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They had kidded around, about paranoia and other loaded subjects, things that weren't exactly conducive to kidding, but now they were home, and it wasn't funny anymore. It hadn't really been funny outside the station, either, now that Blair thought about it, and it hadn't been at all funny in the truck during the drive home.

"Jim," he said.

"I'm taking a shower, Sandburg. It's been a long night."

No shit. Blair was the one with Gabe's blood all over him. It had been a long night for him, too. It wasn't just Detective "I've Been Betrayed By My Partner" Ellison who'd had a long fucking night. Deep breath, that's it, deep calming breaths. "Fine, Jim. Why don't you go do that."

Jim glanced at him sharply, then turned away. He disappeared into the bathroom, leaving Blair breathing a lot faster than proper centering techniques required.

Blair went to the kitchen and got a beer out of the refrigerator. It may have only been eight o'clock in the morning, but he needed something a little stronger than coffee. Fuck coffee. He slammed the refrigerator door closed with a violence that surprised him. He stood in the middle of the kitchen, drinking, fear coiling around the base of his spine.

As Blair finished his beer, Jim emerged from the bathroom. The look he gave Blair and his empty beer bottle spoke volumes. He walked over to the stairs and turned. "I'm tired, Sandburg." He didn't meet Blair's eyes as he continued. "Do me a favor and sleep down here this morning."

Blair felt his heart stop, and then start up again. "Sure, Jim. Whatever." He surprised himself. His voice was steady as he decided to let the confrontation wait for later.

Jim squinted at the wall behind Blair for a moment longer, his face like carved stone. Then he turned and went up the stairs to bed. Their bed. Fuck.

Not panicking, he was not panicking. Where the hell were those calming, centering breaths when he needed them?

Goddammit, I told him not to read it. Didn't I? I told him. I said, Jim, hey man, don't read this. This is only an intro chapter. You're the subject, man. If you read a study that you're the subject of, you screw up the study. How hard is that to understand?

Blair had an uneasy recollection of himself saying, "Actually, some of it's kind of funny. I'd love to tell you what it is, but I can't." He hadn't been trying to taunt Jim, he was just fooling around, yanking Jim's chain, not having any idea how seriously Jim was taking it all.

And why the hell didn't he have any idea? It was classic Jim, to worry about stuff like what Blair was putting into his paper. Blair was the one who had made that whole fear-based response diagnosis. Where the hell was his mind, not anticipating Jim's reaction? But, he had told him not to read it. He thought Jim would honor that request. He should have noticed how twitchy Jim was getting about the whole dissertation thing. Blair was used to joking around about it, talking about movie rights and stuff, but he completely missed that Jim had stopped joking back.

Blair looked at the empty beer bottle in his hand. He carefully put it down next to the sink, and walked to the bathroom in a daze. As he stripped his clothes off, he tried to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach. He stood with his forehead against the tiles, and tried to think, while he let the hot water wash away the blood and grime from the long night. How the hell was he going to fix this?

As he dried off after his shower, Blair stared through the steam at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, trying to decide how much trouble they were in. He slowly wiped the mirror clean, and saw fear deep in his eyes. He closed them so he didn't have to look.

Trying to get comfortable on the couch, Blair told himself that Jim was really tired, that wanting the bed to himself was understandable under the circumstances. The circumstances being that he didn't want to sleep with Blair. Shit. Blair fought back another wave of panic, telling himself again that this was no big deal. Jim was tired. Just tired. That's all there was to it. No sense reading something into this that wasn't there.

The events of the night were catching up with him, and he let his eyes drift closed on his brand new mantra-- Jim's just tired, really tired, Jim's just tired, really tired....

*

Blair woke with a start, not sure if he had heard a noise or not. Then he heard the toilet flush, movement in the kitchen, and he relaxed. He lay with his eyes closed, not wanting to be awake to face whatever waited for him once he got up.

He had almost fallen back to sleep when the smell of coffee penetrated the fog in his brain. Okay, now he was awake, and he knew he had to get up. If he lay there and pretended to still be asleep, Jim would know.

Blair shuffled past the kitchen on his way to the bathroom. Jim was leaning against the counter, waiting for the coffee to brew, his face expressionless.

When Blair emerged from the bathroom, Jim was still in the same spot, looking like he hadn't moved in about a decade. "Hey, Jim," Blair tried, his voice tentative. No response. "Jim?"

Jim looked up, pinning Blair with his eyes. They were cold. "Sandburg." Tone neutral. Blair swallowed, probably loud enough to hurt Jim's ears. But all Jim said was, "Coffee?"

"Sure, man. Thanks." He took the proffered cup, fingers brushing Jim's as he did. Jim jerked his hand away, then tried to pretend he hadn't. The emptiness in Blair's gut was more than just hunger. "Jim- "

"Don't. Just don't, Sandburg." Jim's voice was still neutral, but Blair knew better.

"Come on, man. We should talk about- "

"I said no, Sandburg. I can't do this right now." Jim held his coffee mug in a white-knuckled grip. "Don't push."

But pushing was what Blair did. "Jim, I really think we ought to try and- "

"Goddammit, Chief! I said no!" Jim slammed the mug down on the counter, and it broke, hot coffee sloshing over his hand. He hissed in pain. "Fuck!" Losing control for an instant, he swept the pieces onto the floor.

Blair moved to the sink before he had time to think, and turned on the cold water. "Give me your hand." He grabbed Jim's wrist and shoved his hand under the running water. Jim tried to pull away, and Blair tightened his grip. "Stop it! Jesus, just wait a minute!"

As the water ran over his hand, the crease of pain between Jim's eyebrows smoothed out. He yanked his hand away from Blair, and this time Blair let him go. Jim picked up the dishtowel and dried his hand. Putting the towel down, he leaned his hands on the counter, head lowered. "Why do you always have to fucking do that? Why can't you just let things go?"

"Because I can't." Blair shrugged. "I can't," he whispered again. Because I'm fucking terrified. Because you told me to sleep down here. But he didn't say that out loud. He didn't want to make it seem too important. Maybe if he dropped it now, it wasn't too late. Maybe he was blowing things out of proportion. Maybe Jim was still just really tired. Maybe.

Jim sighed. "It's three o'clock. I'm going to the gym." He walked past Blair, and Blair didn't think it was his imagination that Jim made sure he didn't brush against him as he passed. Jim picked up his gym bag, and then hesitated at the door, body tense. "Are you going to the University?" he asked, without turning around.

"Yes, Jim, yes, I am. I'm going to the University, and I'm going to turn in the introductory chapter of my dissertation, 'The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg.' I'm doing that because," and here Blair ticked his reasons off on his fingers, "A- it's due today, and I don't wanna lose my grants, B- it's good, and C- it's what we've been working on for three years. If you don't want me to, you're gonna have to give me a reason. A real reason, not just the fact that you feel threatened." Shit. That was a real reason. Maybe that should be enough of a reason right there. But Blair couldn't let go of three years without more than that.

Jim's shoulders slumped a little, and without saying anything, he opened the door. Blair watched him go, his fear increasing as Jim walked out the door.

*

It was dark when Jim came back to the loft. Blair had spent the late afternoon polishing his revisions and driving over to Rainier with his paper. Then he came back home and thought about making dinner. He thought about it, but that was as far as he got. He was sitting on the couch in the dark when Jim opened the door. He felt the glance directed his way, but didn't turn around. Jim cleared his throat, and turned on the lights. Blair let his head fall against the back of the couch. "Chief." Jim's voice was soft with unspoken apology. Blair shivered.

Jim loomed over him, and Blair regarded his up-side-down countenance warily. "You hungry?" It was all he could think to say. "I- I didn't get too far with dinner."

"Yeah, I noticed. That's okay, I'll make some sandwiches."

Jim worked quietly in the kitchen, while Blair remained on the couch, staring out the balcony doors. He couldn't see much, just distant lights shining through the reflection of the loft in the glass. He had no idea what to do next. Jim didn't seem angry anymore, but Blair didn't trust the peace. It felt provisional. He didn't think it would take much to send things spiraling out of control again.

"Come and get it, Chief." Jim carried their plates and two bottles of beer over to the table. Blair took a deep breath and got to his feet. The sandwiches were good, ham and cheese, with lettuce and mayonnaise. They may as well have been cardboard and paper, with Kleenex and glue, as far as Blair was concerned. Only the beer had any flavor, and he stood up to retrieve another one. He got a sidelong glance from Jim that under different circumstances would have goaded him into a response.

He finally gave up and threw his half-eaten sandwich in the sink. Jim was right behind him, and as Blair turned the garbage disposal on, Jim covered his ears with his hands and snapped, "Jesus, Sandburg. Give me a little warning next time."

"Sorry, man." Blair flipped the switch off and turned around. Their eyes met for an instant, and Blair saw pain in Jim's before the shutters came down again. "Jim, please, can you just tell me what exactly is bugging you?"

"What's bugging me, Sandburg? You're bugging me, that's what. Jesus, why can't you just leave it the fuck alone?" Jim's voice had a harsh edge, and Blair backed away from it.

"Jim, come on, you knew I was writing about you. We've spent three years doing this, it can't have come as that much of a surprise to you that my dissertation, of which you were the primary subject, ended up being about you." Blair wasn't sure he was making sense.

Hard hands gripped his arms, fingers digging in. "Just shut the fuck up. Drop it. Now." Blair put his hands in the center of Jim's chest and shoved, hard.

"Get the fuck off me." To Blair's surprise, Jim heeded the warning in his voice, and loosened the grip on his arms. Things rarely got to this point between them, even at their angriest, and Jim backed off, skirting around the edge of the danger they were in. Blair released a breath that he didn't realize he'd been holding, and spoke quietly, trying to pacify his partner. "Jim, do you think I would write just to hurt you? Would I purposely look for weak spots, things to make you look bad? Does that make any sense to you at all, man?"

"That's not the goddamn point, Sandburg." Jim was a little pale, as if he too had been aware of just how close to something irrevocable they had been. "If you tell me I'm reading it wrong, that I'm not reading it the way it's meant, fine. I'm reading it wrong. Although it's pretty goddamn rich to accuse me of being paranoid, then laugh at me when I worry about whether or not I'm paranoid."

Blair almost smiled at that, but the impulse died before it reached his face. Jim already knew he was paranoid, that wasn't really the issue here. He had good reason to be, in reality, and it often kept them both alive. There was something else going on here that Blair couldn't get a handle on. "I'm sorry if you thought I was laughing at you, Jim. I didn't mean to make you feel..."

"Stupid? Ridiculous? No problem, Sandburg. Don't worry about it."

"Jim, I admire the hell out of you, and you know that. This is a scientific paper, it can't be like 'The Top Ten Reasons Why I Love My Sentinel.' It has to be objective, or there's no point in writing it." Blair looked at Jim to see if he was making any impression on him at all. "Besides, if I wrote it the way I really feel, I wouldn't be able to keep your identity a secret. Everyone would know it was about you."

Jim blinked, his eyes overly bright. And just for an instant, Blair thought he was going to smile. But his expression hardened again as he eyed the empty beer bottles on the counter. "Judging by the dead soldiers, I'm guessing you're not coming with me tonight?"

"What are you talking about, Jim? There's only two of 'em. Christ, give me a break. Of course I'm coming." Whoa. Sudden epiphany. "Unless you don't want me to?" He should have thought of that. There was every chance in hell that Jim had had enough of Blair in the past twenty-four hours, and would like nothing better than to escape to work without him.

 

The resounding silence gave him his answer. He shrugged, not wanting Jim to think it bothered him. "Fine. I have things to do here." He didn't, though. With his dissertation chapter turned in, for a change he had nothing he should be working on. He had slept a good part of the day. What the hell was he supposed to do with himself all night? "What the hell am I supposed to do with myself all night, Jim?" Oops, he hadn't meant for that to come out.

"Frankly, Sandburg, I don't give a good goddamn."

"Yeah, that's great, Jim. Real nice. Fuck you, too." Blair shoved himself away from the counter and headed towards the door. He yanked his jacket off its hook, and opened the door. Then he hesitated. "Call me if you need me," he said, looking back at Jim.

"I won't need you," Jim stated flatly from the kitchen.

"Jim- "

Jim turned his back on Blair and started rinsing out the beer bottles. It was Blair's turn to walk out the door.

He had no ideas about where to go, of course. A bar was too pathetic, and there were no movies he wanted to see without Jim. He thought of a few friends he could call up and go hang out and shoot the shit with, but he really didn't want to do that.

He couldn't call any women for a last minute date, either. He and Jim weren't exactly out, but they'd stopped dating other people ever since Lila. Blair had even managed to piss Samantha off sufficiently enough so that she mostly left him alone these days. He didn't want to be with anyone besides Jim, not ever again. Not only was it spectacularly unfair to the women involved, but Jim tended to get a little testy if he thought Blair was with someone else. Not that he was paranoid, or anything. Oh, no. Not his Jim.

*

Blair knew he needed to switch to decaf if he was going to order another cup of coffee. As it was, he'd probably be awake until next Tuesday, considering the amount he'd consumed in the past two hours. That was the thing about coffee bars, if you spent too much time in them, you ended up wired like a pyrotechnics display at a SWAT convention.

Sighing, he closed his book. He hadn't been reading it anyway. His mind was too busy trying to put together the pieces of the latest Jim-puzzle. This afternoon, as he went over the revisions to his dissertation, he tried to see what it was that had Jim so badly rattled. But there wasn't anything there that Blair could see spooking Jim enough to make him kick Blair out of bed.

There was obviously no way he would include anything about Jim's sex life in his dissertation. It pissed him off that Jim thought he would. And he was confused that Jim thought he had. Jim thought there were references to his sex life in the intro, but Blair hadn't touched on the reams of data he had about that part of Jim's life, based on observation, evidence-gathering, and personal experience. And he wouldn't. Even if Jim Ellison's sex life hadn't been exclusively dedicated to Blair Sandburg at this point, there was no way he would write about it. He loved Jim, he thought Jim loved him, and none of it belonged in an academic paper.

Blair felt the usual cognitive dissonance he experienced whenever he thought about actually publishing his dissertation. How was he going to do that? What could he really include? What was he going to do about their identities? Was he just fooling himself that he was in any way objective anymore? He'd told Jim last night not to read it because that would skew the results, but it was all skewed anyway. And he was screwed, whatever he did.

Blair looked at his watch. It was only midnight. He felt like he'd been wandering the streets of Cascade for hours. In actuality, he had been. He'd left the loft around eight o'clock. It was time to go home. Jim would be at the station, and Blair could go home and...and what? Drink more coffee? He hardly thought so. The idea of beer appealed to him, but that seemed a little lonely and desperate. Shit, he was awake, he was restless, he was worried, angry and confused. It was time to go to the station. Fuck it, he wanted to go the station. He wanted to see Jim, see if he was feeling any better about things. He needed some reassurance, maybe a hint that things could go back to what passed for normal in his life.

*

"Sandburg, what the hell are you doing here? I thought we agreed you'd stay away tonight." Jim's voice was low, holding a hint of a threat. Blair shivered, not knowing why.

"I got bored, man." Blair hoped he could get away with that for now, that Jim wouldn't demand further explanations. He really didn't have any he wanted to share.

"Fine." Jim's tone was dismissive. "Here, catch me up on the paperwork on Johnny Macado." He tossed a folder at Blair and walked away, into the break room. Blair considered going in there after him, then decided not to push, just for the sheer novelty of it. He sat down at Jim's desk and began to work on the file.

An hour later, Blair looked up. His neck was stiff from his ergonomically incorrect posture at Jim's computer, and he rotated his head, trying to relieve the kink. Suddenly, Jim was behind him, gently rubbing the sore spot with unerring accuracy. "How do you know exactly where it hurts, man?"

"Because I know your body, Sandburg," Jim murmured. Blair looked around the bullpen, and saw that no one was within earshot.

"And I thank God for that everyday, Jim." Jim's hands tightened a moment, then moved up the side of Blair's neck in a light caress, and Blair shivered for the second time that night. When Jim's fingertips found his ear, his eyes closed and his breathing quickened. Not wanting to question Jim's mood change, he simply said, "I missed you today, Jim. I don't like to sleep alone."

Jim's hands stopped their caressing movements, then disappeared. Blair turned to look up at his partner, dismayed at the expression of dull pain in Jim's eyes. "What is it, Jim? Can't you tell me?" Blair whispered.

"If you don't like sleeping alone, Sandburg, go find somebody to sleep with. I'm sure there's plenty of people out there for you to choose from." The anger in Jim's voice sent a shock through Blair, and he froze.

"What the hell does that mean? That was a really shitty thing to say." Blair was instantly furious, shoving back his chair, pushing himself away from Jim's desk. "I don't want to sleep with anyone but you." He stood up, snatched his jacket off the coat rack, and spat, "Do your own goddamn paperwork, you prick."

*

Blair gradually came back to consciousness, as the phone rang insistently. One bleary eye tried to look at the clock next to his bed, but it wasn't there anymore. It was upstairs next to Jim's bed, but he hadn't wanted to sleep up there when he was as angry and confused as he was right now. Where in the hell was the phone? What in the hell time was it? How had he managed to fall asleep so deeply after the amount of coffee he had consumed? Christ! He dragged himself off of the futon. He finally located the phone on the kitchen counter.

"What?"

"Sandburg?"

"Simon? What time is it? What's wrong?" Blair was immediately awake, fear gripping him at the sound of Simon's voice.

"Settle down, Sandburg. We're at the hospital. Jim's okay," he added hastily, as Blair started to interrupt him with frantic questions. "But I think you'd better get down here pretty quick. He's having problems with the pain, it seems to be- what's that word you use- spiking?"

"Shit. What happened?" Blair pulled on his jeans as he spoke, holding the phone with his shoulder.

"Knife wound. Guy caught him on his left arm. It's not serious, but like I said...."

"How the fuck did that happen, Simon? I thought he was catching up on paperwork tonight." Blair tied his shoes, and the blood rushed to his head as he bent over, keeping the phone in place.

"Don't take that tone with me, Sandburg. I'm not Jim's babysitter, and I don't have to answer to you. Now, get down here."

"Right." Blair clicked the phone off, barely resisting the temptation to throw it across the room. Instead, he tossed it on the dining room table, grabbed his keys and jacket, and was out the door five minutes after he first picked up the phone.

*

As Blair hurried in through the Emergency Room doors, it didn't take enhanced hearing to figure out that Jim wasn't happy. "Jesus Christ, what the hell are you doing?" The low roar transmitted through the cubicles and out into the waiting room.

Blair rolled his eyes and took a deep breath. He was certainly getting the chance to refine his relaxation techniques lately. He followed the bitching to the cubicle farthest away from the desk, and saw Simon standing outside the curtains, looking grim. He spotted Blair and his frown deepened. "Thank God, Sandburg. Maybe you can do something with him." As Blair hesitated, wanting to ask what happened, Simon added, "Go on. Go. Get in there and fix him."

Right. That was his job. That's why they kept him around. To fix Jim.

Blair pushed aside the curtains and went in. The long-suffering nurse, who was trying to wrap a bandage around Jim's left bicep, looked up at his entrance and sighed with relief. She was young and attractive, long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, a frown in her pretty blue eyes. "Are you Mr. Sandburg?" she asked hopefully.

"Who wants to know?"

"Funny, Sandburg. Get me out of here." Jim's voice was tense, and it wasn't just because he was unhappy with his care. Jim had been in this situation enough that he usually handled it with more grace than this. Blair sensed real fear underneath the annoyance.

Blair looked at him, comprehension hitting him all at once. Jim had been afraid that Blair wouldn't show up. He had thought that maybe Blair had been angry enough to let Jim sit here and stew for a while on his own. Shit. That alone was enough to piss Blair off royally.

"We'll leave when they say you can leave, Jim." Blair looked at the man who could, on occasion, make him so mad he couldn't think clearly. "Settle down, man."

Jim just glared at him. Blair shook his head and glared back. The nurse watched them for a moment, then said, backing away from the bed, "I'll get the paperwork ready."

As she left, Blair said, "You ready to calm down now, Jim? If you think you can do that, maybe we can get out of here. It'll only take longer if you keep it up with the attitude."

Jim's relief that Blair had come to get him was palpable, although he tried to hide it. He studied his feet, swinging back and forth as he sat on the edge of the gurney. He heaved a weary sigh and said, "Yeah. Okay."

The nurse, coming back into the cubicle with Jim's discharge paperwork, glancing from one of them to the other. She seemed pleased and surprised to see Jim so subdued, and looked at Blair, respect in her eyes. "Detective?" she said to Jim. "Sign these, and you can get out of here."

Jim nodded, took the papers, and signed them. "Where are my clothes?"

The nurse handed him a plastic bag. "I think the other officers took your shirt with them."

"Yeah, they would have." Jim looked at Blair, who shrugged.

"Sorry, man, I didn't know you needed a shirt. Simon was not very forthcoming with the details when he called. Where's your jacket?"

"I guess Simon has it."

"I'll go see. Do you need any help getting dressed?"

Jim just looked at him. "Okay, I guess not. I'll go find Simon then."

Blair and the nurse left the cubicle at the same time. She shot him a sympathetic glance. "Is he always so..." she struggled to find the right word.

"So cantankerous? Obnoxious? Difficult?" Blair laughed, not without humor, knowing Jim could hear them. "No, sometimes he's a real prince. And sometimes he's a real horse's ass."

The nurse smiled. "Don't tell me which he's being now. I don't want to be disillusioned."

Blair chuckled. "I know what you mean. Thanks. And sorry for the trouble."

"No problem. Part of the job."

Blair found Simon sitting in one of those hard, plastic chairs that populate hospital waiting rooms. He appeared decidedly uncomfortable, and Blair smiled. Good. "Simon. What the hell happened? I left Jim at his desk, doing paperwork."

"Police work isn't all paper, Sandburg." Simon stood up, probably hoping to intimidate Blair with his height. He should've known by now that wouldn't work. He glared, and then gave it up as a bad job and sighed. "Rafe brought in a perp, some guy flying on speed, and he got a little out of hand." Blair nodded his head, waiting for the rest of it. "He grabbed the letter opener off Megan's desk. You know, that big thing that looks like half a boomerang? There was a...scuffle, and Jim got cut." He frowned at the expression on Blair's face. "Don't look at me like that, Sandburg. It's a police station- shit like that happens. At least we didn't have to call in Animal Control again."

Blair laughed in spite of himself. "I know, I know, you're right." He looked up into Simon's face. "Sorry, Simon. Didn't mean to get all indignant on you."

"Can I leave now, Sandburg? Can you deal with him?" His face softened somewhat. "Is he okay, Blair?"

"He'll be fine, Simon. Go, get back to work."

Simon's eyebrows climbed up his forehead. Blair laughed. "You know what I mean, man."

Simon handed Blair Jim's jacket and walked out of the ER.

Blair turned back to see the nurse coming toward him with a rueful expression on her face. "Your friend said to give these to you, said he didn't need them. He said to, and I quote, 'Give this shit to Romeo out there.' " She handed Blair a list of home care instructions and two prescriptions, one for antibiotics and one for a painkiller. She looked puzzled. "What did that mean?"

"It means he's in horse's ass mode right now. I'd better get him home. Thanks again."

Just at that moment, Jim erupted from the cubicle, snatching his jacket out of Blair's hands. "Let's go, Casanova." And he was past Blair, out into the parking lot before Blair had a chance to turn around. He closed his eyes briefly and prayed for the strength not to strangle his partner, at least not until they got home.

*

Once in the Volvo, Jim leaned his head back on the seat and closed his eyes. Blair was almost mad enough to dismiss Jim's exhaustion. He knew the wound was no big deal, just needing a few stitches, knew that dealing with the Emergency room itself was the real ordeal. That, and Jim's apparent fear that Blair wouldn't come, would just let him sit there in the hospital. What was that about? And what the fuck was with the Romeo comments?

Okay, so maybe he was mad enough not to care how lousy Jim felt. "You wanna tell me what the hell that was all about, Jim?" He looked away from his driving for an instant, saw Jim open his eyes.

"What was what all about, Sandburg?" Jim's voice was low, trembling with fatigue and some other emotion Blair couldn't identify. Blair ruthlessly ignored the sound of it.

"The Romeo crap? Casanova? That meant what, exactly?"

"You said you didn't want to sleep alone, Chief. That nurse was a babe, huh? I figured you were looking to hook up." There was so much pain under the anger that it nearly overset Blair's own composure.

"Jim, help me out here. I don't understand what's going on with you." He knew he sounded as bewildered as he felt.

Jim was silent, looking out the window. His body was turned away from Blair, his shoulders rigid. Finally, he sighed. "What are we doing here, Chief? What's this- us," he gestured between the two of them, "supposed to be about?"

"Us? We're, well, you know. Together. Aren't we?" Blair's hands tightened on the wheel. He was missing something important here, and he was at a loss as to what Jim needed him to say.

"Are we? Or are we just fucking? Just using each other, me for control, you for research?" Jim's voice was hard, and Blair flinched at the direct words.

"God, Jim. Is that what you think we're about?" Blair was suddenly cold.

"I don't know, Chief. You tell me. Because I don't know anymore." The weariness was becoming more apparent in Jim's voice, and it made Blair feel worse than the earlier anger had.

"How long have you felt this way? Is that what you want?" Blair asked, fear making his throat tight.

"Do you want that?" Jim whispered, his gaze fixed on the dashboard.

"No, man. Why would you think that?"

After a moment, the silence from the passenger side of the truck became intolerable and Blair demanded, "What the hell is going on here, Jim?"

"Nevermind, Sandburg. It's not important." Jim continued to stare straight ahead.

"Sure it is, Jim. Something is really wrong here, and I don't have a clue. Why do you think I'm looking for sex somewhere else? What did I ever do to make you think that? I thought we had a relationship going here, man."

"According to your dissertation, that doesn't mean much."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Blair's fear and frustration made his voice louder than he had intended, and Jim winced at the sound. "What has our sex life got to do with the diss, which is what I thought you were mad about in the first place?"

"Sometimes, Blair, I swear, you are so fucking dense. 'Intimacy and sex are two different issues.' You said it, Chief. So if sex between us doesn't mean anything, then you can get it anywhere, right?" Jim said tightly.

Oh, God.

"That's not what I meant, Jim."

"It's what you said." Jim remained silent for the rest of the drive, his face miserable, apparently not having the energy to maintain a neutral expression.

Blair wasn't sure how he did it, but he managed to get them back to the loft without exacerbating the situation by asking Jim how long his head had been up his ass, and just how much longer he planned to keep it there.

*

Once upstairs, Blair decided to take the high road and deal with Jim's physical condition before he blasted the man for his terminal stupidity. However, that would have required Jim's cooperation, which wasn't happening any time soon. "I'm fine, Sandburg. I don't need my dressing changed, and I don't need a pain pill. I don't need any tea, and I'd appreciate it if you would back off here." Jim hung his jacket on the hook by the door, and turned to Blair, shirtless, white bandage standing out in stark relief on his upper arm. There was dried blood on his jeans.

Okay, pissy Jim he could deal with. It was a definite improvement over the exhausted, miserable Jim who had ridden so silently in the truck with him.

"Stop being such a dick, man. If you want to go off and pout all by yourself, fine. Go to bed. I've had enough for tonight. Today. Whatever." Blair went into the bathroom and slammed the door. He seemed to being doing a lot of that lately. Not the most mature response in the world, but he just couldn't help himself. He was so angry, so frustrated, that if he didn't slam doors, he would likely slam his partner. His cantankerous, obnoxious, difficult partner. The one he loved beyond all reason. And this situation had certainly spiraled beyond all reason, spinning out of his control like a runaway eighteen-wheeler hitting glare ice.

He came out of the bathroom to find Jim sitting on the couch, waiting his turn. The hard edges of Blair's anger softened. "Are you hungry?"

"Yeah, I guess I am." Jim sounded surprised.

"Go on, go get cleaned up. I'll make us something to eat." He stood there waiting until Jim slowly made his way into the bathroom. Blair let him go alone. If he needed help, he was going to have to ask for it.

*

Jim came out of the bathroom fifteen minutes later, wearing only his boxers and the bandage around his arm. Blair looked up from the eggs he was scrambling. "Go get some clothes on, man, before you freeze. This is almost ready." He opened the refrigerator door and took out the orange juice.

Jim didn't move, just stood there and watched him cook.

"What?"

Jim shook his head.

"Fine, Jim. Whatever." Blair placed two slices of bread in the toaster.

Jim took a deep breath. "The whole thing just hit me the wrong way, Chief. I don't know, it feels like you're saying we don't have anything more going on here than sex."

"Sex and intimacy aren't always the same thing, Jim. You can have sex with someone that you're not intimate with. And you can be intimate with someone you're not having sex with. Look at us, for all that time... before." Blair gestured vaguely back over his shoulder. "We were as intimate as two people can be who aren't having sex. The sex is just a way to express how we feel."

"Right." Jim sounded unconvinced.

Blair looked up from buttering the toast. Jim's face was closed off again. Fine. If he wanted to play it like an asshole, that was okay by Blair. He only refrained from slamming Jim's plate down on the table in front of him by a sheer act of will. Instead, he placed it down carefully and turned to get the juice, not looking at Jim again. He got his own plate and sat down opposite the granite-like visage across the table.

Halfway through the silent meal, he threw down his fork and stood up, shoving his chair back. He cleared his half of the table and announced, "I'm going back to bed for a while. Your pills are on the counter if you want them." He made his way to his old room without looking back, but as he reached the door, Jim's soft voice stopped him.

"How could you do it, Chief?"

Blair paused, but still didn't turn around. "Do what, Jim?" he asked with a sense of trepidation. "Do what?"

"Carolyn. How could you talk to Carolyn? That's the real violation here." The sudden silence caused Blair's heartbeat to echo in his head.

"It was a long time ago, Jim." Blair's voice was barely above a whisper. He cleared his throat. "Before you and I- before we- " He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I didn't specifically ask her about sex. We talked about a lot of things. She said you had a problem with intimacy- she didn't give me details, she didn't say you couldn't get it up on demand or anything. Just that you had some trouble being...close, sometimes."

"So fucking what if I did, Sandburg? What business is it of yours? Maybe it was Carolyn's problem, not mine. Did that ever occur to you? Do you have any complaints here, Chief?" Jim's face was pale with anger, his voice vibrated with it.

"Well, no, I didn't, not really. Not until you kicked me out of your bed. Which I had thought of as our bed." At this point, Blair was infuriated on so many different levels, he couldn't have begun to articulate them if his life depended on it. Jim wasn't showing any inclination to listen anyway, so he continued into the spare room, not giving Jim a chance to tell him where he might feel like letting him sleep today.

*

Blair woke up at around three o'clock in the afternoon. He opened his eyes, then lay and drifted for a while, enjoying the quiet. He had always found this little room to be cozy and comfortable and he hadn't been sleeping upstairs for long enough to make waking up down here feel strange yet. It was quiet in the loft, no smell of coffee, and he had no idea if he was alone or not. He stretched one more time, then swung his feet over the side of the bed to the floor.

Silence again greeted him in the kitchen. Jim's jacket was gone, but there was no note, of course. Blair rolled his eyes. Well, he really didn't give a fuck where Jim had run off to this time. It didn't matter anyway. Jim had the art of avoidance down to a real science, and on a good day, Blair could actually admire the skill involved. Too bad for Jim this wasn't a good day.

Blair was heading down the stairs, buttoning his jeans, when Jim opened the front door. He hung up his jacket, then stood motionless for a moment. Blair could see him actually square his shoulders before turning around. He looked at Blair and gave him a tentative smile. The look of uncertainty in Jim's eyes, as if he was unsure of his welcome, caused Blair's heart to constrict a little. Jesus, the world's biggest pain in the ass, and he was all Blair's. Blair smiled back. Even with all the fear and anger, he couldn't resist that smile.

The relief in Jim's face made Blair feel guilty. Wait a minute, I'm not the asshole here, he told himself, without much conviction. He knew better than anyone how Jim's mind worked, and more importantly, how his heart worked. He could just imagine how the thought of Blair and Carolyn discussing Jim's so-called problems with intimacy would drive Jim crazy, make him feel inadequate. That's why I told him not to read it, Blair reminded himself. No, he wasn't going there again. Jim had already apologized, no need to beat that dead horse. And Blair had a pretty shrewd idea that Jim was sorry enough for trespassing where he didn't belong, he didn't need Blair to hit him over the head with it. Blair spoke first.

"Hey."

"Hey."

"Did you get any sleep? We've got the rest of the week on the night shift, you know." He deliberately emphasized the word we've. "And it didn't really start off very well." Ah, the fine art of understatement.

"I slept some. I'll grab a few more hours before I go in tonight." Jim stood awkwardly, looking everywhere but at Blair. He cleared his throat. "Will you becoming in tonight?"

"I have an evening class, so I'll meet you there after." If Jim didn't want him, he was going to have to come right out and say so. Blair wasn't going to do his avoidance for him.

"You want to get something to eat first, say around ten?" This overture on Jim's part should have made Blair feel better, but it didn't. Blair had the feeling that their relationship was on probation, that the least little thing that Jim didn't like would set things off again. It only added to the feeling of disorientation caused by a week of working the night shift.

"No, you go on ahead, man. I'll be in around midnight." Blair resolutely ignored the spark of annoyance in Jim's eyes at his dismissive words.

"Oh. Okay." Jim stood there uncertainly another minute, then said, "Maybe I'll try to catch some Z's now."

"Fine, whatever. I guess I'll go pick up some groceries." Blair got his jacket and headed out the door. They seemed to be destined to enter and exit opposite each other, no longer in concert, coming and going their separate ways. It was really starting to suck.

*

Blair wandered around the supermarket, randomly placing items in his cart, his mind light-years away from what he was doing. In the end, though, he found he had automatically selected all of Jim's usual favorites, all the things he considered essentials for his kitchen. Christ. If that wasn't pathetic, Blair didn't know what was.

Tempting as it was to go put back the delicacies Jim thought he couldn't live without, like the Hostess Cupcakes, and the special sesame oil he used when he made stir fry, Blair resisted all such base impulses and made it though the check-out with his original selections intact.

He loaded the bags into the trunk of the Volvo, trying to concentrate on what he would be lecturing his class on this evening. Instead, his brain, which really had a mind of its own these days, insisted on going over and over the same ground it had covered while he was shopping. Basically, what to do about his dissertation. He had turned the intro chapter in to his committee yesterday, but that didn't really settle much. He could still stop the whole thing if he wanted to. He was pretty much past the time when he could easily change his topic, but it wasn't completely out of the question. But change it to what? And then what the hell would there be to keep him working with Jim? Jim didn't need him at his side every minute of the day, they both knew that. Witness Jim's desire for a little space last night at work. They also both knew that Jim just plain functioned better when Blair was there. Simon knew it, too. Blair kept Jim focused, kept him safe. Well, reasonably safe. They kept each other safe. Blair didn't like the idea of not having a reason to ride with Jim. And if he gave up the diss, he wouldn't have one. He already worried about what would happen when he finally finished the damn thing. He'd always figured he'd cross that bridge when he came to it, but it was suddenly something to think about now. He'd rather sacrifice the partnership for the relationship than vice versa.

A horn honked rudely, and Blair started, almost dropping the bag of groceries he was holding. A woman in her thirties glared at him from her car. She was obviously impatient with his wool-gathering, waiting for him to get on with things so she could have his parking space. Blair smiled, waved at her apologetically and got moving.

*

Entering the loft with the last bag of groceries, relieved he'd been able to bring them all up in only two trips, Blair listened to the silence. Jim was softly snoring above him, the white noise generator turned on. Blair wondered if it would work for him, too, enabling him to sleep in the daytime. The last time they had worked the night shift for any length of time, he hadn't yet started sleeping upstairs. He had tossed and turned, disturbed by the noise of traffic, neighbors, all the sounds of a world awake. Sleeping during the day was weird. On the one hand, Blair felt like he was getting away with something, because the rest of the world was working. On the other hand, it just felt wrong, somehow, to be sleeping the day away. He didn't know how people did it on a regular basis.

He sighed. This particular week of night shift was not going to be the time to make any big discoveries about white noise generators if Jim didn't let him upstairs soon. He thought about going up there right now, just getting into bed like he usually did, as if he belonged there, which he'd thought he did, but he wasn't really sleepy, and he didn't feel up to the hassle if Jim got any weirder about shit than he already was. He wasn't up for any more rejection at this point.

After putting the groceries away, he gathered up his class notes, stuffed them in his backpack, and headed for Rainier and the safe haven of the library.

*

Blair had been at the station around an hour when Simon walked in, dressed in jeans, his Cigar Club jacket hanging open over a black sweater. Simon had gone back to working the day shift today, since the city strikes had been settled and things had calmed the fuck down around the precinct. Blair looked up in surprise from Jim's desk, where he was ensconced doing paperwork. Simon frowned back at him. "Sandburg. Where's Jim?"

"He went to the can. What are you doing here, Simon?"

"I just got a phone call from Herman Franklin." His frown deepened. He glanced towards the corridor, apparently waiting for Jim to come back from the bathroom before he continued.

"Herman Franklin? The guy who trains your horse?" Blair asked.

"Yeah, that's him." Simon stopped again, then sighed. "They found Little Stogie dead in his stall about an hour ago." Grief for his horse shaded Simon's professional tone.

"What?" Jim was coming through the door from the corridor. "What happened?"

Simon turned to Jim. "Herman doesn't really know yet. But Little Stogie is the second one of his horses to die this week."

"Shit," Blair whistled. "What's going on, Simon?"

"Herman's not sure. The post-mortem on the first horse isn't finished. He wanted me to come to the stables, to see if anything looks suspicious. As far as he knows, neither horse was sick."

Jim nodded. "Very good, sir. We can take the truck." He grabbed their jackets and tossed Blair's at him as the three men walked to the elevator.

Simon's mouth quirked in a tight smile. "Thank you, gentlemen," he said.

*

Little Stogie's stall was crowded. There were four people packed in there, and a horse takes up a lot more room laying on its side than it does standing up. Simon had looked at his horse when they first got there, then turned away and didn't look again. Little Stogie certainly hadn't been a proven winner at the racetrack, but he had come to mean more to Simon than a mere potential windfall. Jim knew Simon had been spending a lot of his off-duty time here, watching Little Stogie train. He occasionally showed up at work with a smile and a boast after race days, like the proud parent of a perennial underachiever who surprises the hell out you once in a while with an actual accomplishment.

Jim felt out of sorts, out of focus, and being on the outs with Blair didn't help. He hated night shift, his unsettled Circadian rhythms throwing his senses for a loop. He guessed it was because it required so much more concentration to keep them on track when his body didn't know if it was supposed to be coming or going. Sleeping and eating at all hours of the day and night had come easily to him earlier in life, but since his senses had come on-line again, it was an ongoing battle to maintain any kind of equilibrium while on nights.

Jesus, quit whining, Ellison. You've had almost three years to learn to deal with this shit. He shook his head impatiently.

"Simon, why don't you and Herman wait outside for the vet. Sandburg and I'll take a look around in here."

Herman Franklin took one last regretful look at the horse he had tried his best to turn into a racer. Then he grasped Simon's shoulder and guided him out into the chilly night air. "Let's go find some coffee, and when these fellas are done here, we can talk."

"Okay. Jim, we'll be in Herman's office when you're finished," said Simon, nodding shortly at his detective.

Jim watched them leave, noting the sorrow evident in the set of their shoulders. He turned his attention back to the dead horse. All that magnificent power, stilled forever. Little Stogie may not have been a thoroughbred champion, but he had the heart of a competitor, that instinctual equine need to run, to be in front when the race was over. Damn.

He looked up to find Blair staring at the horse with something akin to real grief on his face. Seeing that expression tightened something in Jim's stomach.

"Goddammit. Why would someone do this? It's- it's evil to destroy something so beautiful." Blair's voice was fierce and his eyes were bright. He blinked suddenly and demanded, "Well, do you see anything? Smell anything?"

Jim felt a flash of irritation at being expected to deliver like a performing dog, but it faded when he looked at Blair's expression again. He bit back a rough reply and said, "I don't know yet, Sandburg. Give me a minute here."

He hunkered down next to the dead horse, bracing his hand on the still-warm neck to keep his balance. He slowed his breathing, poised motionless, eyes closed, and opened up his sense of smell. The scent of blood filled his nostrils immediately, the sweet odor cloying at the back of his throat. He gagged slightly as his eyes flew open and he grabbed hold of Little Stogie's mane to keep from falling on his ass. Blair's hand was on his shoulder, and his voice was warm and concerned. "Whoa, there, Jim. What is it? Do you smell something?"

Jim regained his composure and shook off Sandburg's hand. He stood up, saying, "Well, yeah, Chief, I do. Since my eyes were closed, and there's nothing to hear, smell is a good bet. Guess that's why you're the guide, huh?" Not knowing why he was suddenly so annoyed, Jim continued, his voice flinty, his answer short. "Blood."

At Jim's harsh reply, Sandburg slowly lowered his hand, hurt flashing in his eyes. "Great, Jim. That's just great." A pause. "Blood from where?" Spoken like he was addressing a feeble-minded idiot.

"If I knew that, Sandburg...." Jim's voice trailed off as he moved towards the horse again, running his hands over the motionless flanks, the flaccid muscles. The horse had not yet begun to stiffen, he could easily have been resting, but all trace of speed had slipped away, and there was no longer any evidence of power in the beautiful body. Now it was just a carcass.

The waste of it all angered Jim anew as he examined the horse's head for signs of trauma. He brushed aside the forelock that fell forward from between the ears, and saw a slight disarrangement in the pattern of hair growing underneath. He focused on the area, and saw a small hole about the diameter of a pencil. There was really very little blood, probably the reason why Jim hadn't smelled it until he concentrated. He also smelled oil in the wound and he touched the tip of his index finger to the small perforation. It came away with a light film of oil on it, and he rubbed it against his thumb as he brought it to his nose. The slightly metallic odor reminded him of gun oil.

"Detective Ellison?" Jim turned at the voice outside the stable door.

"Yes, can I help you?" He frowned at the newcomer.

"I'm Rob Valentine, the track vet. What have you found?" Dr. Valentine was tall and thin, in his mid-thirties, with a shock of thick black hair and kind brown eyes. He held out his hand for Jim to shake. He looked with interest at Blair, standing off to one side of Little Stogie's body, then turned and looked at Jim expectantly.

"This is my associate, uh, my partner, Blair Sandburg." Jim found himself stressing the word partner, wanting this guy to know Blair was taken, knowing full well the good doctor wouldn't have a clue what he meant by it. But Blair would, maybe he had said it for Blair's benefit, to remind Blair that he was taken. He glanced over at his partner, who was staring at him with narrowed eyes. Yeah, message received, all right.

Sandburg came forward out of the corner of the stall to shake hands with the veterinarian. Dr. Valentine looked uncertainly from one of them to the other and his warm smile faded. "Okay, gentleman, what do we have here?"

"Isn't that what you're supposed to tell us, Doc?" Jim asked flatly.

"Well, yes, but- "

"Jim." Blair spoke quietly, but with authority. Cut the shit hung in the air.

Jim sighed. "Sorry, Doc. Come look at this." Jim knelt by the horse and again brushed the forelock out of the way. "See that small hole? There's a minute trace of blood, and I think there's gun oil in the wound."

"Jesus, I haven't seen anything like this since- well I never have, but I learned about it in school, of course." He bent down next to Jim and started a cursory examination of the animal at his feet. He muttered to himself as he studied the hole in Little Stogie's head, then felt the fragile looking legs. It always amazed Jim, the way a horse worked, those powerful muscles, all that mass, not only supported, but transported by such delicate-looking limbs. Valentine ran his hands over the immobile flanks, then the neck, which was beginning to stiffen slightly. He straightened up and spoke to Jim, his eyes still on the horse. "The insurance company is going to require a full post-mortem, but I can tell you now what killed him. And it was no accident." His face was grim, his lips tight with anger.

Jim stood up also. "Let's go to Herman's office. My captain is waiting there for us. He's the horse's owner."

"Yes, I know. That's the only thing that got me out here this time of night. That and the fact that this is the second of Herman's horses to die this week. Now that I know what to look for on the other one, I'll call and have them check for the hole from the bolt."

*

Franklin Stables was located an hour north of Cascade proper, approaching the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. There were several horse farms and stables in the area, taking advantage of the relatively flat terrain. The place was mid-sized, with room to accommodate twelve horses.

On the drive to the complex, Simon had told them that, according to Herman, horse owners were notoriously fickle, switching trainers at the drop of a hat, or the loss of a race. At the present time, Herman had nine horses under his care and tutelage, belonging to six different owners or syndicates. The Cigar Club was a sponsor, supporting Little Stogie's upkeep and training fees, while sharing in the winnings, when there were any.

Herman's office was close enough to the stables to allow him to check on his horses easily. Apparently he often did so on the nights he stayed late to do the paperwork that plagued every profession, no matter how hands on and nitty-gritty it was.

Herman sat behind his desk, with Jim and Simon arranged in mismatched chairs across from him. Dr. Valentine sat on a battered couch on the far wall, and Blair was pacing in the small space left in the middle of the room, obviously still disturbed by the gratuitous waste of innocent life. Jim sipped at his coffee appreciatively, the night air having gotten progressively colder as they made their way from the stable to the office.

"So, Dr. Valentine, tell us about this- what did you call it, a bolt?" Simon leaned forward, fixing the vet with his patented "cut to the chase" look.

"Well," Dr. Valentine said a little uncertainly, "They're not really used much anymore. The only time I've ever even seen one was in my father's office when I was a kid. It looks like a pistol, but the barrel is thicker. There's a metal rod inside the barrel, about the same diameter as a pencil. You pull the trigger, and the rod shoots out about four inches. There's a spring, and the bolt retracts inside the barrel immediately. The horse dies instantly, and there's usually not much blood." He frowned. "You found the hole because of the blood, Detective?"

Blair had been listening closely to the vet's explanation, and he spoke up quickly. "Jim was checking out the horse, and just happened to push the forelock aside, and saw, um, got a bit of blood on his hand. That's how he knew it was there."

Simon rolled his eyes and Jim grunted. Right, Sandburg. Good one.

Dr. Valentine looked dubiously from Jim to Blair, then shrugged. "Okay."

Simon frowned at Valentine. "So, if these things aren't used anymore, where would a person get one? Are they just laying around in any old vet's office?"

"No, they're supposed to be licensed, and they should be locked up, but I don't think anybody really keeps track of them nowadays. After a lot of use, the bolt tends to bend, so I'm guessing a lot of them don't work anymore, anyway." Valentine shrugged.

"So who would have access to one, and how much expertise do you need to do it right?" Jim asked.

"They could still be anywhere you'd find horses- large animal vets, race tracks, even the police department. And yes, you have to be fairly knowledgeable to use one effectively. You can't be short, either."

Jim tried to contain the smirk that threatened, but Valentine saw it, and smiled appreciatively at him. Jim returned the grin, warmed for a moment by the twinkle in the vet's eye. Then he glanced at Blair, and the warmth faded. Blair appeared far from appreciative of the exchange.

Valentine cleared his throat. "I don't know how much you know about equine anatomy, but a horse's brain is about the size of a fist, up between its ears. The rest of the head is all sinuses. You have to be pretty specific about where you aim the bolt. If you draw a line from the left ear to the right eye, then from the right ear to the left eye, where they cross is where you want to aim. The angle has to be right, too, so that you hit the spot where the spinal cord connects to the brain. That way, the horse doesn't suffer, death is instantaneous, and there's no blood. Well, very little, anyway," he added with a glance at Jim.

Jim smiled tightly, and Blair shifted in his seat. Simon just made a 'get on with it' motion with his unlit cigar.

"Most of the time a horse will just stand there and let it happen. But it's hard to get the right angle at the right height if you're short."

"So why aren't they used anymore?" Blair asked curiously.

"Mostly because, like I said, the bolt bends after repeated use. Now we use regular bullets, which don't require the same accuracy as a bolt. But with free bullets, you get powder burns and a lot more blood, from the nose and mouth as well as from the entrance wound. Makes it easier to spot. With a bolt, you don't realize what's happened unless you're looking for it. Especially since they're so out of date." He looked at Jim appraisingly. "You're lucky you found it, Detective."

Jim ignored the continued speculation in Valentine's gaze, at least about the blood. "What about approximate time of death, Doctor?"

"It takes six or seven hours for a horse to lose its internal temperatures and stiffen up. Little Stogie is still warm, and he's not rigid yet. So, I'd guess two or three hours." He turned to Herman. "What time are evening stables?"

Herman had been following the conversation, thoughtfully nodding at the salient parts of Valentine's recitation. "Nine o'clock, and we're usually finished around ten."

"And it's three o'clock now, "Simon said, looking at his watch. "That works. Herman, you found him at 1 o'clock. So, put the time of death between ten and twelve, twelve thirty at the outside. Did you notice anything out of the ordinary tonight, Herman? Anyone who didn't belong, someone not usually here, hanging around, out of place?"

"I've been thinking about that," Herman replied. "I can't say as anything specific caught my attention, no suspicious strangers, nothing unusual. I came back to my office around ten to do some paperwork. Sometimes I sleep here," he said, gesturing towards the worn couch that Blair had finally perched on, next to Valentine.

"Did you hear anything?" Jim asked Herman, then turned to Valentine. "How loud are these bolts, Doctor? Is it like a gunshot?"

Valentine smiled at Jim. "Not quite, Detective. The sound isn't as sharp, actually it's kind of dull." His eyes lingered on Jim's face, and Jim felt himself growing warm again under the scrutiny. What the hell was going on here? He frowned when he caught a glimpse of Blair's face. Actually, it almost made him smile when he saw Blair's narrowed eyes. He guessed he wasn't the only one feeling a little possessive lately.

"Okay, Herman," Simon said, "What do you think? That's two of your horses targeted. The horses had different owners, but are any other trainers having problems? Give me a common thread here. I don't like people destroying my property."

For the first time tonight, Jim realized just how angry Simon was. The loss of that magnificent life was bad enough, but the horse had belonged to Simon.

Herman looked thoughtful "There's a new trainer I've been seeing around the track, guy by the name of Lance Randall. He only has a few horses, and he's been harassing some of my owners to give him a try. I don't know why he decided to pick on me."

"Has he tried to intimidate anyone else? He hasn't approached me, I can tell you that," Simon growled.

"No offense, Simon, but Little Stogie wasn't the fiercest competitor on the track, you know." Herman smiled sadly.

Simon grimaced ruefully. "I know, I know. What about the other dead horse? Was he a potential Triple Crown winner, by any chance?"

Herman shook his head. "No, he was just like Little Stogie. I was about to tell his owner that putting him out to stud would probably pay better than racing him. His lineage was actually pretty good."

"What does this Randall look like?" Jim inquired.

"Well he's not tall, I can tell you that. Actually, he's kind of short. Shorter than Mr. Sandburg, here." Herman waved a hand in Blair's direction.

"That short, huh?" Simon grinned. Jim smiled, more because Simon was able to joke than at the actual comment itself.

Valentine smiled at Jim again. "Short enough that using the bolt accurately might be problematic for him without a step-stool." Once more, Jim felt warmed by the vet's grin. He knew better at this point than to even think about looking at Blair.

The five men sat in thoughtful silence for a moment.

Then Jim roused himself and said, "Okay, well, I think we're done here for now, Simon. I just want to go back and check out the stall again before we head back to town."

They stood up, Valentine saying, "I guess I'll be heading back, too. Maybe catch a few more hours of sleep, then check on the post on Rally Cap. They should be finishing up today."

Jim looked a question at Valentine, but it was Herman who answered. "Rally Cap's the other dead horse, a 2-year old belonging to a man named George Anthony."

"Oh." Jim nodded. "Okay, we'll be in touch." He turned to Simon and Sandburg, but Blair was already on his way out the door. Sighing inwardly, Jim followed him. Sandburg was headed towards the truck.

Okay, so he was going to check out the stall on his own this time. He guessed he could handle that. Simon paused halfway between his two men, looking perplexed. "Sandburg? You going with him?"

"Sure. Fine." Blair spun on his heel and headed back towards the stables. Simon's eyebrows snapped down as he watched Sandburg.

"Jim?"

Jim shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Simon." He followed Blair to Little Stogie's stall.

Ducking under the police tape, Sandburg entered the stall and stood rigid with anger, again avoiding the sight of the dead horse. Once inside, Jim adjusted his eyesight to the lights, dim now that Herman had turned off the overhead lighting system. He glanced at Sandburg. "Could you go get the flashlight out of the truck?"

Blair didn't move. "You don't need it."

"Well, it couldn't hurt, could it? Christ, Sandburg," Jim groused. There was no answer, just Blair waiting for him to get on with it.

Jim focused again, studying the floor of the stall around Little Stogie. It was concrete, and had probably been swept clean of dirt and straw during evening stables. It was possible there were tiny scrape marks in several spots about two feet away from each other, but he couldn't be sure. He concentrated, then blinked in frustration. "Goddammit, Sandburg, go get me the fucking flashlight!"

He looked up to see Blair disappear under the yellow tape. Christ! This state of war that existed between them was driving him fucking nuts. He thought he'd gotten over the initial anger he felt when he first read that stupid paper, but every time Sandburg got pissy, Jim got mad all over again.

What the hell right did Sandburg have, being pissed off at him? He was the injured party here, not Blair. Blair and his goddamn "academic perspective," his judgmental tone and his condescending "sex and intimacy aren't the same thing, Jim." The hell they weren't. What could be more intimate than sharing your body with someone? Someone you cared for deeply, someone you loved. Someone whose opinion mattered to you. He was suddenly embarrassed at how much he'd opened himself up to Blair, how far he'd let him in- and for what, so Sandburg could put all his weaknesses into words, clear and concise, for the whole world to read?

Fleetingly, Jim wondered if he would be as hurt and angry if the paper had spoken glowingly of Jim's prowess, talked only of his strengths. If he were honest with himself, what would he say to that? He thought of himself as a private person, so the idea of exposure of any kind was abhorrent to him. He was well aware that he hadn't really thought it through when Sandburg first proposed their unorthodox partnership to him, hadn't really considered what it might mean to be the only subject of an academic project dealing with such an obscure situation.

But this- this hurt.

"Jim. Yo, Ellison." Blair's voice startled him out of his thoughts. The flashlight appeared in front of his face, gripped in Blair's sturdy hand.

Jim grabbed the flashlight and shone it on the faint scratch marks on the floor. Sure enough, there were four marks, forming a square about two feet by two feet. "C'mere and look at this, Chief."

"I won't see anything, you know that, Jim," Blair stated flatly, not budging from where he stood with his arms folded across his chest.

Jim's jaw clenched and he stood, clicking off the flashlight. "Let's go." He shoved past Blair, under the police tape and out to his truck, not looking to see if his infuriating partner was behind him.

*

They were silent in the truck on the ride back to the station, Sandburg wedged between Jim and Simon on the bench seat. Blair never complained when that happened, because he wasn't insecure about his height, and he knew it just made sense not to try and make Simon sit in the middle. That was something Jim appreciated about Blair, he didn't make a big deal about stuff like that.

Simon kept glancing from Jim's face to Blair's, looking uneasy, but he didn't say anything. Jim expected that would come later, in Simon's office. Simon didn't like it when Jim and his partner squabbled. It made him nervous for some reason, like he was afraid something bad would happen if the lines of communication became tangled.

When they arrived at the police garage, Sandburg bounced out of the truck and headed for his car. "Chief? You coming up?"

"No. It's almost three thirty. I have a class this morning. I think I'll go home and sleep for awhile."

"I'll be right up, Simon. Give me a minute here," Jim said. Simon nodded and cast one more puzzled look at Sandburg before heading towards the elevator.

"Sandburg. Hold up. Blair! Wait a minute!" Jim's voice rose in exasperation.

Sandburg turned around. "What?"

Now that Blair had stopped, Jim wasn't sure what he wanted to say. "What the fuck is your problem?" came to mind, but he thought maybe that wouldn't be a good idea right now. He settled for, "What time is your class?"

He'd have been better off going with his first impulse. "Ten o'clock, Jim. It's Wednesday. Every Wednesday morning, I have a class from ten to twelve. Way to pay attention, man."

"So sue me for not memorizing your fucking schedule, Sandburg. Maybe I have- " he broke off, realizing the treacherous territory his words were headed for.

"More important things to think about?" Blair finished for him, his voice warning Jim to tread carefully.

"Don't put words in my mouth." Of course, that was what he'd been going to say. Although he knew Blair's schedule better than his own, down to the minute. What wasn't clear in his mind was if this was actually Wednesday.

"Forget it. I just wanted to let you know I'm not sure when I'll be home. I might go watch the post on Rally Cap with Valentine."

"Oh, right. The good doctor. Of course. Well, enjoy yourself."

Jim gave up. "What the fuck is your problem?"

"You're such a hypocrite," Blair hissed. He looked around the garage, seeing it wasn't quite empty, and continued whispering furiously. "You accuse me- you accuse me of- with that nurse- but you...! Look at you with that vet."

"First of all, I did not accuse you of anything, Sandburg. And what about Valentine? What are you talking about?" He knew exactly what Blair was talking about, the appraising way the vet had looked at him had been ripe with possibilities. Well, now Blair knew how it felt. "Are you afraid we might become intimate?"

"Fuck you, Jim."

"You wish, Sandburg," Jim said, feeling smug and incensed at the same time, watching the words hit Blair, watching him turn pale, his shoulders slumping.

"Yeah, I do wish, Jim," he said, looking suddenly defeated. "I do wish. Are we done here?" He turned back towards his car.

"Blair, wait." But Blair kept going. Jim closed his eyes. Blair didn't deserve this. Maybe he was asking the wrong person what the fuck their problem was.

*

Jim got back to the loft at eleven o'clock in the morning. He thought it was still Wednesday, but he couldn't swear to it. Jesus, he was tired. He had stayed with Valentine to watch the rest of the post-mortem on Rally Cap before heading for home. The horse had a small hole in his forehead, identical to the one in Little Stogie's.

He suddenly wanted Blair to be there, wanted to touch him with a desire so fierce that it made him catch his breath. God, it was so hard for him to let his guard down. If he trusted Blair, if he gave himself completely, what would happen when Blair decided he'd had enough, when someone more interesting, more attractive came along? Someone easier, for Christ's sake. When the dissertation was done, when the project was over, when Blair didn't need a Sentinel any longer, what then?

There was a message on the answering machine. Jim punched the button and listened. "Mr. Sandburg, this is Joseph Fitzgerald, from your dissertation committee. We've been having trouble reaching you at your office, it seems you haven't been there much this week." There was a slight trace of censure in the voice. "We really need to discuss your introductory chapter, Mr. Sandburg. Please get back to us and make an appointment."

Jim frowned. Those officious academic types always got under his skin.

Yawning hugely, he worried that taking a shower now would be risking the possibility of reviving him enough so that he couldn't get to sleep. On the other hand, he needed to get the stench of dead horse out of his nostrils, and a shower would give him the illusion that he had washed it away.

Shower it was, then. He scrubbed at his hair, knowing that odors consisted of molecules of the actual substance being smelled, and he was suddenly frantic to get the scent of old blood off of him. Smells were something he tried to avoid thinking about, because it creeped him out if he analyzed it too much. Even with pleasant aromas, he felt invaded if he starting picturing vanilla molecules, or whatever, wafting up his nose and lodging in his brain, or sticking to his skin, clinging to his hair and clothes. Sandburg didn't know that about him, and Jim didn't want him to. He already thought Jim was anal enough, it wouldn't do to give him irrefutable proof.

Sandburg. Now there was a scent he did think about. He wanted that scent on him, marking him, staying with him throughout the day. If Jim knew in the morning that he wasn't going to see Blair for most of the day, he made sure to touch him often before they left the loft. An extra kiss, finding a reason to brush against his hair. Sometimes he suspected Blair knew what he was doing, but he never said anything, just smiled and sometimes he would snuggle into Jim's chest, rubbing his cheek on Jim's shirt before saying goodbye.

Jim's eyes burned. That was real love, he thought, startled. Giving him what he needed without making a big deal out of it. Maybe protecting himself from Blair wasn't what he needed at all.

After his shower, Jim lay alone in his big bed. He didn't want to be alone. He trusted Blair with his life. Considering the dissertation, it looked like he was going to have to trust him with his reputation and professional life, too. Why was it so hard to trust him with his heart?

Because this was Sandburg. Before Jim, Sandburg had been an inconstant lover. Sandburg thought sex and intimacy were two different things. Sandburg had gone behind his back to talk to his ex-wife. This was supposed to be a project about Sentinels, not Jim's personal life. In the months they'd been sleeping together, with Jim falling more deeply in love with every passing day, needing Sandburg, had he been taking notes? Taking what he learned about Jim in bed, in the confines of an intimate relationship, and using it to write his paper? Applying it to what he thought he knew about Sentinels? Like Jim's "fear of intimacy" for example, thinking that was relevant to how far he could see, what he could smell, how he responded to touch? Jesus Christ. Jim's mouth went dry at the thought. Was that all Blair was here, in this bed, for?

No, it couldn't be. Because he loved Blair, and Blair loved him back. He wouldn't thoughtlessly expose him to the scrutiny and judgment of outsiders, without care or second thoughts. Jim clung to the certainty that Blair wouldn't do that. He needed to calm the fuck down, and stop being afraid. Blair wouldn't let anything hurt him, would he?

Exhausted almost beyond the ability to sleep, he nevertheless drifted, dozing fitfully for a time, until he heard Blair come in. He listened to the sounds of his partner putting his things away, opening and closing the refrigerator, making a sandwich. He heard the sounds of Blair settling on the couch, shifting around, then heard the deep, even breathing that meant he was asleep. In spite of his fears, he was comforted by Blair's presence, and he found his own eyes closing again.

*

When Jim next awoke, it was getting dark. Panicking for a moment, he looked at the clock and saw it was only six. Still, he had phone calls to make, people to talk to. He hadn't meant to sleep so long. He didn't feel particularly rested, and sent a silent prayer of thanks heavenward that he only had two more nights to work. If this was indeed still Wednesday. If it was, it was surely the longest Wednesday of his life. Six more hours to go until Thursday. Which promised to be just as long. He grimaced and got out of bed.

Pulling on jeans and a sweater, he padded downstairs barefoot, listening for Blair. He was in his old room, sitting on the bed, surrounded by old notebooks and tape cassettes. He was frowning down at whatever was in his hand, glasses sliding down his nose. Jim stood in the doorway, watching him, and finally Blair looked at him. "What's up, man?" he asked warily.

"I guess I am, but not by much," Jim answered. He had hopes that they could get through the evening without fighting.

Blair made a sympathetic face. "I hear that. This night shift thing is killing me, it must be hell for you." A sudden glimmer came into his eyes. "Does it screw with your senses? You haven't spent that much time working the night shift for long stretches since we got together. Jim, man, maybe we should study that."

Great. Just what he wanted to do. "Sandburg, don't you have enough data by now? Just write the damn paper and get it over with."

"That's just what I don't know if I can do, Jim. I thought I had enough, I have reams of stuff, but my committee...they're not so sure." He sighed. "I had a meeting with them today. They finally tracked me down," he laughed, but his eyes remained serious.

"Yeah, I heard the message on the machine today. That Fitzgerald guy didn't sound happy." Jim watched and waited, wondering how bad it was.

Blair looked down at his notes. "They think the data I have on you is fine, but it's not enough. They're having a problem with me only having one subject." Now he looked up at Jim. "They think I should find another Sentinel to study."

Jim blinked at him. Another Sentinel? Another Sentinel for Blair to study? To work with, evaluate, learn about? Another Sentinel to share Blair with? Not in this lifetime, no way. Not going to happen.

"No." The word was out before he knew he was going to say it, indisputable, unanswerable, irrevocable. "No."

"Chill, Jim. It's not like there's a list of names to choose from. You may be the only modern one, for all we know. Look how long it took me to find you. I don't have Sentinels lined up outside my office door. I told them that." He looked wistful for a moment, like he wished for exactly such a line-up, then shook his head and continued speaking. "I told them that."

"What did they say?" Jim had to force the words out through a throat suddenly tight with fear. Fear, and a wild, possessive jealousy that made him shake with anger.

Blair went on, unaware of the emotions raging in his partner. "They said they understood, they liked what I have so far, and I should go ahead and write it. A couple of them even seemed a little bit excited by it. They just think it would be better if I had a second subject." He focused on Jim, realizing that something was off. "Jim? What is it?"

"I don't share." His voice was tense. "For any reason." He felt hot, and his sweater scratched his skin, and his jeans were suddenly too confining. The room was confining, too, all those tapes and notebooks, all that evidence that he was Blair's project surrounding him.

He quickly turned, needing to escape from that room, but Blair was right behind him, grabbing his arm. Jim shook him off. "Don't. Don't touch me," he rasped.

"I don't share, either, Jim. Not you. Not with anyone. How can you not know that by now?" Blair's voice was angry and pleading at the same time. "I love you. I only want you."

Words. Blair was so good with words. They were so easy for him. Maybe he meant them, maybe he didn't. He probably thought he did, but Jim knew, he just knew how easily Blair could be seduced. Maybe not by another lover, but by another Sentinel. There was no way he could resist that.

Jim stumbled out to the living room. He leaned his arms on the back of the couch, breathing heavily. What choice did he have? He wanted to think he had a choice here, that he could live without Blair. He knew he could function, Blair had given him that, had given him the gift of control- in return for that fucking paper. He hadn't had any way beforehand of knowing how that would feel.

But he wanted Blair because Blair made him happy. He loved him. He didn't have a choice. He had to trust how he felt, and he had to trust Blair.

He straightened up and turned around. Blair was standing there, fear and hope in his eyes, waiting. Jim reached for him, and Blair was in his arms, shaking, rubbing his cheek on Jim's sweater. Marking him, leaving his scent there.

Jim's arms tightened. Blair lifted his head from under Jim's chin and looked at him. His eyes were damp, and his smile unsure. Jim lowered his head and kissed him, sweetly, tenderly, possessively. Their mouths moved together with growing urgency, until Jim couldn't breath, and he groaned as he slid his mouth away from Blair's, and now his eyes were wet, he couldn't help it

"I need to be upstairs, Jim. Please let me back upstairs." Blair's words were soft, but they hit Jim hard. Had he really done that, shut Blair out, made him feel as if he needed permission to sleep with Jim again?

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "Come on." He pulled Blair along behind him, up the stairs, up to the bed that he knew was too big for him alone.

*

When Blair reached the top of the stairs, he stopped, looking around like he'd been gone for a very long time, studying the room curiously as if he expected major changes to have occurred. Eyes bright, he moved to the side of the bed, with an air of diffidence, as if he were not entirely sure of his welcome. He stood motionless for a moment, and then he smiled. Jim forgot to breathe.

"Come here," Blair said.

Jim's every touch was an apology, each kiss an attempt to convey his remorse for how things were between them. Blair wouldn't allow him to use words for that, placing two fingers over his mouth when he tried, saying, "Don't, Jim." And in truth, Blair's way was better, because words wouldn't fix what was wrong, and Jim knew it. This probably wouldn't fix it either, but it couldn't hurt, and at least it was a connection of some kind. Passion kept other emotions at bay, if only while Blair was licking the back of his neck.

Blair took him gently, determinedly, turning him firmly on his stomach, and Jim let him back into his body the same way he let him back into his bed, with love and a kind of desperate relief.

Blair was tender and slow and adamant, taking back what Jim had denied him with every implacable thrust. Feeling Blair move deep within him had Jim precariously on the verge of tears, and he steeled himself against it. "Please," he whispered. "Please." He didn't know what he was pleading for, but it didn't matter. Whatever it was, Blair would give it to him if he could.

Blair kissed his shoulder soothingly. "Shhh. It's okay." He pulled out and urged Jim onto his back before slipping back in. They tried to maintain eye contact as Blair thrust, but when he came, Blair turned away and closed his eyes.

Jim also looked away, as isolated in his fear as Blair was in his pleasure.

*

He woke up to find Blair watching him, expression serious.

"What?"

"We both know sex doesn't solve everything, Jim." He paused. "I know the dissertation bothers you. I don't know what to do about it. I never meant to make you feel...it's like it's beyond my control anymore. It's taken on a life of it's own, and we're stuck or something."

Jim considered his answer. "Maybe if we keep trying. If we pay attention, watch out for each other..." He didn't know what else to say.

Blair took a deep breath. "I love you."

"I love you, too." Jim hoped that wasn't beside the point. "I'd better get moving, I've got things to do." He stopped. "You coming in tonight?"

"Yeah, sure. I'll go in with you, if that's all right." Blair sounded like he still wasn't positive of his welcome.

"Let's go, Chief. Get your ass out of bed."

Bair grinned at him. Jim grinned back. It felt good to do that again.

*

Simon's face was grim. "The warrant will be ready this morning. I take it you gentlemen will be wanting to deliver it?"

"You bet your ass, Simon. And I think the whole Cigar Club is planning on showing up." Sandburg bounced in his seat, looking like he was ready to personally mete out justice to the man who had callously and deliberately wasted the lives of two beautiful horses just to persuade owners to do business with him.

Not really the brightest idea anyone ever had, thought Jim wryly. George Anthony had been incensed when he learned of their suspicions about Lance Randall. He had been most helpful, informing Jim that, yes, Randall had started out by wooing him with promises of increasing his winning percentage, then progressed to bad-mouthing Herman, saying he was unreliable and couldn't be counted on to take good, basic care of the horses entrusted to him.

Jim and Blair had thought about how to explain the evidence Jim had found. They agreed to continue with the "coincidental" spotting of the blood on Little Stogie's forehead, since Dr. Valentine had already bought that explanation, albeit with some bemusement on his part. Jim agreed to omit any mention of the scuffmarks on the floor of the stall, because they were too small for anyone to have picked up using ordinary eyesight. "We don't need it, man. We can get him without it. Brown and Rafe found the bolt he used, right there in the display case in his office. It had his prints and Little Stogie's blood on it. Jesus, what a moron this guy is, huh?"

"Yeah, Sandburg, a real idiot. Shove over and give me some room to type, would you?"

Blair grinned and bopped him on the head with the evidence folder. "Just get it done, so we can go arrest this guy and go home. For the whole weekend. And then we're back among the living next week, thank God. This has been one long night shift from hell."

Jim smiled. "I hear that, Chief. I hear that."

*

Epilogue

Blair sat on the edge of Jim's hospital bed, his thigh against Jim's hip. Simon would think that was a little weird, but Blair didn't really give a shit. This was the second time in a month Jim had been injured, and it was worse this time. This time Jim had needed surgery, and the doctors wanted to keep him here. Blair didn't give a rat's ass at this point what Simon might think.

Jim's skin was hot, and Blair hoped the doctors were using the right antibiotics, the ones Blair knew worked best. He knew, better than anyone, what worked, but if he got too emphatic about it, people started looking at him like they were about to ask to see his medical license. So he pushed his opinions and his knowledge gently, inexorably, until he got what he wanted. If Blair Sandburg was an expert at anything concerning Jim Ellison, it was pushing.

He listened to Jim, concentrating on the solid warmth of his body where it connected with Blair's. He knew Simon was right, they should leave and let Jim rest, but he wanted to know more about the spotted jaguar Jim had seen during the convenience store hold-up. It felt important, somehow.

Blair reluctantly stood up, the loss of the physical contact between them leaving him feeling bereft, and a little unnerved. Simon was waiting for him impatiently, watching him, so all he could do was smile and say, "Take care."

Later, Jim, he thought. We'll talk about this later.