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"Choices. How may I be of assistance?"

Blair Sandburg waited patiently for the person on the other end of the phone to speak. After several moments, a tenor voice asked quietly, "This is the suicide prevention hotline, correct?"

"Yes, sir. My name is Blair. What can I do for you tonight?"

More silence. "Choices sounds like the name of a yuppie restaurant."

Blair smiled, knowing the caller couldn't see him. "It does, doesn't it? I've never really thought of it that way before."

"So why Choices?"

"Because that's what we're here to offer...choices. Besides, the Powers That Be found that saying 'suicide prevention hotline' put callers off."

"Yeah, I can understand how it might. You certainly wouldn't want to offend a nut case."

Blair sighed inwardly. This was going to be a difficult call. He felt it in his bones. He actually preferred the hysterical callers, although the other volunteers thought he was nuts for saying so. Blair found that typically hysterical people just wanted someone else to take charge. They were desperately trying to find a reason to hang on and figured the easiest way to do it was to create a big enough scene until someone with more authority stepped up to the plate. Depressed people simply wanted to see if there was at least one person in the world that cared, one person willing to extend a hand and pull them out of the mire which was sucking them in to oblivion.

It was the calm ones who frightened him -- for they had almost always made up their minds before calling in to take the final step. The more intelligent they were, the harder it was to convince them to give life a chance. However, he had never lost a caller, and he wasn't about to start now.

"Are you required to record these calls?" the disembodied voice asked him.

"No. We don't record any of our calls."

"How do your supervisors evaluate your performance then?"

"They sit beside me and listen. And before you ask, there's no one in this room but me."

"So each counselor has their own room?"

"Yes, otherwise it's too easy to get distracted by other counselors and their calls."

"Makes sense."

There were several more moments of silence. The calm ones often had an agenda, simply looking for a reason or excuse to go ahead and execute their carefully laid out plans. Blair licked his lips nervously, knowing that pushing the caller for information could end the call abruptly, but also knowing that if he had any chance of being successful he was going to have to establish a trust fairly quickly. "Is there a name or handle you'd like for me to use when talking to you?"

Blair could hear the sharp intake of breath and crossed his fingers, willing the caller to stay on the line with him.

"Is Blair your real name?"

"Yes."

"I thought you weren't supposed to use real names in a situation like this."

"How can I ask you to discuss your decision with me if I won't tell you my real name? Trust has to start somewhere."

"Good point."

"You, on the other hand, don't have to give me your real name," Blair offered quietly as the silence stretched uncomfortably.

"No. A trust for a trust." The caller paused before saying, "My name is Jim."

"Hi, Jim."

"Hi, Blair."

More silence.

"I expected you to be pushier," Jim said, then released a deep sigh.

"Would that make you more comfortable? Because, believe me, I can do pushy."

Jim chuckled. "No. I really rather you didn't do pushy."

"I sort of figured."

"How long have you been doing this, Chief?"

Blair grinned at the nickname, hoping that meant Jim was starting to feel comfortable with him. "For three years."

"That's a long time."

"Yes, it is."

"I bet you've seen a lot of turnover in volunteers."

"Yeah. There's a lot of burnout. Most people want to do the right thing, but since the position doesn't pay anything, most figure they can get their stress through old fashion means -- like spending time with their families over the holidays."

Blair could feel the amusement through the phone line, although when Jim spoke again, his voice was controlled. "So why do you do it?"

"Because I was once where you are now?"

"And someone on a hotline helped you?"

"No, actually not. Rainier didn't have a hotline at the time."

"So how did you cope?"

"Well, I'm a rather shallow guy."

"I seriously doubt that."

"Thanks, Jim."

"No problem. I just call 'em like I see 'em." Jim paused momentarily, but Blair could tell the other man's curiosity was getting the best of him. "So how did you get through it?"

"I got hooked on a television program."

A startled laugh reverberated over the phone line. "I beg your pardon?"

Blair smiled. "You heard me. It was a two-parter and I wanted to see how they resolved the problem -- which meant I had to wait a week. It gave me some time to think."

"And you volunteer on the hotline because..."

"Some people don't have a week."

"Good point."

"Do you have a week, Jim?"

"I don't know."

"Do me a favor, Jim?"

"If I can," the voice said warily.

"You're on a portable, right?"

"Yeah."

"Leave the gun on the table and go into the front room."

"Wh -- what the hell?"

"Please."

"How... how did --"

"Am I wrong?"

There was a long silence. "No."

Blair remained silent. It seemed like an eternity before he heard a chair scrape against a wooden floor and shoes echo as Jim stood and walked away from the table.

"I'm in front of the couch."

"So take a load off."

Blair heard a snort of quiet laughter. "Sure. Why not? It's my place after all."

"No reason for you not to be comfortable then."

"I guess not."

Again, several moments of silence passed.

"Are you married, Jim?"

"Divorced."

"Kids?"

"No."

"Can you tell me how you got to this point?" Blair dug his fingers into his palms, hoping he hadn't crossed the line too soon, but wanting to keep Jim talking.

"Everything's changing."

"In what way?"

"At first, I thought I had a tumor."

"Why a tumor?"

"Cause I could smell things I had never smelled before; taste things in a whole new way. I thought something had to be growing in my brain, putting pressure on it or something, causing my senses to whack out."

"Did you see a doctor?"

"Of course. Several of them." Jim paused for a moment, then added, "Vampires, all of them."

Blair chuckled. "I so hear that, man." Jim chuckled with him. When Jim was quiet again, Blair asked, "So what did the vampires have to say."

"They could find no physical reason for my symptoms; although they did offer to run more tests. Hell, they even recommended several good psychiatrists."

"That's harsh."

"Tell me about it." There was a pause. "But... they might have a point."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I'm hearing voices."

"What sort of voices?"

"What do you mean what sort of voices?"

"I mean, Jim, are they telling you to do weird stuff like shave your neighbor's poodle or something?"

Jim's startled laughter made Blair relax a bit.

"No. Nothing like that. More like people talking."

"What people?"

"I don't know. It's like suddenly I have an inside track to someone's life and I don't even know who they are."

"Is it the same person each time?"

"No. It changes all the time."

"Can you hear the voices all the time?"

"No. Usually only when I'm overly tired."

"You're not crazy, Jim."

"How can you be so certain?"

"Well, for one thing, most crazy people don't think they're crazy. It almost sounds like you have really good hearing and are just... oh my god..."

"Hold on a second, Chief."

Blair could hear a phone ringing in the background, then heard Jim talking. Yeah. Where? Yes, sir. I'll be there in twenty minutes.

"I got to go, Chief. Th-thanks for talking to me."

"Jim! Wait!"

"Yeah, Chief?"

"Do you have a pen handy?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, I want you to write this number down. 555-2125."

"What is that?"

"It's my cell phone number."

There was a long silence and Blair was almost afraid that Jim had disconnected the call. But a voice whispered across the line, "Are you supposed to give that out?"

"No."

"Then why?"

"Because I might have a handle on what's happening with you. I'd like for you to call me back when you have a chance."

"You really don't have to do this, Chief."

"I want to, Jim. Honestly. But you have to keep in mind that I'm a grad student, which means catching me is kind of hit and miss. I'm usually up late and have a tendency to sleep in a bit. If you want to leave a number, you can, and I'll call you back, but I'll understand if that makes you uncomfortable. Just don't give up on me if you decide to call. If you call during the day, you might try every hour and a half or so. I have to turn the cell off when I'm in the classroom, ya know."

Although Blair couldn't see the man on the other end, he could almost visualize him nodding. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Okay."

"Thanks, Blair."

"Call me, Jim. I mean it."

And with that, the phone went silent.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

"Talk to me."

"Blair?"

"Jim, man, is that you?"

"Yes."

"Are you okay? It's been a couple of days."

"I know. I'm sorry. I just...got busy."

"Busy is good. I can live with busy."

Jim chuckled briefly. There was an awkward moment of silence, before Jim said quietly, "You told me last time you might have a handle on what's happening to me."

Blair sat on the couch in his warehouse apartment, nudging his drowsy roommate over slightly. "Yeah, Jim, I do. But before I get into that, I need you to promise not to hang up on me. The explanation I'm going to propose is guaranteed to sound pretty farfetched. But if you hang up, you're never going to figure out what's happening to you. Can you promise me?"

Jim remained silent for almost a full minute. "All right."

"Great, man. Thanks. Okay." Blair took a deep breath then released it slowly, trying to calm his dancing nerves. "Here's the deal. I'm working on my doctorate in Anthropology and you may just be the living embodiment of my field of study."

"In what way?"

"Let me see. What's the best way to explain this? Okay, let's start simple. You see, in all tribal cultures, every village has someone who patrols the border."

"You mean like a scout."

"Yeah, exactly, although it's a little more complicated than that. You see, this person has a variety of responsibilities from watching for movement in game, changes in weather, approaching enemies and the like. Tribal survival often depended on this person."

"So what's this got to do with me, Chief?"

"I'm getting there, Jim," Blair said, lightly scratching the stomach of the little Barbary ape sleeping beside him. "You see this scout was often chosen because of a genetic advantage. There's a monograph by Sir Richard Burton, the explorer, not the actor..."

"You mean the same Burton who exposed the world to the Karma Sutra?"

"The very same."

"The man had a wide variety of interests, it appears."

Blair chuckled. "Yes, he did. Anyway, Burton went to Paraguay and while he was there he studied these scouts, although he called them Sentinels. A sentinel was selected because he or she had a sensory awareness beyond normal humans. They could see farther, hear better, taste things other people couldn't and their sense of smell was more finely honed."

"Sort of like the Vietcong scouts."

"Exactly! Army long-range recon units had to change their diets to fish and rice because a Vietnamese scout could smell a Western by his waste. You see, Jim, I have hundreds of documented cases of people who have one or two hyperactive senses -- you know, like people who work for ice cream and perfume companies."

"How many people have all five?"

"None that I know of. You could be a sentinel in the truest form of the word."

"So why are my senses coming online now?"

"That's a good question. My research indicates that most sentinels are born with their abilities, but Burton did talk about one sentinel whose abilities had lain dormant. They were triggered, or switched on, if you prefer, after a prolonged period of isolation. Have you, by chance, been camping by yourself recently?"

"No, but I was on a stakeout by myself in the woods for several days."

"How long ago?

"About two weeks or so."

"And when did you start noticing the sensory spikes?"

"Almost immediately after that. A suspect got away from me because my image was reflected back at me off his helmet and I got lost in the multiple images. It was sort of like looking at your reflection in a set of dressing room mirror."

"You were concentrating, man, trying to figure out who the person was. It had to have kicked your sense of sight into overdrive. Oh, man..."

"What?"

"The zone-out factor. I completely forgot about it. It's suggested in Burton's research that sometimes a sentinel concentrates so much on one sense he becomes oblivious to the outside world, sort of like he's wearing blinders."

Jim groaned.

"Jim, what's wrong, man?"

"I can't be zoning out on the job, Chief. I could get an innocent killed."

"Well, Burton did mention that a sentinel usually had a partner along with him when he patrolled; you know, someone to watch his back when things got intense. Is there someone you can trust at work? Your partner perhaps?"

"Jack's dead."

"I'm sorry, man. I --"

"No apologies are needed, Blair. He died over two years ago."

Blair leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "Surely you can trust someone with this? To help you develop your skills?"

"Chief, I want to get rid of this...this thing, not figure out how it works."

"Jim, while your abilities may have been latent or suppressed or whatever; something has happened and you are basically online, my man."

"So you can't turn them off?"

"I wouldn't even have a clue as to where to start. But look at it this way, you're a cop, right?"

"How did you know that?"

"Don't get upset, Jim." Blair stood and began to pace around his couch. "I'm an anthropologist, which means I basically walk into a place and try to find clues to figure out what's happening. In a way, it's a lot like detective work." He stopped and chuckled. "Of course, a lot of the places I walk into have been vacant for a few thousand years, but, hey, clues are clues, man." Blair began pacing again. "Look at it this way, you're a human crime lab with organic surveillance equipment. Think of all the good you can do! What more could you want?"

"Control."

"I hear that. I totally hear that. Well, if it's any comfort, Burton's monograph seems to indicate that control is not only possible, but probable. It just takes practice."

"Practice how?"

"It would really help if I could talk to someone you're comfortable with. Someone I could give suggestions to and explain in detail what's happening to you. Are you sure there's no one you can trust?"

"Well, there is Simon?"

"Simon?"

"My boss."

"Are you sure you want your boss to know? I wouldn't want to put your job in jeopardy or anything."

"It's going to be in jeopardy one way or the other, Chief. The question becomes do I control the situation or let it control me?"

"That's the attitude, man."

"So when can you come down to the station?"

Blair stumbled in his pacing. "Pardon me?"

"You said you wanted to explain things to Simon."

"I... I... thought maybe I'd talk to him over the phone."

"What's wrong, Chief?"

"I'm not supposed to meet callers."

"Blair, I didn't call you today with a gun in my hand."

"I know, Jim," Blair said, trying to reassure the other man, even as he leaned his forehead against an ancient looking refrigerator and closed his eyes.

"After all, shouldn't I be like your Holy Grail or something? I mean, aren't I, what did you call it, the living embodiment of your thesis?"

"Yes, you would be... you... you are. But... I'm not supposed to get involved with test subjects. I'm just supposed to study them and make observations."

"Chief, this is my life we're talking about."

"I know, Jim. I know. It's just that --"

"You're being bashed on both sides by ethics, anthropological and psychological."

"Exactly." Blair pushed himself off the refrigerator and walked back to the couch.

"I don't want to put you in a bad place, Blair; but no one else understands what's going on with me." Jim paused for a moment as if trying to regroup. "Look, would you agree to, at least, meet with me in my boss' office to discuss things?"

Blair sat on the couch, considering the ramifications. "All right. I'll meet with you and Simon. I just...just...no promises, man. Okay?"

"I won't push you into anything you don't want to do. I promise."

Blair groaned, not believing Jim for a moment. "So where do I need to go?"

"Central Precinct. Downtown. Do you know where it is?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Go to the seventh floor. Major Crimes. Ask for Detective James Ellison."

"James Ellison, huh?"

"Yeah, Chief, that's me."

"Okay." Blair was touched by the level of trust Jim was showing him.

"My boss is Captain Simon Banks."

"Banks. Got it. Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"It's Sandburg."

"Excuse me?"

"Sandburg. Blair Sandburg."

"I look forward to meeting you, Blair Sandburg."

"Uh, Jim? What time should I come down?"

"When are you available?"

"I don't teach tomorrow, although I do have a seminar in the morning. I could come down afterward, probably be there around twelve-thirty or one."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Okay. Seventh floor, Major Crimes. Do you have a cell phone number I can reach you at, in case something comes up?"

"Sure. It's 555-7733."

"Cool. Thanks."

"Sandburg?"

"Yeah, Jim?"

"Thank you...for giving me hope again."

"It's my pleasure, man."

"See you tomorrow."

"I'll be there."

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair squeezed his eyes shut and prayed silently. His seminar had gotten out a little early and he had gone to the precinct to invite Jim to lunch. He had never laid eyes on the man and wanted to get a feel for his personality before their meeting with Jim's boss. He had, apparently, just missed Jim who was taking a Lieutenant Plummer out to lunch.

A large Captain by the name of Taggert had directed him to the break room to wait for Jim's return. He had been going through his seminar notes when nature called loud and urgently. Gathering his backpack, he found the nearest men's restroom.

While washing his hands, he heard what sounded suspiciously like a gunshot. He moved cautiously to the door and peeked out, immediately noting several armed men herding hostages into the Major Crimes bullpen. He shut the door quietly, grabbed his backpack and pulled out his cell phone. He dialed the number Jim had given him the night before and squeezed his eyes shut, praying that the detective would answer it. Jim did, on the second ring.

"Ellison."

"Jim?"

"Sandburg?"

"Jim, we got big problems."

"What's wrong, Blair?"

"I got out of my seminar early today and came down to the station."

"I'm sorry, buddy, I didn't --"

"Jim," Blair interrupted, "there are men here with automatic weapons. They're forcing everyone into Major Crimes." Blair could hear the squealing of tires through his cell phone.

"Where are you?"

"In the john. Oh god, Jim, I so don't want to die in the men's bathroom."

"Calm down, Sandburg."

"Yeah, right."

"How many men did you see?"

"I only saw two. But there's has to be more, ya know? Otherwise wouldn't there be cops crawling everywhere?"

"Good point. Just stay put. Don't go anywhere. Keep this line open, okay?"

"Okay." He heard Jim talking to someone in the background. Caro, I need you to call Simon. We have a hostage situation at the precinct. No, I'm not kidding.

Blair slowly opened the door again. "Shit," he hissed and carefully put the door back in place. "Damn, damn, damn." He looked frantically for a place to hide and decided the stall. He could hear Jim's frantic, "Sandburg" on the other end of the phone. "Shhhhh," he said harshly as he maneuvered his feet off the floor.

His heart all but stopped as the door opened. He heard the man move to wash his hands and was hopeful that he might get out of the situation in one piece, when his foot slipped and hit the toilet knob. The water raced down the pipes with a loud flush.

"What the--"

Blair listened to the gunman’s approach. When he saw the shadow before the door, he lifted both feet and kicked the door outward, nailing the terrorist, sending him crashing to the floor. Blair tiptoed around the gunman, and thought briefly about picking up the gun but decided against it. If a cop saw him with a gun, they would assume he was a terrorist and he'd end up getting shot. If a terrorist saw him with a gun, they'd think he was a cop and he'd end up getting shot. Either way, he stood a good possibility of being shot. He snorted in amusement for a moment and wondered if anyone would buy his being a cop. Sure. Maybe Vice. Not.

"Sandburg!"

Blair looked dumbly down at the phone in his hands.

"Jim? Are you still with me?"

"Jesus, Sandburg, what in the hell happened?"

"I was discovered. I...I had to knock out one of the gunmen. I think I need to find a better place to hide."

"See if you can get up to the eighth floor. It's comprised mostly of individual offices. If they've done an initial sweep, chances are they won't waste time to re-check them. You should be able to find a quiet office and wait until the cavalry arrives."

"Okay. Just hurry, man. All right?"

"Try to stay on the line with me, Sandburg."

"kay."

Blair opened the door as another terrorist herded a small group of hostages toward the bullpen. Blair immediately recognized the big figure of Joel Taggert. As Joel walked past one of the gunman, he slammed his elbow into the terrorist's face. The captain turned and ran toward the stairwell, but not before the gunman regained his feet and fired at the fleeing man. Blair's limbs shook wildly, but as the gunmen's attention was focused on the opposite side of the hallway, he scrambled out of the bathroom and headed down the hall in the other direction, hoping to find a stairwell.

Voices from another hallway sent him skidding into the break room. He looked around frantically and finally decided to hide behind a large candy machine. He whimpered slightly, trying to catch his breath. It was only as his heartbeat began to subside in his ears that he heard Jim's voice calling to him. He lifted the cell phone to his ear. "Jim?"

"What's going on, Sandburg?"

"Captain Taggert was shot. I don't know where or how bad. I went in the opposite direction. Oh, God, Jim, I left him behind."

"Sandburg."

"I'm such a coward."

"Chief."

"I should have--"

"Blair!"

"What?

"There's nothing you could have done. Unless you're sporting an Uzi I don't know about, you're seriously outgunned. We don't know what their intentions are. At this point, you'll do more good by staying out of the way."

Blair tried to keep the trembling out of his voice. "Staying out of the way?"

"Think you can do that?"

"I'm willing to give it a try."

"Good man."

Blair closed his eyes and prayed quietly. "God...god, please... Please, I promise.. If you get me out of this, I'll...I'll pay all my parking fines. I'll...quit dressing Professor Hiram's Hindu sculptures in Barbie clothes. Oh yeah, and I'll quit dyeing Veronica's lab rats pink and blue."

Blair might have gone on, but the sound of the break room door opening cut him off abruptly. He heard someone whistling tonelessly as they dropped coins into the machine in front of him.

"Exact change? Exact change? I've got some change."

Several bullets pierced the back of the machine around Blair. "No! Don't shoot! Please."

"What the--"

With a burst of adrenaline pumping through his system, Blair yelled and pushed against the vending machine. The machine fell forward, landing on the terrorist in front of it.

"I can't take police work, Jim," Blair muttered as he moved quickly to the door and peered out. With the coast clear, he moved out into the hallway and into the stairwell several feet beyond.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Pressing his back against the wall, Blair started to move silently down the stairs, but stopped as he heard two gunmen joking as they climbed upward. He turned and ran silently back up the stairs and opened the door to the eighth floor. Jogging down the hall, he checked several doorknobs, and finally glided around an open door, locking it behind him.

"Jim?" he whispered into the phone.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"What's going on?"

"I'm not going to lie to you, Blair. It's not looking too good. The terrorists have found the captain's son and they've used a missile to destroy a good portion of the building to the east of us."

"Who are they?"

"You ever hear of the Sunrise Patriots?"

"Yeah. So what do they want?"

"The release of their brothers in jail. I picked a hell of a day for you to come down to the station, Chief. I'm sorry about that."

"Hey, no one put a gun to my head and forced me down here." He paused momentarily. "Well, at least, not yet."

Jim chuckled. "You're okay, Sandburg."

"Thanks, Jim." Blair walked to the window and looked down at the ground. Leaning his head against the cool window, he closed his eyes momentarily, listening to the two soldiers who had been in the stairwell checking the doors to the various offices. So much for Jim's theory that they wouldn't recheck the offices. Opening his eyes, he noticed the window washers' platform hanging a floor beneath his position. "Jim," he said quietly.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"My time is running out, but I'm going to try something. I might have found a way out of here."

Several heartbeats of silence passed. "Are you in danger?"

Blair gulped. "Yeah. They're checking doorknobs."

"Okay. Don't be a hero. Just get the hell out of there if you can. Simon and I are going to try something on this end. Hopefully, we'll meet in a few."

"Stay safe, Jim."

"You too, Sandburg."

With that, Blair cut the connection and shoved the phone into the inside breast pocket of his jacket. He pushed himself off the glass and looked around the office. He had one shot at this. He looked at the office chair beside him. If he tried to break the glass and failed, he would have given his position away for naught. No, he needed something different--a sure thing. He spotted a round marble stone sitting on a pedestal and smiled. Hefting the sphere like a shot put, he aimed and released it toward the window. The glass pane broke into a thousand pieces and Blair looked back toward the door, knowing there wasn't any way the goons in the hallway could have missed the noise. He just hoped they couldn't pinpoint it before he was safely on the ground.

"Oh, man. I can't believe I'm doing this," he whispered to himself as he brushed aside several glass shards and climbed out onto the ledge. He carefully found a good grip on the window's ledge, then looked down briefly at the platform, then back into the room. "This is so not the time for my acrophobia to kick in." He took a deep calming breath. "Okay, picture yourself there. Picture yourself there." With that, he released his grip and fell to the platform beneath him.

His body jarred hard on impact, but it was all he could do not to whoop in laughter. He rolled his head back on his shoulders in relief. "Yes." It was then that he saw a gunman on the roof peer down at him. "No. God, no." The gunman took aim and released several rounds. Blair raised his arms over his head and tried to dodge the bullets in his enclosed space. His left arm suddenly burned as if molten lava had been poured over his skin. He gasped in pain.

Time to give up, he decided. But as he turned his face upward, he found the gunman prepared to fire again. "No," Blair shouted, raising his arms. The gunman fired another round and Blair closed his eyes against the inevitable, grateful, at least, to be out of the bathroom. He heard a bullet ricocheted beside him just before the platform fell. He yelled in panic, his hands desperately clutching at the lever, trying to slow his descent. Finally, the platform bounced to an abrupt stop. He closed his eyes in relief, but when he opened them again he found two gunmen smiling at him through a shattered window.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair was pushed and shoved into the Major Crimes bullpen and forced to sit on a desk while his hands were bound in front of him with duct tape. He looked around the room and noticed that Captain Taggert was still alive, though in quite a bit of pain. Beside him sat a teenage boy, probably around fifteen years old--the captain's son, no doubt. The boy looked scared, but was doing a good job of keeping it together. Blair looked into the faces of the men and women around him, giving a small smile of encouragement to several people who looked like they were on the brink of losing it emotionally.

Boot heels clicked on the floor outside the doors and grew louder. Blair knew he was about to meet the leader of the operation and realized his time was near the end, for he had no doubt the man was not going to look favorably on a wayward grad student. Looking at the gunmen in the room, Blair desperately tried to retrieve what he knew about paramilitary organizations. He knew these men lived by a strict set of rules. He also knew that they would look down upon anyone who wasn't a white, Christian, male. As a long-haired, Jewish anthropology student, he understood his chances of surviving the leader's wrath weren't going to be good. He gulped down his fear, wondering if Jesse Owens had felt this scared when he met Hitler after having defeated the tyrant's elite athletes in the last Olympics before World War Two.

A surprisingly short, sandy-haired man moved swiftly across the room and grabbed Blair's coat, bringing their faces mere inches apart. "Are you the mole who took out two of my men?" The man brought a gun up and held it in Blair's face. "In this militia, that's a capital offense."

Blair decided to go with bravado. "You don't want to kill me, man. Believe me when I say I'm worth more to you as a live hostage than a dead body.

The man growled at him. "What makes you think that your sorry ass is worth anything to anybody?"

"Captain Banks sent me in," Blair lied smoothly, grateful he could even remember Jim's boss' name.

"You're a cop?" the man said in disbelief.

Blair nodded. "Lieutenant Sandburg, Narcotics. I've been teamed with Ellison."

The man stared at him, disbelief warring with a growing admiration.

Captain Taggert yelled, "He's telling the truth, Kincaid."

Kincaid turned and fired a shot at the desk next to Joel. "Shut up!"

Another man ran into the room, carrying a portable briefcase phone. "Commander! It's Walters."

Kincaid picked up the phone, although his eyes never left Blair's face. "Go, Walters." He listened intently to the man on the other end of the phone. "Good work. Sometimes all it takes is just a little persuasion." Kincaid hung up the phone and stepped again into Blair's space. "Looks like the execution's off, Lieutenant." He glanced at Blair and licked his lips. "I could use a man like you in my operation. The hair will have to go, but I like your resourcefulness."

Blair gulped, but didn't say a word. The look Kincaid was giving him was making his stomach sour. An explosion rocked the building and the gunmen looked around in surprise. Kincaid moved reluctantly away from Blair. "There's someone in my building. Hoskins, go down there and kill the intruders. No one gets into this party without a personal invitation from me."

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair closed his eyes and attempted to find his center. He wondered how long it would take the news of his death to reach his mother. She was in Bangkok, wasn't she? Or had she already left for her retreat in Nepal? He couldn't remember. Did any of his friends even know he was at the police station? Had he told anyone? He couldn't remember. He worried briefly about who would cover his nine o’clock intro class and smiled at the thought of the reaction he'd get if he asked one of the gunmen if he could borrow a phone. Chances were pretty good that his students were going to get a free day after waiting the requisite fifteen minutes.

His eyes flew open as he was hauled off the desk.

"Where are you taking me?" Blair demanded of the sandy-haired leader.

Kincaid chuckled. "Don't worry about it, Serpico. You're one of the lucky ones. You're coming with me."

Blair was overwhelmed with the sudden memory of one of the few serious talks he had had with his mother when he was young. "It's okay to talk to people, sweetie. So many people are afraid to talk to strangers, but how else are strangers going to become friends? But, honey, you must promise me to never get into a vehicle with a stranger. If you get into a car with someone you don't know, you'll never come home. Do you hear what I'm saying? Never go anywhere with a stranger, unless you've talked with me first."

Kincaid all but dragged Blair up the stairs. He could hear the rotating propellers of the helicopter as it grew closer. He almost chuckled to himself. 'Well, Naomi, you aren't here. Guess that means I really shouldn't go with this joker.'

He deliberately tripped on the steps, gritting his teeth against the pain as he fell onto his forearms. Kincaid snorted in disgust and bent over to grab the collar of his jacket. Blair forced himself to wait then jabbed his left elbow back with all his might. The gun in Kincaid's hand shot off a round before he dropped it. Blair pushed himself off the stairs and swung around, using his taped hands to slam his fists directly into Kincaid's face. The terrorist stumbled backward. Blair shoved him hard, then raced down the stairwell. Kincaid fumbled for his gun and took several shots at him, but Blair was moving too fast and he doubted the gunman could even focus his eyes yet.

"Shit." He could hear the madman scream in frustration and anger above him, but Blair never slowed his descent.

When he reached the ground level, he pushed hard against a door which would lead to the outside of the building and found himself suddenly staring at a half dozen pistols aimed at his face.

"Kincaid. Roof. Helicopter. Captain Taggert's been shot. Hostages on the seventh floor. Major Crimes," he gasped out before he fell to his knees.

"Shit," one of the policemen swore under his breath. "Everyone upstairs. Peters, take care of this man."

Blair looked up into the kind face of a young patrol officer and lifted his bound hands. The officer smiled and nodded, taking a pocketknife out of his pant pockets and quickly cutting through the tape.

"What were you doing here?" the cop asked.

"I was supposed to have a meeting with Captain Banks and Detective Ellison after lunch. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time." Blair gingerly picked the tape off his hands, grimacing as the tape pulled hair off the back of his wrist.

"All available units to the parking garage. All available units to the parking garage." A disembodied voice said from the mike at the young cop's shoulder.

"Go on," Blair said quietly when he noticed the eager look on the other man's face. "I'll be okay."

"You sure?"

Blair nodded and the cop raced into the building.

Shakily, Blair pushed himself off the ground and felt his pants pocket. The jingle of keys almost made him cry in relief. He moved slowly toward his car, berating himself as he did so. He knew better than to get involved with a caller, even if that caller was a cop. He had no one to blame but himself. He opened his car door and slid in behind the wheel; his only thought to go home.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair's cell phone screamed shrilly from the pillow beside his head. "Hullo?" he said, trying to blink himself awake.

"Sandburg?"

"Jim?"

"Are you okay, Chief?"

"Yes. Ow. No."

"What's wrong?"

"I was shot, man," Blair said quietly, not entirely able to keep the whine out of his voice. He sat up and looked at the wound again. The bullet had not pierced him, merely slid along his forearm, burning a long groove into his forearm.

"Are you at the hospital?" Jim asked, concern very evident in his voice.

"No."

"Have you been to the hospital?"

"No."

"Where the hell are you then, Chief?" Jim shouted, exasperation evident in his voice.

"Don't yell at me, man. I've had a bad fucking day," Blair shouted back, then grabbed his pounding head. "I got to go, Jim. I don't feel so good." He cut the connection, throwing the phone on his bed as he stood. The phone immediately started ringing again, but he ignored it and stumbled toward the bathroom. He thought he had some Bactine in the cabinet, and was pretty sure he had some bandages as well.

By the time he came out of the bathroom, his cell phone had stopped ringing. He picked it up and quickly dialed a number. "Gwen? Hey sweetheart, I didn't think I was ever going to have to call in that favor, but I really need you to take over my nine o'clock intro class tomorrow? Can you do it? Thank you. You're really a lifesaver. No, I'm okay. I just need to take care of some things. Thanks again."

As soon as he hung up, the phone began ringing again.

He sighed in exasperation when he answered. "What, Jim?"

"I need you to come down to the precinct again."

"No."

"You don't understand, Blair. You're a material witness now in an investigation. You don't really have a choice in the matter."

"Oh yeah?"

"I'm sorry, Chief. I really am, but we need to take your statement. You were pretty instrumental in helping us re-secure the station by taking out those two of the gunmen and delaying Kincaid long enough for me to catch him before he got to the helicopter."

"So you got the bastard?"

"Yes."

"Thank God." He paused for a moment. "How's Captain Taggert?"

"He's stable. Even though he's lost a lot of blood, the doctors believe there shouldn't be any permanent damage."

"Good." Blair then whispered, "He saved my life, you know?"

"How?" Jim asked kindly.

"Kincaid was angry about my taking out his men. I knew he was going to shoot me. I didn't want the boy to see me die. Something like that could really traumatize him, you know?" Blair couldn't stop the slightly hysterical tinge to his chuckle.

"I know, Chief."

The hysteria grew a little stronger. "Not like being held hostage by terrorists isn't going to screw with his head or anything."

Jim's voice cut through the madness which was slowly suffocating him. "So what did Taggert do?"

"I told Kincaid I was a Lieutenant in Narcotics. Captain Taggert backed my story. Kincaid shot at him, but didn't hit him. The Captain risked his life for me."

"It's the type of man Joel is. I think you'll really like him once you get to know him better."

"No offense, man, but I don't want to get to know any of you better. Okay?"

There was a slight pause. "I know, Chief. I know. But the fact remains, I still need you. I'm sorry. I know that's selfish, but I can't let you go just yet."

Blair closed his eyes against the need in the detective's voice. "I... I...need some time to think things through, Jim."

"I understand. But as a cop, I need you to come down to the station. As a friend, I need to make sure you're okay and that your wound is under control."

"Trust me, it's under control."

"Sandburg..."

"Look, Jim. Give me some time. I'll see... I'll see what I can do." With that he disconnected the call. A small furry mass leapt onto the bed and cuddled against him. "Hi, Larry," he said softly, gently petting the little Barbary ape.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair looked up and down the hallway, took a deep breath and quietly pushed the hospital door open. His eyes scanned the room quickly and found it empty, except for the man sleeping in the bed. He moved silently into the room, carefully closing the door behind him. He tiptoed beside the bed and looked down at the large dark man who had saved his life by simply uttering a few words. The older man's brows were knitted together in pain. No doubt his medication was starting to wear off.

Blair placed the card on the small rolling table beside the bed. It wasn't much, but he had to thank the man for speaking out, not sure if he would have been brave enough to speak out on behalf of another in a similar situation.

The captain's eyes blinked open, and Blair froze, willing the eyes to shut again. After a moment, they did and Blair breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped back into the shadows.

"Who's there?" The older man's eyes opened and frantically scanned the room.

"Please, don't be frightened."

"Who are you?"

Blair stepped forward hesitantly. "My name is Blair Sandburg. You saved my life on Monday."

"Sandburg?" Joel looked momentarily confused then his eyes widened in remembrance. "You're the kid who bluffed Kincaid and took the heat off the rest of us while they ran around the building looking for you."

"Yeah, I suppose so."

"Everyone and their brother is looking for you again, you know?"

"Yeah, I suspected."

"Why won't you go downtown, Blair?"

Blair looked sharply over at the captain. "Shouldn't you be a little more out of the loop being stuck here and all?"

The captain chuckled. "I've got spies everywhere."

"Apparently."

"Why won't you go downtown and give your statement? You don't have anything to hide, do you, Blair?"

Blair stood at the end of the bed and played with the bottom of Taggert's blanket. "No."

"Then why?"

"I don't mind giving my statement. I just...can't see Detective Ellison right now."

"Jim? Why not?"

Blair sat at the end of the bed, then looked up into the gentle face of the large captain. "Jim's a very special man. He's got an unusual gift. Apparently, I'm the only one who knows anything about his talent."

"Why is that a problem? Isn't that a good thing?"

"For Jim, yes."

"Talk to me, Blair."

"I'm afraid."

The silence stretched between the two men. Taggert finally asked quietly, "You aren't afraid of Jim, himself, are you? I know he can come off a bit gruff, but he would never deliberately hurt someone who was trying to help him."

"It's not that exactly."

"Then what?"

"I'm afraid of his need. I'm afraid I'll lose myself trying to help him."

"I'm sorry, Blair, but I don't understand."

"That's okay. You don't need to do." Blair stood. "I just...I just had to thank you for putting yourself on the line for me, man. No one has ever done anything like that for me before. It was an incredibly brave thing to do." Blair moved toward the door. "You take care of yourself, Captain Taggert."

"Joel."

"Pardon me?"

"My name's Joel."

Blair smiled at the wounded man. "Joel."

"I hope to see you around, kid."

Blair turned at the door. "No offense, Joel, but I hope you don't."

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

"It's your dime."

"Hello, Chief."

"Hi, Jim."

"I got your notarized witness statement by courier today."

"Is it what you needed?"

"Yes. I have to admit, it's probably the most thorough statement I've ever read."

"I had a friend explain what was needed and tried to do the report accordingly."

"Well, Simon was impressed."

"Si-- Ah, Captain Banks, that's right."

"There's still a chance you might need to testify, although I doubt it. We have them all six ways to Sunday."

"That's good to hear. He was crazy, man."

"You handled yourself well."

"Th--Thank you."

"There's talk of throwing a party in your honor."

"Wh--what? What are you talking about?"

"You don't know then?"

"Know what, Jim?"

"Kincaid's goons were harassing the hostages during the siege. Several of them were talking about how to split the spoils of war, meaning the file clerks."

"None of them were--"

"No."

"Thank god."

"Actually, it's you they want to thank."

"What?"

"Once it was reported there was a bogie in the building, Kincaid had them searching high and low for you, which meant one gunman per each group of hostages. They couldn't do anything more than look menacing. Basically, Chief, you kept several people I care for from being raped."

"I had no idea."

"They would like to thank you in person. I...I could manage to be elsewhere if it would make you feel better."

Blair remained silent for a moment. "There's no need for that, Jim. Honestly. They shouldn't be thanking me in the first place. It's not like I was protecting them on purpose. I was just trying to save my own miserable hide and couldn't find a way out of the building."

"It doesn't detract from what you accomplished. Besides, you impressed a hell of a lot of cops by taking a perp out with a vending machine."

"Will he live?"

"He'll live, Chief. He's got several busted ribs, a concussion and he's going to be black and blue for months, but he'll survive."

"Thank God," Blair whispered in relief. "I couldn't...I wouldn't...have been able to live with myself otherwise."

The silence stretched awkwardly before Blair asked quietly, "Did you get the other packet, Jim?"

"Yes." There was another long pause before Jim added, "I must say I'm impressed, Sandburg. I mean, I knew it was your field of study, but the amount of information you provided is staggering."

"But are you finding any of it useful?"

"Yes. It's quite a relief to know I'm not completely losing my mind."

"Are you implementing any of my suggestions?"

"Yes. Several of them have been quite helpful."

"Cool. Which ones?"

There was another pause before Jim said in a quiet, but intense voice, "It doesn't work like that, Sandburg."

"What doesn't work what way?"

"If you want information, you're going to have to meet with me face-to-face."

"Jim, I can't help you unless I know what works and what doesn't."

"I understand that."

"I thought...I thought...you wanted control."

"I do."

"Then why are you being stubborn?"

"Why are you afraid of me?"

"I'm not--"

"Yes, you are."

Several moments of silence passed between them, although neither man disconnected the call.

"Yes, I am," Blair finally admitted in a whisper.

"Why?"

Blair leaned forward and rested both of his elbows on the desk and rubbed his forehead. "I'm afraid of losing myself in your need."

"My need?"

"I sent you the packet two days ago, Jim. Have you taken it to your doctor yet?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I...I don't know."

Blair sighed. "I do."

"Okay, so why haven't I taken it to my doctor?"

"Because you're waiting for me. You figure if you have me then you won't need a doctor. Am I right?"

"Damn, you're a perceptive little shit."

Blair chuckled. "I've been told that before."

"And have you also been told that you're a master at misdirection? Don't think for a second I've forgotten the original question."

"What question?"

Blair could hear Jim sigh in frustration. "Why are you afraid of me, Sandburg?"

"Because you need control."

"What?"

"You don't want your senses, Jim. You don't view them as a gift like I do. So, you'll bundle them to one side and use them only when there’re no other options. You'll argue constantly about tests I want to conduct in order to help you improve your talents because they'll make you feel like some sort of lab rat. You'll give me a hard time because I'll become the living embodiment of your lack of control...because you'll come to need me to control them...and eventually...you'll need to control me as a result."

"Jesus, Chief."

"I'm not done, Jim. You were the one who wanted to know why I was scared, so let me finish." Blair paused and when Jim remained silent, he continued. "All my life I've lived outside the village. I've always come and gone as I please. I answer to no one. I'm a world traveler. I've been places no white man has ever been before. I've explored the Amazon, I've traipsed through the jungles and deserts. Hell, I've been to Everest. Well, at least the base."

"And you're afraid you won't get to travel anymore if you help me?"

"No. I'm afraid I won't want to travel anymore."

"You're losing me here."

"I...I want..." Blair stopped, wiping the tears which leaked from the corner of his eyes with the palm of his right hand.

"What do you want, Blair?" Jim whispered over the phone line.

"I want to be needed."

"I don't see the problem, Chief."

"Everyone leaves, man. I...I'm," Blair swallowed hard against the hurt, "the kind of guy everyone likes to have at a party, but I'm sort of hard to live with, you know? I talk all the time. I study too hard. I set an alarm clock to go to bed. I eat weird food. People...people can't handle that...can't handle me."

"So you're afraid, you'll come to need me and I'll let you go."

Blair sniffed. "Yeah."

"Never gonna happen, Chief."

"Sure it will, Jim. Get real. You'll eventually gain reasonable control over your senses. You'll start to resent having me around, resent what I symbolize, then I'll be back where I always am...by myself."

"It might not happen that way."

"Don't patronize me, Jim." Blair hissed in pain as his elbow connected with the edge of his desk.

"Are you okay, Sandburg?"

"Yeah. My left arm hurts just a bit."

"Which arm were you shot in, Chief?"

"Left. Pretty ironic, huh?" Blair's voice dripped with sarcasm.

"It's been five days. You might have an infection. You should let me take you to the doctor."

Blair laughed. "Nice try, Jim. Besides, it's just a scratch."

"Seriously, Chief. You shouldn't ignore it."

"I'm not ignoring it. I'm just not panicking over something I can take care of with Bactine and bandages."

"Bactine? Christ, are you trying to die of an infection?"

Blair laughed. "You sound like my mom. Actually, scratch that. My mom was never that bad."

"Oh for...look, just let me come by and take you to the Emergency Room."

"I can't afford a trip to the ER, Jim."

"What?"

"I'm a grad student. While I have health insurance, I have incredibly high deductibles and I simply can't afford to go to the hospital this month."

"And when your arm falls off?"

Blair laughed again. "Man, you are too much."

"Look, I used to be a medic. At least, let me come by and take a look at the wound and we can decide how to proceed from there. Besides, I need to return your backpack."

"Oh, thank God. I couldn't even begin to imagine where I'd left it. Where was it?"

"Behind the vending machine."

"Figures." There was another awkward moment of silence. "So did you go through my backpack, Jim?"

"I had to, Chief. Once we determined it wasn't a bomb, we had to make sure it didn't belong to one of Kincaid's goons."

"So what did you think of my paper? Which, by the way, is due on Monday."

"Pretty interesting stuff, actually. Did you really spend time with the Kambai Tree people of Irian Jaya?"

"Yes. Last summer. I went with Dr. Sto...I went with my advisor."

"Your paper made it seem pretty amazing."

"It was. Their houses are hundreds of feet up in the sky at the top of the jungle trees so they can see the mountains and the birds and keep the sorcerers away. It was like living in the sky."

"Sounds beautiful."

"It was totally...transcendent."

"How did you arrange to spend time with them?"

"Well... ummm..."

"It sounds like there's a story here," Jim teased and Blair actually smiled. When he hesitated, Jim added with amusement, "Don't tell me. You got lost, right?"

"Now wait a minute. You don't know me well enough to tease me about my sense of direction."

"You have a problem with directions, Chief?"

"I'm so not having this conversation." Blair huffed, though he was grinning. Jim's chuckle drifted through his cell phone. "It really wasn't that bad; well, not as bad as...no...there's no way I'm going there. Let's just say that I was actually there to study another village, but I sort of got separated from my group."

"Sort of?"

"Yeah."

"You, the world traveler?"

"Oh, bite me, Jim."

Jim chuckle grew louder. "So spill.

With a much put upon sigh, which didn't go with his wide grin, Blair launched into the story. "Well, there I was, traipsing around the jungle looking for my group when I accidentally stumbled across one of the Kambai's foraging parties who had come down to the surface looking for herbs and roots. I practically stumbled right into the middle of their group. And as luck would have it, I was the first westerner they had ever seen."

"So what did they make of you?"

"They thought I was a laleo--an evil spirit disguised as a white man."

"So, what did you do to change their minds?"

Blair cleared his throat, not believing he was really going to tell Jim about this adventure. "Well, see... I...was a little freaked out because they all had these bows and barbed arrows, which I just knew were poisonous, and they were, of course, all pointed at me. I, uh...well, I panicked. I turned, tripped and fell flat on my face in the mud."

"You didn't?"

"I did. They basically laughed themselves sick at that point and figured if I was that uncoordinated, I couldn't be much of a threat, you know? Laleos are known for their grace, which I obviously didn't have."

"I think you underestimate yourself, Blair."

"Well, you'd have to know me better to realize I really don't."

"I'd love to."

"Love to what?"

"Know you better."

Blair whimpered.

"C'mon, Chief. Let me return your backpack. We can talk, and you can see for yourself that I'm not really a bad guy."

Blair shook his head, although he said nothing for almost a full minute. "Okay," he finally whispered.

"Where can I meet you?" Jim asked in a quiet, respectful tone as if trying not to spook him, yet not quite being able to keep the excitement out of his voice either.

"I'm in Hargrove Hall at Rainier University. My office is in the basement. The door actually says Artifact Storage, Room Three, but there's a piece of paper with my name written on it under the sign."

"I'll be there in twenty minutes."

"Okay, that'll give me time to run a few errands." With that, Blair disconnected the call.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid," Blair muttered to himself as he paced back and forth in front of his desk. Meeting Jim was a phenomenally bad idea. He shook himself out of his daze and decided his only recourse was to leave before Jim arrived. Grabbing his keys, he opened the door, and walked squarely into a solid wall of flesh.

"I beg your pardon. I'm looking for Blair Sandburg."

It was all Blair could do to keep his jaw from hitting the floor. Surely, this man was not James Ellison. Not the Jim who had called him while standing on the brink between life and death. Everything about the man in front of him screamed 'strength' even though he had incredibly expressive blue eyes which seemed somehow at odds with his militaristic bearing. Almost without thought, Blair pointed down the hallway. Jim nodded his thanks and turned to leave. Blair reached out and tugged lightly on the backpack and pointed back to his office. Jim seemed to understand and released the pack, then proceeded down the hall.

Blair stumbled back into his office, his body trembling, almost uncontrollably. He had suspected, once he had put two and two together about Jim's condition, that he was somehow destined to be Jim's guide. Burton hadn't used that term exactly, but it seemed to encapsulate all that the companion was to the sentinel. He had always assumed there would be some sort of bond between the two; he just never expected it to be so vibrant, so alive.

He set the backpack on his desk and crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly feeling cold. He panted, trying to get his emotions under control. He always knew the world was a bitterly cold place. It had never really bothered him before. But after feeling the heat of the bond slide away from him, he didn't know if he would ever be warm again.

He tried, and failed, to get his trembling under control. He had to get out of the office before Jim returned. He turned and once again walked into the wall of muscle.

Two strong hands gripped his forearms tightly. "I don't know what sort of game you're up to, Sandburg, but..." Jim trailed off as Blair hissed in pain.

Jim looked down into his face, the sternness slowly melting into concern as he guided Blair back onto his desk. Without another word, Jim methodically unbuttoned Blair's shirt and slid it off his shoulders. Blair bit the inside of his lip, knowing he would never allow a stranger this sort of intimacy, but somehow Jim didn't feel like a stranger. He felt more like...home. The heat of the sentinel's hands almost burned him in the coolness of his office. Jim expertly took the bandages off his arm and frowned.

"I can't afford to go to the hospital, Jim," Blair whispered, amazed by his voice's steadiness.

"Doesn't Rainier have a health clinic?"

"Yes, but I haven't had time to go. Monday's little adventure has put me severely behind."

Jim nodded briefly. "Stay here," he commanded quietly, then turned and left the office. Blair contemplated the idea of leaving, but didn't relish the idea of Jim tracking him down, so he waited.

Jim returned a few minutes later, and smiled as he walked through the door. Blair could tell by the look on the detective's face that Jim hadn't really expected him to stay.

With no commentary, the detective proceeded to clean the wound with hydrogen peroxide and re-bandaged his arm. "I'll come by and take a look at this again tomorrow. If there hasn't been any improvement, we'll go to the clinic."

"You don't need to do that."

"Never-the-less, I will."

Blair nervously chewed on his lower lip, but nodded his compliance.

"How old are you, Chief?"

"I'm twenty-five."

"Kind of young to be a grad student, aren't you?"

"I started when I was sixteen."

"So you're some kind of a whiz kid, huh?

"I guess you could say that."

Jim just grinned at him.

"I'm not quite what you expected, am I? Blair asked nervously when Jim remained silent.

"No. I can honestly say you're not anything like I expected." The tone in Jim's silky warm voice made Blair shiver.

Unable to think of a response to that comment, Blair stuck out his hand. "Blair Sandburg."

"James Ellison." Jim took his hand in a firm handshake.

"We meet at last."

"About damn time, if you ask me. There's a part of me that feels like we should have met weeks ago."

Blair squirmed slightly under the sentinel's gaze. To break the growing tension he was feeling, he picked up his flannel shirt and slipped an arm into the sleeve. Wordlessly, Jim helped him ease the shirt over his bandages.

"Thanks."

"No problem."

"And thanks for returning my backpack. I was beginning to seriously panic about the report."

"It was no trouble at all. Honest."

Blair hopped down from his desk. "Well..."

"Simon would still like to meet you."

"Your boss?"

"And friend."

"Well, I..."

"I figured you could come home with me now and I'll start dinner. Simon will swing by after work."

"I don't know, Jim, I..."

"When was the last time you ate, Chief?"

"I had a bagel for breakfast."

Jim frowned as he looked at his watch. "It's four-thirty now."

"I've been busy."

"And the last time before that?"

"Last time before what?"

"Track with me here, Darwin. When was the last time you ate before the bagel?"

Blair frowned. "Now you really are beginning to sound like Naomi."

"Answer the question."

"You're not my mother."

"Blair."

"I had lunch yesterday, late in the afternoon. About this time, actually. Okay? You satisfied?"

"Hardly. You're way too thin for my liking."

"For your liking? Look, I'm a grad student. Thin is a way of life. Besides..."

"Come on, grab your jacket and let's get out of here."

"See this is why I didn't want to do a face-to-face. I just knew..."

"Get your backpack."

Blair sighed and rolled his gaze heavenward. It was already starting. And God help him, he didn't know if he was strong enough to resist.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

"You can put your backpack by the door, Chief."

Blair nodded and did as he had been instructed to do, then slipped his jacket off and handed it to Jim, who was waiting patiently for him to turn it over.

"Nice place."

"Thanks."

"Had it long?"

"I bought it after I got out of the service."

"Ah," Blair said, slowly drifting around the perimeter of the large living room, taking in the various items.

"How does steak and salad sound?" Jim asked from the kitchen.

Blair laughed. "Feed a grad student a steak and he'll follow you around for days. Are you sure you want to risk that?"

"I think I can chance it." Jim chuckled, moving toward the terrace to light the barbecue grill. When he came back in, he added, "I was worried you wouldn't be into the whole red meat thing."

"Oh, it'll definitely max out my allotment for the month, but every once in a while you just have to splurge, you know?" Blair looked at what could only be a picture from Jim's wedding. "So when's your captain going to get here?"

"He should be over fairly shortly. In fact, I'm going to throw a steak on the grill for him, too. Why? Do you have someplace you need to be?"

"Not right away. I just need to make sure Larry eats before it gets too late; otherwise he gets cranky."

"Larry?"

Blair walked back toward the kitchen area. "Yeah, my roommate."

"So what did your little expedition tell you, Professor?" Jim asked as he indicated the room at large.

Blair grinned at the unspoken challenge. "I think you've been on your own for a while. I'd be willing to say that your divorce happened at least a year or two ago."

"Two," Jim supplied, looking vaguely impressed. "What else?"

"I think you married a friend, not someone you felt passionately about, but someone you loved, none-the-less, and admired. I think when she left, you let her take all the things you accumulated as a couple because you felt she needed them somehow and you didn't want to be reminded of your failures. I'm willing to bet you two are probably still friends, good friends even. I think your job is your life and you use this loft as a place to sleep and recharge, but it's not really the center of your social life. I think that even though you're out of the military, the military isn't quite out of you and you find you enjoy the order and structure of the armed forces and, consequently, the police department." Blair looked up into the older man's pale face and noted the shock there. "I'm sorry, did I overstep my bounds?"

Jim shook his head, although he didn't speak.

"Was I close?"

Jim cleared his throat. "Yeah, you were."

Blair watched as the sentinel began chopping the various vegetables for the salad as if it was the most important task he had to accomplish that evening. "I... I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, Jim. Maybe...maybe we should reschedule this for another night."

Jim looked up at him and shook his head. "No. We're good. I...was just a little surprised, is all. How do you do that, Chief? First the gun, now my life story by looking at an empty room."

Blair shrugged, then quickly snagged a carrot before Jim could whack his hand. He took a bite of the vegetable and said, "My mom would tell you I'm empathic. Me, I just like to think of myself as a people person. Plus, my field of study is anthropology, which is basically the study of man from a biological, cultural and social viewpoint. It's not magic, Jim, believe me."

Jim raised an eyebrow at him.

"You got back from Peru, when? In eighty-nine, right?"

"Wha-Ho --"

"I did a little research," Blair said, shrugging, "and read the News Update magazine article."

Jim nodded. "Eighty-nine."

"And you said you've been divorced for two years?"

"Yeah."

"So you probably hit the States in early 1990 and tried to figure out what you were going to do with your life. Right?" He waited until Jim nodded before he proceeded. "You finally decided on the police force and joined the academy, which puts us about mid to late 1990. My guess is that with your background you never did patrol."

"Actually, I did patrol for almost a year, well seven or eight months, at least."

"Really?" Blair sat on a bar stool beside the kitchen island.

"They offered me Narcotics right out of the academy, but I wanted to...you know, reconnect...re-learn the city, her pulse." Jim stopped, almost as if embarrassed for having waxed so elegantly.

"What got you off the streets?"

"A buddy of mine was killed."

"I'm sorry, Jim."

Jim shrugged. "It happened a long time ago. Anyway, after Delgado was killed, Narcotics offered me a position again. This time I took it because I didn't want to die in some meaningless street fight, you know? But I was pretty pissed. I spent the next few months angry and confrontational. I did some seriously stupid things, pushing the envelope, and my captain's patience. I started to get a rep as a cop who got things done, but not always by the book. I met Carolyn while I was on Patrol. She didn't give a crap about status, which made me like her even more. She was beautiful. Intelligent. Perfect. We had a whirlwind romance and I married her right after I joined Narcotics. But I couldn't contain my rage on the job. Of course, back then I just thought I was driven. After a few months, I got transferred to Vice."

"But?" Blair asked when Jim paused in his story.

The older man looked at him with haunted eyes. "I was deep undercover in a sting operation when Carolyn had a miscarriage. I couldn't get out to be with her without blowing thousands of hours of manpower. She tried so hard to be brave and I guess a part of me thought she didn't need me. We started to drift apart, the pain was..."

"I understand," Blair whispered, not wanting to make the man relive his grief.

"I did let her take everything. I don't know why. I thought, maybe, it could make up for what I couldn't give her. I probably would have spiraled into depression or alcoholism if it hadn't been for the job. After the divorce, I was a real hard ass. I was transferred to Major Crimes. My partner, Jack, helped me get my act together. Told me I could make a difference by helping people, protecting them." Jim swallowed hard. "I just wish I..."

"Wish what, Jim?"

The older man shook his head and Blair let his questions go unanswered.

"The starkness of the apartment helps with the senses, doesn't it?" Blair asked quietly, changing the subject as Jim finished up the salad.

"Yes. I don't deal well with clutter."

Blair chuckled. "Good thing I don't live with you then."

"So, you're saying you're a slob?"

"I'm a grad student, Jim," Blair said in mock-exasperation. "I don't have time to eat or sleep. When in the world am I going to clean?"

"You can always make time for things if they're important to you."

Blair grinned impishly at him. "As I was saying."

Jim rolled his gaze heavenward, took the plate of steaks and headed toward the balcony. "Would you get the door? Simon's almost here."

"How do you know?"

"I can smell his cigars," Jim said, before stepping out onto the terrace.

"That's so cool." Blair whispered to himself, opening the door just as Jim's boss was raising his fist to knock.

"Simon Banks, I presume?" Blair grinned mischievously at the surprised captain.

Simon recovered quickly. "Professor Sandburg?"

Blair stepped aside and let the larger man into the loft. "Actually, I'm only a teaching fellow. I'm working on my doctorate in anthropology, but I suppose Jim has already told you that." Seeing the captain's eyes scan the loft, Blair added, "Jim's on the terrace cooking the steaks. Would you like a beer?"

"Sure." The older man walked to the balcony and greeted Jim.

Blair moved toward the refrigerator hoping Jim didn't minded his playing host and praying Jim actually had beer. It was all he could do not to sigh in relief when he spotted the chilling bottles. He quickly pulled them from the refrigerator and turned back toward the balcony, biting the inside of his lip when he did so. He always talked when he was nervous and he sure as heck didn't want to babble incoherently in front of Jim's boss. Steeling himself for the conversation he knew he didn't want to have, he headed toward the balcony.

Both men stopped talking when he opened the door and it was all he could do to pretend not to notice. "I hope you don't mind," he said quietly, holding a beer out to each of the men.

"Not at all." Jim smiled at him. "In fact, I'm glad you thought of it."

They each took a long swig of beer, the silence growing almost deafening. Finally, Simon broke the stillness. "So, you're the leading expert on these so-called sentinels?"

Blair closed his eyes and mental counted to ten, then opened them and looked the captain square in the face. "I'm not sure there is anyone who could be considered an expert on sentinels, other than Burton himself, and he's been dead for almost a century. Even he wasn't considered an expert in his time. His monograph was disputed when it came out and now it's basically forgotten."

"But you're the only one who knows about them now?" Simon pressed.

"In," Blair raised his fingers in quotation marks, "modern civilization, yes, or, at least, I'm the only one actively studying them that I know about; although I'm convinced that some of the more primitive tribes in South America and the Polynesian Islands probably still have sentinels."

"Are you saying Jim's some sort of uncivilized throwback?"

"Shit," Blair whispered, standing abruptly and turning back toward the loft. "I don't need this."

"Chief, please." Jim grabbed his arm and turned the younger man to face him. "He didn't mean it that way."

"Jim, I--" Simon started to protest, but the sentinel cut him off with a wave of his hand.

"Look," Blair said angrily as he faced the other two men. "I have to take enough shit about this at school. Despite the documented evidence I have gathered, I have to listen to all sorts of sentinel jokes. I have to play the political game at the university, but I don't have to play it with you."

"Please, Blair," Jim said with an almost desperate timbre in his voice, although Blair doubted Simon heard it.

Blair sighed and Jim smiled, releasing his arm.

"I didn't mean to offend you, kid," Simon said apologetically.

"Hasn't Jim given you a demonstration of his abilities?"

"Yes."

"Then why the skepticism?"

"It's just...this is all so...unbelievable, in a Twilight Zone sort of way."

"There's nothing Twilight Zone about this, Simon. You've heard the term 'nose' used in the perfume industry, right?" When the older man nodded, Blair continued. "Noses are people with a heightened sense of smell, who can detect the nuances in the various fragrances. There are a lot of people with a heightened sense of taste. Many work in the wine industry, in coffee factories and in ice cream plants. If you can accept a person having one heightened sense, why can't you believe that there are people with all five of their senses heightened." Blair took a long swig of beer. "Jim isn't Superman. He can just see farther and hear better than the average Shmoe on the street. The way I see it, his gifts could be a real asset in his particular line of work. He has the potential of seeing clues others can't see, smelling a fragrance of a suspect after he's left the scene, seeing a hair sample stuck to a window. Who knows? The possibilities are endless."

Simon leaned forward intently. "But if people knew about his abilities, they could use his senses against him."

"That's true. It would probably be best if his gifts weren't made public knowledge."

"But if they aren't commonly known, then how is he going to submit the evidence he finds to the court. We certainly don't want anyone accusing him of being Cascade's version of Mark Furman."

"He's going to have to use the clues he finds with his senses to lead him to more solid evidence."

Blair felt uncomfortable talking about Jim as if he weren't standing four feet away, but the sentinel didn't seem to mind, seemingly content to tend to the steaks.

"So what do you suggest?" Simon asked quietly as he leaned back in his patio chair.

"Well, first, we'll need to run some tests and try to get a feel for exactly how strong each sense is. Then you will need to find someone the two of you trust to ride along with him until he has obtained some measure of control. Jim has explained the zone-out factor to you, right?"

Simon nodded.

"I can help train Jim and his partner in the use of his senses and hopefully come up with some solutions to prevent the zones."

"You're being awfully quiet, Jim," Simon observed before taking a swig of beer.

"Not a whole lot to say."

"Have you given any thought as to who you would like to bring into the inner circle?"

Jim nodded as he pulled the steaks off the grill and stacked them onto the plate he had brought them out on.

"Well, who, man?" Simon asked irritably.

"We'll discuss it after dinner." Jim smiled, then nodded his head toward the door, indicating that the others should follow him back inside.

Blair was surprised by the companionable conversation during dinner. Not that he didn't find the men friendly, but he was just surprised to have so much in common with them. They swapped stories of past adventures and escapades and Blair found himself laughing out loud several times. Finally, with dinner finished, the three men sat comfortably around Jim's living room.

"Not to spoil a pleasant evening with shop talk, Jim, but you said you had someone in mind to act as your partner."

Jim nodded.

"Who?"

The sentinel shot a guilty look at Blair. "The kid."

"Who? Sandburg?"

Jim nodded again.

"What?" Blair asked startled. "Are you crazy?"

"I have to go with the professor on this one, Jim. You can't be serious."

"But I am." Jim leaned forward in his chair and stared intently at Blair. "Look, no one else is going to completely understand what's going on with me. You also said that we need to test my abilities to see how strong they are. Well, I can't think of a better place to test them than on the job."

"But I'm not a cop."

"The kid's got a point. He doesn't even look like the law enforcement type."

"He doesn't need to. We can get him a ninety day observer's pass. Surely, he can help me get a handle on my senses within three months."

"But what are we going to tell people?" Simon asked, sitting forward, intrigued.

"I don't know. Maybe we can say he's observing the police department for his thesis. You know, give everyone the thin blue line spiel."

"Oh for Pete's sake. I would never use something that lame," Blair burst out with irritation.

Jim grinned. "I like it."

"If I was going to do a thesis on the police department, I would probably do it from the aspect of an enclosed society, with an emphasis on the hierarchy and the social rules and mores of its denizens."

"Or we could always say he's my cousin's kid and I'm trying to help him out on his thesis so he'll go out and get a real job."

"Works for me," Simon said slapping his legs and standing up. "Bring him down to the station on Monday and we'll have him fill out all the necessary paperwork."

"But..."

"Nice meeting you, Professor." Simon nodded toward him. "Sorry to eat and run, but I need to get going. I look forward to working with you, Professor."

"But..."

And with that, Simon was gone.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair shook his head, his mouth opening and closing, but no sound came forth. He watched as Jim moved toward him with an almost predatory gleam in his eyes.

"I...I can't ride with you, Jim," Blair blurted out, stopping Jim in his tracks.

"Why not?"

"Why not?" Blair asked incredulously.

"Yeah, why not?"

"How can you ask that? I mean, I got shot just going to a meeting with you. What's going to happen if I actually ride with you?"

"Nothing's going to happen to you, Sandburg. I won't let it."

"You can't make promises like that. You're only human, Jim. You're not a superhero."

Jim cocked his head to one side. "So what do you suggest we do?"

"I already told you, while Simon was here."

Jim looked disappointed. "So you'd really foist me onto someone else?"

"Oh for... It's not like I'm abandoning you or anything. I'm more than willing to train you and whoever you choose to be your partner."

"I can't believe..."

"Look. Jim. Detective Ellison. You're a nice man. I'm sorry this is happening to you, but I'm not sure what it is you want me..." Blair trailed off as Jim leaned forward and put a hand on each side of the chair Blair was sitting in.

"Are you telling me you don't feel this?" Jim asked in a low, dangerous, voice, waving one hand between them.

"This?"

Jim scowled at him. "This connection." He leaned in further until his face was mere inches away from Blair's. "Can't you hear it hum? Feel the warmth of it?"

Blair swallowed hard and tried to look away, but Jim caught his chin and forced him to maintain eye contact.

"Tell me you don't feel it, Sandburg."

"I--"

"But remember, I can hear your heartbeat. I'll know if you're lying to me or yourself."

"You...you can hear my heartbeat?"

"Since you ran into me in the hallway in Hargrove. I didn't know what it was at first, but I figured it out pretty quickly."

"That's...that's awesome, Jim. Just think--"

Jim growled at him and Blair blinked in shock. The sentinel leaned in even more. "Tell me you don't feel this bond between us."

Jim's intense gaze pinned him to the back of the chair. "I...I can't," Blair finally admitted, lowering his eyes.

Blair shivered as Jim tenderly ran the back of his hand over his cheek.

"I...I need to go home. Lar-Larry needs me," Blair finally stuttered out.

Jim frowned, but slowly stood up. "I'll take you home then."

Woodenly, Blair gathered his backpack and jacket and followed the sentinel down to his vehicle.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

The trip to the warehouse was relatively quiet, except for Blair occasionally giving Jim directions. Blair's mind was numb. All his life he had searched for a sentinel, and now that one had all but dropped in his lap, he was running scared.

He studied the detective behind the wheel. An artist would no doubt say the man had classic lines. Renaissance sculptors would have prostrated themselves for an opportunity to capture Jim in granite. However, after having been on the receiving end of one of Jim's hot gazes, Blair knew he would never be able to think of Jim in terms of cold stone. He wondered briefly how the women in Jim's life reacted to such a gaze, knowing they were the reason for Jim's intensity. Jim had a way of making one feel like they were the center of his universe. And Blair had to admit, a part of him liked that concept.

Jim's need for him was practically palatable. Was it because he understood what the detective was going through? Or was it deeper? Blair couldn't deny the warmth he felt in Jim's presence. Simon Banks didn't seem to feel the sentinel's need and Blair doubted anyone else could either. Was it because he truly was Jim's guide?

A part of Blair responded to Jim's need, fed on it, reveled within it. But Jim was no ordinary man; he was a protector, a watchman, a sentinel. He sighed. And he was nothing more than an academic, a man who, while he had traveled quite extensively, was basically nothing more than a science nerd. What if he couldn't teach Jim how to use his gifts? Or taught him wrong? Or wasn't able to give him control? What if--

"Sandburg!"

Blair blinked, realizing they had finally reached the warehouse. The concern in Jim's eyes told him that the sentinel had called his name more than once.

"S-sorry. Got lost in thought, I guess."

Jim gently laid a hand on his shoulder. "You think too much, Professor."

Blair tried to grin at him, but knew that the expression came off weak. "Guilty as charged."

"I'm sorry," Jim said in a voice barely above a whisper.

Blair shook his head, not understanding. "For what?"

"For needing you so much. I wish I could make this easier for you."

Blair felt his eyes burn with unshed tears. His voice choked, he whispered back, "I just don't want to fail you, Jim. You seem to have all your hopes wrapped up in me and I'm-I'm afraid I'm going to let you down."

"Not going to happen."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because I have faith."

"Faith."

Jim turned in his seat to face him. "You've already saved me, Blair. I was on the precipice, ready to end it all, lost and alone, and just when I knew I couldn't take another step, you threw me a rope. You saved my sanity. Everything else is just gravy."

Blair's chest heaved with a silent laugh in an attempt to keep from whimpering. "Gravy."

"You know, the Chinese believe when you save a man's life you become his blessed protector and it's your duty to do that for the rest of your life."

Blair could do nothing more than blinked at his sentinel.

"I'm not asking you to serve for the rest of your life, Chief, just the next ninety days." Jim grinned. "Deal?"

Blair nodded and whispered. "Deal." He opened the door and got out of the truck.

"So, Chief," Jim called out before Blair could close the door.

"Yeah?"

"How 'bout I come by tomorrow and we get a couple of these tests you were talking about out of the way?"

Blair smiled, the thought of gathering knowledge on Jim's senses beginning to tease him with excitement. "You sure, man?"

"Very."

"Ideally, we should run the initial tests in a lab. What say I meet you over at the university around nine?"

"Why don't I pick you up here at eight-thirty?"

Blair blinked at him again.

"Seeing as your car is still at the university, Darwin."

Blair blushed, then laughed. "Okay. Eight-thirty it is."

"I'll bring the doughnuts."

"Aw, Jim. Why don't you just inject the grease straight into your veins?"

Jim cocked an eyebrow. "Why? Does that make them taste better?"

Blair couldn't help himself, he laughed out loud.

"Tell you what." Jim grinned at him. "Because I'm such a nice guy, I'll bring you a bagel."

Still smiling, Blair nodded and shut the door. "Deal," he said, knowing the sentinel could hear him. He pulled his keys out of his jeans and jogged up the metal steps as Jim backed his vehicle out of the parking lot.

The moment he was inside, a small furry missile launched itself at him. "Aww, I'm sorry, Larry. I didn't mean to be so late. Did you miss me? C'mon, baby, let's get you some dinner," he said, carrying the Barbary ape into the kitchen area.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair looked over at his sentinel and grinned. His sentinel. He liked how that sounded. The day had absolutely flown by. Jim had readily agreed to all of his proposed tests and Blair felt he finally had a fairly good idea of what Jim's ranges were, at least in lab conditions. He found himself looking forward to applying the theoretical data to real life conditions.

"The Jags are playing tonight," Jim said conversationally as they pulled up to the warehouse.

Blair shook his head wondering how he let Jim talk him into driving him home again, then looked at his watch. "Yeah, in about fifteen minutes. Hey, you want to watch the game with Larry and me?"

Jim frowned slightly, but shrugged and took the keys out of ignition. "Sure. I'll even spring for a pizza."

"You don't need to do that, man. You already bought me breakfast and lunch."

Jim climbed out of the truck. "You just don't get it, do you, Chief? I can never pay you for everything you're doing for me. Food is a small trade-off."

"Not to a grad student, man." Blair laughed. "Besides, you're helping me out too, you know? I mean, just the results from today's session in the lab are enough to give me three chapters in my diss. So the way I see it, this arrangement is beneficial to both of us."

Jim raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, you can pay for half."

"Maaaaaaan," Blair drawled as he got out of the truck and led the way up the steps. "I so walked into that one."

"Yep." Jim chuckled unrepentantly.

"Hey, Larry. I'm home!" Blair called out as soon as he unlocked the door, but no one came to greet him. "He's a little shy of strangers," he explained, letting Jim in, then locking the door behind them.

Jim looked around the warehouse. "This is...uh...roomy."

"Great, isn't it?" Blair bounced proudly, waving his arms around the open expanse. "Ten thousand square feet for eight hundred and fifty dollars a month."

"Yeah, great," Jim said as if trying to convince himself.

A metal sound snapped in the background and an animal squawked once before silence reigned again in the distant shadows.

"What in the hell was that? Was that a mousetrap?"

"Well, a trap, yeah. But mice? No, no, no, no. Mice are like small and cute, but these...these things...are huge." Blair held out his hands to show how big his trespassers were.

"How can you live like this?" Jim asked in dismay.

"What?" Blair looked confused. "Oh, hey, don't worry it. It's perfectly safe. Besides, it was the only place that would accept Larry."

"Why? What's wrong with Larry?"

"Nothing's wrong with Larry. Well, as long as you don't stare or anything. I mean, since you're a stranger, he'd probably interpret that as a sign of aggression. He's very protective of me."

"How long have you and Larry been, I mean, lived together?"

"Oh, about eighteen months now. Give or take."

"How did you two meet?"

"We were doing a paper on the short-term effects of concentrated television violence and we just clicked. His living arrangements sort of fell through, so I took him in. The paper won me a grant. That coupled with a couple of articles I've submitted to various journals is what's supplementing our income. As you may have guessed, teaching fellows don't make a whole lot of money. So what do you want on your pizza?"

"What do you and Larry usually have?"

"The Vegetarian."

"Figures."

"What was that?" Blair asked innocently, having heard the comment perfectly.

"Uh, fine with me."

Blair smirked, then placed the order. "Hey, you want a beer, man?"

"Grad students can afford beer?"

"You're killing me here, Ellison."

"Yeah, I'll take a beer."

As Blair opened the ancient refrigerator, Larry stretched awake from his basket on top. "Hey, baby, I was wondering where you were. Want a juice?" Blair reached up and plucked the Barbary ape from the top, then bent down and got a pre-made baby bottle, then pulled out two beers. When he turned around, Jim was staring at him strangely. "What?" Blair asked, looking behind him in confusion.

"Larry's a monkey."

"No," Blair frowned and shook his head as he headed toward the couch. "Larry's a Barbary ape."

Jim coughed, then cleared his throat, looking vaguely embarrassed. "Same difference."

"No, it's not. Psychologically speaking, the behavioral patterns of Barbery apes are remarkably similar to human beings, much closer scientifically to us than, say chimps."

Blair put the ape on the couch and handed it the bottle. "Oh, hey, we have time for popcorn." He turned back toward the kitchen. "Turn on the television, will ya?"

When Blair came back into the front room, Larry and Jim were leaning against each other, both staring vacantly at the television.

"You better not be teaching my ape to zone, Ellison."

Jim rolled his eyes and took the bowl of popcorn, lowering it so Larry could take a handful. Blair bit the inside of his lip to keep from laughing as the ape gave Jim an adoring look. Sitting so that the little ape was between them, Blair settled in just as the game began.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

"Hey, buddy. How about another can of beer or something," Jim said as he watched Orvelle Wallace carefully line up his first free-throw shot.

"Oh, yeah, sure. They're in the fridge."

"I'd take one."

"Great. They're in the fridge."

Never taking his eyes off the television, Jim said, "Larry go get us a beer. Okay, buddy?"

Larry sighed deeply, then climbed to the back of the couch.

Blair put his hand out and stopped the little ape. "Make him get his own damn beer, bud."

Larry looked at Jim, his little expressive face almost laughing.

Jim rolled his eyes, stood and stretched, before he moved around the couch. "Did you hear that?" he asked, cocking his head.

Blair laughed. "Oh, you better not start that crap, Sentinel-boy. I can see that getting real annoying, real quick."

Jim laughed, then held his arms out to Larry, who jumped into the embrace. They had almost reached the refrigerator, when Jim spun around and shouted, "Get down." He lunged toward the couch as the wall in front of him exploded.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair carried another box of books out the door, grateful that all of his research and important books were in his office. He had lost a majority of his clothes, but he had been able to salvage most of his knickknacks and mementos. Setting the box on the ground, he picked up a scruffy looking teddy bear and handed it to the little ape, who was sitting forlornly in the back of Jim's truck.

"Here you go, Larry. I found Pookie."

The little ape made a contented noise as it hugged the tiny stuffed animal tightly to its chest.

Jim brought out another box and placed it in the back of the truck, being very careful not to disturb the little ape. "So you mean to tell me that in all the time you've lived here you never once suspected you lived next door to an ice lab?"

Blair's chest heaved in silent laughter, but managed to calm himself, refusing to give into the hysteria which threaten to rend him in two. "I swear, I thought the other half was deserted. I mean, I did hear some strange noises in the middle of the night last week, but I thought it was the plumbing or the mutant rats or something."

"Is this the last of your stuff?" Jim asked as he picked up the box Blair had brought out moments earlier and put it in the back of the truck.

"Yeah. That's the last of the non-damaged stuff. I'll come back tomorrow and see if I can salvage anything else."

"We'll come back tomorrow, Chief."

Blair looked up into the warm blue eyes. "Thanks, man."

"So where are you going to stay?"

"I don't know. A hotel. Maybe with some friends. I think Larry and I can get away with crashing at my office for a while, at least for the rest of tonight."

"Why don't you...that is, you guys are welcomed to stay with me."

Blair shook his head. "There's no way I'm going to impose on you like that."

"Look, your back's against a wall here. It's eleven o'clock on a Saturday evening, and you've just basically admitted you've got nowhere else to go."

"But Larry--"

"Larry's not a problem. Heck, he's been around people his whole life, right? He's probably more human than most of your grad school buddies."

Blair chuckled. "That's true, but I don't know if that should reassure you or not."

"Just stay with me until you get back on your feet." When he saw Blair about to protest again, he added quickly, "Your staying at my place would definitely make this sentinel thing easier to deal with, especially if I don't have to drive over here all the time."

"I don't want to put you out," Blair said, even as he felt his resolve begin to crumble.

"It's not a big deal, Sandburg. I have a spare bedroom. It's not much, but it's homey. Look, just give it a try for a week. What can a week hurt?"

Blair looked up into the pleading face of his sentinel then over into the little pleading face of his ape, and shook his head in amusement. He didn't stand a chance. "All right. One week. Then we'll be out of your hair."

"Hey, no cracks about the hair."

Blair laughed as he picked up the little ape, realizing just how lucky he was to have found his sentinel when he did. He didn't even want to think what could have happened if he had been by himself.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

The week, as Blair suspected it would, grew into several. He had halfheartedly, on a couple of occasions, attempted to look for another place. But with his funds being so low, he knew it had been more an exercise in futility than an honest effort to secure his own lodgings. During the first week, his meager funds barely allowed him to replace his smoke-damaged clothes. He knew it would take at least two more months before he had saved enough money to come up with a first and last month deposit--if a landlord would even accept Larry or look beyond the fact that his last place blew up. Besides, he thought in amusement, it was amazing how the newspaper kept disappearing from the loft before he had a chance to read it.

His days were suddenly fuller than they had ever been. Every moment not spent at the university was spent with Jim. In the span of three weeks, they, and the concept of they still boggled his mind, had apprehended a set of international hitmen and brought down a dirty cop, along with solving several minor burglary cases and two unrelated murders.

Jim's use of his senses had been amazing and Blair had notebook upon notebook of observations and vaguely formed conclusions. Jim had also surprised him by always going along with his suggestions on how to use and refine his senses. Blair figured the detective would, for appearances sake, make a show of grumbling and complaining, but Jim rarely did.

And for the first time in a long time, Blair found himself content.

Their life had fallen into a graceful, ever-moving, unspoken dance, each taking turns being responsible for cooking and buying groceries. Blair would show up at the station whenever he wasn't in class or conducting office hours. Jim would appear unexpectedly at the university bearing lunch or forgotten keys. They spent their evenings, when not on stake outs, watching the tube with Larry, working on projects around the loft or going out. Jim had surprised him by showing an interest in his studies and had attended several seminars and exhibits with him.

More and more he found himself marking an experience as something to share with Jim when he saw him next: a joke, an antecedent, something he wanted Jim's opinion on, or just how he was feeling at a given time.

He also couldn't help but notice how Jim always seemed to be touching him, not in any inappropriate way, just a touch on the back or a tug on his hair. While a part of him longed for it to mean something, he was honest enough with himself to know it was nothing more than a sentinel grounding himself with his Guide.

His guide.

Blair was Jim's guide.

The implications of that thought made him tremble even though the room was warm.

He belonged to Jim.

He closed his eyes as if that would prevent him from seeing the truth of his situation. He had fought so hard against Jim's need to have him around; knowing how much he himself craved to be needed, how much Jim relying on him gave him worth, knowing that he would be completely destroyed once Jim gained enough confidence in his abilities and moved on. After all, Jim had been very clear that first evening about not wanting a life time, just the next ninety days -- which gave him twenty-five more days.

"Deep thoughts, Chief?" Jim asked, holding out a bottle of beer.

"Thanks, man," Blair murmured as he accept the offered drink and took a long swig.

Jim sat down beside him on the couch. "So what thoughts are rattling around in that over-achieving brain of yours?"

"Nothing, man." Blair tried to smile reassuringly at his friend, but knew by the way Jim's eyebrows knitted together that he hadn't quite pulled it off.

Jim nudged him playfully and Blair flopped over dramatically. "C'mon, Sandburg, tell your sentinel everything."

Obfuscation, he decided, was the best route to go. "I was just remembering that night in the hospital with Joel when I told him I didn't want to get to know him better."

Jim frowned in confusion. "What? But I thought you two were pretty tight?"

"We are." Blair flipped onto his back, put his bottle on the table and his feet in the older man's lap.

Jim automatically started rubbing the socked feet. "So what's the problem?"

"Nothing." He raised his hands to forestall the next comment. "I just feel bad now for telling him that. Joel is an incredibly nice guy. I mean, hell, I think even Naomi would like him."

"He does have an almost...gentle way about him."

"If he's not careful, he'll give cops a good name."

Jim laughed and popped three of Blair's toes in rapid succession.

"Hey!" Blair protested, but couldn't maintain his indignation while he was laughing. Pushing himself up onto his elbows, he said in a quieter voice, "I just wish I hadn't said it. You know?"

"You were scared."

"It doesn't make me feel any better."

"I know, but you need to give yourself a break. Joel doesn't hold anything you said that night against you. And let's face it, you had just been held hostage, jumped out of a window and been shot at. Quite frankly, I'm surprised you continued to answer your cell phone after the siege."

Blair shrugged indifferently, but felt warm inside at the admiring tone in Jim's voice. "Thanks, man."

"So are you still free to go to the Jags game tomorrow night?"

Blair sat up, pulling his feet off Jim's lap and clapped his hands once in anticipation. "Yes! I still can't believe you scored tickets, man!"

Jim raised an eyebrow, in mock haughtiness. "You just have to have the right connections is all."

"Hell, even Robert couldn't get tickets to tomorrow's game. It's been sold out for weeks."

"You mean, your cousin, the bookie?"

"No, my cousin the entrepreneur." Blair shoved his sentinel playfully. "It's nice to know that cops have better connections than--"

Jim tried to look indignant as he reached forward to mess up Blair's hair. "I'm thinking you better not finish that sentence, Sandburg."

"Or what?"

"Or Larry's going to be enjoying the game in your place."

Blair chuckled as Jim leaned back on the couch and put Blair's feet back in his lap. "Hand me the remote."

"Over my dead body."

Jim's eyes glimmered mischievously as he held Blair's feet firmly in his lap and tugged warningly on his middle toe.

Laughing, Blair deliberately placing the remote under his body, and pushed aside the thought that he had less than a month left. He would gladly give Jim the next few weeks, squirreling away each and every memory so that he could pull them out on cold nights when he was back on his own again.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

"So, this is where you live?" Christine Hong asked as Blair pushed the door open and let the beautiful Asian woman in first.

"Well, it's where I'm staying temporarily, until I get my feet back under me."

"Ah, that's right. I remember hearing about the explosion." She circled the living room, observing, just as he had done several weeks before, but for some reason it bothered him. She shouldn't be looking at Jim's things.

Larry climbed down from the refrigerator and hopped to the kitchen island, holding his little arms up to be held.

"Hey, bud," Blair cooed, complying with the silent request. He grinned as Larry pushed himself into his scratching hand. The little simian's eyes closed in pleasure.

"What in the hell is that?" Christine demanded as she came back into the kitchen.

"This is Larry," Blair said, holding the little ape up for her inspection, but brought Larry back to his chest when she frowned.

"Can't you put him somewhere?" she asked archedly.

"I suppose." He frowned, but moved to the refrigerator and pulled out one of Larry's bottles and a bowl of grapes. He gently settled the ape back onto the top of the refrigerator.

"And wash your hands."

The front door opened and Jim walked in, frowning slightly when he saw Christine.

Christine put her hands on her hips. "And just who the hell are you?"

Jim smirked, then stepped forward. "Hello, there. I'm Jim Ellison. I live here."

"Uh, Jim. This is Christine Hong. Chris, this is Jim, my roommate."

"I thought you said you lived alone."

Blair crossed his arms over his chest. "No. I said I thought we'd be alone. I thought Jim was working late tonight."

Jim just shrugged. "Sorry. Brown collared Mendez this afternoon, so the stakeout was called off. I... I didn't realize you were entertaining company."

"You know, maybe we should call it a night. Things are getting way too weird here."

"Chris. I told you..."

But the young woman simply stomped out the door.

"Sorry, Chief. I'm not used to knocking at my own door here."

Blair raised his hands. "No. Actually, I think you did me a favor. Chris...well, she isn't exactly who I thought she would be."

Jim opened the refrigerator and grabbed them each a beer. Holding one to Blair, he asked, "How are you holding up?"

"It's been hard." Blair admitted, knowing that Jim was asking about Susan Frasier and not his aborted date. "I just keep seeing her, her mouth all open like she was screaming. And her eyes, man...I'll never forget those eyes." He took the bottle and walked into the living room, flopping down on the couch.

"Murder victims tend to get the best of us. Even veterans. The way to survive is to learn how to separate yourself from the situation."

Blair rolled the cool bottle over his forehead. "You mean sort of like checking my humanity at the door?"

Jim leaned against the pillar embedded into the kitchen island. "Whatever it takes to stay present and focused. What if the killer had still been at the scene? If your emotions are in the way, you're useless, potentially dangerous. If you're going to hang with cops, you've got to learn to do the right thing 'cause your life and the lives of others are going to depend on it."

Blair set his bottle down on the floor beside the couch, then covered his face with both hands, trying to hold his emotions back.

The couch beside him dipped and Jim's arms were suddenly around his shoulders. "I know, Chief. This isn't what you signed up for."

"I-I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Jim pulled him closer, so that Blair's head rested on the detective's chest. "You're actually doing better than most of the rookies I see coming straight out of the academy. I've really been proud of the way you've integrated yourself into the department and with the way I work."

"Thanks, man," he mumbled into Jim's shirt.

Jim brought a hand up and lightly scratched Blair's head. Blair relaxed even more into his sentinel's embrace, soaking up the comfort, smiling when he thought about how he had just been doing this very thing for Larry. Jim didn't seem to be in a hurry to let him go and Blair decided he would stay as long as Jim allowed.

"Are you going to call Christine?" Jim asked quietly.

Already sliding down the slope of sleep, Blair replied while yawning, "No, man. I don't see that working out. Besides, I'd rather be here with you."

Blair thought, just before he dropped off to sleep that he heard Jim whisper, "Good."

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

"Did we really promise this Don Hass guy a hot tip in return for this video?" Blair asked, sitting on the couch while Jim popped the tape into the VCR.

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"Because I'd rather he got his information from us on our terms than from his so-called source." Jim stood and walked back to the sofa and sat down. Blair couldn't help but notice that he looked uncomfortable.

"Are you feeling okay?"

Jim nodded. "You know, the captain is pretty worried about this leak."

"Yeah, I know."

"He thinks it might be you," Jim said casually.

Blair blinked in surprise. An icy fist gripped around his heart and squeezed tight. It had finally started. He knew it would eventually happen, but he was still caught by surprise. "You don't believe that, do you?"

Jim shrugged. "All I'm saying is I don't want you to talk about this case with anybody."

"I would never do that, Jim."

Jim finally smiled at him. "I know, buddy. I just had to be able to tell Simon I had the talk with you. Ya know?"

Blair nodded and clicked the remote toward the television. "What are we looking for?" he asked, surprised by how steady his voice was.

Jim shook his head. "I don't know."

Blair tried to concentrate on the tape, but his mind refused to stay on task. He had almost a thousand dollars in the bank. He could probably rent a room at the old Pi house, which had been converted into tiny apartments. It would be noisy, but it would be a roof over his head and he was pretty sure no one would care about Larry.

He crossed his arms over his chest and hugged himself as if her were cold. Truth was, he was cold. Jim hadn't really believed him. Oh, he said the right words, but Blair had seen the doubt. Not that he blamed Jim. He had tipped their hand to the killer at the church by trying to get Jim's attention, which had been on the killer the whole time. He hadn't needed Blair to point her out because he had already seen her. It was so stupid. Such an amateurish thing to do. But worse of all, it had planted the first seed of doubt, had made Jim look at him with new eyes, as someone who might not be up to the challenge of backing a sentinel.

He licked his lips nervously. He had to make it up to Jim. He had to let him know that he could be a partner for just a little bit longer.

"Stop," Jim commanded, breaking through his thoughts. "Freeze it right there. Now back it up a bit. Right there. You see it?"

"See what?"

Jim moved closer to the set, his hand running over the screen. He turned and grinned in triumph. "How many women do you know that have Adam's apples?"

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair bounced excitedly as he rode up the elevator to the seventh floor. It was late, but he had talked to the Desk Sergeant and learned that Jim, Simon, Carolyn and some FBI forensic psychiatrist from San Francisco were all still in the conference room.

He couldn't help but congratulate himself. He had done it. He had put all the pieces together and figured the case out. Damn, but detective work was a lot like anthropology, only a lot more exciting. And now, Jim would have to acknowledge that he had worth, that he was more than capable of watching his back.

The elevator door slowly slid open and Blair squeezed past them before they were fully opened. He could see everyone sitting at the table in the conference room. Without thought, he burst into the room. "Okay, I've got this whole thing figured out."

Simon frowned at him. "Don't you knock?"

"Right. Sorry, Simon." He took a step back and knocked on the door, then moved quickly to the table. "You see, the killer's deal is that he trades identities with his victims. I just had a talk with Billy Bright's band over at Club Doom. It turns out that the night Billy was killed, he brought some dope from a guy in a wheelchair." He leaned over and opened a file. "That guy."

Jim sat up straighter in his chair. "Adam Walker?"

Blair nodded as he slipped into a chair at the conference table. "Yes. Only Walker had been dead for almost three weeks."

The blond man beside him reached out a hand. "Remarkable. I'm Tony Bates by the way."

Blair shook his hand and smiled. "How you doing? Blair Sandburg."

"Sandburg's an advisor to the department," Simon explained to the psychiatrist.

Jim glared briefly at Blair. "An advisor who doesn't do what he's told to."

Blair swallowed, but refused to drop his gaze. He was right. He knew it. He felt it in his bones.

"I think you're on the money about this," Bates said, rubbing his chin with one hand.

Simon looked flabbergasted. "What?"

Dr. Bates stood and began to pace. "We may be dealing with a suspect who has such a weak sense of self that he fixates on a person, kills them, then assumes their personalities, their lives."

"Are you saying he killed Walker and assumed the identity of a crippled dope dealer. Then for whatever reason, he fixated on someone new, like Bright, and became him until he killed Susan Frasier?" Jim looked horrified.

However, Bates seemed to get more excited by the idea. "Exactly. Think of it as a process of psychic ingestion."

"Right. Right. Aztec warriors used to eat the heart of their enemies because they believed it would enhance their prowess in war." Blair made the mistake of looking up and noticed Simon glaring at him.

Dr. Bates jumped to his defense. "What we may be facing here is a similar psychological belief. Only our killer is hardly a warrior. More likely, he's an abject loner. Probably came from a broken home, where he was severely neglected or abused.

"That's all theory. Nothing but theory," Jim objected. "I need a suspect."

The phone rang and Simon picked it up, listening for several moments. "Yeah, thanks." Hanging the receiver up, he looked at Jim. "We have ourselves another prowler, one who fits Susan Frasier's description, at the Maritime Museum.

Jim pushed himself from the table and motioned for Blair to follow him. "We're on it."

"Good job, Blair," Dr. Bates said with a proud, almost proprietary, smile.

"Umm, thanks, man." Blair smiled at the doctor then scrambled to keep up with Jim.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

It's funny what truths one comes to accept when one is about to die, Blair thought as he laid on the broken cement floor, his hands and legs bound in chains. All his life he had wanted connection. Connection with Naomi--for her to stop her quest of self-actualization long enough to realize she had a son who adored her. Connection with the people he observed--wanting someone to ask him to join in with them instead of merely observing them. Connection with Jim.

Jim.

Why was it only now that he realized he had it all? He was a guide. Jim's guide. He was a consultant to the police department, a teacher at Rainier, and a student of mankind. He had finally joined the human race, instead of sitting on the sidelines taking notes. He had been so worried about being rejected that he hadn't celebrated who he was or what he had accomplished.

And why was it now so clear that not only did he loved Jim, but Jim loved him as well?

He shook his head, biting back a sob. Why would Lash want to be him? Even Blair didn't want to be Blair. Who knows? Maybe Lash would be better at his life than he was.

He yanked on his chains. No! He wasn't going to give up. He had too much to live for.

He was a guide. Jim's guide. The guide.

And he would be damned if some nut job with a multiple disassociative disorder was going to take that from him. He may have come to the job reluctantly, but by God, he had worked hard for what he had accomplished and he wasn't about to give Jim up without a fight.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

"Blair! God, please open your eyes. Please open those beautiful baby blues!"

Jim? Blair struggled to rise through the layers of unconsciousness. Why was Jim's voice catching? Why did his eyelids seem to weigh a ton? It took him a moment, but he finally managed to open them.

"Thank God. Thank God," Jim whispered, his hands petting Blair's chest and face.

"mmm?" Was that him?

"Shhhh," Jim said, pressing his lips to Blair's forehead. "You still have the trichloroethanol running through your system. Carolyn says it wears off fairly quickly. We just need to ride it out, babe."

He tried to tell Jim he understood, but the noise he made only served to upset his sentinel, so he stopped trying to talk and nodded, or at least felt like he had nodded.

Blair could hear the chains shake as Jim unlocked them. Why was Jim shaking his chains? Once he was free, Jim gently gathered him up in his arms and held him tight. "I'msosorrysosorrysoveryverysorry."

What was Jim sorry about? The mantra only served to confuse him.

"Jim!" a voice from above called out. Simon.

"We're down here," Jim bellowed back. "Watch out for the broken step, sir."

Suddenly, at least to Blair's way of thinking, Simon appeared.

"How's the kid?"

"He'll recover. Lash got some trichloroethanol into him though. You would have been proud of him, sir. He kept his head. Taunted Lash. Gave me enough time to get in here."

"Where's Lash?"

Jim turned and Blair's eyes widened slightly as the room spun. "Down there. He's not going anywhere."

"Okay. There's an ambulance out front. I want you to take the kid down and let them check him out. Then I want you to take him home. There's going to be a shitload of paperwork on this, so I can't give you the day off, but I don't want to see your face before ten a.m. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"And Jim?"

"Yes, sir?"

"You did good. Both of you."

"Thank you, sir."

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair watched Jim pulled the keys out of the ignition. "Stay right there. I'll come around and get you." A part of him wanted to protest, but instead he simply nodded, the whole concept of speech too draining to contemplate.

Jim opened his door, then reached in and unhooked Blair's seatbelt.

"Sorry, man," he mumbled, embarrassed that he hadn't thought of doing it while Jim was walking around the truck.

Jim gently took his knees and turned them so they were facing out of the truck. "No problem, buddy." He put his hands on Blair's waist and slid him forward until Blair was standing in front of him. Without thought, Blair put his arms around Jim's waist and laid his forehead on Jim's chest.

Jim guided them back a few steps, then shut the truck door and moved them slowly into the building and its elevator.

Please let it work. Please let it work. Please let it work. Blair prayed silently, not sure he would be able to face the stairs. As if in answer to his silent pleadings the old elevator shook and rattled, but slowly started to rise.

Jim pulled the police tape from the front door and guided Blair through before him. Blair blinked as he looked around at the destruction, reminding him that this was where he had fought for his life. Fought and lost. Memories flooded over him, but he shook himself hard, forcing them away.

However, one memory persisted. The thought of Larry jumping and sinking his teeth in Lash's arm and Lash throwing the furry bundle against the far wall.

"Larry!" he gasped. "Oh my God. Larry. Where's Larry?" He lurched toward the wall where he had last seen the little ape. "Dear God, not Larry. Please God. Please. God. Please." But the body was not where he expected it.

"Sand...Blair."

Blair spun around to face Jim, to face the horrible truth. But all he saw was the tiny figure trembling in Jim's hands, holding its furry little arms out, wanting comfort. Blair closed the distance and swooped the figure up. Laughing, with only a slightly hysterical tinge, he held the ape tightly to his chest and rocked his upper body back and forth, making quiet shushing noises as Larry whimpered.

He had no idea how long he stood that way before Jim was beside him, whispering, "Why don't I give Larry a bottle while you take a shower?" Jim made no effort to take Larry from him, just gently rubbed his back and shoulders. Finally, he nodded and handed the little ape to Jim, gratified to see that Larry wasn't quite ready to give him up either.

He stumbled into the bathroom, shut the door quietly behind him and turned on the water. Without Jim's steadfast presence, he began to feel where Lash's hands had been on him, could feel the evil clinging to his skin.

Suddenly, he couldn't stand to be in his clothes. He tore them from his body and all but threw himself under the spray. He turned the faucet so the water grew hotter then fumbled for the soap. He scrubbed his skin over and over again, and still he could feel Lash on him. A small part of his rational brain tried to explain what was happening to him, but he squelched the lecturing voice. He knew he wasn't being rational, but he had to get the stain off. He continued to scrub until finally the cold water stopped.

He blinked in confusion at the shower head. Warm hands touched him and he flinched, but Jim's warm voice surrounded him even as he was surrounded in an old robe of Jim's.

He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I...I used all the hot water."

"That's okay, buddy," Jim said quietly, as the bigger man led him out of the bathroom.

"J-j-jim?"

"Yes."

"I can still feel him."

"No, you can't, babe. He's dead. He can't hurt you anymore."

"I can still...feel him...here...on my skin. On my face." He was trembling. "Make it stop, Jim," he begged, hating himself for being so weak. "Please make it stop. Make his touch go away."

Jim remained silent. Just when Blair thought the silence would drive him mad, Jim scooped him up in his arms and carried him upstairs, gently setting him on his feet as they reached the bed.

Blair looked up into his sentinel's face. "Please," he begged in a whisper.

Jim nodded once, then slipped the robe from Blair's body. Blair's hands trembled as he tried to unbuttoned Jim's shirt.

"Shhhh, babe. It's okay," Jim crooned softly to him, gently moving Blair's hands and finishing the task. "Sit down."

Blair automatically obeyed, his eyes hungrily taking in Jim's muscular chest. He swallowed hard as Jim removed his jeans and he finally laid eyes on the bulge in Jim's pants which had only recently started intriguing him, reminding him that he had no idea what he was doing.

"J-jim."

"Don't worry, babe. I'll take care of everything."

Blair could only nod.

When he finally stood completely naked, Jim moved forward, pushing Blair onto his back and quickly covering Blair's body with his own. Blair strained upward, his mouth desperately seeking Jim's. For a second Jim indulged in the kiss, then ever so slowly started to tame it, to calm it down. Blair's heartbeat slowed as the kiss gentled. Jim's mouth moved over his face, kissing his forehead, his eyelids, his chin, leaving no patch of skin untouched. When he moved toward his neck, Blair turned his head to give Jim better access.

Blair's whole body shivered in anticipation as Jim worked slowly and methodically to erase all traces of the madman. Blair moaned, trying not to move, wanting Jim to taste every region, but also wanting release from the sweet torment.

When Jim finally settled in to explore the region of Blair's body screaming for attention, Blair pulled him upward, so that they were one again face to face.

Wanting Jim to understand his decision, he whispered. "I'm yours, Jim. For as long as you want me."

"Blair, you don't..." Jim started to protest, but Blair silenced him with a kiss.

"Forever," Blair vowed, then wrapped his legs around Jim's waist, thrusting upward as he felt their bodies align.

Jim groaned, closing his eyes with pleasure, his arms, which held him over Blair, trembling slightly.

"Bl-" Jim began, but Blair grinned mischievously and thrusted again. Jim's mouth opened as he shifted to support his weight on his forearms instead of his hands. Blair teethed his sentinel's collarbone lightly as he drove upward. Jim whimpered. Blair pumped upward, glorying in the responses he was getting, slowing down, then speeding up again when Jim looked like he was gaining emotional control. He teased Jim, keeping him close to release but not allowing it. His hands roamed over Jim's chest and back, keeping his sentinel from concentrating too hard on the lower sensation.

They moved as one in their silent dance, pushing and retreating, then seeking each other out again. Blair began to pant, determined to keep the dance going a little longer, teasing himself as well as Jim with the thought of their release. But Jim was having no more of it. The sentinel grabbed both of his hands and held them above his head.

Jim growled as he pumped hard against Blair. "Who do you belong to?"

"You, Jim. Always have. Always will."

Jim placed both hands on either side of Blair's head, but Blair knew better than to lower his arms. Jim thrust hard against him. "Guide."

"Sentinel," he acknowledged quietly.

"Mine." Jim thrust again, more quickly.

Blair arched beneath him. "Yours."

Then suddenly the world was full of colors and sounds as they both released, straining against each other.

What seemed like an eternity later, Blair came back to his body, purring. Jim immediately wrapped him in his arms and whispered, "Blair."

"Jim," he hummed, content, finally at peace as he drifted off to sleep.

 

*-*-*-*-*-*

 

Blair awoke cold. He rolled over, attempting to seek his sentinel's body heat but Jim was not in bed. His morning grogginess cleared instantly as he sat up and scanned the loft. His fully dressed sentinel was standing by the door, hand on the knob.

"Jim?" he called out, hating the quaver in his voice.

The detective opened the front door, but instead of moving through the opening, just leaned his forehead against the painted wood.

"Please." He knew he was begging, but he couldn't help it.

Slowly, Jim closed the door, turned and pressed his weight back against it.

Never taking his eyes off his sentinel, Blair slipped Jim's robe around his body and slowly moved down the stairs. "You're leaving me, aren't you?" he asked as soon as his feet hit the varnished wood of the lower floor. The urge to throw himself at the other man was overwhelming, but he stayed rooted to the bottom of the stairs.

"You never wanted this. Any of this," Jim said in a raw voice, waving at the room and world in general. "I forced you into it, never giving any consideration to your feelings."

Blair took a few steps forward. "That's bullshit, man. You've bent over backwards helping me through things."

"I almost got you killed!" The agony in his sentinel's voice almost drove Blair to his knees.

"That wasn't your fault, Jim."

His voice still raw, Jim demanded, "How can you say that?"

"How can you be responsible for the actions of a madman?"

"Don't you see? If I had left you alone, you'd never have been shot, left homeless, or kidnapped and drugged."

Blair chuckled as he took another couple steps closer to his sentinel. "Man, not even you can blame yourself for me losing my home. That would have happened even if we hadn't met. If it hadn't been for you, I might have lost Larry or been seriously hurt."

"Okay," Jim whispered, trying to smile, but failing miserably. "I'm not responsible for the warehouse blowing up."

"But you are responsible for giving me the first home I've ever had."

Jim rubbed one hand over his face. "What are you talking about, Sandburg? You've had homes before. You're talking nonsense and I can't think when you're parading around here looking like some debauched angel."

Blair grinned impishly at him which only made Jim groan again.

"Okay. Okay," Blair chuckled, raising both of his hands in a warding gesture. Then letting the amusement flow away, he said in a more serious tone, "What I've had before, Jim, were places to stay. Places where Naomi rested in between her travels. Not one of them was a home." He took a couple more steps forward. "You gave me that."

"Against your will."

"And thank God you did."

Jim shook his head as if he hadn't heard correctly. "What are you talking about?"

Blair moved slowly toward his sentinel, careful not to spook the detective. "You've taught me how to participate in life, not merely observe it. You got me involved, brought me down from my ivory tower. You showed me who I am."

"And what's that?" Jim asked, looking down as Blair stopped in front of him.

"Your guide."

"But you didn't want to be a guide."

"That's not entirely true."

"What do you mean?"

Blair swallowed hard and faced away although he never moved his body. "I wanted it too much."

"Blair?"

He turned back to face the older man. "I love you, Jim."

"You're just saying that because--" He stopped when Blair's fingers caressed his lips.

Blair shook his head. "No. I've loved you for quite a while now. But I allowed my fears to rule my heart, convinced myself, somehow, that you wouldn't need me once you gained control of your senses, so I said nothing, thinking maybe...maybe it wouldn't hurt so bad when you left."

Jim slowly engulfed him in a hug and held him tight. "Ain't we a pair, raggedy man?"

Blair nodded against his chest.

"So what are we going to do?"

"We're going to make a few conscious choices."

Jim bent sidewise a bit to pick up the little Barbary ape dancing at their feet and placed him between them. "What sort of choices?"

Blair lightly scratched Larry's head. "I'm going to choose not to let my fear run my life anymore. I choose to be your guide. I choose to be your lover. And I choose to participate in my life."

Jim ran his fingers through Blair's curly hair, his eyes holding the younger man's gaze. "I choose to be your sentinel. I choose to be your lover and accept your love. I choose to be more careful in involving you in my cases."

Blair chuckled. "Get over that last one already, man."

"Look, what would it hurt for you to stay in the truck more?"

"Yeah, I can see that happening."

"Blair--"

Blair leaned up and pressed his lips gently against Jim's as he transferred the little Barbary ape into his sentinel's arms. "I think you need to choose what we're going to have for breakfast while I take a shower."

Blair chuckled as he heard the sputtering behind him. Just as his hand gripped the bathroom doorknob, Jim called out, "You know, I love you too, don't you?"

Blair turned to face his sentinel, the living embodiment of all his hopes and dreams, and nodded, unable to speak.

"I think for some average schmoes, we've made some pretty darn good choices." Jim grinned as he walked into the kitchen and pulled a bottle out of the refrigerator for Larry.

Blair slipped into the bathroom and turned the shower on before whispering, "I do too, Jim. I do, too."

-- End --