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End of the Rainbow?

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End of the Rainbow? Katef July 2019

Introduction: A Gradual Awakening:

A year on from TS by BS:

As he had done so many times before, Jim watched his partner at work, but for some reason, on this occasion he actually registered what he was witnessing, and for once considered and truly acknowledged the younger man’s demeanour and performance. And the results of his ruminations were disturbing to say the least, especially where his habitually deliberately repressed guilty conscience was concerned.

Blair was crouched before a small child who was seated on a ratty sofa before him. He gently grasped the kid’s hands as he held the youngster’s liquid gaze, his murmured words of understanding and his warm, sympathetic expression gradually working through the child’s distress to connect with and comfort him. It was what he was so good at. Still an anthropologist at heart, even if no longer in academia, Blair was a true ‘people person’, able to empathise with victims such as this. Something that Jim knew he himself wouldn’t willingly do unless under pressure, and in the absence of his younger partner.

The partner who was still with him. Still hanging in there despite everything that had happened between them. And for once Jim felt compelled to analyse their relationship as objectively as possible, even if he didn’t like what he would see. The uneasy limbo had gone on long enough.

In this particular instance, the cops had been called to the most recent in the spate of bloody turf wars between two rival gangs, the Rappers and the Deuces. The shabby apartment block which housed the child, Leroy Hutchins, and his single mom Charmianne amongst other disparate residents was the disputed location this time, and by the time the cops had arrived and gotten the situation under control, there had been several casualties and fatalities including gang members and some innocent bystanders. And two of those bystanders had been little kids, Leroy’s playmates and best friends, caught in the crossfire as the gangstas battled it out between them.

It was hardly surprising then that Leroy was in deep shock, and Blair was doing his level best to help both the child and his distraught mother to cope with the aftermath. Not that it was something the child would ever really get over even if he were in a position to access expensive, on-going therapy; that hardly being a possibility in this case, and both Blair and Jim knew it. However, it didn’t prevent Blair from doing his best under the circumstances, and it was to be hoped that both child and parent would be able to at least continue to benefit from the Victim Support Group Sandburg had recently set up within the PD.

Jim sighed internally, hurting for the boy and also for his partner, knowing that it was yet another layer of empathic pain and disillusion to add to the many already coating the younger man’s gentle soul, and once again he felt that familiar pang of guilt at being the main reason why Blair was suffering.

Not that it was all his fault. Blair had chosen to study him after all, with the intention of writing that damned ‘Sentinel’ dissertation; and Jim had agreed under duress because he had so desperately needed the young grad student’s help and guidance. But how was he to know that Blair would learn all about commitment to and real friendship for his research subject? No one had ever cared for him that way before, so it wasn’t really surprising that he had reacted badly towards the younger man so many times, even if it was uncomfortable in retrospect.

But had he really made the effort to explain how he felt to Blair? He had a sinking feeling that he had failed miserably in that department, even as he had failed to truly apologise for his bitter and angry reactions and accusations even after learning about the true source of the dissertation’s leak. Naomi might have been the unwitting culprit in her desire to help her son, but Jim had still continued to blame Blair for his carelessness even after the kid’s self-immolation for Jim’s sake. And he knew in his heart of hearts that he still did. Still couldn’t quite get over what he had perceived as Blair’s culpability in leaving Jim’s name in the first draft after all, whatever the reason behind it.

And now here they were, months on and still together. A strange, brittle relationship that neither man seemed to want to break up, but which was going nowhere despite their joint and individual successes at work.

All of a sudden, Jim was heartily sick of the situation, finally prepared to face up to his own deficiencies in order to try and break through the cool, polite barrier that had grown up between them, even though the gods knew it was going to be an uphill battle for a man who recognised that he was still the taciturn, self-centred and repressed individual he had been for so many years; Blair’s benign influence notwithstanding.

It was past time to put Blair first for once, even though Jim wasn’t at all sure how to proceed after all that had come between them, because for sure it had been the younger man who had suffered the most from his devotion to his unworthy friend and sentinel.

Watching Blair working with Leroy, his gentle understanding gradually soothing and calming both mother and son, Jim thought back over the past year, trying to revisit all the major events objectively, and also look at them from Blair’s perspective. And perhaps inevitably his conclusions weren’t all that reassuring or satisfactory at all.

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Twelve months previously, MCU bullpen:

“Oh, man! I can’t tell you how much this means to me, Jim, Simon. All of you! It’s so much more than I could hope for or deserve. B…but I need to think about this. To talk it through? Please?”

Jim winced now as he recalled Blair’s wildly fluctuating emotional reactions and words, etched in his memory as was every last detail of the occasion of that infamous badge offer. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and now he realised just how impracticable it had been, even though both he and Simon had been both angered and disappointed to have that gently but firmly pointed out to them in the ensuing discussion in Simon’s office. But as Blair had patiently explained afterwards, it had had some positive effects after all.

Jim knew that he had been sadly remiss in communicating with his partner after the whole ‘diss’ and Keller debacle; a trend that had dogged their relationship for months from even before the appearance of Alex Barnes and the dreaded ‘fountain’ issue. And he had continued in the same vein ever since, not learning from the omission as he knew he should have done. All the times he had ignored or shut Sandburg out replayed in his memory, and the recollection truly hurt.

So it was hardly surprising that the badge offer had taken Blair completely by surprise. He had arrived in the bullpen; having just cleared out his office at Rainier, wanting to take what he believed was a last look around. He had honestly believed that his presence was no longer wanted nor needed, thinking that he was now persona non grata amongst his former friends and colleagues. And what did they do? Burst in on him unawares, cracking ill-conceived jokes and expecting him to swallow it down and come up bouncing like the smart-mouthed, ebullient grad student of their early days together. And how ridiculous was that? Blair had grown progressively quieter and more withdrawn for months previously, undoubtedly in response to Jim’s own on-again, off-again attitude towards him. But his emotions had been there for all to see on his mobile features. Anxiety, hurt and confusion, replaced by tentative hope and relief. But at the bottom of it all, he must have realised from the outset that the offer was nothing more than a well-intentioned gesture, even though Blair had insisted that it was a gesture he welcomed more than he could say.

Once the gang had dispersed, including Naomi, who was only there under duress anyway, Jim, Blair and Simon had adjourned to Simon’s office. As Simon was still in his wheelchair, Jim had sat beside him to rest his own injured leg while Blair paced nervously before them, running his hands through his long locks as he was wont to do when stressed. Finally he had turned to face them, his eyes pleading for understanding as he began to speak.

“Si…er…Captain, Jim. I can’t tell you how much your offer means to me, but I can’t accept it. I’m sorry.”

Both Simon and Jim had immediately opened their mouths to contradict him, affronted and angered by the refusal, but Blair had held up his hands to halt their words.

“Please, guys, let me explain before you start. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you and the gang don’t seem to consider me to be such a pariah after all. I thought you’d all hate me for my stupidity in causing the mess in the first place. But don’t you see? There’s no way I can accept that badge even if I did want to go to the academy, which I don’t. Although I’ve loved working with Jim, I’m still not comfortable with the idea of carrying, and I’m sure I’d be expected to do at least a short stint in uniform. And I’m just not happy with all those rules and regulations,” and he had chuckled in wry self-deprecation then. “More importantly,” he continued soberly, “a self-confessed fraud couldn’t go on the witness stand, and besides, what would the other cops think? If my confession were to be believed, then for sure Jim would kick me out on my ear, not keep me on as a partner. So if I stay and take the badge, they’ll think there must be something to the ‘sentinel’ stuff after all. And I can’t risk that, not after doing everything I can to clean up my mess.

“But the fact that you’ve been kind enough to show me that I still have friends despite what I’ve done gives me the courage to try and ameliorate my situation somewhat. Maybe even enough to allow me to stay with Jim in some capacity if that’s what he wants.

“Er, I do still have you as friends, don’t I?” and he had gazed beseechingly from one to the other, the hope in his eyes mingled with fear that he had alienated them after all.

And really, what could they say? He was right, and was only reiterating the observations and misgivings of TPTB, who had been reluctant to accede to Simon’s suggestion in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, Simon had scowled ferociously, yet Jim believed now that he had been perversely relieved at Blair’s refusal. He did at least have the consolation of knowing that he had done his best for the kid in very difficult circumstances. On the other hand, Jim had been furious; seething with self-righteous indignation; and it had taken a good deal of persuasion from both Sandburg and Banks to calm him down enough to actually listen to what Blair proposed to do. But once he had accepted and understood where Blair was coming from, he grudgingly admitted now that it had been the right course of action. Indeed, it was the only course of action that could have had any chance of success. And if he had continued to fight against it, he knew now that Blair had been ready to walk away; to remove his disruptive presence from Jim’s life even if it had cost him everything he had left to give.

Assured of his friends’ support, despite Jim’s initial disappointment, Blair had gone about picking up the pieces of his life even though he continued to insist that his paper had been nothing but fiction in order to protect Jim. With the blessing of both the very relieved and cooperative Chief of Police and Commissioner; now fully apprised of the whole ‘sentinel’ issue; a small, internal meeting of the heads of each department was called, with the intention that they disseminate the carefully edited information revealed therein to their personnel as appropriate. Blair’s press conference was explained away as the only way to divert attention away from Jim during an important on-going investigation; Chief Warren stressing the selfless and courageous nature of Blair’s response to the disruptive media presence.

While Jim admitted to having better than average sight and hearing, Blair stubbornly maintained that the ‘Sentinel’ paper had been no more than the first draft of a novel loosely based on his observation of Jim’s results; leaked by accident and misrepresented as his actual doctoral dissertation. After all, it hadn’t been formally submitted, and that was something the Board of Governors at Rainier had been forced to concede. He was therefore able to get a grudging apology from the U on behalf of Chancellor Edwards on the grounds that the woman had been just as culpable in leaking his intellectual property as had Sid Graham at Berkshire Publishing.

The thinly-veiled threat of prosecution in both cases for interfering with police procedure, thanks to the media frenzy the information had instigated, had also led to Blair receiving a substantial out-of-court settlement from Berkshire Publishing, and the firing of Sid Graham for bringing the company into disrepute.

However, although Edwards was also guilty of wrongful dismissal in Blair’s case, it was made plain that he wouldn’t get his teaching fellowship back, even if he wanted it. There was simply too much ill feeling all round, and Blair was sadly aware that, despite his many years of loyal service to the U, his presence wasn’t required any longer, at least by some of the stiff-necked members of the Board of Governors who didn’t appreciate being humiliated, and not a few stuffed-shirt Professors who had long been jealous of young Sandburg’s precocious talent, popularity and acknowledged academic reputation.

The upshot of these relatively unobtrusive but reasonably successful machinations was that Blair was eventually offered a position at the PD as a civilian consultant, making best use of his Master’s degree in Anthropology and his Psych minor. His anthropological expertise could be called upon by whichever department might need it, while his acknowledged empathy made him the ideal person to set up a Victim Support Group and Helpline, which was something the Mayor was very keen to see created even if it was for the good PR it generated for City Hall rather than genuine altruism. And of course he still rode with Jim whenever required, which was more often than not. Within the PD as a whole Blair had been received with, if not exactly fanfare and celebrations, at least a measure of acceptance, while amongst his friends and colleagues he was welcomed back with kindness and affection.

It hadn’t all been plain sailing, however, and that went for Jim and Blair’s relationship also.

Although hugely relieved to be treated kindly by his friends and colleagues, yet Blair never reverted to his former, ebullient, grad student personality. Too deeply hurt by so many past traumatic incidents and cruel words, he now kept himself to himself much more, clutching a protective shell around him and more cynical in his outlook. He no longer offered his opinions freely, although he never held back either his help or advice when requested. He claimed to be satisfied and happy with his new life, although Jim could discern the sadness he couldn’t quite disguise in his big blue eyes, and Jim longed to be able to pierce that protective shield even as he thought that he no longer had the right to try. At the end of the day, Blair had been a far better friend to Jim than Jim had been to Blair, and far more than he deserved, and Jim was ruefully aware that he wasn’t the only one with that opinion.

Indeed, as he continued to ponder along those lines, Jim grimaced internally as he recalled the cutting words of Megan Conner, the Australian exchange officer who had befriended Blair in particular. With her tour of duty up, she had returned to her home country a couple of months ago, and Jim knew that Blair missed her lively presence and unstinting support very much although he knew that they kept in touch through regular emails. For his part, he wasn’t sorry to see the back of her, but he regretted her absence for Blair’s sake if for nothing else. Apart from Simon, and now Chief Warren and the Commissioner, Megan had been the only member of the PD and Major Crimes specifically who had known for sure about Jim’s ability. Although she had kept her word to Blair to keep their secret, she had made no bones about letting Jim know what she thought of his behaviour after her beloved Sandy’s self-destruction at the infamous press conference. Cornering Jim in the break room, she had rounded on him, getting up into his face as she hissed in disgust.

“How could you? How could you stand by and let Sandy crucify himself for you like that, you ungrateful bugger? You know as well as I do that he’s no fraud! Call yourself a friend? You’re nothing but a user and a yellow-bellied bastard, Jim Ellison, and you know it!”

Of course, at the time Jim had responded in angry denial, clutching his self-righteous affront to him like a shield, but afterwards he had been forced to admit to himself that she had been right. Fear-based responses again for sure, and Blair had been right about that all along, dammit.

And it had to be said that she wasn’t alone in her opinion, if not as regards the actual sentinel issue, but in his colleagues’ perception of Jim’s reaction to his partner’s sacrifice. Blair’s reception on his return to the PD might have been far better than the young man had expected, but Jim was well aware of the lukewarm attitude some of his own friends and fellow detectives displayed towards him now, and sentinel hearing had picked up far more derogatory comments about his own behaviour than about Blair’s unintentional cockup. Indeed, the young man had garnered far more sympathy and understanding than he had ever realised simply because of his willingness to fall on his sword for his partner.

Looking on while Blair gently disengaged from Leroy and Charmianne, knowing that the young man would be urging them to use the Support Group as much as needed, Jim determined that he’d let Blair know how much his efforts were appreciated.

Allowing the smaller man to precede him out of the tiny, shabby apartment, Jim clapped a friendly hand on Blair’s shoulder. When his partner turned to peer inquisitively up at him, he said gruffly. “You did good today, Chief. If anyone could help those two, it was you.”

He was somewhat startled at the incredulous look that crossed Blair’s expressive face before the smaller man replied rather tardily, “Er, thanks, Jim. Um, that’s good of you to say, man…”

Unaccountably irritated by the diffident response, Jim frowned and automatically went on the offensive – again. “What’s that look supposed to mean, Sandburg? Can’t you take a simple compliment?”

Trying for dry humour to defuse the situation, Blair chuckled ruefully, and shook his head, “Sure I can, man. It’s just that I don’t expect them from you!”

And yet again Jim erupted, unable to stop the angry words spilling from his lips. “What the hell are you talking about, Sandburg? Are you saying that I don’t appreciate you?”

Blair stopped dead in front of him, his face now dark with sudden fury as he spun around to face the taller man. “No, Jim, you don’t!” he spat, jabbing at Jim’s sternum with his forefinger. However, just as suddenly as it had arisen, the flash of rage dissipated, leaving the younger man’s face tired and disillusioned. As Jim looked on, momentarily speechless, he turned away and began to walk off, waving one hand in a listless, backward gesture of dismissal. “You know what, Jim? It doesn’t matter. Forget it. See you back at the ‘pen, man,” and he continued to make his way down the dirty corridor, shoulders slumped in defeat.

For a long moment, an astonished Jim watched his partner’s departure, stunned by the unexpected glimpse of the ‘old Blair’ who had never been afraid to get up into Jim’s face if he thought it necessary, only to see it disappear again as if it had never happened. Gods! He knew that Blair had changed, but hadn’t realised just how much. Hadn’t wanted to recognise it if the truth were told.

Shaking himself out of his temporary funk, he hurried down the corridor in Blair’s wake, arriving at the building’s exit just in time to see his partner climbing into his pre-owned, black Prius, which he had bought with part of his settlement money to replace his beloved but now unreliable Volvo.

Growling in anger, Jim climbed into his own truck and followed Sandburg back to the PD, determined now to find out exactly where Blair was coming from. However, although he reached the bullpen at almost the same time as Sandburg, he had no opportunity to confront the younger man before he was summoned peremptorily to Simon’s office.

Scowling in irritation, Jim obeyed with ill-grace, casting a heated glance over at Blair, who was now seated at Jim’s desk; head down as he busied himself with some task or other and ignoring Jim completely.

As Jim entered his office, Simon looked up from where he was seated behind his desk and indicated a chair. “Take a load off, Jim,” he began affably enough. “You can give me a run-down on today’s incident in a moment, but first off, explain to me why Sandburg has arrived looking as if someone ran over his puppy? Was it something you said?”

Instinctively bridling again at the criticism, even if it was warranted, Jim snapped, “What makes you say that, sir? Why should you always assume that whatever upsets Sandburg is always my fault?”

Lips thinning in annoyance, Simon matched his detective’s scowl with one of his own as he growled uncompromisingly, “Because it usually is, Ellison! For God’s sake, man, can’t you cut him some slack even now?”

Frowning, Jim looked genuinely mystified as he muttered, “I don’t know what you mean, sir. What else am I supposed to do? I mean, now he’s got a job; which I admit he’s good at; and we’re still living together at the loft. He’s salvaged some of his academic reputation, even though I know it must be hard not to be able to go back to Rainier. I realise now, as do you, that it would have been a mistake for him to accept that badge, but when everything’s said and done, things have turned out OK. Haven’t they? I don’t know what else we could have done. Not without me coming out as a sentinel after all, and Blair himself said he didn’t expect that.”

Simon stared at him, his expression speculative as he said, “Have you discussed all this with him lately, Jim, or are you two still dancing around each other? I mean, I have no complaints about both your continued success rates, and the kid’s certainly made a success of the Victim Support thing, but it seems to me that Blair should be happier with his lot than he is. He always used to be the eternal optimist; a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy who irritated the shit out of me, truth be told; and although I realise things have hardly been easy for him over the last couple years, I would have expected him to be more cheerful by now. Unless, of course, the object of his love and loyalty still refuses to reciprocate!”

Astounded, Jim stared at his boss and friend for a moment, wondering what the hell he’d missed? “Wh…what are you talking about, sir? Love? Blair loves who?”

Throwing up his hands in frustration, Simon replied testily, “Oh, for God’s sake, Jim! You’re the sentinel, man! Can’t you see what’s in front of your face even now? That boy loves you, Jim! Why else would he still be here? He’s given up years of his life for you, with little to show for it except a cobbled-together position here at the PD which isn’t anything like what he would have enjoyed if he’d gotten his doctorate after all. Have you ever even thanked him for everything he’s done for your sake?”

Jim gaped at him for a while as his friend’s words hit home. Hit him where it hurt, it had to be said. Like Megan before him, Simon had no problem with telling Jim a few home truths, and this time he actually took them on board. Forced to confront the situation honestly at last, it was as plain as day now that they were right. What was it that weird Gabe character had said all those months ago about seeing for miles but unable to see what was in front of his very nose? Or listen to the whispers of his heart.

It was true. Had to be. Why else was Blair still here, clinging on gamely to the remnants of their friendship even in the face of Jim’s continuing, wilfully blinkered emotional blindness? He really did love Jim.

Well, damn.

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Part 2: A Dire Situation:

Later that night, the loft:

Jim was guiltily aware of a sense of relief to find the loft empty on his return from work. His thoughts and emotions had been in turmoil all afternoon, ever since his forced ‘epiphany’ in Simon’s office; and he didn’t yet know how he was going to deal with the ramifications. Blair had left him pretty much to his own devices since returning from the gang shoot-out, plainly still nursing his hurt from Jim’s latest jibe, and understandably so, as Jim reluctantly admitted to himself. So much for his good intentions to try and put his partner first! He had resorted yet again to his instinctive, defensive anger, allowing the destructive emotion to rule him despite everything, and he was heartily ashamed of himself even as he was sickened by his lack of control. For the gods’ sake, he was turned forty, and still erupting like Mt Ellison every time he believed himself threatened or criticised. It was pathetic. Truly pathetic, and he could have screamed in self-directed outrage and humiliation.

Except that that wouldn’t achieve anything worthwhile, and he knew it. Get a grip, Ellison! he admonished himself. Just try and think this through without blowing up for once in your sad life!

The trouble was that he honestly didn’t know what to make of Simon’s insistence that his partner loved him. Was in love with him, and apparently had been for years. Oh, he loved Blair too in his own way, even if he didn’t acknowledge it much, but was it enough? Was it the kind of love Blair plainly desired? The everlasting, ‘til death do us part kind of commitment? Certainly, if Jim dared to consider it, he did love the younger man for his continuing support and companionship. No one had ever stood by him like Blair had even if Jim sometimes had trouble believing it, which was a deficiency on his part rather than Sandburg’s. And Blair was an attractive man after all. Far more than just ‘cute’, he was beautiful in a purely masculine way, both inside and out, and Jim had that momentous merge at the fountain to thank for that intimate if unsought knowledge.

But Jim had never thought of himself as anything but straight, and didn’t know if he could love Blair that way even if he wanted to. He knew all about the mechanics – had his stint in Vice to thank for that – but even working undercover had never been unduly tempted.

But then again, would it be so hard? They already rubbed along like an old married couple, and had done for years now; just without the sex. And by the way, when had Blair last dated? Damned if Jim could remember.

All of a sudden, it was just too much, and he snagged a beer from the refrigerator, intending to kick back for a few until Blair got home. And then perhaps they might have that meaningful discussion after all.

Yeah, and pigs might…? Not!

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Much later that night Blair arrived home, exhaustion dragging at him as he let himself into the loft. He had deliberately stayed on at the PD after Jim had left, unable and unwilling to face up to the sort of confrontation he would have expected as par for the course, being simply too heart-sick on this occasion to stand up for himself. So he had settled in to complete all his outstanding paperwork, as well as some of Jim’s, and had then volunteered for an extra shift manning the Helpline.

Listening to other folks’ troubles had put his own into perspective, so eventually, although still unhappy, he had felt able to go home at last. He just hoped that Jim was already in bed. It was what he would have expected after all, knowing how much Jim hated any sort of prolonged dissonance between them. The sentinel’s MO was to either confront the problem head on, with a view to solving it immediately, or if it couldn’t be solved to his satisfaction, then he would utilise the tried and tested ‘Ellison repression technique’, and bury it deep down where it couldn’t bother him anymore.

Dropping his keys into the basket by the door, he toed off his sneakers and turned towards his room, refraining from turning on the lights and relying instead on the muted glow from the nightlight plugged into the corridor leading to the bathroom. All being well, he wouldn’t disturb Jim, and could fall into his own bed to grab a few hours’ much needed rest. He hoped.

Suddenly, however, he nearly jumped out of his skin when a tall figure rose up in front of him from where it had been seated on the sofa in virtual darkness.

“Holy shit, Jim!” he gasped, his heart pounding as if it was trying to beat its way out of his chest. “Don’t do that, man! You nearly gave me a heart attack! What the hell are you doing still up?”

When Jim didn’t reply immediately, he squinted up into the taller man’s face, trying to make out his expression in the dim light. “Is it the senses, Jim? What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do?”

He heard Jim sigh deeply, but didn’t know the reason for it, other than something was upsetting the older man. But if he had but known, he might have been surprised. Because it wasn’t a sigh of anger or irritation, unless on behalf of Blair rather than directed at him. Instead it was because Jim realised that yet again the younger man had automatically set aside his own troubles in order to concentrate his attention on Jim; the ‘guide’, as they were wont to describe him - courtesy of Lee Brackett’s terminology - ready to do whatever was necessary to help the sentinel even at his own expense.

Shaking his head sadly, Jim reached out and gripped the smaller man’s shoulder. He knew Blair couldn’t really make out his expression, but the near-darkness was no hindrance to sentinel sight, and he was upset at the anxious frown marring Blair’s already weary features.

“No, Chief,” he murmured patiently, determined to curb his irritation for once and look out for Blair’s comfort. “It’s not the senses, so you can stop worrying. And I’m sorry I scared you. I guess I just dozed off while I was waiting for you to arrive. You’re really late, Chief. No wonder you look exhausted. You want to go straight to bed?”

He should have known that Blair would detect the slightly wistful tone in his query and respond accordingly, unselfish to the last.

“I’m OK, Big Guy. You want to tell me why you’re waiting up? ‘Cause I gotta say I’m not really up to much right now if it’s not urgent. But I’ll do what I can, you know that.”

Jim squeezed the shoulder beneath his hand gently, acknowledging his friend’s generosity. This should be so easy. Would be, for almost anyone else but a repressed, anal cop. But for Jim, it took a second or two to collect himself before he could vocalise the sentiments he wanted to share.

“Uh, I know that, Chief. It’s what you do. What you always do. But no. It’s nothing urgent. I…uh…just wanted to apologise for this afternoon. For losing my temper.

“You were right, Chief. I don’t tell you often enough how much I appreciate your work, both for me and the PD. How much I appreciate you.

“I’m sorry, Blair. All I can say is that I’ll try to do better, OK?”

This time he almost snickered at the classic double-take his clearly unexpected words elicited. Blair’s expression was a picture. Honest-to-goodness surprise tinged with shy pleasure, his wide blue eyes searching Jim’s face as best he could in the shadows.

“Oh man,” he breathed at last, his voice deep and affectionate. “I’ll bet that was hard to say!”

“You have no idea, Chief!” chuckled Jim, his own expression now one of fondness and relief. But the strange thing was that, now he had made the effort to speak his feelings out loud, it really did feel better, especially as Blair had received them so well. Now, if he could only keep up the good work.

But that could wait for now, as could the potentially troublesome topic of his partner’s possible desire for a more intimate relationship, because Blair was plainly dead on his feet, and needed his bed. At least Jim believed that the young man might possibly be able to get a decent night’s sleep for once; and truly hoped that he would be able to continue to do so. It was no more than he deserved after all.

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Following morning:

Jim was just putting the finishing touches to a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast when his partner emerged from his small room, sniffing appreciatively as he fought to tame his long curls and pull them into a neat ponytail at his nape. The older man surreptitiously scanned his friend as he advanced, pleased to note a definite improvement in Blair’s appearance. Still somewhat haggard, for sure – and when did he lose so much weight? – but his eyes looked less haunted and the lines of old weariness etched into his attractive features were slightly softened by a few hours’ undisturbed sleep.

Grinning cheerfully, Blair greeted him. “Morning, Jim. Smells good. And is that a fresh pot of coffee I see?”

“Yeah, it is, Chief, and good morning to you too. Sit yourself down, and tuck in. We’ve got plenty of time before we have to make a move.”

Blair did as he was bid, for once feeling hungry and able to eat. Amazing what a decent rest could do for you, he thought as he spooned fluffy eggs onto his plate. But it was more than that, and he knew it. It was more because of the welcome change in Jim’s attitude towards him, however fleeting, and how sad was that? Goddess! You’ve got it so bad, you sad shmuck! he castigated himself. But he’d take what he could get anyway. A life without Jim was inconceivable, whatever the cost to himself.

As for Jim, he was thinking along the same lines, except that it didn’t give him any real pleasure on account of his guilty conscience. How had he not been able to see just how much a simple bit of encouragement and a kind word could buoy up his younger partner’s fragile ego? Even if he could never be what Blair wanted him to be in terms of a sexual relationship, there was no reason why he couldn’t at least help restore Sandburg to physical and mental health. To be the friend he should have been all along. A platonic partnership of equals was far better than what they had at present, and Jim knew it. It had always been about him, and he cringed as he acknowledged that sad fact. And had accepted it as his due. But not anymore, if only he could live up to his good intentions.

Having finished up a respectable portion of eggs, and drained his second cup of coffee, Blair stood up from the table and picked up his plate to take it to the sink to wash. “You finished with your plate, Jim?” he asked. “I’ll just do a quick clean up before I have to go. Laurel in Burglary wants to pick my brains about some case she’s working on, and the sooner the better, I gather.”

Jim looked up and grinned, shaking his head. “S’OK, Chief, just leave it. I can do the honours before I have to leave. I’ve only got paperwork waiting for me this morning, as far as I know.”

Blair smiled back. “Thanks, then, Jim. Um, I think you might find you haven’t got as much paperwork as you think, though,” he added diffidently, a blush spreading over his face.

Jim frowned in puzzlement for a second until the penny dropped and his face cleared. “Is that what you were doing last night, Chief?” he murmured, fond exasperation colouring his tone. “Look, kiddo, thank you. I mean that. But you didn’t have to, especially when you’re so overworked yourself. I am grateful, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t want you doing it again without checking with me first, OK? Despite what you think, I’m a big boy, and I can do my own grunt work if I have to. It’s just quicker and better if you do it for me,” he snickered sardonically.

“Seriously, though, we need to talk about this compulsion you have to wait on me hand and foot. But perhaps not right now,” he added with a small smile, seeing that Blair was looking distinctly uncomfortable now, and the last thing he wanted to do was upset his friend again after such a promising start to the day.

“You get going, Chief, and I’ll follow on when I’m done. See you back in the bullpen once you’ve finished in Burglary? Perhaps we can grab an early lunch.”

Blair relaxed again, even though he was still obviously mulling over what Jim had said. “Sure, OK then, man. See you later. And thanks again for the breakfast!” and with that he returned to his room briefly to grab his backpack, then he donned his jacket, retrieved his keys from the basket and sketched Jim a jaunty salute as he let himself out. And didn’t see the pained expression that settled on his sentinel’s face as he closed the door behind him.

Jim stared at the closed door for long minutes, automatically tracking his young partner’s trip down to his car. Only when the Prius started up and pulled away did Jim dial back his hearing, and his gaze dropped to fix unseeingly on the plate in front of him while his thoughts rattled around in his brain, determined to be noticed and duly considered.

All these years Blair had been doing Jim’s reports and busy work for him whenever possible; diligently and unquestioningly even when he had jokingly bitched about it in the early days of their friendship when things had been so easy between them. And when their relationship had grown increasingly strained in more recent times, he had still done it, and Jim had let him. And damned if he could recall the last time he had actually registered it, let alone thanked Blair for it. It seemed to him to be yet another instance of his self-centred ingratitude, and he felt lower than pond scum.

However, he quickly shook himself out of his funk, telling himself that he had no time for a pity party. What was done was done, and all he could do now was try and change things between them for the better. He wasn’t naïve enough to think that he would be instantly all sweetness and light, but he could at least make the effort, and he knew in his heart of hearts that that was all Blair would expect of him, and that his generous and forgiving soul would appreciate the genuine goodwill behind it.

----------------------------

Later that morning, MCU bullpen:

Jim signed off his final report and placed it in his out tray for collection by Rhonda; Simon’s cool, blonde and efficient secretary; a small, satisfied grin lifting the corner of his mouth. Finished at last, thanks to the considerable amount already done for him by Blair the previous evening, and it felt good to be caught up for once. He fully intended to treat his partner to lunch as a ‘thank you’ gesture, knowing that the offer would be accepted for what it represented, and found himself anticipating the event with no little pleasure. If he could do nothing else for Blair, he could at least spoil him on occasion and let him know that finally he was being truly appreciated instead of taken for granted.

Just then, a summons from Simon called him into his boss’s inner sanctum, so he picked up his latest reports, intending to deliver them in person.

Simon studied him shrewdly for a moment as he waved Jim to a chair. “You’re looking distinctly happier this morning, Jim,” he said approvingly. “Can I take it that you and your partner have reached an understanding?”

Jim blushed a little, and his eyes cut away for a moment before meeting Simon’s steady gaze again. “In a manner of speaking, I guess, sir,” he replied. “I mean, I’ve been giving what you said a lot of thought, and I can see now that I’ve been less than supportive or generous towards Blair for far too long, and I’ve promised myself that I’m going to do something about it.

“But as to anything deeper between us, no. We haven’t broached that subject yet, and I’m not at all sure I want to; even though I guess it’ll have to be done at some point. Call me a coward if you like, but I’m still not ready to take that particular trip with him, much as I love him for himself and for everything he does for me. The last thing I want to do right now is hurt him anymore than I already have, so for the time being I’m just going to do my best to at least cheer him up and be the friend he deserves.”

Simon gazed intently at him before replying, and even though Jim could tell he was somewhat disappointed with his detective’s response, there was some satisfaction in the dark eyes anyway.

“Glad to hear that, at least, Jim. And perhaps eventually you’ll feel able to meet him halfway? Not that it’s my place to be pushing you into a relationship you aren’t ready for, and might never be. But in the meantime, as long as he’s happier both in his work and his domestic circumstances, then that has to be a great improvement. And that kid’s generous enough to accept it for what it is.

“But anyhow, all that aside, I have some good news for you on the work front. Judge Epstein has agreed to sign that warrant we’ve been waiting for to search Art Mulveney’s nightclub, so perhaps we can finally get some evidence to shut that scumbag down for good. If you want, you can go over to the Courthouse now and collect it. The sooner the better, I think, so we can act on it. That slippery bastard’s been a thorn in the PD’s side for far too long.”

Jim’s face lit up in a grin of pure, unholy glee. “Finally! Finally we get to check him out!” he crowed. “I’ll get going straight away, sir. As you say, the sooner we can get a search team together, the less likelihood there’ll be for Mulveney to get wind of a raid and get rid of the evidence. I’m certain that we’ll find not just illegal firearms there, but drugs too. All I need is the chance to look for them.”

Simon’s answering snicker was just as wicked. “You do that, Jim, my man. You do that!” and with a nod of approval, he watched Jim rise to his feet, eager to leave and get his hands on the means to hopefully curtail the nefarious activities of one of Cascade’s most notorious gang bosses.

-------------------------

A couple of hours later Jim was leaving the Courthouse, the warrant in his pocket, and a smug smile on his face. At last Simon and Captain Anders from Vice would be able to put together their joint task force to search Mulveney’s premises and hopefully apprehend the man himself. Jim’s grin widened as he anticipated telling Blair about it on his return, because he knew that the younger man would be just as gratified with the result. Although Blair was still a man who preferred consultation to confrontation where possible, it was very likely that the illegal firearms used by the feuding Rappers and the Deuces were sourced through Mulveney, and since it was Blair who had to deal with the traumatised victims of their violence, he was sure to be relieved in this instance. With his guide at his side, Jim eagerly looked forward to putting his senses to work to turn up the evidence they needed to act, and all being well, for once the good guys would come out on top. Until the next sleazebag from Cascade’s criminal underbelly rose inevitably to the surface, that was, but at least it was to be hoped that the streets would be just a little safer for a short while.

It was as he was climbing into his truck that he heard a distant rumbling, which was most definitely not thunder. Cocking his head in a listening pose, he frowned in consternation as he picked up the sirens of emergency vehicles racing towards the source of the sounds. Moments later, the call came from Dispatch informing all personnel that there had been an explosion in one of the city’s busiest downtown retail areas, and Jim quickly called in his intention to go to the scene. Whether or not the explosion was due to accident or design mattered not at that instant. All he wanted to do was offer his services and his senses in order to help in whatever way he could, as there were sure to be numerous casualties. The compulsion to protect the tribe was all-important, and he just prayed to the gods that it prove to be less disastrous than he feared.

And unfortunately for too many victims, those prayers went unheard and unanswered.

---------------------

Meanwhile, back in the MCU bullpen:

Blair entered the bullpen with a smile on his face, still buoyed up by Jim’s thoughtfulness towards him at breakfast, and the prospect of an enjoyable lunch together. His consultation with Detective Laurel Masterson in Burglary had also gone well, and added to his sense of well-being. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so cheerful and optimistic. However, his face fell as he registered Jim’s absence, only to be distracted by a call from the vicinity of Simon’s office.

“Sandburg! My office, if you please!”

Turning aside, Blair obeyed without question, assuming that the big captain had some information about Jim’s whereabouts. Blair hoped that he hadn’t been called out on some unexpected case without him, but immediately quashed his irritation. If Jim was needed and was doing his job, then it wasn’t Blair’s place to complain, unless it was on account of him not being there too, doing his own job of grounding and supporting his sentinel.

Entering the office, Blair smiled politely at Simon, taking the seat the captain indicated. The big man wasted no time in addressing Blair’s concerns, knowing that Sandburg was as protective of Jim as the sentinel was towards his guide.

“Don’t look so worried, Sandburg! I just wanted to let you know that Jim’s gone over to the Courthouse to collect a warrant is all. I know you were expecting to meet up with him here, but he shouldn’t be long. And I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that the warrant’s for searching Art Mulveney’s premises. As soon as Jim gets back, Captain Anders and I’m going to start pulling together our team, and I’m equally sure that you and Jim will be of particular importance!” and he grinned knowingly at the younger man.

Blair’s answering smile was both relieved and happy, his eyes shining with just a hint of the spark that had been absent for too long.

“Thanks for telling me, sir. I did wonder for a moment, but it’s great news about the warrant. And Jim’ll be eager to get in there, I know. Let’s hope we’ll find enough to take that scumbag down once and for all.”

“From your lips to God’s ear, Blair,” Simon agreed soberly, then grinned again, eyeing the smaller man speculatively.

“Anyhow, Blair, how are you getting on? You seem to be happier today than you’ve been in some while. I know you’ve been hard at work, what with the Helpline, consulting and working with Jim, and I was wondering if it was perhaps getting all too much even for our resident Energiser Bunny.”

Blair smiled softly, touched by the older man’s concern. Always lacking in self-confidence, he never knew exactly what Simon thought of him even after all these years, but this time at least he felt that Simon’s question was genuinely well-intentioned.

“I’m fine, Captain, thanks for asking,” he replied. “You’re right in that I’ve had quite a lot of work lately, but I’m dealing with it. And…um…Jim seems to be happier too at the moment, so that helps.”

Simon nodded understandingly, reading between the lines and knowing exactly what Blair wasn’t saying. The young man would never knowingly betray Jim or Jim’s confidences despite his sentinel’s past accusations, but the mere fact that he mentioned Jim’s improved attitude said a lot. He just hoped that it wasn’t a flash in the pan, and that the sentinel didn’t backslide again.

“Pleased to hear it, kid. And I just wanted to let you know how much you’re appreciated in Major Crimes also, and not just as Jim’s guide and partner. I don’t say it enough, I know, but it’s true,” he added sincerely.

However, when Blair’s expression softened in surprise and his eyes grew a little moist, as ever Simon was discomfited by the emotion and huffed uncomfortably before muttering gruffly, “Well, that’s all for now, Sandburg. Dismissed!”

Blair grinned at that, knowing where Simon was coming from and not in the least offended. Ever prosaic and undemonstrative, the captain was never going to be happy dealing with visible emotions and was simply responding as normal. Rising to his feet, he opened his mouth to speak when he felt a sudden jolt pass through him, almost like a strong electric shock. Eyes wide in astonishment and pain, he collapsed back into his chair. Aware that Simon had left his seat and was reaching out to support him, his dark face creased in consternation, for a moment Blair could do nothing but tremble, deafened by the roaring in his ears. It was Jim. It had to be. Something had happened to Jim, and Blair knew he had to find him. Find his sentinel before it was too late.

And then the roaring increased, and he passed out.

---------------------------

Lifting the shaking body in his arms in order to lay Sandburg down on the couch, Simon quickly settled the small form and began to pat Blair’s cheeks in an effort to revive him. “Come on, kid! Wake up! Say something!” he muttered worriedly, truly concerned when the wide blue eyes flew open only to stare blankly into the middle distance. However, just then his office door opened to admit Joel Taggart, and a swift glance up at the normally genial man’s troubled face was enough to grab Simon’s attention.

“What is it, Joel? Blair just collapsed, and I haven’t a clue what’s up with him!”

Joel quickly entered and squatted down beside Simon, his hand automatically reaching out to stroke Blair’s forehead gently. “Great heavens, Simon! It’s almost like he’s had a seizure of some sort! But what I came to tell you is that there’s been an explosion downtown, and it looks like major damage and casualties. I gather that Jim’s on his way there, as are all available Emergency Service personnel. Do you think it’s connected?”

Simon glared at him disbelievingly for a moment, then shook himself. Although it was on the tip of his tongue to scoff at Joel’s tentative suggestion, he realised that he should know better than that by now. The ‘Sentinel Voodoo shit’ he hated so much was alive and well and apparently still had unwelcome surprises for him, so he was loath to dismiss it out of hand.

Sighing, he growled, “Who knows, Joel? Knowing these two, there might well be some sort of weird connection between them. But we need Blair to wake up first to explain what’s going on!”

As both men looked on anxiously, willing the young man to respond, Blair suddenly jerked under Simon’s hands and his frantic gaze abruptly focussed on the captain’s. “S…S…Simon!” Sandburg gasped, reaching up to grip the big man’s arm in a surprisingly strong grasp. “There’s been a disaster! I know it. I felt it! And Jim’s there. Oh, goddess! He’s there and he needs me! I have to go. I have to find him!”

Joel and Simon exchanged a speaking glance as Joel murmured gently but firmly, “Are you OK, Blair? And what do you mean? We just heard of an explosion downtown, but no further details as yet. How is it you already know about it, son?”

Blair locked gazes with his friend, trusting Joel to believe him. To believe in him. Swallowing hard, he whispered, “I can’t explain it exactly, Joel, but please, please believe me! I felt Jim call out for me. He’s in trouble, and I have to go. There’s no time to waste. Please let me go!”

And there really was nothing else his friends could do but ensure that their young colleague arrived at the disaster site as quickly as possible, and that was accomplished by them both escorting him in Simon’s sedan, screaming through the traffic with lights and sirens blaring. But even so, none of them was prepared for the sight that met their eyes on arrival, and as they shoved their way towards the cordoned off area, Blair swayed on his feet.

“Oh, Jim!” he whispered, tears welling up in his eyes. “Hold on, my sentinel. I’m coming!”

-----------------------

Part 3: True Colours:

Earlier at the disaster site:

Jim pulled in as close to the cordoned off area as possible, flashing his ID at the cops and EMS personnel milling around in order to gain access. Ushered through, he immediately approached the Fire Service Chief, Captain Wysocki, who appeared to be directing operations. He knew the man of old, and was well aware that Wysocki was a level-headed, experienced and intelligent man who was probably the best choice for the role.

“Hey, Bill,” he greeted the captain. “Do you know yet what caused this? And how can I help?”

Wysocki’s broad-featured face was grim as he nodded to Jim. “Not yet, Jim. Meaning, there’s been no calls claiming responsibility that I know of, but that means nothing. Be that as it may, as you can see a large section of Wilkenson’s Department Store has all but collapsed, suggesting that whatever caused the explosion occurred either in the basement boiler rooms or in the underground parking area. We’re evacuating everyone in the vicinity, and have already gotten out as many survivors as possible, but my men have been hampered by fire and falling masonry in the affected area, so God only knows how many are still trapped in there.”

Jim gazed at the scene, his jaw tensed in anger at the destruction. The huge store was the largest in central Cascade, and would have been filled with customers at the time of the explosion. If it was intentional, then whoever was responsible was totally without conscience. But for the time being that was of lesser importance than the immediate need to locate survivors, and he knew that that was what he needed to do.

“Fair enough, Bill. Let me get kitted up, and I’ll go in. Someone needs to get in there, and it might as well be me.”

He could tell that Wysocki wasn’t happy with the idea, but both men knew that it had to be done, and even if Wysocki wasn’t aware of Jim’s enhanced senses, he was aware of the man’s outstanding record in the military and in special ops, so he nodded uncomfortably. “OK, then, Jim. Thanks and good luck, man!”

Shortly after, Jim was approaching the damaged building, having decided that the best point of access to the damaged section was from the relatively intact part of the first floor sales level. The upper floors of the affected section had already collapsed, and there was no way he could work his way into there, knowing already that there were no survivors. However, he could hear heartbeats below him, and faint cries for help, so that’s where he concentrated his efforts. He called in the information via the radio he had been supplied with, and eased his way down into the tangled remains of the structure, suddenly wishing that Blair were here to ground him. He knew it was selfish, and the better part of him was glad that the young man was being spared the trauma and peril of the situation, but even though he was pretty secure in his use of the senses these days, it was always easier and more effective with his guide beside him.

He snickered internally as he imagined Blair’s angry reaction when they met up again. The younger man would undoubtedly tear Jim a new one for going in without him, as ever uncaring of his own safety when it came to his sentinel’s well-being. But then his expression sobered again. First of all he had to get out of this situation alive. If he did, then a tongue-lashing by his furious partner might even be welcome.

Wary of the creaking and groaning of masonry straining under the weight of the collapsed material from above, Jim worked his way into the dark and dusty crevices and air pockets where he had located heartbeats. Although the threat of localised fire had been pretty much gotten under control mainly thanks to the building’s effective sprinkler system, it was difficult and dangerous work, but his enhanced vision served him in good stead, and before long he had managed to free three relatively uninjured survivors and get them safely into the hands of the fire-fighters and EMTs who were waiting to receive them. However, he knew that there were more there, so he went back in again, his hearing informing him that there was a young mother and baby somewhere below.

He was aware of heavy machinery and lifting gear being brought in to brace the standing structure and to begin digging through the debris to locate the trapped bodies, but he knew that Wysocki would hold off until he was sure that Jim had reported back that there were no more survivors to be found.

Pulling aside piles of broken woodwork and shelving, Jim shone his flashlight into a tiny cupboard-like space to see a young woman, her dirty face tear-streaked as she cradled a toddler in her arms. “Oh, thank God!” she whimpered. “Please, mister, please get us out!”

“OK, honey,” Jim replied with a reassuring grin. “Let’s get out of here. Let me take the little one, OK, and follow exactly where I go, and you’ll be fine. The medics are waiting for us.”

Nodding eagerly, she handed over the child – a little boy – and Jim cradled him gently in his arms. The kid was too shocked to cry, but clung tightly to his vest, burying his little face in Jim’s neck.

Carefully turning about, Jim began their slow progress through the ruins, checking that the young woman was close behind him as they virtually crawled towards the spot where he had entered, around and over fallen debris. It must have seemed like an eternity to the terrified young woman, but eventually they were there, just below the level where the EMTs were waiting. Jim handed up the child to one of the medics while another reached down to haul his mother up to safety. It was when she was almost there when Jim heard and felt the tell-tale shifting that warned of imminent collapse.

Shoving the young woman up from below, he saw her grasped and held safely in a burly fireman’s arms even as he yelled a warning. “Get out! Get out of here now! It’s going to go!”

The group reacted immediately, and began to race for the safety of the exit even as Jim jumped up to haul himself out, one of the firemen waiting behind to offer his hand. However, it was too late, and the unstable structure literally fell away from beneath Jim’s feet, taking him with it. He had a final glimpse of the fireman’s horrified expression as he dropped away, Oh, Chief! I’m so sorry!and then there was nothing.

--------------------------

Blair couldn’t take his eyes off the terrible scene before him, even as he struggled against his friends’ restraining hold. Both Simon and Joel had a hand clamped on each of his shoulders, knowing only too well that the young guide was ready and willing to run willy-nilly into danger for Jim’s sake. All Blair could see was the ruined building before him, at least a third of which had collapsed into itself, leaving the rest of the floors exposed to the elements. Fragments of debris still fell into the pile of rubble from the most recent subsidence, but Blair knew to his very soul that Jim still lived. So far, at least. He also knew that his colleagues and the rescue personnel wouldn’t believe him on the basis of what they would consider a simple ‘gut instinct’, but it was true. He knew it - felt it – and nothing was going to stop him going in after his partner.

“Let me go, Simon!” he snapped. “I’ve got to get to Jim! I know you don’t want to believe it, but I know he’s alive, and I can find him! Let me go and do what I need to do!”

As Captain Wysocki looked on, his expression one of exasperation and disbelief, Simon turned Blair around to face him, shaking him by the shoulders.

“Calm down, Sandburg! No way are you going off half-cock into that mess! I’m not going to let you get yourself killed, or endanger any of the service personnel here trying to get you out when there’s little chance that Jim’s alive.

“Look, kid,” he continued, his tone gentler as he studied Blair’s devastated expression, “I know you want to believe he’s OK, but it’s hardly likely. Is it, Bill?” he added, appealing to Wysocki to support him.

Shaking his head, the other man spoke with conviction. “No, Captain Banks. Simon. Jim was doing great stuff in there. A real hero, but when that section of the building finally gave way, it took him down with it. He’d just rescued a young mom and her kid and handed them over to my guys when it happened. My man saw him fall. I’m sorry, young man, but that’s the truth. No one left in there could have survived that collapse.”

Blair’s reaction wasn’t the one Simon expected or hoped for. Instead of breaking down in despairing acceptance, Blair’s expression hardened; the look in his eyes resolute and unwavering. “No, Simon,” he stated quietly but firmly. “He’s not dead, and I know it. You’ve seen for yourself how it is between us. Call it more of that ‘sentinel / guide’ shit if you want, but you know what I’m saying is true. The only way you can stop me going to him is if you lock me up, and if you do, I’ll never forgive you! Are you going to help me or not?”

For a moment Simon was tempted to reach for his handcuffs, but then he studied the smaller man more closely. And damned if he didn’t believe him; or at least accepted that Blair believed it. That said, his conscience insisted that he might be sending Blair to certain death. He was stunned when Blair spoke again, almost as if he had been reading Simon’s mind.

“It’s OK, Captain,” he said gently. “If I can’t get Jim out – if we both die in there – it’s where I would want to be. I wouldn’t want to live without Jim, and that’s a fact. So, will you let me go?”

And astonishingly Simon found himself nodding, unable to speak for a moment around the lump of emotion in his throat. He saw Wysocki glaring incredulously at him when he finally replied.

“OK, Blair. Get yourself kitted up, and get going before I change my mind. Keep in touch at all times, OK? And don’t make me regret my decision!”

Blair nodded his thanks and quickly trotted off to get whatever gear together he thought he’d need, knowing that there wasn’t a minute to waste. I’m coming, Jim! Hold on for me, man. I’m coming!

---------------------------

Simon looked on bemused as the insecure, diffident Sandburg of recent months morphed into the assertive, outspoken grad student of his early acquaintance, realising that much as Blair’s previous persona had irritated the shit out of him at times, he really missed him and his dogged determination to do whatever was right and necessary where Jim was concerned. Although Sandburg had never had the strongest of egos, in the early years of his partnership with Jim at least he had had his indubitable intellect to bolster him, and it was only over the passage of time that his confidence in even that bulwark had been slowly whittled away. Exchanging a sorrowful, speaking glance with Joel, Simon shook his head sadly.

“Don’t say it, Joel,” he murmured. “I know full well that that boy’s probably going to his death, but he’s right. He and Jim belong together; supernatural bullshit aside, and now I can finally appreciate it. God willing, he’ll find Jim where no one else could, and if so be Jim’s already gone, then don’t expect to see Blair alive again. And God help me, I pray that both of them will be around to irritate me for years to come!”

Not knowing how to reply, Joel simply reached out and grasped his old friend’s hand briefly, offering mutual comfort even though he feared the worst.

---------------------------

As soon as he was ready to go, Blair wasted no time in approaching the building, but instead of going up to where Jim had accessed the damaged area, he pushed his way between fire fighters and construction engineers to enter the basement parking garage at the nearest access point. Since Jim had fallen from the first floor level, common sense told him that his sentinel’s best chance of survival was if he had landed in the basement, saved from being instantly crushed by the opportune settling of debris or masonry which must have formed both a temporary shelter and an impassable barricade to safety. Pausing a moment at the entrance and breathing as deeply as he could to centre himself, Blair opened his eyes and then set off determinedly, his flashlight cutting through the dusty darkness as he moved further into the collapsed ruins. He had no enhanced senses to guide him, but he did have a strong conviction that he was heading in the right direction, it never even occurring to him that perhaps this was a manifestation of the shamanic power Incacha had awakened in him so many months ago. All he knew was that Jim needed him, and he was compelled to reach him or perish in the attempt.

As the air grew thicker and the darkness became absolute, Blair picked his way through the rubble, crawling through spaces barely big enough to take him, and incidentally thankful that at least claustrophobia wasn’t one of his long list of fears. He wasn’t keen on the dark, however, and hoped that the flashlight he carried, plus the spare in his belt would be enough to last him through his self-inflicted endurance test. He had no idea how long he’d been searching, but offered the occasional brief update on his progress through his radio link, guessing that Simon and Joel were probably listening in.

The silence around him was only broken by the creaking of moving rubble, and he flinched several times as he imagined the tons of debris above him shifting to crush him. However, there was no way he was going to back out now, committed as he was to finding Jim, even though he was beginning to despair.

And then he heard it. The faintest human groan, and he knew that it was Jim. Shining the flashlight about him, he called out urgently, “Jim? Jim? Is that you, man? Where are you? Please answer, Jim!”

He could really have done with enhanced hearing, and strained to listen, but even so managed to locate another moan coming from ahead and slightly above him. By the light of his powerful Maglite he could see a tiny gap between the slabs of rebar and rubble piled up against one of the still standing support pillars, and he crawled over to peer through the space. And what he saw astonished him.

Jim was lying trapped in the bed of a truck, the cab of which had been crushed but the rest covered by a huge slab of masonry which had come to rest leaning against the pillar. With barely enough space to move, yet Jim appeared to be relatively unhurt, although his face was liberally smeared with blood and dust, and his hard hat lay smashed a few feet away.

“Blair? Chief? Is that you, or am I dreaming?” Jim muttered dazedly, his eyes squeezed tightly shut against the glare.

“Oh, man! You’re alive! I knew you were, Jim. I just knew it! Oh, sorry, sorry!” Blair babbled excitedly, quickly withdrawing the flashlight and positioning it on a nearby pile of rubble so he could work in the residual light. “I’m coming, Jim. Hold on!” and he began to scrabble at the loose debris around the gap.

“Call it in, Chief,” Jim whispered tiredly, even though Blair could hear the gentle humour in his tone. “Don’t hurt yourself trying to get to me. I can wait a bit longer for the Search and Rescue guys to get here.”

Blair sobbed once in response as his emotions got the better of him, then he shook himself firmly. This was no time to break down. He was at liberty to do that only when they were both safe, so he did as he was told and called it in. It didn’t take enhanced hearing to make out the excitement with which his miraculous information was received, but all he cared about was that they hurry and get here before the building settled further, because Jim’s tiny shelter was precarious at best.

Although he had no intention of risking disturbing Jim’s protective barrier, Blair could and did work at making the small gap bigger so that he could reach through and pass Jim the bottled water he had brought with him. Jim’s grin of gratitude was reward enough as the trapped man was able to move enough to slake his thirst, and Blair could well imagine how welcome the refreshing liquid must be. When Jim had satisfied his immediate thirst, and clumsily screwed the top back on the bottle, Blair reached through again, stretching as far as he could in order to grasp Jim’s hand. The physical contact comforted them both, and Blair swallowed hard around the lump of emotion in his throat as he soaked up the affection and gratitude that was plain to see on Jim’s grubby and bloodied but still handsome and beloved face.

“How are you feeling, Jim? Can you tell me how badly you’re hurt?” he asked anxiously when Jim suddenly winced in pain.

“Not too bad, Chief,” Jim replied through gritted teeth. “Actually, it’s cramp that’s the worst. My legs are trapped beneath me, and I don’t have enough space to stretch or change position. But believe it or not, there’s nothing broken. Just a hell of a lot of bruises and scrapes, Chief. I’m one hell of a lucky guy. Especially because you found me. I wouldn’t have lasted too long in here if the Search and Rescue guys hadn’t known I was still alive. They’ll be searching for corpses next, and that’s a lot less urgent. I really owe you, kiddo.”

Blair swallowed hard; sniffing and blinking back unwanted tears at the emotion Jim’s sincere words elicited. “No, man. You don’t owe me anything,” he murmured at last. “It’s just what we do, isn’t it? I mean, how many times have you come through for me in the past?”

“Not as many times as you’ve come through for me,” Jim responded smartly. “I know you always talk about the Blessed Protector thing, but you saved me long before I saved you, Chief. And not just from that garbage truck. You saved my sanity, and what have you got to show for it?”

“Everything I ever wanted, Jim,” Blair whispered feelingly. “I got to work with a real sentinel, who became my best friend. It’s enough, man.”

Jim shook his head disbelievingly, although he knew that Blair couldn’t see him properly. Gods, he felt like the world’s biggest fool, ungrateful and unworthy of the young man’s loyalty. If that was love, then Simon was right, and Blair loved him in every way possible. And for the life of him, Jim couldn’t understand why he should bother. But he swore to himself then and there that this was the last time his young guide would sacrifice himself for his sentinel without receiving the thanks and gratitude he was due, and perhaps Jim could learn to love him back in the same way. Looking into Blair’s dirty but beautiful face, Jim carefully studied the pure and unfeigned care, concern and affection in his expression, the eyes huge in the semi-darkness as he strove to make out Jim’s features in the flashlight’s diffused glow. It was true. No one had ever cared for him like Blair did, and it was time to reciprocate if he had the courage.

And discovering if he were up to the challenge was a truly sobering concept.

------------------------

It took several more hours until the rescue teams finally reached Jim’s tiny prison-cum-sanctuary, but both men bore the wait with commendable aplomb. Although Blair was in constant communication with the surface command centre, they took more comfort in Jim’s sensory information than the rescuers’ updates. True, there were more than a few worrying moments when the heavy lifting gear moving slowly above them caused ominous shifting in the surrounding masonry, but Blair seemed to take it all in his stride – something that certainly gave Jim pause for thought. Indeed, he himself cared little beyond the constant touch of the smaller but strong hand in his, finding the physical contact enough to calm and comfort him. And it would appear that the same was true for Blair also, as apart from very few nervous starts due to threatening creaks and groans, his expression remained peaceful and satisfied, their connection enough to quell his fear. In fact, Jim found that he was so chilled out, as apparently was Blair also, that he thought fleetingly that even imminent death didn’t concern him, as long as they both went together. And how strange but reassuring was that?

Eventually, however, they were interrupted by the arrival of the rescue party, and Blair was gently moved aside so that heavy duty jacks could be set in place to raise and brace the large slab that trapped Jim in the truck bed. Within minutes it had been moved enough for the sentinel to be pulled clear of his prison, although the numbness in his legs meant that he had to be carried out on a stretcher despite his grumbling protestations. And throughout the painstakingly slow and tedious retreat to safety, Blair stayed close, holding his partner’s hand in defiance of any questioning glances from the rescue team, knowing that his presence was keeping the sentinel grounded and calm.

It was only when they were greeted by cheering from the waiting crowd and the clear and welcome light of day that Blair finally gave in to his stress, and sank slowly to the ground, his legs giving way beneath him. Only to find himself lifted gently in Simon’s strong arms in order to help him into the ambulance which was there to take Jim to Cascade General for treatment. Unable to even find the words to thank the big man for his understanding, Blair simply smiled shakily and sat down beside Jim, once again taking the sentinel’s hand and meeting his friend’s frank gaze which conveyed not only his gratitude but also his concern for Blair’s own condition.

“It’s OK, Jim,” he murmured, needing to reassure his sentinel. “Just got a bit on top of me for a moment. But Simon was there, so no worries!” he chuckled weakly, deliberately channelling Megan’s favourite Aussie adage.

Jim returned his grin, then closed his eyes, suddenly able to let go and relax, knowing his partner was there for him. Again.

-----------------------

Shortly afterwards, Cascade General ER:

Simon strode purposefully down the corridor leading to the ER department, intent on checking in on his friends. He was impatient, and understandably irritated at not being free to do so earlier, but there had been plenty to keep him busy in the aftermath of the explosion. However, at least he had already confirmed to his satisfaction that Jim wasn’t seriously injured, and was only being detained – undoubtedly against his will – for observation before being discharged into Blair’s competent care. Even so, a good thirty hours on since the explosion, Simon himself was feeling the effects of long hours aiding the investigation, and was himself looking forward to catching a few hours’ much needed sleep once he had seen for himself how Jim and Blair were doing.

Turning a corner, he immediately spotted a weary-looking Sandburg emerging from the bathroom and heading back towards one of the cubicles. The kid looked totally exhausted, and despite having made an effort to clean up some, still looked like something the cat dragged in. Simon shook his head wryly, surprised at the surge of affection he felt towards the young man, and realised suddenly that he couldn’t have been more concerned for him than if he’d been a second son. Who knew?

“Hey, Sandburg! Wait up,” he called and hurried to catch up when Blair paused mid-stride and turned to greet him, a tired but genuine welcoming grin on his beard-stubbled face.

“Hey, Captain,” he replied. “Everything OK? Jim’s about to get his walking papers, we hope. And the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned. You know how Jim feels about hospitals!” he snickered.

Simon chuckled also, saying, “He’s not the only one, now, is he, kiddo? I don’t think either of you considers this place one of your favourite locations, even if you visit far too often for my liking. But seriously, how is he? I know he probably looked worse than he actually was when you two emerged, so what can you tell me?”

Blair smiled gently. “How about you come and see for yourself, Simon? My grumpy-butt partner is just in here, and I’m sure the sight of him will reassure you!” So saying, he parted the cubicle’s curtain to reveal a frowning Jim seated on the gurney, glaring malevolently at the stoic nurse who was taking his blood pressure.

Turning to face his visitors, he growled, “Grumpy-butt partner, huh? You wouldn’t be grinning like that if you were wearing one of these blasted backless gowns either! Just wait ‘til we get back to the loft, Sandburg, and I’ll show you just how grumpy I can be!” However, there was a definite twinkle in his eyes as he said it, so neither Blair nor Simon was deceived.

Head tilted to one side, Simon studied his friend and detective intently. “Well, Jim, I’ve seen you looking better, man, but I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you more or less whole even if you’re a lot more colourful that you should be. When are you going to be able to get out of here?”

The long-suffering nurse interrupted just then, having scanned the results of Jim’s latest check-up. Her own glare was a match for her patient’s for a moment as she said, “Well, according to this, I’d say that you’ll be out of here sooner rather than later. Of course, it’ll be up to the doctor, but I’d hope that when he looks in next you’ll be good to go. Thank God!” she added sotto voce, although Jim heard her loud and clear and huffed indignantly even as Blair and Simon chuckled unrepentantly at their friend’s response.

Cheeks pinking and sniffing disdainfully, the nurse finished her tasks and stalked out of the cubicle, only for Blair to slip out behind her. Taking her arm gently, he offered her his most winning smile, puppy dog eyes and a sincere word of apology, which soon had the desired effect of placating her. Blair knew that his partner had every right to be irritated, but he also knew that it wasn’t fair to take it out on the nursing staff, so felt it his duty to defuse the situation. He just hoped that once Jim was in a more reasonable frame of mind he wouldn’t hold it against Blair for interfering. However, when he re-entered the cubicle, Jim simply nodded in understanding, so apparently all was still good between them and he hadn’t overstepped the mark after all.

“Anyhow, Simon, while we’re waiting, what can you tell us about the explosion?” Jim enquired. “Is there any information about what caused it yet? And any idea about casualties?” he added sombrely.

At Blair’s insistence, Simon seated himself on the hard plastic chair beside the gurney as Blair went in search of another for himself, telling the others that he’d get coffee for them all while he was about it. Instead of answering Jim’s question immediately, Simon took advantage of Blair’s temporary absence to tell Jim about his partner’s reaction to the disaster and his own feelings about how the young man had comported himself thereafter.

“You know, Jim, I’ve never been comfortable with whatever passes between you two, as you well know, but this time I have to say I was profoundly impressed. Blair was in my office when he had some sort of seizure, and I’ve learned since that it occurred exactly when you fell through to the basement. And I’ve never seen him so determined to get to you – even more so than when Oliver had you way back when. It was a revelation, man. He was barely recognisable as the quiet and self-deprecating Sandburg we’ve been so concerned about lately. Assertive, determined, you name it. Joel, Wysocki and I and all the other rescue personnel were treated to a vision of Blair showing his true colours, I’m certain of it, and I have to say, Jim, that I couldn’t be prouder of him even if I didn’t understand where he was coming from. All I knew was that he was going to get to you one way or the other, and no one was going to stop him.”

Jim swallowed hard, and looked away for a moment, needing to blink back the sudden moisture that sheened his eyes. When he turned back to meet Simon’s concerned gaze, he murmured, “Thanks for that, Simon. I mean, for helping him even when you were having a hard time with all the supernatural shit. I don’t blame you for your cynicism – never have, because I’ve never been happy with the spiritual side to the sentinel stuff either. But at long last I’ve seen Blair for what he is. What he truly means to me. And if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to try and show him that finally I appreciate him for everything he’s done for me. Is still doing for me. I can say it now. I’m one lucky bastard, even if I don’t deserve it.”

“That you are, Jim, but don’t put yourself down. He thinks you deserve it, so trust in his instincts. For your sake and for his.”

Jim nodded reluctantly, and offered Simon a small smile. “If you say so, sir,” he replied, then cocked his head, listening. “He’s coming back, and I know he’ll want to hear everything you can tell us about the blast.”

Accepting the change of subject, Simon nodded even as Blair pushed his way into the cubicle, dragging a chair and carrying a cardboard tray with three cups of coffee on it.

“Here you go, guys,” he said cheerfully, totally oblivious to the slightly charged atmosphere in the room. “I found some of the decent stuff, so enjoy!”

The other men accepted the drinks with grateful smiles, and once Blair had seated himself on the chair he’d procured for himself, Simon began to give them the run-down on what he knew so far.

“Well, first off, the forensics guys haven’t detected any trace of explosives, fragments or components to suggest that it was a bomb, although they haven’t officially ruled it out yet.”

Jim nodded there, his expression serious and pensive. “I think they’re right, Simon. I mean, I had plenty of time to use the senses while I was down there, and I have to say that I detected nothing like C4 or any other explosive material I’ve come across. Once smelled, never forgotten. That said, there are other ways of sabotaging a building if the will’s there, huh?”

Simon nodded in glum agreement. “Yes, you’re right there too, Jim. Because if you say that you didn’t detect anything suggesting an IED, then I’d bet my life on it that that’s correct. But the Fire Department’s investigators are looking at the possibility that the boilers might have been deliberately tampered with. It’s a long shot, I know, but possible. And if that’s the case, then we’re going to have our work cut out to pin down a particular suspect with the knowledge, the access and the motive.”

“Oh, man, that sucks!” Blair murmured, almost to himself as he stared at the floor in front of him, his thoughts introverted even as he listened to his friends’ conversation. Suddenly aware that he was being eyed quizzically by the older men, he blushed a little as he shrugged diffidently. “Ah, sorry, guys. Just thinking out loud there. Nothing important to add.”

However, for once Jim wasn’t about to let it pass, or make an off-hand, dismissive comment as he had been prone to do only too often in the past. “Come on, Chief, out with it. What’re you thinking?”

“It’s nothing, Jim, honest. Just that I was thinking that despite his success and his wealth, Mel Wilkenson has had some real bad karma, and lately we seem to get caught up in it. I mean, I heard somewhere that he was kidnapped years ago in Mexico, refused to negotiate and eventually bluffed his way out. Then Galileo does that stunt with the elevator in Wilkenson Tower, and now his biggest department store is targeted. And here we are again,” and he grinned ruefully although his eyes were dark with remembered fear.

Jim reached over and covered the hands that were clasped tightly in Blair’s lap, his expression one of sympathy and understanding. He knew Blair must be reliving those terrifying moments trapped in that elevator car with a time bomb, but he also knew that it was Blair’s courage and resourcefulness that had saved him and his fellow passengers, just as he had saved Jim this time around.

“You’re right, Sandburg, insofar as someone as rich and powerful as Wilkenson is always going to be a target for anyone who has any sort of axe to grind, but for what it’s worth, Chief, I for one am grateful for your bravery and determination not to be a victim. Or to allow me to become one either. You’re stronger than you know, Chief.”

Blair looked up then, meeting Jim’s gaze with a slightly puzzled but undoubtedly relieved expression on his weary face. “Thanks, Jim, that’s good of you to say,” he finally murmured, only to be distracted when Simon leant forward and grasped his knee.

“Jim’s right, Sandburg. We’ve had our differences over the years, but as far as I’m concerned, you’ve always had Jim’s and the PD’s best interests at heart whatever you’ve done, and I for one am proud to have you on board. But as soon as Jim gets the go-ahead to leave, I’m taking you both back to the loft before I go and snatch a few hours’ sleep myself. And as long as you’re both up to it, I’ll see you tomorrow at the PD and we can carry on tracking down whomever it is this time with that axe to grind.”

Blair responded with a somewhat surprised if shaky grin. However, before he could verbalise a reply, the curtain parted to reveal the duty doctor, who studied his patient intently.

“Detective Ellison, according to my nurse, it would appear that you are eager to leave our noble establishment, would I be correct?” His demeanour was serious, but there was a distinct undertone of dry humour there.

Jim had the grace to look a little sheepish as he nodded in assent. “Ah, yes, Doctor. She’s right. Not that I don’t appreciate everything you guys do, but I want out. I need to crack on with the case.”

The doctor grinned wryly at that. “I understand, Detective, and I think you’re good to go. But I don’t want you overdoing it, OK? Rest up for a few hours, and take the painkillers I’m prescribing as needed, although I’m aware of your sensitivity to a lot of medications, thanks to Mr Sandburg’s notes to that effect in your file. I’ll get the nurse to get you a clean set of scrubs, because your clothes are pretty much trashed, and we’ll get the paperwork signed off.”

He turned to Blair then, and eyed him appraisingly. “My advice goes for you too, Mr Sandburg. You might not have been injured in the explosion, but you’re very near to total exhaustion yourself. According to the EMTs who brought you both in, I gather that the detective owes his life to you and your persistence, so do yourself a favour and try to relax. Doctor’s orders!”

Blair blushed bright red at that, ducking his head as he mumbled an embarrassed assent. He thus missed the doctor’s brief smile and the appreciative nods from both Simon and Jim, but right then the residual warmth he was still feeling from his friends’ sincere words probably did more for his sense of self-worth and well-being than the promise of a decent night’s sleep.

------------------------------

Part 4: Aftermath:

Later, the loft:

Two tired and aching men entered the loft, having been dropped off at the entrance to 852 Prospect by Simon. As he shuffled wearily towards the beckoning sofa, Jim sighed, “Home, sweet home, at last!”

Automatically moving to support his friend, Blair also took a moment to gaze around at their home, suddenly realising that scant hours before he had wondered if he would ever see it again. Swallowing hard, he knew that Jim must be thinking the same thing, and all of a sudden it hit him all at once. Gasping breathlessly as the uncontrollable panic reaction seized him, he shuddered as his over-stressed body and soul rebelled; the need to release the pent-up emotions and mental strain of the last couple of days in such a way vital for his healing process whether he wanted it or not. Peripherally a part of him was mortified to break down so abruptly in front of Jim, and he stumbled around in a vain effort to make his escape and hide his shame in his room until he could pull himself together again, but found himself enfolded in powerful, unrelentingly comforting arms. For a moment he fought the hold, trying to break away, but when Jim started to murmur words of comfort in his ear, he relaxed and clutched at his partner with all his might. He might well regret this pathetic melt-down soon enough, but for the moment it was so welcome, and so what he needed, he wasn’t going to pass up on the feeling of being cherished for once, and he pressed his wet face into Jim’s broad chest.

As far as Jim was concerned, his response was equally automatic, despite his own aches and pains – which he had dialled down anyway. Because his senses were habitually attuned to his partner, he was instantly aware of the moment when Blair broke down, and he was struck by a surge of tenderness towards his courageous friend such that he had never before experienced even towards Caroline during their brief union. Yet even so, he barely paused to wonder at his own unexpected empathy. It was something that he should have been willing to do on many prior occasions, except that his own buttoned-down emotions and Blair’s shy reticence or forced bravado had usually prevented it. This time, however, he wasn’t going to pass up on the opportunity to show his guide just how much he was appreciated, and if it took a little cuddling and comforting, then it was no more than Blair was due.

And the strange thing was that Jim felt absolutely no discomfort or unwillingness on his part, discovering that the mutual, physical contact was just as healing for him also, like an extension of the hand-holding during their underground trial. Blair fitted perfectly against him, and his senses seemed to revel in the smaller man’s proximity. It suddenly occurred to him that far from feeling any awkwardness at holding his partner and friend close, it felt right, and he wasn’t going to overthink it and ruin the moment. Carefully cupping the back of Blair’s skull to cradle the smaller man’s head close to his chest, Jim rested his cheek on the still dusty curls for a moment. Was this what ‘love’ meant? To fully appreciate the sacrifice one partner was willing to make for the other simply because they knew it was right? And to keep doing it again and again despite their own suffering?

As Blair finally began to quiet in his arms, and the wracking but muffled sobs diminished into the occasional hiccup, Jim knew what he had to do. To say, before the moment of understanding passed them by yet again.

“It’s OK, Chief. Nothing to be ashamed of, kiddo, I promise. You’ve been running on adrenalin fumes for hours now, and you deserve the chance to let go. I just want to say that I understand, OK? I’m not going to laugh at you, I promise. If I did, it would make me the most ungrateful shmuck on the planet, Blair. Listen, now,” he continued quietly but firmly as he gently urged Blair to raise his head and look at him, the tear-tracked, ravaged features enough to send a spike of empathic pain through his heart.

“I need to say this, Blair, because I’ve never had the courage or decency to say it before. What you did was above and beyond, Chief, and I’ll never forget it. I never truly understood just what your trashing of your academic career for my sake really cost you, and I’m sorry about that. You’re always saying that you lack courage, but it’s just not true. No one – I repeat, no one - has ever done anything like that for me. And now you’ve done it again. Sure, during my time in the military I’ve had others back me up in dire situations, just as I’ve done for them, but we were trained for the task, and the camaraderie of my unit was enough to make it an instinctive reaction in times of danger. It’s the same with cops too. But despite all the years you’ve been riding with me, you’re still a civilian, Blair, and as such no one would blame you if you ran for the hills.

“But you didn’t. You came for me even though everyone else had written me off. Even though you knew that you might not get out of it alive. It’s more than a ‘sentinel and guide’ thing, isn’t it? You love me don’t you?”

Blair couldn’t prevent the fresh tears that leaked from the corners of his eyes as he absorbed Jim’s words. Whatever happened now, even if this was just a passing moment of kindness and comfort, it was everything he had desired for so long, and he knew he would cherish it for the rest of his life. He had to fight to control the quivering of his chin in order to respond, because the gods knew, he wanted to cry again, only this time in pure, unadulterated relief and happiness.

“Yes, Jim. I do. Have done for a long time now. B…but it’s OK if you don’t. Love me like that, I mean. I just want to thank you for this. This moment…” and he tailed off, the love and gratitude in his red-rimmed, tear-washed eyes making them almost hypnotically luminous as they held Jim’s wondering gaze.

Jim raised a hand to gently wipe away some of the moisture from beneath those blue orbs, his heart filling with real love for this man – this true friend – in his arms. What had he done to deserve such loyalty, such commitment? And from one who had been wrongly accused so often of flightiness and betrayal? It was true that he still had no idea if he could actually make love to Blair, but he had no problem whatsoever with holding him and touching him. And he had the feeling that Blair would understand and accept whatever Jim decided he was capable of, and would still be there for him.

In the meantime, however, all his aches and pains were checking in, and he desperately needed to sit down. Blair saw the flash of discomfort cross Jim’s face, and instantly reacted, all his concerns centred on his sentinel again.

“Come on, Jim,” he murmured. “Let’s get you comfortable on the sofa. I’m so sorry to have distracted you. I can see that the dials are slipping!”

Jim grinned ruefully as he allowed his partner to help him over to the sofa. “De nada, Chief, and you need to sit down as much as I do. But how about you sit with me for a while? I was rather enjoying that cuddling thing.”

Blair regarded him quizzically for a moment, his head tilted on one side as he tried to decide if Jim was serious or was just being kind. Obviously having made the right decision as far as Jim was concerned, he smiled shyly and nodded. “Ah, sounds good to me, Jim. I’d like that. But do you want a bottle of water and one of your pain meds first?”

“Sure, Chief, and thanks. But don’t take too long. I’m missing you already!”

Blair chuckled aloud at that, his joy almost tangible as he hastened to get the water and meds. Despite both their sorry physical conditions, he couldn’t have been happier, and how weird was that?

---------------------------

Some while later, Blair roused from a deep if fairly brief nap, a little disorientated and still drowsy, but feeling warm and rested despite his awkward position. Realising that he must have fallen asleep on the sofa, his brain suddenly kicked in as he took stock of his ‘pillow’. Which was none other than Jim’s lap. Immediately contrite and somewhat embarrassed, he struggled to push himself upright.

“Oh, man, I’m sorry, Jim! You must be so uncomfortable. Why didn’t you wake me?” he babbled anxiously, raising worried eyes to meet Jim’s wry gaze. He was surprised when the older man simply grinned at him, rather than scolding or mocking him as he would have expected through previous experience.

“It’s fine, Chief. No worries! I was dozing myself anyway, and I was enjoying the proximity. But I confess that I need to move soon, kiddo. Not only do I need the bathroom, but I really need to clean up and then lie down in a proper bed. I think everything’s stiffened up, and I feel truly grungy.”

Blair was immediately up on his feet, ready to help Jim in whatever way he could. “Um, tell you what, Jim,” he began. “Once you’ve taken care of business, how about I run you a bath? I think it’ll do you a lot more good, and relaxing in the warm water should make you feel a whole lot better. And while you’re having a soak, I can warm up some soup, because we need to eat something before we go to bed.”

Jim grinned at him, thoroughly approving of his partner’s suggestions, and thankful for the offer of help. “Sounds great to me, Chief,” he said warmly. “If you can just give me a hand to get up, that’d be good. And I really like the idea of a soak,” he added, his eyes alight with eager anticipation despite his current achy stiffness.

Smiling in response, relieved that his suggestions had been well received, Blair held out his hand and eased Jim to his feet, the bigger man grunting with the effort of straightening up. However, once he had made his somewhat slow progress to the bathroom, supported by Blair as necessary, he took care of business then sat down on the closed toilet seat while Blair ran him the promised bath. His partner added sentinel-friendly bath soak to the warm water, then helped Jim undress.

Although at another time it might have caused Blair a little problem, as in trying to control his physical responses at the sight of a naked Jim, both men were far too tired to be concerned on this occasion with anything but getting clean and comfortable. Besides, Jim’s many and varied scrapes and bruises looked far too painful for Blair to be thinking of anything sexual at all. All he wanted to do was pamper and care for his partner in any way he could. When Jim finally eased himself down into the deliciously warm water with a sigh of pure contentment, with a final check to make sure that his sentinel had everything he needed for the time being, Blair returned to the kitchen to thaw out some home-made chicken soup for their supper. Once Jim was done in the bathroom, he intended to take a quick shower himself, eat some supper, then go to bed, feeling so tired now that he was virtually on autopilot.

Around an hour or so later, both men were seated at the kitchen table, eating their simple but nourishing meal. Jim looked a whole lot better after his soak, although Blair was nearly falling asleep where he sat. He had managed a quick shower once Jim had finished in the bathroom, and felt a lot better for it, but now every last bit of his adrenalin-fuelled energy had completely drained away, and he could barely keep his eyes open. He knew it was a natural reaction, but still felt ashamed of his extreme weariness. However, Jim was having none of it, and reached across the table to gently shake the smaller man awake before he fell face-first into his soup bowl.

“Hey, Junior, wakey wakey,” he murmured with an affectionate chuckle. “Come on, Blair, bed time. For once the clean-up can wait until the morning. I’ll put the dishes to soak and we’ll go on up.”

Blinking rapidly to try and rouse himself enough to act, Blair nodded thankfully and stumbled to his feet as Jim cleared away the bowls. He turned to make his way to his small under-stairs room with a mumbled “G’night, Jim,” only to be stopped in his tracks by Jim’s hand on his shoulder. Peering up into the taller man’s face, Blair frowned in consternation. “Uh, Jim? You OK?” he queried uncertainly.

Looking a little nervous, but smiling gently anyway, Jim replied, “I’m fine, Chief, mostly thanks to you. But I was just thinking that, as long as it’s OK with you, I’d really like you to sleep upstairs with me tonight. Not to do anything, but I’d like to hold you. It’d make me feel a lot more relaxed,” he added enticingly, hoping that he hadn’t misinterpreted their previous connectivity. He needn’t have worried, because the smile that broke out on his friend’s attractive face was pure joy, even if touched by a hint of shyness.

“Oh, man, I’d love to. Thank you, Jim. That sounds perfect,” he said warmly.

“That’s great, Chief. So, come on. Let’s go get some real rest and relaxation, want to?”

And they did. All night long.

------------------------

Following morning:

Jim woke up to various sensations, not all of them welcome. He was stiff and sore, far too warm, and his bladder was beginning to demand relief. Yet he was smiling as he opened his eyes to reveal the source of the heat. Still sound asleep, Blair lay spooned up next to him, his back to Jim’s chest, both hands clutching the arm Jim had thrown around the smaller man’s waist during the night. Although he knew he’d have to do something about relieving himself before too long, for a while longer he wanted to remain where he was, so he ruthlessly dialled down his discomfort in order to simply watch his friend as the younger man enjoyed his well-deserved rest.

Blair had been a little tentative at first, not wanting to take undue advantage of Jim’s offer to share his bed, and had arrived upstairs wearing his most comfortable sweats and a tee. Jim knew that the younger man was somewhat body conscious, and plainly didn’t want to make Jim uncomfortable either; a gesture the older man appreciated even if it wasn’t entirely necessary. However, as soon as Jim had opened his arms to encourage him, he had snuggled up with alacrity, and even asleep had followed the bigger man around the bed during the night like a heat-seeking missile, and Jim found that he didn’t mind one bit. In fact, his senses revelled in the young man’s proximity such that he enjoyed a restful, dream-free sleep himself, far better than he would have expected after their traumatic experience. He finally acknowledged that he had become so accustomed to listening in to his roommate’s movements and nightly mutterings in the small bedroom downstairs that the thought of Blair ever leaving was truly unsettling, and he wondered how he could ever have thrown his friend out of the loft. His instinct was to protect his ‘guide’, and his failure to do so on far too many occasions weighed heavily on his conscience, but now the possibility that they would keep sharing the same bed comforted him greatly. Holding Blair in his arms, he felt whole; the tangible proof that his partner and friend was there for him warming his heart like no other ever had. If this was love, then yes, he did love Blair Sandburg, and just maybe he might learn to do so in all ways.

A few minutes later, tiny twitches and snuffles indicated Blair’s slow return to wakefulness, and when the tousle-headed, bleary-eyed waif finally blinked myopically up into Jim’s grinning face, Jim thought that it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, beard stubble and all.

“Uh, morning, Jim,” Blair murmured, hoping that his ‘morning breath’ wasn’t too unpleasant for the sentinel. He always made a point of cleaning his teeth first thing, especially if he’d been eating spicy food the previous day, same as he took regular showers rather than inflict unnecessary odours on his sensitive roommate. What he didn’t realise was that, far from being offended by Blair’s natural physiological responses, Jim actually found his friend’s personal scent pleasing, the only time it upset him being if it was soured when Blair was distressed or afraid.

“Morning, Chief,” Jim replied, not looking at all offended. “You slept well, and I’m pleased to admit that I did too. How do you feel?”

“Pretty good, to tell the truth,” Blair answered, his own grin reaching his eyes and making them sparkle in a way that had been absent for far too long. “I didn’t dream at all, and I feel well-rested. But I hope I didn’t disturb you too much?”

“Nope, you didn’t, Junior,” Jim assured him. “In fact, it surprised me just how comforting it was to have you close like that. My senses didn’t have to seek you out, so I was able to truly relax.”

Blair looked a little puzzled at that. “Uh, do you…I mean, how long have you been listening out for me? I mean, I’ve always tried not to disturb you at night, even when I was pulling an all-nighter for the U. Hence the white noise generating earplugs and sleep mask and stuff.”

Jim regarded him ruefully for a moment before admitting, “Pretty much as soon as you moved in, Chief. I know I got on your case about not waking me at first, because I didn’t want to recognise the effect your being here had on me, but the fact is that your presence grounds me in a way that no one else can, so I guess I automatically began to reach out for you. And last night I didn’t have to, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it. So there you are,” he finished with a self-deprecating smirk.

Blair frowned at that, shaking his head in exasperation. “Oh, man! I wish you’d have told me before how you felt. What you needed from me. Maybe I could have helped you in other ways. Been there for you more?”

Jim shook his head at that. “You’ve always been there for me, Chief, whether I admitted it or not. If I didn’t make the most of everything you’ve done for me, it’s not your fault. Just me being a pig-headed loner as usual. But even if I don’t get it right all the time, I want to try and make it up to you, and if it works for you too, I’d like to make this bed-sharing a permanent fixture. How about it?”

And Blair’s smile lit up his whole face as he nodded eagerly. “Oh yeah, Jim! It works, man, it works!”

Jim’s ice blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he laughed in joyous relief. “That’s great, Chief, but now I’m going to move before I have an accident. Nature calls!” and he pushed himself a little stiffly out of the bed and trotted downstairs to the bathroom, leaving a somewhat bemused but very happy Blair watching his departing back.

---------------------------

Later, MCU bullpen:

When the pair entered the MCU bullpen some while later, they were both taken aback by their reception. Cheers and applause greeted them, and they were immediately surrounded by their colleagues and friends, who patted their backs or hugged them with enthusiasm; plainly glad to see them both alive and relatively well. Having hugged the stuffing out of Blair in particular, H cupped the young man’s blushing face in his large hands, his hearty grin momentarily giving way to a sombre frown.

“You know, Hairboy, much as we all admire your heroism, I’d prefer it if you didn’t go around doing that sort of stuff on a regular basis, at least not without warning us first! You had us really worried there, kid.”

Brian Rafe nodded in agreement, as did several others, making Blair feel even more embarrassed than before. He had had no idea that he was held in such esteem, and it shocked him to learn that he would have been missed if his rescue attempt had failed. And the fact that Jim was looking on approvingly surprised him even more.

“Um, thanks, H,” he muttered uncomfortably. “Ah, that’s really good of you to say. But it was Jim who did the real rescuing, getting those shoppers out of the ruins. I just went in after him because I had an idea where he was,” he finished somewhat lamely.

“And thank God for that!” Rhonda’s gentle voice sounded in his ear. “Because of you, Jim will be around to keep doing his job, and we must all be grateful for that.”

“She’s right, Sandburg,” Simon Banks’ voice boomed out. “Now, come into my office, you two, and I’ll catch you up on what’s been happening.”

Exchanging grins with their colleagues, who dispersed to go about their own business, Jim and Blair crossed the room to enter Simon’s inner sanctum, seeing that Joel was already there. The big ex-Bomb Squad captain’s pleasant face was wreathed in smiles as he rose to his feet to greet them. Pumping Jim’s hand and clapping him on the shoulder, his relief and joy at the sentinel’s survival was plain to see, and when he enveloped Blair in a bear hug, his eyes were sheened with moisture.

Stepping back at last, he kept his hands on the smaller man’s shoulders as he looked from one to the other. “Thank God you’re both OK,” he said feelingly. “You’re both a credit to the department, even if you scared the life out of us! I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you, and I know that goes for Simon too.”

“That’s right, Joel,” Simon agreed, albeit scowling ferociously, “But you both still took way too great a risk. I’m just glad that you got away with it this time. Thanks to that weird connection thing you seem to have going between you, I’m sure. But you’re giving me way too many grey hairs for my liking, so I’d appreciate a little advance warning before you try such stunts again!”

Both Jim and Blair looked a little sheepish at that, but they knew that their captain’s bark was far worse than his bite, so weren’t surprised when his face broke out in a welcoming smile.

“Come on then, boys, sit down and I’ll fill you in on what’s been happening. Coffee first though?” and he turned towards his personal coffee machine. “Yet another new blend from my cousin,” he said over his shoulder, “but I actually like this one. Even more than Maxwell House!” and they all chuckled at this variation on a very old joke.

Once all four were sitting comfortably and sipping appreciatively at Simon’s latest gourmet brew, for a few minutes Simon studied his visitors surreptitiously before putting his mug down on his desk. There was definitely something different about the pair, and he truly hoped that the change was for the better, and more importantly, that it would last. He wondered, perhaps somewhat whimsically, if there might have been a fundamental shift in the so-called ‘Sentinel and Guide’ dynamic, which Blair had been wont to extol at length in more optimistic and enthusiastic earlier days, but which always seemed to be weighted in favour of Jim and his role even in Simon’s cynical view. It was to be hoped that finally Jim had recognised the part his loyal friend had always played in supporting his somewhat irascible sentinel, and by that admission, perhaps the cracks in their partnership had begun to knit at last.

Despite the physical, if superficial evidence of his ordeal, Jim looked remarkably relaxed, although Simon knew that once they got down to police business, he would be as determinedly focussed as usual. However, for the moment he was smiling gently, his eyes warm as he cast the occasional glance at his younger companion, and Simon followed that gaze to see for himself what change had come over Sandburg.

Considering his own ordeal, Blair too looked surprisingly calm and rested rather than vibrating with nervous energy as Simon would have expected. Whatever had passed between them while recovering at the loft overnight, it seemed to have done the pair of them a world of good, and it warmed Simon’s heart to see it. Perhaps his friend had actually taken Simon’s advice to heart and had made his peace – if not something even more important – with his young roommate. And if that were the case, then Simon believed that the pair would become even more effective than they were at present; both at work and in their relationship. And what he didn’t know he wouldn’t ask about, because it was none of his business anyhow, and he was certain that they’d tell him if there was anything he needed to know in their own good time.

Meanwhile, there were important matters to discuss, so further speculation could wait.

Clearing his throat, he commanded their immediate attention as he regarded them intently, his expression sombre once again.

“OK then, guys. Let’s get this show on the road,” he began firmly. “But before I get into the main business, there are a few things I want to say first,” and here he pointed an admonishing finger at Blair.

“You, young man, caused me and a good few others quite a few headaches by going in like that, even though I understand your reasons. However, although he respects your loyalty to your partner, and is genuinely glad that everything turned out OK after all, Fire Chief Wysocki is still trying to come to terms with allowing an untrained civilian to just walk into a disaster area alone. If something had happened to you, it would have been his head on the block, so I hope you understand that.”

Blair had the grace to look ashamed at that, even though there was a stubborn glint in his eyes as he met Simon’s stern gaze.

“I do realise that, sir,” he replied respectfully, although there was an undertone of steel in his voice. “But please understand that I had to do it, and would have found a way even against your orders if I were forced to. The last thing on my mind was whether or not I was causing administrative or moral dilemmas. I just knew I had to get to Jim before it was too late, and I would do it again.”

Simon’s lips thinned in momentary irritation, but eventually he sighed in resignation. “Yes, I guess you would at that,” he agreed soberly. “So let’s hope you never have to.

“But in a lighter vein, your heroics were very much approved of by the Mayor and City Hall, and by our own Powers That Be also. That sort of selfless action is great PR for the PD too. Mayor Briscoe is even talking about awarding you some sort of civilian commendation for courage over and above the call, and despite what I just said, I can’t disagree. And the media lapped it up, no surprise there.”

His words weren’t exactly met with the self-deprecating pleasure he had expected, but again, after a moment he understood why. Blair’s face went as white as a sheet, and he swayed in his seat, Jim reaching for him anxiously, his own expression one of deep concern.

“Oh goddess! No, he can’t! I can’t!” Blair muttered, panic-stricken. “He can’t so this to me…to us! Simon, please,” he appealed frantically to his friend. “You can’t let this happen. We’ve fought so hard to stay beneath the radar ever since the diss disaster. This sort of publicity will rake up the sentinel issue all over again!”

Much to the others’ surprise, it was Jim who took it upon himself to defuse the situation by turning his partner to face him, shaking him a little to gain his full attention while Simon and Joel looked on worriedly.

“Stop it, Chief! It’s OK, I promise. I want you to get the credit you deserve for hauling my ass out of that mess, and if the press do start speculating again, so what? I’m not going to react like before, kiddo, because we’re well past that nonsense now. Trust me on this, Blair. I’m not the self-centred ingrate I was back then. We’ll just take it as it comes, together.”

Blair studied him intently for long moments, obviously seeking reassurance that Jim really was sincere, and eventually, much to Jim’s relief, came up with the correct conclusion. He sighed deeply, shuddering once under Jim’s hands as he nodded his assent. “Thanks, Jim. I’m sorry about the melt-down, and I’m sorry for doubting you.”

Jim grinned ruefully at that. “You had every reason to on past experiences,” he murmured, his eyes warming as he replied.

“So,” he continued, his grin almost mischievous now. “If the Mayor does come up with some sort of award, you’ll accept it, then?”

And Blair’s answering grin was infectious as he snickered, “OK, if I have to, Big Guy. If it’s what you really want!”

“I do!” Jim confirmed, then turned to face Simon and Joel. “Sorry about that, sirs, but now that’s resolved, what can you tell us about the explosion?”

Relieved that his men were back on track, Simon nodded and resumed his report. His expression grim, he informed them that so far there were twenty four known fatalities, which was actually considerably less than expected considering the amount of destruction, but still far too many innocent victims. Both Jim and Blair were very upset at that, and Jim in particular felt guilty that he hadn’t been able to do more, but Simon insisted that it could have been so much worse. At least there were five survivors who had Jim to thank for their lives, and thanks to Blair, Jim survived also.

He continued by explaining that the investigation into the cause of the explosion had actually turned out to be far easier than expected. The perpetrator, one Cedric Milner, was an engineer in the superstore’s boiler room who had been passed over for promotion once too often. According to Simon, the man was a more than competent engineer, who had served in the military before being employed by the store administration, but who had personality issues which prevented him from being considered for promotion to more senior positions. His grudge against his supervisors; and against owner Mel Wilkenson in particular; had grown and festered until he determined to get his own back by destroying as much of the store and Wilkenson’s reputation as possible. He had therefore set the boilers to blow during the store’s busiest period, uncaring as to how many innocents he killed in his quest for revenge.

All this information had come from his long-time girlfriend, who, as soon as she had heard about what he had done, had turned him in. There was no way she could condone his actions, even though apparently she declared that she still loved him, but whatever her reasons, the cops weren’t complaining. They had arrested him within hours of the explosion, while Jim and Blair were still recuperating at home, and so far the man had shown no remorse at all.

Blair in particular had been visibly distressed at that, unable to comprehend the workings of a mind so warped and callously self-centred. Despite everything he had experienced while riding with Jim, he still wanted to believe in an individual’s inherent goodness, but as Jim murmured sadly as he squeezed the younger man’s knee comfortingly, “Don’t take it so much to heart, Chief. I know you don’t want to accept it, but there are people out there who are beyond redemption, for whatever reason. All you can do is help and comfort their victims, and you do that better than anyone else I’ve ever known, so don’t do yourself down.”

And both Simon and Joel agreed wholeheartedly with that assertion. Their young colleague was indeed one of the most empathic and understanding men they had ever met, and the PD was lucky to have such a person available to counsel and comfort the victims of any and all such atrocities who sought his help.

-------------------------

Epilogue:

The loft, one week later:

Jim and Blair entered the loft together, grinning knowingly at each other as they both immediately tugged at their unaccustomed ties and unbuttoned the collars of their dress shirts, their mutual sighs of relief heart-felt. Jim threw his arm around his smaller companion’s shoulders as he steered Blair towards the kitchen, intending to grab them both a beer. “You know, Chief,” he chuckled, “you scrub up really well, I have to say, but I think you’re as uncomfortable as I am with the formal look.”

Blair grinned up at him, his eyes twinkling with glee. “You’re so right, man,” he agreed. “But it’s you who looks hot all dressed up like that!” Suddenly he realised what he had said, and blushed fiercely, hoping that he hadn’t offended Jim. Although they were so much closer now, and still shared the same bed, he had held back from making any moves on his friend, not wanting to put any pressure on the other man until Jim was good and ready, if indeed he ever was. Their relationship was already so much better than anything he had ever imagined, and if it ever became sexual, that would indeed be the icing on Blair’s cake.

However, he needn’t have worried, because Jim simply grinned in response. “Why, thank you, kind sir,” he snickered. “But have you looked at yourself in the mirror today? You look great, Chief. Beautiful, even, and I’m thinking that the cameras loved you!”

Blair ducked his head at that; grateful for the compliment even if he thought it was undeserved. “I don’t know about that, man, but I do admit I’m glad the whole business is done with. I don’t think I’ve felt that awkward in years!”

“Come on, kiddo! You deserved that award, and I was really proud of how you handled yourself, especially when those idiot reporters tried to grab your attention.”

Blair sighed at that, his face briefly taking on a sad, resigned expression. Of the whole presentation ceremony at City Hall, unsolicited and unwanted as it had been for them, that had been the most unpleasant aspect as far as both Jim and Blair were concerned. As it turned out, they had both received awards, much to Blair’s satisfaction, because he felt that Jim’s actions that day far outdid his own efforts. There had been a large gathering of Cascade’s Great and Good present, including not a few eminent figures who sat on the Board of Governors at Rainier University. There was also a big contingent from the Police and Fire Departments, including the Commissioner, Chief Warren and Fire Chief Wysocki, and the applause and sincere congratulations they had received on being presented with their medals had both surprised and humbled them.

Unfortunately, certain members of the tabloid press were apparently determined to stir up past events to make their reports even more newsworthy, and once the pair had finally managed to make their escape from the reception, their attempt to leave the building quietly and unnoticed was sabotaged when Blair had been surrounded and had microphones pretty much shoved in his face as shouted questions regarding the whole ‘sentinel’ issue were hurled at him. Face frozen, he had clamped his mouth shut against the angry responses he so wanted to make, deliberately ignoring them and keeping his eyes averted whilst maintaining a dignified silence. On the other hand, Jim was having none of it, and had glared straight into the lens of the nearest camera pointing at them.

“No Comment!” he had snarled in answer to the shouted demand to know whether there was anything in the ‘sentinel’ stuff after all. But when asked why he still had Blair as his partner he stated tersely that Blair was not only courageous, but was one of the most ethical and honest men he had ever known, and that he trusted him completely. The other matter was over and done with, and he had clammed up then, thrown his arm around Blair’s shoulders and shoved their way through the throng, leaving the frustrated newshounds to draw their own conclusions.

Blair was silent for a moment, his gaze taking on an anxious and faintly guilty cast as he studied Jim’s face. “Are you sure you’re OK with what happened, Jim? I mean, I really appreciate you standing up for me like that, but I’m worried about the backlash, I admit. We both know what the damned media can do if they think it’ll make good copy.”

“You know what, Chief?” Jim replied, reaching up to cup Blair’s face in his palms. “I truly don’t care. Surprising as it may seem after all the grief I put you through in the past, I think I’ve finally grown up. As long as you’re with me, and believe in me, I’m not scared any more of what I am. I’m not going to shout it from the rooftops, but if people want to believe it, I’m not going to deny it either. I am a sentinel, and you are my guide. And that’s the way it should be.”

Blair gazed up at him for long moments, his eyes wide and startled as he absorbed Jim’s words. He swallowed hard as tears sheened his eyes and threatened to overflow as his turbulent emotions shook him to the core. “Oh, man! Oh, Jim!” he breathed, his voice deep and catching as he fought to control it. “I don’t know what to say! I…I just, I mean, I’m just so grateful, man. If you’re truly happy with this, it’s more than I ever hoped for. I love you so much, man, and I promise I’ll always be here for you in whatever capacity you need me. I won’t let you down, Jim, I swear it!”

Jim smiled ruefully down at the wide-eyed and resolute young face looking up at him, easily reading the sincerity and love written thereon, and he was glad. So glad that he had finally had the nerve to admit what he had been feeling for weeks now, and ready to take this a step further. Blair deserved no less of him, and he now knew that he deserved it too.

“I know you’ll never let me down, Chief. You never have, not knowingly anyway, and you never will. I know that now. And there’s something else. I want you here with me always, babe. My life means nothing without your love and support, and while I’m still not completely sure whether I can give you everything you need, I’m willing to try. What do you say? Is that enough?” he added a little anxiously.

Blair’s smile outshone the sun as he too reached up and cupped Jim’s cheek in his palm. “Oh, man! It’s more than enough, Jim! Whatever you can give me, it’s enough. Just knowing that you love me too is all I ever wanted. Man, you’re the crock of gold at the end of my rainbow, seems like forever!” he added, eyes bright with love and self-directed mirth at his own whimsical words.

Jim’s own smile grew then, and his gaze fell on Blair’s beautiful mouth, the lush lips moist and beckoning as he slowly, so slowly lowered his head. And when their mouths met, he was instantly overwhelmed with the taste and texture of the plump flesh, and wanted more, overjoyed when Blair willingly parted his lips to invite Jim in. For long minutes they exchanged kisses, each learning as much about the other as they could. And when they finally drew apart, their lips wet and their breath mingling sweetly, they gazed into each other’s eyes, their love and satisfaction clear to see.

“I love you, Blair Sandburg,” Jim finally murmured, his eyes warm and expression promising everything he had to make their future together as good as it could be.

And Blair’s beautiful blue gaze told him unequivocally that his guide was going to be there with him all the way.

Forever.

The End