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"He's Gone..."

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“He’s Gone…”

Introduction:

Artefact Storage Room 3:

His heart heavy, and eyes suspiciously moist, Blair gazed around him, soaking up the familiar cluttered space which had acted as his home from home at Rainier for several years now, and was possibly the only place at present where he felt any sense of security. As his eyes settled on the untidy pile of boxes stacked against the wall, which contained his meagre worldly possessions, he sighed heavily, knowing that his next task would be to find somewhere to live, and for sure that wasn’t going to be the easiest thing to do at this time of the year, and with his miserly budget. Most of the decent student apartments were well above his means, and of the cheaper ones, it was unlikely that there were any vacant now. And he certainly wasn’t going to go the warehouse route again, no sir!

So that left him with either sleeping here in his so-called ‘office’ for a while, or trying to find someone amongst his friends who wouldn’t mind him crashing on their sofa for a few days. He had no intention of overstaying his welcome, and his generous mouth quirked in a wry half-grin as he remembered his own words not so very long ago, that he would be out of Jim’s hair in a week. But that had gone by the board as he had made himself at home, with Jim’s apparent blessing, actually daring to consider the loft as his first real home.

Stupid. Stupid! Why had he broken his own rules and let his guard down? He should have known better, but he had so wanted it to be true. That the man who had become the centre of his universe might actually return his affection, or at least accept and continue their early, easy friendship. He was ashamed of his own naivety now, behaving so out of character and leaving himself open to heartbreak, but what was done was done, and what remained of his battered pride wouldn’t allow him to go crawling back with his tail between his legs, begging for a forgiveness that Jim would never grant him.

Slumping down in his ancient office chair, he rubbed his hands over his face, trying to pull his thoughts away from that depressing notion and begin to plan his immediate future moves. Because although he felt used up and thoroughly wrung out, he wasn’t yet ready to lie down and curl up in a pathetic foetal ball, bewailing his lot. He had been as much to blame for their break-up as Jim, in believing that his Holy Grail felt the same towards Blair as he did for his hero and dissertation subject; swiftly progressing beyond their initial mutually beneficial arrangement through genuine friendship to fledgling love. But apparently it had been all one-sided, and he had been shown over and over again that he was merely a useful if annoying encumbrance. A standing joke in the closed society of the police department. The ‘abiding tolerance’ Jim had claimed that Simon had felt towards the irritating grad student wasn’t shared by the sentinel, and Blair finally got the message. He had overstayed his welcome by many months, and it was his own fault that for once he had failed to realise it.

But now he had remedied the situation, even if it had crushed his optimism and broken his heart. Not only was he out of Jim’s face and his life, but he had taken steps to ensure that the sentinel would never suffer from Blair’s intrusion on his privacy. It was the least he could do in gratitude for those early days when he had had the time of his life. And if it left him looking at a wasteland of mediocrity from now on, it was of his own doing.

Recognising that Jim hated the sentinel dissertation with a vengeance; only last week Blair had gone to his committee and told them that his primary subject had withdrawn his permission to use his data, so that the diss was in effect dead in the water. He had, however, presented them with another proposition, which was to submit an alternative paper on the police department, using the considerable quantity of data he had accumulated over the months of riding with Jim. He had, after all, been putting it together in his own time ‘just because’, and thank the goddess that he had. He knew that it didn’t have the flair of the sentinel diss, which even in its unfinished state was still probably the best thing he had ever written, but hopefully it would be enough to get those three letters after his name, so that at least he had something to show for his years dedicated to the U. And how ironic it was that its subject matter was a variation of the same as that which Blair had used to bluff his way into obtaining his ride-along pass at Major Crimes in the first place; much to Jim’s sardonic amusement at the time. However, to his overwhelming relief, they had accepted his explanation, and even expressed a modicum of sympathy and understanding for his disappointment, so now all he had to do was tidy the paper up and submit it.

Providing he had the will, that was. And right now that will was somewhat lacking, to say the least. But he would do it, he told himself firmly, simply for his own benefit. His ever-present lack of self-confidence was at its lowest ebb right now, so it was up to him to try and at least prove to himself that he wasn’t a total loser. And then he would pick himself up, brush himself down, and act his little heart out to convince those of his acquaintance who cared one way or the other that he was still the Blair Sandburg they knew of old.

Right.

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

Part 1: The Writing on the Wall:

Several weeks earlier, MCU bullpen:

Blair blew into the bullpen like a mini hurricane, breathless with exertion even though his normal cheerful smile remained in place. He was late – again – and he knew it, but he had a good excuse, and was sure that Jim would accept it even if he grumbled about the young observer’s tardiness. It was just the way the sentinel was, and Blair knew it was for show. Or at least, that’s what he had believed up until recently.

Lately it was as if Jim was genuinely exasperated by his roomie’s behaviours, and sometimes even his very presence, but Blair still gave him the benefit of the doubt. The big detective’s caseload had been heavier than usual of late, and he was only human after all. He wasn’t Superman, as Blair told him often enough, and should cut himself some slack rather than cultivate his unjustified guilt complex over not closing every single case in a swift and satisfactory manner. He still had the highest arrest and conviction record in the department, so should take a little pride in his on-going protection of the tribe.

However, that day Blair had barely reached Jim’s desk when the big cop forestalled even his friendly greeting with a curt, “’Bout time you got here, Darwin! Come on, Simon wants to see you. Now!”

Puzzled, and not a little affronted by the abrupt command, Blair frowned as he dropped his backpack down beside the desk, but still traipsed after Jim’s retreating back as the man marched purposefully over to the captain’s office. And he was uncomfortably aware of the snickers that followed his progress across the bullpen even if he couldn’t quite make out what he was certain would be disparaging comments, for once grateful that he didn’t possess sentinel hearing also.

As soon as he entered Simon Banks’ inner sanctum, he had known for sure that he was in trouble, although he had no idea why. Both the big captain and Jim were scowling down at him, and Blair felt unusually intimidated by their towering physicality.

“Hey, guys, what’s up?” he enquired with a slightly nervous grin. But it was obvious that neither man was going to be placated by his attempt at a friendly overture. Instead, Simon’s scowl if anything grew more ferocious as he waved a piece of paper in Blair’s face.

“Tell me, Sandburg, why I should be looking at a report from Dan Wolf quoting your ‘opinion’ on one of Jim’s outstanding cases? What are you doing going behind our backs and discussing evidence with the ME? If I look in your wallet, will I find a detective’s shield in there? Well?”

By now totally bemused, Blair shook his head. “Um, no, Si…Captain. But--”

“But nothing, Sandburg!” Simon snapped irritably. “You are not a cop. You are here as an observer, and that’s all! You observe, you help Jim with his senses as necessary, and that’s all!

At that point, Jim added grimly, “You know, Chief, Simon’s right. Where do you get these ideas from anyway? I know your brain’s like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but it gets really old hearing you spout off even before you’re asked. And now you reckon you can help out our Chief Medical Examiner too? What were you thinking?”

Before Blair could respond, Simon waved the paper in his face again.

“And this has to be the stupidest idea yet!” he snarled. “What have you to say for yourself?”

By now Blair’s own temper was thoroughly aroused. Although generally of a peaceable nature, this was too much to take lying down.

“What was I thinking? For your information, I wasn’t ‘spouting off’, as you so kindly put it, Jim! Dan came to me to ask my advice, if you must know, and he agrees with my suggestion. Mallory’s injuries are similar to those inflicted by some type of war club, just like the Maori one that went missing from the Cascade Museum several months ago. Find who has that club, and you’ll probably have your murderer!”

However, if he thought he would get an apology, let alone any gratitude, he was sadly mistaken.

His tone and attitude grudging, Jim muttered, “OK, so you may have a point, Chief. But Simon’s still right. And you should have come to me first. I shouldn’t have to get this information second hand from Dan’s preliminary report!”

But Blair wasn’t to be mollified or belittled any further if he could help it. “If you recall, Ellison, I did try to tell you the other night, only you blew me off. If I remember rightly, you said - and I quote - ‘Not now, Darwin. I’ve got a headache, and listening to your weird theories is only going to make it worse.’ Ring any bells, Sentinel?”

Jim had the decency to look a little sheepish at that. It was true, and he had indeed shut Blair down on the night in question. It had been a trying day all round, and even with Blair’s grounding presence at the crime scene, using his senses had left him with the headache from hell, and his patience had been strained to the limit. But as usual when he faced any type of criticism, he retaliated rather than apologised.

“That’s as may be, Chief, but why didn’t you bring it up again when I was feeling better? You could have filled me in the next morning!”

“And how was I supposed to do that when you left for the PD at the crack of dawn without so much as a ‘good morning’?” Blair growled in response. “I met with Dan at his request when I got into the PD later that day, and I assumed you knew and would be OK with it. So sue me!”

With that, he turned and stormed out of the office, ignoring Simon’s angry demand for him to return. Grabbing his backpack, he left the bullpen, still seething with anger and indignation. Jim could do his own damned paperwork today, because there was no way Blair was going to stay around to be yelled at any further.

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

As it happened, much to both Simon and Jim’s chagrin, Blair proved to have been right on the nail with his theory. On questioning the victim’s friends and family in more detail, it turned out that one of Mallory’s business acquaintances had a penchant for collecting rare artefacts, and wasn’t too worried about where they originated. Apparently, Derek Mallory had found out about the man’s nefarious hobby during negotiations for a potentially highly remunerative deal, and as an honest and upstanding individual, had threatened to pull out if the man, one Grant Sullivan, didn’t come clean about his sources for procurement. And that was the last thing he ever did. Upon confronting Sullivan at his home, a furious and disappointed Sullivan had acted precipitously in a fit of pique and struck his victim with the rare Maori club he had recently purchased through a shady dealer.

Horrified to find that he had actually killed Mallory, he had dumped the body some distance away in wooded parkland and cleaned house meticulously, hoping that it would be the end of the matter.

However, he hadn’t had the heart to get rid of the murder weapon, having paid a considerable sum for it, and that had been his undoing.

When Jim had visited his home during the course of his enquires, with Blair in tow, sentinel sight and smell soon located the club in its hiding place behind some panelling in Sullivan’s den, and as expected, forensic testing concluded that it was indeed the murder weapon.

It had to be said that Blair was overjoyed to find that he had been correct in his suggestion, but apparently his pleasure wasn’t shared by his sentinel, or by Simon, for that matter. Their admission regarding the importance of his vital input was grudgingly given at best, and neither man went as far as apologising for their initial reaction, leaving a bewildered grad student wondering just what he had to do to be recognised as a beneficial – and free – addition to the department. After all, it was hardly the first time that his suggestions and intuition had borne fruit on other occasions during investigations, yet he still wasn’t being taken seriously.

As the weeks passed, the situation deteriorated further between sentinel and ‘guide’, as per Lee Brackett’s terminology, leaving Blair increasingly bewildered and hurt. He simply couldn’t understand what he was doing wrong, because Jim refused to discuss anything with him, wrapping himself in self-absorbed irritation such that his young roommate was at his wit’s end as to how to communicate with the increasingly irascible man. As someone who set great store by discussing and bringing problems out into the open; and in the efficacious power of debate; Blair found that Jim’s determined refusal to talk about anything other than generalities was frustrating to say the least, such that eventually he retreated into miserable silence, determined to keep as far below the sentinel ‘radar’ as possible for the time being. He told himself that eventually Jim would come out of his self-imposed funk and explain to his friend what he believed had gone wrong between them, so that they could work it out together. For the longest time, he stubbornly refused to consider the possibility that it wasn’t going to happen, because that would definitely signal the end of what had been up until recently the best friendship he had ever known.

However, whatever he did – or didn’t do – nothing seemed to work in his favour, and Jim’s irritability was becoming untenable. At the PD, on the increasingly rare occasions when Blair put in an appearance; still determined to be there for his sentinel at whatever cost to himself; he was met by an ever more uncomfortable atmosphere in the bullpen. Those of Jim’s colleagues who he had come to think of as friends treated him with awkward sympathy, plainly unhappy with Jim’s attitude towards the grad student, but unable or unwilling to remonstrate with the short-tempered detective in case it made the situation even worse. And of course, those who had always wondered what Blair was doing there in the first place were covertly gratified to witness the young man’s growing discomfort.

As for Simon, it seemed to Blair that the captain’s attitude towards him was definitely deteriorating; that so-called ‘abiding tolerance’ long gone and replaced by barely-concealed exasperation. What he didn’t know, and what the older man didn’t think to tell him, was that in fact Simon was deeply troubled by the down-turn in his friend and lead detective’s overall demeanour, which was beginning to impinge on Jim’s performance at work as well as his relationship with the other members of the unit. Banks didn’t know if it was something sentinel-related or not, but it needed sorting, and Blair just happened to be the easiest target. It was unfair, and he knew it, but it was what it was, and it never occurred to him that he was unintentionally compounding the problem and precipitating the break-up of his best performing team.

In the loft, Blair was beginning to feel less and less welcome, so made an effort to keep out of Jim’s way whenever possible. He still did more than his fair share of the chores, even though the sentinel always seemed to find something to criticise about his efforts, and the days of kicking back in the evenings sharing a beer and enjoying each other’s company were long gone.

The young guide had also given up on mentioning tests altogether for fear of the ill-tempered reaction such suggestions elicited, getting the message loud and clear about Jim’s opinions regarding his feeling like a lab rat when he took off on his own to Clayton Falls. Blair realised soon enough that he shouldn’t have allowed Simon to persuade him to follow Jim, and not just because of the dire situation that they all found themselves in on arrival. It was blatantly obvious that Jim resented their presence, and the fact that he claimed Blair was ‘in his face’ all the time cut the young man to the quick.

It was shortly after that when Blair finally conceded defeat and took the hint. Jim neither wanted nor needed him around anymore, and wanted his space back once and for all. Basically, it was a case of, ‘Thanks for your help, Chief, but don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out’. So with a heavy heart and a head filled with broken dreams, Blair had waited until Jim was out on an all-night stakeout to pack up all his belongings in a few boxes he had already collected from his favourite eco-friendly store. He spent a while cleaning his small room – correction, Jim’s small room – and cleared out whatever he could find of his in the kitchen cupboards. He loaded what he needed into the Volvo, and the extra boxes he couldn’t fit in were taken down to the basement storage area in the hope that he could collect them later if Jim didn’t trash them first.

Finally, he composed a note for Jim, knowing that it was the coward’s way out, but unable to face the wrath and disgust he was sure Jim would feel towards him. Because no matter that Blair’s departure from the loft was what the sentinel wanted, Jim the man would surely take it as proof of yet another betrayal, and Blair didn’t think he could stand the inevitable showdown and accompanying recrimination right now.

Swiping impatiently at the tears trickling down his cheeks, Blair put the note on the kitchen table in plain sight, then, after taking a last wistful look around, he picked up his backpack and tossed his set of keys into the basket on the table beside the door. With a heavy sigh, he stepped out and pulled the door closed behind him, the sound like the death-knell for his foolish hopes of lasting happiness.

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The loft, next morning:

It was an exhausted and frazzled Jim who arrived back at 852 Prospect the following morning, nursing a painful headache which was undoubtedly due to trying to utilise his senses without his guide’s grounding presence. It irritated him no end to recognise that fact, and his aggravation was compounded by the knowledge that the stakeout had turned out to be nothing but a time-wasting exercise in futility after all. Despite his irrational attempt to deny it, common sense told him that he would be OK once he was in close proximity to Sandburg again, but a swift glance was enough to confirm that the Volvo was missing from its usual parking spot, just as his wayward hearing confirmed that Blair’s comforting heartbeat was also absent from the loft.

Damned kid must have decided to have a night out, taking advantage of my absence! Jim thought uncharitably, preferring to ignore the voice of his conscience that suggested the concept was hardly unreasonable, given his recent inhospitable attitude towards his guide. He was just going to have to try and sleep off the effects of his headache and hope that Sandburg returned to the loft in time to talk him through regulating his spiking senses before he had to leave for the PD again. He supposed that, if the worst came to the worst, he could wrestle the senses into submission using the dials Blair had suggested, but because he didn’t practice enough it entailed a huge effort of concentration on his part, whereas merely being able to focus on his guide’s voice and touch did the job with little or no exertion.

Not that he’d tell Blair that though. As a determinedly self-contained individual, he bitterly resented the fact that sometimes the young man’s presence was the only thing that literally – and automatically – calmed and settled his hypersensitivity, hating such dependency on one whom he considered as flighty and unreliable at best. And it did no good at all for the decent part of his conscience to demand why the hell he should continue to harbour that erroneous opinion when in fact the kid had proved to be anything but for a couple of years at least.

Unlocking the door to #307, he stalked over to the kitchen to snag a beer, even if it was too early, and that was when he saw the envelope lying on the table.

Frowning, he opened it and slid out the note it contained, instinctively knowing what it was, and terrified to find out for sure. But it had to be done, so taking a deep, fortifying breath, he unfolded the single sheet, which smelled so strongly and comfortingly of his guide even if the addictive scent was tainted with a hint of saline from Blair’s tears.

Dear Jim, he read.

I’m so sorry to take the coward’s way out and do this in writing, but I really couldn’t face another confrontation with you, man. I’m so tired, and can’t take anymore recrimination right now.

I’m also so sorry that it’s taken me so long to get the message, man, and get out of your life and your space. I always thought that I was good at seeing the writing on the wall when it came to getting out before I was pushed, but I guess it didn’t work here, did it? I know I’ve outstayed my welcome by many months – years, in fact – and just want to say how very much I appreciate your patience, Jim.

So, anyway, you’ll be pleased to know that I’m gone at long last, and you have the loft to yourself again.

I don’t suppose you will, because you’ve been managing without me for a while now, but just in case you need me for anything, you can still contact me at Rainier, for the time being, at least. And I’ll leave you a contact number if I decide to move on eventually, OK?

And just in case you’re still worried about the diss, man, don’t be. I’ve taken care of it, and it’ll never see the light of day, OK?

Thanks for everything, man, and you take care out there, you hear?

Love you, man,

Blair.

For long moments Jim stood as if poleaxed, his brain refusing to absorb the note’s contents. So distracted was he that he never even registered his captain’s approach until Simon hammered on his door demanding entrance.

Shaking himself out of his temporary funk, he weaved unsteadily over to the door to let his friend in, only to have the bigger man wave an envelope aggressively in his face.

“You care to tell me why I’ve just received a hand delivered package with Sandburg’s pass inside, Jim?” he demanded without preamble. “Where is he, and what are you going to do about it?”

Jim just stared numbly at him for a moment, then mutely held out the note for Simon to read before stumbling over to the sofa to slump into its comforting softness. He watched Simon’s expression change from simple irritation to incredulity and dismay, and when he looked over to meet Jim’s gaze his tone was accusatory.

“How could this happen, Jim? Why did it happen? I know things haven’t been that smooth between you two recently, but how did it get to this point? And what are you going to do about it? You still need him, don’t you?

“Or do you?” he added suspiciously, plainly requiring an answer.

Jim looked away then, his own gaze unfocussed and introspective for a while until he was able to offer a reply. Finally, he turned to face his friend again, and Simon was deeply shocked at the devastation on the handsome face.

“Truthfully, Simon? I don’t know. I’ve tried to manage without him, and sometimes it’s worked, and others, well, not so much. What I do know is that I’ve been an ungrateful bastard towards him, even though I can’t give you any good reason for my behaviour right now.

“And now I’ve finally done it. I’ve managed to drive him away, and I have no right to try and get him back.

“He’s gone, Simon, and it’s all my fault.”

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

Part 2: And Life Goes On:

Six months later, Rainier University campus:

Blair trotted up the steps to Hargrove Hall, exchanging friendly greetings with several students and staff members he met on the way. To the casual observer, he was still the cheerful, hyperactive young teacher they knew and loved, but those closest to him were well aware that much of the happy façade was just that, deliberately donned to conceal a deeply disappointed and heart-sick man who didn’t wish to impose his pain on others even if they would have happily been there for him. However, since Blair himself was heartily tired of his own continuing dissatisfaction and underlying depression, there was no way he would allow his friends to suffer too.

And as he continually admonished himself, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t managed to achieve a significant amount since walking out on Jim several months ago. He hadn’t allowed himself to wallow in self-pity to the exclusion of all else, knowing that he owed it to himself and to those who still professed to care for him to get on with life as best as he could in the hope that time and distance would gradually alleviate his soul-deep misery and sense of loss.

One of the first things he had had to do on leaving the loft was to find somewhere to live, and as it happened, that hadn’t been as hard as he thought it might be. He only needed to crash in his office for a couple of nights before one of his fellow TAs offered him her old room in a nearby apartment block. Alison Riggs was one of those close enough to him to recognise that he had had real feelings for the detective he had roomed with, and, like several others who were aware of his passion for his original diss topic, had already put two and two together and come up with the real reason why he had begun riding with Jim, although they never let on for fear of upsetting him unnecessarily, especially as he had now abandoned said topic.

Anyhow, as luck would have it, Alison had arranged to move in with her fiancé, so was happy to let Blair have first option on her small, one-room unit; an opportunity Blair had gratefully seized with alacrity. To be honest, it wasn’t much, but it was clean and relatively well-maintained; situated not too far from campus; and best of all, fairly cheap and within his budget. Therefore, with blessings on her head, he had moved in and attempted to make himself at home, grateful that at least he had a roof over his head. OK, he had to share some amenities with the other residents on his floor, like the kitchen, laundry and main bathroom, but the room itself was his alone, and somewhere where he could hole up and allow himself to just ‘be’.

With that major hurdle cleared, he had thrown himself back into his teaching and studies, determined now to tidy up and submit his alternative ‘closed societies / thin blue line’ diss as soon as possible. It didn’t have the gloss of the sentinel paper, as his heart wasn’t in it to the same extent, but it was more than competent enough to secure those much-desired letters after his name, such that only two weeks ago he had officially become Doctor Sandburg. And the accompanying feeling of anti-climax had shocked him intensely, even if he was at pains not to let it show.

It was strange, he mused, that what should have been the pinnacle of his academic career had little real import now he had achieved it. He had been offered a place on faculty with the possibility of tenure further down the line; for which he was truly grateful; and had even been upgraded to a tiny but proper office on the first floor in Hargrove’s Anthropology Department. Nevertheless, in most other respects his life was still much the same as pre-Jim. He still taught classes, marked exam papers and prepared lesson plans, wrote articles for publication, and used any spare time to involve himself in worthy causes and above all, keep studying.

Because that was one thing he couldn’t bring himself to stop doing. It simply wasn’t in him to rest on his academic laurels, especially as he wanted to build on his new doctorate. He wouldn’t willingly admit it, even to himself, but the reason why he had signed up for more studies in Forensic Anthropology did have an ulterior motive, even if it was little more than a pipedream. Although it was probably totally unrealistic, he still occasionally fantasised that maybe one day he and Jim might be reconciled, and if so, perhaps he could once more climb onto the exciting rollercoaster of police work. Only next time it would be on his own account rather than just as Jim’s little tagalong.

Oh, he knew well enough that it was highly unlikely to come to pass, but such wishful thinking was enough to keep him going through the darker days so that he could at least make a reasonable pretence at living a fulfilled life.

A fulfilled and busy life which didn’t include dating, since he found that he no longer had any enthusiasm for uncomplicated sexual gratification, preferring to simply enjoy the platonic company of friends and colleagues when his loneliness became unbearable.

As he neared his office, he saw Alison approaching from the opposite direction, and his generous mouth stretched in a genuine smile as he registered the glow of happiness that seemed to suffuse his friend’s pretty face.

“Hey, girl, how are you? I haven’t seen you in a couple weeks. You’re looking good!” As they met up, he reached up to peck the taller young woman affectionately on the cheek, then stepped back to study her quizzically.

She returned his smile and cupped his face with a gentle hand as she gazed down at him. “It’s good to see you too, hon,” she replied. “And congratulations on being awarded your doctorate, Blair. I’m only sorry I wasn’t there when you heard the good news, but I fully intend to be there at the Award Ceremony. No one deserves it more than you, kiddo.

“Or should I say, ‘Doctor Kiddo’?” she added with a fond chuckle.

“Thanks, Ally, that’s good of you to say,” he murmured a little bashfully before deliberately changing the subject. “But how about you, girl? You look as if life’s agreeing with you at the moment, for sure!”

At that she giggled, even as she realised what he was doing. He never talked about himself if he could avoid it, not wanting to put himself forward at all for fear of either boring his friends or laying himself open to mockery. Sure, as a born teacher he could and did happily share his encyclopaedic knowledge and considerable field experience with anyone who cared to listen, but he kept his private life to himself, and always had done. It was a shame; Alison couldn’t help but think; as he was truly one of the nicest and most considerate men she had ever met. Except maybe for Eric, her fiancé, that was, who was the reason for her present happiness.

Grinning widely now, she chuckled, “Oh, you’d be quite right there, hon! Life really couldn’t be better! Eric’s popped the question, and I’ve accepted, so all being well, we’ll be setting a date for next Spring to tie the knot. And we’ll expect you to be there, hon. Our wedding wouldn’t be the same without you!”

“Oh, man! Oh, girl that’s great news!” he enthused, sincerely pleased for his friend – well, both his friends. “I’m so happy for you both, and I’m glad Eric had the sense not to keep you waiting and risk missing out on the best thing that could happen to him. You two make such a great couple, and you can bet that if it’s at all possible, I’ll be there! Wild horses, girl!”

“Thanks, Blair. You’re a good friend, hon. But how are you managing in my old unit? Does it still work for you?”

Blair smiled warmly and nodded at the sincere question. “Yes, it’s just fine, Ally. It’s convenient and easily manageable, and I’m more than grateful that you gave me first refusal on it. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me, and I truly appreciate it.”

She gazed at him thoughtfully for a little longer, her head tilted to one side as she easily read the veracity in his words and expression. He might be on faculty now, but she knew he had never had much in the way of money, relying on temporary jobs and student loans and grants to keep his head above water. So even if he was now being paid a little more, he was still at the lower end of the teaching totem, and would be setting aside any spare cash to repay his outstanding debts for some time to come.

“You’re more than welcome, hon. I’m just glad that the timing was convenient for us both,” she answered honestly.

“But now I’d better get on. Anthro 101 waits for no man – or woman! Take care, and see you later, hon!”

Blair smiled softly at her departing back before letting himself into his office. He had some good friends, and he’d do well to remember it. Knowing that they actually cared for him gave him the strength to carry on.

And he tried very hard not to dwell on the possibility that Jim might not be taking full advantage of his own support system at the PD, because that was no longer any business of his, even if he would still like it to be.

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

Same time, MCU bullpen:

If Blair had but known it, as it happened his fears regarding Jim’s behaviour towards his would-be supporters were completely justified. With Blair’s leaving, it had been brought home with a vengeance to the distraught detective just what Jim, both as sentinel and as a man had let slip through his fingers. And try as he might to cling on to his automatic defensive denial, there was no escaping the fact that the blame for the break-up was nearly all down to him and his stubborn, if misguided desire for total independence.

However, acknowledging that fact didn’t make him feel or react any better for some considerable time, instead choosing to wallow in self-pity and assumed righteous indignation for far too long rather than accepting the truth and doing something about it, even if it was simply learning to live with his loss. He therefore reverted to an even pricklier version of his pre-Sandburg persona, such that his colleagues soon began to give him as wide a berth as possible unless forced to interact with him while working on a case.

As soon as it became known that Blair had handed in his pass and left the loft, even innocent enquiries after the young man’s decision, or genuine concern for both his and Jim’s individual welfare elicited nothing but rude and snappish rejoinders to butt out and mind their own business, so eventually they stopped asking. The only ones who persisted in trying to get through to the obstinate loner were Simon and Joel, and in Simon’s case it was getting harder and harder to cut Jim any more slack as he witnessed the steady deterioration of the morale in his unit. Jim might be one of his oldest friends at the PD and his lead investigator, but he had to consider the welfare of all his people, and the irascible detective was making his life and his position as captain far more difficult than it should be.

To complicate matters even further, he had been ordered to accept another temporary officer through an exchange programme between police departments, and the officer he drew was an Inspector Megan Conner from Australia’s New South Wales PD. And how she would fit into his team at MCU was anybody’s guess.

Although the new officer had yet to arrive in Major Crimes, Simon decided to take the bull by the horns and broach the subject of partnering her with Jim. He was well aware that the suggestion would be poorly received at best, but since his other detectives were already successfully paired up, he had no option but to put the newcomer with Jim, at least at the outset. As the most experienced and successful investigator in his unit, theoretically he should be an ideal first ‘minder’ until the Inspector settled in.

Now all he had to do was convince Jim of that concept. Oh joy….

As far as Jim was concerned, he had still to reach the stage wherein any sort of real acceptance and peace of mind was granted him either through contemplation and honest self-analysis or by actually heeding the words and reactions of outsiders. He was genuinely bewildered by his own recalcitrant behaviour, but still couldn’t get over his deeply-felt sense of betrayal, even if it was entirely self-inflicted. And in his absence, Blair was the easiest target on which Jim could pin the blame, however undeserved. So all in all, he wasn’t in the best frame of mind to be called into Simon’s office to hear what his captain proposed.

As soon as Jim entered his office and stood at parade rest in front of his desk, Simon knew that this was going to be a fraught discussion, and was already beginning to doubt the wisdom of sharing his proposal with his subordinate. The big detective was strung tauter than a bowstring, and despite the studiedly blank expression on the patrician features, the jumping muscles in the strong jaw and obdurate glint in the cornflower blue gaze were ample indicators of Jim’s barely-controlled temper and ever-present impatience.

With a heavy sigh, his own expression one of exasperation tinged with genuine sympathy, Simon addressed his friend, waving a hand to indicate the chair before him.

“Take a load off, Jim, and chill a little will you? There’s no need for the military stance, man!”

When a mulish scowl settled on the big cop’s face, Simon’s own frustrated anger ignited. “That wasn’t a polite request, detective! Sit down, and get that look off your face!” Shit, but this is going to be harder than I expected, he thought glumly, but he wasn’t about to be diverted by the Ellison ‘tude.

When Jim complied, albeit with noticeably bad grace, Simon leaned forward in his chair, his chin propped on his clasped hands as he rested his elbows on his desk. Studying the tense features for a few moments, he finally sat back and began, deciding to deal with the official stuff first. If there was going to be an eruption of Mt Ellison on hearing his new orders, it was probably better to get it out of the way. And hopefully pave the way for a more personal discussion afterwards, if at all possible.

“OK, Jim. Well, here’s the thing. No doubt you’ll have heard via the PD scuttlebutt that we’re soon going to be getting a new temporary detective, yes?”

Jim nodded brusquely, his scowl intensifying although he made no verbal response.

Simon sighed internally again, knowing that this might indeed devolve into an unpleasant confrontation, but he was nothing if not a focussed and determined leader himself, so had no intention of backing down just because Jim was likely to have a hissy fit.

“Right, then. So the officer we’re going to have foisted on us is an Inspector Megan Conner from the New South Wales PD, Australia. By all accounts she’s a more than competent investigator and popular within her own department, so she shouldn’t have too much difficulty fitting in here. Thing is, of course she’ll need to have someone show her the ropes--”

“No! No way!” The furious interjection took him aback, and his own scowl matched that of his subordinate as he bridled in indignation.

“No? No? Just who the hell do you think you’re talking to, detective? If I say that she’s paired with you for a while, then that’s what’s going to happen, OK? So don’t give me anymore attitude, Ellison, or you’ll be riding a desk on disciplinary for the foreseeable future!”

For long moments the two exchanged similar glares, neither man wanting to back down, but finally the honourable man within Jim forced him to accept his superior’s orders whether he liked it or not. Visibly deflating, he sighed gustily and broke eye contact for a few seconds until turning back to face his captain again.

“I’m sorry, sir. But you know how I feel about working with a partner. The only one I’ve ever been able to tolerate since Jack Pendergrast was Sandburg, and since he’s no longer here, I’d prefer to work alone.”

“So noted, Jim,” Simon replied, his dark eyes understanding even if he still wasn’t prepared to change his mind. “But it’s a sad fact that there’s no one else available right now, and as my senior detective, you should be the obvious choice. And it probably won’t be for that long anyway,” he continued in a more up-beat tone. “It’s not like she’s a rookie needing her hand held. It’s just to get her orientated is all.”

“I understand sir,” Jim muttered grudgingly, the resignation and defeat in his tone and demeanour clear to see. “Was that all?”

By now placated enough for his sympathy to be fully engaged again, Simon shook his head with a small grin. “No, Jim, not really. Just wanted to get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first.

“What I really want is for us to have a proper talk, man. As friends. I know you probably think that’s the last thing you want to do, but I disagree. I believe it’s time you had a chance to really unload to someone, and I’m more than happy to listen. I can see just how much you’re hating the idea, Jim, but first and foremost I’m your friend, and if you just want to use me as a sounding board, then so be it. And if so be I can offer some advice or an opinion, then I’m happy to do that too, but not if you don’t want it.

“What do you say?”

For a protracted moment, Jim had to wrestle with his instinctive urge to tell his old friend to mind his own business, because the very last thing he felt like doing was ‘fessing up to all his conflicting and turbulent thoughts and emotions right now. But a small, insistent voice inside urged him to take advantage of the generous and unreserved offer, because just maybe this was the means by which he could finally get his thoughts – and priorities – back into some sort of acceptable order.

Meeting Simon’s steady gaze again, his expression rueful, and the pain deep within his eyes hurtful for his friend to behold, he nodded slowly. “Perhaps you’re right, sir. Simon. Perhaps it is time for me to get my head out my own ass and face up to what I’ve done. It’s just hard to know where to begin. I realise I’ve been a total jerk, but you know me well enough to know that I don’t take criticism well.”

Simon grinned wryly at that. “That goes without saying, Jim, but don’t let that put you off. Just unload everything you need, and we’ll sort through it later, OK?” And if he had a very strong inkling that he himself hadn’t helped matters at all, he kept it to himself for the time being. This was about giving Jim the opportunity to unburden himself, and Simon would hold his tongue until the appropriate occasion, even if he had to exercise extreme patience and self-restraint in so doing.

Jim studied his friend intently for a while longer, then shook himself slightly as he began. And once started, he found it so much easier than expected to open up and just get everything out, knowing that Simon wouldn’t butt in before he was invited, whatever he thought of his friend’s unabridged revelations.

“I guess the best place to start is by saying that I truly didn’t want this so-called ‘gift’, which is what Blair called it. Still don’t, truth be told. And I didn’t want to acknowledge that I needed his help, even though it soon became obvious that I’d either have to accept it or go slowly nuts. And it was because I needed that help, I agreed to his writing about me for his diss. He called me his ‘Holy Grail’ and I can’t begin to tell you how uncomfortable that was for me. Hero worship I can do without, especially as I don’t deserve it. And I hated that diss Simon. I think now that it poisoned our relationship from the get-go, even though for the longest time I managed to put it from my mind.

“I mean, he was there for me, over and above anything I could ever have wanted or expected, and he became the best friend I ever had despite our being polar opposites. He was just so generous and accommodating, you know? Took on so many extra little ‘duties’ for me just to make my life easier, and I never had to worry when he was watching my back.

“But after a while, all those tests were getting old, you know? Even though he only had my welfare at heart, I still felt like a lab rat, and told him so. And it really started to bug me that folks here seemed to think I couldn’t function without him holding my hand. I mean, I was a good enough cop before the senses, and I wanted to be the same again, without depending on him to back me up all the time.

“So I started to push him away. Told myself that it was for his own good, seeing as he’d been hurt and threatened so often while riding with me. I just resented the fact that I needed and wanted him far more than I’d ever expected at the outset, and I wanted to put the brakes on before it went on any longer. Re-establish my independence if you like.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him so much, Simon, honestly. But I did, and I feel really guilty about that, especially as he got nothing out of it. Not even the sentinel paper. Some friend and diss subject I was, huh? All take and no give because it’s always been about me.

“And you know what the very worst thing is, Simon? I really miss him so much. The loft’s empty and lifeless without him. Now I have my space back, I don’t want it.

“But there’s no way I can justify trying to get him back. It wouldn’t be fair, because I’m sure he’ll have settled back into his academic life by now, and doesn’t need me hurting him anymore.”

Finally running out of steam, and surprised to find that he truly did feel better for putting his thoughts and feelings out there in the open, he sat back and met Simon’s speculative and not unsympathetic gaze as he waited for his friend’s response, however painful it might turn out to be.

The truth always hurts, as he knew only too well, and he realised now that he was at the point where he might actually take any advice or criticism on board without flying off the handle in instinctive bristling affront.

Simon didn’t respond immediately, having to get his own thoughts and feelings in order also, because now he knew for a fact that he hadn’t helped matters any. He realised that he hadn’t really understood the half of what his friend and subordinate had been going through, allowing himself to be distracted far too easily by Jim’s customary, self-contained personality and throwaway responses. It was easier to ignore the ‘Sentinel Voodoo’ shit unless it was unavoidable, and Simon also recognised that he had become far too complacent when it came to the role Sandburg had played in partnering Jim. It was obvious now that he had taken the kid for granted and had failed entirely to give him due credit for everything he had done both for his sentinel and for the department, and it was only right that he should admit as much to his friend, seeing as how Jim had opened up so candidly at his request.

His mind made up, he finally began to speak, knowing that it was the right thing to do. The only way to perhaps provide Jim with the sort of unconditional support he needed if he was to pull out of this self-destructive nose-dive into despair and make some sort of life for himself with or without Sandburg.

“First off, Jim, thank you for your candour. I know that can’t have been easy for you – it wasn’t easy to hear – and I appreciate your trust in me. I freely admit that I had no idea just how bad it had become for you, and I’m going to confess here and now that I didn’t help matters, even if it was unintentional.

“See, I didn’t give Sandburg anything like the credit he deserved either. I can see that now. It was just so easy to overlook his contribution, because to be honest, he irritated the shit out of me when he first started riding with you, and even once I’d gotten used to him, he was such an easy target.

“It’s unforgiveable of me, I know, but I never really thanked him for all the times he came through for me. I guess I just took it for granted because he seemed to be such an integral part of you. Kind of like an organic extension of you, the sentinel, if you like, and that was so wrong. I should have been looking at him as his own man, and I failed entirely to do that.”

“You’re not alone there, Simon,” Jim murmured sadly, his expression every bit as shame-faced as his friend’s. “I can’t remember ever really thanking him when I should either, and considering how much he did for me – how much support he gave me whether as guide and companion or back-up on the job – makes me feel truly shitty and ungrateful. It’s hardly surprising that he finally left me. I’m just surprised that it took him so long!”

“As to that, my friend, I think I can answer that for you,” Simon replied grimly.

“That boy literally worshipped the ground you walked on, Jim, whether it started out as simple was hero-worship or not. Why else would he do stuff like jump out of a perfectly good aircraft over the jungle or traipse around the rainforest following an escaped criminal if he didn’t feel so strongly about you? And he did those things for me too, remember, including taking a bullet in the leg, and damned if I can recall thanking him for that.

“I told him time and time again that he wasn’t a cop, but if I’m to be brutally honest, he did far more for the PD in his unofficial role as your backup than half the cops in this building. Makes me ashamed, to tell the truth, and having heard Daryl’s take on how his friend and hero has been treated by both you and yours truly, I’m feeling pretty shitty myself right now.”

Jim regarded him sadly for a moment, before nodding in resigned assent. “I hear you, Simon,” he said in rueful self-deprecation. “He told me once that it was about friendship, but it was so much more. I can see that now, now that it’s too late. I’ve finally recognised that all he ever wanted was to be wanted and needed for himself and not just for what he could do for me, but I was too self-absorbed to notice. And more recently I sure as hell never gave him any reason to believe that I really appreciated him. Or even acknowledged that he had a life outside of the PD.

“And now he’s gone, I don’t feel like using the senses on the job anymore. Incacha once told me that a sentinel would be as sentinel as long as he wanted to be, but I don’t want it without Blair, Simon. It’s too hard, and it’s my fault. I just hope that eventually they’ll fade back to normal and leave me in peace again. It’s the best I can hope for.”

Simon frowned worriedly at that. “Are you sure about that, Jim? I mean, I get that you’d prefer not to do your sense ‘thing’ without proper knowledgeable backup, but are you sure that he can’t be persuaded to come back? I think he’s probably the most generous and big-hearted kid I’ve ever come across, and wouldn’t need asking twice.”

“You probably right, Simon – at least about him being generous – but what right do I have to try? I hurt him so bad, and I meant it at the time. Surely he’d need a better reason than just me asking him to?”

“Then perhaps it’s time to start working on that as your new project, Jim. If you really want him back, with or without the senses, it’s up to you to find a way. And if you want any help, just ask, OK?

“Meanwhile, I know you have work to do, so I’ll let you go. But think on what I said, Jim. And try to lighten up, huh?”

At that, Jim rose to his feet with a wry grin. “I’ll try, sir, and thanks for listening!”

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

Part 3: Catching a Clue:

Several days later, Simon’s office:

Seated behind his desk, Simon rubbed his chin roughly with a large hand as he studied the two figures standing rigidly in front of him, his exasperation clear in the glare he levelled at them both. So much for the best laid plans! he thought resignedly as he decided what to do about the predicament with which they had presented him.

Jim Ellison stood at parade rest again, his eyes flashing fury as his jaw clenched in the effort he was taking to control his temper and his tongue, and Simon had to concede that he’d never seen his subordinate quite so incensed with a colleague before even during the direst of situations.

As for the other person present, it was difficult to decide which of the two was most likely to explode into violence first. Inspector Megan Conner was a tall, very attractive brunette, who had already made an impression in Major Crimes, even if it wasn’t universally appreciated. A tough, experienced investigator, she was forthright and self-confident, and more than capable of taking care of herself, and watching a partner’s back when necessary. One might have thought then that she was a more than satisfactory candidate to pair with Ellison, but not so. He may well appreciate her capability as a cop, but as a partner it was plainly completely untenable. They seemed to strike sparks off each other from the get-go, but if Jim thought he could intimidate her into towing his line, he was sadly mistaken. No way was she going to tolerate such tactics, knowing her own worth and not about to let some anal retentive control freak get the better of her even if he was the unit’s lead detective.

And now they had almost come to blows over a joint investigation which had just concluded satisfactorily with an arrest, but even that gratifying outcome didn’t ameliorate the tension between the pair, and for good reason. According to their preliminary verbal reports, they had gone to the premises of a man suspected of fencing stolen goods, looking for information regarding a serious theft from one of Cascade’s most prestigious jewellery stores. Jim had brusquely ordered Megan to stay outside to cover the door and watch for approaching accomplices while he went in to confront the suspect.

As luck would have it, the suspect, one Marcus Bigelow, was actually in the process of packing away some of the stolen pieces for shipment when Jim entered, so was literally caught red-handed. However, Bigelow had no intention of going quietly, so had thrown a handful of sawdust into Jim’s face before bolting out of the door and straight into Megan’s waiting hands. She had swiftly overpowered and cuffed him before entering the place herself to see what had happened to Jim.

And found him zoned on the agony of the sawdust in his eyes, having had his sense of sight dialled up against the dimness of the shabby building’s interior and unable to compensate for the unexpected shock by dialling down his sense of touch before the overload of pain sent him off into la-la land.

Megan had reacted in the most expedient way as far as she was concerned, by literally belting him in the upper arm hard enough to bring him back from the zone. But rather than thank her or offer any sort of explanation for his reaction, however vague and incredible, an ungrateful and embarrassed Jim had reacted in character. His anger was fuelled by the discomfort of his sore eyes and undoubtedly bruised bicep, and the pair had nearly come to blows before the backup unit summoned to take their prisoner into custody had arrived.

As far as Jim was concerned, it was the last straw, even if they had only been riding together for a matter of days, and not unsurprisingly, an equally angry and indignant Megan thought the same. She didn’t need some ingrate with allergies dictating to her, especially as her actions had succeeded in both bringing him back from whatever weird fugue state he’d been in as well as actually arresting the perp; and if that was considered to be acceptable behaviour in this department, she wanted nothing to do with it.

In all honesty, Simon could sympathise with her, and realised that whatever good he believed might have come from his heart-to-heart with Jim didn’t go as far as making the ex-Ranger more amenable to working with a partner, even a temporary one. Conner was obviously more than competent, but was as prickly and hard-headed as Ellison in her own way, so he was going to have to break up the partnership and find another solution however much of a problem that would pose for him. It was either that or have open warfare break out amongst his people, and no way was that going to be allowed to happen.

“Right then, you two, this is how it’s going to be,” he began, his tone brooking no argument. “I must congratulate you on Bigelow’s arrest, Inspector. You acted quickly and effectively, and I’m sure that once he’s calmed down some, Detective Ellison will realise that!” - this said with a repressive glare at the man in question.

“But I cannot and will not tolerate open bickering between my detectives, for whatever reason. So effective immediately, I’m going to pair you with Captain Taggert. Joel Taggert has just been seconded to this unit at his request, having given up the role of Captain of the Bomb Squad, and we’re lucky to have him. He’s a good and experienced officer, and a very steady and reliable man, and I’m sure you will both get along very well.

“So, if you would like to get on with your written report, you may leave, and I’ll introduce you to Joel shortly.”

Megan nodded her assent, her satisfaction obvious as she replied, “Thanks, Captain Banks. Sounds good to me. I’ll get right on it,” and with that, she exited the office, but not without a swift, venomous glance at Jim as she passed.

With Conner’s departure, the tension seeped out of Jim as he visibly relaxed in relief. Shame-facedly meeting his boss and friend’s gaze now, he heaved a great sigh as he said, “I’m sorry, sir. I know that was inexcusable behaviour, but I couldn’t help myself. She’s a good cop, I admit, but she’s so assertive and abrasive! She just winds me up as soon as she opens her mouth!”

Simon stared pensively at him for a long moment before replying. “Takes one to know one, huh, Jim? It’s not like you’re easy to deal with even on your best day, but at least Sandburg had good reason to put up with your attitude. And since Conner doesn’t know about the senses, it’s not surprising she did what she had to to bring you out of that zone.

“Because it was a zone, wasn’t it?”

Jim grimaced at that. “Yes, it was, sir. I had my sight dialled up because the building was so dark, and then that asshole threw sawdust in my face, and the pain sent me into a zone. But hell, Captain, she didn’t have to hit me so hard! She just hauled off and belted me! She could have at least tried to talk me out of it!”

“Yes, but Jim, since she has no knowledge of the sentinel stuff, how was she to know? She needed a quick fix and went for the most obvious way of achieving it as far as she was concerned. And anyway, I thought you said that you weren’t going to use them so much unless you could manage to control them without Sandburg?”

Jim dropped his gaze then. “I know, Simon. Sir. And I didn’t intend to. I just did it unthinkingly, and look where it got me? I’ll just have to be more careful in future, and keep them dialled down until they get back to normal on their own.

“If they get back to normal,” he murmured morosely.

“Well, sounds to me like we’re back where we left off, huh, Jim?” Simon replied, not unkindly. “If you decide to keep them after all, and want to be able to use them effectively, you’re going to have to try and get that boy back, aren’t you? So go and think about how you’re going to do it! Or not, as the case may be. The decision is yours either way.

“Dismissed!”

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

Next Day, MCU Break Room:

Nursing a mug of dubious coffee, Megan gazed around at her small captive audience, determined to make the most of this unexpected opportunity to find out as much as possible about the unpredictable and irascible Ellison. She appreciated the fact that he was acknowledged to be the most successful investigator in the department, but guessed that there was far more to him than met the eye. And she also admitted to herself that not only did she like a mystery, but she was discomfited by the failure of their temporary partnership so soon into her secondment to the unit. She was well aware of her own intolerance for rudeness and that she had a tendency to be outspoken to a fault, but she still didn’t like the fact that he had taken such an immediate dislike to her. And no one, not even a cop with a rep like Ellison got to patronise her and expect her to take it lying down. She therefore grinned at H, Rafe and Joel, and went straight in for the kill.

“OK, then, mates, what can you blokes tell me about Jimbo, huh? I mean, is he like this with everyone, or is it just me who gets up his arse? I’ve heard all about his arrest record, but he seems pretty unpredictable to me. So what gives?”

H grinned at her then, liking their new colleague’s forthright manner and prepared to offer what information he could. Sure, he still respected Jim to a certain extent, and had even professed to like him at one stage, but since Sandburg’s departure, the man had become as tetchy as all get-out and his performance in the field was growing more erratic.

“Well, you’re right about Jim being pretty unpredictable these days, Megs. See, he was always a good detective, but liked to work alone, and he wasn’t the most sociable guy either. But then along comes this college kid, and suddenly not only does Jim become human, but his performance goes through the roof. Don’t get me wrong, now. We didn’t mind because his success rate reflected well on the whole unit, but we never could figure out why, you know? There was something different about him all of a sudden, and Hairboy – that is, the college kid, Blair Sandburg – seemed to have a lot to do with it. Not only that, but then Jim lets him move into the loft with him, and becomes positively friendly! Go figure!”

His cheerful expression morphed into one of vague perplexity then as he glanced expectantly over at his partner Rafe, who obligingly took up the tale.

“Yeah, like H says. And Blair was a good guy, you know? Looked like some sort of hippie drop-out, but really clever, you know? And pretty too,” he added with a knowing smirk. “And before we knew it, he had Ellison wrapped around his little finger. For a while, anyway. Huh, some of us even thought that they might be an item! Had a pool going on when they were finally going to come out and admit it, you know?

“But for some reason or other, Ellison took against him and started to treat him like dirt. It made my blood boil to see that sort of ingratitude, especially after all the times Hairboy came through for him, and the rest of us too when he could. Even though he didn’t get paid for it. It wasn’t right. And then Hairboy had enough and left him, and he’s been like a bear with a sore head ever since. Even worse than he was before, so I’m told, and I for one don’t like to deal with him unless I can’t avoid it. An angry Ellison is scary, man!”

While his colleagues were speaking, Joel quietly looked on, a sad expression on his normally genial features. He didn’t like to hear what they had to say, but in all honesty understood where they were coming from, having witnessed the deterioration in Jim’s behaviour for himself. And it had to be said that he had really liked Blair. The kid had helped him immensely while he was undergoing the crisis of confidence that finally led him to quit the Bomb Squad, but not before Blair had talked him through successfully disarming that last device. Blair had become almost like the son he had never had, and he too had hated to see how badly Jim had begun to treat him before the grad student finally gave up and left. And good man that he was, Joel truly hoped that Blair was as happy as their occasional emails and phone calls led him to believe, just as he hoped that Jim would eventually get over himself and accept his colleagues’ help in re-integrating himself into the unit.

In the meantime, all Joel could do was to try to run as much subtle interference as Jim would allow between him and his increasingly intolerant co-workers until such time as the situation resolved itself one way or the other.

Her pretty face creased in thought, Megan nodded approvingly as she digested her new colleagues’ information, gratified to find them to be so forthcoming. She was certain now that her instincts had been right, and that there was far more to the mystery behind both Ellison’s past performance and his present behaviour, and she was determined to get to the bottom of it. And she was sure that the best place to start would be in checking out this Blair Sandburg character.

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

Unfortunately, what none of them even suspected was that out in the bullpen, Jim had overheard every word. His sense of hearing was cooperating very well at that moment, thank you very much, and although he hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, he couldn’t help but pick up on the mention of Blair’s name, so had zeroed in on the rest of the conversation.

Damn that Aussie bitch and her snooping! he thought angrily. Just because I pissed her off doesn’t give her the right to poke into my life. And I hope to god that she doesn’t start pestering Sandburg. He doesn’t need that, and neither do I!

However, if he had but known it, that was exactly what Megan intended to do at the first opportunity, but only after doing as much background research on her target as she could via the internet. And what she came up with intrigued her immensely and fired her imagination to an even greater extent.

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

Two days later, Blair’s office, Hargrove Hall:

Blair pushed his glasses up so he could massage his sore eyes with thumb and forefinger, trying to ease the strain of staring at the computer screen for too long. He was attempting to proof-read an article he was about to submit to Anthropology Today magazine, but after a morning spent marking several sets of very variable freshmen term papers and pop quiz results, his vague but enervating fatigue was beginning to take its toll.

Whatever happened to that Energiser Bunny everyone used to compare me with? he thought ruefully, his lips stretching in a wry and self-deprecating grin. Think my batteries are flat for sure!

It was a sad fact that he did indeed feel run down and deflated much of the time, but was honest enough to acknowledge that it was a fatigue of the spirit as much as of the body, and he chided himself daily on his apparent inability to pull himself out the mild but persistent depression that had plagued him for far too long now. Although it had begun to afflict him in the last few fraught weeks of his stay at the loft, for sure it had gradually gotten worse since then despite his determined efforts to revitalise his previously satisfying academic lifestyle and mind-set; his dreams and goals having changed too drastically to allow that ambition to be achieved with more than modest success. However, he still wouldn’t allow himself to burden his friends with his pitiful woes if he could help it, and managed somehow to maintain that cheerful façade in his interactions with colleagues and students alike. But if he did but know it, there were plenty who could see right through the popular young professor’s jaunty disguise, and truly wished that they could get underneath his protective veneer and actually provide some real comfort and support.

Suddenly, a knock on the door heralded the arrival of Janice, one of the senior department secretaries who had a particular soft spot for Blair. Poking her head around the door, she smiled warmly at him as she quickly checked out his current activity level.

“Hey, Blair, I’m sorry to bother you, my dear, but there’s someone here to see you, if you have a moment. It’s an Inspector Megan Conner from the PD, but she says it’s unofficial, so if you’re too busy, I can tell her to come back another time.”

His eyebrow quirking inquisitively, Blair frowned for a moment as he absorbed the unexpected request. It wasn’t someone he had ever met, although he had heard of her, as Joel had informed him of her arrival in his most recent email. He understood that she was from an Australian police department, and was over here as part of an officer exchange programme. But why on earth she should want to see him was a mystery, especially in an unofficial capacity. It had to be said that his curiosity was piqued, but he also felt a certain unease, just in case it had something to do with Jim.

And because he still cared very much about Jim’s current situation; worried that his erstwhile sentinel roommate and still the secret love of his life wasn’t thriving as he should; Blair decided that it was incumbent on him to find out, and offer his help if needed. Even if the object of his concern ultimately resented any contribution he might be able to make.

Swiftly making up his mind, he returned Janice’s smile, saying brightly, “It’s OK, Janice. I’ll see her now. I need a break from this lot anyway!” and he waved his arm to indicate the piles of books and papers on his desk.

Not entirely convinced; because the maternal and kind-hearted Janice was one of the people who would dearly have liked to be allowed to coddle her favourite young professor; she replied, “OK, dear. If you’re sure, I’ll send her on down. But if you need anything, or want her to go, just give me a call, right?”

Blair nodded in amiable assent, so she withdrew her head and returned to her office where Megan was waiting. But even as she reported Blair’s positive response and gave the tall police officer directions to his office, Janice couldn’t help but feel uneasy, concerned that the visit might presage yet more upset for an already troubled soul.

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

On arriving at Blair’s office door, Megan knocked briskly and entered at his invitation, taking the opportunity to study both occupant and his surroundings as she strode purposefully over to his desk. Her smile was wide and friendly as he rose to offer her his hand in greeting, and she couldn’t help but be pleasantly surprised by his attractiveness. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but this lovely young man wasn’t it. Sure, her colleagues at Major Crimes had told her that Blair Sandburg was a long-haired hippy type, but even though Rafe had described him as ‘pretty’, it surely didn’t do him justice. He might be a few inches shorter than her, but his well-proportioned figure was compact and sturdy, if overly slender, and he was plainly no insipid weakling. The long, dark auburn curls were tied neatly back in a ponytail at his nape, but shone with cleanliness and health even though his face bore tell-tale signs of care.

But nevertheless, that face was stunning. Not conventionally handsome, but truly beautiful in a purely masculine way. Sandburg’s forehead was broad and smooth, his cheekbones high and well-defined, his nose neat and his chin strong. But his mouth was almost sinfully generous and lush, and his eyes were spectacular. Large, blue and expressive, Megan thought rather fancifully that if they were the windows to the soul, then young Doctor Sandburg had nothing to hide. She knew instinctively that he was good people, and was taken aback at her need to protect him, total stranger that he was.

Reaching out, she grasped his offered hand and smiled warmly as she shook it briefly but firmly. “G’day, Doctor Sandburg, and thanks for agreeing to see me at such short notice. I don’t want to keep you from your work, though, so I’ll try and keep this as short as possible, OK?”

As far as Blair was concerned, he was intrigued by his unexpected visitor, and pleasantly surprised by both her manner and her appearance. OK, so she was taller than him, but as he ruefully noted, what cops weren’t, male or female? However, she was very attractive, and he admitted to himself that in an earlier life he wouldn’t have thought twice about trying to put the moves on her.

More importantly, his well-developed empathy and hard-earned sense of self-preservation suggested that she seemed honestly open and unaffected, such that perhaps it wouldn’t be too much of a strain to trust her – and trust in her, and that notion certainly gave him pause for thought.

“Ah, pleased to meet you, Inspector Conner. Please take a seat. I have nothing too pressing at the moment, but I do have a tutorial to run in about an hour, so I can give you until then if that works for you?

“So, how can I help you?”

Megan settled herself in the chair Sandburg indicated, and quickly gathered her thoughts together. Now she was actually here, and had seen the man for herself, she was a little perturbed at how she should begin, because for sure she didn’t want to make waves unnecessarily. And she certainly didn’t want to hurt this young man if she could help it. But her determination to solve the mystery of Ellison wouldn’t let her rest, her research having convinced her that it was for his own good as much as for the unit, so she took a deep breath and began.

“Well, it’s like this, Doctor Sandburg. As you probably know already, I’ve recently transferred to Cascade PD on an exchange programme, and have been placed in Major Crimes. Which is great for me, because that unit has a bonzer rep, and should give me plenty of opportunities to hone my detective skills, so to speak.

“Thing is, Captain Banks decided to partner me with Detective Ellison, and can we say that working with Jimbo was a total disaster. The bloke threw a tanty almost within the first hour of meeting me, and it didn’t get any better as the day went on! I did wonder whether it was just me, but his mates said that he was like it all the time now, and has been since you stopped riding with him.

“So I guess what I’m trying to say is that you must have had good reason for sticking with him, some way of getting him to work with you, and I’d like to find out if I can do the same? See, apparently the amazing successes he had while you were partnering him just aren’t happening anymore.

“Not that he’s not doing his job, but just not like he used to, according to his mates, and the special ‘edge’ he seemed to have acquired isn’t working like it should.”

She could tell that her words were troubling Sandburg, the tension in his stiff posture obvious even though he was trying hard to maintain a neutral expression. But his eyes gave him away, and the fear lurking within their depths almost persuaded her give up on her self-imposed mission and leave him in peace. But she was still convinced that she was on the right track, and wanted him to confirm it for her.

“Um, you can call me Blair if you want, Inspector,” Blair began hesitantly. “Ah, I don’t know what you want me to say,” he continued edgily. “I mean, you’ll no doubt have been told that I was riding with Jim to get data for my dissertation, and once I’d got that, there was no need for me to stay. Sure, he was kind enough to let me room with him for a while, but once I got my doctorate it wasn’t fair to keep invading his space.

“But I haven’t been in contact with him for months now, so I don’t know what, if anything, is wrong. I don’t see how I can help you.”

He was deliberately evading her, she could tell, so she decided to bring out the big guns even if the reaction might be truly explosive.

“Put it this way, Doctor Sandburg. Blair. The poor bloke seems to have quite a few problems now, almost like severe allergies? I mean, he complains of having a headache a lot of the time, and snapped at me for using too much perfume, when I wasn’t even wearing any. Just a bit of floral scented hand cream. And then when we were on a case, he froze after the perp threw some sawdust at him! It was a bloody good thing that I was there to take the bugger down, but when I thumped Jimbo to wake him up, he went crazy! And after that Captain Banks spilt us up again so I’m partnered with Joel Taggert now.

“But I feel sort of responsible for Jimbo even if he hates my guts, and I’d like to help him as much for the unit’s sake as for his. And I believe that you can help me do that.”

By then Blair was really worried, and his anxiety made him angry. How dare this woman try to pump him for information about Jim? Certainly he was deeply concerned about what he had just heard about Jim’s apparent inability to control the senses, but what did she expect him to do about it? Jim had made it very plain that he didn’t want Blair hanging around anymore, but his secret was his to reveal, or not, as the case may be, and he’d never forgive Blair if he was the source of it being leaked. It was Jim’s constant fear of being seen as a freak that made him so tight-lipped where the senses were concerned, and no way was Blair going to out him if he could avoid it. For the Goddess’ sake, it was why he ditched the ‘modern sentinel’ paper in the first place.

“I’m sorry, Inspector, but I can’t help you. Yes, I did ride with Jim for some time while I collected data, and I’d like to think that we became friends, but I was only ever an unofficial observer and have no right to interfere with his life any more than you do.”

Unfortunately his hedging did nothing to deter Megan, and her next words shocked him to the very core.

“Well, I’m not so sure about that, Blair. You see, I did a little research on you – just to find out where your academic interests lie, see? And I just happened to come across your Master’s thesis online. All about tribal sentinels. And what fascinating stuff it was--”

And that was as far as she got before stopping abruptly at the sight of his face, which had drained of colour so fast she thought he was going to pass out. Jumping to her feet, she ran around the desk to throw a supportive arm around his shoulders as he started to hyperventilate in what looked like the first stages of an almighty panic attack.

Even as she tried to offer words of comfort, genuinely ashamed at causing him such distress, it occurred to her that his reaction was proof positive that Jim must be one of these sentinels, and that Blair had been riding with him because of the help he could offer. But first she had to try and calm him down, because the last thing she wanted was to see him suffer because of her well-intentioned snooping.

As for Blair, he had realised immediately that the cat was out of the bag as soon as the inspector mentioned his Master’s paper. Busted! And it was all his fault. She had obviously put two and two together, and there was no way he was going to be able to convince her otherwise. And that realisation utterly terrified him. Everything he had tried to do to protect Jim’s privacy had come to nothing, even dumping his dissertation. The damage had already been done because the information was already out there for someone as determined as Megan Conner to find and draw her own conclusions. What had he done? Jim was going to kill him!

With a gargantuan effort, Blair somehow managed to control his breathing, and gradually calmed a little, although the mortification of his near meltdown in front of a complete stranger caused him to blush in shame. He was horrified to find that he felt like crying, which was something he’d never allowed himself to do unless in private, but the circumstances seemed so dire and the situation so out of control that the very thought threatened to set off the incipient panic attack again. Forcing himself to meet Megan’s compassionate gaze, he muttered, “I’m sorry, Inspector. I…I apologise for my behaviour. You just took me by surprise, is all. I…I think you’d better go.”

However, Megan was having none of it, unless he insisted, so giving his shoulder a quick squeeze of encouragement and reassurance, she moved away and took her seat again.

“No, Doctor, it’s me that should be apologising. I know I can be a bloody-minded and pushy sheila when I get my teeth into something, and sometimes I get carried away. I truly didn’t intend to upset you so much, I swear. I just wanted to confirm I was on the right track.”

Blair lowered his head for a moment, scrubbing his face with his hands in an effort to pull himself together a bit more before answering. He was still screwed whatever she said, because she had no idea of just how badly Jim was going to react if she let on what she knew. Or even what she suspected.

Suddenly he realised that she was speaking again, and he raised his head to gaze at her in perplexity.

“Listen to me, Sandy…” she was saying, her expression earnest.

Huh? Sandy? He just couldn’t help himself, and had to respond. “Uh, ‘Sandy?’ What’s that about?”

She grinned cheerfully then, and again he couldn’t help but return it with a tiny smirk of his own.

“Sorry, love, but it suits you! I’m probably being overly familiar in the eyes of polite society, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I won’t use it if you don’t like it, but I’m really hoping that you’ll agree to see me again anyway.

“See, I can and do promise faithfully that Jimbo’s secret is safe with me. It doesn’t take a genius to see that it’s really important to you too, and no way am I going to drop you in the proverbial by letting slip that I’ve met you and talked about this. I meant what I said that I just want to help, although I have a sneaking feeling that I won’t be able to do what you used to do. Because now I’m thinking that not only are you some sort of expert on the whole subject, but it seems to me that you must have been his companion, like you write about in your thesis. Is that true?”

One again she had taken Blair’s breath away, and this time tears actually filled his eyes even though he fought not to let them fall. How could she possibly have come to that conclusion so fast? And it wasn’t as though it was true anyway, although he dearly wished it was. He just had to make it clear once and for all if he could.

“No, no! It wasn’t like that. I’m no guide! I just helped is all. Came up with a few ideas out of the blue which seemed to work. After a while, Jim didn’t really need me, so when the time came I left. End of story.”

She gazed at him for a long moment, her head on one side and her expression speculative. But what she came out with was by no means what he might have expected.

“Does Jimbo know how much you care for him, Sandy? I mean, I don’t want to upset you any more than I already have, but I have a feel for this sort of thing, even if we’ve only just met. You care deeply enough to want to protect him even at your own expense. And I’m truly sorry to have stirred it all up for you out of nowhere like this.

“Look, I’m going to make myself scarce now, because I’ve upset you enough. But I really hope that you’ll agree to see me again, and help me to help Jim if it’s at all possible.

“And just maybe he’ll catch a clue eventually about how important you are to him, the ungrateful, bloody-minded sod!”

Rising to her feet, she grinned at Blair again, leaving the young man gazing open-mouthed after her in stunned astonishment. Looked like her job here was done – for now.

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

Part 4: A Second Chance:

To say that Blair was left thoroughly rattled by his unexpected visitor would be a huge understatement. In retrospect, he would never know how he got through the following tutorial without coming over as a complete headcase, but somehow he must have managed it without causing too many raised eyebrows. Unless, of course, his students were being exceptionally tolerant of their popular young professor’s behaviours, which wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to anyone but Blair himself.

Be that as it may, as soon as he could get back to the relative sanctuary of his office, he collapsed into his ancient overstuffed armchair and dropped his face into his hands again, trying to breathe deeply and get his muddled thoughts into some sort of order at last.

The first thing that struck him was that he was absolutely certain that Megan Conner wasn’t in any way deceitful, and he believed implicitly in her promise not to reveal Jim’s secret. Whatever Jim and Simon might imply, Blair was in fact a good judge of character, even if he did tend to be a little too forgiving and open-minded in some instances, but in Megan’s case he was entirely convinced of her integrity. Not that he’d want to cross her, mind you, as he could well imagine that the tough Aussie cop wasn’t anyone you could dismiss with impunity.

That being said, he was still upset and angered by her interference, however well-meant, and as yet couldn’t see what good could come of her honest desire to help. If Jim thought that she had any real inkling about how to help him manage his gift, his normal reaction would undoubtedly be to deny it outright, tell her to butt out of his business, and then try to track Blair down to demand just what he knew of the meddling woman’s sources of information. And that sort of confrontation was the very last thing Blair thought he could deal with right now.

On the other hand, it really did sound as if Jim needed help, but if he was loath to accept it from Blair, and almost certainly not from Megan Conner, what could be done? The sentinel clearly needed a partner whether he liked it or not, and even if Blair believed that he might not be Jim’s true guide after all, he couldn’t allow Jim to suffer unnecessarily.

But at the end of the day, it was all down to Jim, and whether he decided that the senses were too much trouble after all and turned them off. In which case, Blair wouldn’t be required to do anything anyway, and wouldn’t need to worry about his friend ever again.

And damned if that thought didn’t depress him even more.

Deliberately stomping on that dismal notion, he came to a decision and sat up in his seat, straightening his shoulders as he unconsciously drew on the well-spring of real courage and fortitude at his core. For as long as he believed that Jim was in need of support, he would agree to meet with Megan, and perhaps between them they could come up with some way of supplying what was necessary without ruffling Ellison feathers overmuch.

And at that improbable concept, he just had to grin ruefully to himself. He always had liked a challenge….

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

MCU bullpen, later that day:

Scowling at his computer screen, in what was now his usual bad-tempered frame of mind when it came to writing up reports, Jim was aware that Megan Conner had just entered the bullpen, although he didn’t deign to acknowledge her arrival. He still couldn’t get over her attitude and actions during their short and unsuccessful partnership, it never occurring to him that he should actually be thanking her for pulling his ass out of the fire however uncomfortable the means used. So OK, it had worked, but completely by chance, whereas Blair could have done the job with just a touch and a few soft words of encouragement.

And that was quite enough of that, he reprimanded his inner sentinel, deliberately stomping down on any such wistful imaginings. Blair was gone, and no way was Jim the man going to lower himself to crawling to his ex-guide begging for him to return. For a start, his own pride wouldn’t allow it, and also he still deluded himself that it was for Blair’s own good. Not that he’d ever tried to get in touch with his friend – if he still counted as such – but his increasingly erratic hearing occasionally allowed him to eavesdrop on his colleagues’ conversations such that he had learned that at least Blair had received his doctorate, presumably with the ‘closed societies’ paper. The good man inside of him was pleased for the kid, and hoped that Blair was happy to be back on the academic merry-go-round, even though his inner sentinel raged and railed at the loss of his loyal guide and friend.

But on the rare occasions where he allowed himself to be brutally honest, he knew that his unremittingly suspicious and self-centred attitude had cost him the best friend he had ever had, bar none, and the pain he had caused that same friend was unforgivable. So it was only his just desserts if his senses refused to shut down despite his best efforts, such that he never knew exactly how he was going to react to outside stimuli at any given time. So much for Incacha’s declaration that a sentinel would be a sentinel as long as he wished it. He supposed he must be doing something very wrong for the senses to still be there, and growing more unruly by the day.

In fact, it had gotten so bad recently that he was pretty certain that Simon was going to pull him out of the field sooner rather than later before he could either get himself or some other innocent killed. It had been his worst fear when he had first come on line, and now it was back with a vengeance.

Determinedly stomping on that line of thought also, he tried to concentrate on the thrice-damned report he was trying to complete, until gradually becoming peripherally aware that that blasted Conner woman was casting speculative glances over at him while trying to look as if she was concentrating on her own paperwork.

Goddamnit! Why the hell can’t she keep her nose out of my business? Why does she keep studying me as if I were some sort of alien being? he thought angrily. Surely she can’t suspect anything, can she? Or can she…

He shook his head angrily at that. What would Blair have said? Something along the lines of, ‘it’s only paranoia if they really are out to get you,’ or some such nonsense. And damned if he couldn’t do with his young friend’s cheerful comments right now. And his exceptional typing skills.

Heaving an exasperated sigh, he turned back to the screen, deliberately trying to shut out his surroundings and concentrate on his report.

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

A few minutes later, Jim abruptly became aware of a presence beside his desk, even though he was somewhat shaken to realise that he hadn’t actually picked up on anyone approaching. He glanced up to see Joel smiling down at him, his pleasant features amiable and betraying his genuine interest in his colleague’s welfare. Much as Jim would have liked to avoid conversation, feeling as antsy as he did, he knew that Joel was one man he wouldn’t want to upset if he could help it. The ex-Bomb Squad Captain was a gentle soul who didn’t deserve the classic Ellison ‘tude, and since he was a particular friend of Blair’s also, the least Jim could do was be cordial.

“Hey, Jim, how’re you doing? I was just on my way to collect Megan so we can go chase up some leads on the Mitchell case, so I thought I’d drop by your desk first. I gather you’ve closed the Bigelow case now that he’s rolled over on his accomplices.”

Jim grinned wryly up at the older man. “Yeah, just typing up the report now,” he replied. “Luckily for me the guy couldn’t ‘fess up fast enough once he heard the deal the DA was prepared to cut him if he talked, and I helped the guys from Robbery round up his accomplices yesterday morning.

“And when they heard about Bigelow shopping them, they sang like a treeful of birds! Sweet!”

Joel grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Glad to hear it, Jim. It was a good result, even if you do have to type up your own reports now!”

However, obviously realising what he had implied, and ashamed of his unintentional tactlessness his genial face fell in remorse. “I’m sorry, Jim. Didn’t mean to be so crass. For what it’s worth, I wish Blair was still here too.”

Jim would have liked to respond angrily, but this was Joel, and he knew that the man had no side to him, so he just sighed and offered his upset friend a rueful grin instead. “S’OK, Joel. I know what you mean, but it’s not going to happen. He’s better off where he is, not getting kidnapped or shot at.

“So, anyway, good luck with your leads, Joel,” he continued, deliberately changing the subject.

Nodding understandingly, his face sad now, Joel squeezed his shoulder again and headed over to Megan’s desk to collect his partner. And at her inquisitive look, he shook his head slightly. Now wasn’t the time to talk about Jim. If there was ever a good time these days.

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

Shortly afterwards, Joel’s sedan:

Once well clear of the PD, and out of even functioning sentinel hearing range, Megan deemed it the right time to broach the subject of her visit to Rainier with Joel. She already knew that the big, easy-going captain had a real soft spot for Blair, so she figured that he would be the most receptive to her ideas and suggestions. Having said that, she had no intention of betraying Blair’s – and Jim’s – trust by revealing what she knew about sentinel senses. She just needed his opinion on how to go about helping both Jim and Blair. And hopefully even get them together again, although she knew that wasn’t going to be easy. Then again, she had always been optimistic as regards her matchmaking abilities, the more challenging the circumstances, the better.

“I went over to Rainier this morning,” she began, sending Joel a knowing glance, such that he realised immediately that she was bursting with some exciting information she couldn’t wait to divulge.

“OK, Megs,” he chuckled benignly, “out with it! You can’t keep this old man in suspense!”

She laughed aloud at that, then nodded quickly. “Well, it’s like this, Joel. I guess you already twigged that I’m a nosy sheila, and I love a mystery to get my teeth into. Not that I want to cause anyone any trouble, but I don’t like to see mates suffer unnecessarily. Or even the likes of Jimbo!” she added with a wry grimace.

“See, judging by what the others told me about him; and from my own observations and experiences such as they are; I’d say that the poor bloke’s coming unglued. So I thought I might go and see that young professor he used to ride with to see if he could give me a few ideas about how to help Jimbo – always supposing he’ll allow it, of course.”

Joel couldn’t help himself. “You went to see Blair? How was he? You didn’t upset him, did you? He never left Jim on his own accord, I’m sure of it, and I wouldn’t like to think that you’ve stirred up bad feelings even unintentionally. He’s a good, kind-hearted young man, and didn’t deserve Jim’s treatment of him.”

Megan reached over impulsively and squeezed his arm. “No, Joel. That is, yes, I did unsettle him, but I think we parted on good terms. I didn’t mean to rattle him, and yes, he’s certainly every bit as open-minded and generous as I’d been led to believe, but he agreed that we both had Jim’s welfare in common so he’s prepared to meet up with me again. I know he didn’t like the idea of me interfering at first, just like I can see you don’t either, but I could tell that he still has Jimbo’s best interests at heart, so he was prepared to allow me a chance to help, if I can.

“I think he loves Jimbo, and would do anything for him, even if it meant giving up their relationship, as long as he was convinced it was for Jimbo’s own good.”

Joel nodded sadly at that. “Yes, I think you’re right there, Megs,” he sighed. “That boy is possibly the most unselfish soul I’ve ever met, and you wouldn’t have to ask him twice if he thought he could help. But because of that, I hope you don’t take undue advantage of his good nature, Megs. I won’t see him hurt anymore.”

Megan nodded then, her expression serious. “No worries, Joel. There’s no way I want to see him hurt either, and I’ve only met him once! I reckon I’m a pretty good judge of character, and I agree with everything you’ve said about him.

“Thing is, if he can give me some suggestions about how to help Jimbo, I’m willing to give it a go. And perhaps it just might lead to them getting reconciled. You never know.”

Joel pursed his lips as he pondered on her words. He knew she meant well, and if he was to respond negatively, he might well be responsible for standing in the way of getting Jim the support he needed.

But on the other hand, he might also be encouraging Megan to interfere to the extent that Blair became the target for Jim’s aggravation and impatience again, and Joel wouldn’t stand for that.

Heaving a deep sigh, he glanced quickly over to meet Megan’s expectant gaze. “To be honest, Megs, I’m not sure. I mean, I do realise that you’ve also got Jim’s best interests at heart, and probably Blair’s too. But it’s a tricky question. You see, when Blair was riding with Jim, and living at the loft with him, Jim really did seem to have this extra edge. We could all see it, even if we didn’t understand it, and it only seemed to work effectively when Blair was with him. So perhaps if Blair is willing to give you a few pointers and some advice as to how he used to back Jim up, then all well and good.

“But if it was something that only Blair could do – you know, something in his actual character and make-up – then it’s not going to work, and might make Jim even grouchier than he is already. And the one most likely to get hurt again is Blair, especially if Jim thinks it was Blair’s idea.

“And I won’t have that, Megs. Not again.”

Megan nodded again at that. “I understand, Joel, and I agree. I’ll go ahead and meet up with Sandy again, and see what he suggests, but if I think it’s a non-starter, I promise not to approach Jimbo. Does that work for you?”

Joel grinned then. “Sandy? You’ve given Blair a nickname already?” and he shook his head, snickering gently. “Fair enough, Megs. I’ll leave it with you. But if you need my help at all, I’m here. And for Blair and Jim too.”

Relieved that her partner had given his conditional support, Megan grinned. Now to arrange another meeting with Sandy. And all of a sudden, she couldn’t wait.

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

Two days later Megan was to be found in Blair’s office again, this time by prior arrangement. Blair looked rather anxious, but was still welcoming enough, even though Megan could easily tell that his smile was forced, and didn’t quite reach his beautiful eyes.

“Ah, good to see you again, Inspector,” he murmured somewhat unconvincingly, offering his hand. “Please take a seat. Coffee?”

Megan smiled warmly at him, appreciating anew his attractiveness and politeness even under duress.

“Thank you, and yes please,” she said. “And please call me Megan,” she added. “If you want me to call you Blair – or Sandy,” – this said with a cheeky grin – “I think we should both be more comfortable, don’t you? I hope we’re going to be good friends.”

Blair’s grin was more genuine then as he poured her a cup of coffee from his precious second-hand coffee machine. “I guess so, Megan,” he chuckled, “although I’m still not sure about ‘Sandy’. But it beats a lot of the other nicknames I’ve been called,” he added quietly, his expression briefly betraying remembered pain. Darwin, Einstein, Hairy Blairy, Hairboy, Mr Natural. Suddenly he flashed on so many joking or even downright cruel examples; perhaps the only one he had really owned being ‘Chief’. And now he wasn’t even sure that that one hadn’t originally been offhand and unintentional. He had simply chosen to take it as a mark of affection from Jim when their friendship had still been developing into something he had optimistically hoped would last a lifetime.

Mentally chastising himself for his youthful naivety, he shook off the fleeting thought and smiled again as he offered the mug to Megan.

“So,” he said, taking his seat again. “I think I should begin by showing you this,” and he pulled a large, well-used tome towards him. “This is a rare copy of a monograph by Sir Richard Burton, the nineteenth century English explorer, not the actor. It’s called ‘The Sentinels of Paraguay’, and was the source of my fascination for the whole phenomenon,” and he was off and running, explaining and describing in full enthusiastic lecture mode, his rapt visitor hanging on every word.

As he wound down, Megan sat back in her seat, her expression thoughtful, but her warm smile indicating her satisfaction and appreciation for his detailed and insightful explanation. “My word, Sandy, you really know your stuff, don’t you? I’m really impressed, love. No wonder you could help Jimbo so much. When did you know he was a sentinel too?”

Much of Blair’s enthusiasm faded from his mobile features at that, and a wary sadness replaced the sparkle in his eyes. “Ah, I don’t think that’s something I should divulge, Megan. I’m sorry, but I think it’s too personal, and Jim doesn’t deserve to have that much detail revealed, OK? Suffice it to say that I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to explain the phenomenon to him, and we went from there, all right?”

Megan nodded at that, not in the least offended. “Fair enough, Sandy. I can get behind that, and I promise you again that I have no intention of ‘outing’ Jimbo, or you, for that matter.

“But anyway, I can see why you would have been inspired to write your Master’s thesis on tribal sentinels, so is that why you were on the lookout for someone like Jim? So you could study him and write about him too?”

At that all-too perspicacious observation, Blair’s anxiety levels ratcheted up, although he fought to keep his expression as neutral as possible. No way would he admit that Megan was right on the nail, seeing as he had ditched the original dissertation paper anyway. That was for him and Jim to know, and it was up to him to keep it that way.

“Um, I might have had that in mind at first, but after meeting Jim, and knowing what his job was, I realised that I couldn’t write about him. It wouldn’t be safe if anyone found out. Still isn’t, if the bad guys were ever to learn how to use Jim’s gift against him, which is why I’m trusting you to keep your word, OK? And after all, riding with Jim did allow me to gather data for my real dissertation, so I’m perfectly satisfied with that.” And if he was lying through his teeth, she didn’t need to know.

If Megan had her own thoughts on the subject, she was sensitive enough to know when not to press her new friend, so she nodded agreeably. “Got it, Sandy. I understand.

“So, I guess what we really need to talk about now is how those companions or ‘guides’ functioned, huh? From what you’ve described, it doesn’t sound as if that Burton bloke actually went into much detail about them. So, did you work out some stuff on your own? You know, instinctively?”

Blair smiled a little then, his gaze growing slightly unfocussed and thoughts momentarily introspective. He supposed that many of his ideas must have been purely instinctive, because he sure as hell hadn’t known what he was doing – just winging it, especially in the early days. It never occurred to him that it was so much more than that, his ever-present low self-esteem not allowing him to think otherwise. As far as he was concerned he was just enormously grateful that his suggestions had mostly worked to benefit Jim.

Shaking himself out of his brief reverie, he grinned at Megan again, offering a self-deprecating shrug. “I suppose it must have been, Megan. I mean, as you say there wasn’t much in the monograph to go on, so I just went with what seemed right, you know? And since some of my ideas seemed to work OK, I’ll tell you which ones you might try on Jim if necessary, although it’s best not to let him know where you got them from. Let him think they’re something you’ve come up with. He doesn’t need to know that you’ve been talking to me, or why.”

“Goes without saying, Sandy. So, give me some ideas…” and they went on from there, with Blair describing various means by which he had managed to ground Jim and help him utilise the senses, especially by using the dials. And he also provided suggestions about how to bring Jim out of a zone if necessary – which didn’t include thumping him with bruising force!

By the time their meeting was over, Megan had plenty to think about, but on top of that she knew with absolute certainty that Blair cared deeply for Jim, and in a perfect world, would be Jim’s inseparable companion. She was sure that there was more to being a sentinel’s ‘guide’ than a theoretical ‘code of practice’, even if such actions worked on a superficial level. Whether he believed it or not, she was certain that Blair himself was the real deal, and the only one with whom Jimbo could truly function. If Jim had always had the senses, even if he had repressed them at times as Blair had explained, then it figured that whatever gift a guide needed would be innate also.

But how she would ever convince her self-effacing new young friend of that, she had no idea.

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

The following morning, after a restless night spent in internal debate, Megan arrived in the bullpen having come to a potentially momentous decision. She was going to ask to see Simon, and tell him everything. Not in order to cause Jim further distress –far from it – but to ask her temporary boss how she should proceed. As a newcomer, she didn’t want to rock the boat, but she felt responsible towards Sandy now, as well as far more sympathetic towards her curmudgeonly colleague, and it was in her nature to want to offer help if she could. And she just had to trust that her confiding in Simon Banks didn’t backfire on any of them. After all, the relationship between Banks and Ellison clearly went far deeper than simply as captain and subordinate so it was to be hoped that he would accept her proposal in the spirit in which it was offered.

Since the bullpen was relatively quiet, and Jim had yet to arrive, she decided that there was no time like the present, so marched purposefully over to the captain’s office and knocked on the door. Entering at Banks’ invitation, she crossed over to his desk and stood quietly until he had finished reading the memo in front of him.

Pushing the paper aside, Simon sat back and offered her a faintly quizzical smile. “What can I do for you, Inspector?” he enquired affably enough. “You have a problem you need help with?”

Megan smiled slightly at that. “Not a problem per se, sir. But there is a rather delicate issue I’d like to discuss with you in private. It concerns Detective Ellison.”

At that, Simon’s brows drew together in a forbidding scowl as his eyes and expression turned wary. “Perhaps you’d better sit down, Inspector,” he growled, indicating the seat in front of his desk. Once Megan was seated, he leaned forward again and fixed her with a stern gaze. “Go on,” he said. “What about Ellison?”

Megan took a deep breath and jumped straight in. “Jim Ellison is a sentinel, isn’t he? A sentinel who no longer has a guide. That’s why he’s having all these problems with his senses, isn’t it? And although he’ll probably throw a real tanty, I’d still like to offer my help.”

Simon slammed back in his seat again, a look of total astonishment on his dark features. After a couple of tries, he finally managed to croak out, “How the Hell did you come up with that, Conner? Have you been talking to Sandburg, by any chance?”

By then, his expression had become ferocious, and his anger and affront on his friend’s behalf almost palpable.

However, Megan was made of far sterner stuff than he might have imagined, and had no intention of backing down.

“Yes, sir, I have. But I’d like to make it clear from the outset that I came up with that conclusion myself, and no, Sandy – Doctor Sandburg – didn’t betray the detective’s trust. It was only after I confronted him that he was forced to admit that he had realised what was the matter with Jim and had helped him out while he was riding with him. He’s still extremely concerned about Jim’s welfare, even though he’s convinced that Jim wants nothing more to do with him.

“So I asked him if there was anything I could do to help out. Even though I just know how Detective Ellison’s going to take that!” she added with a wry smirk.

Still suspicious, but needing to know everything, Simon demanded, “Just how did you come to that conclusion, Inspector? If you didn’t talk to Sandburg first. There’s no one here in this unit that could have given you the idea.”

Megan was quite prepared to be open about everything, especially if it kept the blame away from an undeserving Sandy. “Well, no, not in so many words, Captain. It’s just that Jim’s colleagues mentioned how well he performed in the field when Doctor Sandburg was partnering him, and once Sandy left, his performance began to drop off, and his temper got worse. It was me who wanted to know, because I wondered just why Jim had such a problem with me. And they told me that the only partner Jim had ever really gotten on with was Doctor Sandburg.

“So anyway, I decided to look up Doctor Sandburg, and I found his Master’s thesis on tribal sentinels online. It described Jim to a T, even though the subjects were indigenous people. So I figured that perhaps that was why Sandy was riding with Jim, so he could write about him.”

“And what did Sandburg say to that?” Simon growled, fearing the worst. However, Megan’s answer offered some relief in that Blair had plainly tried to play down both his own role and his fixation with Jim, the Sandburg obfuscation skills still apparently as good as ever.

“He said that he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to explain to Jim what he believed was troubling him, and while he was riding with him collecting data for his dissertation on police closed societies, he was able to offer Jim some help and useful suggestions.”

“I see,” muttered Simon, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with her explanation. Perhaps this wouldn’t turn out to be such a bombshell after all. As long as Conner kept her mouth shut, that was. Studying her shrewdly, he was fairly certain that she wasn’t telling all, but he would just have to trust in her integrity, just as he had learned to trust in Blair’s.

“So, let’s say that your supposition is correct. What do you intend to do with this knowledge? Because I’m sure that Sandburg will already have impressed upon you that it has to be kept between us. Jim’s gift might be of benefit on the job, but it’s one he claims he had never wanted, and he sure as heck doesn’t want it made public. As of now, there are only four people who know for certain about his secret, and I’m not at all sure how Jim’ll react once he learns about you, Conner.

“But if you’re sure you’re willing to try and back him up on occasion, I don’t see any other option but to tell him.”

Megan nodded, her expression wry. “Too right, sir. And he’s going to bloody hate it. But my offer still stands, sir. I know I’m not Sandy, but he explained a few things about how I might be able to help, even if it’s only in extreme circumstances. All I can do is try.”

Simon scrubbed at his face with a large hand, his thoughts tumbling as he considered his predicament. He realised he’d been guilty once again of immediately making the assumption that Sandburg had somehow spilled the beans about Jim’s senses, when it had actually been down to Conner’s determined investigative skills. Or downright nosiness, however you wanted to view it.

But how Jim was going to react once he found out about Conner’s information was anybody’s guess. It wasn’t going to be in any good way, for sure, and Simon could only hope and pray that Ellison was going to be able to maintain some vestige of control.

And that he didn’t go after Sandburg either in some sort of mistaken desire for vengeance, because no way did the kid deserve that.

Looking up again to meet Megan’s quizzical gaze, he nodded briskly. “OK, Conner. I think you’ve just opened a can of worms that I could well do without, but what’s done is done. God knows if I’m making the right decision here, but I’m going to agree to us letting Jim in on this new development. We both know he’s not going to like it, but he’d like it even less if we try and keep it from him and he learns about it further on down the line. He’s due in any time now, so we might as well get it over with as soon as. But in the meantime, you might as well get on with that paperwork I’m sure is piling up on your desk!” he added sarcastically.

Megan’s answering grin was wry. “I’m on it, sir. No worries!” and she left the office knowing that she’d soon be back.

And what happened then was likely to be fraught to say the least.

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

“What? How? How the fuck could you know that?”

Megan and Simon stared aghast at the incensed sentinel as he glared from one to the other, eyes cold and deadly even as the rest of the man was almost incandescent with fury, muscles bunched and coiled to spring. “There’s no way you could have come up with that, unless Sandburg told you!” Jim spat at Megan, taking a threatening step towards her.

However, even as Simon snarled at him to stand down, Megan rose to her feet to face down the furious detective, earning herself a good deal of reluctant respect from both men.

“Sandy did not betray you, you misbegotten drongo! I figured it out for myself when I read his Master’s thesis! He didn’t have much choice when I confronted him with it, but I swore to him, as I do to you now, that your secret’s safe with me!

“Seriously, seeing you now, I couldn’t care less about your bloody insecurities, but I do care about him, so I’ll keep my word! Get over yourself, Ellison! This isn’t all about you!”

Her angry and derisive words finally penetrated Jim’s consciousness, and he made a huge effort to control his instinctive desire to pulverise his snooping colleague. His senses, which were cooperating for once, confirmed that she was telling the truth, so he took a deep, calming breath and allowed the tension in his body to ease a little. Not that he intended to offer her an apology any time soon though, even though Simon was due one for sure.

After a long, tense pause, he relaxed enough to offer his captain a faintly sheepish glance, although he was still far from pacified. “I apologise for my outburst, sir, but I refuse to apologise to Inspector Conner! She had no right to pry into my affairs, or involve Sandburg in her machinations! You know my reasons for keeping my so-called ‘gift’ a secret, and if I choose to use the senses or not is up to me, and me alone. Even Sandburg got the message eventually,” he added spitefully.

Hardly mollified, Simon scowled at him. “Sit down, man, and let’s talk about this sensibly – and absolutely no pun intended! You too, Inspector. I won’t have this sort of scene in my office, understand?”

When both nodded and obeyed, even if with noticeable ill-grace on Jim’s part, he leaned forward in his seat and fixed his still seething subordinate with an implacable glare.

“First off, detective, where do you get off reacting as if this has come completely out of the blue? Fair enough, only Inspector Conner has joined the dots so far, but you can hardly think that your fellow detectives hadn’t figured out that you have something special going for you! They might not know what it is – or was – but I’ll bet that all of them realise that it’s something that Sandburg used to help you with. And your recent behaviour will only have confirmed their suspicions.

“Now I know how much you suffer when your senses are out of control, and I sympathise with you as you well know. But that’s not the only reason for your churlishness, is it? Without the kid at your side and in your life, you’re a real pain in the ass, and you’ve pretty much alienated everyone who wanted to offer you their friendship. This whole business has gone on long enough, Jim. I’ve given you ample time to get your act together, and it hasn’t happened. You’re getting more erratic and aggressive by the day. If it wasn’t for the fact that your performance levels are still above average, you’d be out on your ear by now, our friendship notwithstanding.

“If it’s so damned hard to use the senses now, why bother? Why haven’t you done what you said you would and shut them off again? And if you do insist on using them, then you’re going to have to accept Megan’s help whether you like it or not, because the alternative is riding a desk until you get yourself under some sort of control.

“So, what’s it going to be? Are you going to shut them off? Can you shut them off?”

Meeting his boss and friend’s penetrating gaze, Jim finally sighed and slumped back in his seat in defeat. If nothing else, this confrontation had resulted in forcing him to face up to his present predicament, even if he was still honestly bewildered by his own obduracy.

“Honest answer, sir? I don’t know. Seriously. You know how much I wanted to go back to things as they were before the senses. Before Sandburg. But nothing’s gone as I expected, and to tell the truth, I’m pretty much at the end of my tether. I’ve no idea why the senses haven’t gone back to normal. It’s not for want of trying, believe me! It’s not only frustrating and painful, but downright dangerous, and I realise only too well how it’s affected my temper. When my hearing’s working, do you think I can’t hear the comments and speculation?

“I miss him, Simon. I miss Sandburg here and in my life, more than I would ever have believed. But it’s the way it is, and by my choice, so I have to live with it.”

Megan couldn’t help herself then, even if she was pretty certain that her intervention wouldn’t be appreciated. “You don’t have to, Jimbo. I might have only met with Sandy a couple of times, but it’s easy to see how much he still cares for you. Still cares about you. So why this total estrangement? Why don’t you at least make an effort to socialise with him a bit? For both your sakes? Even if you believe you can’t ask him to work with you here anymore, can’t you still be his friend?”

Jim glared at her then, before heaving another sigh as his shoulders sagged. “No, Conner, I can’t. Whatever you think you know, I hurt him too much. Caused him too much pain. He’s far better off away from me even if it’s killing me. The break has to be complete - for both our sakes!” he reiterated pointedly. Then, including them both in his glance again, he continued wearily, “Look, all I can say is that I’ll really try and improve my attitude, OK? And I’ll keep trying to get the senses under control for as long as it takes before the damned things finally shut down. Or I do. I can’t say fairer than that.”

That was way too much for Megan to swallow with equanimity. “Bloody hell, Jimbo, are you always this bloody stubborn? How the hell did Sandy ever put up with you? Look, mate, I’m telling you that he loves you, Jimbo! Even I can see it, after only just meeting him!

“And had it occurred to you that you’re punishing him as much as yourself by being so pig-headed? If you can’t see that, then there’s no hope for you, mate!”

Simon interrupted then, his expression angry even if internally he actually agreed with most of what the Aussie inspector was saying.

“That’s enough, Conner! You might have assumed the role of mediator between Jim and Blair, but it’s no business of yours when all’s said and done. Neither you nor I have the right to dictate to Jim how he lives his life, even if we’d like to. All you, as a colleague, and I, as his captain, and, I hope friend can do is offer our support here at the PD. Help Jim to function as well as possible under whatever circumstances, OK?”

Then, turning his attention back to Jim, he continued apologetically, “Sorry to discuss you as if you weren’t here, man, but you know what I’m saying. If you really can’t shut the senses down, then you’re going to have to accept some help in backing you up when they go awry. And Conner’s not only the one candidate who knows what’s going on, and has gone to the trouble of finding out a bit about how to do that, but she’s actually volunteered her services, despite your inauspicious start. The ball’s in your court now, man, so what are you going to do about it?”

Jim realised then that he had been well and truly backed into a corner, and he could no longer avoid the issue. If he wanted to stay in the field, he was going to have to try and work with Megan even if his inner sentinel howled in frustration. Whatever the blasted woman claimed, he wasn’t going to disrupt Blair’s life again just because he missed the guy. All that was left for him was the job, so it was up to him to keep doing it to the best of his ability for as long as he could. Or until some criminal’s bullet put an end to his loneliness and granted him some peace at last.

Raising his head to meet Simon’s now not unsympathetic gaze, Jim sighed in resignation before glancing over at Megan also. “OK, sir. I give in. I want to keep doing my job, so if that means having Conner ride with me when I think I might be using the senses, then so be it. But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll accept your decision as to whether I can stay in the field or not, OK?

“But if you don’t mind, sir, I have some paperwork to catch up with, and a couple of leads I’d like to follow up - without using the senses – so if you’ll excuse me?”

And Simon, realising that his subordinate had been given more than enough to ponder on for the time being, simply nodded in assent.

“Fair enough Jim. You’re dismissed. You too, Inspector.” And when the door closed behind them both, he stared at it unseeingly for a moment or two before shaking his head in exasperation.

Some days he really hated being the boss.

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

Same morning, Blair’s apartment:

As it turned out, Megan wasn’t the only one who had had a deeply disturbed night. A desperately sleep-deprived Blair dragged himself out of bed at the insistent summons of his alarm clock, only because he had a morning tutorial followed by a staff meeting he couldn’t afford to miss. He would definitely have preferred to pull the blankets over his head and stay put for several more hours, but since it wasn’t going to happen, he told himself to suck it up and get with the programme, insurmountable as that seemed right then.

The problem was that, despite his best intentions and deliberately up-beat thoughts immediately after Megan Conner had left him following their second meeting, he had soon succumbed to an attack of the jitters, terrified that he had unwittingly unleashed a train of events that had the potential to be catastrophic for the unsuspecting sentinel. He had spent the rest of the day veering between scolding himself roundly for his unnecessary anxiety and cringing in abject fear and self-loathing for not making a better effort at denying all knowledge of all things sentinel-related from the outset. It wasn’t that he believed Megan would deliberately upset Jim. She wasn’t getting involved for self-gratification, and he knew in his heart of hearts that she meant well, and only wanted to help.

But knowing Jim and his tendency to be both suspicious and self-reliant to the point of retaliating aggressively when under any sort of perceived threat, Blair didn’t need to have an imagination anything like as over-active as his actually was to visualise the possible outcome of an Ellison-Conner confrontation. And if such an explosive situation did occur, then it was as much his fault as Megan’s for falling in with her well-intentioned plans and giving her information to work with. Just like giving her enough rope to hang herself with, his inner voice chided him relentlessly.

Why, oh why couldn’t he have stuck to his guns and denied everything? Why did he allow himself to believe that he could actually still help Jim, even vicariously? Such misplaced arrogance when he had been shown and told time and time again that he had failed both as guide and partner. And as for Incacha supposedly passing the Way of the Shaman to him on the Chopec shaman’s death-bed, why had he even given it a second thought, particularly in view of Jim’s disparaging dismissal of the event as pure nonsense.

But oh, goddess, he had so deceived himself! So wanted to believe that perhaps this was the means by which he might earn a second chance to partner Jim again in whatever form both Jim-the-sentinel and Jim-the-man required.

Delusional much? he scoffed at himself and his pathetic daydreams. Have you no self-respect left at all? Apparently not. No wonder he had spent the long hours of the night tossing and turning, beset by visions of Jim. Jim smiling warmly at him and laughing with him in the camaraderie of the early days of their relationship, alternating with the coldly cruel words of dismissal and rejection as Jim’s patience with both him personally and his attempts to help finally wore out.

Shaking his head and huffing in self-disgust, he shuffled despondently over to his tiny shower cubicle, grateful that at least that was one amenity he didn’t have to share with his fellow residents.

Be thankful for small mercies! he told himself, but who was he kidding? It was going to be a very long day.

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

Part 5: A Painful Epiphany:

In the days that followed, it had to be said that Jim really did try to live up to his promise to work with Megan and also try to curb his surliness, but the effort was taking more of a toll on him than even he could have anticipated. He still worked alone whenever he could, but when circumstances dictated Megan partnered him, and in all honesty, tried her best to help. However, she was only moderately successful, which convinced her even more that it was only Blair who was truly up to the task. Certainly his suggested methods for grounding Jim had merit, but only on a very basic level, causing Jim to make a unilateral decision to refrain from even trying to use the senses if there even a remote possibility of zoning. With the best will in the world, they struck sparks off each other despite their good intentions, and the strain of trying not to descend into out-and-out slanging matches was wearing on both of them.

And of course their colleagues in the bullpen had to be palmed off with all manner of Sandburgian-style obfuscation to explain the reason why Captain Banks continued to send two such abrasive characters out in the field together on certain types of investigations.

During this time, Megan had kept her promise to keep Blair in the loop as much as possible, and met up with him whenever she could. Their relationship had developed from simply having a mutual interest in Jim into a real friendship. Blair gratefully soaked up all the gossip about the PD and Major Crimes in particular that Megan could provide and he was always eager to hear every detail of her descriptions of how Jim was coping. And it had to be said that although he managed to contain his disappointment well when he learned of their relative lack of progress, he never laid any blame on her. It was just incredibly frustrating not to be able to offer more than just verbal advice, but he was still convinced that Jim neither wanted nor needed his input. However, there was one side effect of his and Megan’s meetings that eventually took on some considerable significance even if it took the sentinel a while to join the dots.

When Jim and Megan did visit crime scenes, and Jim tentatively turned up the senses to see if they were going to cooperate, there were times when he was certain he could scent Blair in the vicinity even though there was no way the young man could possibly be, or ever have been there. Nevertheless, on those occasions, he actually did have far greater success in both using and controlling his gift. At first, he assumed that he was imagining it, his secret longing to have his guide back at his side conjuring up the familiar scent-memory in order to tantalise and taunt him. However, after Megan had ‘fessed up to meeting with Blair on a reasonably regular basis, he realised that it really was Blair’s scent he could discern lingering on her person and clothing. And the fact that his senses appreciated the fact and immediately locked into that much-missed source of comfort finally provided him with the obvious epiphany. The sentinel needed his guide in person if he wanted to use his senses to their fullest extent, and no amount of theory and solitary practice could compare with the physical presence of a compatible companion.

Nevertheless, recognising that fact and acting upon it was another story altogether and Jim was still loath to even consider approaching Blair again, even if Megan had managed to convince him that his young friend was still very much concerned with his sentinel’s welfare. Although part of him was intensely jealous of the fact that Megan had access to Blair when he thought he was doing the right thing by keeping his distance, he truly believed that the young man was better off without him. And because of that, he stubbornly refused to listen when Megan attempted to persuade him to change his obdurate view that he no longer had any right to expect or ask for Blair’s help after making such a painful production of driving him away. In Jim’s opinion it would be taking unfair advantage of Blair’s innate generosity of spirit, and he refused to take that unselfishly given gift for granted ever again.

And still the senses refused to shut off, much to his disgust and perplexed frustration.

It was at the point when Jim knew that he was rapidly reaching the end of the line as far as his health and very sanity were concerned when he was granted another revelation; one which would ultimately force him to make the decision that had the power to make or break him for better or for worse.

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

Jim had had a particularly long and stressful day, trying to make sense of a complex and messy crime scene. Even with Megan’s help, his senses were spectacularly uncooperative, and he was well aware of the sideways glances and muttered comments he was attracting amongst the CSU techs as well as the other attending officers. Eventually giving up in disgust, he returned to the PD with a very concerned Megan, nursing a blinding, migraine-strength headache. Simon took one look at him and ordered him to go home, Megan immediately offering to drive him since he was in no state to drive himself. And such was his pain-fuelled distraction that he didn’t even comment when she proposed to drive his precious truck, with Joel following in his sedan to give her a ride back to the station.

On arrival at 852 Prospect, Megan insisted on accompanying him up to the loft, not at all happy with the pale and pinched expression twisting Jim’s features.

“Are you sure I can’t do anything else for you, Jimbo?” she murmured softly in deference to his wildly spiking hearing. “You really do look bloody awful, mate.”

Forcing himself to respond with a modicum of restraint, Jim grated, “No. Nothing, Megs. I’ll just grab some water and aspirin and get to bed. Try and sleep it off. Thanks anyway.”

“OK, if you’re sure, Jimbo. But I’ll get the water and aspirin, and then leave you in peace. But I’m coming over first thing tomorrow morning to check on you, OK?”

Jim simply nodded slightly, even that small movement threatening to make his head feel as if it was about to fall from his shoulders. And after swallowing down the pills, he climbed slowly up to his bedroom, in too much pain to concern himself with anything but collapsing into bed, and leaving Megan to lock the door behind her.

With barely the strength to strip off his outer clothing, let alone fold the items as was his habit, he literally fell into bed and curled up on his side grimacing in agony. After what seemed to be eons later, the aspirin took effect enough to take the edge off the pain behind his eyes, and he fell into a light doze which soon deepened into mercifully sound sleep.

When he opened his eyes next, he was in the blue-tinted jungle of his dreamscape, and he didn’t know whether to be angry or grateful. After all, the only times he visited tended to be during fraught situations involving the senses, and he had never been comfortable with the spiritual aspect of the sentinel phenomenon. Looking down at himself he noted that he was in the camo pants-and-undershirt combo that seemed to be standard attire in this place, along with the bandana around his head and the compound bow slung over his shoulder. Could be worse, I suppose, he thought morosely. At least I’m not in my jaguar form!

Gazing around in interest, he saw that he was in a clearing, and was both surprised and intensely pleased to see the form of his old friend and first shaman guide Incacha materialising before him. “Incacha, my friend! It’s so good to see you!” he said, holding out his arms to envelop the deceased Chopec shaman in a warm hug, which Incacha returned with a will.

After a moment, however, the Chopec pulled away a little, his hands on Jim’s shoulders as he studied the taller man carefully, his eyes shrewd. “It is good to see you also, Enqueri, but not, perhaps, under these circumstances. You are troubled, and have a decision to make. It is why you have come here, is it not? To learn and fully understand the consequences of your choice.”

Jim glanced away for a moment, ashamed to feel a prickle of tears at the corners of his eyes. Swallowing hard, he turned back to face his old friend, his expression wry. “You’re right, my friend. I have failed as a sentinel. At least, as the Sentinel of the Great City. And in doing so, I have hurt that one man who has stood by me through everything. But I couldn’t put him at risk any longer, Incacha. It wasn’t fair on him. He has his own life to lead, and doesn’t need to be tied to me.”

Incacha frowned at that, and his words were painful as he admonished his former pupil. “What gives you that idea, Enqueri? Has not the Young Wolf earned his place at your side? Has he not guided you successfully even though he was untried? Did you not find each other when your senses returned? I told you that you would find your true guide in the Great City. Did you not believe me?”

Jim frowned in response to the rebuke, not wanting to offend his first teacher, but unable to accept what he was saying. “Yes, Incacha, you did tell me that I would find my true guide in the Great City, and perhaps Blair was it, but I can’t and won’t expect him to stay with me any longer. He has been hurt and put in danger time and time again while riding with me, and I can’t justify keeping him away from the life he ought to have any longer.”

“And what of his wants and needs, Enqueri? Have you even asked him? What makes you think that his path – his destiny – isn’t to stay at your side? It isn’t your choice to make, Enqueri. Not yours alone, anyway. Especially as he has his own abilities that cannot be ignored.”

“What ‘abilities’?” Jim replied irritably. “OK, so Sandburg knows a lot in theory, since he’s studied tribal sentinels, and I’ll grant that he has had some good ideas. But it’s not like he has any special powers, is it?”

At that, Incacha literally growled and shook Jim’s shoulders in frustration. “And what do you know of ‘special powers’, Enqueri? Did I not pass the Way of the Shaman to the Young Wolf on my death-bed? Do you think so little of him – of me – that you would deny this? He may not have had the early teaching that a shaman would normally receive, but he has the raw power to be an even greater shaman than I. And as a guide he is a ‘natural’, as you would call it. Does not his very presence ground you?”

Jim ducked his head then, unable to meet his old friend’s piercing gaze. His heart told him that everything Incacha said was true, and his instincts as well as his inner sentinel applauded that realisation, but his head still fought against the notion. It was all well and good accepting and acting on such knowledge in a tribal setting, but within the environment of a modern, industrialised city, and to a cynical, materialistic mind-set it would appear quaint at best. And hadn’t he always been afraid of being seen as a freak? No matter that Blair had always insisted that it was a natural genetic variation, Jim couldn’t see it as the gift it was.

Sighing deeply, Jim looked up again. “Yes, Incacha. His presence does ground me, and my senses work well with him beside me. But still I feel that I have no right to ask him to stay. It is why I wanted to shut them down. After all, did you not say that a sentinel would be a sentinel as long as he wished it? What if I don’t wish it? Why are they still with me?”

Incacha looked at him sadly then. “Perhaps because it’s not only you who will be affected by that choice, Enqueri. If you were not such a powerful sentinel, I believe that the senses would have quickly returned to normal and you would be as you were. But you are particularly gifted, Enqueri, which is why you needed a similarly gifted companion. And having found that companion, you should have rejoiced in his presence. In his care for and devotion to you. If you are determined to deny your gift, he, like you, will never be truly happy to return to an ordinary life. As individuals, you have a contribution to make to your tribe, but together you can – should - be so much greater. Do you truly think you have the right to deny both of you the means by which to do that?

“Do you not love him, Enqueri?”

At that, Jim swallowed hard again, for a moment unable to hold his old friend’s perspicacious gaze. It was true, after all, even if he had tried so hard and for so long to deny it. Everything Blair had done for him had proved that his love and devotion for Jim the man as much as for the sentinel was a given. Blair himself had said not so long ago that it ‘was about friendship’, but had gone on to show Jim in so many ways that it was so much more.

And Jim suddenly realised that, just because he felt that he was unworthy of that love, it didn’t give him the right to deny Blair his feelings and beliefs. He knew now that he had to face Blair again. He had to give his guide the chance to air his own feelings without being shut down out of hand by a man – a sentinel – too emotionally scarred by his background to admit the truth. Scarred and scared, if Jim would only accept and admit it.

Time to prove to himself that he was man enough to do the right thing.

He looked up again, the resolve clear in his eyes as he met Incacha’s intense scrutiny.

“You’re right, old friend. I shall confront my guide, and we will talk. And if he rejects me, as he has every reason to do, then I will let the senses go, even if it is a waste of a gift.

“But if he forgives me, and still wants to be my guide and companion, then a sentinel I shall remain to the end of my days. Does that satisfy you, my friend?”

“If it satisfies you also, Enqueri, then I am glad. For both of you…” and with that his image faded even before Jim could respond, leaving Jim feeling both bereft and determined.

Determined to finally do what he should have done weeks ago.

Talk to Blair.

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

Little did Jim know that he wasn’t the only one about to make a momentous decision that day. When Blair awoke in his tiny apartment, after yet another troubled night of half-remembered visions of a beautiful, silver wolf in many and varied situations, he realised that he felt even worse than usual. By now used to the familiar underlying depression and mild anxiety that dogged his every waking moment these days, he was shaken by the additional amorphous feeling of dread that set his nerves on edge and settled in his belly like a solid lump of raw, gut-wrenching terror. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he was absolutely certain that it had to be something to do with Jim. Something affecting his sentinel to a previously unknown and unimaginable degree, and the urge to do something to alleviate it pulled at him unremittingly. The sentinel needed his guide, and the guide needed to respond.

Before he even registered what he was doing, he had picked up his cell phone and was calling the loft, but as soon as the answer machine kicked in, he terminated the call. Jim was probably already at the PD anyhow, and he didn’t know what sort of coherent message he could leave anyway. Knowing how sceptical Jim normally was regarding anything remotely out of the ordinary, the last thing he’d want to hear – or act on – was some garbled message from Blair warning him of an unspecified, potential danger.

Staring at the instrument in his hand, he decided to call Megan instead. At least she would give him the time of day, and hopefully wouldn’t laugh out loud at his wild imaginings. And he knew that she would at least make an effort to keep tabs on Jim during the day, and contact Blair should anything untoward arise after all.

Luckily, this time his call was answered almost immediately, Megan clearly recognising his caller ID as she asked somewhat worriedly, “Hey, Sandy! How are you, love? Anything wrong? What can I do for you?”

Now feeling more than a little self-conscious, and telling himself that he was over-reacting, Blair replied diffidently, “Uh, sorry to bother you Megs, especially at this time in the morning. Um, I feel a bit silly now, tell the truth, but…um…I woke up with really bad feeling about Jim. I…I know it probably sounds stupid, but I think he may be in trouble? Or if not yet, he might soon be. Are you going to partner him today, by any chance?”

Thankfully, Megan neither laughed nor even questioned him. “No worries, Sandy love. If you’ve got a bad feeling, then who am I to question it? Look, it’s very likely that I’ll be partnering Jim today – he’s OK at the moment, by the way, at least as much as usual – but there was a major turf-war shootout late last night down by the docks, and Simon will probably want Jim to check out the crime scene. Which means I’ll be going with him. So I’ll make sure I stick to him like glue, OK? And if he starts to have major problems, I’ll let you know, OK? Does that work for you?”

Sagging in relief, Blair nodded even though she couldn’t see him, although she would certainly have heard the genuine gratitude in his voice. “Thanks, Megs, You’re a star. Thanks for taking me and my histrionics seriously. I really appreciate it, truly. Will you call me tonight anyway when you can? Just to let me know how you’re both doing?”

“Of course I can, love. No worries. But I’ve got to go now, Sandy. Simon’s just stuck his head out the office door, so this will probably be me and Jimbo’s call to arms. Talk to you later, love,” and with that she terminated the call, leaving a slightly happier Blair to get himself ready for his own day’s work.

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

Unfortunately for Blair, as the day wore on what little relief he had felt after his call to Megan quickly dissipated as the feeling of dread increased. It took a major effort on his part to struggle through the lecture and senior tutorial he couldn’t avoid, although he could and did manage to postpone his office hours, knowing that he would be worse than useless anyway to any troubled student seeking his help and advice.

Unable to even contemplate eating anything with his gut feeling as if it was being gripped in a giant fist, he downed innumerable cups of coffee in an attempt to keep himself alert, such that by the time he felt able to escape his office and go back to his tiny unit he was ready to bounce off the walls in caffeine-fuelled hyperactivity. However, that same hyperactivity didn’t allow for concentrating on anything remotely resembling productive working, so he found himself pacing continuously around his small living area, his mind filled with far too many wild imaginings to make any attempt at calming meditation. He was so wired that he nearly leapt out of his skin when the call finally came, and his worst fears were realised.

“Megs? What is it? What’s wrong? It’s Jim isn’t it? What happened!?” His panic was such that he didn’t even give Megan a chance to announce herself.

“Easy, Sandy, calm down a bit, love, and I’ll tell you all, OK? Just try and hold it together, OK?”

Blair stared at the cell phone in his hand for a moment as her words sank in, and made a gargantuan effort to quell his urge to scream down the line at her. Finally, he was able to respond to her obvious concern with a little more control. “S…sorry, Megs. I didn’t mean to yell at you like that. I…it’s just that I’ve been feeling really bad all day. Please tell me. It’s Jim, isn’t it?”

“That’s OK, love. I understand. And yes, it’s about Jim. Just let me get it all out, OK? Then we can decide what to do.

“See, as I guessed, we were told to go to that crime scene I told you about, and Jimbo really did try to do his sense thing as best he could. But it was a right bloody mess, Sandy, and it was obvious that it was really hard on him and I could tell he was in real pain. I tried to help as best I could, but I’ve never seen him quite so bad, Sandy. Like he had one hell of a migraine, enough for Simon to send him home. I offered to drive him, and I’ve given him some aspirin and made sure he went straight to bed to try and sleep it off. I told him I’d drop by first thing in the morning to make sure he was feeling better. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Blair was silent for a long moment as he absorbed everything his friend had told him. His immediate instinct was to grab his car keys and head straight over to the loft, but a little voice of reason inside his head insisted that that wasn’t the answer just yet. If Jim was sleeping, then surely that was the best thing for him, and waking him up unnecessarily would hardly endear them to him. On the other hand, Blair was certain that Jim needed to connect with him in person if the senses were to settle enough to give Jim proper respite. It was a difficult choice, but despite his desperate need to race to his friend’s side, he forced himself to control the impulse, telling himself that he should wait until morning until he made his move.

He was suddenly aware that Megan was still speaking, trying to attract his attention.

“Sandy? Are you still there, love? Sandy? Talk to me, mate!”

“I’m sorry, Megs,” he stammered out. “Uh, I was just thinking. About what we - I - should do for the best. Um, I think I need to go see Jim even if he doesn’t like it. It sounds like his senses have gotten too bad for him to hold down, and although I still don’t understand why they’re still there, I think he needs me to ground him, temporarily at least. I don’t know what else I can do? But even though I’d like nothing more than to go over there right now, I think it’s best if we let Jim rest, and go see him first thing in the morning. Does that work for you?” he added a little tentatively.

“Sounds like a plan, Sandy,” Megan replied immediately, feeling for her friend and wanting to reassure him as much as possible. If he needed her backup, he would get it.

“How about I pick you up, say 6.30-ish? We can drive to Jimbo’s together, and see what’s what. I care about Jimbo,” she continued seriously, “but I care for you too, and I won’t stand by and let him hurt you. I won’t leave you two alone together unless I’m convinced that he’ll behave. All right?”

Blair heaved a sigh of relief at that. It wasn’t that he thought Jim would deliberately hurt him, physically at least, but he might well react badly to Blair’s unexpected visit, and it was comforting to know that Megan would be there to back him up if necessary. And since when did you get so insecure, Sandburg? he chastised himself.

Probably after Jim basically forced him to leave the first place he’d had the audacity to think of as his first real home.

But there was no point in thinking such negative thoughts, so he responded before Megan could get worried again.

“Thanks, Megs, you’re a good friend. I’ll take you up on your offer, and see you in the morning.

“And thank you also for looking out for Jim for me. I really appreciate it. I hope you know that?”

“No worries, Sandy, love. See you bright and early tomorrow then. And try and get some sleep yourself!” she added firmly before terminating the call, even though she was pretty certain that that was a non-starter too.

“Yeah, yeah, Mother Hen!” Blair chuckled sadly. “And good night to you too!”

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

Following morning, 852 Prospect:

When Jim woke at around 6.00 am, which was his usual time, he felt both better in himself and worse in some respects. His migraine had subsided to a muted and bearable throbbing, and his night-time dream-vision had given him the determination to confront Blair as soon as possible before his nerve faded once again. Although he had never had much time for the spiritual aspect of the whole sentinel phenomenon, this time he knew he had to take Incacha’s warning seriously. This time he understood that it wasn’t just him who was going to be affected by his continuing intransigence, but his guide also, and that wasn’t acceptable. After all, he already knew through Megan’s on-going attempts at keeping him up to speed that ‘Sandy’ was still concerned for him and had been offering her advice even if he was too wary of actually approaching Jim again. Jim might have excused his reprehensible behaviour towards Sandburg by telling himself that it was for the young man’s own good, but he knew deep down that it wasn’t any such thing. It all boiled down to that same fear of being abandoned by everyone he had ever held dear such that now he made sure that he anticipated the inevitable by doing the pushing. It still hurt, but not as much as actual betrayal, and he could kid himself that it was what he had wanted all along.

But no longer. Or at least, not as far as Blair was concerned. But then again, an inner voice admonished him, perhaps he had already gone too far, and left it too late to reconcile with Blair? If that were the case, it would be his own fault, but he knew that his senses would rebel as they were trying to do right now, as if his abilities were reviling him for his continuing distrust and denial of them as the gift they were. And his arrogance in thinking that he could go it alone without the support of his guide.

Gritting his teeth, he forced them into submission as best he could, already planning to call Megan to see if she would provide him with Blair’s new address as soon as it was a reasonable time to do so. For sure, he could look it up for himself easily enough, but a call would be quicker as long as he could convince her that he meant her new friend no harm. Which might not actually be that easy, considering his recent attitude. Then again, even if he was successful in obtaining the pertinent information, it didn’t necessarily mean that Blair would actually agree to meet him, but he would tackle that problem when and if he came to it, telling himself firmly that there was no point in borrowing trouble.

Suddenly, his hearing sharpened dramatically as he picked up the sounds of a car approaching. Having subconsciously catalogued the vehicle as that belonging to Megan, he frowned in confusion for a second as he registered two heartbeats inside. And a moment later he recognised the second one as belonging to his guide. He didn’t know how or why, but Blair was here, and his senses rejoiced.

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

When Megan had picked Blair up from outside his building at 6.30 am, she was instantly concerned for him despite the brave smile he offered her. He looked absolutely exhausted; the dark smudges beneath his eyes testament to yet another sleepless night while his pallor and increasingly obvious weight loss accentuated his general rundown state. Although she had never had the pleasure of seeing Blair in the exuberant, bouncing persona of his early days riding with Jim, she had been told often enough by her new colleagues in Major Crimes of how the young grad student used to be in contrast to the pale shadow he had become before he finally gave up on Jim and moved on.

For a moment, she doubted the wisdom of taking him with her to see Jim, but it would undoubtedly hurt him deeply if she were to renege on her promise so she returned his smile and opened the passenger door for him.

“G’day, Sandy, love. Did you manage to get any sleep? Or did you sit up all night worrying about Jimbo?”

Blair grinned ruefully at that. “That obvious, huh?” he snickered. “I did manage to get some sleep, Megs, thanks for asking, but you’re right. I was worried about Jim. Wondering if I was doing the right thing by leaving it until this morning to visit. Tell the truth, around midnight I nearly got in the car and drove over myself, but I talked myself out of it. Just hope I did right…” he added softly, his pain and anxiety clear to see in his mournful gaze.

Nodding sympathetically, Megan reached over and squeezed his knee comfortingly before starting the car up. “I understand, Sandy. But I also think we made the right decision. I’m sure that Jimbo will be better this morning for being allowed to sleep, and will be in a better frame of mind for seeing you, love.

“So, let’s get this show on the road!” she continued bracingly. “Stand by for take-off!” and she grinned at her passenger, glad to see the flicker of wry humour in his blue eyes, and the tiny smirk as he made a big show of fastening his seat belt.

However, throughout the short journey to 852 Prospect, she was well aware of Blair’s increasing nervousness as evidenced by the jiggling knee and incessantly tapping fingers. Casting occasional worried sidelong glances at him, she felt her protective instinct growing as she fought the urge to turn around and take him home again. But she knew he wouldn’t thank her for it whatever the outcome of this visit, so contented herself in the knowledge that she would be there to pick up the pieces if necessary.

And then they were there, pulling up in front of Jim’s building, and the moment of truth was upon them.

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

Part 6: A Tentative Reconciliation:

Standing behind his apartment door, an uncharacteristically nervous Jim tracked his two guests’ approach, his eager anticipation tinged with apprehension. He couldn’t believe his good fortune that Blair had come through for him yet again, but whether it proved to be ultimately satisfactory for both of them was yet to be seen. And he knew only too well that a lot of that desirable outcome would depend on him and his responses to his young friend’s selfless overtures. Above all, he had to refrain from apportioning any guilt for their breakup to his hapless guide, knowing and accepting at last that it had been principally down to him and the fear-based responses that had dictated each and every one of his decisions for good or ill up until now.

Not that that hard-earned understanding rested easily with him; far from it. He was only human after all – not a superman, as Blair had told him often enough – and his pride and self-belief didn’t take kindly to this new insight. But if Blair could still believe in him enough - care for him enough – to come through for him despite all that had come between them, then it was incumbent on him to accept the revelation for what it was and live with it.

To the impatient sentinel, it seemed to take forever for his visitors to arrive, tracking their progress up the stairs to #307, since the ancient elevator was yet again out of commission. However, finally they were there, and although his senses revelled in the his guide’s proximity, Jim couldn’t help but note that the young man’s heart rate was somewhat elevated, and the beloved scent was tainted with a faint but noticeable tang of anxiety. The inner sentinel growled in irritation, but Jim recognised that it was only to be expected, considering the tension between them during their final few weeks together. And it was up to him to set things straight, if he possibly could. Blair had already made the initial effort, so it was up to Jim to meet him half way.

Knowing that neither of his visitors would be surprised, he threw open the door before they had a chance to knock, his eyes locking greedily on the long-desired image of his guide who grinned somewhat timidly up at him. However, even as Jim feasted his eyes on Blair’s person, overwhelmingly grateful to behold the young man in the flesh again, yet a split second later he registered Blair’s actual physical condition, and his inner sentinel growled again, this time in angry indignation. The guide had suffered – was still suffering – and it was not to be borne.

Nevertheless, Jim the man had enough control of his instinctive reactions this time not to act precipitously, realising that such a response, rather than being taken as a genuine desire to succour and cherish the hurting guide might well be misunderstood, and send Blair scurrying for the hills again instead. So he forced himself to return Blair’s shy grin, his eyes betraying his love, appreciation and yes, nervousness as he ushered his visitors into the loft.

“Um, hey, Jim,” Blair began, his overt unease unknowingly causing Jim’s gut to clench in painful guilt. “Um, sorry to drop in like this unannounced, but…um…Megs told me you had a particularly bad day yesterday, and…ah…I wondered if you needed my help? I mean, you look OK now, so perhaps I’d better go, huh? Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to intrude…”

“No! No, don’t go, Chief,” Jim replied quickly. “You’re not intruding, Chief. It’s good to see you, kiddo. It’s been far too long…”

Blair ducked his head at that, his pale cheeks pinking in a slight flush of unwarranted guilt. “Ah, sorry, Jim. I…I can explain?”

But Jim was having none of that. No way was he laying any blame on Blair, and he didn’t intend for Blair to blame himself either. Reaching out carefully to grip the smaller man’s shoulder, and incidentally registering its unexpected boniness, he said firmly, “No, Chief. Don’t be sorry, and you don’t need to explain anything until we can sit down and talk. And yes, I do mean talk! It’s just so good to see you again, and thank you for coming. For still caring about me even if I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve you for sure, kiddo, but I’m grateful you came. I’ve been too chickenshit and obstinate to make the first move, but I’m glad that at least one of us had the balls to do it.

“Look, do you have to go anywhere soon? I’d really like you to stay awhile so we can talk…”

As their interaction continued, Megan had quietly stood aside to watch, carefully gauging the situation in order to decide if it was indeed OK to leave her Sandy alone with Jim. She had been quietly gratified by Jim’s attitude so far, and she could easily read Sandy’s body language and facial expressions by now. The mobile features did register some anxiety, for sure, but his eyes were full of love and understanding, and yes, real hope, such that she deemed it safe to make herself scarce, even if only for an hour or two. She took no offence in realising that they had temporarily forgotten her presence, since their whole concentration was wrapped up in each other, so her grin was wry as she coughed to regain their attention.

“Look, guys, I think I’m going to make tracks for the PD, if that’s OK with you two? I’m trusting you to be nice to Sandy, Jimbo, and I can come back in a few hours to give him a ride home if you want.

“Does that work for you, Sandy? Are you happy to stay here for a bit?”

Blair smiled warmly at that. “Thanks, Megs, for the ride here and everything. And yes, if it’s OK with Jim, I’ll stay a bit longer. If that’s what you want, man?” he added, addressing Jim directly, unsurprisingly still somewhat diffident, much to Jim’s chagrin.

“Yes, Chief, it is. And thanks from me too, Megs. You’ve been a good friend to us both, even if I’ve never admitted it before. But I’m particularly grateful for your support for Blair. It’s good to know that there was someone out there for him when I was too far up my own backside to think of anyone but myself.”

Rather taken aback by Jim’s unexpected compliment, Megan blinked rapidly before grinning widely. “No worries, Jimbo! Yeah, you’ve been a right arse at times, but as long as you look out for Sandy as well as he looks out for you, I think you’ll be OK.

“So, I’ll be on my way, and if you like, I’ll report back to Simon and update him, OK? And tell him that you need some personal time, huh? Give me a call if you need a ride, Sandy. In fact, give me a call later anyhow to let me know how you’re both doing, right? Just so I’ll know not to call out the cavalry and ride to the rescue!” So saying, she turned to leave, with Jim walking her to the door.

And as he opened it for her, he met her gaze again, his own direct and sincere. “Thanks again, Megs,” he murmured softly for her ears only. “I swear that I’ll do right by Blair this time. And if I don’t, you have my permission to kick my butt from here to New South Wales!”

She studied him shrewdly for a moment, then nodded her assent. “Good on you, Jimbo. And I’ll hold you to it! ‘Bye now, and play nice!” and she turned on her heel and strode off down the corridor, humming cheerfully to herself for a job well done.

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

For a long moment after she had left, Blair and Jim stood a little awkwardly, neither wanting to make the first move now that they were finally alone at last. However, realising that it was up to him to ease the tension between them and make Blair feel welcome in his territory, Jim smiled again and gently reached out to place his hand on Blair’s shoulder again.

“Come and make yourself comfortable, Chief,” he invited encouragingly. “I’ve made a fresh pot of coffee, so I suspect you won’t turn down a mug. Let me get one for us both, OK?”

Blair nodded, his eyes conveying his appreciation even as he visibly tried to relax. He was not unexpectedly still wary of Jim’s reactions, but at least their meeting looked promising so far, and it was up to him as much as Jim to see if the outcome would be satisfactory for them both.

Once they were both sipping their beverage; still somewhat stiff and awkward in each other’s presence even though they were comfortably seated with Blair on the sofa and Jim catty corner in the armchair; Jim finally set down his mug on the coffee table and looked Blair in the eye.

“Look, Chief, I’ve had a lot of time to come to terms with my appalling behaviour towards you, and if I can, I’d like to take this opportunity to both apologise and offer my reasons behind it. Or poor excuses, if you like! I don’t expect you to instantly forgive my attitude or my stupidity, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d just listen for now, OK? You know words aren’t usually my thing, and that emotional blood-letting is normally anathema to me, but it needs to be done.”

When Blair opened his mouth to respond, Jim held up his hand quickly to halt him. “No, Chief, don’t say anything yet, OK? Just let me get this over with, and then you can have your turn, all right? And I promise that I’ll listen even if it hurts to hear. I deserve everything you might throw at me, Chief, and this time I promise I won’t go on the offensive in retaliation, even if it’s my normal reaction. It’s time I learned to get over myself, as Megs would say, and accept that it’s not all about me.”

While he was speaking, he carefully noted the changing expressions chasing themselves across Blair’s attractive, mobile features. The young man never could truly hide his emotions despite his indubitable acting ability as his every deepest thought and feeling was there to read in his beautiful blue eyes. Anxiety, puzzlement, wariness, surprise and acute perception were all there to see, ending with acceptance and a gentle caring that Jim knew he didn’t deserve. But he was incredibly grateful anyway, because hopefully it meant that Blair could bring himself to forgive after all, his big-hearted generosity still there despite everything that Jim had put him through.

He knew very well that Blair was itching to speak, but he couldn’t risk being diverted now he’d finally screwed up his nerve to ‘fess up, and he was well aware that anything Blair was likely to come out with would be far more excusatory than he deserved right now.

“OK then, it’s like this,” he forged ahead gamely. “In the months since you’ve been gone, Chief, you could say that I’ve had my ass kicked but good by the guys – and gals – in MCU, and deservedly so. And truth be told, they’d been pretty upset by my attitude towards you for some while before that, but I just didn’t want to acknowledge it. You know me, Chief! I’m not good with any sort of criticism, and I retaliate in anger rather than attempt to understand what the trouble is.

“Anyhow, I know well and good that I’ve been a morose and bad-tempered asshole, but I just didn’t care enough to do anything about it until Simon called me on it. Wanted to know when I was going to get with the programme again, because if I didn’t, I’d be riding a desk.

“Thing is, Chief, neither of us could understand why the senses didn’t shut off like I expected them to, but we’ll talk about that later. Suffice it to say that try as I might, I couldn’t keep control of them, and I knew it. Which was why Simon insisted that I partner with Megan at times, because for sure she was the only one who understood where I was coming from, even if we couldn’t stand each other!

“Anyway, although she did try to help me, it wasn’t really working, but I still didn’t feel able to approach you, Chief. I’d been such a shit to you, and truly believed you were better off without me. Despite all your assurances, and all your continuing care and support for me, I resented the fact that I needed you, Blair. I’ve always believed I was self-sufficient, and didn’t want to be shown that I couldn’t go it alone anymore.

“And gods, Chief, but I hated that diss! I held it against you all the time you were with me, and allowed it to poison our relationship. But when I learned that you’d ditched it because of me after all, I felt even lower than pond scum. You’d stuck with me for nearly three years, with nothing to show for it but a second-choice paper. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it was good, Blair. It isn’t in you to turn in a second-rate piece of work, and it got you your degree after all –for which I’m truly glad, Chief. You more than deserved those letters after your name.

“But you lived and breathed that Sentinel paper, and I effectively denied you your right to use it. And you know what, Chief? Above everything else Simon kicked my ass about; I think that your self-sacrifice for my sake was the thing that made the most impression on us both. Because he did help me, Chief. Or tried to. He set me straight to a great extent, but I still hadn’t the courage to act. Because despite what you might think, Chief, he feels really bad about how he treated you too. He admits that for too long he was less than accepting of your unique personality, Blair. Truth be told, I think he felt threatened, because there you were, coming up with ideas out of left field, and solving cases almost by instinct. And neither of us thanked you for your input, Chief. Just ignored you or belittled your efforts when we should have been showering you with gratitude.

“It just wasn’t good enough, Chief, and I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am for my behaviour.”

By that point, Blair couldn’t refrain from speaking any longer, both astounded at the sheer volume of information his usually taciturn friend had come out with, and unable to stand seeing such sorrow and self-recrimination in one normally so strong and self-confident.

“Jim, man, please let me have my say. I…I think I need to respond to what you’ve already covered before we go any further. Because I think we have far more important stuff to deal with, don’t we? So I’d like to clear the air between us a bit first, if that’s OK with you?”

He knew he sounded less than self-assured, and was ashamed of his diffidence, but his steadily eroding physical condition had by now extended to include his mental wellbeing such that even his previously robust academic confidence had been adversely affected. However, it appeared that this new version of Jim was mellow enough to give him the benefit of the doubt and was prepared to let him have his say at last.

“OK, man. Um, first off, thank you for your candour, Jim. I really appreciate it, and to be honest, didn’t expect it, but I welcome it more than I can say. I…I admit that I was really hurt, man, by the time I actually left, but I swear I didn’t want to. It was just that I could tell that I’d worn out my welcome, and needed to go before you were forced to physically throw me out. I realised that you didn’t need me anymore for the senses, and eventually it had gotten through my thick skull that you detested the diss, man. So I went to my committee and told them it was a no-go. But since I already had an alternative pretty much good to go, they let me off and accepted the new subject, and the rest is history.

“But I have to admit that things haven’t turned out like I hoped, man. Yes, I have the doctorate, and yes, I’m on faculty now, but I miss you, man. I miss the early days when we seemed to get along so well, and I miss the feeling of being part of something bigger and better. I still enjoy teaching to a certain extent, but I miss the rollercoaster ride, man, and the camaraderie in the bullpen. And if I got hurt riding with you, then it was by my choice, and you shouldn’t blame yourself for anything that happened to me.

“But I can’t blame you for getting fed up with me, Jim. When you took me in after the warehouse blew up, I couldn’t get over your generosity, but didn’t expect to stay, because I know what I’m like. Noisy, untidy, mouthy. But all I ever wanted was to help you, Jim. And not just the sentinel, even if that was the case at the outset. I’m just so sorry I wore out my welcome and stayed too long.”

Jim had to interrupt then, his guilt at Blair’s pain too great for him to hold his tongue. “Stop, Blair! Just stop, please? Before you go any further, I have to tell you that I miss you too, Chief. I was wrong, OK? Maybe I did think I wanted my space back, but I was an idiot. It’s been a disaster Chief, and not just because I miss all the little things you used to do to make my environment better. I miss your chatter, Blair. I even miss your weird foods and untidiness. And the tests, believe it or not, because I realise now that all you ever had at heart was my welfare.

“But most of all I just miss you, kiddo, and all those evenings just kicking back together. My fault, Chief. All of it. Yeah, OK, you can be irritating at times, but who isn’t? And certainly not enough to warrant my reactions. This place is empty without you, Chief. If it was a home to you, it was only because you made it so.”

By this time Blair was almost in tears, overwhelmed by Jim’s explanation and admissions. “Oh, Jim, don’t! It takes two to cause a break-up, and the goddess knows I didn’t react well myself. Perhaps I allowed myself to be taken for granted when I should have made you hear me, but lacked the courage to do so. I’m sorry, man. But I still care, Jim. I still want to help you if I can. I know it probably sounds presumptuous and out there, but I think I have to, at least as long as you want to keep the senses.”

Jim reached over and took his hand then, his own eyes shiny with unshed tears. “Well, here’s the thing, Chief. I think you’re right. In fact, I’m sure you are. Look, this is going to get a bit heavy, so what say I get us another coffee and a bite to eat before we go on? You need feeding up, Blair, and I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to eating something myself either. I think with you here, my senses are going to enjoy it again.”

Blair swallowed hard and nodded his acceptance. A few minutes to pull himself together sounded like a plan, and he almost sniggered aloud when a thought suddenly occurred to him. And of course, Jim was monitoring him closely so raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Sorry, Jim. It’s just, well, I don’t really recall you ever calling me by my name before, and I think you must have said ‘Blair’ a good half dozen times already. It’s…um…nice, Jim,” he tailed off, hoping he hadn’t offended.

He needn’t have worried, as Jim just grinned self-deprecatingly. “You’re right, Chief. Blair. I can’t explain why I have this tendency to avoid your given name to tell the truth. Maybe it’s that fear of intimacy thing again? But I’ll try to do better, OK?”

“OK, man, no worries,” Blair replied with a grin. “Just thanks, Jim. For letting me talk, and for talking to me.”

“‘No worries’ yourself, kiddo – uh, Blair,” Jim snickered. “But we still have a lot more to do, so wrap your jaws around this,” he added, placing two plates containing tasty looking turkey and ham sandwiches on the table. “I made these fresh earlier this morning intending to have them for lunch, and for once I actually feel like eating. Come on, Chief, tuck in!”

Blair wasn’t sure he felt like eating, but he wasn’t about to upset Jim by throwing his hospitality back in his face, so he sat down and took a bite. And found that he suddenly felt hungry after all, so set to with a will, as did Jim, both of them eating with gusto and thoroughly enjoying every mouthful.

“Oh, man, that hit the spot!” Blair murmured as he sat back, having cleared his plate. “I didn’t realise how hungry I was. Thanks, Jim.”

Jim smiled over at him, his own sandwiches history. “Ditto, Chief. But I think the company had a lot to do with it. Are you ready to continue our discussion now? I don’t want to push, but it seems to me that we’ve made pretty good progress so far?” he added hopefully.

And no way was Blair going to turn that offer down, so after helping Jim with the clean-up, they helped themselves to another mug of coffee and sat down again, as ready as they would ever be to try and clear the air between them once and for all.

However, it had to be said that, even though they had apparently fallen naturally into their old, companionable routine, Blair knew that he would be foolish to think that everything would automatically right itself. Although this Jim seemed to be a return to the ‘old’ Jim of their early acquaintance, he would do well to remember the acerbic, even deliberately cruel ‘recent’ Jim, so it wouldn’t do to let his guard down and leave himself vulnerable to further potential hurt.

Setting his empty mug down on the coffee table, Blair met Jim’s gaze again and coughed a little self-consciously. “Um, well, I guess I should start the ball rolling again, huh, Jim? I mean, we seem to be making some headway, don’t we? And I guess the thing that’s concerning me most – confusing me, really – is why you haven’t just shut the senses off, man. Although it pained me to think of it, I believed that it was what you wanted, and with me out of your hair, you’d be happy to get back to normal.”

Understanding Blair’s continuing reticence, and unhappy with the reasons behind it, Jim frowned as he shook his head, although any criticism was entirely self-directed. They had reached the crux of the matter as regards the senses, and it was up to him to explain what he knew – or believed he knew – about the reasons why they were still obstinately hanging in there.

“You’re right, Chief. Insofar as the senses are still at the heart of everything that has happened between us and to me since our break-up. And it’s not going to be easy to explain, but I’ll do my best. You deserve no less, Blair.

“So, anyway, yes you’re right in that I expected the senses to just fade away. After all, Incacha had implied as much when he told me that I had a choice. But I was as confused as you when it simply didn’t happen, Chief. I couldn’t understand it myself, and while they were still there, I thought I might as well try to use them anyway, without much success as you know now. It was the reason why Simon insisted that I have Megan with me if I was even tempted to use them, and that didn’t go well either. I realised soon enough that they’d only really work with you beside me, but I still wouldn’t accept the truth of the matter until Incacha set me straight again.”

Unsurprisingly, Blair’s face was a picture of perplexity at his enigmatic statement, and Jim had to grin at the positively cute picture he made.

“Yeah, I know, Chief. Sounds weird, huh? But it’s true, Blair. You know I’ve mentioned my visions before, and I’ve also admitted that I really don’t like that spiritual stuff, but there are times when I can’t avoid or deny the truth that is revealed to me during my visits to the spirit plane. Much as I’d like to, I freely admit. And last night I had another vision, and can we say Incacha kicked my butt, and good. And well he should! He made me see that I was being totally selfish – again – in wanting to be rid of the senses. See, he showed me that it wasn’t just down to me after all. I had someone else’s welfare to consider too. That of my true guide. And that’s you, Blair. Always have been, even if I didn’t want to acknowledge it.

“I can see that you’re sceptical, Chief, and I can’t blame you, especially since I’ve done nothing to convince you that I need you, and only you, for the senses to work. I was in denial because I was afraid, and that was unforgiveable because it hurt you so badly when all you wanted to do was help. To fulfil your destiny, as it were. You are my true guide, Blair, and yes, you are a shaman too. I was just too self-centred to admit it.”

He could see that his words had taken his young friend completely aback, but it was hardly surprising considering the sterling job he’d made of undermining the kid’s confidence for so long. It was going to take some persuading on his part to try and undo the damage if their partnership was ever to be renewed. For a long moment, Blair held his gaze, then abruptly glanced away, but not before Jim had seen the tell-tale sheen of sudden tears in the cerulean orbs. It didn’t take sentinel senses to spot the faint flush of unjustified embarrassment that stained the young man’s neck and cheeks either, and he could hardly blame Blair for his emotional responses. Instead, he acted on instinct and reached over to place a warm hand on Blair’s knee.

“You OK, Chief?” he enquired gently. “I’m sorry to lay so much on you so fast after keeping it all buttoned up and buried for so long. It has to be a real shock for you virtually out of the blue like this. But I knew that if I didn’t act on Incacha’s advice as soon as, I probably would have chickened out again and repressed everything again as per usual. And I just couldn’t live with letting you keep hurting because of me. Not knowing what was behind it all. Look at me, Blair. Please.”

After another few seconds, Blair sniffed and blinked before somewhat reluctantly turning to face Jim again. “Sorry, Big Guy. I…I, well, you just took me by surprise, is all. I so didn’t expect anything like that, man. And…and I’m not sure how to react. I mean, I wish – oh, goddess, how I wish – that what you’re saying is true. But after everything that’s gone on between us, I’m really having difficulty in believing it. I’m not doubting you, Jim. At least, I don’t doubt you mean what you’re saying right now. But I’m scared too, man. And I’m having a real problem coming to terms with the possibility that I really am your guide. That I do have some quality that makes us compatible.

“I know I’m supposed to be the nerdy scientist. The so-called ‘expert’ on sentinels. But you seemed to resent your gift so much. Resent me so much, that I began to doubt everything I had ever believed in.

“And as for being a shaman, well, after seeing your reaction to that whole death-bed deal, I just tried to put it from my mind, Jim. I’m sorry, man. I’m not being very cooperative am I?”

“And whose fault is that, Chief? Not yours, for sure!” Jim responded firmly. “You’re right. I never gave you cause to believe that I was anything but reluctant regarding the senses. Couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge them as the gift you claimed they were. And that meant that I couldn’t and wouldn’t accept your role in controlling them either.

“But that’s changed now, Blair. As long as you’ll agree to back me up again, I’ll accept them and use them for the good of the tribe just like Incacha wanted me to. And I’m finally prepared to see you as the gift you are. The gift you always were, even if I didn’t want to admit it.

“But then again, if it’s too late to make amends; too late to forgive my behaviour, then I can’t and won’t force you to come back to me, Chief. And if that’s the case, then according to Incacha I will be able to shut off the senses for good after all and cease to be a sentinel. And you will cease to be my guide.

“It’s just that he also says that alone, neither of us will ever really be truly content again, and if that sounds suspiciously like emotional blackmail, then I agree. It does. But surprisingly enough, I actually want it all to be true. I’m ready to face up to my destiny, as long as you want it too. Sentinel and guide together. What do you say?”

He realised almost as soon as his final words left his lips that he had pushed Blair too far and too fast. He had inadvertently just dropped a huge burden of responsibility on shoulders that were no longer ready to take it. The young man’s face was a picture of fear and confusion, his tumultuous thoughts and emotions racing across his expressive but excessively pale features as his whole body began to shake. Terrified now that he had inadvertently pushed Blair into the first stages of an almighty panic attack, he reached across and enfolded the trembling young man in his arms.

“Easy, Chief, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he crooned, desperately trying to calm his young friend down. “Breathe, Blair, breathe! That’s it, babe. Nice and steady. You can do it, Chief. That’s it. In…out. In…out.”

It took a few minutes – far longer than Jim liked – but finally Blair obeyed him, and gradually lost his panic-stricken expression as his breathing settled again. Only for it to be replaced by one of unwarranted mortification as Blair tried to pull himself out of Jim’s embrace. However, Jim was having none of it, and continued to hold on, gently rubbing comforting circles on the bony back with one hand while the other cupped the back of Blair’s head and carefully tucked his face into the crook of Jim’s neck and shoulder.

“Sssh, Chief. It’s OK, I promise. Just let me hold you a bit, OK? It’s my fault for laying all this on you in one go, with no warning. It’s hardly surprising you can’t take it all in, knowing how reticent I usually am about anything personal, let alone sentinel stuff. And I gotta say, you feel good, babe. Too thin, but good.”

Blair didn’t really know what to make of Jim’s behaviour, but for a moment was content just to rest in his friend’s powerful but gentle arms. It felt so good – every bit as good as he’d imagined, in the days when he had still believed that there was a chance of them becoming more than friends and roommates. But in his heart of hearts he knew that he was just deceiving himself and that it was nothing but wishful thinking. So after a little longer gratefully soaking up the bigger man’s freely-offered comfort, he reluctantly pushed himself away from the broad chest and met Jim’s quizzical gaze somewhat bashfully.

“Ah, thanks, Jim. That was over and above, man. And I’m really sorry about the hissy fit, man. Haven’t had one like that in a while. So embarrassing…” and he ducked his head, not wanting to witness the disdain he was sure would soon appear in Jim’s eyes.

However, once again Jim took him by surprise when he urged Blair to look at him again by means of a gentle but insistent finger beneath his chin.

“De nada, Chief. Blair. That one was entirely down to me and my heavy-handed attempt at an explanation. I understand that it’s one hell of a lot for you to process right now, and even though I admit to being impatient, I’m not going to push you for an answer immediately. I’m guessing that you still have stuff to do at the U today, and I really should check in with Simon, so if you like, I’ll give you a ride to Rainier, OK? I’m pretty sure I’m going to be fine for the rest of the day at work, especially since the senses have had the chance to fixate on you for a while, and I don’t expect to be going out in the field at all.

“But if you’re willing, Blair, and it isn’t too much to ask of you, would you consider coming here for dinner tonight? Or if that makes you uncomfortable, let me take you out somewhere? I just want to see if there’s a chance that we could at least be friends again.”

Blair studied him carefully for a moment, hoping that he was correct in believing that Jim was being completely up-front and honest. Nodding slowly, even though he was unconsciously biting his lower lip nervously, he murmured, “OK, Jim. I think…I think I’d like that. I mean, I trust you, so I don’t mind coming to the loft.

“And you’re right, I do have things to do at the U, especially as I blew off my office hours yesterday. So yes, please, I’ll take you up on the offer of a ride. Save having to bother Megan too!” he added with the faintest glimmer of his previous ready humour.

Jim offered him a genuine smile then, the sort of smile that he had bestowed on Blair alone before their falling out, and Blair realised just how much he had missed it.

“Great, Chief! You’re on, and thank you, babe. For not shutting me down straight away, even if I deserved it. Let’s shake a leg, and I’ll drop you at the U, and look forward to our dinner tonight.” And throwing his arm around Blair’s shoulders, he eased them both to their feet, eager now to get moving, because the sooner they got their respective days at work over with, the sooner they could meet up again.

And he truly hoped that by the end of the evening, Blair would have come to a decision as regards their future together, and the form it would take.

If indeed they still had one. And he had to hope and pray that they did.

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Part 7: A Courageous Decision:

Later, in the bullpen:

As soon as he entered the bullpen, the first thing Jim did was to make his way over to Megan’s desk. The Aussie Inspector was concentrating on an open file and didn’t register his approach immediately, but when she looked up she was frowning in consternation. “Jimbo? I didn’t expect you to be coming in today. At least, not until much later. Where’s Sandy? Is he OK?”

Jim knew that he ought to be offended at her brusque enquiry, but after the emotional outpouring of the morning, he found he had neither the energy nor the usual inclination to snap back.

“Yes, Megs, he’s fine, really. We had a long talk, and I dropped him off at Rainier. And before you ask, he’s coming to the loft tonight to have dinner with me, OK?”

She regarded him carefully for a moment before breaking into a cheerful grin. “Good on you, Jimbo! That’s good news, mate. Really good news! Look, I did see Simon, but gave him no details, OK? Didn’t think it was my place to do so, so I just said you needed a couple of extra hours this morning to really get over your headache. I think he’ll be relieved to see you, though.”

Jim offered her a rueful grin. “Yeah, I suspect he will be. Look, thanks again, Megs, and talk to you later, OK?” and with that he went to hang up his jacket before bypassing his own desk and heading straight to Simon’s office. Might as well get it over with sooner rather than later.

As it happened, he didn’t even have to announce his arrival, because the door opened to reveal the man himself.

“Jim! Come in, man! I wasn’t expecting you in yet, and just called the loft to check on you. Come in and take a seat. Coffee?”

By his welcoming smile and far more affable tone than normal, Jim figured that his friend and captain really was relieved to see him, and apparently functioning well enough also.

“Yes, thanks, sir. That’d be good,” he replied with a small grin, noting the pleased smile on the big captain’s face. He sat in the chair Simon had indicated, and accepted the mug of gourmet coffee, certain that for once he would be able to enjoy it, thanks to the lingering effects of Blair’s grounding presence. Taking a sip, he found that indeed it was as good at it smelled, and he offered Simon a wry smile. “Nice blend, this one, sir. Your cousin’s getting the hang of this gourmet coffee thing, isn’t he?”

Simon snorted in response. “Yeah, well, after all this time he ought to!” he grumbled sardonically, although he was obviously pleased to note Jim’s vastly improved demeanour.

“So, anyway, Jim, how are you feeling? You looked pretty awful yesterday, man, and I was really worried about you. Especially when Megan came to me this morning and said you needed a bit longer to get yourself together. Is the headache from hell really gone now?”

Jim set his mug down and offered his friend a rueful smile. “Yes, sir, thanks for asking. It’s completely gone now, but there’s a very good reason for it. Blair came to see me this morning. Apparently he knew instinctively that I wasn’t in good shape, and contacted Megan. And she brought him over to the loft with her first thing this morning. Seems that our ‘connection’ is still there and still working, Simon, even if it does seem like more of your ‘Sentinel voodoo bullshit’!”

The astonished expression on Simon’s face was classic. “What? Blair came to see you? How? Why? I mean, I know you two used to be close – almost joined at the hip - but after all this time apart, how would he know?”

“Like I said, Simon, we’re connected. Sentinel and Guide, even if I didn’t want to acknowledge it. No matter that I tried to push him out of my life for my own selfish reasons. Blair’s empathy and concern for me never went away, and now I hope – pray – that there’s a possibility that he’ll forgive me for my treatment of him. Enough for us to get together again, even, if I’m very lucky.

“I know it’ll sound ‘out there’, to you, Simon, but it’s what I want. What we both need if we’re to make the most of our partnership. I know now that I need him, and only him, to use the senses safely to their fullest extent, just as he needs me to bring out his own qualities as companion to a sentinel. And I’m finally ready to commit to him if he’ll have me. And I pray that he will.”

Simon studied him for a long time, his expression a mixture of incredulity and concern. And when he finally spoke, unsurprisingly there was a healthy dose of scepticism in his tone and observations.

“That’s all well and good, Jim. But if what you say is true – and forgive this old cynic if I have my doubts – what does Blair get out of this? He’s already given up so much for you, how can you ask him to do more? Is it just so you can keep the senses after all, or is there more to it than that?”

Jim sighed then, knowing that his friend had good reason for his concerns even if it was hard to hear. And even harder to try and explain. “It’s OK, Simon. I hear you,” he added with a small, wry smile. “You’ve every right to be concerned about my intentions towards Blair after my treatment of him. And you know how much I’ve blamed myself for my behaviour also. But let’s just say I’ve been shown the errors of my ways, and that the only way to really help Blair is to stop pushing him away and to accept him as the gift he is.

“Without putting too fine a point on it, he needs me as much as I need him if he’s to thrive, and it’s up to me now to do what I should always have done, and keep him close. Accept him as an equal rather than a useful tagalong, because for sure he’s always been there for me, and for the department too.”

“Well, that’s all well and good, Jim, but how are you going to do that, even if he agrees to come back to you? He has his degree now, and a full-time teaching position at Rainier. Is it fair to expect him to give that up just because you ask him to?”

Jim looked away then, uncertain as to how to answer without sounding totally self-centred and pompous. Meeting Simon’s quizzical gaze again, he did his utmost to try and convey his utter sincerity as he replied as honestly as he could. “Not just because I ask him to, Simon. It’s as I said before. He needs me as much as I need him, and I think we both realise that now.” Leaning forwards in his seat he continued earnestly, “Look, sir. Simon. You’ve seen how bad I’ve been when the senses have been playing up. Well, you should see Blair, Simon. He looks terrible! Way too thin, sad and depressed. He’s nothing but skin and bone, and a bag of nerves and insecurities even if he is managing to carry out his duties at Rainier. He’s nothing but a shadow of the Sandburg you knew, even in the last weeks of his coming into the PD, but yet he’s still willing to try and help me, just because it’s in his nature. And because he knows instinctively that it’s what he was born to do. To be a guide and companion. My guide and companion.

“Just as I was born to be a sentinel, Simon. His sentinel. It’s what we are.”

He sat back then, out of words to further his argument, and could only hope that it had been enough to convince Simon of the facts as he understood them. But he also realised that, even if his captain and friend couldn’t accept his explanation, it wasn’t going to stop him trying to get Blair back with him one way or another. There was no way he’d ever put them both through that again as long as he lived, sentinel or no, and the overwhelming urge to cherish and nurture the young man was stronger than it had ever been.

Simon stared at him for a very long time, and Jim didn’t need sentinel senses to see the conflict waging within the man. Eventually Banks sat back and clasped his hands together where they rested on his desk. He sighed heavily and then spoke, his eyes boring into Jim’s as he tried to gauge his friend’s reaction to his words.

“OK, Jim. Well, I’ve listened, and I gotta say that this sounds like a load of spiritual shit to me. Forgive me for saying so, but I’m finding this really hard to take on board, even though I can see you mean every word you say. I just don’t see how you want me to respond, man. Help me out here!”

Jim grinned then, for the first time allowing real warmth to colour his gaze, even though his expression was rueful. “You’re right, Simon. It is ‘spiritual shit’, and I’d be pretty much a hypocrite if I called you on your scepticism, seeing as how I’ve been fighting against the whole concept for longer than I care to admit. All I can say is that, although I’m more than grateful for the leeway you’ve already granted me since the senses appeared; I’d really appreciate it if you could give me just a little more time to convince you.

“Look, this is probably not the best idea, because I surely don’t want to spook him, but Blair’s coming to the loft for dinner with me tonight. I’m truly hoping that we can continue the heart-to-heart we started this morning, and figure out a workable plan between us as regards our future relationship. Why don’t you call in later? Just drop by unannounced? Although the last thing I want is for him to be upset, maybe actually seeing him in the flesh might help you make up your mind. It’s just a thought.”

Simon sat back again, his expression contemplative. “OK, Jim. I might well take you up on that. And I promise not to jump down the kid’s throat also! I can be tactful when the occasion demands, and yes, I would like to see for myself how he’s doing. I’d never tell him to his face, but I miss that boy more than I’d ever have expected, and I really don’t want to see him hurt anymore. So yes, I’ll drop by later.

“But meanwhile, I need to point out that the paperwork’s piling up on your desk, detective, so how about making your captain happy and getting on with it?”

And Jim, knowing full well that his captain’s emotional quota had been exceeded for now, simply grinned and sketched him a salute.

“Your wish is my command, sir! Later!” and he returned to his desk, eager to get his work done so he could return to the loft and start preparing dinner.

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

That evening, the loft:

It had to be said that as Blair pulled up outside 852 Prospect his thoughts and emotions were in turmoil. Oh yes, he so wanted to reconnect with Jim, and his dearest wish had always been to resurrect their previous, easy partnership in the hope that it might go even further; but the hurt inner core of him insisted that he take care. Take care to protect himself against further pain and heartbreak, because he knew for sure that his already damaged psyche couldn’t take any more punishment, however unintentionally inflicted.

But the equally insistent core of optimism within him demanded that he at least make the effort to sound out this new, understanding Jim, because he realised now that it was meant to be. He was meant to be with Jim, just as the indigenous pairs he had studied for his Master’s paper were meant to be together, and it wasn’t Jim’s fault that modern, so-called ‘civilised’ society had blighted it for the sentinel and made him feel ashamed of what he was. Blair just hoped that he was strong enough to survive Jim’s understandable self-protective reactions and be able to overcome them with calm and reason without allowing himself to become the target for his friend’s pain and bewildered anger again. After all, it was Jim himself who had made the first overtures for their reconciliation, so he just had to hope that the will was still there and as strong as earlier this morning.

As he turned off the ignition, he realised that his hands were shaking a bit, and he frowned as he chastised himself. For the goddess’ sake, Sandburg! It’s just a dinner with Jim, and needn’t be any more than that if you don’t want it to be. Just go with the flow, man!

But he knew he wasn’t kidding himself. He had been looking forward to this all day, and he wasn’t the only one who had noted the effects of his eager anticipation in his behaviour. He’d been fielding inquisitive glances all day at Rainier, although it was only Ally Riggs who had actually come out and questioned him about his changed demeanour. Running into him outside his office that afternoon, she had placed her hands on his shoulders as she smiled at him, her head tilted to one side as she studied him intently but kindly. “You look different, hon,” she began thoughtfully. “You’re still way too thin, my love, but you look a lot happier than recently. Something must have happened to cheer you up so much. Hmmm…could it have something to do with that big hunk of cop you used to ride with?”

Blair blushed at her friendly scrutiny, knowing that she only meant the best for him, even if her speculation was uncomfortably accurate. “Thanks, I think!” he began a little bashfully, hoping to deflect her line of questioning if possible. He did appreciate her interest, but wasn’t ready to talk about the possibility of reconciliation with Jim, in case it blew up in his face. The fragile hope was too new and tentative, and he didn’t want to blight it before it even had a chance to grow. “I’m fine, Ally, honestly. And I’m sorry if I haven’t been my usual hyper-noisy self recently. Hey! I thought that would have been a blessing in disguise!” and he chuckled self-deprecatingly as he grinned sheepishly up at her.

However, she obviously wasn’t being taken in by his diversion tactics even though she was too fond of him to call him on it. Instead she merely said, “And what makes you think that your friends don’t appreciate you in any shape or form, hon? But seriously, we miss that hyper-noisy grad student Blair as much as we like your new, serious Doctor Sandburg persona. Just wish you could combine the two, hon. But I know you have your reasons, and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.

“Just take of yourself, OK? And if you need us, we’re here for you, love.” And with that, she had given him a friendly peck on the cheek and let him go, leaving a grateful but unsettled young man to watch her departure.

Now, however, it was time to make a move, so he climbed out of the Volvo and locked it carefully before heading into the building, fairly sure that Jim would be tracking his approach if the senses were still working well. He knew that his heart rate was elevated, and chided himself for his nervousness that would undoubtedly affect his scent, but hoped that Jim would forgive him under the circumstances.

And he was greatly relieved when the door to #307 opened as soon as he reached the top of the stairs, to reveal a smiling Jim, who looked genuinely pleased to see him.

“Hey, Chief! Come on in. It’s so good to see you again even if it’s only been a few hours. Have you had a good day?”

Jim was plainly in an affable mood, and just as plainly pleased to see him even if there was a hint of anxiety in his demeanour, so Blair felt something inside of him relax. “Good to see you too, Jim, and yes, I’ve had a pretty good day all in all. How ‘bout you? Were you able to do anything other than the dreaded paperwork?”

Jim laughed at that as he ushered his friend into the loft. “Nah, not today, Chief. Simon was determined that I reduce the pile of crap in my in-tray, but though I say it myself, I did a fairly good job. Not like you could, though, Chief, and there’s still some lurking in there. But anyway, you want a beer? Dinner’s nearly ready, but you might as well get comfortable for a few.”

Blair grinned then, gradually relaxing even more as he sniffed the air experimentally, picking up the unmistakable aroma of Jim’s signature spaghetti sauce. “Sure, man. That’d be great. And if that’s your speciality sauce, I believe I’m in for a treat. Thanks, man,” he said warmly, and there could be no mistaking the appreciation in his eyes as he smiled up at Jim.

“No problem, Chief. Blair!” Jim replied, his own eyes telegraphing pleasure and relief also as he gently took Blair’s arm and led him over to the sofa. “Take a load off, Blair, and I’ll get those beers.”

Retrieving the requisite bottles from the fridge, Jim popped off the tops and brought them over to Blair. Holding one out for the smaller man to take, he chinked the bottles together before settling down in the armchair. “Cheers, Chief. And thanks for coming.”

Blair’s answering grin was warm as he replied, “Cheers to you too, Jim, and thanks for the invite, man. Ah…it’s nice to be here,” he added a little shyly, trying hard not to sound too needy and wistful.

However, he needn’t have worried, because although Jim’s expression was nothing but welcoming and open, Blair realised that the sentinel was very likely every bit as nervous as he was, both hoping that this dinner would provide the opportunity they wanted and needed to begin to rebuild the connection between them.

By tacit, mutual agreement, they kept their conversation light and general until dinner was served, and by then both men were relaxed enough to enjoy the tasty pasta dish Jim dished up. Blair found that the familiar knot in his stomach that he had grown used to experiencing as soon as he contemplated food didn’t materialise for once, and he thoroughly appreciated the chance to eat a decent portion for a change. It probably wasn’t as much as he ought to really do the food justice, but it was considerably more than he’d managed for months now, and he was wryly aware that overdoing it would probably only lead to painful indigestion, and wouldn’t that put a dampener on the evening!

As for Jim, although he didn’t mention the subject at all, he was also quietly glad to see Blair at least eat a reasonable amount, as he was only too aware of the smaller man’s worrying weight loss. As a hyperactive grad student, Blair had always had a tendency to forget to eat when busy and / or anxious, but this was by far the worst state of malnourishment that Jim had ever witnessed in the younger man. The inner sentinel wanted nothing more than to coddle the guide and feed him up, but Jim knew that he’d have to be a lot more tactful in his approach if Blair wasn’t to take offence. Or worse still, get upset and frightened off by an overbearing would-be protector.

Once they’d eaten their fill, Blair automatically rose to help Jim with the clean-up, and Jim was quietly gratified to note that they moved together in perfect sync as if they’d never been apart, although once again he refrained from drawing Blair’s attention to the fact. He didn’t think he’d ever been known to tread quite so carefully before, but this time he was determined to do it for both their sakes, control issues be damned. This was absolutely no time to dive into any postprandial discussion like a bull in a china shop, and he knew he would have to force himself to allow Blair to take the lead, hard as that concept might be.

Once they were seated in the lounge again, sipping a mug of coffee, the more relaxed atmosphere that had grown steadily between them so far began to dissipate a little as they began to anticipate the upcoming discussion. Not wanting either of them to grow too uncomfortable, Blair put his empty mug down on the coffee table and mentally girded his loins as he met Jim’s faintly quizzical gaze. “That was a great meal, Jim. I really appreciate it, man. But now I’m thinking we need to carry on with what we began this morning, huh? Um…do you want me to begin?” he added a little uncertainly as his nerves began to kick in again.

Jim smiled then as he put his own mug down, truly appreciating his friend’s courage. Now to try and encourage Blair to confide in him without putting his own foot in it by butting in and overreacting defensively as was his usual habit. He knew by now that Blair meant no harm. Had never meant him any harm. Indeed, all he had ever done was try and help, so it was up to Jim to hear and accept whatever his guide had to say, and learn to live with it. At the end of the day, he wanted Blair back at his side, and he was prepared now to go to any lengths to get his wish.

“Sure, Chief. Blair,” he added with a twinkle in his eye and a tiny smirk, despite his own nervousness. “Just say what you need to say, OK? Don’t be afraid that I’ll jump down your throat again. I think - hope - that I’m past that now. I’m not going to pretend that all of a sudden I’m completely reformed, but I promise you, Chief, that I’m trying, and I’ll keep trying as long as you need me to.”

Blair smiled again at that, thoroughly appreciating Jim’s new attitude, which gave him the courage to continue. “OK then, Jim. Here goes! First off, I’m really sorry about my melt-down this morning, man. It was really embarrassing, but it was a lot for me to take in, and I don’t think I handled it very well. But you were so understanding anyway, man, and I have to thank you for that.

“Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about what you said. All of it, man. And I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it was. Everything you described was pretty much everything I’d ever wanted to hear – to believe in. I just didn’t think we’d ever get here, you know? And it’s not your fault, man. I understand that now. Things are so much more straight-forward in indigenous tribes, man. I mean, sentinels and guides are revered for what they are, and they believe it’s an honour to be chosen at an early age. This society, well, let’s just say that it’s cynical at best, so no wonder you felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t give you the sort of support and understanding you needed at the outset. I think – no, I know that I was so excited; so much in ‘nerdy scientist’ mode; it didn’t occur to me that you had such good reason to hate the senses, man. And even when I did begin to understand, and grew to appreciate you as a person as much as, if not more than, my so-called ‘Holy Grail’, I don’t think I really comprehended just how hard it still was for you. To me it was such a gift, and I was so proud of you man. Watching you get to grips with the senses and using them on the job, well, it was an honour for me. And to feel as if I had a part in it, well, I actually can’t begin to tell you how good that felt.

“And I so wished it could be more. Hoped it was going to be, even though I didn’t truly understand what a real guide was supposed to do. I was winging it in the early days, Jim, as you probably realise by now. But it would be a dream come true for me if I really am your guide. I so want to believe that, Jim. I really do. But you seemed to grow to hate me, or at least what I was trying to do. I couldn’t seem to do anything right. And I’m sorry, man, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I think now that I shouldn’t have given in. I never used to be so easily intimidated. But it was too hard to keep trying when you didn’t want to hear. When you kept shutting me out and making a laughing stock of me down at the PD.

“And…and I’m still scared, Jim. I do believe what you said this morning about the whole sentinel and guide deal, and I do believe that you mean well. I’m just not sure I can do this again. Help me out here, Jim. Help me to trust again!”

For a long moment, Jim could only gaze at his troubled friend, unable to find the words to respond. He had known that Blair had been badly hurt by his behaviour, but only now, when the young man had had the courage to lay bare his fear and vulnerability, did Jim realise just how devastating the damage to Blair’s psyche actually was. And even as he was deluged anew by guilt over his culpability, he knew that it was up to him now to shake off that useless and unhelpful emotion and do whatever was necessary to reassure Blair and be worthy once again of his guide and friend’s love and loyalty. Qualities that Blair still held dear despite everything Jim had done.

Acting on instinct, he reached over and grasped Blair’s hand in his. “I’m so sorry, Chief. So sorry I treated you that way. There’s no real excuse, even though I appreciate the fact that once again you’ve tried to cut me some slack, babe. You’re quite right in that I was both resentful and scared. Scared of relying on you, and of being seen as a freak, so much so that I truly tried to go back to the way things were before the darned things kicked in. And even if you’re prepared to be understanding about that, there’s still no excuse for the way I went about it. Bloody-minded, selfish and cruel just about sums it up.

“But now, well, I know better. I think! Not only did the senses refuse to shut off anyway, but I realised that I hated going back to how I used to be. I had my space, and it was soulless and empty without you. I had lost my best friend; driven him away; and I didn’t want to make do with other friends and their well-meaning sympathy. It was just too hard to deal with, so I simply shut them out. Returned to ‘S.O.B Ellison’, only probably even worse than before. And I didn’t care, Chief. Because without you, everything was meaningless anyway.

“But once Incacha had explained everything to me, it all became clear. If I want to keep the senses, I need you, Chief. Because like Incacha said, you’re it for me. But I also meant what I said about not wanting to force you into a decision, Blair. You’ve given up so much for me already; I have no right to demand more. But one thing I can promise you, Chief. Even if you can’t bring yourself to be my guide anymore, I pray that we can still be friends, at least at some level.

“I miss you too Chief. More than I can say.”

Blair studied him in silence long enough for Jim to start to feel decidedly uneasy, fearing the worst after all despite Blair’s undoubtedly sincere effort to trust in both him and his proposal. However, just before he actually squirmed in his seat, the young man sighed deeply and glanced away briefly before meeting Jim’s gaze again, plainly having screwed up his courage to speak out.

“Thanks, Jim. For explaining everything to me – again! I’m sorry it’s taking far longer to penetrate my thick skull than it should, but I really don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. It wouldn’t be fair to you or to me, and I so don’t want that.

“But what I will say is that I really do want to stay friends, Jim. Real friends, even if the sentinel and guide thing doesn’t work out after all. But I also want to try again, Jim. I don’t know yet how we should go about it, but I’m prepared to work with you to find a way by which you can continue to use the senses, and not have to worry about your secret being revealed unnecessarily. Will that do for now?” he finished, and Jim could easily tell both from his tone and expression that he was completely sincere. Scared, for sure, but sincere, and Jim’s heart swelled with love and affection for his courageous friend.

His own smile wide and unaffected, he squeezed Blair’s hand before reaching out with his free hand to take Blair’s other one. “Thank you, Blair. Thank you. That’s more than good enough for now, Chief, because I know you mean every word. And I believe in us, babe. At long last I believe we can make a go of this whole sentinel deal because of your belief in me. You’ve never, ever failed me, Blair, and I’m just sorry it’s taken me such a long time to admit it.

“But now you’ve granted me the gift of your acceptance, we’ll go at your pace, Chief. Whatever you need to feel secure again, babe.”

Blair smiled in response, the relief and yes, love and affection shining from his beautiful blue eyes. His instinct told him that Jim was entirely sincere, and it was up to him now to reciprocate. And he finally began to believe that he was strong enough to do so. Neither of them was naïve enough to think that everything would instantly fall into place, and they both had a lot of re-thinking and self-examination to do, but he believed now that it could be done.

And perhaps this time around, not only would their working relationship progress as it should always have done, but perhaps his most precious hope would also be fulfilled, and Jim might accept him as a partner in all ways.

But now was not the time to jump the gun, so he controlled his sudden, wild urge to take Jim’s face between his palms and kiss him senseless.

Which perhaps was just as well, because suddenly Jim’s face took on an exasperated frown as he caught the whiff of cigars approaching the loft. Dammit! Simon’s here, and I forgot all about it!

Meeting Blair’s slightly confused gaze, Jim sighed as he murmured apologetically, “I’m sorry, Chief. But I can smell Simon’s cigars. He’s on his way up, and to be honest, I’d completely forgotten that he said he might call around. Look, I can easily get rid of him if it’s too much, Chief. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable, and I don’t want the evening to be spoiled. It’s entirely up to you, Blair.”

In all honesty, meeting up with Simon was the last thing Blair wanted to do that evening, especially at this point in their discussion, but he also didn’t want to be the reason why Jim sent his oldest friend at the PD packing. However Simon had behaved towards Blair in the final few weeks of the grad student’s ride-along, he had always been a great supporter of Jim’s, and at one stage Blair had actually believed that they were also becoming friends. Offering Jim a somewhat rueful grin, he said, “It’s OK, Jim. I mean, don’t send him away on my account. I’m going to have to go soon anyhow if I want to catch some worthwhile zzzzzzs tonight. I’ll be fine, honest!”

Jim didn’t look particularly convinced, but he nodded in acceptance. “OK, Chief, if you’re sure. Here he is now!” and quickly rose to his feet so he could open the door before his friend had a chance to knock. It was an age-old joke, and Simon never failed to gripe about it, but he would be more concerned if Jim didn’t do it, because the only reason for it not happening would be if there was something wrong with either his friend or said friend’s senses.

His face wearing an exaggerated expression of weary resignation, Simon huffed unconvincingly as a grinning Jim ushered him inside. However, whatever acerbic comment he was about to make was aborted when he took his first look at the young man within, who had risen to his feet in cautious welcome. Simon was shocked at the dramatic weight loss that gave Blair’s formerly compact and sturdy figure a look of unnerving fragility, and the wary smile on the attractive features cut him to the quick. This pale version of Sandburg was far different from the one of his earlier acquaintance, and the comparison shook him to the core. Gone was the energetic, smart-mouthed grad student who had frankly irritated the shit out of Simon in the early days, and Simon realised that he missed that persona more than he would have thought possible. He had hoped that receiving his doctorate and returning to his academic life would have restored Blair’s fading confidence and rejuvenated his spirit, but it was glaringly obvious that that wasn’t the case. And he acknowledged his own part in bringing about that change with a pang of real guilt. He might not have been intentionally cruel, but he had certainly not been as supportive or sympathetic as he should considering the contribution the kid – no, Doctor Sandburg, he admonished himself – had made to his department.

So it was up to him to act responsibly at last, especially if Jim had hopes of re-establishing his relationship with Blair. And he was determined to be man enough to admit his failings as a friend to both men, and do something about it.

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

Part 8: Working it Out:

Pasting a determinedly cheerful look on his face, Simon strode over to Sandburg, holding out his hand in greeting. “Good to see you again, kid! Or should I say, ‘Doctor Sandburg’! Congratulations on getting your degree, son. You deserve it.”

He deliberately overlooked the slightly deer-in-the-headlights expression on Blair’s face as the young man blinked in astonishment before assuming an affable, if overly polite smile. After all, what did he expect after their more recent encounters? Blair had a right to be wary, although his inherent good nature precluded an angry or indignant rebuff of Banks’ friendly overture.

“Ah, it’s good to see you too, Si – ah - Captain Banks. You’re looking well, man.”

Which is more than I can say about you! Simon thought to himself, even though his grin remained in place. Instead he said, “I think you can call me Simon; at least in these circumstances, huh? I know I got testy when you used to barge in on me uninvited at the PD, but in social situations, you’re welcome to use my given name. As I hope I can use yours! And I’m going to do my best to stop calling you ‘kid’ too!” and he chuckled as he pumped the hand that Blair offered him.

Blair’s smile became a little more genuine then, and he snickered a little self-consciously as he replied, “Fair enough, Simon. And thank you, man. I admit that I was glad to get those three letters after my name at last. Which wouldn’t have been possible if you hadn’t have allowed me to ride with Jim for so long. I had the opportunity to gather more than enough data for it.”

Simon sobered somewhat at that. “Well, as regards that, you’re welcome, kid – er, Blair. But we all know that it wasn’t the paper of your choice. Are you really OK with it? And has being granted your degree made you happy? That is, in your work at Rainier?”

He knew that he was probably going to be subjected to some Sandburgian-style obfuscation, and he wasn’t disappointed. It was blatantly obvious that Sandburg was anything but happy and contented with his lot. But Simon wasn’t about to let it put him off his stride. He could tell that Jim was looking on in growing concern, and there was no way he wanted to upset either man unduly. He was just hoping for the opening he needed to try and help them work things through if at all possible.

Blair fixed him with an almost reassuring grin, although the newly-observant Simon could see the underlying sorrow in the big blue eyes. “It’s fine, Simon. I couldn’t in all honesty have progressed with the ‘sentinel’ paper anyway, since it wouldn’t have taken folks long to put two and two together and come to the conclusion that I was writing about Jim, even if I didn’t name him. Megan caught on quickly enough after all! Um, and I am still writing about him, in a way,” and here he glanced apologetically over at Jim. “Sorry, man, I hadn’t gotten around to telling you, but I’m putting all my data together as a sort of instruction manual. You know, for the use of anyone who thinks they might be suffering from the same symptoms. But it’s all general, I promise, Jim. I haven’t included any of your specific data, so your anonymity is safe.”

Although it saddened both men to see the resurfacing of insecurity in Blair’s demeanour, neither of them was prepared to call him on it. Jim might well have been a little taken aback at Blair’s admission, but he found to his surprise that he felt no indignation at its previous omission. After all, it was no business of his anymore what Blair did with the ‘sentinel’ information he had gathered over the years, since he trusted the younger man to keep his name and specific test data to himself. And he couldn’t really blame Blair at this early stage of their tentative reconciliation for keeping a potential bombshell like that to himself until he was more certain of Jim’s positive reaction.

As for Simon, he was quietly pleased that at least Blair had gotten something out of the years he had spent backing up Jim, even if it wasn’t a doctoral dissertation. Hell, knowing from his experience of the kid’s reports that he was an informative and entertaining writer, he wouldn’t be at all surprised if the proposed manual eventually became something of a best-seller in that particular genre. His grin was therefore completely genuine as he clapped the smaller man on the shoulder.

“Good for you, son! I mean Dr Sandburg!” he exclaimed. “And I hope that it earns you a decent sum too once it’s in print. Because I suspect that even if you’re on faculty now, a bit of extra income won’t come amiss, am I right?”

Blair blushed then, his shy pleasure obvious to both men. “Thanks, Simon. That’s good of you to say. And you’re right. With student loans still to pay off, my salary doesn’t really stretch that far.”

He intended his comment to be wryly amusing and certainly hadn’t meant to sound self-pitying, but the truth behind his words didn’t escape the older men’s notice. They both knew that they had never given any real thought to Blair’s impecunious state as a struggling grad student; relying on grants and loans to keep his head above water; and it struck them both forcibly now that even a paid teaching position would hardly make Blair well-off. But perhaps there was something Simon might be able to come up with that could help him out. But probably only if it worked for both men? Whatever the case, he intended to run his idea past them sooner rather than later, once he knew for sure what their hopes and plans entailed.

Seating himself on Jim’s sofa with easy familiarity, Simon waited until Blair sat down again also before grinning expectantly over at his old friend. “So, Jim, are you going to offer me a drink anytime soon? I won’t stay for long, my friend, but a beer would go down well!”

Jim laughed out loud at that. “Sure, boss man,” he chuckled. “Coming right up! Think I’ll join you. How about you too, Chief? Can you stay a bit longer?” The hint of hopefulness in his tone and expression was enough to persuade Blair to accept, even though part of him was still uneasy enough in present company to make him want to head off for the dubious sanctuary of his shabby apartment.

However, he mentally shook off that unworthy notion as he smiled up at Jim. “Thanks, man. Yes, that’d be good. But I can’t stay too much longer either. Guess we all have work in the morning to consider, huh?”

Intensely gratified at Blair’s acceptance, Jim’s grin grew wider as he went to the fridge to retrieve the three bottles, popping off the tops before carrying them over to his visitors. “Here you go, gents,” he murmured. Enjoy!” and he took a large swig of the cold, refreshing brew as he settled once more into the armchair.

Blair and Simon followed suit, and then all three men grinned a little sheepishly at each other as they set the bottles down on the coffee table.

Looked like they were set for more of a discussion after all.

Once again it was Simon who set the pace, his dark gaze shrewd as he looked over at Jim. “So, Jim, you’re looking way happier than I’ve seen you in months. Does this mean the senses are working well, or have you finally come up with a way to shut them off?” He knew which option he personally would prefer, as long as Jim’s gift was cooperating well, because he freely admitted that it had been of considerable benefit to his department. But then again, if they had gone for good, at least he could hope that Jim would return to being the competent detective he had been before, with hopefully an improved outlook on life in general. And it seemed to him that both options were dependent on Blair’s presence in Jim’s life to whatever extent was necessary in order to succeed.

Unsurprisingly, Jim looked somewhat sheepish at his friend’s words, but at least he wasn’t reacting in angry defiance as Simon might well have expected going by his recent behaviour.

“Well, you might as well know, Simon, that no, the senses haven’t shut down. Yet. Despite my efforts to do so, I believe now that they’ll stay with me for life. But only as long as I accept them, and the role Blair has to play in helping me control them. See, if I can bring myself to stop fighting them, and just accept them as an integral part of me, I’m pretty sure that they’ll become so much easier to use. As Blair’s always said, it’s just a matter of practice, just like any other skill.

“But I also know now that I’ll always need him close by if I want to guard against zones, Simon, because he literally is the only one who can prevent them in the first place, or if they do happen, can bring me out easily and naturally. I just didn’t want to believe it, as you well know.

“But now I do. And I’ll accept them too. But only if it works for Blair, because no way am I going to lay the burden of my choice on his shoulders alone. I’ve hurt him enough,” and here he smiled sadly at the younger man as he reached over to squeeze his shoulder amicably, “and if he decides it’s too much to ask, then that’s it. The senses will shut down, and we’ll both be back to normal. Well, as ‘normal’ as we’ve ever been!”

Simon regarded him steadily for a long moment, and then turned his gaze to Blair. And was both unsurprised and saddened to see the troubled expression on the young man’s face as conflicting emotions chased across his mobile features. Gentling his tone, he addressed Blair then.

“And how do you feel about that, son? Even I can see it’s a lot to ask of you right now. But I’m also hoping that the fact you’re here suggests that at least you guys have come to some understanding. You two were always the closest friends I’ve ever seen, and I freely admit that I – we all - miss you in MCU, kid – er, Blair! And not just for the beneficial effect you had on ‘Hard-ass Ellison’ over there!”

Blair smiled wanly at that, but there was a definite hint of gratitude in his eyes as he replied. “Thanks, Simon. That’s good of you to say. And yes, I think Jim and I have come to some understanding. But it’s not something I can decide on right now. I need to think. To ‘process’, if you like. I…I’ve told Jim that I’d like us to stay friends, whatever happens, and I would like it if we could also, Simon. But I need to work out just how the whole ‘sentinel and guide’ thing will work for us – or not, as the case may be.

“I’m sorry, Jim, Simon. But I need to go now. I can’t talk about this anymore tonight, but I promise I’m not running out on you again, Jim. I hope you can believe that.”

Jim smiled sadly at him then. “I do believe you, Chief. And I know you’ve a lot to think about. Will you call me when you get home? Just to put my mind at rest? And I’d like for us to meet up again soon, if that’s OK with you.”

Blair smiled up at him, his relief obvious. “Thanks, Jim, for understanding. And thanks for dinner also. And yes, I’ll call. And yes again – I’d like us to meet too. And by then, perhaps I’ll have a better answer for you.

“Goodbye, Simon. Good to see you too, man!” and with that he turned to go, offering Jim a warm smile as the older man accompanied him to the door.

“See you soon, Jim!” he murmured, and then he was gone.

When Jim turned away from the closed door to face Simon again, the older man wasn’t surprised to see the pain on the patrician features. But there was a faint smile there too, and a glimmer of hope in the cornflower blue eyes. “What did I do to deserve him, Simon?” Jim murmured wonderingly. “Despite everything I did – everything I drove him to – he still came through for me. It would have served me right if he had told me to get lost, but he didn’t. And although I have no idea how to go about making things work on a sentinel and guide level, I trust that he’ll remain my friend, and right now that’s good enough for me.”

Simon nodded then. “You’re a lucky man, Jim. And I am too, seeing as he’s forgiven me also. So I’ll leave you in peace, and we’ll talk again tomorrow, OK?

“And if Blair decides that he’s willing to try to do his guide thing again, I promise that this time I’ll help you – help the both of you – to see if there’s a workable way to do it.”

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

Next morning, Simon’s office:

A somewhat weary-looking but still calm and collected Jim sat down at Simon’s invitation, nodding in grateful acceptance of the offer of a mug of coffee. Soon, both he and his captain and friend were sitting comfortably, sipping their beverages in companionable silence. However, they both knew that the peaceful interlude couldn’t last indefinitely, so almost at the same moment they set their empty mugs on the desk between them and exchanged an understanding look.

“So, Jim,” Simon began, studying his friend shrewdly. “You’re looking a bit ragged around the edges, man, but also a lot more relaxed than recently. I’m supposing that you didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night, huh? Yet you still seem, well, mellow. Is Sandburg’s influence on you that potent, then?”

Jim chuckled wryly at that. “Yep, you could say that, sir. Simon. Just being with him yesterday gave the senses a major boost, and certainly brought home to me how much I used to rely on him to ground me, even unconsciously. And he called me this morning also, just to check on me,” he added, shaking his head in mild and smiling astonishment. “How thoughtful was that, hey?”

“Well, he always was the most generous man I ever knew with his time and his willingness to help,” Simon admitted ruefully. “Not that I appreciated it at the time, mind you. Thought he was an interfering busybody more often than not, sad to say. But you’re not the only one to have seen the light, so to speak.

“So, anyway, have you come to any conclusions yet about working together, or has Blair still got some thinking to do? After all, it’s likely to affect him and his lifestyle a lot more than yours, I’m thinking.”

“True enough, Simon,” Jim agreed. “And because of that, I’m not expecting a precise answer just yet, although Blair said again this morning that above all he wants us to be friends. And reading between the lines, I believe he really does want to re-establish our working partnership. He just needs the proper reassurance before committing himself, and that’s down to me.

“So, anyway, I’ve arranged to meet him for a late lunch today, and we’ll take it from there. Because I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for his forbearance, Simon. It’s way more than I deserve, but I’ll take it anyway.”

“Don’t put yourself down, Jim. He obviously thinks you deserve it, so just accept it for the gift it is. And if – when – you both come to a decision, if it’s the one I fully expect you to come up with, I just might have some ideas about how to help you guys make it work. I’ll say no more now, because I don’t want to build your hopes up until I’m sure I can produce, but trust me when I say that I only want the best for you both.

“And if so be it happens to benefit me and Major Crimes also, then that’s a bonus!” he chuckled wickedly as he winked knowingly at Jim.

Grinning widely in response, Jim nodded in agreement. “Goes without saying, boss! But thanks, Simon. Even if ultimately nothing comes of our plans, I truly appreciate your good will and efforts on our behalf. Thanks for the coffee, sir, and I’ll get on. I have a couple of leads I want to follow up on the Hayes embezzlement case before meeting Blair, and you never know, he might have an idea or two on how I should proceed!” Rising to his feet, he took his leave of his captain, unaware of the man’s fond but slightly anxious gaze following him back to his desk.

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

Later, in Barney’s Bar:

Sitting in a quiet booth at the back of the popular bar, Jim toyed with a soda as he awaited his friend. He would have preferred a beer, but since he was expected to work that afternoon, it wouldn’t be conducive to his concentration, especially as he was feeling the after-effects of his sleepless night. It didn’t occur to him that Blair would fail to turn up, at least, not without letting him know, but even so, he felt a growing impatience, needing to see his guide – if indeed he still was – both for the sake of his senses and to see for himself that Blair was OK. He had always felt protective towards the young man, especially in the early days of their partnership, and even though Blair insisted that it was a hard-wired facet of a sentinel’s nature to protect the tribe, it was far stronger when it came to his friend and companion. He couldn’t understand now why he had failed so spectacularly in that area during the last weeks of their previous partnership; the only reason he could think of being his determination to put aside any and all aspects of the whole sentinel phenomenon. But when push came to shove, it had apparently been for nought anyway. He truly believed now that he was meant to be a sentinel, and Blair was meant to be his guide and companion, and it was past time for him to get over himself and his fear of being seen as a freak. What mattered now was to convince Blair that he wasn’t going to backslide again, because only then would the young man consider committing himself to Jim again. He had committed before, and had his loyalty thrown back in his face by his undeserving ‘Holy Grail’, and Jim swore to himself that he would never do that again if he should be granted a second chance.

Suddenly, his senses perked up as he heard that precious heartbeat approaching, and he was grinning from ear to ear when a slightly breathless Blair slid into the seat opposite.

“Oh, man, I’m sorry I’m late,” the smaller man babbled apologetically. “The staff meeting overran, and I couldn’t get away when I wanted to. See, it wouldn’t be a good idea to start rubbing the senior staff and admin guys up the wrong way if I want to keep them sweet, especially if I want to put some suggestions to them eventually regarding my terms of employment--”

Jim held his hand up then, an amiable smile on his face. “S’OK, Chief! Breathe, Blair! You’re not that late, and I wasn’t worried that you wouldn’t show. Just good to see you, babe,” and if he noticed the small endearment fall naturally from his lips, he paid it no mind.

On the other hand, Blair most certainly did, although he refrained from mentioning it. He didn’t want to upset Jim in any way, still a little wary of the older man’s reactions, but he treasured the surge of warmth and affection it triggered within him.

“Thanks, man. So, anyway, do you want to order first? You must be hungry by now.”

Jim nodded as he replied. “Yeah, good idea, Chief. I have to say I could eat. It’s been a long morning chasing up some leads for an embezzlement case I’m working on. After we’ve eaten, I can tell you about it if you like. See what you make of it?”

Blair’s smile was dazzling then. “Sure, Jim! I don’t know if I can help, but I’d like to try. It’s been a while since I’ve put my mind to anything other than academic stuff.”

Jim was slightly saddened by that, even though he didn’t let it show in his face. And it would be good to discuss a case again, even if they made no real progress. It would just be like old times, after all.

Just then, the waitress came over to take their orders, and Jim went for the home-made double cheeseburger with everything, his appetite burgeoning in Blair’s company. He smirked at Blair’s frowning reaction, secretly glad to note that the young man was still concerned for his welfare, even though he said nothing about Jim’s high cholesterol treat. Instead, Blair ordered the soup and salad, and they both ordered another soda.

Left to themselves again, Jim smiled quizzically at his friend. “So, Chief, how was your night? You look like I feel, buddy, so I’m thinking that neither of us slept that well, huh?”

Blair blushed delightfully at that, a bashful expression colouring his attractive face as he peeked up at his friend. “Um, yeah. You could say that, Jim. Not that I was having nightmares or anything, you know? Just mulling things over…”

“Yeah, I know exactly what you mean, Chief. But it was a good sort of ‘mulling’. At least, I thought so!”

Blair smiled at that, his face clearing again. “Yeah, it was, man. And I have made a decision of sorts, if you want to hear it?”

However, if there was a hint of uncertainty in his tone, Jim wasn’t about to call him on it, as he was suddenly beset by his own nervousness. This was it, and he was about to learn his fate. Swallowing hard against the lump of anxiety that tried to lodge in his throat, he nodded as he croaked out, “Ah, sure, Chief. Blair. Tell me, kiddo. I’d rather not be kept in suspense!”

He could easily tell that Blair wasn’t taken in by his feeble attempt at humour, and to his credit, the smaller man simply reached over the table to squeeze Jim’s clasped hands.

“It’s OK, Jim. That is, it’s not that bad, so don’t worry, man. I mean, I’m not sure how it’ll work, or even if it will – at least, in a way that’ll really satisfy you, Jim. But I’m willing to try OK?

“See, I thought long and hard about everything you said, Jim, and like I said, I believe you, man. I believe that we’re meant to work together, but I know that it’s not that simple anymore. I was so naïve at first, man. I know it. I thought all we had to do was put my theories into practice and voilà, instant sentinel – and um, ‘guide’, if you will. I might have gotten with the programme at last; realised what you meant to me; but by then you were already fed up with the whole deal, and I can hardly blame you for that. But now I…I have to learn to trust again, Jim. And not just in you this time, honest! In me. I have to believe in myself, and my ability to act as your guide again.

“But anyway, this is what I’m willing to do, man, if you’re OK with it. You probably didn’t know, but I signed up for a course in Forensic Anthropology after I got the PhD. I wanted to have something more practical to fall back on if I decided that I no longer wanted to stay in academia, you know? And, um, I’ve also been upgrading my psych minor too. I thought I might look at profiling, or some such, you know? I mean, with the right certification, I might be able to work officially in law enforcement, do you see? Just in case it was ever an option…”

And Jim did see. And was absolutely astounded at what Blair wasn’t saying. All this time Blair had been working on finding a way to secure a recognised civilian position at the PD just in case this very situation arose. As an official consultant or Forensic Anthropologist, even on a part-time basis, he would be able to ride with Jim if required. Even if it turned out to be ultimately unattainable, it was more than Jim could ever have envisaged, and the depth of love that inspired such a potential career move was truly humbling.

“I don’t know what to say, Chief! I mean, it’s far more than I expected. Than I had any right to expect after everything I’ve done to you. I’m in awe, Chief!”

Blair blushed at that, and tried to brush it off nonchalantly, although the effort was totally unconvincing. “It’s OK, Jim. After all, you know me. Always want to keep busy. Keep the old grey matter working, seeking new horizons…” and he grinned self-deprecatingly as he shrugged it off, uncomfortable with Jim’s open admiration.

Jim studied him for a moment, a frown between his brows as he was suddenly struck by an unwelcome thought. In all the excitement of reconnecting with Blair again, he had never given a thought to the young man’s current social life. Or even if he had one. After all, even though he had been hoping to eventually get onto the subject of Blair moving back into the loft with him, he had never even considered that perhaps Blair had someone else in his life now. He didn’t think so, judging by the impression his friend had made on him thus far, but he had to ask. He had to know if a more committed relationship was ever going to be on the cards. And he had to admit that he was selfish enough to pray that Blair was still free. Suddenly the thought of Blair in someone else’s arms hit him hard, and he was guiltily aware that perhaps that had always been the case. And perhaps was also the reason why he had so frequently mocked the young man’s supposed ‘table leg humping’ rep. Jealous, much?

However, just then their meals arrived, so he held off on questioning Blair further until they had eaten, not wanting to put his young friend off his food before he’d even started. He needed all the feeding up he could get after all.

Despite his niggling worry as regards the state of Blair’s current love life, Jim found that he was able to enjoy his meal, partly because his senses were revelling in Blair’s proximity, but mostly because it did his heart good to see Blair eating with enthusiasm. True, he didn’t manage to clear his plate, but he still ate enough to satisfy the Mother Hen in his sentinel, and he grinned shyly up into Jim’s approving gaze.

“Thanks, man, I enjoyed that. And by your empty plate, I can see that you did too. Have you got time for a coffee, or do you have to make a move? I’m free for the rest of the afternoon, so if you wanted to talk some more, I’m down with that.”

Jim grinned cheerfully as he nodded. “Yeah, I could do with a coffee, Chief. I do have to get back to the office at some point, but Simon knows where I am and why, so he’s not going to chew my ass if I’m a bit late. And if you can throw some light on how I should go about progressing this embezzlement investigation, he’ll be more than happy!”

Blair smiled happily at that, pleased that Jim actually wanted his input. He just had to hope that he had something to offer after all.

Firstly, however, Jim needed to settle that one question, to set his own mind at rest.

“Ah, Chief, I know that it’s not really any of my business, but, um, are you dating at the moment? I mean, I don’t want to jeopardise a budding romance by intruding on your free time, buddy.”

Blair’s grin became rueful at that, and he glanced away for a moment before answering. He thought he knew where this might be leading, but knew that it would be foolish to get his hopes up. After all, he had always considered Jim to be straight, even if the women he dated tended to be criminally inclined. And he didn’t want to come over as a total loser either. But he was prepared to admit to his lack of a love life anyway, just for honesty’s sake. Just in case….

“No, Jim, no dating. To be honest, I haven’t had the inclination really, and my teaching and studying have kept me busy. So you’re not intruding, man.”

To say that Jim was mightily relieved would be an understatement, but he had enough tact not to crow openly at Blair’s admission. “Fair enough, Chief. I just wanted to know, buddy, because the last thing I want is to impose on you even more than I have already.

“So, anyway, you want to hear about this case?”

The change of subject was a timely one for both men, and as their coffees arrived, they put their heads together, falling naturally back into their previous, comfortable camaraderie as they discussed Jim’s latest case.

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

Later that afternoon, MCU bullpen:

It was a smugly smiling Jim who entered the bullpen later that afternoon, feeling as if the light at the end of his particular tunnel was considerably brighter than before. The heart-to-heart talk with Blair had indeed boosted his hopes that a full reconciliation was more than possible, both on a working basis and as friends and domestic partners. The fact that Blair had already put so much thought and effort into creating possible career openings for himself in the PD was proof positive as far as Jim was concerned that the young man still hankered after the rollercoaster ride of police work, and he had made it quite clear that his choices would depend to a great extent on Jim’s acceptance and support.

And of course Jim hoped he had made it perfectly clear that Blair had both of those in spades.

Even more proof, if any more was needed, was how eagerly Blair had thrown himself back into the discussion of Jim’s latest case, even coming up with a couple of suggestions as to what Jim should be looking for in the alleged embezzler’s accounts; suggestions that the detective was eager to pursue immediately, knowing that they were more than likely to bear fruit.

Yes, things were certainly looking up, but even though he knew that he shouldn’t build his hopes too high; his inner cynic fighting a rear-guard action all the way; it was almost impossible to do anything else but trust that everything was working out as it should at last. Especially as he knew now that he had Incacha’s blessing.

“Hey, Jimbo! You’re looking like the cat that ate the canary! Or a dingo with two tails. Everything OK?”

Jim paused in his stride at Megan’s cheerful enquiry, for once not inclined to ignore her or rebuff her rudely.

“Yes, Conner, everything’s just fine, thanks for asking. And before you ask, Blair’s just fine too. But I’m not about to discuss my business in the middle of the bullpen, OK? I need to see our illustrious Captain first.”

Grinning evilly at her somewhat frustrated frown, he made his way over to Simon’s office, needing to update his friend and captain on what had transpired at lunch.

Time to try and set things in motion, and suddenly his impatience demanded action, and soon.

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Part 9: Getting There:

Three days later, the loft:

It was Friday late afternoon, and Jim was prowling impatiently around the loft; stopping every now and then at the balcony doors to gaze out towards the marina. Despite his unease, his movements were still graceful and almost predatory, closely resembling those of the jaguar that was his animal spirit. He had finished work early, with Simon’s blessing, because he was expecting a visit from both Blair and Simon and he wanted to be prepared for their arrival. And he was decidedly anxious about the possible outcome of their informal meeting, since he hoped that it would lay the foundations of his and Blair’s future together.

Since his lunch date with Blair a few days ago, he had been working with Simon to sound out some options regarding getting Blair an official position at the PD, but although he had also been in frequent contact with Blair over the phone, he hadn’t actually discussed any of them with the younger man as he didn’t want to get his hopes up unnecessarily. Or heap additional, undue pressure on top of the stress under which Blair had already voluntarily put himself. However, during their lengthy calls, they had continued to build on their new relationship, both of them eager to progress their friendship even if ultimately they weren’t able to continue as sentinel and guide, at the PD at least.

Jim knew that Blair was busily working on ways to still be available for Jim if their schemes came to nothing, even if it meant meeting up with him clandestinely when he expected to use his hypersensitivity at a crime scene. Or arranging lunches or even a simple coffee break together if Jim felt in need of a grounding boost for his senses.

Of course, ideally that boost would be far more easily managed if Blair was to move back into the loft with him, but Jim was well aware that Blair was still wary of doing so, and indeed, had a right to his reticence on the subject considering how unwelcome he had been made to feel before moving out.

But by this evening, Jim dearly hoped that they would have something concrete to work with, if Simon’s latest hints were anything to go by, and he could only hope that Blair would still feel the same way when confronted with said options. After all, almost everything they had come up with so far would have a far greater impact on Blair’s career choices than on Jim’s, and once again Jim worried that he was expecting too much of his young friend.

Just then, the distinctive whiff of Simon’s cigars warned Jim of his captain’s approach, and Jim was ready and waiting for him at the door when the ancient elevator wheezed its way up to the third floor. Grinning as he held the door open for the older man, he joked, “Thought you’d be jogging up the stairs, boss man! Personally, I don’t trust that thing not to break down between floors. Still can’t get the building manager to get it refitted.”

Simon puffed up in assumed self-importance. “Jogging’s for mugs, Ellison. Beneath my dignity, man! Is the kid here yet?”

Jim shook his head as he ushered his friend inside. “Nah, not yet, Simon. He called me to say that he’d been landed with an impromptu tutorial group session this afternoon, and knowing him, it’ll probably overrun despite his good intentions. From what I’ve learned from eavesdropping on his friends and colleagues at the U, his students can’t get enough of him and his teaching. Not that he’d think to make anything of it, though. Conceited he ain’t!

“And I thought you were going to stop calling him ‘kid’? He’s a full-blown professor now, after all!”

Simon chuckled ruefully at that as he made himself comfortable on the sofa. “Yeah, yeah, I know, Jim. And I’ll try, to his face anyway. But he still looks so young to me, whatever I said. He’ll always be a kid in my mind, even if a very capable one.”

“Fair enough, Simon. I hear that! So, would you like a beer while we’re waiting? I’m not going to ask you to explain anything yet, much as I’d like to. Might as well wait until Blair arrives so you don’t have to repeat yourself.”

Simon nodded in grateful assent, and Jim retrieved two bottles from the fridge. A beer suddenly appealed to him also, and he excused the impulse by telling himself that he didn’t want Simon to have to drink alone after all. Settling down on the armchair catty corner to the sofa, he passed one of the bottles to Simon, and the two men spent the next few minutes enjoying their drinks and chatting amicably, discussing the successful closure of Jim’s embezzlement case amongst other more general topics such as the Jags’ increasingly remote chances of making the play-offs.

It wasn’t too much later when Jim suddenly perked up, his head cocking in an unconscious listening pose as a quietly fascinated Simon looked on. Blair was obviously in the building, and the sentinel was clearly monitoring his guide’s progress.

Once again Jim was at the door to greet his visitor, with Blair this time using the stairs. Although Jim was smiling warmly as the young man approached him, he was concerned at the elevated heart rate which was more to do with anxiety than the effort of climbing said stairs. And although his answering smile was a brave attempt, Blair’s otherwise pleasant personal scent was soured with the faintest hint of distress. And as Jim scanned him quickly but thoroughly; his inner sentinel checking out his mate; he was disturbed to witness the mixed emotions writ large on the beloved features despite Blair’s efforts to appear cool, calm and collected. Nervousness and trepidation warred with hope, longing and affection, and Jim wanted nothing more but to be able to take the smaller body in his arms for a comforting hug. However, he knew that Blair would be embarrassed if he was to do so in front of Simon, even if he would have welcomed it had they been alone, as the last thing he wanted to do was make Blair even more uncomfortable than he already was.

“Hey, Chief, come on in. Simon’s here already, so we can begin as soon as you’re settled. Want a beer? We’re just having one…” He tried to keep his tone and attitude affable and relaxed as he ushered the smaller man inside, knowing that Blair didn’t need any more pressure right now.

As they entered, Jim noted that Simon had moved to the armchair, apparently surmising correctly that Blair and Jim would be more comfortable seated together on the sofa, and Jim silently approved of the older man’s tact.

“Hey, Simon. Um, good to see you again. You’re looking well.” Blair’s friendly greeting almost succeeded in sounding cool and unworried, and both older men appreciated the effort behind it even if they regretted its presence.

“You too, kid – uh, I mean, Doctor Sandburg ” Simon chuckled, his intentional ‘slip-up’ having the desired effect of causing Blair to snicker in response.

Glancing between the two, Jim grinned at the visible release of some of the tension in Blair’s shoulders before going to the kitchen to retrieve another beer for Blair as the young man seated himself on the sofa. Deciding to get another for himself and Simon while he was there, he brought the drinks over and handed them out before seating himself on the sofa beside, but not too close to Blair. He wanted the smaller man to feel supported, but not overwhelmed by his presence, and when Blair sent him an appreciative smile he knew he’d done the right thing.

After an appropriate pause while all three men got themselves settled, Simon set his bottle down on the coffee table and regarded the other men intently but unthreateningly. “OK, then, guys, I guess it’s time to get this show on the road.”

As both Jim and Blair sat up straighter, the smaller man’s tension ratcheting up again despite his best efforts to control his reactions, Simon got down to business. Nodding in tacit approval when Jim casually reached over to squeeze Blair’s knee comfortingly, he began.

“First off, guys, what I’m about to outline isn’t written in stone, so if it’s not what you want, you’re not committed to accepting all or any of it, OK? Then again,” he continued, trying for wry humour to lighten the atmosphere a little by assuming an air of poorly faked sanctimony, “Please note that yours truly has done a fair bit of ear-bending and tap dancing on your behalf, so I hope you appreciate it!

“Anyhow, to cut to the chase. I’ve had several discussions with the Chief of Police and the Commissioner, and after a somewhat tentative start, I think we’re all pretty much of the same opinion now. I made a point of showing them the stats for arrests and convictions from Major Crimes, and of course they were familiar with yours in particular, Jim, especially since the ‘Cop of the Year’ award and all. But then I pointed out how dramatically they had improved when Blair started to ride with you, and, I have to say, how they began to drop off after he left,” he added unapologetically.

To his credit, Jim didn’t retaliate in angry affront as Simon might have expected him to on his more recent showing, but instead he simply sighed in resignation, casting a wry glance at Blair, whose own expression was nothing but one of sympathy tinged with unwarranted guilt.

Studying the pair shrewdly for a moment, Simon continued. “So, anyway, I also pointed out how Blair had managed to make a noticeable impression on other departments’ stats too, when he was involved in other cases, so it wasn’t too much of a shock to them when I suggested that we might do well to copy other PDs around the country and enjoy the benefits of an official consultant in Anthropology.

“Of course, it would never have flown if you hadn’t already gotten your degree, Blair. There was no way I could have justified re-issuing your ride-along pass as a grad student, even if you wanted me to. But as a fully-fledged doctor, and one who I understand is expanding his studies to include Forensics also, it wasn’t too big of a stretch for them to take in.

“And the best thing about it is that Jim doesn’t have to ‘fess up to the senses at all unless he wants to at some point. The new role would be yours on your own merit, Blair, and although you would obviously have to be available to any department who needs your expertise, you would still be able to ride with Jim as and when he needed your backup.

“So, guys, what do you think?”

He sat back a little then to gauge the reactions of his listeners, but in truth the focus of his attention was on the smaller man. Sandburg was staring at him in wide-eyed astonishment, his face pale and lips parted in overt shock. And more tellingly, he was absolutely still as he fought to absorb Simon’s words. It struck Simon then just how differently he would have expected the Sandburg of old to react. That Sandburg would have been fizzing with nervous energy, no doubt pacing the room and gesticulating wildly as he bombarded Simon with a gazillion questions. And yet again the older man was hit by a pang of guilt for his own part in effecting such a drastic change in one who didn’t deserve it. He could tell that Jim was also studying his guide intently, a look of concern tinged with raw hope on the patrician features. It was quite the offer after all, and very likely one neither man had really expected whatever their hopes. Furthermore, even though there was much more to it to be taken into consideration in order for it to work for them; something of which all three of them would certainly be well aware; it was more than enough to run with.

Truthfully, Blair had been stunned by the offer. Although he and Jim had discussed theoretical ways and means of procuring some sort of official place for Blair, neither of them could have foreseen such a positive outcome. Since Blair had never considered himself to be anything special in any way, always looking to Jim as being the most important half of their partnership, it had never really occurred to him that he might warrant a job offer such as this on his own qualifications and proven ability. For sure he knew that within academia he had far more of a presence, thanks to his indubitable intelligence, dedication to his students and prodigious output, but this was the ‘real world’, in the opinion of cops like Jim and Simon, and he had never before felt a part of it. Always the outsider looking in.

But the more he stared into Simon’s dark but honest gaze, the more he wanted to believe, even as an inner voice urged him to beware of making an impulsive or even rash decision. And when he turned to look at Jim, and saw the real love and hope in the cornflower blue eyes, he knew he would do it. He was being presented with the opportunity to finally belong, and it was something he had always wanted. And needed, truth be told.

Oh, there would be plenty of work still to do. Plenty of details to sort through and fine tuning to be done, but ultimately it was his dearest wish come true. To climb back onto the rollercoaster on his own terms, and to be there to back up and support his sentinel as well as put his own expertise to work wherever it was needed.

And as he came to that decision, his face gradually lost its pinched look as his eyes brightened and his generous mouth stretched into a genuine smile. The kind of smile that had been missing for so long now. And little did he realise just how grateful the two older men were to witness its rebirth.

“Yes, Simon. If it works for Jim, then yes, it works for me. I know we still have a lot to do to make it happen, but I’m game to try, Jim. Are you?” this last said just a tad uncertainly, even though Jim’s answering smile was wide and unaffected.

“You bet, Chief! You bet!” and Jim couldn’t have prevented himself if he had tried – which he had no intention of doing – as he grabbed Blair and pulled the smaller man into a real hug. Holding on for all he was worth, and thrilled when Blair’s arms wrapped around him in response, Jim looked over the curly head currently pressed against his neck and shoulder to beam at Simon. His eyes conveyed all the sincere gratitude he felt towards the older man as he nodded and mouthed, “Thanks, Simon. Just, thanks!”

And a profoundly relieved Simon grinned and relaxed back into his seat, not in the least perturbed by the unrestrained cuddle session taking place before him.

It was going to be OK. He just knew it.

Job done.

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Epilogue: MCU bullpen, six months later:

Jim sat at his desk, for all the world looking as if he was studying the file open before him, but actually not taking in a word of it. Instead all his senses were on high alert, ready to pinpoint the exact moment his guide and partner entered the building, on this, Blair’s first day as an official full-time consultant to Cascade Central PD. It was a momentous occasion for them both, and it hadn’t been an easy journey to reach this point, but it had been worth it in the eyes of both men.

Not that Jim was completely convinced that Blair had everything he wanted – and definitely deserved – from the deal, but the young man had assured him just this morning that everything had turned out as it should. That everything that had happened between them had happened for a reason, and now they were where they should be – sentinel and guide as one. And it would be churlish of Jim to keep harping on about it and upsetting Blair when his friend was trying so hard to make the most of what he had.

And to be honest, it was more than he had ever expected when he had found the courage to reconcile with Jim, so Jim wasn’t about to rain on his parade just because he still felt a little uncomfortable and guilty for his previous behaviour.

Staring sightlessly at the file, Jim couldn’t help but ponder on everything that had happened since that momentous meeting with Simon at the loft all those months ago. For sure it hadn’t been an instant fix, but then again none of them had expected it to be. But it had most certainly been a firm basis on which to build their new lives, and Jim just had to be grateful for that.

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

The first step Blair had taken after learning of Simon’s offer had been to attend an official interview with the Commissioner and Chief of Police. He had been understandably nervous, since he didn’t know exactly what to expect, but his undisputed intellect, plus his doctorate and his previous proven track record of working alongside Jim had virtually guaranteed that the suggested plan of action became fact, and he was quickly confirmed in the role as consultant to the police department. To begin with, it would be on a part-time, case-by-case basis, with a small stipend and expenses but it was expected to expand and develop once his additional certification was confirmed, and as the demand for his input grew until it was a full-time, salaried position.

Initially of course it had also had to run alongside his teaching commitments at Rainier until such time as he was able to modify his role there, which wasn’t something he could do instantly. He knew that not only would it have been foolish to give up his secure teaching post until he was certain that the PD position was going to work out satisfactorily, but he also believed that it would be incredibly selfish and inconsiderate of him to abandon his students until suitable replacements had been found. He had therefore approached his Head of Department and proposed a more gradual change.

Naturally, he intended to continue with his studies, as it was even more important to him now to add new strings to his bow to make himself even more useful to the PD. However, teaching was still dear to his heart, so he offered to delay his departure for as long as it took to get all his classes covered, and then make himself available if required to give lectures and run specialist seminars on an ad hoc basis. It had to be said that the vast majority of his peers and his students were disappointed at his news, but he was left in no doubt of their goodwill for his future success, having given so much time and effort to the U over many years. And since he had received the whole-hearted backing of several worthy senior staff members such as the estimable Dr Eli Stoddard himself, he was assured that his occasional continued availability would be very much welcomed and utilised.

So it was that Blair had returned to the PD, quietly and without fanfare as he had been still unsure of his welcome, but knowing that at least this time he had a right to be there. And indeed he had been welcomed with open arms by his and Jim’s friends and colleagues, much to his great relief.

However, since he was only there on a part-time basis to begin with, his life had returned to being very similar to how it had been as a so-called temporary ride-along, insofar as he was still juggling his remaining responsibilities at Rainier with partnering Jim as needed and dealing with the gradually increasing number of cases in which he was asked to get involved. Nevertheless, he was content, his energy levels rising again as his physical wellbeing improved and his self-confidence grew, and for all those of his acquaintance that mattered, it was a delight to witness.

Inevitably, as he became more and more in demand as a consultant, and his teaching duties reduced over the months until his actual leaving date, his role within the PD grew in scope and importance such that he was asked to take on additional responsibilities such as creating a Victim Support Group and Helpline and running seminars and group sessions for rookie and veteran cops alike on such subjects as dealing sympathetically with the victims of violence, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms.

It had now reached the point where he was to all intents and purposes a full-time civilian employee, with today being his first official day of duty in that confirmed role.

And Jim couldn’t be more proud of him if he tried.

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As Jim continued to contemplate the last few months’ progress, he couldn’t help but note that it had been almost a year to the day since Blair had finally given up on his sentinel and left the loft. So much had happened to them both since then, but he felt heartily glad and relieved that things had worked out so well for them after all, most of that success surely down to Blair’s courage and abiding love for Jim. And Jim knew that he had been one lucky SOB. If left to his own devices, he was ruefully aware that he probably wouldn’t be here now. With his deteriorating temper, and lack of control, his senses would by now have been worthless – indeed, even a potential hazard – if they were still there. And even if they’d shut down eventually, he very much doubted that he would have been able to stay in the department. He had made far too good a job of alienating his co-workers to have earned their forgiveness without the influence of Blair to win them over, and that was no-one’s fault but Jim’s and he knew it.

But once Blair had returned, his young friend had quietly but determinedly begun to work his magic on his friends, such that they had become more tolerant and open-minded towards Jim, especially as the marked improvement in his attitude was noticeable pretty much from the moment of his guide’s reappearance. And the best thing of all was that although the sudden improvement in his performance was equally noticeable now he had Blair’s backup once again, Jim still hadn’t felt the need to reveal his secret to all and sundry. His colleagues, with the exception of Megan and Simon, simply accepted that their lead detective’s ‘edge’ had returned along with Blair’s presence, and that it was back to business as usual in the bullpen. In addition, both Jim and Blair were absolutely certain that neither Simon nor Megan would ever knowingly betray their confidence, so their relationship as sentinel and guide remained safe and secure.

To be sure, things weren’t exactly as before, as Blair was neither the same ebullient grad student of their early acquaintance, nor the faded ghost of the last few weeks and months of his previous presence in the bullpen. This Blair was quieter and more restrained for sure, and there was a new maturity in his demeanour which was no doubt the result of his trials and tribulations. But he had come through them anyway, and if his never very high self-confidence had taken a battering, it was returning and growing as his specific input resulted in an ever-increasing volume of cases and consequent rates of success. Indeed, if he did but know it, his personal esteem had spread rapidly throughout the PD, such that he was valued for his own worth and no longer just as Jim’s tagalong and the MCU’s adopted mascot. And it was no more than he was due, after all.

But by far the best development as far as both Blair and Jim were concerned was their personal relationship now. And Jim just had to grin to himself in smug satisfaction at that thought.

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Although again it hadn’t happened instantly; Blair being understandably wary of committing himself again until he was certain of Jim’s feelings regarding him as both a domestic partner and sentinel’s companion; with a lot of encouragement from Jim and also close mutual friends like Megan and Joel, he was persuaded to move back into the loft. And not only into the loft, but into Jim’s bed also.

Again, it wasn’t something they broadcast abroad, both believing that what went on in the privacy of their bedroom was for them alone to know, but Jim couldn’t have been more grateful when his soon-to-be lover had shyly pledged himself to Jim. It was more than Jim had ever hoped for, and his gratitude and admiration for the depth of Blair’s love and loyalty knew no bounds. Indeed, he had discovered that the young man’s generosity of spirit extended to his love-making, and Jim knew also that he had never, ever had such an accommodating and satisfying bed-partner. And the best thing of all was that Blair insisted that it was the same for him, and Jim had good reason to believe him.

Jim’s inner smile widened in satisfaction as he recalled the moment of their first union, which turned out to be not only of Jim and Blair, lovers and now life partners, but also of sentinel and guide, soul mates once again.

On the day that Blair had moved back into the loft, Jim had taken his partner upstairs to his bed, and with Blair’s slightly nervous blessing, had undressed and imprinted his guide lovingly and intimately. Preparing the young man with all the reverence and sensitivity he possessed, Jim had finally taken him, and at the moment of their joining something wonderful had happened. Both men had shared a vision of a jungle clearing, where Jim’s sleek black jaguar faced a beautiful, blue-eyed wolf. And as they rose to a mutual climax, the two animals had raced towards each other, leaping at the last moment to merge in a flash of light and enlightenment. They, like their human counterparts, were once more as one; knowing as the other knew, and committed now and forever after. And nothing and no one from thereon in would part them. This they knew to the depths of their being; and the comfort that knowledge offered would protect and keep them to the end of their days.

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Just then, Jim’s hearing picked up on his guide’s beloved heartbeat, and he looked up eagerly, knowing that Blair had entered the building. He was well aware that Megan was sending him a covert, knowing grin from where she was seated at her desk, but it didn’t bother him. He was far more mellow towards her now, in gratitude for her support of Blair and of himself, and he was confident that she would never hurt or betray either of them.

And then the bullpen doors opened to reveal his guide and lover, the young man grinning broadly as he fielded greetings from his friends and colleagues. The bounce wasn’t quite as obvious as before, but it was there, and the smile he bestowed on all and sundry was the type of megawatt beam that instantly lit up the room. And when it turned on Jim, it became impossibly brighter, such that Jim felt himself respond like a flower to the sun.

However, as Blair made his way over to Jim’s desk, he was waylaid by H and Rafe, who both slapped his back and shook his hand as they congratulated him.

“Hey, Rafe, look what the cat dragged in!” H chortled as he ruffled Blair’s curls – worn rather shorter now, but still abundant. “Hairboy’s here, and now he’s full-time! All those Cascade criminal masterminds better look out!”

Blair laughed delightedly as he replied, “That’s Doctor Hairboy to you, H! And it’s good to be here, man. And with a proper paycheque now too! Can’t be bad!”

Joel and Megan had joined the group, and Joel patted the smaller man on the shoulder also. “Well, it’s about time you got full recognition for everything you’ve been doing for the department, Blair. But will you miss Rainier now you’ve officially left?”

Blair smiled at that, his glance also taking in Jim as he reassured his friends. “No, Joel, not really,” he said. “I still have some connections there, since I’ve been asked to do some guest lectures and such, and I still have friends there, like Ally and Eric, whose wedding Jim and me’ll be going to this weekend coming.

“And I love working here with you guys. And partnering Jim too when he needs me, so it’s all good, man. All good!”

And as a fondly smiling Jim stood and walked over to join the group, accepted once more into their ranks thanks to the benign influence of his beloved guide and partner, he knew that it was true, and he thanked the gods for it.

The End