen."

*****

Ray Tupertino stood quietly at the window of his marina condo. He'd just gotten off the phone with Chicago. His father-in-law was dead. A heart attack on the street, pronounced gone upon arrival at the hospital. Ray smiled at the view. This changed things considerably. He'd use Morrison today to ensure the buy, but on Thursday, he could -- and would -- refuse the favor. Cascade would remain his -- and his alone. In fact, Seattle was looking pretty good. Whistling, he headed out.

*****

Blair watched Wiley pull into the driveway, having obviously dropped Jim in Cascade. The limo pulled alongside the porch and Morrison stepped down and got into the car. Minutes later, the vehicle disappeared from view. Blair almost ran down the stairs to the study. He dialed the cellphone number and waited.

"The customer for 232-4456 is either out of the area or unavailable at this time."

Fuck.

Blair tried again and again, and received the same message -- again and again. This was not good. Blair quickly dialed the PD. When he was connected to Simon's office, he said hurriedly, "I need to reach Captain Banks immediately. I tried his cell but no answer. This is about what's going down at the rail yards. I have to speak with him."

"Who is this?"

"Look, I've been working with Jim Ellison --"

"Is this Mr. Sandburg?"

"YES!" he said excitedly. "Please, I have to speak with him."

"Just a moment. I'll connect you to his car phone. He probably has his cell turned off."

Blair exhaled sharply as restless fingers tapped a nonsensical pattern on his knee. As he waited, he found himself barely able to contain his worry, frustration and anxiety. He checked his watch. Shit, this thing was going down in minutes.

"Sandburg?"

"Captain Banks?"

"Yes, what is it? Has there been a change?"

"Yes! Listen, Morrison, Leahy and Jim will be there. This is it, the take-down. Tupertino got worried and asked for help. They'll all be there, including Oshido, and in just minutes, Captain."

There was a pause and Blair didn't miss the sharp intake of breath. "Shit. All right, we're on it and thanks, Sandburg."

The connection was broken.

Blair looked around him and for a moment, felt completely useless. He stood and slowly headed upstairs. Once in the bedroom, he started taking things out of drawers and tossing them onto the bed, then moved to the closet and did the same. Finally he pulled his duffle-bag out, tossed it onto the bed and started to pack.

While he folded, the minutes ticked by and three miles away, Ray Tupertino and his people arrived at the rail yards. As Blair carefully placed the shirts and jeans into the duffle, Jim met Morrison a mile from the meeting place and joined him in the limo. As Blair tucked shorts and socks into the corners of the bag, Oshida's men were setting up in the old mechanics barn.

And while Blair walked downstairs, duffle in hand, Simon Banks and his men -- deployed strategically around the building and surrounding area -- watched and listened, thanks to various pieces of equipment that mirrored Jim Ellison's senses.

*****

Blair walked out the back door, lifted the lid on the garbage can and tossed his duffle-bag inside. He had no intention of taking anything home that O'Keefe had touched.

As the grayness of the late afternoon cast shadows across the old unused tracks, and as Morrison and Tupertino shook hands, Blair walked back upstairs to retrieve the one thing he would take with him -- his backpack.

While he searched for the case that held his glasses, Oshida came out of the building and all three men, their seconds standing by their sides, shook hands.

*****

Jim stood next to Morrison, sunglasses blocking his eyes from view. As Oshida, Morrison and Tupertino shook, he looked around, spotted Simon and the others and nodded to himself. But there was something wrong.

Someone was missing.

Leahy.

So where the hell was he?

*****

Simon trained his binoculars on the action even as the ear mike kept him in touch with what was being said several yards away. He watched the three crime czars move into the barn, Jim right behind them.

*****

Special lighting had been set up by Oshida's people and the first order of business was to check the drugs. One of Tupertino's men stepped forward, scale in hand. The bags were weighed, sniffed and lightly tasted. At the same time, another of Tupertino's men set a bag on the table, unzipped it and then stepped away.

Oshida made a single motion and one of his people began to count and inspect the money.

Ten minutes later, smiles of satisfaction exchanged, as well as bags, Simon, listening in on the conversation between Tupertino, Morrison and Oshida, gave the signal.

*****

As the Major Crime team moved in, backed up by a few of Levy's trusted fellow agents, Blair found his case and tucked it into his pocket. He picked up his backpack, slung the straps over his shoulders and headed downstairs.

By the time he got to the front door and opened it, Oshida's men had spotted the detectives and opened fire. Blair found himself face-to-face with Jeff Leahy.

*****

Blair backed away from the front door. "What are you doing here?"

Leahy smiled, then nodded at Blair's pack.

"Going somewhere, Toy?"

Stuffing down his unease, Blair shrugged. "To Rainier. Where else?"

Leahy stepped in and shut the door. "I don't think so."

*****

As Jim watched the exchange, he knew that Simon would be giving the signal any second and Blair's words popped into his brain. He dialed down his hearing, and an instant later -- was grateful. The shooting started.

The action in the shed was controlled panic until Jim stepped away from Morrison and pulled his gun.

"FREEZE, CASCADE POLICE DEPARTMENT! DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND HIT THE GROUND!"

It would have worked, should have worked. Jim had the drop on the entire group. But he hadn't counted on Wiley's panicked entrance into the barn. It gave Cohen the opportunity he needed and suddenly Jim was under fire. He ducked and rolled, taking cover behind several large barrels.

Two of Oshida's men moved to Jim's right and, sighting carefully, seeing what no one else could have, Jim fired once -- twice -- and both men went down. Another man shot out the lights and the building was plunged into darkness.

Jim smiled.

Hearing down -- vision up.

Tupertino's second was moving cautiously toward Jim's cover and Ellison tracked his every move. When the man was in a position to fire, Jim beat him to it. The man fell.

Three down -- six to go?

A movement to Jim's left forced him to turn and he spotted Wiley, backed by one of Tupertino's men. Jim needed to change locations. He glanced around quickly, spotted what appeared to be a large piece of machinery, and counting down to three, he moved, firing blindly as cover. He slid to the side of the hulking piece of metal, pivoted, sighted on Wiley -- who was about to pull his trigger -- and fired.

Wiley screamed, clutched his stomach and dropped to his knees, then onto his face. At that moment a car, high beams on, smashed through the doors of the barn. The noise and sudden light almost undid Jim, but he concentrated, pulled the sound of Sandburg's voice out of his mind and let his body relax. His senses seemed to do a little jig, then settled.

Men were running and one of the first people Jim recognized was Henri Brown. Tupertino had a bead on him. Jim stood, took aim, zeroed in past the pillars, the tables, the car, and the running men, his vision almost sending him flying through the melee, and just before Tupertino fired, Jim squeezed off his own shot.

Brown whirled at the sound and spotted a man -- whose gun was pointing at his chest -- go down, a red stain spreading across his white shirt. Brown dropped, turned and found Jim -- standing at the opposite end of the building -- gun still held out. Henri blinked at the impossibility of the shot. Then Jim saluted.

The rest of Major Crime streamed in and it was over.

*****

"What do you want?"

"I made you an offer, Toy. By now, O'Keefe is dead. I made sure of that. Or should I say, Wiley is making sure of it for me."

The color drained from Blair's face.

Jim.

But -- but -- Jim was a Sentinel. He was Jim Ellison, Detective Jim Ellison. Not Jim O'Keefe. And -- he was -- a Sentinel.

"Maybe you think Wiley is going to take care of this for you, but trust me, it won't go down that way, Leahy."

"He won't expect it, Toy. A bullet in the back from one of us? He's going down and I move up to number two and I inherit -- you."

"You inherit nothing. I'm outta here, man."

It was a bluff. Sandburg doubted that Leahy would just let him walk out. But damn, he was going to try. And it was amazing the damage a backpack could do to a man.

Blair pushed Leahy out of his way with his left shoulder even as the fingers of his right hand tightened around the strap, ready to pull off the bag --

As predicted, Leahy tried to stop him by reaching out and roughly grabbing his arm. That was all Blair needed. He turned, the backpack slid down and into his hand and he swung. It caught Leahy on the side of his head, causing his hold to loosen. It was enough. Blair bolted.

He just got to the door, hand on the knob when he was yanked back by fingers twisted around his hair. The force of the pull was so intense, he actually yelled, his hands coming up to stop the pain. But Leahy was in control and Blair was suddenly back to chest with the man. Then, before he could gather himself for another attack, he was spun about and something struck him in the jaw. Stars exploded in his head and that surprised him. Stars, like in books and the movies. Who knew?

Suddenly he was on his knees, one hand clamped to his face. Tears of pain were blinked back and just as his vision was normalizing, his head was yanked back sharply, soliciting another yell. Warm breath brushed his face and words were spat out --

"You're mine now, Toy. Don't make me hurt you anymore than I need to. You think I don't know what you are? You think O'Keefe didn't tell me that you're nothing but a whore? Well, guess what? I'm gonna pay you top dollar tonight, but after that, you do it for free. Because you want to, Toy."

*****

The sounds of rights being read, questions yelled, and orders given, of sirens both distant and near, the smell of blood, cordite and sweat --

Jim thought he might throw up.

"Ellison? You okay?"

Jim turned to find his boss staring at him with concerned brown eyes. "I -- it's the noise, Simon. And the smell -- and the lights."

Simon frowned and put a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Listen, you were incredible in there. I don't know how you did it, but this could have been --"

Jim had only been half listening, his eyes busy searching... "Simon, where's Morrison?"

*****

Blair was being dragged into the living room. His head was spinning, he could taste blood and then a hand on his shirt, fingers clutching at it, then tearing --

*****

Simon's eyes widened at Jim's question and he immediately started turning his head right, then left, then back to the right.

"Fuck. I -- we --"

But Jim was already running. Simon had no choice -- he took off after him.

Ellison ran out of the building, eyes searching every face, every body and finally -- the vehicles. He thudded to a stop as he realized that the limo was gone. Jim was vaguely aware of Simon huffing and puffing behind him.

"Jim?"

"He's gone, Simon. So's the limo."

"I'll get an APB out on both. We'll get him. He can't --"

Jim wasn't listening. His hand shot out, palm up. "Simon, I need your keys."

"Jim, we'll --"

"He's gone back to the house. And I don't know if Sandburg -- the timing -- he could still be there. Please, Simon."

It was the unaccustomed please that did it. Simon fished in his pockets, drew out his keys and dropped them in Jim's open hand. "I'm coming with you. Let's go."

As they moved to the car, Simon spoke into his mike, informing Brown of the problem and telling him to follow with backup -- and an ambulance. Jim was already in the driver's seat and Simon had to hustle, barely making it before Jim took off, burning rubber and spitting up gravel.

*****

The limo skidded to a stop, weaving dangerously, as Morrison thumped on the brakes. He no sooner had the engine off than he was out and running up the steps of his home. He barely registered the fact that the door was partially open.

Rushing inside, his office safe the ultimate goal, Morrison was forced to come to a dead stop, eyes widening at the sight that greeted him in the living room.

Two men were tumbling on the floor, grunting, lashing out, bodies locked together as they rolled across the hardwood.

Leahy and Blair.

Morrison was just about to move, to yell, to do something, when an arm rose, gun in hand, then came down. Even from where he stood, Morrison could hear the sickening crunch of metal on flesh. There was a grunt of pain, then Leahy was rising, panting and bleeding, clearly the victor. He had Blair on his knees as he rose up behind him, arm wrapping around the younger man, imprisoning him in a chokehold, the muzzle of the gun pressed hard against a sweaty temple.

"IT'S OVER! DO YOU HEAR ME? IT'S FUCKING OVER!"

Morrison rushed in and around the two men to stand in front of them. "What the hell is going on?"

Leahy squinted as he lifted his head to view the intruder. Blood trickled down the side of his face and into his eye but he ignored it.

"Tommy?"

"I don't know what the hell you're doing here, but it's over all right. Everything. I have a plane waiting at Richland Field. We don't have much time, Jeff."

His voice was cool in spite of the danger, the betrayal, and destruction of all that he'd built. But as Tommy Morrison stood in the living room, his only thought was for the young man in front of him. Blair was breathing hard, his shirt was ripped half off, blood gushed from a wound at his temple and the left side of his face was swelling, mottled and bruised. But even now, he was struggling.

"He's going with me," Leahy hissed out.

"There isn't time, Jeff. Look at him. He's gonna fight every step of the way and why? Why do you want him? There's enough money to start over somewhere else. I have the plane, the bearer bonds, let him go and let's get out of here."

"I'm taking him."

"No -- you're not. I'm -- not going -- anywhere, you -- fucking shit."

Blair's voice was hoarse, the words forced out between harsh breaths.

*****

Jim drove like a maniac and Simon found that he had to hold on for dear life even as he berated himself for turning the keys over to an insane man. When they turned up the drive, something changed. Jim's fingers tightened, he hunched forward, eyes narrowing.

"Jim?"

"He's in there."

"I can see that, Jim. There's the limo, door wide open."

"Sandburg -- Morrison -- and Leahy."

"Shit."

Jim pulled the car in behind the limo and, as he barreled out of the car, he threw over his shoulder, "Take the back, Simon. I'm going in the front."

Simon stumbled out, trying to keep up as he hissed out, "Jim, wait for backup."

"No time. Go now."

Simon closed his eyes, wondered briefly when he'd lost control, then opened them, pulled his gun, and following Jim's motion to the right, he headed for the back of the house.

*****

He could hear them. Every word, grunt, and harsh breath. Jim moved cautiously, knowing that Blair's life was in the balance, yet understanding that cool and careful was Sandburg's best chance.

*****

Morrison stared at Leahy as if he'd never seen him before. All this over a kid? "Let him go, Jeff."

"I don't need you, Tommy. I've got enough money stashed away that I can live like a king and that's exactly what I plan to do -- with him. If O'Keefe could buy his ass, then so can I."

Morrison's eyes glittered dangerously. "Leahy, he's an anthropologist, for God's sake. He loved O'Keefe."

"I hated him."

Three words, spoken softly, but with deadly intent. Morrison tore his eyes from Leahy to stare at Sandburg.

"I'm glad he's dead. He was a sick, perverted, sadistic bastard and if I'd had the guts, I'd have killed him myself -- but -- I didn't. Couldn't."

"You knew?" Morrison said, stunned by the knowledge.

Blair tried to nod, but the way Leahy was holding him made it difficult.

"Yes. And I helped him. O'Keefe died in Chicago, on his way to the airport. Stupid accident and the best day of my life."

*****

Simon crept along the wall, his back pressed hard against it, gun up, the fingers of his left hand wrapped around his right wrist. A noise alerted him to an opening door. He froze, then waited.

Around the corner, Shep stepped away from the back door moving cautiously, his own gun at the ready. Alerted by Morrison's phone call, then the additional car arriving, he was on his own stalking mission. And he was less than five feet away from Simon.

*****

Jim crept up the porch steps, head cocked as he listened...

*****

"Why, Blair? Why stay here with him if you hated him?"

All three men were caught up in the moment, unaware of the actions outside. Leahy found himself listening to Blair, almost against his will and Morrison was finding it difficult to believe he could have been so thoroughly fooled by all of them. Blair, O'Keefe and O'Keefe's duplicate.

"I had no fucking choice. I thought he was -- someone -- else. It took me four days to figure out what a brutal prick O'Keefe really was. But when I did, I stopped seeing him. I think that because mom was still here, he figured there was nothing he could do."

"Then she left," Morrison said, catching on.

"Yes. He came to the University, told me if I didn't come back to him, he'd have her killed. And he backed his threat up with action. He told me that he'd arranged a little demonstration and if I didn't want it to become real, I'd be at his place by eight that night."

"God, I was a fool. I didn't believe him. Then mom called." Blair's eyes closed in memory, then flew open as he said, "Boy, did I believe then. It seemed that some idiot had tried to run down my mother. According to a Texas Ranger, witnesses stated that it looked deliberate. Mom was lucky, he said. She only sustained a broken wrist and suffered a few bruised ribs." Blair gave a harsh laugh. "He asked me if I knew of anyone who would want to hurt her --"

"Jesus, Blair. You should have come to me."

"And you would have believed me over your number one man? Get real."

Morrison's jaw clenched as he lifted his gaze to Leahy. "Let him go, Jeff. Now. He's walking out of here."

Leahy smiled and it wasn't pretty. "I don't think so. You're going soft, Tommy. And none of us can afford that. I told you -- I don't need you." With that, he turned the gun away from Blair, and in one smooth move, fired.

The blast of the weapon so close to Blair's head caused him to jump, eyes widening in shock as Morrison frowned, then gazed down at the red stain blossoming across his shirt.

*****

The shot seemed to reverberate through Jim's brain, bringing pain and disorientation.

He dropped to his knees and clamped both hands to the side of his head.

*****

At the sound of gunfire, Shep stepped away from the wall, moved to his right and tried to see into the living room. It was all Simon needed. He moved quickly around the corner.

"Cascade Police Department. You're under arrest. Drop your weapon and place your hands on top of your head!"

Shep did a very foolish thing. He turned, raised his gun and started to squeeze. Simon squeezed first.

*****

Morrison dropped to the ground, Blair's gaze following him all the way down. Shock took over and he couldn't seem to take his eyes from the man who had loved his mother --

The hot muzzle of the gun against his temple shook him out of his stupor.

"You're going to get up slowly and we're leaving. Nice of Tommy to have that plane ready for us, wasn't it, Toy?" To give his words emphasis, he tightened the chokehold. Blair gasped as his air was almost completely cut off.

As explosions of light and color burst in front of his eyes and he strained to breathe, he made his decision. With every ounce of remaining strength, he brought his arm up hard, letting the back of his fist smash into Leahy's face.

The man grunted, fell back and let go as blood spurted from his nose. Blair scrambled away, then turned and kicked out. The gun flew from Leahy's hand and Blair made a dive for it -- as did Leahy. Blair landed on the floor, skidded, hands out, connecting -- and -- losing, then connecting again --

Leahy dropped down on top of him, one hand reaching even as he and Blair tussled, as he tried to grab more hair, or Blair's shirt and at the same time -- the gun.

*****

Simon kicked the man's .38 away, then knelt and checked for a pulse. There was none. He moved on to the back door, let himself in and stepped carefully through the kitchen.

*****

Jim shook his head and tried to block out the pain. He remembered the dials and started a mental turn down. At the moment the painful ringing stopped, he heard the sounds of a struggle. He stood quickly and moved inside.

*****

Fingers were in his hair again, pulling and jerking, forcing him to lose his tenuous hold on the weapon. Eyes tearing in pain, he watched as Leahy won the battle for the gun. Groaning, he struggled even harder as he was yanked to his feet, the muzzle back at his temple, arm anchored around his windpipe.

"FREEZE, LEAHY! CASCADE POLICE!"

The world stopped spinning, time stalled.

*****

Simon heard Jim's yell and started running.

*****

Slowly Leahy turned, keeping Sandburg close to his body, the gun digging into the flesh of the bruised temple.

"Well, hell-loo Jimmy. Or whoever you are. And why do I not think you'll shoot?"

"Step away from him, Leahy. Trust me when I say that I want nothing more than to pull this trigger." Jim's expression was unreadable, but his voice and tone were deadly cold.

A calculating look entered Leahy's eyes as he considered his options. Then in a taunting voice, he said, "You had a piece of him, didn't you? Was it before or after he knew you weren't O'Keefe? And was he good?"

The only sign that Leahy was getting to Jim was the slight clenching of his jaw.

"O'Keefe said he had the sweetest, tightest ass he'd ever had. He liked telling me. Enjoyed it. Does he, cop? Not that it matters since I'm gonna find out for myself soon. Right after you fall."

"One more time, Leahy. Step away from him and drop your weapon. Now."

"I'll make you a deal, pig. You drop your weapon and I won't blow a hole through his head. And you've got three seconds."

Jim's gaze flicked to Blair. He was rewarded with the slightest shake of the man's head. Then Blair mouthed, "Sentinel."

"Three --"

Jim was a good thirty feet from them. His bullet would have to enter Leahy's left eye and still there'd be no guarantee that his finger wouldn't pull the trigger -- and Blair's head was in the way --

"-- two --"

Somehow Blair managed to twist against the hold Leahy had on him --

"-- one --"

Blair jerked back and -- Jim fired.

*****

Simon could hear them, could hear the countdown as he ran down the hall; then he head the shot...

He rounded the corner and skidded to a stop at the entry to the living room.

*****

For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Jim knew he'd fired, and yet -- nothing. Then Blair's body seemed to be hurtling to the right as Leahy's crumbled in heap on the floor, his left eye blown away. Something had gone wrong -- and Leahy had been able to fire -- Jim watched, almost in shock, as Blair dropped to his hands and knees, his head shaking back and forth, back and forth.

He was alive.

Jim's heart and lungs started working again and he moved forward even as he tucked his gun in his waistband.

Dropping down in front of Blair, he placed both hands on Sandburg's shoulders and tried to turn him, then received the shock of his life. Arms rose up and started swinging, and if Jim hadn't been so quick, he'd have been clobbered.

"It's all right, Sandburg, it's me, Jim."

The arms continued to flail until Jim captured Blair's face and turned him so that they could look at one another. Blue eyes blinked up at him, awareness stole in and gradually the arms dropped to Blair's side.

"Jim? Is he okay?"

Glancing back over his shoulder, Jim said, "I think so. I think so."

*****

Blair knew something had gone wrong. In trying to jerk away, to get out of the line of Jim's sight, his elbow had struck Leahy's arm and the explosion next to his ear, followed by a burning sensation, nearly undid him. He knew he was falling, but all he could hear was the sound of that gun, like thunder in his ears. But then hands were on him, touching him and he fought back -- until he was turned around and could see that it was -- Jim.

And there was another man. Tall, black, worried, his gun still out and Morrison was dead -- and Leahy -- but not -- Jim. Jim was saying something; Blair knew this because he could see Jim's lips moving. He grabbed one of Jim's hands and when those incredible pale blue eyes were trained on him once again, he pointed to his ears and shook his head.

"Holy shit. You can't hear, can you?" Jim said, pointing to his own ears and shaking his head.

"No," Blair managed to hiss out, his throat protesting at the attempt.

Jim helped him up and together they walked into the foyer where Jim sat him down on the stairs. The front door was open and Blair gazed out, seeing cars pulling in, cars with lights flashing and he assumed there were sirens too, but all he could hear was the dull roaring in his ears.

Jim was kneeling beside him, hands on his thighs and it was -- it felt -- good. Except he was pretty sure he was going to throw up.

"I think I could throw up," he whispered hoarsely.

Jim smiled at him, a smile so tender Blair thought his heart might break. Then those strong, slender fingers were moving over his face, and Jim was tearing at his shirt and holding the material up to Blair's head, his eyes clouding over with worry. Blair sure wished that he could hear.

Blair put his hand on top of the cloth and pressed hard. Jim smiled and nodded. The large black man walked over as the house filled with people.

Blair watched their mouths move.

Finally Jim turned and mouthed slowly, "Simon."

Blair looked up and smiled wanly, then gave a tired slow wave. Minutes later, paramedics entered with a gurney and Jim stepped away when two uniformed medics knelt in front of Blair and began to check him over. Blair tried to wave them away, but Jim frowned at him so he stopped. He knew they were talking about him, asking questions, and he tried to watch lips, but his head hurt too damn much, so he just closed his eyes.

Until he felt himself being lifted -- then his eyes shot open and he realized they wanted him on the gurney. He didn't fight, he was too tired. But as they covered him and strapped him in, he looked down and noticed that they'd started an IV. How weird. He'd never felt a thing.

They were rolling him out and he looked for Jim, found him and understood that Jim couldn't come with him. He was a cop and he had work to do.

Blair also understood that, in spite of what had almost happened between them earlier, this was goodbye. Had to be goodbye. Their worlds were finally separating, diverging and Blair would go his way and Jim -- his.

As he was rolled out of the house, he kept his eyes locked on Jim and God, how he would have loved to have heard that voice again and felt that -- touch -- one more time.

*****

The ambulance ride was very strange. Blair could hear nothing, not even the rumbling echo of the shots fired so close to his head. The world seemed to be tilting at odd and crazy angles and he found that keeping his eyes closed was the only thing that helped. It also kept him from trying to read lips through vertically challenged eyes. At one point, however, he was amazed at the amount of blood on the paramedic's hands and shirt. Had the man touched Leahy or -- Tommy? Where the hell could so much of the red stuff have come from anyway?

Man, he was tired. But -- he was also free.

Free.

His life was his own again. His body was his own again. Blair silently chided himself because he knew that in the last two months, he'd been ignoring said body and refusing to accept what it had been going through. Every moment that he hadn't been with O'Keefe, he'd spent on his mind. Not that his body didn't have its uses. Like walking. But really, that was it. And now he was free to make friends with it again. Take care of it, even look at it.

Freedom was good. No more calls in the middle of the night demanding his presence and body. His mother was safe now, and so was Jim Ellison. And maybe, just maybe, Blair would actually be able to sleep through the night again.

Of course, he'd be alone, but even that was preferable to the last couple of months. Blair gave a mental chuckle because he knew human nature. In a few weeks, he'd be lamenting his lonely state and forgetting completely how he'd yearned for it, prayed for it and pleaded for it.

There was movement and he realized that the ambulance had come to a stop and he was being lifted out. He kept his eyes closed, knowing that Jim had supplied the medics with all necessary information about him. He could just -- float.

A lonely -- free -- floater.

He chuckled again -- free-floater? Free floader? Free whore? Nah, you can't be a whore if you're free. Geesh, Sandburg, straighten up.

More laughter bubbled up inside of him and someone started to shake him, but really, that had been too funny. Straighten up? Then the shaking persisted so he cracked open his eyes to find himself staring up into the worried gaze of -- Santa Claus?

Lips moved and he tried to concentrate, but it was no use. He couldn't make out a single word. Oh, well. Time to go to sleep. And what was Santa doing at the hospital anyway? Maybe he should -- tell the jolly guy what he wanted for Christmas?

Did Santa deliver Cascade cops to slightly-used anthropologists?

Probably not.

*****

Jim watched the ambulance as it pulled out of the driveway and continued to watch it long after it would be invisible to anyone else. His mind was still reeling from all that he'd heard, from the truth behind Blair and O'Keefe.

"Jim, are you with me?"

Startled, Ellison turned and faced his boss. "Yeah, Simon. What?"

"We've got work to do, Detective. Let's go."

"Simon, I should --" He glanced back to the street, knowing exactly where he should be... "Sir, I need to -- I should have gone with him. I need to go to him."

Simon stared at his detective for a moment, then pulled him out of the path of officers coming and going through the foyer.

"Jim, there's nothing you can do for him now. Let the experts take over. Besides, I'll be sending an officer over to put him under guard until I send someone to get his statement and read him his rights --"

"WHAT THE HELL?!"

The explosion was so unexpected that Simon actually stepped back. Then he glanced quickly around, noted the officers trying not to look, and grabbed Jim's arm in order to drag him down the hall and finally into the kitchen. Once inside and surrounded by quiet, he said, "Okay, what's going on here, Detective? You know damn well that Sandburg had to be a part of this --"

"You're wrong, Simon. Dead wrong. He's done nothing illegal. And furthermore, if not for him, none of this would have happened and I'd probably be fish food right now. You need to understand -- hell, I'm only understanding it myself now -- but Blair was not here willingly."

"Look, Jim. I'm not negating what he did and I'm sure the DA will take that into -- what the hell do you mean 'not here willingly'?"

Jim had to smile at Simon's about-face when all of his words finally came to roost. "Sir, maybe we'd better sit down. This is going to take -- a while."

This time it was Jim leading Simon. They both sank gratefully into chairs at the kitchen table and Simon arched an eyebrow. "Okay, I'm listening."

"Simon, I realize that you really couldn't see Blair's face, but he was -- look, remember the picture in O'Keefe's wallet?" At Simon's nod and immediate disbelief, Jim said, "Yes, that was Blair. He met O'Keefe weeks ago, thanks to his mother's brief involvement with Morrison."

Before Simon could say anything, Jim held up a hand. "Sir, neither of them knew Morrison from Adam, let alone who and what he was."

"Okay," Simon conceded, "I can buy that. Go on."

Jim took the next few minutes to explain what he'd overheard -- without explaining how -- before charging into the house to stop Leahy. When he finished, and seeing Simon's expression, he said wearily, "Sir, we can debate until the cows come home about all the things Blair could have or should have done, but when faced with a mother injured because of you, well -- he did the only thing he could to keep her safe. And it's been like that for weeks."

Jim leaned forward, trying to convey the importance of his upcoming question. "Simon, do you understand? Can you comprehend what he's gone through?"

Simon considered everything he'd just heard and in his mind's eye, he could see the beat-up young man on the stairs, could hear the strong voice on the phone two days earlier and then again today.

"Simon, he didn't have to stay. He figured me out almost immediately. He could have walked out of here on Saturday and never looked back. But he didn't. He risked his life because, for him, it was the right thing to do, the only thing. I don't think skipping out ever occurred to him. And Simon, there's -- more."

Simon leaned back, distancing himself. Then he really looked at his detective and, sighing, rested his arms on the table and said, "Why do I think I'm going to regret saying this? Go ahead."

In the two years that Jim Ellison had been working for Simon Banks, he'd learned one thing -- the man was a straight-shooter. Simon was fair, honest and took great pride in being a cop and he'd proven himself a good friend as well. But it was possible that Jim was about to strain the very fabric of that friendship, not to mention his future as a cop --

"You know the headaches I've been experiencing lately? The weird sounds and -- well, everything?"

"Ye-s," Simon said, his radar up.

"Well, it seems -- you see, and Blair says I'm this thing called a Sentinel -- because -- well, it's my senses. They're pretty -- good. Better than good."

Eyes narrowing, Simon thought back over the last couple of hours. Jim in the barn, taking out all those men, saving Brown --

"You said Blair called you a Sentinel, so that means he, what, he --"

"He figured that out too, Simon. He's actually kind of an expert in this whole sense thing. What are the odds on that, huh?"

"Why do I think there's still more?"

Jim glanced down at his hands on the table and said quietly, "I need him. He understands, he knows how to help me, Simon. I could never have made it through today if not for his help and coaching." He looked back up at Simon, blue eyes meeting understanding brown ones.

"You gotta keep him out this, Simon. We owe him -- big time. I owe him."

"So what are you really saying here, Jim?"

"We've got to find a way -- he's -- I need him with me, Simon."

"What, we should send him to the academy? Make this kid a cop?"

Jim's sudden burst of laughter was real. "Somehow I don't see Blair Sandburg as a cop, sir. And I know the PD isn't ready for him. But maybe -- maybe there's some way to get him an observer's pass? Have him ride with me? Just 'til I get a handle on this?"

Too much information, Simon thought. Way too much. And yet -- something was telling him to trust this. To trust Ellison and Sandburg.

"Go to the hospital, Jim. Get out of here. We'll -- discuss all of this -- tomorrow. I'll catch you at the hospital later. Go."

With a smile of gratitude, Jim got up and headed out.

*****

"I'm Detective Jim Ellison. My partner was brought in about an hour ago, Blair Sandburg?"

The nurse in Emergency glanced down at her log and nodded. "Yes, I show that a patient of that name was admitted a few minutes ago. He's up on four, room four-sixteen, bed A. You can go up. Just take the elevator behind you."

"He was admitted?"

"Yes, sir."

"I -- can you tell me his condition?"

She shook her head regretfully. "I'm sorry. But they can help you upstairs. He's been assigned to Doctor Hendricks and he is on the floor tonight."

"Thank you," Jim glanced down at the ID badge, "Ruth."

"My pleasure, Detective."

Jim turned to the elevator, punched the 'up' button and moments later he was on his way to four.

*****

The floor was strangely quiet. A few visitors sat with patients, but most rooms were dim with only the muted sounds of a few televisions informing him that the rooms were occupied.

The nurses' station was decorated for Christmas and, for some reason, Jim was ridiculously glad. The idea of Blair being here at all, let alone just before the holiday, was enough to make Jim physically ill. But the warmth of this floor, of the tasteful decorations, cheered him. Room 416 was on the other side of the nurses' station so he stopped there first in hopes of connecting with the doctor and finding out what he could. As he stepped up to the counter, the nurse on the other side glanced up immediately, a cheery smile on her face.

"May I help you?"

"Yes, my partner was just brought up, room four-sixteen, Blair Sandburg. I'd like to speak with Doctor Hendricks. Is he available?"

"He's on the floor and in fact," she looked down at something in front of her, then over to the patients' charts, then back to Jim as she finished, "Yes. Doctor Hendricks is with Mr. Sandburg now. You can go on in."

Already turning, Jim thanked her and hurried to the room. As he entered, his eyes adjusted automatically to the dimness. Only one light was on, the one behind Blair's bed. No television lit up the room and Jim noted that no one occupied bed B.

"Doctor Hendricks?" Jim said softly.

The man turned. "Yes, I'm Doctor Hendricks."

Jim stepped toward the bed. "I'm Detective Ellison and he's," Jim indicated Blair, "my partner. How is he?"

Hendricks glanced back at the sleeping man, then nodded toward the hall.

"Let's step outside, Detective so we don't disturb him."

Jim nodded and let the doctor pass him, then he followed. Once in the corridor, Hendricks said, "He sustained a pretty bad concussion, Detective. He took one blow to the temple and in addition, a bullet grazed him here," the doctor ran a finger from the side of his cheek and above his temple.

"He couldn't hear anything, Doctor."

"I know. He still can't and probably won't for several hours. And when he finally does, it will be as if he's in a tunnel. But in forty-eight hours or so, his hearing should return to normal. I understand the gun went off next to his left ear?"

"Yes."

"So it's understandable, as you can imagine. Right now we're monitoring him and waking him every two hours. My primary concern is his overall health. It's not great, and that could interfere with the healing process. He's got several bruises, his throat is in bad shape, he's going to be experiencing dizziness, headaches, nausea, pain, the works. In short, Mr. Sandburg is going to be a pretty uncomfortable young man for a few days."

"When can he go home?"

"I'm keeping him overnight, of course, but I suspect I won't be releasing him until Wednesday. And when he does go home, he'll need watching. Do you know --"

"I'll be taking care of him, Doctor."

"I see. Good, then."

"May I sit with him?"

"Of course. He just slipped back to sleep and we won't be disturbing him for a couple of hours. Go on inside."

Once again Jim found himself thanking someone. They shook, and Jim walked back into the room. Jim took the chair from against the wall and quietly pulled it close to the bed, then sat down, and got his first real look at Blair's face. A bandage ran from his jaw to his forehead; his lower lip was split and butterflied; the right side of his face was swollen and bruised and another butterfly bandage graced the area over Blair's right eye. His throat, visible below the revealing hospital gown, was smudged purple, so much so that Jim actually winced.

Blair had been through one hell of an afternoon and it was painfully obvious that he'd put up a damned good fight as well. Jim settled in, content to watch over the younger man.

*****

He was being shaken again. Why were they always shaking him? And who the hell were they? Blair might have gone stubborn if not for a hand on the side of his face. A hand that gently stroked --

He opened his eyes, squinted in pain, then tried to focus. The hand moved to his forehead, then smoothed back his hair. Jim. It was -- Jim.

Blair started to open his mouth, tried to say something, but Jim gently rested a finger against his bruised lips and shook his head. Then he picked up some paper and started scribbling. A few seconds later, he handed Blair the pad.

You're going to be fine. You're not to talk. You can't hear, but you know that. You've got a concussion, pretty serious one. We'll be waking you every couple of hours through the night. I'm not going anywhere.

Blair smiled at the writing, but that hurt and he touched the right side of his mouth, then held out his hand for the pen. Jim gave it to him and he wrote quickly, if a bit wobbly. When he was done, he gave the pad to Jim and watched him read, lips curling in a smile.

Can't hear, can't talk, my students would love me right now. Hell, for most people who know me, it's a dream come true. GO HOME.

Jim took the pen back, scribbled, then turned the pad around so Blair could see what he'd written.

NO! NOW SHUT UP AND GO TO SLEEP!

Blair, feeling as though he'd been given a temporary gift, grinned, nodded, and let himself drift off, content that at least for now, Jim was here. Maybe Santa Claus could deliver --

*****

Simon relaxed in his chair and sighed comfortably. Success was good and when it came with no men down, it was beautiful. Major Crime had hit the mother lode and the story was just now breaking. Tomorrow, the airwaves would be flooded with facts, and where facts were lacking, supposition and speculation would be inserted in slot A and B. As a result, for a few brief shining moments, the police would be the good guys once again.

At the moment, Simon's people were at Madigan's, celebrating. Which was exactly where he was supposed to be, but he'd just completed a lengthy conversation with the Commissioner. A conversation that had left his ass intact for a change. The man had been downright glowing in his praise of Simon and Major Crime. Hell, he'd even had a few nice words to say about the FBI, and of course there'd been high praise for the officer who'd gone undercover. Which reminded Simon of the one person who would not be at Madigan's -- namely Jim.

Simon rested his head back and closed his eyes.

Jim Ellison.

A thorn in his side from day one. And yet -- he'd turned out to be one of Simon's best detectives. The man was a loner but given Jim's history... who could blame him? Hell, eighteen months in the Peruvian jungle, the lone survivor of a chopper crash, would change anyone. In Jim's case, it had forced him to rely on one person -- himself. No, Simon couldn't fault the man that Jim had become. Besides, no more honorable man existed anywhere.

It was also obvious to Simon that Jim had feelings for Sandburg. Strong feelings. The man's sexual preferences were no secret and Simon found himself hoping that those feelings were returned. Jim needed someone.

Which brought Simon to thoughts concerning Blair Sandburg. The unknown element.

Simon knew that whoever Blair had been before O'Keefe, might not be who he was now. And yet everything Simon knew about the young man told him that Blair was a survivor, that he'd land on his feet. Maybe just in time to catch Jim? Now that was odd. Here was Jim, the stalwart, stoic detective who'd saved lives today, including Sandburg's, and yet he was about to be saved by -- Sandburg?

Hell, Simon was giving himself a headache.

Making a sudden decision, Simon stood. Madigan's would have to wait. He reached for his coat, slipped it on, turned out his office light and stepped into the squad room. Rhonda was long gone and only two desks showed evidence of human occupation, Detectives Wilder's and Benito's. Both were probably downstairs with a suspect they'd brought in an hour ago.

With the bullpen empty like this, Simon let his gaze travel about the room, pausing at each desk. As he looked at his world, he had a sense that, thanks to today, life for Major Crime was about to change. Maybe even for the better.

*****

"Jesus," Simon whispered, "he looks like hell."

Jim nodded, words unnecessary.

"The bandage on the left side of his face?"

Jim sighed. "I -- Leahy was going to kill him. I had only one shot, I took it. Blair managed to move enough to get out of the direct line of fire but something went wrong and Leahy's gun went off. The bullet grazed Sandburg."

"Shit, I had no idea -- I mean, there was a hell of a lot of blood, but he looked as though --"

"He'd been in a fight?"

"Yeah."

"He had, Simon. What I didn't tell you before was that Leahy had his own designs on Blair. That's why he returned to the house instead of joining us at the rail yards. As you know, he caught Blair just as he was leaving. By the time you and I arrived, they'd already fought and, well, you knew what happened then."

"I find it hard to believe that Morrison would risk so much for Sandburg," Simon said quietly.

"I think Morrison still loved Blair's mother, so he was fond of Blair. Fond, but blind."

Simon nodded, still stunned by all that had befallen the sleeping man.

After a few minutes, he said softly and almost to himself, "Not so cut and dried. Not so simple."

Jim, understanding what Simon was saying, mused, "Yeah, we go in, we have a goal, and it seems so black and white, Simon. Get the goods on the bad guys, shut them down. End of story. But in the middle are real people struggling with life, caught in traps and trying to survive. They have histories and feelings, dreams and accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses. And swimming around the edges, ready to take advantage and destroy, are the sharks. No morality, no conscience, no fear."

Jim's gaze went back to Sandburg and he said, "He's only twenty-six," then with a smile, "Last May."

"How did he know you weren't O'Keefe?"

The look Jim gave him spoke volumes. "You don't want to know, Simon."

For several minutes, both men were silent, each lost in their own thoughts. A small moan escaped from between Blair's lips and both men leaned forward anxiously, but Sandburg only shifted a bit, then calmed.

Sighing with relief, Jim pulled the blanket up a little higher on the man, then fiddled with the bedding a bit before settling back in the chair.

"I thought he was a prostitute."

Simon frowned at the blunt confession, but wisely kept silent.

"One thing in my defense -- it came to a point where I didn't care. My feelings -- well, I just didn't care."

"Does he know what you thought?"

"Yes. You said it, Simon, he's smart. But you know what's really so shitty?" Jim didn't wait for an answer. "I suspect Blair thinks he is."

"So change his thinking."

Jim looked up in surprise. "What, suddenly life is black and white? I can just say, 'Blair, you did what you had to do. You're not a whore'. You think it's that easy, Simon?"

"I don't know, Jim. Neither do you, but you can try. Haven't we both said how smart he is? Hell, he started Rainier at sixteen, Jim. Sixteen."

Jim rubbed his face, then sat forward and stretched his back, trying to unkink it. His gaze landed on the pad he and Blair had been using and suddenly he smiled.

"What? You're smiling. Why?"

"Santa Claus."

"Excuse me?"

"When Blair was brought in, the ER doctor had been entertaining in Pediatrics and he was dressed as --"

"Let me guess -- Santa Claus?"

"Yeah. And he asked me about it the last time the nurses had to wake him. He wanted to know why a Santa was in ER so I found out. I swear, the kid looked disappointed. Like he thought -- you know, maybe --"

"It really had been Santa Claus?"

Jim nodded, then admonished, "And don't laugh, you'll wake him."

Simon shook his head in disbelief, then said with a smile, "Jim, he can't hear us."

"Oh -- yeah. I keep forgetting. Hell, so did the doctor. He took me outside so we wouldn't disturb him."

Both men chuckled, then went silent again.

After a few minutes, Simon spoke quietly. "You know, Ellison, I've only talked with him twice, saw him for the first time only a few hours ago and yet, I think I like him."

"You think?"

"Stuff it, Ellison."

Both men smiled at each other, then went back to watching Sandburg.

*****

Jim had finally fallen asleep and that left Simon to watch over the two men. The hospital was quiet, the only sound being Sandburg's IV monitor. It was after two, and Simon knew that in another hour a nurse would be in to wake the kid again. Maybe he'd be able to convince Jim to go home later -- get some sleep, take a shower, eat something. Maybe. And why was he still here?

No mystery. He had a fourteen-year-old son and he couldn't help but wonder what Daryl would have done in circumstances similar to Sandburg's. Hell, what would Simon himself have done to protect the ones he loved? Which answered the question as to why he was still sitting in a hospital room. Simon suspected that he'd never have had the courage to do what Blair Sandburg, a twenty-six-year-old kid, had done. But the one thing Simon Banks did know was that he'd been right.

Blair Sandburg was a survivor. Oh, there would be wounds, physical and certainly psychological, but this was one strong young man. And even if he didn't know it yet, he had friends.

*****

Blair scribbled furiously, then held up the pad. You asshole. I'm gonna sleep most of the day. Now get the hell outta here. Go home. You STINK!

"That was low, Sandburg."

Blair, watching Jim's lips, smiled and nodded, then underlined 'You STINK!' and held it up again.

Blair's hearing had slowly begun to return, but only if someone yelled could he make out what they were saying. And if no one yelled, and he wasn't watching lips, he'd miss that he was being addressed. Jim thought it was kinda cute and -- disarming. They'd had breakfast together and Blair had surprised everyone by scarfing every bit of his food, then eyeing Jim's, which happened to be a breakfast burrito from the cafeteria. Jim had shoved it over to him and watched as he demolished that as well. So much for being one sick, miserable puppy.

Lunch had gone the same way with the nurse going so far as to steal another bowl of broth for her patient. It was now after two and Blair was insistent that Jim leave. In the face of incontrovertible evidence, namely his own sensitive nose, Jim had to agree.

He picked up the pad, deciding that he'd yelled enough that day, and wrote his note, thenheld it up. Okay, okay. I'm going. But to quote Arnold, 'I'll be baaaack'.

Blair grinned excitedly and took the pad, quickly wrote, then turned it around. I LOVED THAT MOVIE!

Laughing, Jim ruffled Sandburg's hair, then laughed harder when the kid started batting his hand away and scowling. Jim picked up the pad and pointed to his own words, then saluted and left.

*****

Blair watched Jim leave, then closed his eyes. He didn't understand anything of what was happening because it hadn't gone according to his script. Jim was supposed to have gone one way, while Blair went another. He'd even had a sneaking suspicion that he might be arrested. But that morning, he'd awakened to find Jim asleep and Simon Banks watching him and smiling. The police captain had then taken the pad and written that he was grateful to Blair for all he'd done. But he hadn't stopped there.

He'd gone on to write even more and when Blair had read the words, he'd been unable to stop the flood of emotions. Blair opened his eyes and picked up the pages he'd torn off so that he and Jim could communicate after Simon had left. He found the page Simon had used and once again he read the surprising words. Mr. Sandburg, I understand what you were forced to do and the choices you made. I can't help but wonder if I'd have been as brave in the same circumstances. But I want you to know one thing -- You have friends and people you can trust now.

Reading it again brought the same lump to his throat for so many reasons. For one thing, it meant that Simon Banks and Jim -- knew. They -- knew. And that was going to take some processing on his part. But at least he'd figured out how they'd found out -- Jim. Jim had been outside and he must have heard Blair's words to Morrison. Sentinels were like that, Blair supposed. He ran his finger over the words as he continued to stare at them.

*****

It was six before Jim got back to the hospital, having slept longer than he'd planned. As he walked toward Blair's room, Doctor Hendricks came out.

"Detective Ellison, I've just given Mr. Sandburg the good news. He's going home tomorrow. I'll be releasing him around noon."

Jim's grin was broad. "That's good to hear, Doctor."

"I'll have complete instructions for him and you, plus the necessary prescriptions. I've also advised him to see a specialist about his hearing --"

"Wait, I thought he was --"

Doctor Hendricks held up a hand. "His hearing is coming along fine. Seeing a specialist is a precaution. I don't think there's going to be any permanent damage, but he really should be tested. I just told him to give his throat another twenty-four hours before trying to speak, so I'm counting on you to make sure that he does."

Relieved, Jim nodded. "Don't worry, Doc, I'll make damn sure he does everything he's supposed to do."

"Good. Make sure he eats. That's very important."

"Will do."

"Well then, I'm on my way. I probably won't see you tomorrow, as the floor nurse will take care of everything, so good luck. I suspect you'll have your hands full, Detective."

Hendricks was smiling at that and Jim chuckled. Only two days and the man had Sandburg pegged.

*****

Jim leaned his cheek on his hand and regarded the sleeping Sandburg. He'd yet to figure out how to work tomorrow, whether he would stay with Sandburg -- or ask Blair to stay with him. He knew the direction he wanted to go, but Blair had been through a great deal. It was altogether possible that staying with the man who looked like the prick that had basically been abusing him for the last two months -- well, Blair might have other ideas. Jim checked the time and wondered where Simon was? He'd called him earlier to see if he'd arrange to have clean clothes picked up at Blair's place for tomorrow and Simon had offered to do it himself, but that had been hours ago. Maybe something had broken wide open at Major Crime? He fervently hoped not. He felt moderately guilty as it was, not having gone in at all. He'd done his report and one of the other men had picked it up, but still --

"Jim."

Startled, Jim looked up to see Simon framed in the doorway. He'd been so deep in thought, he'd missed the man's approach.

"Hey. I was getting worried. Everything all right?'

Simon walked all the way in and stood at the foot of Sandburg's bed. His face was a mask, but his eyes...

Worried, Jim stood and asked, "Simon, what is it?"

"I sent Pete to the address you gave me. The fire department beat him there, Jim."

His heart dropped two floors. "What are you saying?"

"There was an explosion -- actually, a series of explosions. Half the block is gone, Jim, including Sandburg's building. And when I say gone? I mean -- gone. I just came from there and the building was leveled. It's rubble, Jim."

"Fuck."

*****

Blair couldn't believe it so he read Jim's words again. Lifting his gaze from the pad, he focused on his blanket-covered feet. Jim stood on his right, Simon at his left, but Blair found that he really couldn't look at either man at the moment. Slowly he glanced down and read the news again. Then he started to laugh. Except, it was more like a hoarse rumbling.

Concern radiating out of every pore, Jim glanced at Simon, whose eyes had widened behind the lenses of his glasses. Jim mouthed, 'Doctor?' but Simon missed it, thanks to being unable to tear his gaze away from Sandburg.

Finally the young man's strange sounds slowed and wiping at his eyes, he looked up at Jim and said, his voice raspy from his injury and lack of use, "Who knew that someday I'd be thanking O'Keefe?"

Jim, face registering surprise and concern, said to Simon, "Sir, go get the doctor, quick. I think he's in shock."

"You might be right, Jim."

"I know I'm right."

Blair, head popping back and forth between the two men, tried to figure out what they were saying. Giving up, he finally said, "Um, guys? I'm starting to feel like the net here, okay?"

Jim frowned, picked up the pad and after scribbling frantically, held it up for Blair. Are you supposed to be talking? And net?

Smiling, Blair said, "Yes. And net, as in the net in the middle of a ping-pong table?" Then with a waggle of his eyebrows, he indicated Jim's and Simon's positions on either side of his bed.

Chuckling, Simon moved to stand next to Jim, who promptly wrote some more, then showed the pad to Sandburg. That better, O Great Ping-Pong Net? And shouldn't you have been feeling like the ball instead of the net?

"Yes and no."

Jim closed his eyes and started counting to ten. He'd gotten to three when a hand grabbed his arm. He glanced down.

"If not for O'Keefe, I'd have been there and I'd be -- dead now."

Understanding at last, Jim reached out and gently fingered the bandage.

Blair smiled and nodding, said, "Yeah, we should be grateful to Leahy too."

Jim thought Blair himself had a little something to do with being alive. Like choosing to remain at Morrison's and helping Jim instead of returning to his own life. But Jim held his tongue. Time enough later for that particular discussion.

*****

"He's fucking incredible. His home is destroyed and the first thing he considers is how lucky he is and that he should be grateful to O'Keefe."

Jim stared down at the cup of coffee in his hand and nodded. He and Simon had come down to the cafeteria after being shooed from Blair's room while a nurse changed the dressing on his face.

At Simon's hand on his cup, he glanced up. "What?"

"Jim, you're acting strange. What's up?"

"Nothing. Just -- hell, the kid's lost everything, Simon, and yet, he just keeps going."

"Remind you of anyone?"

"Huh?"

"Energizer Bunny."

Simon's smile was wide and genuine and Jim couldn't help but respond with his own grin. "Yeah, yeah. That's him, I guess. But --"

"But nothing, Ellison. It's gonna hit him soon enough, but right now, well, he hasn't really been alone, has he?"

"No." Then Jim's eyes blazed. "And if I have my way, he won't be."

Simon fiddled with his styrofoam cup of tepid coffee and said quietly, "When do you plan on telling him how you feel, Jim?"

"I -- not for awhile. I don't think -- I mean, he needs to get used to me, you know? Don't forget that my face, well -- every time he looks at me, he has to be reminded."

"I see. That might be -- wise. I assume you're taking him home with you tomorrow?"

Jim nodded, the position of his chin telling Simon that was one decision that was final.

"Look, it's been over fifteen minutes, why don't you get back up there? I'm going to see if I can scrounge up some clothes for him to wear and I'll see you both first thing in the morning."

Gratitude shining out from the pale blue depths, Jim smiled. "Thanks, Simon."

*****

Blair stared at Jim, mouth hanging open in shock. With a finger, Jim gently pushed against Blair's chin, then started writing. When he was done, he handed the pad to Blair, who read, Look, I could be ought of line here, Chief. Maybe you have tons of people you'd rather stay with until you find a new place, and if so, say no more. I just thought, well, with my senses and all, and you needing a place to hang your hat...

Looking back up, Blair said, "Thanks, Jim. I mean it. And..." Blair glanced down and started fiddling with the pad, "...no, no one else. Since O'Keefe, well, he -- I didn't have -- oh, hell. See, there was only time for school and him. And well, I kind of lost out on some friends."

Suddenly another piece of Blair's life in the last couple of months fell into place. A demanding O'Keefe, no time for Blair's friends and, one by one, those friends fading away. He'd truly been alone these last weeks.

Jim took the pad and after some more writing, held it up. Then they weren't friends. And it's their major loss, Chief.

Blair read what Jim had written and his throat closed up. He didn't understand any of this. He was going to have to start a new script. A hand on the side of his face brought his attention back to Jim. He blinked as Jim came close and for a moment, Blair had the ridiculous notion that Jim was going to kiss him. Instead, he realized that Jim wanted him to understand what he was about to say.

"You'll stay with me?"

There were so many reasons to say no, so many good, valid, and safe reasons, like protecting his heart, and he was no good for Jim, and what he'd become thanks to O'Keefe --

But there was one good reason for saying yes.

Just one.

Because Blair wanted it more than anything else in his life.

"Yes, Jim. And thanks."

*****

"So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. This young man needs our help. I realize he's a stranger to all of you, but it is the season of giving, and to be honest, we couldn't have busted both Morrison's and Tupertino's operation, not to mention Oshida's, without his assistance. He risked his own life to help us, to help Jim."

Henri Brown stood up and gazed around the conference room at his fellow detectives, then said, "Well, sir, you can count me in. And Captain Taggart said he'd be happy to help too."

"Thanks, Brown."

Moments later everyone was agreeing and offering, getting excited and shouting out questions as well as ideas for what Blair Sandburg, a complete stranger to them, would need. Smiling, Simon Banks just sat back and watched, proud of his people.

*****

Jim stood with his back to the wall watching his soon-to-be once-again roommate. Blair was seated on the edge of his bed, legs dangling and swinging as he swayed slightly, head bowed and hair falling forward as it moved with his body. Jim had the distinct impression that Blair was moving to music only he could hear.

At nine, Simon had shown up as promised, and also as promised, with a bag of clothes. The look on Blair's face had been worth everything. His surprise that anyone would do such a thing made Jim's heart almost hurt.

Both he and Simon had watched as Sandburg took the black sweats, the boxers, socks and tennis shoes into the bathroom to change. As the door shut behind him, Simon had turned to Jim, his own emotions visible in his eyes.

"Geesh, Jim. It's like -- I mean, he's like a kid at Christmas. And they were only sweats."

"Two months under O'Keefe's thumb, Simon. I think he's forgotten that people can do things for him."

"Well, then, he'd better get doubly prepared. The squad is working on his loss. In fact, when should I tell them we can deliver everything?"

"Simon, tell me you're kidding?"

"Can't do that, Ellison. And talk about kids at Christmas? They're so excited, you'd think it was the annual toy drive. So how 'bout tomorrow?"

Jim had thought about it, tried to grapple with the idea of his fellow detectives running around town and trying to replace items for someone they didn't even know, but in the end, all he'd been able to do was accept.

"I think Friday would be better, Simon. His hearing should be vastly improved by then, and it won't be so awkward for him. He'll be feeling better too. He's going to be more wiped out than he realizes when I get him home."

"Good thinking. Friday it is, then. I have to tell you, your fellow detectives are really looking forward to meeting him. We'll plan on after work, obviously. And don't worry about anything. Captain Taggart and I are supplying the pizza and beer."

Simon had left then, which might have been a good thing. Blair's expression when he came out of the bathroom would have undone the big man. Sandburg was so enamored of his new sweats, and the fact that everything fit, that his eyes were shining when he sat back down on his bed.

"This was so nice of him, Jim. Why didn't he stay?"

Jim grinned and mouthed the word work.

"Well, duh. Of course. I just wish I knew why."

Jim bit back a laugh, grabbed the pad and after writing, held it up. Well, Chief, like most of us, he has bills to pay. Although, I suspect that if Captain Simon Banks won the lottery tomorrow, he'd still work.

With a look of feigned disgust, Blair rolled his eyes and said, "You know damn well that I mean why did he get these for me."

Jim rolled his eyes and did some more scribbling. Gee, do you think it's because your help was invaluable? And that maybe he knows I'd probably be dead now if not for said help? Oh, and he likes you. There's also that.

Blair's response had been to snort.

Now Jim watched those swinging legs and wished he could hear what Sandburg was hearing. Suddenly Blair's legs stopped their musical movement and Jim, sensing a problem, stood away from the wall.

"Hey, Jim?"

For an answer, Jim hunched his shoulders in question.

"What about your family? It's almost Christmas, man. You can't be having a stranger hanging around over the holidays, it's not right."

Shaking his head in disbelief, Jim walked back to the side of the bed, grabbed the pad, wrote quickly, then handed it to Blair. One brother, don't know where he is, Chief. And can you really call yourself a stranger after the last few days? And what about your mother? Father? Other family?

Blair looked up from the hastily scribbled words to search Jim's face. "You don't know where your brother is?"

Jim jabbed at what he'd written.

"Mom and I -- we haven't really spent many holidays together, not for years. She's kind of a gypsy, celebrates Christmas, Chanukah and loads of things with tons of friends all over the world. No father, don't know who he was. No other family. But thanks to mom's boyfriends, many of whom became 'uncles', I do have Robert. He and I were almost cousins once, but mom flaked out, as usual, and the wedding was called off. But we've kept in touch. He's kinda -- out of town right now."

"Chanukah?"

Blair, watching Jim's lips, understood and smiled. "Well, ye-ah, I'm Jewish. But Chanukah is over. And I celebrate Christmas too. The spirit behind it is worth celebrating."

Jim immediately thought of his barren loft, which for him was great, but now? Well, tomorrow, he'd take care of it. He took the pad up again and seconds later was watching Blair read.

Did you get the opportunity to celebrate Chanukah?

Blair swallowed the lump in his throat as he realized that one of the things he'd truly miss from his now-destroyed home would be his Menorah.

"Yeah, Jim, I did. Thanks to O'Keefe being in Chicago. Three weeks of peace."

Before Jim could say or write anything, the nurse bustled in, a sheaf of papers in her hand. "Well, Detective Ellison, here are two prescriptions for Mr. Sandburg, along with a nice two-page set of instructions. The doctor did want me to stress that he needs to see his own physician about his hearing, and those stitches come out in three weeks. Any questions?"

"No, none. Thank you, Mrs. Gibbish."

"My pleasure." Then she turned to Blair and taking the pad from his hands, wrote quickly, then turned it around. Are you still getting the ringing in your ears?

"Yes, but it's not bothering me or anything."

She wrote some more -- The doctor said the ringing was a good sign. He believes that by tomorrow or Friday, you should be able to make out peoples' voices and words. But if not, see that specialist immediately, all right?

"You got it, Mrs. Gibbish. And thanks for all your help. Merry Christmas."

Smiling, she wrote again -- We're going to miss you. You have a happy holiday and BE GOOD.

Blair nodded and she bustled out. Jim took the instructions, folded them and stuffed them in his back pocket, but he kept hold of the prescriptions. They'd stop downstairs and get them filled, then head home.

Home. It sounded good, suddenly.

Blair stood, wobbled a bit, then said, "Jim, we have to stop at a bank or any ATM. I've got to get money for those." He indicated the prescriptions.

Jim made sure Blair was looking at him when he said slowly, "No insurance?"

"Jim, Jim, Jim. I'm a teaching fellow. Minimum benefits and nothing for prescriptions. Hell, I'm gonna be paying off this little hospital stay for months."

Frowning, Jim took the pad again. Don't worry about the hospital bill. I'll see what I can do, and same with the prescriptions. I'll take care of it today and then with great élan, turn it over to Simon!

"Are you crazy?"

Jim mouthed, "No." Then he wrote again. Trust me, Sandburg.

Blair gazed up at him and Jim had the feeling a decision was being made. When Blair nodded, he realized the decision had been in his favor.

Smiling, Jim led Blair Sandburg out of the room.

*****

Are you sure you want to do this, Chief?

Blair looked up from the pad and nodded, then said, "You know, I think I can hear the engine. Say something, Jim. Something loud."

"OKAY, CAN YOU HEAR ME?"

Laughing, Blair nodded excitedly and said, "Not that loud, Jim."

"Oh. How's this?" Jim said, slightly louder than his normal tone.

"Well, let me answer this way. I think we can now dispense with the pad and pen. You sound like you're in a tunnel, but I can make out your words."

"This is great, Chief. Now, are you really sure you want to do this?"

Blair gave a firm nod of his head. "Positive."

"All right. But --"

"I'm okay, Jim. I need to see for myself, that's all."

"Right."

Jim turned left out of the hospital parking lot and headed for Blair's destroyed home. Fifteen minutes later, he was waved through by two beat cops and pulled up in front of the rubble.

"Why the cops and tape?"

"They're still investigating the cause of the explosions, Chief."

"That doesn't make sense. I mean, they don't suspect anything, do they?"

"I don't know. The case was turned over to Captain Joel Taggart and his squad. But let's face it, almost an entire block was reduced to dust. Until we know why --"

"I see."

Blair made no motion to exit the car so Jim waited patiently -- and watched. The younger man's eyes were glued to what was left of his home and Jim immediately picked up on the increasing heartbeat.

"Man, it's really gone."

"I'm afraid so, Chief." Jim turned in his seat to face Blair and placed a comforting hand on the kid's shoulder. "I can't begin to guess what you've lost, but --"

"No, no. It's really okay. All my work was at school. Even my laptop and research materials. But there were a few items -- my menorah, some pictures from my childhood, and there was a -- guitar." Blair's voice broke and he coughed slightly, then continued. "From Jimi Hendrix. He gave it to my mom -- it was signed and everything. I always got the feeling he and she -- well, you know. And my basketball cards."

Blair turned around and smiled. "I actually have --" he frowned, then said, "had -- a trading card of Orvelle Wallace that he signed for me. I waited forever with a bunch of other kids after a game and he -- sorry, Jim. You don't want to hear any of this. Look, do you mind if I get out and go over? Am I allowed?"

"Come on, we'll go together. And you can finish your Orvelle Wallace story." Jim smiled encouragingly as he opened his door and climbed out.

Blair followed and together they walked to the edge of the destruction. "Go on, tell me about Orvelle."

Eyes scanning the ground, Blair said, "Well, most of the other players wouldn't stop, which was okay by me, I only wanted his. But as I waited and watched the others walk by, I began to realize how stupid it was for me to stay. But then he came out and I looked up at him, I was about twelve or thirteen , and you've probably noticed that I'm not real tall, so when I say I had to look up, well, we're talking looking up, you know?"

Jim nodded, helplessly caught up in Blair's words, voice and story.

"So I just stuck out my hand and he stopped and I think he's gonna tell me to scram but instead, he takes the card, asks my name and then signs it, 'To Blair, your friend, Orvelle'. Then he asks me what grade I'm in and I tell him and he says, 'Stay in school, Blair. You can be anything you want if you stay in school'."

Blair turned from the wreckage and with laughter in his eyes, said, "I don't think he knew just how long I'd stay in school when he said that."

Jim shared Blair's smile and without thinking, let his arm slide around the younger man's waist. Blair, caught up in his memories and loss, never noticed.

"I had some great baseball stuff too. I even have -- had -- a bat of Nolan Ryan's. Got it real cheap."

"Yeah, I'd think getting a bat that once belonged to a pitcher cheap would be par for the course, Chief."

Blair poked Jim in the ribs and said, "Hey, it was all I could afford!"

"No doubt. Perennial struggling grad student that you are."

Blair's gaze went once more to the remains of his home, then he said, "Let's go. I've seen enough, Jim."

As Jim pulled the Jeep back out into the alley, Blair said, "For all that I lost, man, I really am lucky."

Jim spared his passenger a quick glance as he headed for Prospect and found only sincerity mirrored back at him from Blair's eyes. He shook his head in wonder.

*****

Jim unlocked the door to #307 and stepped aside, allowing Blair to precede him. Letting Sandburg's backpack slip from his shoulder into his hand, Jim followed. As he closed the door behind them, he actually found himself worried about how Blair would receive his new home. Would he like it? Be comfortable? And his room, would that please him? Blair's first words quickly erased any concerns.

"Oh, man, this place is fantastic, Jim! And the view, it's great! Is your room up there? And would you check out this kitchen? Man, what I could cook in here. My place had no kitchen per se. I had one of those boxy office refrigerators and a hotplate. Is it one bathroom or two? And where do I put my backpack? And oh, shit, my car. I forgot all about it. Where's a phone? I need to call Carl and find out when I can pick it up and --"

Jim placed a hand over the motor mouth. Keeping it in place, he managed to maneuver the kid to the couch and sit him down. Then with a warning look, he took his hand away. "Rule number one --"

"Wait, you have rules?"

"Sandburg?" Jim said warningly. "Rule number one, Blair Sandburg talks about one thing at a time and waits for the appropriate answers and responses before going on. Capiche?" At Blair's stunned nod, he continued, grateful that Blair's hearing allowed them to communicate fully.

"Thank you. And yes, the view is great. We have one bathroom and your room is behind you. I was using it as a storage-closet. I moved everything out this morning before picking you up. I had a futon couch in there and I already folded it down into the bed. There's also a desk and a chest of drawers. I plan to put up some shelves and we can get a nightstand for you --"

Jim was stopped by Blair's right hand clamped over his mouth. Waving his left index finger in front of Jim's face, Blair said, "Sandburg rule number one -- Jim Ellison talks about only one thing at a time and then waits for the appropriate response and answers. Capiche?"

Jim nodded, his smile widening under the hand over his mouth. Blair removed it and both men shared a laugh.

"Okay, so why don't I show you your room?"

"I'm down with that!"

*****

Jim checked the simmering chili, gave it a stir, then pulled out two bowls and set them on the sink. He figured another twenty minutes and he could wake up his roommate. Blair had fallen asleep on the couch less than hour after they'd arrived home, but not before Jim had encouraged him in the taking of his prescriptions. The lines around Blair's eyes told Jim that Sandburg was in pain, probably a headache from his activity of earlier.

Taking the lettuce out of the drainer, he spent the next few minutes tearing it up and dropping it into the salad bowl. He chopped up a tomato, an avocado and a handful of olives and dumped them all into the salad as well. He put the bowl into the fridge, then popped the garlic bread he'd prepared earlier into the oven. It needed about fifteen minutes, which would time out perfectly.

Jim wiped his hands then strolled into the living room. He stopped behind the couch and stared down at the sleeping Sandburg. The bruises were starting to go a mustardy yellow and yet, even with all that and the bandage, he looked young, innocent and oddly handsome. Like a youthful pirate following a sea battle that had involved hand-to-hand combat. Grinning at his ridiculous flight of fancy, Jim walked around and knelt in front of Blair. Placing a hand on his shoulder, he gave a gentle shake.

"Hey, Chief, up and at 'em. Dinner is about to be served."

Sleepy blue eyes opened and Blair smiled, then reached out and stroked a finger down Jim's cheek. "Dinner?"

Frowning slightly, Jim said, "Yeah. Hope you like chili?"

Blair yawned, stretched, then said, "Love it, man. And now you sound closer to my end of the tunnel. I do believe my hearing is almost back to normal."

At the same instant, he realized what he'd done upon awakening and he felt his face heat up in embarrassment. He immediately sat up. "Shit, I'm sorry, Jim. God, I -- I can't believe --"

Standing, Jim headed into the kitchen, saying, "No problem, Sandburg. I understand completely. Why don't you wash up while I finish setting the table."

Blair swiped a hand over his face, wincing as it scraped over the bandage. He stood, swayed a bit, then walked down the hall and into the bathroom. Shutting the door firmly, he immediately put the lid down on the toilet and sat. Seconds ticked by and he did nothing but stare at the floor.

He'd blown it already. Forgotten. He'd been having such a nice dream and then Jim had been there, so close, eyes smiling, hand on his arm and it was as if the dream had become real and like an idiot, he'd reached without thinking. How many hours had he been a guest? Fuck.

Mentally he began to run down the list of possible people he could stay with until he could save up what he'd need for first and last on a new place. There was Roger -- No. Roger had started seeing Marion and just before Thanksgiving had moved in with her. Three's definitely a crowd. Okay, how 'bout Sammy? Ooh, no. Blair winced. How many dates had he canceled thanks to O'Keefe? And four weeks ago, Sammy had seen O'Keefe pick him up. That had ended that relationship and friendship. There were a couple of fellow TAs, but he already owed them so many classes -- no, he couldn't inflict himself on them too. Which left him high and dry. Pete was in Cairo, Glen in the Sudan. Anyone else he might have considered had long since given up on him.

Which left his mother. Blair shivered at that thought. He could no more face her than --

Fuck. Fuck and double fuck. He was screwed.

Like that was new? Okay, he'd fake it. Yeah, that's the ticket. Obfuscate his way out of Jim's life. Simply tell him -- what? A phone call. He needed a phone call. Tomorrow. Jim would go to work, he'd come back and Blair would be gone, a note on the table. Yeah. And he could stay in his office... Blair stood, immediately feeling better. He had a plan.

*****

"This is really good, Jim."

"Thanks. It seemed like a night for chili."

"Definitely."

Blair dug in, finding himself hungry now that he knew what he was going to do. After taking a swallow of beer, he said, "What time do you go to work tomorrow?"

"I don't. I'm off until next Wednesday. Undercover assignments can have the occasional silver lining."

The spoon paused halfway to Blair's mouth.

"But I will be going out for awhile, maybe right after breakfast. I have some errands to run and groceries to buy."

The spoon was put down. "Oh, hey, Jim, don't buy anything on my account. I'll get me some soups and a few energy bars and I'm good to go."

"Sandburg," Jim missed the wince at his use of Blair's last name, "I haven't been home, you know? The chili was in the freezer, the lettuce was on its last legs and the avocados were purchased very green. The tomatoes, well, we just caught them. The olives came out of a can. I need to go shopping. And don't worry about it. I owe you."

Blair frowned. During Jim's entire recitation, he hadn't looked at Blair once. Okay, so eat, then bed, then bye-bye tomorrow. Slowly he rose, picked up his two bowls and headed into the kitchen.

"Sandburg, you barely touched anything. And don't worry about the dishes, I'll do them later."

"Guess I wasn't as hungry as I thought I was. Sorry, no reflection on your cooking, man. And I can do dishes." With that, he stubbornly began to rinse out his dishes. After running the
garbage disposal, he washed them, then put them in the drainer on the counter. He went back to the table and grabbed his beer, swallowed the remaining liquid, then took it into the kitchen and tossed it in the trash under that sink. He dried his dishes, found the appropriate cupboard and put them away, then his spoon and fork were washed, dried and put away. No way would Blair Sandburg be a burden for even one night.

Walking toward his room, he said quietly, "I'm kind of tired, Jim. Think I'll hit the hay early. You don't mind, do you?"

"Not at all. I understand. Do you need anything?"

"No, nothing. Thanks for the dinner, man."

"Just as easy to cook for two as one, Sandburg."

Blair acknowledged that with a wry smile, then slid the curtain aside and walked into his room. He didn't bother to turn on the one desk lamp as he had enough to see by, thanks to the dining room light. He pulled the curtain back across the door and started to get out of his sweats. He would have loved to have slept in them, but since they were going to be his primary clothes for a few days, he dismissed that idea. He laid them carefully on the back of the desk chair, pulled back the comforter and quickly crawled in.

Feeling lower than a piece of shit, he rolled onto his side, pulled the comforter up to his neck and tried to sleep. And forget.

*****

Jim's appetite gone, he sat unmoving and trying to figure out what had happened. Could Sandburg have had feelings for O'Keefe? Could what have happened when Jim had awakened Blair have any other explanation? Unable to find any answers, Jim finally rose, did his own dishes and, after cleaning up and ignoring the fact that it was only a little after eight, he locked up and headed upstairs for bed.

*****

The nightmare brought Blair out of his restless sleep with a start. Sitting bolt upright, he looked around him, trying to place his location, finding comfort in the fact that he was alone. He stumbled out of bed, tripped over his backpack, lurched forward and banged his knee on a chair. Biting back a curse of frustration, he waved his hand about, connected with a lamp, found the switch and turned it on. With illumination, came memory. Jim's place. Jim's storage room. Closing his eyes in pain, he pulled out the chair and sank gratefully into it. O'Keefe was dead. Dead. The man couldn't hurt him anymore, couldn't take any more.

Putting his head in his hands, Blair wished with all his soul that he had his warehouse. His home, his space. His privacy. His aloneness. He thought of the books he'd lost. So many wonderful books. Some had been gifts from people he'd never see again, some had been purchased after weeks of near-starvation in order to afford them. Some had been rare finds while haunting used book stores, and some he'd had since his childhood. And now -- they were gone. Gone.

God damn it, there was FUCKING NOTHING of Blair Sandburg left. NOTHING! The thought screamed in his head and there was no one to call, no one to talk with, no one -- Blair could feel the hot tears of anger, frustration and self-pity coursing down his cheeks and he knew it was wrong to cry. Stupid to cry.

He'd lost stuff. Things. But -- but -- wasn't that what most people were? How do you know you exist without your things? Without pictures and books and records and CDs and videos and souvenirs, and the knick-knacks collected over years of expeditions and travels all around the globe, who was Blair Sandburg?

Who was anyone without those items of import?

His favorite shoes. And his best argyle socks. His soft, warm, overly-washed green and black flannel shirt. His good luck JAGS basketball t-shirt. His long navy blue pea coat. Sure, it had holes in it, but that had been its charm. His red hightops.

His graduation picture and the picture taken the day he'd received his Masters -- hell, his mother didn't even have that one.

The tears were coming fast and furious, silent sobs wracking his body. He'd lost so much of himself in the last two months and now to lose everything else?

Suddenly the room was suffocating. There was no place for him here.

This was wrong.

Standing, tears still flowing freely, Blair quickly dressed, grabbed his backpack, slid past the curtain, let his eyes adjust, then walked unsteadily to the front door.

Quietly he unlocked it and stepped out into the cold hall, closing the door behind him.

*****

Blair opened it, read the first few words, then winced. He really needed to destroy this one. Two months of O'Keefe. As he closed it, he had to acknowledge that writing down his feelings had probably kept him sane. But now, well, when he could, he'd burn it. Big time.

At the bottom of his bag he found the usual assortment of pens and pencils, some loose change, a box of breath mints, some gum, a couple of hair ties -- and that was it. He added them to his stack, the contents of his life.

Books, a monograph, food bars, water, a journal, a knife, his wallet with the appropriate ID, a picture of his mother, gum, mints and some change. Blair Sandburg's worldly possessions.

The depression hit him again and Blair realized that the shaking of his body was due to chest-deep sobs. He choked a bit, then gave out with a slightly hysterical bark of a laugh. His worldly possessions and yet -- no Kleenex.

Where was a fucking tissue when you really needed one?

Like a kid, he wiped his nose and face on the sleeve of his sweatshirt. His new sweatshirt. His only item of clothing.

"Aw, God. Could there be anyone more pathetic than me right now? Man, I have a life. I'm alive. And yet, here I am, sniffling like a four-year-old. Okay, so you lost some stuff, Sandburg. So what? Whole families have lost that and more, thanks to hurricanes, fires, tornados, and earthquakes, and you're worried about a few things? Buck up, man. Shit, you have these nice sweats -- okay, so now they have snot on them, but still --"

Unaware that he was talking out loud, he continued his litany as he began to put everything, very carefully, back into his bag.

*****

Unsure of what had awakened him, Jim sat up, yawned and rubbed the back of his neck. Listening, he found nothing out of the ordinary and was about to lie back down when it hit him.

No second heartbeat.

No Blair.

Jim threw off the covers and as his feet hit the cold hardwood floor, he was running down the stairs, bare feet thudding. He skidded to a stop in front of the spare room and parted the curtain. Even though he knew the room was empty, he had to look. He stepped in and as his vision adjusted, he scanned for any clue and immediately noted the absence of Blair's backpack.

Without another thought, Jim took the stairs two and three at a time, put on jeans, pulled a gray sweater over his head, stepped into his loafers, then back downstairs. He pocketed his keys, grabbed his jacket and headed out.

Jim ran down all three flights, then burst through the lobby doors and out onto the sidewalk where he stopped. Okay, now what? Take the Jeep and hope to find him? Or --

All right, he was a Sentinel. So what should he use? Vision? Hearing? What? Jim slapped a hand to his forehead. Hearing? As if Blair would be talking? Right. So vision then. Except --

"Aw, God. Could there be anyone more pathetic than me right now? Man, I have a life. I'm alive. And yet, here I am, sniffling like a four-year-old. Okay, so you lost some stuff, Sandburg. So what? Whole families have lost that and more, thanks to hurricanes, fires, tornados, and earthquakes, and you're worried about a few things? Buck up, man. Shit, you have these nice sweats -- okay, so now they have snot on them, but still --"

Jim closed his eyes and sent up a short prayer of thankfulness, then set off on the run for the Marina.

*****

Damn it. Enough already with the crying jag. Besides, no way was he gonna wipe his nose on the other sleeve.

"How hard would it have been to grab a few tissues from the hospital? Everyone else takes the whole fucking box, the water pitcher, the sipper, you name it. But me? No sir."

"Well, lucky you, Sandburg. I didn't take the box, but I did take a few tissues." Jim dangled several in front of his roommate.

Blair turned slowly and gazed up at Jim Ellison. Then he took the tissues.

"How --"

"Well, according to you, I'm a Sentinel. And do you realize that I could hear you talking all the way from outside the loft? How many blocks is that?"

"Hell if I know." Blair blew hard, then looked around for a trash receptacle. Seeing one, he got up, walked over and dumped the used tissue. He went back to his bench and sat down -- quickly. Damn if his head wasn't going to fall off.

"Mind if I ask what you're doing here when you could be in a nice warm bed sleeping?"

"Look, Jim, let's be honest, okay? It's one of the few things I've got left. You and I both know you don't really want me there. You're just feeling like you owe me. Well, I'm here to tell you that you don't. So what say we shake hands, say goodbye, then you go back to your life and I go back to mine."

Jim stepped around to the front of the bench and knelt down in front of Sandburg. Placing his hand on the trembling knee, he said, "You're right about one thing; I do owe you. But about everything else, we're talking major wrong. I do want you staying with me and I most certainly don't want to shake hands and go our separate ways"

"Jim, I'm not an idiot. I saw what happened after I woke up. You shut down. And I understand. So go home, go to work and if you ever need anything, call."

Jim stared at the younger man and he had absolutely no idea where to go with this, what to say or how to change Blair's mind. The truth wasn't an option -- not yet. Blair was too -- raw, the experience with O'Keefe too fresh. Okay, so maybe his senses were the answer? Yeah. Blair was honorable, he'd want to do right by Jim --

Feeling like a heel, Jim said, "But what about the whole Sentinel thing? Or was your offer only temporary? And if so, I've got to tell you, I don't think I can do it without you, Chief."

Worry and remorse immediately replaced the stubborn resolve in Blair's eyes. "Oh, man, I can't believe I actually forgot. I am so sorry, Jim. I meant every word and of course I'll help in any way I can."

"Then come back with me. Stay with me, get better and we'll work on this thing together, okay?"

"I --"

"Blair, we'll consider it a pact. You help me, I help you. We both win, Chief."

Blair's body immediately relaxed and Jim could sense the tension easing away and he knew he'd said the right thing.

"Okay, Jim. You've got yourself a deal." Blair stuck out his hand and, gratefully, Jim took it, held it, felt the tremors, and said, "You're freezing and from the look in your eyes, you've got a whopper of a headache. Come on, let's go home, Chief."

"I -- all right, let's go."

Blair stood and immediately swayed. Jim caught him and set him back down again. "On second thought, I'm getting the Jeep. You stay here, understood?"

"Jim, I can walk it --"

"But you're not going to, Chief. Now here," he slipped out of his jacket and before Blair could refuse, he started to put it around him, "you take my jacket and I'll be back in ten. Don't move."

Feeling more ill by the minute, Blair nodded and slipped his arms into the too-large but very warm jacket. Jim patted him on the arm and took off.

*****

To Blair, the ten minutes seemed like an eternity. At some point he used his bag as a pillow and stretched out on his side, bringing his knees up and holding the collar of Jim's jacket around his neck. The throbbing in his head was matched only by the throbbing in his ears.

He was drifting off, mind and body in the middle world of sleep when Jim pulled the Jeep next to the curb. Blair never really felt Jim lift him or settle him inside. Nor did he feel the walk into the building, the ride up the elevator nor Jim getting him to take a couple of pills, then tucking him into his bed. What he did feel was... warmth and safety and that allowed him to move, finally, into a deep, restful sleep.

*****

Jim pulled the covers up to Blair's neck and then straightened. Too close. Way too close. And Simon had been right. Everything had finally hit Sandburg. And yet, the kid still persevered and actually put Jim ahead of anything that Blair had been considering doing.

Jim brushed some hair from Blair's face and in the darkened room, he made a vow -- a vow that put Blair ahead of anything in his life.

Once up in his own room, he slowly stripped and climbed into bed. As he settled on his back, hands behind his head, he listened -- to a simple heartbeat. It thrummed through him, singing in his veins, throbbing with his own heart. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes. He'd have given anything to have Sandburg next to him, but this was the next best thing. And in time, well, anything was possible.

*****

Jim didn't have to pull the curtain aside or look through the windows in order to know that Blair was still asleep. Grateful to hear the calm, easy breathing, Jim walked to the front door, opened it and bent down to retrieve the morning paper. He started to kick the door shut but caught himself and quietly closed it instead. Taking the paper to the table, he set it down. After making himself a cup of coffee, he took a seat, unfolded the paper and started reading.

It was almost eleven, and even though his stomach was grumbling, he decided to give it a bit longer before fixing anything to eat. He didn't want to wake Blair, preferring instead to allow him to come to that state on his own.

Jim wasn't the least surprised to see more headlines about Monday's bust. The whole case had turned out to be one gigantic onion and each day, as the detectives of Major Crime and the FBI worked on tying it up, more layers were revealed. Oddly enough, Jim wasn't the least bit upset about not being any further involved. He'd done his part and the cleanup, well, that could happen and was happening without him.

A sound from the other room alerted him to the possibility that Blair was stirring. Cocking his head and listening intently, Jim finally nodded in satisfaction. Yep, the kid was getting up.

As Blair was swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, Jim rose and walked into the kitchen. After careful perusal of cupboards and the fridge, he came to the dismal conclusion that he really had nothing acceptable to prepare.

Walking over to the spare room, Jim 'knocked' on the curtain as he said with a smile, "Knock, knock, Chief."

He heard a grunt, then a curse before Blair answered him. "Hey, morning."

"Morning yourself. How's your head?"

"Steady and still attached."

"Always good news. Look, I'm going to run a few quick errands, okay? The coffee is ready so help yourself, but if you're hungry, well, I'm off to shop now. Is there anything you really hate or happen to be allergic to?"

Jim stepped back as Blair pushed the curtain away and shuffled his way out. His hair was a disaster area and could have received Federal emergency aid. His cheeks were dark with stubble and where the bandage caught at the skin, his flesh was puckered like a prune. To add to the picture, the dark smudges under his eyes combined with the mottled bruising gave him an almost cartoonish look. Jim's very own waif. Gosh, and hadn't he always wanted one of his own?

"Um, allergies?" Blair said between yawns. "Me? Nope. Like I said last night, some soup and I'm fine."

Jim grinned down at the walking zombie. "So you're saying soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Chief?"

Blair waved a hand in the air and between the bleary eyes and the muddled co-ordination, he accidentally hit Jim in the arm. "Oops, sorry. And you'd be surprised what you can do with soups. Tomato soup for breakfast is a must for your basic struggling grad student."

Trying to hide the chuckle, Jim said dryly, "You're not your best in the morning, are you, Sandburg?"

Blair blinked up at Jim, eyes narrowing automatically in an attempt to see clearly. "Well, normally, yeah. But --"

"But these aren't normal times?"

"Well -- no. But honest, normally I'm very chipper in the morning. Of course, most folks hate that, but what can I say?"

Without thought, Jim gently patted the right side of Blair's face and said, "Hey, I like chipper. I'm going to get dressed and head out. Why don't you shower and shave? You'll find extra toothbrushes under the sink. I don't use an electric razor, too hard --"

"On your skin. Yeah, figured as much. And extra razors under the sink, right?"

"You are one smart grad student." Placing his hands on Sandburg's shoulders, he spun him around carefully and gave him a gentle push in the direction of the bathroom. "Go. By the time you get out of there, I'll be gone. But not for long. The remote is on the television, the stereo is self-explanatory and the CDs are underneath. Knock yourself out and make yourself at home."

Thanks, Jim. But beware, me and showers are long-time companions. By the time you get home, I'll be one happy prune."

"Not with my water tank, you won't."

"Damn."

*****

Jim rolled the cart down the produce aisle, eyeing fruits and vegetables. He chose a few tomatoes and a couple of Yukon Gold potatoes. But then he remembered that Christmas was only a few days away and he quickly changed his grocery list. As long as he was here, why not shop early and do the holiday right? After all, didn't he have a guest? He promptly added four more potatoes and then bagged some green beans.

He turned down the next aisle and added walnuts and pecans to his basket, then grabbed a couple of heads of lettuce. Jim swung the cart over to meats and stood for several seconds, trying to decide on the Christmas meat --

Maybe a traditional English dinner? Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding -- the works? Or turkey? The vision of a sizzling, dark crusty roast made up his mind. He picked out the best they had and let the butcher wrap it up. From then on, the menu in his head, he zipped from aisle to aisle, grabbing what he'd need as well as his normal shopping. His resemblance to Scrooge on the morning after wasn't lost on him, but he didn't care, he was having fun. And he knew why.

This was for Blair.

At the novelty section of the store he found the decorations and added a few boxes of lights, several garlands, a couple of wreaths (one real) and a few fun items he thought Sandburg might get a kick out of, like... red stockings -- one for him and one for Sandburg. He also picked up a couple of rather lovely centerpieces that would look good on the dining room table and the coffee table. He didn't even glance at the tree ornaments since he had a box of them in the basement storage cupboard for #307, the thought of which brought him up short.

A tree. He'd need to get a tree. Not today, but soon. And a real one. Not fake, like he'd had as a child. Real and smelling of the forests that surrounded Cascade.

Jim checked his basket, grinned foolishly and decided he was done. Like a kid with a gift certificate at a toy store, he headed to the checkout.

When he heard the total, he kept right on grinning like a fool as he wrote out the check.

*****

Blair climbed out of the shower and, after wrapping a large towel around his middle, he slung another around his neck and started to lightly towel dry his hair. He paused long enough to wipe down the mirror and remove the bit of clear plastic wrap, found in the kitchen, from his bandaged face.

The activity in the shower had left him with another headache and he vaguely remembered the doctor telling him not to move around too much once he left the hospital. Well, he'd certainly blown that last night. Blair put down the toilet seat and sat. No point in borrowing trouble.

The remaining steam from his shower filled his lungs and clung to his skin and Blair drank it in like some mysterious elixir. The moist warm air felt safe, clean and made his world seem lazy and tropical. Like his dreams of Jim. Blair closed his eyes and he could almost smell the scented jungle mixed with the sweat of two running men --

Shaking himself out of the dream, he stood, found the razor and shaving cream and set about to get as much stubble from his face as his injuries would allow. He wiped down the mirror again and at the same time, symbolically wiped the dream from his mind.

Fifteen minutes later, shaved, dressed and teeth brushed, he wandered out into the living room. He gave the television a cursory glance. He really had no desire to watch anything, not even the weather channel, his lone companion while burning the midnight grading oil.

Blair wandered over to the stereo and checked it out, liking and admiring what he saw. He'd have given his eyeteeth for this system. He looked below, pulled out the carrier and was impressed once again. Jim's choice in music was wide-ranged and very cool -- a description that didn't seem to fit a cop.

Blair immediately sat cross-legged on the floor and started flipping his way through each line of discs. There were the greats like Ella, Sinatra, and Nat King Cole; then a few Santana; some pretty terrific jazz and a couple of great blues; and surprising enough, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship; Aerosmith and The Who; the Stones, Grateful Dead and the Eagles. Hell, Jim even had a Beatles CD.

Blair whistled in appreciation. Who knew Jim Ellison had such hidden depths? He continued to leaf through titles until, with great surprise, he found a couple of Christmas CDs. For a moment, he paused as memories surfaced...

1978. Naomi dressed in red and white, the house, belonging to his mother's latest (and in Blair's opinion, best) conquest, decorated to the nines and tens and playing in the background

-- Christmas carols.

Closing his eyes, Blair could see almost every detail. Stockings, one with his name on it, hanging from the mantle; the tree, at least a ten-footer, in front of a large bay window and surrounded by gifts; and finally, Logan, in his lounger with Blair on his lap, happily watching Naomi moving about the room as she placed a few more gifts under the tree. The one and only year in the nomadic lives of Naomi and Blair Sandburg that Norman Rockwell would have been proud to paint.

Blair had been happy from Halloween through Passover and Easter -- six long, wonderful months.

Without thinking about it, Blair took one of the Christmas discs out, placed it in the drawer and powered up. He adjusted the volume as the mellow voice of Bing Crosby, singing White Christmas, filled the loft apartment.

Sandburg listened for a moment, then got up and walked over to the bookshelf that bordered the stereo cabinet. He raised a hand and let his fingers trail over the titles, again finding himself admiring the man, this time through his literary choices. If Blair hadn't already been thoroughly in love with Jim Ellison, well, his choice of music and reading materials would have been a great start.

Suddenly his perusal of titles stopped and he found himself chuckling. On the second shelf, surrounded by truly eclectic titles, sat a Clive Cussler. Unable to resist, Blair took it down, carried it over to the chair by the window and sat down. Being a closet Cussler fan, he was excited to find one he hadn't read. He opened the book and started reading.

*****

Luxuriating in the sunlight that stretched across the floor, trapping him in its bright warmth, Blair put down the Cussler book he'd been reading for over an hour. He leaned his head back, then closed his eyes.

The Christmas CD was on repeat and playing Judy Garland singing 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'. As he listened to the lyrics, he was struck again by how sad and bittersweet they were, especially as sung by Garland.

How many Christmases and Chanukahs had he spent with his mother once he'd turned... what, twelve? Thirteen? He was pretty sure there'd only been -- two. He acknowledged that number as the correct choice with a nod of his head. Yep, two. And how many Christmases and Chanukahs spent alone in the same time frame?

Most.

Of course, many had been spent using the holiday break to study and read voraciously. Others had been spent on expeditions that took him all over the world. Not a bad way to spend the holidays, really. And this year?

He'd had a peaceful, O'Keefe-free Chanukah, and Christmas would be -- with Jim.

Garland's voice surrounded him and he wondered about future years and future holidays. And when had they become so damn important anyway?

Since now. Since being given a taste of what he could have had --

Companionship, a friend and a lover, a partnership. A Sentinel.

Man, he had to get over the whole O'Keefe thing. He couldn't let it rule his life. Two months, that was all. He was twenty-six and he couldn't allow two months out of twenty-six years to shadow every future action.

He could do this. Choices had been made and those choices, even now, had been right. The only way to protect, the only way to ensure that protection. And now, he'd have maybe a few weeks with Jim while giving him control of his senses. Teaching and learning, figuring out everything a Sentinel could be and could do.

Weeks. Maybe months. Weeks definitely. It was enough. And maybe -- Jim would find the real Blair Sandburg and maybe, just maybe...

Okay, let's not get ahead of yourself, Sandburg.

Right.

For now -- friend, helper and guide in the wonderful world of sensory perceptions and abilities. Cool. Cool enough.

*****

Jim noticed the holiday decorations that seemed an intrinsic part of his city, and his smile broadened. He could remember happy Christmases with his father, mother and younger brother. Could remember racing down the stairs at 0-dark-thirty in the morning, his brother right behind him, then sliding to a stop in front of the living room. With trembling fingers, he'd find the light switch and flip it on --

The tree, floor to ceiling; lights flickering, thanks to him, the bright, shiny ornaments and ribbons adorning every branch; and his brother, frozen to his side, mouth agape at the wonder.

Two pairs of pale blue eyes would then travel down to the mound of gifts under the tree...

Yes, there'd been good years. Happy, full of laughter and the joyous screams of two little boys. But then his mother had left and life changed. The army had been easy compared to the regimented life his father had structured for him and his brother Steven.

Jim shook himself and remembered what awaited him at home. New year, new holiday. New traditions.

Jim turned on the radio and wasn't surprised to be greeted immediately by Christmas music. Last year, he would have turned it off. This year, he turned it -- up.

As he made his right onto Prospect, Al Martino's 'You're All I Want For Christmas' came on and, as Jim listened, his heart started doing a complicated series of gymnastic moves.

Jim pulled up to his building and parked, but before shutting off the engine, he listened to lyrics that pretty much summed up his current feelings. Lips moving with Martino, he mouthed the words -- You're all I want for Christmas, all I want my whole life through...

Slowly he cut the engine and climbed out. He went to the other side, opened the door and grabbed the bags. Kicking the door shut, he started for the lobby only to stop short. From above him, from his apartment, the same song was being played and he could hear Sandburg's voice singing the same lyrics --

"You're all I want for Christmas, all I want my whole life through..."

*****

"Here you go." Jim struggled to hide his laughter as he set a plastic bag on Sandburg's lap.

He'd come in a few minutes ago, arms laden with groceries, and after growling at Blair when he'd offered to help, had set everything down and started to unpack. Until he'd come to the one bag...

"Uh, Jim?"

"You did say soup, right?" Jim asked innocently, then watched gleefully as Sandburg opened the bag and started taking out the cans of soup.

Tomato soup.

Tomato soup plain, tomato soup thick; cream of tomato soup and tomato soup with chicken, or stars, or both. Chunky tomato soup, curried tomato soup and even tomato bisque. Basically Jim had purchased one can of every tomato soup the store had carried. He hadn't been able to resist.

Eyes shining with mirth, Blair held up the can that proclaimed, 'Campbell's Tomato Soup with Stars' and said, "Hey, man, my favorite!"

"Yep, thought so," Jim said drolly as he took the bag. "Of course, I also purchased a few containers of yogurt, some wheatberry bread, a few great cheeses, that kind of stuff. You look like a yogurt man to me, Chief."

Blair watched Jim head back to the kitchen and with his throat rapidly closing up, he croaked out, "Jim --"

"It's a win-win, remember, Chief? Stop worrying. Hell, the city of Cascade alone owes you a debt they could never repay. Be gracious and just say thanks."

Eyes glittering, Blair said, "Thanks."

"Thattaboy."

*****

"Jim, I gotta tell ya, you scramble a mean egg."

"Thank you. But you have to admit, the toast really pushed the meal over the top."

"Oh, yeah, no doubt about that. And the way you buttered it? Very, um, er -- professional."

It was after two and both men had decided that in spite of the late hour, breakfast still sounded like a winner. Jim, knowing that they'd be having company later (bearing pizza, no less) and sensing that Blair might balk at anything heavy in the way of a meal, put together a simple repast of scrambled eggs with bleu cheese, and toast. He topped it off with juice and coffee.

After swallowing some of his coffee, Jim nodded. "Yes, I have to thank the army for the buttering technique. You think you're just going to learn how to take orders, but in reality, you learn to peel potatoes and butter a mean piece of toast."

Picking up his plate and carrying it into the kitchen after shooting a 'don't mess with me' look at Jim, Blair noted, "Yeah, I'd heard those rumors about the military. They reel you in with promises of glory and then all you do is --"

"Butter toast."

"Precisely. I'd sue if I were you."

"Oh, I don't know," Jim said, waving a piece of his toast in the air. "You're reaping the rewards of my years of service."

"True, true."

Blair, much like the evening before, washed his dishes and placed them in the drainer, but this time, he rejoined Jim. As he took his seat and pulled his coffee mug towards him, he added, "I shall never forget that toast as long as I live. And to think, I owe it all to the army." Then on a more serious note, he said, "Among other things."

Jim smiled but at the same time, he glanced away. Blair frowned in concern and sensed that in spite of their banter about the army, there'd been an underlying current that he couldn't quite put his finger on...

"So, Jim, how long were you in the service?"

"A few years."

"Uh-huh. Informative. Would a few be three? Five? Two?"

"I went in at twenty-one, got out five years ago."

Blair got up, brought the coffee pot back from the kitchen, poured for Jim, then himself and, after returning the pot, he sat down and said quietly, "That's a bit more than a few years, Jim. Tell me about it?"

"I served, I took orders, rose through the ranks, the usual."

"Right, the usual. Rose through the ranks to what?"

"I was a captain when I left the service."

Blair's eyes widened. "Wow. Impressive. And I'm betting -- some special branch?"

"Rangers."

Blair nodded thoughtfully. There was more, he just knew it. "You were a Ranger. Tough gig, or so I've heard."

The normalcy of Blair's voice brought Jim's gaze up to his roommate and he blinked a couple of times, surprised to find only interested, sympathetic blue eyes staring back at him.

"It was -- it had -- its tough moments."

Blair nodded almost absently, his mind searching the myriad of memories that he had stored --

"You know, Jim -- I, I'm remembering something. I was in Peru in the spring of 1994, on an expedition and --"

Jim's head shot up. "You were in Peru? In 1994?"

"Yeah. Not for long, though. We were supposed to be there for six months or better, but there was an uprising and the military moved in and forced us to leave. Which turned out to be a very good thing. The area we were in, the Chopec Valley, was overrun a month later. But that's what I'm getting at. I distinctly remember hearing at the Embassy that the government might send in a Ranger unit, or something.

"My mind is kind of hazy on that, they weren't speaking English and my Spanish and Quechua were pretty rusty, but I think that was the gist of the conversation. Am I right? I vaguely recall --"

Jim's blood was racing through his body and he could -- feel it. Pounding at every pulse-beat, thick and warm --

"Jim? You okay?"

Eyes glued to the tabletop, Jim said, "The Rangers went in. But their chopper crashed and all but one man died. He spent eighteen months with the Chopec, defending the pass, before the Army found him and relieved him."

Blair didn't respond immediately, he was too intent on watching Jim. Watching as the older man paled, noting the slight tremor of his hands --

"That must have been rough on -- you," Blair finally said softly. "Losing your men, then stranded for eighteen months --"

Jim lifted his head and, struck by the depth of understanding and empathy in Blair's eyes, he found himself nodding. "Yeah, it was hard. Those men were my friends as well as my team. I buried every one of them."

"I'm sorry, Jim."

Three words. Said by many and said every day around the world. Words said to him thousands of times over the years. But at that moment and coming from Blair, Jim really understood the depth of those words.

Today, the words meant that Blair was sorry Jim had been forced to go through it alone. He was saying with his eyes that he'd have given anything to have been there in order to ease the burden. His body language was telling him that if he could undo it for Jim, he would. And his voice was carrying the message that Jim wasn't alone anymore. Wouldn't have to deal with it alone -- anymore.

"Thank you, Chief. Thank you."

*****

Jim turned on the gas, held the long match over the fake logs and watched with satisfaction as the fire leapt up, immediately warming his home. It had started to rain not long after they'd left the table, and with the blinds up, he and Sandburg had sat on the couch watching the storm.

Eventually the cold had seeped inside and when he'd spotted his couch-mate shivering,

he'd decided a fire was the answer. Rising, he held out his hands and let them warm a bit, then turned to face Blair. "How's that, Chief?"

"Great, man."

"Good. And water or juice with your next round of pills?"

Blair didn't bother to argue, he'd lose anyway, so he just said, "Juice?"

"You got it."

Jim got the pills then the juice and carried them back to Blair, who took them, popped the meds back and swallowed the liquid. Jim patted him on top of the head. "You are such a good boy, Sandburg."

Blair froze and, before Jim could do anything, the glass in Blair's hand shattered.

Sandburg glanced down at what remained of the glass and said automatically, "Sorry, I broke your glass, Jim. Sorry."

Jim had been rooted to the spot as blood welled up on Blair's palm, but at the young man's words, he was suddenly galvanized into action.

"Jesus, Blair. Come on, we need to get you into the bathroom, pronto." He carefully took Blair's arm, helped him up, clamped his own hand over Blair's and led him away.

At the sink Jim turned on the water and, as he shoved Blair's hand under the cleansing rush, he said, "This is gonna hurt like hell, but hold it here while I get everything I need."

If Blair felt any pain, he gave no indication as he nodded and held his bleeding hand under the water, then moved a bit to allow Jim access to the cupboard under the sink. Seconds later, Jim popped back up, first aid kit in hand. As he placed it on the counter, he wondered how the hell he'd be able to discern if any glass was imbedded in Blair's hand.

"You'll need to use your Sentinel sight, Jim. I can't tell if there's any --"

"Right. Of course. I was just wondering how --"

"Focus by zeroing in on the cuts, like you did at Morrison's." Blair turned his hand and while the water washed away blood that never seemed to stop, Jim zoned in on the cuts.

"There's one piece, Sandburg. Hang on." He got a pair of tweezers from the drawer and keeping the hand under the faucet and his vision fixed on the glittering glass, he said, "This is gonna --"

"I know, it's gonna hurt. Don't worry. I've a very high tolerance to pain."

Jim nodded, bit down on his lip and started the process of digging out the piece -- a piece considerably larger than a mere sliver. As he worked, he found himself thanking God for his senses because he was able to accomplish the task quickly and efficiently. Blair kept his hand steady and never so much as moved an inch. There was no moan, no hiss of pain, nothing to indicate that he was feeling anything at all.

Holding the small chunk up, Jim whistled, then let it drop into the trashcan next to the toilet. He took out the necessary bandaging material and after dabbing at the cuts with a towel, said, "Well, no stitches required. Give me a few and you'll soon have another part of your body encased in gauze, Chief."

"Sorry 'bout that."

As Jim worked, he asked casually, "So, what happened?"

His tone didn't fool Sandburg, who just shook his head. "Not important, Jim. Honest."

"Uh-huh. Sure. Now who's being informative?" Jim poured some antibiotic liquid over the wound and asked, "It was what I said, wasn't it? You flashed back on O'Keefe."

"Damn."

"Hey, I'm a detective. Quick, intelligent, pick up on clues like a good thing. I'm a gem."

Blair had been watching Jim's reflection in the mirror and at those words, he twisted his head to the side to see the real thing. Jim was smiling gently, encouraging Blair with the smile and, for some inexplicable reason, Blair found himself relaxing.

"Well, you are pretty unique, Jim. And yeah, I kind of flashed back. He used to say -- he'd use those words -- when I'd done as -- instructed. In bed."

The last two words chilled Jim's heart but he gave no sign of it as he double-checked his handiwork. He suspected Blair was testing him with that last bit of information, and he'd be damned if he'd fail. Stepping back, he said, "There, all set. Shall we go back out to the warm fire and storm?"

Smiling his gratitude, Blair followed Jim out, and as Jim dropped an arm over his shoulders, Blair allowed himself to lean in a bit, his body tingling at the closeness.

*****

"Okay, how's that?"

"Pretty darn near perfect, Jim."

Jim blew on his fingertips, then rubbed them on his chest. "I am good."

The garlands had been hung over doors and the lights had been strung around the windows. The centerpieces were in place and Jim had just completed the 'hanging up' of their stockings. Since there was no mantel, the bookshelves had been given the honor.

Several holiday candles had been set in strategic spots around the loft and a few of the more -- comical -- items, like the Rudolph doll that did a jig when turned on, had been set out. Jim had also purchased two reindeer hats, but he was saving them for Christmas morning.

The wreathes were up, the fake one on the outside of the front door, the real one, bringing the fresh odor of the forest with it, had been hung so that it dropped down from the center window. Now Jim stepped back and surveyed his home.

"Not bad, not bad at all, if I do say so myself."

"You're a wizard, Jim. And why?"

Turning to look at Blair, one eyebrow raised, Jim said, "Why what?"

"Why decorate? I mean, you just bought all of this so you obviously don't, right? So why now?"

Working on how to phrase his answer, Jim took his seat beside Blair. He pulled the afghan from the back of the couch and dropped it over Blair's legs.

"Jim, I'm fine. Stop with the Florence Nightingale routine and answer me."

"Hey, I'm just being a good host."

"Uh-huh. So why?"

Jim looked at the winking lights that now framed his large windows and said, "I usually work over the holidays, by choice, but still, I'm working. I let the married ones have their time with the family and I'd take the night shifts, harder to cover over the holidays, you know. So never had any reason to decorate. Never had anyone to decorate for -- until now."

"Oh."

"You said you celebrate Christmas so I figured, why not? We both need it, I think."

Blair gave Jim a dazzling smile, one full of excitement and happiness. "Yeah, we do. I'm glad you decided to do this."

"Good."

Before either one could say anything else, someone was knocking and Jim, finally paying attention with his senses, grinned and stood. "Looks like we have company, Chief."

Jim hurried to the door and quickly opened it to reveal Simon and at least six other members of Major Crime. They were all bearing bags and packages, with Captain Joel Taggart bringing up the rear, arms loaded down with pizza.

As bodies crammed inside and jackets and coats were discarded, Simon said, "Merry Christmas, Jim! Where's Sandburg?"

"He's right over there but he's kind of short, so you'll have to look hard."

Everyone laughed and Blair, his face showing his total surprise, stood and managed to fire back, "Hey, I'm not 'kind of' short, I am short." Joel and Simon dropped the food off in the kitchen, then joined everyone else in the living room just as the introductions began.

"Hey, kid, I'm Henri Brown, the top dog at Major Crime and --"

A tall, blonde, blue-eyed man pushed Brown aside, saying, "Top dog? Don't listen to him, Sandburg. Try dog chow. I'm Ralph Peterson, by the way, and the real top dog of Major Crime."

Blair shook the man's hand but a moment later a short brunette with startling beautiful hazel eyes and great legs said, "Don't listen to him. I'm Carla Hatch and everyone knows that Simon is top dog. Good to meet you, Blair."

Blair never had a chance to say anything as another man stepped forward and putting some bags down, said, "Hey, kid, I'm Mike and while it's true that Simon is top dog, I'm the big cheese. You can have my autograph later."

Laughing, Blair caught Jim looking at him, his own eyes crinkled with suppressed laughter. "Hey, Jim, didn't you tell me that you were the big cheese with Major Crime?"

A tall, willowy black woman, hair in curls on top of her head, started laughing uproariously and managed to say, "Oh, man, Ellison, you have been filling his head with stories, haven't you?"

"You mean he isn't the big cheese?" Blair asked, barely able to contain himself.

"I'm Sasha and Jim is just big. Around the neck, if you know what I mean."

Jim stepped into the fray. "Them's fightin' words, Washington."

"But true," Henri added.

"Hey, look who's talking, Brown! Mister NoNeck himself," Carla chimed in.

A lovely woman with dark blond hair finally spoke up. "Hi, Blair. You and I have talked on the phone. I'm Rhonda, Simon's assistant."

Taking her hand, Blair smiled hugely. "Of course. Your voice was a Godsend, Rhonda. Thank you."

She blushed, then said, "Please, sit. Don't stand on our account."

Everyone took the cue and immediately started vying for the comfortable seats as Simon and Jim started bringing over the chairs from the kitchen table. Sasha and Rhonda immediately took the spots on either side of Sandburg, Sasha eyeing him in appreciation. Henri, Mike and Carla grabbed the other couch while Ralph took the chair, but immediately gave it up after experiencing Simon's glare. Jim shrugged his shoulders at Captain Taggart as both men immediately resigned themselves to the chairs.

Simon smiled at Sandburg and asked, "I'm betting you're wondering why a passel of detectives have shown up on Jim's doorstep, eh?"

"Um, well, you really love him? And miss him?" Blair said cheekily.

"Oh yeah, Blair, we really miss his sour puss, all right," Sasha said, rolling her eyes.

"Hey, you love my sour puss, Washington."

"Children?" Simon interrupted.

"Sorry, sir," Sasha said, an impish smile gracing her lips.

Jim was about to offer an apology but he heard another set of footsteps and immediately rose, puzzled as to his newest guest might be. He opened the door before the man on the other side could knock. "Agent Levy."

"Detective Ellison. I hope you don't mind my dropping in? Captain Banks told me --"

Jim stepped aside and said, "No, no, not at all. Please, come in."

Jim noted that Levy also held a large package. Shooting his captain a glance, Jim held out his hands in question. Simon simply smiled.

Levy walked over to the group and put out a hand. "Hi, Mr. Sandburg. I'm Carl Levy. Captain Banks invited me to join you all tonight. I just wanted to thank you for you invaluable assistance in busting up the Morrison Family."

"Please, it's Blair. And Jim and Major Crime did all the work, I just made a couple of phone calls. You, on the other hand, based on what Jim told me, were the mastermind behind the whole idea."

Carl grinned and ducked his head, but before he could say anything else, Simon gave a loud cough.

"You did a hell of a lot more than make a 'couple of phone calls', Blair. But we're not here to embarrass you -- much." Simon let his gaze roam over each of his detectives as he said, "Are we, guys?"

Laughing, everyone said, "No, SIR!"

Levy took the seat vacated by Jim, who immediately brought another over. But he didn't sit in it. Instead, he glared at Sasha, who caught on. Standing, she said with barely suppressed glee, "Jim, big cheese that you are, why don't you sit here and I'll take that chair?"

"Gee, Sasha, thanks," Jim said dryly. They passed each other and as they did, Sasha gave him a thumbs-up sign.

As they sat down, Joel Taggart gave a small cough and said, "Mr. Sandburg, I'm Joel Taggart, captain of the bomb squad. I'm very sorry about the loss of your home."

Blair's eyes clouded over as he nodded. "Thank you, Captain. Any more news on what happened?"

Joel shook his head. "I'm afraid not. We're still sifting through the rubble and piecing together what little evidence we've found so far."

"I see."

Joel leaned forward. "Were you insured?"

Blair chuckled at that as he said, "Hardly. I'm a grad student at Rainier and was lucky to find the place, let alone as cheaply as I got it. I was the only occupant and after moving in, well, I've never seen the owner, let alone anyone else. I mail my rent check to some agency over in the Talmadge Building. Any fixes, well, I did them myself."

"I was afraid of that. We're having difficulty reaching the owner, as it happens," Joel said.

"I'm not surprised. He travels a great deal. Was there anyone hurt in any of the other buildings?"

"No, fortunately. The explosions were late at night and the buildings with businesses in them were empty and closed for the night. You appear to have been the only -- resident, Mr. Sandburg."

"Please, it's Blair, Captain Taggart."

Smiling, Taggart, a big bear of a man, said, "Then I'm Joel." His curiosity getting the better of him, Taggart asked, "Why on earth would you want to rent there?"

"Oh, that's simple. Research. The place was huge and allowed me the room I needed. Plus, well, it beat sharing a house or apartment with about six or seven other grad students while still paying through the nose for rent."

Everyone had been listening to the exchange, heads moving back and forth between the two and, in spite of Blair's easy words, every single man and woman could see what talking about his home was costing the young man. He was making light of it, answering easily and with smiles, but his eyes had darkened and he was rubbing his thigh with his left hand in what had to be a nervous habit.

Joel, noticing the new bandage and the young man's discomfort, sat back and said with a smile, "Well, Simon, maybe now would be a good time to let our new young friend in on why we're here?"

"I couldn't agree more, Joel." Simon stood and cleared his throat. "Blair, my team and I are very grateful for your assistance last week. Jim feels, and I concur, that it's doubtful he would have made it out alive without your help and information. And I know that without your own bit of detective work, well, Oshida and Tupertino would still be in operation."

At a cough from Jim, Simon said, "Yes, well. All this to say that as far as I'm concerned, you're one of us. And we take care of our own. So, understanding that we could never replace all that you've lost, we can, perhaps, make life a bit easier." He leaned down and picked up the large bag he'd brought, then handed it over to Sandburg, who took it with a puzzled frown.

"I don't understand, Sir."

"Well, open it, and you will," Simon said with a smug grin.

Blair glanced at Jim, who shrugged helplessly. "Go ahead, Chief. Open it."

Blair held the bag a moment, eyes fixed on the colorful decorative face front. Noticing, Simon said proudly, "My son, Daryl, did the decorating. He's almost fourteen."

Blair lifted his gaze and gave Simon a dazzling smile. "I'll have to thank him. This bag is a keeper." Then he opened it and gasped audibly. With shaking hands he removed the object.

"I don't -- I mean, this is --"

"I think we've got everything in there. Razors, shaving cream, toothbrushes, toothpaste, aftershave -- Daryl picked that out -- all the odds and ends one needs and fills their bathrooms with, I think we've got it all --"

Simon's voice trailed off as he caught Blair's expression. He was looking at each and every item in the large, clear plastic travel bag, his attention rapt as he turned the bag around and around in his hands. Then Blair unzipped it and started taking each item out and no one said a word, just watched, eyes smiling, grins wide.

"I -- I use this aftershave, sir. This is my aftershave. And I always use Tom's of Maine and this shaving cream and -- and --" he looked up, his head shaking from left to right.

"Jim gave us a few clues, Blair and please, let's drop the 'sir', okay?"

"I can do that -- sir -- Simon."

Simon waved his hand dismissively, cleared his throat, then said gruffly, "All right, who's next?"

Sasha immediately dropped a large box in Blair's lap and said, "Looks like I am. And I hope these fit. Jim gave us some idea of sizes." Blair shot Jim a burning look but the older man simply smiled, charm oozing out of every pore. Sandburg opened the wrapped box lid and peered inside. Nestled in tissue paper, layers and layers of tissue paper, were four different shirts. Two flannel, one denim and one poplin. The colors ranged from forest green to sky blue, two with long sleeves, two with short. He shook one out, checked the size and nodded, numb with shock. "My size. My size."

The box was removed by Jim and another bag placed on his lap and that's how the next hour and a half went. Boxes revealing jeans, Dockers, sweats, slacks, shirts, shoes, socks, boxers, tee-shirts, undershirts, pajamas, slippers, sweaters and even jackets, were opened by the awestruck young man.

Appropriate oohs and aahs were said as everyone exclaimed over each new gift. Finally, a pile of wrapping paper at his side, Blair sat back and simply stared at the stack of clothes and accessories sitting on the coffee table in front of him.

"I just can't -- I mean, why? This was so incredible, but I don't deserve --"

"Don't even go there, Blair. And Simon told you why. We all owe you and you're one of us now." Then Jim looked over at Simon and raised one eyebrow.

"Yes, well, there is one more item, Blair." Simon held out a small gift bag and let it dangle from his finger. "I understand," he coughed in a gesture that his son could have told everyone was typical when he was about to 'shade' the truth, "that you're doing your doctorate on a subject that we at Major Crime might be able to help with, so as another thank you... well, here, this will explain better than I could."

Simon passed the bag over to Blair and, with a look at Jim, Blair opened it and took out a badge that swung from a long chain.

"It's an Observer Pass, Chief. You'll be riding with me in order to -- gather as much information needed for your -- you know -- your thesis."

Blair's eyes narrowed as he stared at Jim. "Observer Pass?"

"Yeah. Gives you access -- you know? To your -- subject, um, subjects."

"Uh-huh. Subjects."

"Blair," Rhonda said, "Tell us about your dissertation. How does it relate to Major Crime?"

Blair scratched his head and looked up at the ceiling... "Well, Rhonda, you see, I've always been fascinated by the concept of the Thin Blue Line. Not the way it was subverted, but its original intent. You know, to show how the only thing standing between us and complete chaos and unlawfulness is a 'thin blue line' of fellow humans called police officers."

No one moved, blinked or breathed. Blair looked from one person to another -- waiting.

Finally Rhonda nodded excitedly. "That's exactly how I see it, Blair! But your basic Joe Blow just doesn't get it, you know?"

"Yeah and it's a shame, really, when you think of what cops go through on a daily basis. I mean..." Blair started to warm up to his subject and everyone unconsciously leaned forward, Jim included. "... think of what you all went through last Monday, okay?" Several people nodded encouragingly. "You literally broke up three major crime organizations, risked your lives, and yet the very next day any one of you could have stopped some schmo for some small infraction, because you were just doing your job, and you'd get a truckload of grief, the schmo having no idea of what you just saved him from the day before.

"Now my mother was a sixties flower child and let's face it, the cops were not her friends, and if she had any idea -- well, let's not go there right now. Anyway, the point being that she had one agenda and the police another. Her agenda was to --"

Jim sat back and closed his eyes. He had a feeling this would not be the last lecture he and his fellow detectives would be subjected to in the upcoming months -- and he didn't mind a bit.

*****

The pizza and beer were gone and so were the majority of Jim's guests. The only people still seated in the living room were Simon, Joel and Carl Levy. All three had coffee in their hands and were relaxing for a few moments before heading home. Jim had just left the spare room after helping Blair carry in all his treasures and now sat on the couch, legs up, a cup of something stronger in his hand. Blair, still in his room, was busy touching, folding and hanging up his new clothes.

Simon gave a small chuckle and commented, "I remember Daryl's first few Christmases and Jim, I have got to tell you, this was almost as good. We really shocked him, didn't we?"

"Yeah, Simon, we did. He's not going to forget tonight anytime soon."

Joel turned his cup around in his hand and said thoughtfully, "I get the feeling that our Mr. Sandburg isn't used to this kind of thing, Jim."

"You're probably right, Sir. He's traveled all over the world, doesn't see his mother that often, and from what he's let out... well, he's been mostly alone from the time he started at Rainier, which was ten years ago."

Carl Levy put his mug on the coffee table and added his own information. "I have to admit to having done a bit of investigating, Detective Ellison, and you've pretty much nailed it. Our records show several out-of-country expeditions in the last ten years, and we're talking very primitive conditions in third world countries, and for months at a time. He's also been among the first to visit several different tribes, both in South America and Africa. He's published and appears to be very accomplished. Mr. Sandburg also has the backing of some of our leading anthropologists. Eli Stoddard comes immediately to mind."

Joel Taggart whistled low. "Impressive. And we're going to be the subject of his doctoral thesis? I do believe we're going to be famous."

Simon chuckled, then stood and regretfully carried his cup into the kitchen as he said over his shoulder, "I don't know about you guys, but I'm bushed and heading home."

Joel and Carl immediately stood, nodding in agreement. "Same here, Simon," Joel said as he too walked into the kitchen with his cup. Carl stayed behind and held out his hand to Jim.

"Detective, I just want to thank you. Even to me, the initial idea of replacing O'Keefe with you was a long shot, but you did it. And may I say, my career is looking pretty good right about now."

Jim shook and said, "Thanks, but you know --"

"Yes," Levy nodded, "I know. You couldn't have done it without Sandburg. But somehow, Detective, I think you're a man to be reckoned with, and while the results may not have been the same or as complete, I suspect you would have pulled it off. And now, I'm going home -- all the way home. Seattle is looking pretty good right now."

Jim walked Levy to the coat rack and, as all three men started putting on coats and scarves, Blair came out of his room and no one missed the fact that he was in one of his new pairs of sweats.

"Looks good on you, Sandburg," Simon observed. "Not as good as the black ones..." he smiled wickedly.

"Don't worry, Simon. The black ones will always have a special place in my heart. In fact, I'm thinking of framing them," Blair kidded, finally at ease with the big man.

"See that you do. And Jim," Simon turned to face his detective, "if you and Sandburg have nothing else to do on Christmas day, well, Joan and I would love to have you join us for Christmas dinner? Say around four?"

"Sir, I'd --" Jim looked down at Blair, who raised one shoulder in an 'it's up to you' gesture. Jim turned back to Simon. "Well, sir, we'd love to join you and your family. Is there anything we can bring?"

"Yourselves. Think you can handle that?"

"I think we can."

"All right. See you then."

Hands were shaken and Blair added a few more heartfelt thank-yous as the three men left. Jim finally closed the door and they were alone once again.

Seeing that Blair was still standing in front of the door, Jim put a hand on his shoulder and said, "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I still don't get it, but I'm fine." He turned to look up at Jim, his eyes radiating his wonder and puzzlement. "They didn't even know me, Jim. Why did they do it?"

"Don't you really know, Chief?"

Blair gazed up the handsome face, the pale blue eyes warm with affection and he nodded. "I guess -- maybe -- I do."

*****

On Friday, the excitement of the day before caught up to Sandburg and he woke with a bear of a headache. He stumbled out of his room, paused in confusion as he realized he wasn't in his own home, then made his way to the bathroom. He downed a couple of pain pills, then looked at himself in the mirror.

The bandage on his face reminded him that he should be thinking of seeing a doctor. The bruises were fading and he was actually beginning to resemble a fellow by the name of Blair Sandburg. Wonders never cease.

Blair relieved himself, flushed, washed his hands, then walked slowly out to the living room. Jim was still asleep and one look at the clock in the kitchen told Blair why. It was only seven in the morning. He wandered over to the windows and noted that it had started to rain again. Looking up at the sky and the heavy coating of black clouds, he figured they were in for a wet day.

His stomach grumbled and he grinned. It felt good to be hungry. Maybe this morning he'd do some cooking for Jim. Offer up his famous waffles? His stomach grumbled again, obviously in total agreement with Blair's choice. That decision made, he thought about going back to bed, but his head was still making with the drum practice, so he opted to sit on the couch and watch the rain.

As he sat down and crossed his legs under him, he smiled at the plaid flannel pajama bottoms. Warm, soft and damn fun to wear. Also a sight better than his norm of baggy, ancient sweat bottoms. And these fit too. The undershirt was soft cotton and the new robe, also plaid, was equally warm and comfortable in spite of being new.

Blair felt -- whole.

He scratched at his beard, then eased his fingers over the injury to his eye. He smiled because the tenderness was gone. He was really was on the mend -- concussion aside.

Sandburg watched the sudden torrent of rain hit against the windows, then gazed around him at the decorations, at all that was Jim Ellison's home.

Home.

Already the loft felt more like home than any other place Blair had ever hung his hat. Which could be dangerous. He'd been thoroughly happy at his warehouse -- but now -- man, if his place still existed, it would have been damn hard to go back.

This apartment, in all its simplicity, bore the stamp of the man who lived here. Sparse, yes, but also imprinted with Jim's character. Depth was in the blanket that was folded over the back of the couch and the throw pillows in the corner. His taste was evident in the triptych over the stereo and the handsome rug under the coffee table. But it was the kitchen that spoke the loudest for Jim and his enjoyments. The equipment and the layout of the kitchen said that the detective was no stranger to cooking.

To Blair, it seemed clear that Jim had tried to build a home that would ease his senses, even if subconsciously, yet there remained the natural essence of the man. And it was this essence that piqued Blair's curiosity.

As the rain continued hard and fast, Blair couldn't stop his thoughts from returning to O'Keefe and then comparing that man's apartment to Jim's.

O'Keefe had adorned his place with great works of art, spectacular sculptures and furniture that would have cost Jim Ellison five years' salary to duplicate. And yet -- O'Keefe's apartment had been colder than ice. There had been only surface beauty, the kind you dared not touch.

The nights spent there had been miserable for Blair. He'd always been cold, no matter how high O'Keefe would agree to turn the thermostat. And after, when O'Keefe would leave him alone in the bedroom -- the cold would steal in and bury itself in his chest. He could burrow under three or four blankets and still -- he'd never been able to get warm --

But now, in a loft apartment adorned with brick and pipes for additional character, Blair was warm. Sharing space with a man whose face mirrored O'Keefe's took nothing away from that warmth. Blair was soul-warm. And this warmth would last him, no matter what the future brought.

*****

The aroma of food didn't wake Jim, but it did convince him to get up. He'd been awake for over thirty minutes, but he'd been having so much fun listening to Sandburg in the kitchen that it had finally taken the actual making of the waffles to get him out of bed. He slipped into his robe, then padded downstairs. The sight that greeted him matched the wonderful and humorous sounds he'd been listening to for the last half hour.

Blair was a mess, the kitchen was a mess and no happier man existed anywhere.

"Um, messy cook, are we, Chief?"

"Uh, well, I guess, maybe -- I don't really know your kitchen, because normally I'm --"

"Let me guess -- Normally you're chipper in the morning and you're a very tidy cook, right?"

Giving Jim a sheepish grin, Blair said, "Well -- yeah. That about covers it. And you should know, normally I'm also six-foot-two, weigh one eighty-five, and three point shots are nothing to me."

"Ah. Normally."

"Yep. Normally."

"But these aren't normal conditions."

"Nope."

Jim sat down and picked up the paper Sandburg had thoughtfully placed in the middle of the table and said, "So when do I get to see this normal, tall, chipper, organized cook that is Blair Sandburg?"

"Um, that would be -- the year 2010."

"Ah. I can wait."

*****

The only thing left of the waffles was the smell. Empty maple syrup-scraped plates sat in front of each sated man and as Jim stared at his dish, he wondered just how many of the damn things he'd actually eaten --

"Four. You ate four."

Dazed eyes locked on Sandburg. "Four? And how did you know --"

"You just looked like a man trying to remember how many waffles he'd just eaten. It's the same look a baby gets when they're letting loose in their diapers."

Stomping down on what would be an embarrassing burp, Jim said, "And you would know this how? The baby part, I mean."

"Babies all over Rainier. Babies in playpens while I tutor, babies in the student lounge, babies everywhere. Heck, I even babysat when I first arrived at Rainier. Trust me -- it's the same look."

"Thank you for sharing that, Sandburg. Glad to know that your waffles reduce me to looking like a rugrat taking a dump."

Blair lifted his orange juice glass in salute and said graciously, "My supreme pleasure."

Jim rolled his eyes heavenward.

Blair got up and started to stack the dishes but Jim's hand on his stopped him -- for several reasons, not the least of which was the zap of electricity that charged up his arm.

"I'll do that, Chief. You cooked, I'll clean up. Go, sit, take a load off."

Jim's hand was still on his and Blair found he couldn't take his eyes from the view. He took a deep breath, coughed, then blinked his way back to awareness. Sliding his hand out from under Jim's, he said, "You know, I like that rule, Jim. Clean away."

"You're not putting up much of a fight."

An evil gleam in his eye, Blair said, "No, I'm not, am I?"

"Jerk," Jim said fondly.

Smiling, Blair went into the living room as Jim started clearing the table, grumbling all the while. Blair started to sit down, then remembered something and did a one-eighty. He went into the spare room, got his checkbook and sat down at the small desk.

Fifteen minutes later, hair nearly standing on end thanks to the repeated movement of his fingers through the mess, he nodded in satisfaction.

He'd paid December's bills several weeks ago and with nothing due for January, thanks to no longer having a home, he had enough to do a bit of Christmas shopping. He'd already decided on a way to thank Major Crime, and that would take a simple phone call to an ex-student. He'd very much like to get Simon and Daryl something and he had to get Jim a gift. If he worked this right, he'd have enough.

Of course the real question would be -- how to get out of the loft without Clara Barton on his tail? Giving it a great deal of thought, Blair decided to do something extraordinary, like tell the truth. Then his eyes lit on the observer pass he'd received the night before and shopping disappeared from his thoughts --

*****

Jim wondered what Sandburg was doing in his room and almost listened in, but fortunately he came to his senses, which gave him a laugh. Came to his senses. Yep, he was a real card, all right. He was just about to go and do something original, like ask, when Blair came out.

"Jim, can I ask you something?"

"Always, Chief, always."

Blair held up the pass. "How?"

"Oh. Yeah, that. Well, I sort of had to tell Simon about, well, you know --"

"You told him about your senses?" Blair asked incredulously.

"Had no choice, Blair. He is my boss and yeah, to anticipate your next question, I told him how you helped and understood, how you were studying people with the sense thingy --"

"Um -- sense thingy? Man, you cops get so damn technical."

"Sorry," Jim shrugged helplessly. "Enhanced senses. Is that better?"

"Schmuck," Blair said with smile.

"Anyway, I kind of hinted that we'd need to find some way to keep you with me until I could really get a handle on this sense thi-- enhanced -- senses. So that's what we came up with, Chief."

Blair looked down at the piece of plastic then back up to Jim. "I'm still a little confused. Since when does someone like --" Blair stopped short, then, eyes narrowing dangerously, he asked, "Simon does know, right? Why I was there in the first place?"

"He knows, Chief," Jim assured gently.

"So how did he get this? I wouldn't think that the Cascade Police Department makes a habit of handing out passes to -- toys -- belonging to crime family members. Hell, I expected to get arrested, Jim, just based on the fact that I was in Morrison's home."

Jim took a careful step closer to Sandburg as he tried to stomp down on the anger he felt in hearing Blair refer to himself as anyone's 'toy'.

"You know, Chief, it really bothers me to hear you use that word. You weren't O'Keefe's anything. Now if both Simon and I can recognize that fact and the courage of your actions, then why the hell can't you?" As Jim continued, he kept moving closer...

"I know that the reason, the protection of your mother, doesn't mitigate what O'Keefe put you through, but Blair, you have to realize that what happened didn't lessen you either. I think I know you now and I don't believe that O'Keefe touched the important parts of Blair Sandburg."

He was finally standing next to Sandburg. He reached out without thought to push some of Blair's hair back and behind his ear. Then in an even quieter tone, added, "All you have to do is take the best parts, the ones you hid and protected while you were with him, out again and be yourself, Chief."

"How -- how did you -- that I --"

"Didn't I just say that I know you now?"

"I --"

"Chief, it won't happen overnight, but it's safe, you're safe now. And I'd better tell you -- Simon did have to do a bit of fancy footwork to explain why you were already in the Morrison home and Levy backed him --"

"What? What did he have to do? I don't want anyone getting in trouble --"

"Enough, Sandburg, calm down. No one is getting into any trouble. He just kind of -- obfuscated, that's all. He made it appear that perhaps -- you were my contact, my inside man, so to speak."

With eyes glued back on the pass, Blair whispered, "Wow."

Relieved, Jim repeated, "Yeah -- wow."

Blair continued to gaze at the pass as Jim added with a smile, his voice full of pride, "By the way, that whole 'thin blue line' thing was a stroke of genius. I mean, of course you couldn't say that your dissertation would be about a real Sentinel, but that? Brilliant."

Eyes still glued to the plastic, Blair said absently, "That is going to be my thesis. I thought of it as I sat watching all of you... well no, that's not altogether true. I first thought of it at Morrison's while observing you work. But then seeing your fellow officers -- well, let's face it. I can't do the thesis on you; you're a cop. So a natural extension morphed into the thin blue line concept."

"Um, Chief? I'm confused here. Why can't you do it on me?"

Finally tearing his eyes away from the object in his hand, Blair said, as if the answer were obvious to anyone with a brain, "Because you're a cop. What do you think would happen if I published? I mean, if you were a tailor, or a taxman or something, hey, no problem. But hello? You're a cop."

"I guess it wouldn't be too cool to have every criminal in Cascade knowing, would it?"

"No, Jim, it wouldn't. Defense lawyers would love it, though." Blair waved a hand in an arc and said, "I can see it now. Simon going to the judge and asking for the appropriate paperwork to allow surveillance in the form of one Jim Ellison, human crime lab. And I'm betting they'd have to change the Miranda card too." Then Blair said in a low gruff voice, "You have the right to remain silent, and whatever you do, don't whisper within ten miles of Detective Jim Ellison."

"I get it, Chief. I get it. So, the Thin Blue Line, eh?"

"Looks like."

"Man, are we ever in trouble."

"You don't know the half of it, Jim," Blair responded, an evil twinkle in his eye.

*****

"Um, Chief? What'cha doin'?"

The question was asked lightly, but Blair, even after a week with the guy, heard the steel thread running through the words. He continued putting on one of his new jackets as he said easily, "Going shopping. I'd like to get something for Simon, his wife and Daryl. And no, Jim, you're not joining me."

Jim nearly vaulted over the couch to slide in next to Sandburg. "You know, I have a bit of shopping to do myself. And we could go in on something for Simon and Joan."

"Jim, do you understand the concept of alone?"

"Blair, do you understand the concept of -- no car? Didn't you say that your mechanic -- what's his name?"

"Carl. And yes, the Corvair won't be ready til late next week. But you know, I'm a whiz with public transportation."

"But why should you have to be? I can take you where you need to go and stay out of your way. We can go in separate directions once inside any mall or department store, then meet up. And I fully understand alone. But this way, my frustrated doctor id will remain reassured of your health and you still get to shop alone, sort of. Plus, I have an ulterior motive. A tree.

"We could shop for a tree."

Blair tapped his foot as he considered Jim's compromise. It could work. If... "No senses, Jim. Keep 'em to yourself while we're shopping, understood?"

Jim clicked his heels together and saluted. "Aye, aye, Sir."

"Putz."

Grinning like a schoolboy, Jim grabbed his own jacket, then keys. "Let's go, Santa."

Blair idly wondered what he'd just gotten himself into.

*****

"Okay, first stop, twenty-two forty-two Eastland. You know where it is, Jim?"

"Yeah, north side of Rainier; student housing, right?"

"Off campus housing, yeah."

"And this is our first stop why?"

"Gift basket for your buddies at Major Crime. The creator was a student of mine in Anthro one-oh-one. She does great work. We might even find one for Simon and his wife."

"Sounds like a plan. I assume you'd like to drop the basket off for the gang today?"

"Well, that would work, yeah."

"You got it. Eastland, here we come."

Jim pulled out into traffic and headed south on Prospect. As he stopped for a signal, Blair gave a small cough and said, "Jim, about what you -- I mean, back there, about me and O'Keefe and, well, you know. Thanks."

Keeping his eyes on the road ahead, Jim said, "No problem, Chief." Then he mentally high-fived himself.

Twenty minutes later he was pulling up in front of a large housing complex. He turned off the engine and they both climbed out. As Blair headed up the walk, Jim happily followed.

They went through a gate, crossed a large patio, then Blair started up some stairs to the second floor. He came to a stop at the first door, knocked and a pert strawberry blond answered.

"Blair! What on earth?"

"Hey, Marcy, good to see you. I'm here to shop," Blair finished with a broad grin. Then he turned to Jim who stood immediately behind him. "Marcy, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Jim Ellison. Jim, this is Marcy Johnson."

Jim held out his hand and they shook, both saying at the same time, "Good to meet you." They laughed and Marcy stepped aside to let them inside.

"Please come on in. The place is full, Blair, so you'll have your pick. My final show is this weekend."

As Jim and Blair walked in, Blair said softly, "Work on your sense of smell, Jim. Remember the dials."

Jim understood immediately. The small room was filled with decorative gift baskets and the odors were strong for anyone, let alone a Sentinel. He adjusted and sighed happily. Blair was a godsend.

Once he was comfortable, he let his vision adjust and almost fell into the beauty of the room, thanks to the baskets. He watched Blair move around, obviously used to this routine.

"Um, Marcy, any basket for a husband and wife, but with, perhaps, cigars?"

"Ooh, I think I have just what you need. Hang on a minute, it's in my room. I haven't finished wrapping it yet."

She disappeared down a long hall and that gave Jim more space to move his tall frame around the room. He paused at a large gift, goodies piled into a huge, plastic fire truck.

"Chief, this might be the one for the squad. The fire truck is an inside joke. And everything that's in here is perfect."

Blair wandered over and studied the package. Nodding, he said, "Yeah, this is super. And big enough to satisfy all of them, right? I mean, you have more than just the detectives I met last night, yes?"

"Yep. And this'll definitely do it."

Running a finger over the truck and the goodies inside, Blair asked, "What's the significance of the fire truck?"

"We have a bowling tournament every spring against the fire department. They win. Every year. Then in July, for the fourth, a baseball series. They win."

"And you want me to remind the guys responsible for my new wardrobe of this fact? What, suddenly I have a death wish?"

"Well, we add a little something to the side of the truck. Or maybe Marcy could --"

"Oh, I get it. Yeah," Blair nodded excitedly, "she could paint a saying, maybe like, Major Crime Rules in 2002!"

"Hey, that's perfect --"

"What can I paint, Blair?" Marcy asked as she entered the living room, arms full.

"Some words on the side of the truck?"

"Easily done. Take me a few minutes. Here," she handed the huge basket to Jim, "you look at this, see if it's what you want, and write down what you need and I'll get to work."

Blair followed her to the table that separated the kitchen from the living room. On a piece of paper he scribbled what he'd just come up with for the squad. Handing it over, he turned back to get a good look at the basket in Jim's arms.

"Well, Jim, you know Simon and -- Joan, wasn't it?" At Jim's nod, he went on, "So is the one? Will it fit the bill?"

"Oh, yeah, this is a winner. It's well balanced for both of them. Joan loves a good chardonnay and this one fits the bill. The cheeses, crackers, and other food items are right up their alley. And of course, the coffees, cigars and brandy? Simon'll love it."

"All right, this is the one then. Marcy makes it easy, doesn't she?"

"Can't argue with you there, Chief."

Jim hadn't been able to miss the prices on both baskets and he was worried. Blair couldn't have that much money, not based on being a grad student. And between the basket for Major Crime and going halfsies on the one for Simon, well, it would be well over a hundred bucks. But he didn't dare say anything. The one thing Blair needed right now was to feel in control again, and contributing.

"Okay, how's this, Blair?" Marcy asked, turning the truck around.

"Oh, man, that's perfect, Marcy. You're a genius. And we'll take this other basket too."

"All righty. Let me wrap this up, then that one, and you're set. The fire truck is on the house, I still owe you big time, so don't argue, and the other is forty."

Jim's mouth dropped open and Marcy said with a smile, "My friends get healthy discounts, Jim. I charge only my costs. And for Blair, well, I wouldn't be here if not for him. This," she waved her hand to encompass the baskets, "was his idea. I was about to leave Rainier. Now, I'm solid, thanks to my side business."

Blair ducked his head and fiddled with the ribbon that now adorned the fire truck. Then he took out his checkbook and started writing. Jim gave a little ~ahem~ and, without looking up, Blair said, "You buy lunch."

A few minutes later, after Blair exchanged hugs and kisses with Marcy, they left with their gifts. As they walked downstairs, Blair said before Jim could quiz him, "Marcy exaggerates."

*****

"Okay, Pineridge Mall or Olympia?"

"Um, Olympia is smaller, has a better food court, and the stores are unique."

"Olympia it is. You holding up okay?"

"I'm fine. Besides, you'll know."

"Damn, you're right." Jim managed a quick glance and a smile.

*****

"Okay, what say we meet back here in two hours? Is that enough?" Jim asked.

"Two hours? Yeah. Just one thing -- Daryl? He's almost fourteen. Does he have a computer?"

"He does. And has just about every game a kid could want. I'd better take a moment now to fill you in on something. It's not a secret so I'm not violating Simon's confidence. See, he and Joan separated a few months ago and even started divorce proceedings. Then they decided to try again, but in the meantime, well, it was rough for Daryl and both parents kind of went --"

"Overboard?"

Jim nodded ruefully. "Yeah."

"Okay, so something a bit more unique?"

"That would work. He's quick, if I remember right. I haven't seen him in awhile. Sorry."

"That's okay. You've given me enough. See ya in two." With a wave, Sandburg walked off, leaving Jim alone. He hated it.

How had he become so accustomed to having Blair around, and so quickly? Suck it in, Ellison, he admonished. Go shop.

Right. Shop. Jim was pretty sure he hated shopping. But for Blair? This could be fun.

*****

Jim needed a phone and his cell was in the truck. He looked around, spotted a sign that proclaimed, 'Phones and Restrooms', hurried over and started dialing.

"Banks."

"Simon? Jim. Look, you know the owner of the Jags, right?"

"Yeah, Arthur Dell and I go way back, why?"

"Well, you see, it's like this..." and excitedly, Jim began to explain.

*****

Blair wandered down the mall corridor, eyes flicking from store to store. So far he'd struck out on the gift for Jim but had hit pay dirt on Daryl. He was pretty confident that the Advanced Nature's Explorer kit nestled in the bag dangling from his fingers would both amuse and delight the young man. Blair figured that if nothing else, the gift would keep Daryl thrilled for a few hours after opening. The nice thing about the advanced kit was that it allowed the young explorer to seek out nature in their own backyard, but also to branch out if able, to the seaside, the mountains and the desert. Blair just hoped it wasn't too nerdy.

As Blair continued his hunt for the perfect Jim-gift, he cursed himself for not having anything planned prior to the current shopping marathon. The fact was that he'd foolishly believed that he'd know the right gift when he saw it. But so far, zip.

Blair's energy was on the wane, an unusual occurrence for him, and spotting an empty bench, he made a beeline for it and sat down with relief. It was amazing how weeks of stress, guilt, injuries and -- other things -- could really take its toll. He took a few deep breaths, then glanced down at the bag with Daryl's gift. As his gaze traveled over the lettering that advertised The Nature Store, inspiration struck.

Nature.

Natural products for a man with sensitive skin and an equally sensitive sense of smell.

Energy suddenly reclaimed, Blair headed for the escalator and a very special store on the second floor.

*****

Jim stood in front of his Jeep, foot tapping impatiently. He only had thirty minutes left before he and Blair were to meet up for lunch and still no word from Simon. Jim had jogged out to where he'd parked the car in order to retrieve his cellphone since Simon had promised to call him back with word about Jim's 'project'. That promise had been over an hour and a half ago and now Jim was worried. Just then, his phone chirped. With a grateful sigh, he answered.

"Ellison."

"I'll be there in five, Jim."

"Simon? What --"

"Where are you parked?"

Jim looked frantically about him, spotted a landmark Simon could use and said, "Blimpie's. I'm parked one aisle over and just south of Blimpie's."

"Okay, hang on, I'm turning on Olympia now."

Jim lifted his head and peered over the tops of cars and vans in the direction of Olympia --

"I've got you, Simon. Take the second driveway into the mall."

"Right."

Two minutes later Simon was pulling up alongside Jim and after rolling down his window, he held out a long, square package. "Here you go, Ellison. And I think Sandburg will be happily surprised, not to mention you."

"But -- but --"

"Hey, once I explained everything to Arthur, he had no problem getting it signed by Orvelle. Who, by the way, is looking forward to meeting Sandburg again. And Arthur, not to be outclassed by one of his players, included -- tickets."

"Tickets?" Jim squeaked.

"Tickets, Jim. As in two season tickets."

Simon reached over, picked up another package and handed it through the window. "Orvelle thought Blair might like this. It's one of his game balls. He signed it as well." Simon could no more have stopped the foolish grin from spreading across his face then he could have stopped loving his son.

Jim was speechless. He stared at the two packages, then whistled. "I do believe this will surprise the kid, Simon."

"I would think so, yeah. Lucky for you I had to be out and about. I'm off to pick up a last-minute gift for Joan. See you Tuesday, Jim."

"Right. And Simon? Thank you. For everything."

Simon huffed a bit, then waved as he drove off. Jim put the packages in the back seat, locked the doors, then headed back inside to meet Sandburg.

*****

Blair sat down and like a kid going through a bag of toys, he reviewed his purchases.

First up, a six-pack of white socks. It hadn't escaped Blair's notice that now that Jim was no longer James O'Keefe, stylish criminal, he wore white socks -- with everything. Blair smiled as he pictured the detective. Damn, and couldn't he just see the man in nothing -- but?

Shaking himself, Blair ticked off gift number two -- a sleep mask. He'd bet anything Jim would never think of that on his own and he'd certainly heard Jim tossing and turning the last two nights. Not to mention his comment about destroying his loft by installing heavy-duty drapes in order to get some nighttime relief.

The next item he'd purchased had been based on what little he'd already gleaned of Jim Ellison's nature. He was a loner and while a Sentinel almost had to be removed, to a certain extent, from their tribe, they also needed someone to keep them grounded. Hence, Mediations by John Dunne. And because of who and what Jim Ellison was, Blair had bookmarked Meditation XVII. Blair's mind supplied him with the beloved paragraphs that he'd memorized so long ago --

'All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. ... As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. ... No man is an island, entire of itself ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

Those words had always meant a great deal to Blair and had convinced him years ago that while his chosen profession was observing, he succeeded best at it when he lived that which he observed. And the last few days had only proven that indeed, he was not an island, nor alone in life.

Blair thought of the next gift he'd bought, the gift inspired by The Nature Store; namely a shower caddy that he'd filled with products that would be kind to Jim's sensitive skin, including a gentle, naturally-scented shampoo. While taking his shower, Blair had noticed the Johnson and Johnson Baby Shampoo and, while that was indeed gentle enough, it was also completely inappropriate for active adults. The product was designed for baby-fine hair and not much of it. Blair chuckled at that, since at the moment, Jim sported a brush cut.

As Blair had come out of the Nature Store, he'd been unable to ignore the odors coming from the food court and as he'd walked by, he'd spotted WonderBurger. Being an astute observer of human behavior, Blair hadn't missed the crumbled up bags of take-out that were in the back of the Jeep. And all the bags were WonderBurger. So -- a gift certificate to go in Jim's stocking.

But it was the final item, the one in the bottom of his shopping bag, that claimed top honors when it came to the perfect gift. He'd found it at The Sharper Image and it had taken the lion's share of his money, but Blair knew that Jim had to need it. The final gift was very simply -- a white noise generator.

Blair grinned. Yep, he'd done pretty darn well -- finally. He checked his watch and realized that his two hours were up. He rose and made his way back upstairs to meet Jim.

*****

Jim spotted Sandburg and the detective found himself immediately relaxing. Watching the younger man riding up on the escalator, both hands full, Jim couldn't help the smile. Sandburg looked tired, but happy.

Jim moved to meet him and before Blair could protest, he'd taken one of the bags. "Got any preference for lunch, Chief? And you look like you struck gold here."

"Yeah, found everything, man. And for me, any place where I could get some sou--"

"Soup?"

Blair laughed up at him and nodded. "And not to shock you, but I may just add a salad."

"Ooh, adventurous. Okay, with that in mind, how 'bout the Soup Bowl?"

"Perfect."

*****

Blair sat back and smiled. The crock that had once held minestrone was now empty, and the salad plate held nothing but two limp greens. Blair was happily stuffed.

"Dessert, Chief?" Jim asked, his own plate devoid of even a token leftover.

"No way, man. No way. I may need assistance getting out of this place as it is."

"Then we'll have to waddle out together, cause I'm stuffed to the gills. And where did that expression come from, anyway?"

"Feeding fish. You know how they say don't overfeed them? Well, if you do, they stuff themselves and block the gills. Then they die."

"You know, Chief, I just knew you'd know the answer."

*****

Blair gazed up through the windshield at the building that housed the central headquarters for the Cascade Police Department. In his lap sat the fire engine gift basket. Without taking his eyes from the building, he said, "Um, Jim, maybe you -- would you -- I mean, maybe you'd take this -- up?"

"Chief?"

"I just..." Blair sat back and gazed down at the gift. "Maybe it would be better if you dropped this off?"

"Why?" Jim asked gently as he turned in his seat to get a better look at Sandburg.

"I'm being -- stupid -- aren't I?"

"No you're not. But the men and women up on six are your friends, Blair. You have nothing to fear --"

"But fear itself," Blair finished with a nervous chuckle.

"That was always a good saying."

Blair looked back out the window, took a deep breath and, as he opened his door said, "Okay, let's go."

Smiling, Jim got out, walked around the Jeep, stepped up onto the sidewalk and led the way inside.

*****

Jim checked his watch as they rode up the elevator and nodded to himself. It was a half hour before shift change so the gang, barring something unusual, should be in the bullpen doing up their final reports. As the floors slid past, he heard something odd and cocked his head --

Blair.

Damn, it was Blair. His heart was, to Jim, literally thundering within his chest. As Jim watched the younger man, he realized that he was viewing two Sandburgs. There was the one who'd been damaged by O'Keefe and it was that Sandburg whose heart was beating loud enough to wake the dead. But then there was the second Sandburg, the real Sandburg.

Outgoing, curious, eager to interact with others, full of questions, knowledge and a generous spirit, and it was this Sandburg that stood beside him, showing -- at least outwardly -- a calm that the damaged Sandburg was most definitely not feeling.

As the elevator pinged and the door slid open, Jim would have bet his next paycheck that Blair had just spent the entire trip up to the sixth lecturing himself and directing that lecture to the Sandburg that existed before O'Keefe. A moment later, his bet was proven a winner.

Blair stepped out, spotted 'Major Crime' etched into the double doors across from them, and immediately walked through them, gift front and center. As he and Jim entered, Henri Brown was the first to glance up and, beaming, he walked toward them.

"Hey, Sandburg, my main man! Looking good in that shirt, thanks to my hip taste in clothing."

"Never looked more hip, Detective Brown. Well, if you don't count a play I was in about twenty years ago -- I was a daisy-chain-addicted hippie."

Henri's laughter boomed out as he slapped Blair on the back. "Oh, man, I'd give anything to have seen that."

He got no further as other detectives who'd been at the loft ambled over to say their hellos. Sasha immediately noted the fire truck and glared at Jim.

"Ellison, there'd better be a good explanation for this. That you'd even let a fire truck --"

Taking the engine from Blair and turning it around so everyone could see the lettering, Jim said, "Ahem, you were saying Detective?"

Rhonda came up to Sasha's side and clamped a hand over the taller woman's mouth.

"She wasn't saying a thing, Jim. Except maybe, wow. I distinctly heard a 'wow'."

Nodding, Sasha said from behind the hand, "Umph, wowm!"

Jim grinned and as he set the gift down on his desk, he chortled, "Rhonda, I do believe you have found the key to Sasha's personality. And gang, this little token of appreciation is from -- Mr. Blair Sandburg here. He seems to think you idiots deserve it."

The men and women gathered around the fire engine and as hands tore and pulled and bodies shoved, voices were raised in thanks. Finally the gift was unwrapped and food began to disappear among phrases like, "Oh, man, Poppycock! I love Poppycock!" or "Do you see this box of chocolate-covered raisins? It's huge! And mine!" and of course, "I got dibs on the Godiva and the hazelnut coffee!'

Simon sauntered out just in time to claim a box of mint truffles and as everyone munched and exclaimed, he gave a nod to Jim and Blair, indicating that they should follow him to his office. Blair's worried frown encouraged Jim to put his hand on the small of Blair's back and guide him over to his captain's office.

Once the door was closed, Simon faced the two men. "I just thought I'd bring you both up to date on the Morrison bust. If you've got a few minutes?"

Jim eased a second chair over to Simon's desk and Blair sank into it as Jim took his usual spot. "We've time. Anything new, sir?"

"Not new so much as," he glanced at Blair apologetically before going on, "well, we'll be searching O'Keefe's place on Wednesday, Blair, and I thought -- if there was anything --"

"I didn't keep my stuff there, Captain Banks. I had clothing at Morrison's because that's where I spent most of the time with O'Keefe. If you find anything at his apartment, it might be the odd shirt or book, or something like that."

"Ah, very good then. And should I make the evidence we took from Morrison's available to you? Obviously the clothing you left there --"

Blair was shaking his head so adamantly, Simon stopped.

"That won't be necessary, sir. I -- threw them all out -- that last day."

Simon's gaze slid to Jim as both men realized the import of those simple words.

"I see. Well then, um, back to business. Jim, you'll be pleased to hear that Tupertino's hold on Cascade is broken and his organization is in turmoil. The in-fighting is so vicious that by the time someone emerges a winner, there won't be much to left to control. Oshida's organization is, however, still going strong, just not here, thank God. And of course, the Morrison organization is no more anywhere."

"So what you're saying is that at least for a few days, Cascade is safe." The humor and the bittersweet truth of Jim's words were not lost on Simon.

"For a few days." Then tapping his chin, Simon added, "Just the amount of time off that you have left, Detective."

"Gee, thanks for the reminder, sir."

"My pleasure. And I assume that upon your return, you won't be alone?"

Jim glanced over at Blair who was staring at Simon, mouth slightly open in surprise, as if he'd forgotten his observer pass. "Yes, sir, your assumption would be correct. We'll come in early enough so that Blair can get his picture ID and fill out all the paperwork."

"Good, good. And that would be on the second, right?"

Jim's eyes nearly popped out. "The second, sir?"

"Yes, Detective. The second and not one day earlier. Is that clear?"

"Sir, yes sir!"

"Good. So get out of here. And Blair?"

"Captain Banks?"

"Thank you for the gift. It was just what those people out there needed today. The cleanup since Monday has been -- well, let's just say that this tops off a great week, albeit a tiring one."

"I just wanted to thank them and you, for all that Major Crime did for me. That wasn't nearly enough, I know, but --"

Holding up a hand to stop Blair, Simon interrupted. "It was enough, Blair. And you're one of us now. Don't forget that."

"Thank you, sir."

Waving his hand at the door and opening the box of truffles with the other hand, Simon huffed out, "Goodbye, gentlemen. I prefer solitude when pigging out on truffles."

*****

Blair stared out the window, a lopsided grin on his face. It hadn't gone badly at all and everyone seemed almost happy to see him. Like he was -- somebody. And they had to know, right? And it didn't matter?

As the city zipped by, Blair realized that it had been a while since he'd felt like somebody, somebody real. It felt good. Today had been good and Jim had been right. A few weeks couldn't undo twenty-six years. He was who he was and O'Keefe couldn't touch him now. Unless Blair allowed it, but that would make O'Keefe the winner and Blair wasn't going to let that happen.

Blair was suddenly aware that they'd turned into another parking lot and he blinked a bit, then really looked at their surroundings. A tree farm. A Christmas tree farm.

"You coming, Chief?" Jim asked with a teasing grin.

"You're gonna get a tree?"

"No, I'm just picking up a bag of sawdust, Darwin. Now you coming or are you going to risk allowing me to pick it out?"

"Well," Blair mused as he looked at the ground, "Picking out the right sawdust can be difficult. You probably do need an anthropologist to assist you --"

"All right, wiseass, let's go before I return to my Scrooge-like ways."

Laughing, the two men got out and headed up the small hill to begin the eternal search for the perfect tree.

*****

"Too dry."

"Okay." Blair moved along, eyes scanning the line of offerings on either side. Using Jim's senses, they'd already turned down about twenty possibilities but oddly enough, neither man was tired or discouraged. Blair was clearly into the whole 'pick the perfect Charlie Brown tree' schtick, and Jim found himself pulled in and, unless he was missing some serious clues... well, he was actually having fun.

"How's this one? The needles are staying and the smell is terrific. But maybe too tall?"

"No, height is good. Lots of sap, good moisture and you're right, the scent is great. I think this is it, Chief."

"Cool. And they deliver for only five bucks if you live within two miles -- and you do."

"Wait. You expect me to miss tying it to the top of my Jeep and scratching the hell out of the paint in the process, then undoing it at home and lugging up three flights while both of us are scratched within an inch of our lives? And of course, you can't really expect me to skip the fun of trying to get it in the front door, can you? The pushing and shoving, the angling and negotiating with the dang thing as if it were alive -- you really expect me to forgo that pleasure?"

Blair pondered Jim's words for several seconds before nodding and saying brightly, "Yep."

"Oh." Then he added solemnly, "I can live with that."

*****

Once home and after unloading all their shopping bags, the two men set about readying the loft for the arrival of the tree. It took an hour for two mature adult males to decide that it should go in the corner by the stereo. Jim, relieved that the biggest decision of the season had finally been made, started unpacking the tree decorations and Blair stood by watching with amused affection. He'd never seen anyone so -- organized -- about preparing to decorate a tree.

He watched Jim check the new lights, bulb by bulb, and line them up on the floor, then he watched the meticulous arranging of the balls -- in the order that they would be placed on the tree, naturally. Large balls first, then medium, then small, and finally the ornaments, which in this case consisted of doves -- three red and one white.

Both men had spotted the birds while paying for the tree and, with smiling eyes, silently agreed to throw them in along with the tree. It had also been mutually agreed that the white dove would top the tree. No star, no angel, just the lovely white dove of peace.

Once everything was ready, to Jim's satisfaction anyway, they decided to stretch out in front of the fire. As the blaze snapped and crackled, Blair had to admit that he'd never had so much fun observing anyone doing anything as he had watching Jim prep for the adornment of an evergreen. He suspected that he'd get the same amount of enjoyment when Jim took it all down.

"It's here."

Blair glanced up as Jim rose and headed to the door. Fifteen minutes later the tree stood in its rightful place and the two teenaged delivery boys, before heading back to the tree farm, had scarffed down a couple of pieces of the pizza offered by Blair.

Now Jim and Blair stood before their treasure as Jim asked, "You ready, Chief?"

Blair gave a smart salute. "Aye, aye, sir. One tree elf at your service."

Rubbing his hands gleefully, Jim attacked the tree with all the precision of the ex-soldier that he was. And by the time they were done, the tree looked exactly as -- Blair -- wanted it to look.

"Looks good, eh?"

"Looks spectacular, Chief. We should win an award or something."

"The doves really add something."

"They add -- birds."

Blair rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

*****

Henri Brown moved through the expensively-furnished apartment and shook his head. What a waste, he thought. He and Sasha had gone through the place with a fine-toothed comb, only to find that O'Keefe had kept nothing of his business life in his home. Now, gazing around him, he found himself actually shivering at the coldness of the tastefully-decorated rooms. How could something so expensive be so -- lacking?

"Henri, look at these."

Sasha stood in the hallway holding up two flannel shirts.

"Wow, Detective. You're one hot sleuth. Two shirts."

"Ye of little faith." She waved them a bit and asked, "What kind of shirts?"

Henri put his hand to his forehead and pushed back his 'never leave home without it' leather cap, then closed his eyes...

"My keen sense of ESP tells me that you are holding up - two - flannel - shirts." Opening his eyes, he gave Sasha a huge, teeth-flashing grin. "Man, I am so good."

"Oh, you're good all right. Good for nothing. Did you see any flannel in the man's closet? Did you see anything in O'Keefe's closet that cost under seventy-five bucks? And for crying out loud," she shook the shirts at him, "look at the size!"

The light dawned. "Too small."

"Got it in one, dude."

Henri gave Sasha a piercing look, then said quietly, "Toss it."

"Are you kidding? This means there's someone we missed --"

"We didn't miss him, Sash. Use that totally hip head of yours. Then toss the shirt. He won't want it."

Brown turned away and let Sasha stew and mull for a bit. As he started for the door, something out-of-place caught his eye. The bookshelves, full of beautifully bound and obviously never-read books and, right smack dab in the middle, a worn and obviously often-read book...

Henri walked over and carefully took down the worn item, the title proclaiming it to be a book on a South American tribe called the Chopec. He opened it and as he did so, a folded piece of drawing paper drifted down to the floor. Henri bent and retrieved it, then unfolded it and had to bite back a gasp of surprise.

He was holding a pencil drawing of -- Jim Ellison. And it had to be Ellison. The picture appeared to be a replica of a photo that Brown remembered seeing in Time magazine a few weeks after Ellison's rescue out of Peru. The youthful face was painted, making Ellison look native. A bandana was wrapped around his head and tied in the back.

The drawing showed Jim from the waist up and he wore only a sleeveless undershirt with additional native symbols adorning his upper arms. Around his neck and barely visible, as if the artist were unsure, hung what might have been dogtags.

How the hell? Brown didn't have to look inside the book to know that it belonged to Sandburg, which left him with the question -- what the hell?

Simon had filled him in on the kid and before leaving for O'Keefe's place he'd been told that if anything of Blair's showed up -- they were to throw it out. Unless it constituted evidence, naturally. This picture most definitely did not constitute evidence but it did represent a puzzle. But one Henri doubted that he'd ever have the opportunity to solve. He put the drawing back in the book and tucked it under his arm, then turned to see if Sasha had figured things out.

She was tossing the shirt.

Smiling, he said, "Let's get out of here. I've got stuff to buy for Christmas." Then he said thoughtfully, "But I need to stop by Ellison's place on the way."

Sasha glanced down at the book, but at the look on Brown's face, she just shrugged and said, "Fine. And my favorite perfume is Shakir."

*****

Jim didn't think Blair was going to last much longer. He was trying to read but his head kept nodding as his eyes drooped.

"Why don't we call it a night, Chief?"

"Mmm?"

"Kid, you're on your last legs. Let's --"

"Could you cut the 'kid' stuff? I'm almost thirty. I shave and everything."

"Thirty in four years. And compared to everyone I know -- you're a kid. And Chief? With that beard of yours, I'm betting you've been shaving since you were thirteen."

"Fifteen," Blair grudgingly admitted.

"Okay, so that means I'm entitled to call you kid --"

"But you won't because you respect my wishes -- right?" Blair coached.

"Oh. Right," Jim responded, not the least bit convincing.

"Jim, do you have any idea how many countries I've seen? The things I've done as an anthropologist? For crying out loud --"

Jim raised a hand to stall further talking as he rose and headed for the front door. And Blair loved it. A Sentinel in action and Jim wasn't even aware that he was doing it.

"Hey, Brown, what's up?"

"Just thought I'd drop this off to Sandburg before heading home. I tried earlier, but all hell broke loose and Sasha and I responded to call at the depot. And how did you --"

"Anything serious?" Jim quizzed in an effort to avoid lying about how he'd managed to know company was just outside the door before anyone knocked.

"As it turned out -- no. But it did result in this late call. And hey, Sandburg. How ya doin'?"

Blair had stood as Henri was waved in by Jim and at the moment, his eyes were glued to the book in Brown's hand.

"Chief?"

Blue eyes were drawn up to Jim, then back to the book. Henri, seeing the worry and confusion in the younger man's eyes, moved toward him and with a smile, held out the book. Blair reached for it, their fingers missed the connection and the book hit the floor. Jim moved quickly, his intent to keep Blair from having to bend over. As he picked it up, the paper slipped out and the next thing he knew, he was bending again, as was Blair, and their heads hit -- hard.

"OW!" Jim yelped as he rubbed his forehead, the paper in his fingers.

Blair didn't move, his eyes fixed solidly on the paper.

Henri moved to Sandburg's side. "You okay, kid?"

Blair nodded, his eyes widening as Jim started to open the folded paper --

"Hey, Brown, what am I? Chopped liv-"

Jim found all sounds, including his own voice, fading away as he stared down at a picture of -- himself.

"Uh, Brown?" he asked, confused by what he was seeing.

"One thing my momma always said about me was that I had an instinct about when to get the hell out -- of anything." Henri waved his arm at the door and started backing up. "This is me -- making like a tree." With that, he made a graceful exit, leaving Jim staring open-mouthed at the closed door.

"Um, Jim? The book is mine. They must have found it at -- O'Keefe's."

Slowly Jim turned back to face Sandburg. He glanced down at the book in one hand, then the picture in the other.

Anticipating the next question, Blair added, "Yeah, I drew that. Back in ninety-six -- in Peru."

The loft seemed to shimmer, like the air on a hot day, and with a shaking hand Jim transferred the book to his other shaking hand, reached out blindly and connected with one of the kitchen chairs. He pulled it out and sank down. Eyes fixed on the drawing, he asked quietly, "Maybe you should tell me about this?"

*****

Blair didn't believe that telling Jim face to face was workable for him so, nodding, he walked over to the couch and sat down, his back to Jim. He heard the chair scrape back and immediately raised a hand.

"Jim, this will go easier on both of us if you stay there. You're not going to believe any of it anyway and I'll feel --"

"Understood," Jim interrupted, his senses picking up his roommate's distress. "But from what you said, I thought that you -- that you and O'Keefe -- fuck, this isn't coming out right --"

"That's not O'Keefe. Wait, let me backtrack. I thought O'Keefe was that man, but I was wrong." Blair tilted back his head and scratched at his neck, then his chin. "Look, just let me tell you, okay?"

"Shoot."

"Okay, we've already talked about Peru but what I didn't tell you was that on my first night there -- I had this strange dream and, to put it bluntly, it featured the man in that picture. He was running and I was beside him and we were smiling and I'd never felt as free -- or as tethered to another individual. We were in the jungle but could see the Andes rising high above the valley and --"

Blair paused, then shaking his head in disgust, said, "That isn't important. Anyway, the next morning, I got up, grabbed one of my pads and started drawing. Oddly enough, what ended up on paper was slightly different from my dream..."

"In what way?" Jim asked from the dining room, curiosity tingeing his voice.

"In my dream -- well, we were both," Blair coughed a little, then let the words tumble out, "wewerebothnaked."

Jim didn't miss the significance of the 'we' and glanced back at the incredible drawing. The coincidence was too much. He was about to rise when Blair's voice stopped him.

"I'd hardly had a night without the dream, or some variation of it, since Peru. Then, when I met O'Keefe, it was like a miracle. Only --"

"He wasn't."

Blair nodded miserably. "And the dreams stopped. Even after I told O'Keefe I wouldn't be seeing him anymore -- there were no dreams. It was like -- someone had -- died, Jim. And without those dreams, I was hollow. Of course, then O'Keefe was back and trust me, I didn't have time for hollow."

Jim did get up then and walked upstairs, still carrying the picture. Puzzled more than hurt, Blair watched from the couch. He'd expected some kind of reaction, but this? He could hear a drawer being opened, then a rustling sound, and finally Jim's footfalls. A moment later, Jim's shadow fell across Blair and a magazine was thrust under his nose before being dropped onto his lap.

"Page fifty-seven."

Blair stared at the cover -- a cover that prominently displayed Captain James Joseph Ellison.

"Jim?"

"Page fifty-seven, Chief."

Tearing his gaze from the remarkable cover shot, Blair quickly thumbed through the magazine until he came to the requested page. His breath caught, then he gasped -- because on page 57 of Time Magazine was a photograph and the photo matched his own drawing down to the last intricate design on Jim's arm...

"I -- I -- this is -- how?" his voice trailed off as he took in every inch of the photo. There was a sound and a moment later his drawing was resting opposite.

"The photo was taken by one of the Rangers a few hours after we connected at the site of the crash. You must have seen it --"

"Jim, I drew this," he tapped the drawing, "almost two years before your photo was taken. Almost two years."

Jim moved around to the front of the couch and sat down next to Sandburg. For several minutes both men simply gazed at the two pictures, eyes traveling back and forth, trying to discern any differences, no matter how minute. Finally Jim's innate curiosity got the better of him.

"You never saw this? Never heard of my rescue before I told you a few days ago?"

Blair shook his head slowly as he scanned the printed words. "N-oo. By the time you were rescued, I was in Central Mexico, head buried in artifacts. I was there for fourteen months."

Jim looked away to stare out the window. Blair had believed that O'Keefe was the man in his dreams but it now appeared that he was that man. The man running naked in the jungle, Sandburg by his side.

"Shakespeare was one smart man, Chief."

"You got that right, Horatio."

Jim turned to face Blair again and slowly -- he smiled. A tender, puzzled, accepting smile. Blair returned it with his own blinding version.

Seeing the broad, hopeful grin, seeing more than he'd dared hope, Jim leaned forward and slowly brought his mouth to Blair's. He let his lips rest against Blair's cool, dry ones, then leaned back. When Sandburg's grin broadened, Jim tried again. Only this time, he allowed his lips to linger...

Blair's hand came up and cupped the back of his head while at the same time Blair's tongue tickled his lower lip. Jim smiled into the kiss and let his lips part to take in the questing tongue. And there was no way he would ever be able to describe what it was like to kiss as a Sentinel. The conflicting sensations, the sweet moisture, the soft inside of a cheek as opposed to the edgy hardness of teeth -- and damn, what the whole experience of having his tongue sucked so deliciously by Sandburg was doing to his body --

They moved closer into each other, changed the angle of the kiss, grinned and chuckled into each other's mouths, then began to truly explore. Jim slid his hand up and under Blair's shirt to feel the quivering muscles of the man's abdomen, then the soft line of hair that moved up and branched out across Blair's chest. At the same time he was exploring Sandburg, he was being equally mapped out, Blair sighing his pleasure at the hardness of Jim's pecs, the flatness of his abs and the smooth surface of his chest.

Jim felt the pressure and succumbed to it, allowing Blair to push him down. Pillows were tossed, shirts were thrown off and then eager and shaking fingers were working at zippers until both men were naked. Pale blue eyes took in their fill, Jim marveling at the compact and sturdy body, and at the hair that drew his eyes down to the curling thatch that couldn't conceal the bobbing cock.

Blair lowered himself until their dicks were aligned and at that first contact, Jim shivered, letting his head drop back. The heat was incredible but he knew if he didn't turn his sense of touch down a few notches, he'd explode or zone, neither being a desired effect. He heard a low chuckle and his eyes flew open.

"Had to turn it all down, did you, Jim?" Blair asked with a knowing smile.

"Damn you, yes," he answered back with a sheepish grin.

"Slow and easy then so you can enjoy every minute --"

Another kiss, wet and deep, while Blair rubbed his body into Jim's, figuring that the sensation of his chest hair scraping softly over sensitive skin would delight Jim. A soft yielding moan told him he was right. As Blair pulled back ever so slightly, he was pleased to see Jim following him, hating the separation. He dropped back down and ran his hands over Jim's short hair, enjoying the silky spikes even as he began to rain smaller kisses over Jim's face.

To be allowed to do this, to do what he wanted, to feel and to explore to his heart's content was more than Blair expected, but he immediately chastised himself. This was not O'Keefe.

Blair began to nibble at Jim's neck and was suckling in the hollow of Jim's throat when he was suddenly flipped over by powerful arms to find himself looking up into eyes darkened by need, and a gentle smile just for him.

"My turn," Jim said huskily. With that, he did a little suckling of his own -- on Blair's Adam's apple. He could feel each tight swallow, every bit-back groan of pleasure. Jim ran his hands across Blair's shoulders, then down his arms until he reached the hands itching to move. He clasped Blair's fingers with his own and brought up the younger man's arms as he lowered himself again and latched onto Blair's mouth.

As they continued to kiss, Blair spread his legs wider and Jim slid comfortably down as the two men set up a rhythm older than time.

By silent, mutual agreement, they deliberately held back, drawing out their first time as Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg, giving and taking equally, enjoyed every sensation of exploration. They learned hot spots and they teased. They laughed, arched, and moaned, but always, always, they returned to deep satisfying kisses as if they were an anchor.

For both men, the need to kiss was strange. Not that either man didn't enjoy the act, but liplocks were -- foreplay -- in most cases. But this -- this was crawling into each other, burying themselves in the other's soul in order to receive some sort of redemption, or -- salvation. When they came, Jim first, followed by Blair, it was an explosion of physical, spiritual and mental needs that left both men panting and exhausted.

Ignoring the fact that they were covered in body fluids, Jim sank down and rested his head over Blair's heart, smiling as Blair's hand dropped down onto his head to stroke tenderly. He knew he couldn't stay in this position long, too uncomfortable for both of them, but for now... it was perfect.

"If it's like this each time? We'll be dead in three months," Jim murmured.

"Three? Try one."

"Mmm."

*****

Jim stretched and yawned. God, he felt incredible. And the man lying beside him was the primary reason. They'd finally made it upstairs, only to find a renewed interest in each other, and had promptly fallen, laughing, onto Jim's bed. But now the morning sun was making itself known, as was Jim's stomach. He gazed over at the man sleeping beside him, limbs askew, and grinned. The kid might be short, but he took up a hell of a lot of room. And somehow, Jim loved it. As far as he was concerned, Blair could take up all the room he desired, in every aspect of Jim's life, for the next forty or so years.

Jim extricated himself from the blankets and one of Blair's legs, then sat on the edge of the bed. As he stretched some more, scratched his back and yawned again, a dark thought wiggled its way into his consciousness.

How could Blair share such intimacy with a man who was a dead ringer for the asshole who'd tried to own him? Who had owned him?

Jim's mood took an immediate nosedive. He rose, put on his robe and headed downstairs.

*****

The bed was warm, the sheets puppy-soft. Blair pulled the worn, nubby blanket closer and smiled in his half-sleep. The scents that surrounded him were familiar and safe, his mind registering them as belonging to Jim.

Blair reached out only to find nothing human. With a groan of regret, he opened his eyes, noted the empty side of the bed, then pushed the covers down and sat up. He cocked his head and heard soft footfalls on the stairs. He turned just as Jim appeared at the top, a tray in his hands.

"Hey, sleepyhead. Thought you could use some coffee." Jim waited for Blair to settle back against the headboard before placing the tray on his lap. Once assured that everything was stable, he sat on the edge -- the opposite edge -- of the bed.

"Wow, thanks, Jim. Hot coffee and toast. You start a tradition like this and it's gonna be hard to break."

Jim smiled, but Blair, in spite of the pleasure at Jim's gesture, noticed that the smile didn't reach Jim's eyes. He put the cup down and was about to ask what was wrong, when it hit him.

He was what was wrong.

Shit. Of course. How stupid could he be?

Blair carefully placed the tray on the nightstand and climbed out of bed. And for the first time found himself embarrassed by his lack of dress. As Jim continued to stare out over the railings of his loft bedroom, Blair started downstairs, his stomach feeling as if wet cement were congealing inside.

*****

Jim was so deeply inside himself that he was completely unaware the he was alone in his bedroom. As thoughts of O'Keefe and Blair whirled around him, Blair was putting on jeans and a sweater. As Jim found himself lost in a beam of sunlight that danced over his living room, Blair, suddenly uncomfortable at taking too much, was stuffing a few items of clothing into a trash bag, and as Jim's vision clouded over, Blair grabbed his backpack and headed for the door.

As he reached out to turn the knob -- something stopped him, and that something was the complete and utter silence of the loft. The unnatural silence.

Staring up at the railings of Jim's bedroom, Blair said, "Jim?"

Nothing.

Drawn to the stairs, Blair moved forward, almost in a trance. He walked up carefully, unsure of what was going on, but one look at the man on the bed and he knew.

Zoned.

Blair dropped the bag and backpack and rushed to Jim's side. Needing a frontal confrontation, he shoved the older man's legs apart and knelt between them. He studied the slack face and unfocused eyes, then took one cold hand and held it to his chest.

"Jim, take it from me, la-la land is no piece of cake. It's dark, cold and -- well, icky. I know it must seem safe right now, but it isn't. So I'd really appreciate it if you'd concentrate on something, like the feel of your bed beneath you, or of my hand on yours or for God's sake, my morning breath, then blink like you know what you're doing, say a few clever words and that'll be that."

The hand over his heart twitched, then Jim coughed and said in a raspy voice, "Your morning breath is fine, Sandburg."

Sighing in relief, Blair released Jim's hand and stood up. "What happened, Jim?"

Ellison shook his head a bit, then blinked a few times. Rubbing his jaw, he answered, "I'm not sure. I was deep in thought, staring out over the railing and out the window and then there was this terrific pounding and your voice was telling me about la-la land and morning breath."

"You must have been focusing too hard on whatever you were seeing out there. Maybe a stream of sunlight, something shiny, who knows? But that was all it took."

Jim stood up, bent backwards a bit until he heard his vertebra popping, then he really looked at Blair. "You're dressed."

"Oh, yeah. I can see zoneouts don't affect your deductive reasoning. That's good to know."

"Clever. And damn, it's cold."

"Well, duh. You're wearing nothing but a robe, Jim."

"I can fix that." He turned and started to take off the terry when he spotted the trash-bag and backpack.

"Uh, Chief?"

Blair hurried around him and picked up the two items. "I was about to run an errand," he obfuscated, "when I realized how quiet it had become I was worried so I came up here and found you --"

"Zoned."

"Yeah. Look, you get dressed, I'll run my errand and, you know, later --"

Rapid heartbeat, small beads of sweat, pupils dilating -- the kid was lying through his teeth. Jim advanced, took the trash bag, peered inside, then frowning, said, "Clothes?"

"Um, yeah --" Blair closed his eyes, took two deep breaths, opened his eyes and said, "Look, I know what happened this morning and it's all right, Jim. Okay? I get it and don't blame you. But I think it's better if I leave, you know?"

"Okay, now I'm confused. What happened this morning?"

"You know damn well. It's called the morning-after regrets. It finally dawned on you what you'd just slept with and you were distancing yourself. And it's okay. But things would be strained at best --"

"You make this up or something? I mean, where do you get this stuff, Chief? I have no morning-after regrets. But you were right about something. I do know who I slept with last night and my problem was how he could sleep with me."

"Wanna run that by me again?"

Jim walked back to the bed and sat down with a sigh. Rubbing at his temples he tried

to gather his thoughts... "How can you see me and not see that bastard O'Keefe? How can you let me touch you after what he did?"

*****

Jim's words settled in Blair's stomach first, churning the acids enough to actually break up the cement that had made its home inside his body. Then the words traveled up to Blair's brain, causing an immediate reaction -- his mouth dropped open.

"But -- but -- Jim, you..." he struggled with his surprise as he tried to say the obvious. "Jim... you don't look anything like O'Keefe!"

The expression on Jim's face was priceless. He stared at Sandburg as if he were a smear on a slide.

"Are you nuts?" Jim pointed at his face with a shaking hand as anger started to replace shock. "Look at this, Sandburg. This," he jabbed his chin, "this is why we met. Because I look exactly like O'Keefe. We could have been fucking twins, Sandburg. Twins."

Blair watched, looked, listened. He observed the anger in the shaking hand, the nerve at Jim's temple, the glittering eyes -- and yet -- he couldn't stop the slight twitch of his lips. He was going to smile. And he really shouldn't. Bad form in this particular instance. Really bad form. Calming breaths. That's what he needed. And wasn't it amazing how life could turn on a dime? One minute Blair was about to skip out on the best thing that had ever happened to him and the next...

Smiling gently, he took the few necessary steps required to bring him to Jim's side and promptly knelt down in front of the man. He placed his hands on Jim's knees and stared up into the beloved face. Time to re-state the obvious.

"Jim, you don't look anything like O'Keefe. Don't you understand that? God, there is nothing of him in you. Nothing."

He raised his hand and gently traced a line over Jim's lips. "For one thing, your mouth is totally different. It's kind and funny and has this quirky grin that I really love, and while I know it can get hard and tough, even angry, it'll only be temporary. The grin will be back."

Blair's gaze followed his finger as he moved it over to and along Jim's jaw line. "You're square-jawed and it comes from internal strength and a bit of stubbornness, not to mention really great genes. And this," he leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on Jim's chin, "is proud and beautiful as opposed to O'Keefe's, which was weak."

Jim's pale blue eyes widened and with a grin, Blair planted his hands on either side of the idiot's head and brought the older man down, then kissed each eye. "God, your eyes, Jim. His were like an iceberg, forever cold, while yours flash with every emotion in the book. You try so hard to hide behind those glittering bits of icy blue, but it's no good. Your whole life is right," he kissed one closed eye, "here, for anyone," then the other, "to see.

"The hurts, the bruising, the caring, and the hardness you have to wrap around you in order to do your job, it's all right here, along with the moments when that hardness cracks no matter how hard you try to keep it in place."

Blair picked up one of Jim's hands and began to massage the palm as he said quietly, "But the real difference is here. It was when this hand moved over my body in that shower over a week ago that I knew. This hand was tender and loving and even in awe, and O'Keefe's were always harsh, blunt and delighted in bringing pain while possessing. Even before you kissed me, this hand," Blair kissed the inside of Jim's palm, "told me that the man in that shower was not O'Keefe."

Blair continued his kisses, dropping one on the tip of each fingers, then said, "It's so obvious, Jim. So very obvious. Can't you see that? Your body, your face, these hands, they all reflect who you are, they're wrapped up in Jim Ellison." Sandburg took the hand he was holding and placed it against his injured and bandaged cheek, then rested his head within its warmth. "You look like you, Jim. Like you."

*****

Jim's eyes were swimming and he had to blink hard as he stared at the man who had just placed his head within Jim's palm. A tear trickled down his cheek and, like a stubborn five-year-old, he scraped it away then knuckled his eyes.

Jesus, how did this happen? Blair was kneeling in front of him, giving him comfort when it had been Blair who had been to hell and back.

"You're gonna drive me crazy, Sandburg."

Blair grinned and nodded. "Without a doubt. And by the way, I don't mind it now when you call me Sandburg. You even say that differently. From you, it sounds like my first name. But I like Chief the best. You make Chief sound like an endearment."

"God."

"You could start using that one, but honestly, 'Chief' is good enough."

Jim moved his hand and caressed the beard-stubbled face, tracing over the same territory that only moments ago, Blair had traveled over his. "I love you, Sandburg."

"So I should probably stay?"

Jim nodded, a fond gleam in his eyes. "I think so, yeah."

"I can see the communication problems already, Jim."

"Nah, we're good. We're cool. Lesson learned."

"Uh-huh, sure."

"I'll give you an example. See, right now, I could start feeling insecure because you haven't said it yet. But instead, I'm telling you -- SAY it, Sandburg."

Bracing himself on Jim's legs, Blair pushed up enough to bring his mouth close to Jim's. Eyes alight, he murmured, "I love you, Jim Ellison."

"See? No communication problems. We can do this."

Blair shut him up.

*****

Blair was covered in sweat, his hair trapping it in the form of stubborn curls that framed his face. Jim stared up at him, watching the concentration as Blair made love to him. As his own hands slid up and down the straining arms, as they moved into each other, he fixed on Blair's eyes. Deeply blue, almost midnight in color, pupils dilated as he allowed his body to experience every nuance of Jim's. Such single-minded attention was something Jim had never really experienced and it was almost -- unnerving. Almost. He knew that every particle of Blair's being was focused on just one thing -- loving Jim.

Blair moved his hand down, fingers encircling Jim's dick and with a few practiced strokes, Jim came with a long, deep shudder, head arched back, a loud groan ripped from his lips. Blair moved deeper, harder and six strokes later, his own orgasm ripped through his body.

Jim waited, but Blair didn't move out. Instead, he held it, eyes locked on Jim's. "Love you."

Jim smiled gently and caressed the bruised cheek. "Love you right back."

Blair pulled out slowly and carefully, then, when satisfied that it hadn't been too soon, he dropped down over Jim's body.

Eyes closed, hands smoothing over Blair's sweaty back, Jim could feel every pulse of his own body and that of Blair's. And it was as if he and Blair weren't connected to the world. They were floating, tethered only to each other, connected by blood, semen, veins, arteries, hands, legs and mouths.

And for the first time -- Jim belonged. Completely and thoroughly belonged.

*****

"We should eat."

"Mmm."

"Or not."

"Mmm."

Blair smiled and stayed where he was. As if the man below him could ever have been O'Keefe. How stupid could Morrison have been? And Leahy? Anyone could see that O'Keefe and Ellison looked nothing alike.

Blair clucked in disgust and went back to sleep, the healing process well set.

*****

The weekend passed in a haze of languid love-making, long conversations of shared dreams, beliefs and histories, orgasmic meals fed lazily to each other in bed and more Christmas decorating as well as covert gift-wrapping.

By Christmas Eve, Jim felt that he knew Blair Sandburg better than he'd ever known anyone in his life. And God, how he liked the man. The love was now a given, but to discover how much he liked him? That was truly special. Okay, the kid had led a whacked-out life, and he definitely had more than a few crazy ideas -- and there was no doubt that Jim was really in for it where his senses were concerned -- but damn it, he liked the guy.

The lights on the tree twinkled merrily and filled the loft with simple joy. Blair sat in the corner of the couch, a book on his knees, glasses catching the many colors of the tree lights. The smell of the tree wrapped itself around Jim as did the delicious remnants of their dinner. As he abandoned his magazine for perusal of all the gifts under the tree, he had a thought. Now if only...

"Chief? What say we have our Christmas tonight? I mean, we're spending tomorrow with Simon and his family and to tell the truth --"

Blair looked up from his book, eyes smiling from behind his glasses. "You can't wait?"

"Um, yeah, something like that."

Sandburg swung his legs from Jim's lap, closed the book and stood up. After a good stretch, he ambled over to the tree and with hands on hips, said, "Well, I suppose we could."

"All righty then. Let's get this show on the road."

Rubbing his hands together like Scrooge when contemplating his fortune, Jim stood and, like a little kid, sat down on the floor and started jiggling packages.

Shaking his head, Blair joined him on the floor and immediately took the one Jim currently had up to his ear, saying, "That's Simon's, you idiot. And it's not ticking." Then he rooted around, found a gold-wrapped present and handed it over. "Here you big baby, this one has your name on it."

Jim took it so fast, Blair hardly felt it leave his hand. Seconds later, Jim was tearing into it. "It isn't much, Jim, but I'm betting you could use --"

Jim held up the sleep mask and grinned. "Sandburg, you are one smart man. I'm getting tired of hiding under my pillow. Although -- it's been fun hiding in your chest hair," Jim teased.

"Yeah, yeah, make fun. You know what they say about men with hairy chests and now you know it's -- true."

"Can't argue with that." He put down the mask and reached for a red-and-green wrapped gift, then handed it over. "This one's yours."

Blair, no less a boy at heart than Jim, also tore into his gift and grinned with joy at the argyle socks. "Oh, man, now these I miss losing. I loved my argyles."

"Noticed that about you, Chief. You sport the grunge look, but wear argyles. You are one weird dude."

"Yeah, I know. Ain't it great?"

They opened a few more, with Jim truly touched by the shower caddy full of products that Blair had chosen especially for Jim's -- unique -- needs. The white tube socks brought forth a real chuckle as Blair said, "Talk about taste, Jim?"

"Hey, white socks are sexy."

"Yeah, if we're talking about the baseball team."

"Well, I think they're sexy on me."

Grinning, Blair asked, eyes wide with innocence, "Would that be white socks or the White Sox?"

"Ha-ha, Chief." Jim reached behind the tree and pulled out a large square box, then tossed it to Sandburg. "Here, catch."

Blair did and like the others, he tore into it, eyes shining in anticipation. When he took off the lid and pulled away the tissue, he froze.

"He signed it, Blair."

"Oh, man, Jim. I can't believe you did this."

"Go on, take it out."

Slowly Blair did just that. Running a finger over Orvelle's signature, he shook his head. "This is -- I just can't believe it."

"Simon knows Arthur Dell, Chief. He got it done for me. And while you're staring at that ball, why don't you open this too? It sort of goes with it."

Blair took the envelope and with a puzzled frown, slit it open with his thumb and pulled out the two season tickets. "Holy shit." He gazed up at Jim and said in a whisper, "These are season tickets, Jim. Season tickets."

"No shit. Who you gonna take, and you'd better have the right answer --"

"Simon, natch."

"Putz."

"Okay, Jack Nicholson. No, wait, he's a Laker fan. Umm, guess it'll have to be -- you."

"Wise answer and by the way? There's more in that envelope."

Blair upended it and the card drifted down. Fingers shaking, Blair picked it up. "Jim?"

"Hey, as long as he was signing balls, you know?"

Blair's eyes misted over and he had to remove his glasses, then palm his eyes before he could read what his hero had written. 'Blair, I'm glad you stayed in school'.

"Oh, man." Then he looked back up at Jim and with a crooked grin, said, "Do you suppose he knows that I'm still in school?"

They both chuckled as Blair pulled the last of Jim's gifts out from under the tree. The smaller one he gave to Jim first.

"This is one my favorites and I kind of thought it might help you."

Jim took it, unwrapped what was clearly a book, then whistled as the title was revealed. "You know, I had to read this when I was in high school. This has the 'For whom the bell tolls' bit, doesn't it?"

"Yep. I've marked the whole section."

Jim flipped through the book until he came to the section under discussion. Silently he read it, then glanced over at Blair. "Why does this strike me differently now? I mean, I read Hemingway's 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' and then this many years ago. At the time, it seemed to represent death. But now --"

"When I first read it, I think I was there too. But in reality, it's a call to arms. For an anthropologist, it was vitally important to me. It's so easy for a scientist who studies humanity and the past to forget to live in the world he studies. This reminds me that I am a part of life, that I, like every human, change life with my presence. It tells me that I can't just sit back, uninvolved.

"I think that's why it seems to have changed for you now. On some level, you understand what you are, this just -- crystallizes it for you."

Jim ran his fingers over the precious words, feeling how important they must have been to the younger Sandburg and he accepted the truth of Blair's words. The bell did in fact, toll for Jim Ellison and it was a call he could not ignore. Nor did he want to. Now.

"Thank you, Blair. Thank you very much."

"You're welcome." Blair pushed the last package along the ground and said, "I suspect you're really going to need this one, Jim."

Reverently, Jim put the book down and still stunned by the revelations that his last gift had produced, he slowly opened the final offering. When he got it opened, he didn't have a clue.

Chuckling, Blair said, "It gives out white noise, Jim. It'll block out all unwanted sound when you turn it on. Gives your sense of hearing a rest. You can use it at work by placing it on your desk, or on the nightstand --"

Amazed, Jim asked, "How the hell did you think of something like this? How did you know I needed it?"

"Well, I have studied a bit, you know? It's what I do, Jim."

"Thank God."

They smiled at each other, then looked about at the mess, at the gifts and in unison, both started laughing.

"We done good, Chief."

"Yep. Quite a haul for two guys for whom Christmas has been less than --"

"Fruitful?"

"Yeah, that works."

Jim scooted over and yanked Sandburg onto his lap.

"Hey!"

"What? Your macho image bloodied by sitting on my lap?"

"Well, it is -- unusual."

"But?"

"But -- comfortable."

"Nice fit too. And Blair? I didn't need anything else for Christmas. I have the best gift right here."

"You sap."

Jim nodded happily. "Yep."

"Merry Christmas, Jim."

"Merry Christmas, Chief."

*****

The sun shooting in through the loft windows woke Blair, but he just turned over and buried his head in the crook of Jim's arm and went back to sleep -- for two whole minutes. The insistent ring of the phone prevented any longer dozing. Jim's arm reached over him and plucked at the receiver.

"Ellison," he rasped out.

"Jim, Simon. I hate to wake you so early on Christmas morning, but we've had another series of explosions and I think you're gonna want in on this one."

Jim sat up, as did Blair. "Simon?"

"They were deliberate, Jim. And this morning, an envelope addressed to Major Crime arrived. Inside was a letter claiming responsibility for the destruction and promising more. There was also a picture -- of you. The man responsible for the bombings is calling himself 'The Switchman'. Can you get down here?"

"We're on our way, Simon."

"Thanks, Jim. And tell Sandburg, Merry Christmas."

Jim hung up and rubbing at his jaw, said, "Well, you're about to go on your first case as an observer and my partner, Chief. You ready?"

"Absolutely."

"Well, let's go, partner. And by the way? Simon says Merry Christmas."

 

The End

-- And The Beginning --

 

Disclaimer: All characters from The Sentinel are the property of Pet Fly Productions, Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. Characters from any other television show, movie or book are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. We believe the works contained in this archive to be transformative in nature and therefore protected under the 'fair use' provisions of copyright law.