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The Unexpected Blair Sandburg

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Jim limped into the bullpen with Naomi, behind Rafe who was pushing Simon’s wheelchair. Anxious, and very much wishing the next few minutes were already over, Jim could easily see and hear Blair talking to Joel in Simon’s office. As Megan, Rhonda, Henri and the others in the office gathered around them, he heard Blair saying, “I'm taking a last look around.” Joel replied, “Last look? You going somewhere?”

Jim’s throat thickened at the weary sorrow in Blair’s voice, and he ground his teeth with angry frustration at the words as Blair replied, “Well, yeah. I cleaned out my desk over at Rainier. I thought I'd do the same thing here. I'm a fraud, man. I don't think Simon's going to want me hanging around.”

Fraud? Goddamnit, Jim thought, briefly closing his eyes against the pain. He needed to make things right, but the words clogged in his throat, remaining unspoken because of his abiding fear of being seen as a freak. But when Simon bellowed to Blair to get out of his office, Jim took a breath and straightened. It was going to be alright. They’d fix this, get past it. Everything was going to turn out the way it should have in the first place. Everything was going to be fine. Nervous, very nearly giddy with relief to know they’d soon be back on track – the right track – Jim bantered with Simon about being a grouch and astonished himself by pinching his boss’s cheek. Unnerved by his uncharacteristic behavior, knowing he was losing what little control of his emotions that remained, Jim tried to move the celebration along. “You’re finished in this department, Chief–”

When Blair looked stricken by his words – flushing, his gaze blurring and dropping away – and stammered that he’d figured that, Jim could have kicked himself for not finding a better, gentler opening. “As an observer,” he hastened to add as he tossed Blair the small leather wallet. Heart in his throat, he watched Blair open it and saw his friend’s confusion at the sight of the detective’s badge. He could hear Blair’s heart thundering and caught the hitch in his breathing as he struggled for control, only hearing the words as Blair said, “I don’t deserve this,” and Simon’s sharp agreement as he grabbed the badge away.

This wasn’t going right, not the way Jim had envisioned it. Blair looked like he couldn’t make sense of any of it. Concerned, desperate to make it clear, to hear Blair agree to the offer, Jim limped forward to stand beside his friend. He wanted to wrap his arms around the man, steady him, tell him to relax, to stop looking like a deer caught in the headlights. But instead of confirming how much he wanted this, Jim found himself joking about back rent. Though Blair was trying for his usual bravado, there was no spark of energy, and Jim could tell Blair was shaking as he said he wasn’t going to cut his hair, that he wasn’t going to do it.

Not going to do it? Do what? Not cut his hair or not take the offer? In his mind’s eye, Jim could see the Blair of four years before on the roof of the PD, his face and eyes alight with enthusiasm and energy, as he made the same bold riposte. Still, Blair’s shaky smile and bluff attempt at humor was enough to give Jim hope, and he couldn’t stop himself from grabbing Blair. He needed to touch him, hold him, but an embrace would be awkward, embarrassing. He quickly turned it into another joke, imprisoning Blair in a neck hold while he ruffled his fingers through those long, silky curls.

“Okay, okay, enough!” Blair laughed as he pulled loose from Jim’s playful grasp. Raking his disarrayed curls back from his face, he regarded his friends with a fond, if bemused, smile as their off-key singing drew to a close. Only moments before, he’d looked lost, cast adrift, but their support appeared to have cheered him immensely. Jim began to relax, certain now that things were okay.

Shaking an admonishing finger at Simon and Jim, Blair went on, “You guys really had me going there for a minute.” Chuckling, he shook his head. “Like I could ever get into the Academy, or be accepted as a cop. Yeah, right. I can really see you comfortable with the idea of me,” he went on, hands up, thumbs jerking toward himself, “toting a gun. Not.” Then, reining in his amusement, he added with an aching sincerity that plucked at Jim’s heart, “I appreciate it, though; I really do. You guys doing this. All of you letting me know I’m not a pariah or persona non grata. At least, not with any of you.”

Simon was gaping at him, his cheerful expression gradually morphing into a heavy frown.

Not sure what Blair was saying, suddenly afraid he was hearing a ‘no’ in the laughing words, seeing it in the sorrow deep in Blair’s eyes, Jim challenged, “Sandburg, what are you talking about? Why wouldn’t you be accepted at the Academy?”

But before Blair could answer, Simon held up his hand and cut in, “I think we’d better take this into my office.”

Blair looked from one to the other and blinked. “You’re kidding,” he gasped in evident, stunned surprise. “I mean, you weren’t kidding? You were serious?”

“Why wouldn’t we be serious?” Jim demanded, more sharply than he meant, but he hated the feeling that his foundations were shifting beneath him.

He’d always hated uncertainty, let alone about something so fundamentally important.

And he really hated the shivery feeling that Blair was slipping away, and that there was no way to stop him from going.

But, most of all, he hated knowing that this mess, this confusion about where they stood with one another, was as much his fault as it was Blair’s.

“My office, now,” Simon insisted, gesturing impatiently at Joel to wheel him forward.

Naomi was about to follow them into the inner sanctum, but Blair physically blocked her, shook his head and looked to Rhonda to take his mother aside and keep her company. “I need to deal with this on my own,” he told her softly, but firmly. Naomi looked as if she was about to protest, but then her shoulders slumped and she turned face away. With a sigh, she nodded her grudging acquiescence, and Jim wondered if her uncharacteristic submissiveness was because of the guilt she felt for her part in all that had happened. “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right,” Blair assured her, giving her a brief hug before he turned away to follow Simon and Joel into the office.

Jim sorely hoped those words would prove to be prophetic, but he didn’t like his friend’s sombre expression and the way Blair was now avoiding eye contact with him. Nor did he like the way Blair’s heart was again racing, his respirations swift and shallow until he unclenched his fists and set his shoulders, very clearly forcing himself to breathe more slowly and deeply. All trace of Blair’s earlier amusement was gone. He looked gray with exhaustion, but determined, and Jim was reading anger in the stiffening lines of his body and the way he held himself so rigidly still. When he reached out to lightly grip Blair’s shoulder – to offer reassurance or perhaps to obtain it – he was startled when Blair shrugged off his hand and stepped away, to put distance between them. Jim felt a chill of foreboding. Nothing about Blair’s behavior suggested anything was going to be ‘all right’.

Jim closed the door as Joel was asking, “What’s going on, Blair? Why–”

“You’re asking me?” Blair cut in, his voice rising, but he quickly held up his hands and then raked back his hair; familiar gestures that Jim knew meant he was trying to control himself. Taking a breath, he went on, “You guys have caught me completely by surprise. And I ... I appreciate the gesture, I really do. But you have to know that it’s impossible, right?”

“If I thought it was impossible, I wouldn’t’ve made you the offer,” Simon growled, but he looked concerned more than irritated. “Why do you think it’s impossible?”

“Oh, man, so many reasons,” Blair sighed. Looking away, seeming to be lost in thought, he shook his head. But then he went on. “Law enforcement is all about truth and justice, right? About trust? Most of the PD has wondered for years why I’ve been hanging around, but I tried to keep a low profile and not cause any more confusion or irritation than necessary. A ‘low profile’ sure isn’t possible anymore; now they’ll all be thinking that I ... that I used Jim; set him up for my own gain. That I lied. Committed fraud. I can’t be a cop when that’s what people believe about me ... other cops, the media – hell, the defense attorneys, jury members and judges if I have to testify in court.”

“Blair, don’t you know that a whole lot of people around here – in Patrol and Forensics, down in Pathology and in other units like Homicide, Vice, Narcotics and the Bomb Squad, not to mention all of us in Major Crime – figured out a long time ago that there was something special about what Jim could do, and that somehow you were helping him do it?” Joel queried, his tone gentle, as if he was trying to calm a nervous colt. “Nobody who matters believes you’re a fraud.”

Stunned by that assertion, Jim gaped at Joel. Was that really true? No, surely Joel was exaggerating. But ... what if it was true? What did that mean about how others in the PD saw him? Jim couldn’t wrap his head around it, needed to think about it. But, turning to Blair, he grasped at the hope that Joel’s revelation would cancel out Blair’s concern about accepting the badge and being his partner. Maybe there was still a chance this could work.

Blair appeared startled by Joel’s remarks and flicked an anxious glance at Jim. “Uh,” he stammered, seemingly at a loss for words but then he nodded thoughtfully. “That could actually be a good thing,” he murmured hesitantly with a frown of concentration. “It means that Jim can get the backup he needs at crime scenes and at times when he might be vulnerable, like from toxins in the environment or when there are sudden sharp changes in light or sound. But it’s still important that the crooks out there never guess at Jim’s vulnerabilities, or come after him just to score a name for themselves. So that means the media – anyone, really, outside the PD – can’t ever know that my paper was more than fiction.”

Grimacing, his gaze still fixed on some distant point, he sighed heavily and faced Simon. “Regardless of all that, I can’t be a cop because there’s no future in it for me. Jim doesn’t trust me. It’s only a matter of time before he’ll be accusing me again of betraying him.”

“That’s not true!” Jim protested, stung, but he felt shame heating his face. How many times had he insisted he could no longer trust the kid? Twice? Three times? More?

“Of course it’s true,” Blair slammed back. “Deep down, I don’t think you’ve ever seen me as anything more than a tagalong, someone necessary, at least for a while maybe, but not wanted.” Evidently struggling for control, Blair once again lifted his hands for peace. “Man, I don’t know, maybe a sentinel is constitutionally incapable of absolute, unquestioning trust. Whatever. It was great at first, when you did need me ... but you don’t now, and I can’t keep playing this no-win game.”

Gesturing sharply, Jim snapped, “Dammit, Chief, this isn’t about me and it sure isn’t some game. You gave up everything in that press conference. What the hell else are you going to do, huh? If you don’t accept this offer?”

Blair blinked and looked at him sharply, his gaze narrowing, and then he turned his head to study Joel and Simon. “That’s really what you think, isn’t it? What you all think? That I need rescuing? You all think I’m just some stupid kid who isn’t responsible for his decisions or actions, who can’t take care of himself?” When no one answered, he prodded angrily, “Well, don’t you?” Whirling away, he tossed his hands in the air, muttering, “Talk about patronizing – not to mention totally emasculating! Big, strong men are gonna save poor little helpless Blair.” He raked his hands through his hair, the gestures underscoring his agitation and turned back to them. “I have to believe you mean well but do you have any idea of how insulting or...?” His voice trailed away and he shook his head as if unable to find or speak the words great enough to encompass how badly they’d demeaned him.

“Blair, that press conference ... well, we assumed the university fired you. Uh, expelled you,” Joel interjected into the silence, sounding uncomfortable. “You just said a few minutes ago that you’d cleared out your office there.”

“And Chief, you told me it was your life that you threw away in that press conference,” Jim insisted, knowing they’d blundered badly, though not sure why. But there was no denying Blair’s anger was as palpable as it was inexplicable.

“Yeah, yeah, I did,” Blair agreed with a tight nod and a gesture that included them all. “I meant my life here, working with you.” He looked away. Giving himself a shake, evidently forcing himself to calm down, he again focused on them. “I knew going into the press conference that I would lose all this: the sense of making a contribution, of helping to solve cases, the friends I’ve made here, the fun I had working with you. You were right, Jim. I had it all. But I couldn’t keep it, not and be fair to you. What happened ... what happened shouldn’t’ve ever happened. Your privacy should never have been in question, let alone compromised. I screwed up by putting your name in the draft, and I had to fix it. But fixing it meant sacrificing this part of my life. If I stick around now, there’d be too many questions, too much speculation about why I’m still here, about why you’d put up with having me around. And, and much as I hate to ... to completely sever our ties, as much as it’s the only place that’s ever felt like ‘home’ to me, I also have to move out of the loft.” When Jim opened his mouth to protest, Blair held up his hands and shook his head vigorously. “No, no, I can’t keep working here or living with you. I’ve already moved my stuff out of the apartment.”

“But,” Simon asked with a heavy frown, “doesn’t Jim still need whatever it is you do for him? If you quit, what happens to him?”

Jim stiffened at the question, resenting the implication that he couldn’t do his job on his own, but Blair answered before he could.

“Oh, trust me, Simon, Jim doesn’t need me, and hasn’t for a long time. He’s been showing me that, managing more and more without me for, what? A year? Maybe more? Going undercover in prison and in a mob boss’s home, going fishing on his own up in Clayton Falls – I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s pretty much ditched me to work with Megan or you, Joel or, hell, even with the most wanted thief in America. He rescued us and half the Jags from Kincaid without any help from me, and he hasn’t zoned over anything for months except, well – Molly – but nobody but me believes he saw a ghost and he won’t admit it.” Waving off the incident, dismissing it, Blair snapped, “Not like that’s likely to happen again, anyway.”

Biting his lip, he scrubbed his face with his palms and pushed his hair behind his ears. His tone was softer when he continued. “I was the one hanging on. But I knew ... I knew it was time to wrap things up. That’s why I finally got down to business with the dissertation. I could have written it years ago, but I ... I wanted....” His voice petered out and he sighed. Sagging a little, shrugging, he shook his head. “Guess it doesn’t matter what I wanted. What’s important here is that Jim can do his job perfectly well without me. Besides, if something ever comes up, it’s not like I’ll’ve dropped off the edge of the earth. You,” his gaze took in all of them, “can always call me.”

“But Blair, what will you do?” Joel asked, concern written across his face. “And you must have a mountain of debt, right? Student loans to pay off?”

Blair gave them a rueful smile. “Joel, I appreciate your concern, man, but I’ve got a Masters degree, I’m nearly thirty years old, and I’m qualified for a lot of different jobs, so I sure don’t need to be ‘rescued’. And, no, I don’t have a lot of debt. I’ve always worked my way through school, won a few bets on the ponies and published a lot of articles in journals to pay for food, accommodation, clothing, car – you know, all the usual stuff – which is why it took me a few extra years to get my Masters. And I’ve always won scholarships and grants that paid all of my academic costs. So, financially, I’m okay.” Then Blair’s grin widened to an expression that reminded Jim of the kid’s old cheekiness as he went on, “But I doubt I’ll have to look for work. The probability is that I’ll finish my PhD and be appointed to a tenured position at Rainier in a matter of months, if not weeks.”

Jim couldn’t have been more surprised if the kid had turned into a chicken and, from the looks on their faces, Joel and Simon were also astonished. Frowning, Jim demanded, “What? After that press conference? How is that possible? Are you sure that’s not just a whole lot of wishful thinking?”

Blair’s lips again tightened with irritation. “Geez, Jim, you really do think I’m an idiot, don’t you?” Taking a breath, he continued, his tone of patience so exaggerated that it bordered on being insulting as he ticked points off on his fingers. “Okay, well, the facts are that I never submitted that paper as my dissertation, so the Chancellor had no right to expel me. In addition, she’d aided and abetted the illegal dissemination of my intellectual property, not to mention that she embarrassed the university by enabling the utterly ridiculous announcement of a Nobel nomination from her private office – she really should have known that there is no Nobel Prize for anthropology. So, far from bringing embarrassment upon the university, it wasn’t particularly inappropriate of me to request a press conference to kill all the media hype and to restore your privacy by clearly denying the paper had any basis in truth, let alone any academic worth. Finally, she really didn’t have any right to fire me, either. The entire faculty is up in arms over her behaviour, because if she can pull this kind of crap on me, then she could do it to anyone.”

“But why would faculty members be threatened by what she’s done to you?” Simon asked, not convinced and evidently sharing the puzzlement that Jim felt. Blair was a great guy but, when all was said and done, he was just a student; Jim couldn’t see why Rainier’s whole faculty would get behind him.

Leaning back against the conference table, his hands gripping its edges, Blair chewed his lip as he eyed each of them. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it would all seem strange to you, even bordering on incomprehensible. I know you guys don’t know much about academia or the politics at Rainier; I knew you found it all boring and irrelevant so I didn’t share much about my life there. I guess, this time, though, I should spell it all out. First, before the press conference, I covered myself with my thesis committee and my advisor. They all know that I never would have submitted a falsified paper or one that violated a subject’s privacy, so they very much believe it was all a work of fiction, and that I just made it more dramatic for the media’s consumption so they’d get the hell off Jim’s back.”

Humility warring with pride on his face, Blair spread his hands wide. “In addition to that, I have more numerous – as well as more prestigious – publications to my name than most tenured professors, more field work experience than anyone there with the exception of my advisor, Eli Stoddard ... who just happens to be the world’s leading authority in anthropology. Academically, I’ve never received less than an ‘A’ on any of my courses since I started at Rainier when I was fifteen, and I’m annually rated the best teacher on campus by the students. Though I consider myself foremost an anthropologist, I’m ABD – ‘all but diss’ – in three different faculties: anthropology, criminology and sociology, which makes me the strongest PhD candidate there. I already have more than a dozen offers from other universities worldwide because of my international rep. So you see, with all that behind me, if I’m vulnerable to arbitrary and illegal action on the Chancellor’s part, then nobody there is safe from her. Yeah, I’ve cleaned out my office to sustain the outrage and drama of it all, but I expect to be reinstated within the next few days – and I pretty much expect a much better office, too, as well as other ‘considerations’ for the ‘mental anguish’ she caused.”

Simon looked at Jim, as if wordlessly asking if he’d had any idea about any of Blair’s achievements, but Jim could only shrug helplessly and shake his head. How could he not have known all that? Sure, he remembered countless nights of the irritating if quiet keyboarding as Blair worked on one thing or another, but he’d been totally uninterested in and oblivious to Blair’s life beyond the boundaries of what Blair did for him.

Pushing away from the table, Blair said with quiet solemnity, “I am grateful, Simon, especially because I know you probably pulled more than a few strings to be able to make me that offer. If things were different, well, I can’t say I would have dismissed it out of hand. I have truly loved being a part of your team; I’ve learned a huge amount and I respect you and everyone else here so much. The work you all do ... well, it’s pretty awesome. But the way things are, I think it’s best if I just move on. There’s no reason for anyone to feel badly about anything that’s happened. The main thing is that everyone is okay and that Jim’s secret is safe, at least outside the bounds of the PD.” He flicked a quick look at Jim, but then returned his gaze to Simon. “Like I say, if you ever need me, if I can ever be of any help, don’t hesitate to call me.” Blair pressed his lips together, as if forcing back words he wasn’t willing to say, and then he took a deep breath. His gaze dropped and his voice was low and husky as he said, “I guess I’d better be on my way. You guys all take good care of one another, okay?”

And with that, he quickly turned away from them and fled the office. Out in the bullpen, he took Naomi by the arm and, with a few words and smiles for Megan, Henri, Rafe and Rhonda, he drew his mother out to the hall and toward the elevator.

“You just going to let him go?” Simon demanded, but he sounded more weary than biting.

“I don’t know how I’d get him to stay,” Jim replied, keeping his voice and expression flat. He didn’t want the others to know how shaken he was, or how much it hurt to watch Blair walk away from him. Or how ashamed he felt for having taken the man so much for granted, for never having paid much attention to anything else in Blair’s life. “From the sound of it, he’s better off going back to his old life, anyway. He’ll be a lot safer than he’d be if he wore a badge.”

Simon nodded grudgingly and Joel sighed, both of them looking deeply saddened by the unexpected turn of events.

Jim heard Blair talking to Naomi, reassuring her, telling her that he didn’t accept the offer, and that he was sure everything would work out at Rainier. “But what about you and Jim?” she asked as the elevator opened and they stepped inside.

“Ah, Mom,” Blair sighed. “Jim’ll be happier having me out of his face. I wish ... nevermind. It’s not important. You heard him that day in the loft, telling me to let go, to give it up; telling me that it was over and time to move on. This is what Jim wanted. And he was right; as great, as incredible as it was, that stage of my life is over and it’s time to move on. Like you’ve always taught me,” he said as the elevator doors closed, “nothing lasts forever.”

Jim pulled his hearing back, unable to bear listening to anything more, sick to his soul that Blair very clearly believed that this was what he wanted. Well, why wouldn’t he believe that, given all that had happened over the past year and the gradual deterioration of their relationship, their friendship? Time and time again, he had accused Blair of betraying him. Over and over, he’d pushed Blair away, saying he wanted the man out of his life, and that he just wanted to go back to being a good cop. Bitterly, he reflected that he’d only gotten what he’d said he wanted. Belatedly, he wished with all that he was that he could take everything back.

But it was too late.

Blair Sandburg had just walked out of his life and it was pretty damned clear that he had no intention of ever coming back.

“Well, I guess that’s it, then,” Simon sighed, sorrow heavy in his voice. “Guess I’d better be heading home.”

“I’ll drive you,” Joel offered, his manner subdued. “You, too, Jim.”

Jim nodded but found he was incapable of speech. Head down, leaning heavily on his cane, he limped out the door and through the bullpen to the hallway and the elevator. He felt as though he was walking a gauntlet; his colleagues were ranged to either side and were utterly silent as he passed. He didn’t have the strength or the inclination to look into their faces. He wasn’t sure what he’d see. Pity? To have lost the best partner any man could have? Disgust? That he’d let Blair take the heat to protect his secret? Whatever. He didn’t want to know what any of them thought.

But he couldn’t stop replaying those moments in the hospital when, his voice rough and hoarse, nearly breaking, Blair had agreed that the book had been his life. Jim had thought he’d meant his life at the university, and he’d felt guilty about costing Blair so much. But now, realizing that Blair had meant their life together, their partnership and friendship, knowing now that the pain in Blair’s voice and in his face – in every line of his body – was because losing what they’d had hurt him so much, Jim felt broken. If his life had depended upon it, he could not have found words to describe the deep, shattering pain that was welling within his chest, stealing his breath away, filling his throat, choking him. Refusing to give way to the emotions that roiled within, he clenched his jaw, held himself rigidly, and squinted against the burn in his eyes.

He’d told himself that he didn’t want a partner. He sure in hell didn’t want some wet behind the ears kid tagging along behind him forever, and he had come to hate the feeling that he depended upon that kid for his sanity and his ability to function. So he’d made a point of working more and more without Blair, to prove to himself that he didn’t need the grad student in his life. He’d meant it when he’d told Simon that he wanted to pull Blair’s observer pass, that he wanted to go back to the way things had been before. He’d meant what he’d said to Blair in the loft; had meant every word. Big, tough Jim Ellison didn’t need anyone, no matter how close a friend Blair had become, no matter how deeply – if covertly – he loved the kid.

Ceding the front seat to Simon and easing his wounded knee into the back seat of Joel’s sedan, Jim asked himself, What’s that saying? Be careful what you wish for? Well, he’d gotten his wish. He’d proven he didn’t need Blair and had gone one step further: he’d convinced Blair that he didn’t trust him. He’d gotten exactly what he asked for. Blair had taken him at his word and had taken action both to resolve the situation in Jim’s favor and, in doing so, to remove himself from Jim’s life.

As Joel drove across town to first drop off Simon, Jim was so lost in his misery that he was barely aware of the passing of time or distance and scarcely noticed Joel helping Simon out of the vehicle. But he roused himself to the world around him when Joel insisted he move into the more comfortable front seat when he returned from helping Simon to his door. As they journeyed toward Prospect, the first wave of pain passed, leaving him numb with regret. Staring out the window, he was blind to the passing streets. Instead, his mind replayed memories from the past four years, moments that weighed heavily upon him because he could only seem to recall times when Blair had been there for him. He couldn’t dredge up times when he’d been there for Blair except those occasions where he’d saved Blair’s life, which was, when you got down to it, his job. He’d been responsible for the kid’s welfare while Blair helped him on the job.

The memories were getting him nowhere, and sure weren’t helping him get a grip. Joel stopped outside Colette’s, once again forcing Jim back into the here and now. He thanked his colleague and climbed wearily from the sedan. Limping into the building, all he wanted was the peace and quiet, the refuge his home promised, so that he could shut out all that had happened and just sleep.

But when Jim entered the loft, he immediately registered that all trace of Blair’s presence had been erased in the two days that he had been in the hospital. The walls were largely bare and there were gaps on the bookcase where Sandburg had kept some of his CDs and a few photos. The place had been so thoroughly cleaned that the scents Jim associated with Sandburg were fleeting and ephemeral at best. He knew without taking another step or looking that the exotic teas, herbs and spices were gone from the cupboards, and the familiar shampoo, conditioner, and aftershave astringent were no longer in the bathroom. There were no scented candles or incense remaining anywhere in the loft, and the linens throughout the apartment were freshly laundered.

Blair’s own unique scent, the piquant mélange of personal pheromones, hair and skin oil and sweat mingled with the products he’d used, was completely absent, letting Jim know that what had been done here was deliberate action undertaken with an intimate understanding of his sensory abilities. Whether out of anger or indifference, pain or hate, compassion, consideration or despair, Blair had done all he could to erase himself from Jim’s life. All that had lent warmth and had transformed his rather Spartan and isolated lifestyle into the safe and welcome sanctuary of a home was gone.

There was no familiar heartbeat, thumping in counterpoint to his own. Jim was assailed by the silence, by the sense of emptiness and the loss of all vibrancy. Blair may have thought he’d want all traces of his roommate removed to give him back the life he’d had, but there was a kind of violence in how thoroughly Blair had eradicated all trace of himself. Jim felt brutalized, ravaged, as if some essential part of his being had been ripped from his soul.

Loneliness slammed into him, pressing him back against the wall, weak and panting with the effort to control the anguish that threatened to consume him.

He’d gotten what he’d asked for and more. And he’d never been sorrier about anything in his life, or despised himself for a fool more than he did in that moment.

Stricken, he reflected that he’d never doubted his ability to survive alone, on his own – nor ever questioned his absolute conviction that he didn’t need anyone, most certainly not one longhaired post-graduate student from Rainier. Never, not until this moment. Now that it was too late, when too much damage had been done and Blair had taken him at his word, Jim was no longer at all sure either that he could manage his senses and his life on his own or, perhaps more tellingly, that he even still wanted to.

But anger flickered then. Dammit, he hadn’t asked for this, not any of this. Why the hell would Blair eradicate all trace of himself from the loft? Why had he held that damned press conference in the first place, if this was the price that had to be paid? Surely, there must’ve been other options? Or was this some kind of payback, some penalty Blair was levying upon him for his lack of understanding and support? A kind of, ‘well, if you want me gone, then fuck you’. Was the thorough cleansing not motivated by kindness at all, but by anger and deep resentment?

Furious now, Jim straightened away from the wall and limped to the refrigerator. He pulled out a beer and snapped off its cap. For a moment, he could only stand there, his jaw too tightly clamped to drink. Alright, so he’d said things he regretted, but was that any reason for Sandburg to do this? Hadn’t they cleared the air at the hospital before Zeller had attacked the PD? Hadn’t things been okay after that, when Blair followed him to the roof and helped him negotiate the stairs afterward?

Jim recalled Blair’s assertion in Simon’s office, that he couldn’t accept the badge because it was only a matter of time before Jim found another reason not to trust him, another reason to cut him loose. Scowling at the floor, Jim rubbed the back of his neck as he struggled to accept that that’s not only what Blair apparently very much believed but also indicative that the kid was maybe nursing grievances from earlier conflicts that had never been resolved. But Jim had had good reasons for how he’d felt; it wasn’t as if Sandburg was blameless. They’d both screwed up royally, but Jim had honestly thought that Blair had understood that he ... well, that he....

“Well, fuck it,” he gusted. If this was the way Sandburg wanted it, then fine. Jim wasn’t going to chase after him; that was for damned sure.

Resolutely, he refused to think about how wretched Blair had looked at the hospital when he’d admitted denying the paper and calling himself a fraud was tantamount to giving up his life as Jim’s partner and friend. Refused, too, to think about how much he’d hoped Blair would accept the badge, so that they could put the whole mess behind them. What was the point of thinking about shit that didn’t make a damned bit of difference and would only make him feel worse?

Taking a deep breath and then letting it out slowly, Jim focused on letting the useless anger seep away. Limping to the balcony doors, he stared out at the water. After a moment, he took a gulp of beer, and then another, to wash away the bitter taste of might-have-been and if-only. Life was what it was; the sooner he accepted reality and just got on with it, the better.

He didn’t need Sandburg.

He didn’t need anyone.

But by the time he’d emptied the bottle, sorrow had taken the place of anger in his chest. Rubbing at the heavy ache inside, Jim closed his eyes and fought off the emotion that threatened to engulf him. Dammit, he loved that kid, more than he’d loved anyone in his life. Why hadn’t he ever told Blair, admitted his love out loud? Why had he done just the opposite, convincing Blair that he not only didn’t need him anymore, but also didn’t want him? Pride, he supposed. Fear, maybe, that Blair really had only been interested in him because of his senses.

Sighing, turning awkwardly away from the window, Jim leaned heavily on his cane. Feeling as if the silence would smother him, his gaze roaming the barren walls, he knew that even if he could do his job on his own, losing Blair, missing him, was going to hurt like hell for a long, long time.

**

Three months later ...

While working on one of his interminable reports at his desk, Jim was trying to ignore the low-grade headache that had taken up permanent residence behind his eyes. Leaning back to stretch his back and roll his shoulders, rubbing his temples, he found himself reflecting that life without Sandburg wasn’t as easy as he wanted it – or had expected it – to be. The embers of his anger at being so summarily abandoned were still there. But, like the coals of a campfire, the anger had been banked and hidden away, covered over by layer upon layer of regret and just plain longing to have the kid back in his life.

Oh, sure, he’d learned his lessons well, and could control his senses without a whole lot of trouble. He knew to anchor one sense with another, so he hardly ever zoned. When minor sensory irritations began to impinge upon his consciousness, he remembered to check his dials and to turn them down if they were out of alignment. On stakeouts, when he had his hearing and/or his sight jacked up, he was alert to the possibility of spikes so he was rarely blindsided anymore. In some respects, now that his colleagues knew the truth, working with his senses was easier because they were all alert and willing to help him, if he needed their support. Jim had thought they might resent him on Sandburg’s behalf, and blame him for the fact that Blair was no longer working there, but they seemed to understand that they were all more secure if the truth about his senses wasn’t common knowledge.

Nobody wanted every delusional bad guy nutcase with a gunslinger fantasy coming to Cascade to challenge their local sentinel.

Some of his colleagues would occasionally comment that they missed having ‘the kid’ or ‘Hairboy’ around, but they inevitably shrugged and went on with a remark about how he seemed to be doing well at Rainier, leaving Jim to wonder how they knew. Were Henri and Rafe and Joel and Megan in touch with Blair? Did they still see him? Socialize? He could tell the others thought that he and Blair had remained friends, but Jim hadn’t seen or heard from Sandburg since the day he’d walked out of Simon’s office three months back. He didn’t let on to them, though, that Blair had abandoned him so totally, because he didn’t want to admit that the best friend he’d ever had had walked away without a backward glance. Nor did he want to admit that he’d wondered how the kid was doing, and had considered trying to get in touch – hell, had even taken to haunting some of the ethnic shops and bookstores that he knew Blair liked and had used to frequent. But he never saw Sandburg, and never did call him, despite the fact that he missed Blair with an ache that only seemed to get worse as time moved on.

No, it wasn’t easy to live without Sandburg. Not in any big way, but in all the small, everyday ways that Jim knew he’d taken totally for granted. Blair had done a lot of things to make his life easier that he hadn’t even noticed until those things weren’t being done. Little things, no big deal, but they all contributed to that ache that just wouldn’t go away, and his deep regret that he hadn’t tried harder to convince Blair to stay.

Things like finding and using cleaning products that didn’t irritate his skin or give him a raging headache from the fumes.

Things like cheering him up on bad days with wacky stories from one field trip or another.

Things like effortlessly explaining why a sense had gone wonky and what to do about it.

Sharing the shopping, cooking and chores around the apartment had given him more free time – now, too often, he found himself living on take-out because he never found time to shop.

God, he missed Blair’s congenial company on hikes and fishing trips, going to a movie or a game, or just sitting around and bullshitting with a beer on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Ruefully, he looked at the stack of paper on his desk, the empty, dirty coffee cups and remains of half-eaten donuts, and he missed the help Sandburg had given him by writing up reports, running errands around the PD, and contributing weird and wonderful ideas to an investigation.

And then there was the way Sandburg had always covered for him when somebody noticed him using his senses, like reporters seemed to be doing on a regular basis lately. Ever since the whole dissertation debacle, Jim had felt every newshound in the city watching him, stalking him, trying to find out if there’d been some truth after all in that paper Sandburg had written. From time to time, he heard his colleagues spinning tales about how he’d been some great tracker in special ops or whatever, stuff that Blair used to ramble on about. But nobody could do it as convincingly as Blair could, so Jim was pretty sure the ‘secret’ wouldn’t be a secret much longer. Jim wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that inevitability. On the one hand, he shrank with absolute horror from the idea of again being the center of media madness, and of feeling like some freak of nature. On the other hand, if the word was out and was common knowledge, then Blair wouldn’t feel any need to continue avoiding him and his company – assuming Blair ever thought about him, missed him or wanted to resume some kind of friendship.

Sighing as he finished up the last report on his latest case, Jim wasn’t sure he could make any such assumption. To the contrary, he was pretty sure Blair didn’t want anything more to do with him. Eradicating every trace of his presence from the loft had been tantamount to erasing himself from Jim’s life. Voicing his assumption to others that Jim would never trust him had hurt, mostly because Sandburg had never said anything remotely like that to him face to face. The silence that had been growing between them before the media frenzy was now complete. Not a single phone call. No message of greeting via the others who were clearly still in contact with him. No email messages.

With no little irritable frustration, Jim caught himself once again glancing toward the doorway, an unconscious habit he’d been unable to break. Looking for Sandburg, waiting for him to breeze in, talking nonstop, with a smile for everyone, hands waving to illustrate whatever story he was telling, had long ago become part of the foundation of his world: the part that lightened his heart, and made him feel good for no particular reason; the part that, in an odd, inexplicable way, left him feeling safe.

God, he missed the quirky stories, the smile, the boundless energy, the bounce of enthusiasm ... even though the stories, the smile, most of the energy and all of the bounce had disappeared long before Sandburg had finally walked out the door, a little like the Cheshire Cat had disappeared a little at a time until there was nothing of him left.

Frowning, he knew that had been his fault.

Most of all, nearly all the damned time, he missed the sound of Sandburg’s voice.

Jim wished with every fiber of his being that he could figure out how to fill the Sandburg-sized hole in the middle of his life.

Startled by an entirely unexpected ephemeral whisper of Blair’s so familiar scent, Jim stiffened and hope flared in his chest. Again he looked toward the entry from the hall and he focused his hearing, straining to hear that rich, warm voice that was so often filled with laughter, or compassion, or heart-stopping sincerity.

But there was nothing.

Swallowing hard, shaking a little inside, certain he could still catch Blair’s scent on the air, he wondered if, in his need and desire, he was beginning to hallucinate. Or maybe, he thought bleakly, it was some kind of sense memory, rising to haunt him, torment him with the absence of all he held dear.

Blair wasn’t there, wasn’t anywhere nearby, and yet the scent seemed to be growing stronger. Confused, worried now, Jim’s gaze swept the bullpen. Only then did he notice Rhonda walking toward him with an armful of hard-cover books. As she carefully placed one on the top of Jim’s nearly overflowing in-basket, she said, “It’s Blair’s dissertation; he sent a copy for everyone in the Unit. His cover note said he was awarded his PhD in both anthropology and criminology last week, but I guess you already knew that.” She sounded uncertain, though, as if she wondered why, if he knew, he hadn’t told everyone.

“No, I didn’t know,” he muttered with a tight shake of his head, his gaze fixed on the book. Rhonda gave him an odd look but, with a shrug, she moved away to continue handing out the copies of Blair’s book. For a long moment, Jim could only stare at the results of Blair’s hard work and brilliance, while memories flashed in his mind. Blair grabbing him and calling him the holy grail. Blair high on adrenaline, gabbling about a best seller and movie rights. Blair telling him he had enough material for ten dissertations. Blair stricken, telling him it was an accident. Blair, pale and exhausted on the television screen, denouncing his work, calling himself a fraud.

The ever-present ache in his chest burned hot with shame and grief. Only now, months later, after he’d lost the most important person in his life, could Jim admit to himself – if to no one else – that he’d never wanted that dissertation written. He’d hated being studied like some kind of thing, a freak of nature. He’d probably have found one reason or another to keep Blair from publishing even if the whole mess hadn’t erupted around them, blowing their world apart. So who was the fraud, huh? Who had lied? Strung his best friend along for years? When it came right down to it, who had used whom? Once he’d learned all he thought he’d needed from Blair, he’d been pretty damned quick to cut the kid loose on just about any pretext that had presented itself. Oh, maybe not consciously, not with deliberate malicious intent to screw Blair and renege on their deal. But it all came down to the same thing. Blair had more than fulfilled his end of the bargain, but Jim hadn’t done the same. They may have both made their share of mistakes, but it was Blair who had given four years of his life – hell, had died, dammit – for pretty much nothing at all. Worse than nothing. For all that he’d pretended that he’d suffer no long term damage from that press conference, Jim knew differently. Blair lived with the lie and with being a fraud in the eyes of the public and with whatever fallout that caused in his world.

Sighing heavily, conscious of a fine tremor in his hand, Jim reached for the book. He could see the bare trace of Sandburg’s fingerprints on the cover, the fine sheen of his friend’s natural skin oil and knew that was the scent he’d caught. Holding the book close to his face, inhaling deeply, he drank in the faint but ever-familiar scent and nearly zoned. Jerking himself back from the brink, cursing himself for nearly swooning like some love-sick school girl, he forced himself to focus on the title etched in gold on the deep burgundy cover:

bookofcain

Frowning in puzzlement, having expected some variation on ‘the thin blue line’, Jim opened the book and there, in crisp script was Blair’s tribute to them: This document is dedicated to the men and women of the Cascade Police Department, most particularly the Major Crime team who accepted me into their midst for more than three years. Through their profound commitment to our collective safety and security, they taught me more than any book ever could about life, unconditional love, and the true price and value of liberty. I am especially grateful to Captain Simon Banks, a man of rare ethics and integrity, who granted me the right to observe his team, and to Detective James Ellison, the most courageous man I’ve ever known.

“Ah, Sandburg,” Jim breathed. Blair had probably meant the way Jim did his job, but Jim didn’t think of that as courageous. He did what he was trained to do and, truthfully, felt little fear for himself. No doubt, the tribute was sincere, but Jim felt the words mocked him – courageous? Yeah, right. So courageous that he had never come clean about his senses, not even to his colleagues; he just let the others assume what they would from what they observed or construed from the excerpts of Blair’s paper that had been leaked to the press. So courageous that he let his partner and best friend stand as a liar and fraud. For a moment, Jim wondered if Blair really had meant the words. Or ... or did he see their ending as Jim did, and the words were, at best, a bitter challenge?

Biting his lip, Jim stroked his palm over his head and kneaded the back of his neck. No, no, that wasn’t Blair’s style, and the kid had seemed to genuinely believe that the secret had to be kept. No, Sandburg most likely meant the words with his typical absolute, heart-rending sincerity. The kid could ‘obfuscate’ with the best of them, tease with a biting wit, and take an almost childlike joy in playing word and intellectual games, but there was no meanness in him, no cruelty. Grimacing, Jim wondered why that was so clear to him now, and how he could have ever thought Blair would willfully betray him, let alone have thought it at least three separate times.

Closing the book, Jim stroked the rich, embossed cover with his fingertips, traced the letters of the title and of Blair’s name, but was careful not to rub away the residual trace of Blair’s touch. Recalling that Rhonda had said he’d earned two doctorates, Jim felt a flicker of warm happiness for the kid – no, the man. Sandburg wasn’t a kid anymore, however much his boundless energy and perpetual curiosity would always lend him a youthful air. Jim also felt pride in his partner’s accomplishment, but he quashed that emotion, sternly telling himself he had no right to feel it. For all the credit Blair lavished upon them in the dedication, Blair’s accomplishments were all his own.

“Did you know about this?” Simon asked, looming over his desk. “What he wrote about? That it was done? That he’s been awarded his doctorates?”

“No,” Jim admitted again, feeling as if he’d been stripped naked. There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind now that Sandburg had totally severed their relationship and that he had no idea of how his former partner was doing. Leaning back in his chair, he looked up at Simon. “Did you?”

Simon sighed and shook his head. “No, I haven’t heard a word from him since he walked out that day. Joel calls him from time to time, and I think Megan does, too, but neither of them let on that this was happening so fast. Not sure about the other guys but I doubt they’d track him down and I can’t see Sandburg going out of his way to stay in touch with them.” He paused, a frown furrowing his brow as he rubbed his mouth. “I think my son sees him, might even still be getting some tutoring from him, but Daryl won’t talk to me about Sandburg. When I asked once, a couple months ago, he just gave me a scathing look, said, ‘What do you care? You weren’t interested in knowing him or how he was doing for the nearly four years he worked for you. Little late to be interested now, isn’t it?’ and walked away. He had me dead to rights, so I haven’t pushed it much since.”

Jim grimaced and nodded in understanding. Daryl didn’t know all the facts but he’d been around often enough in tight life and death situations to have a pretty fair idea that what the media had been going on about a few months ago was probably true. Not too great a stretch to figure out that Daryl thought they’d betrayed Blair, and left him hanging in the wind. And, in some ways, he wasn’t far wrong. Simon looked into the distance and an uncomfortable silence fraught with unasked questions and unexpressed regrets fell between them for a moment. Then Simon asked, “You think we should do something? Have a party for him? Or at least invite him to dinner? You know, to congratulate him? Might be a kind of olive branch....”

His brows quirked as Jim thought about the idea, and he nodded slowly, thinking that it just might work. This might be the bridge he’d been seeking, the one that would cross the chasm between them and let them revive whatever might be left of their friendship. Maybe Blair even hoped for such a reaction when he’d sent the books to the office. “Yeah, yeah, that’s a good idea,” he said. “I’ll ask him.”

“You know how to reach him?” Simon asked.

Jim shrugged. “I’d bet his office phone number and email haven’t changed. I’ll let you know what he says.”

Simon smiled, a wide, bright smile that said more than had his words about how much he missed the kid and how very much he also hoped this might mend the rift between them all. “Let me know what he says,” he directed as he turned to head back to his office.

Briskly, having hope where he’d had none, Jim reached for his phone and called Rainier. But there was no answer at Blair’s extension. Caught off-guard by the automated message, he couldn’t think what to say so he hung up.

Shifting his chair around to face his computer, he thought for a minute, then typed: ‘Blair, hey, thanks for sending us copies of your dissertation, and for that dedication. I’m looking forward to reading the book; everyone is. We wondered if you’d be interested letting us buy you dinner at the place of your choosing, to congratulate you and to celebrate your achievement.’ Jim paused, then added, ‘We’d all like to see you again. And Rhonda is telling everyone about your double doctorate. That’s terrific, Blair. You must be very proud, deservedly so. Anyway, let me know if you’d be up for dinner.’ Jim read it over, wondered if it was too impersonal, too cheerful in tone, but he didn’t know what else to say; didn’t want to admit how very much he yearned to see the kid again. So, taking a breath, he hit ‘send’.

Scarcely two minutes elapsed before the response came back, which made Jim uneasy. Had Blair deliberately not taken his call just moments before? Maybe he’d been with a student or ... or maybe he just doesn’t want to talk to you. Jim rubbed his chin, and bit his lip, feeling his hope die, but he took a breath and opened the message to see what Blair had to say.

‘Thanks, man. I hope you and the others enjoy the book; I learned a lot from all of you and I tried to do you all justice. I appreciate the offer of dinner, but I have to decline, sorry. I’m totally caught up in a special project with no time to sleep, let alone socialize with old friends. I treasure the past and my time with everyone there, but I think it’s best if we maintain the distance between us, at least for the foreseeable future. Give everyone my best. B.’

Sorrow washed over him and, much to his surprise, Jim had to blink and scrub at his eyes to clear his vision. But then the embers of anger burst back into flames. Why the hell did Blair have to be so relentless about this? So stubbornly determined to relegate everything they’d had into the past, leaving no room for the future? Well, fine. If that’s the way he wanted it, fine. Fuck’im.

Standing, Jim grabbed his jacket before striding to Simon’s office. Leaning inside, he said, “Blair’s not interested in getting together. Said he hopes we enjoy the book and that he did us justice. Says he’s too busy on some project and thinks it’s better to leave things as they are, anyway.”

Simon looked discouraged, then concerned. “What do you think about that?”

“Doesn’t seem to matter what I think,” Jim snapped as he pulled on his jacket. “I’m finished for the day.” Without waiting for Simon’s reaction, deliberately leaving Blair’s book behind on his desk, he turned away to hasten across the bullpen to the hall beyond. Slamming through the door to the stairwell, he clattered down the steps to the garage. But as fast as he kept moving as he gunned his truck out of the garage and onto the street, he couldn’t outrun the hurt he felt, the burn of anguish at being rejected, or the fear that ... that Blair really did hate him for not having been there for him, for having doubted him, for having pushed him away so many damned times.

“Shit!” he growled when horns blared and he focused enough to realize that, in his distraction, he’d just run a red light. Abruptly, he pulled over to the side and rubbed his face with shaking hands. “Damn it,” he sighed, his voice shuddering, and he slammed the side of his fist against the steering wheel. “I’ve got to let it go. Got to accept that it’s all over and he’s gone for good.”

But everything in him rebelled at the idea of giving up all hope that someday, some way, they’d find a way back to one another and be able to patch things up. He couldn’t, just couldn’t accept that Blair would never again be a part – a big part – of his life. Without even really thinking about it, he checked the traffic and pulled back onto the street, heading to Rainier and Hargrove Hall. It was time to sort a few things out.

**

Blair wasn’t in his old office. Scowling, Jim cocked his head and listened. Didn’t take him long to pick up on the familiar heartbeat or the scent he’d nearly zoned on back in the bullpen. He strode briskly down the hall, around a corner and zeroed in on Sandburg. For a moment, Jim paused in the open doorway, vaguely noting the golden oak bookshelves heavily laden with bound texts and artifacts, the impressive desk, and the view out of the windows of the fountain – which made him shudder and wonder how Sandburg could stand seeing it every day. But mostly, unable to resist, he leaned against the door frame and just drank in the sight, scent and sound of Sandburg muttering to himself as he made notations on an article.

The kid had cut his hair so that the wild, shining curls now ended at his jaw rather than at his shoulders, giving him a more sophisticated – and decidedly sexier – appearance. Garbed in an open-collared, loose silk shirt that rippled with shades of fire, sleeves rolled up nearly to his elbows, he looked like he’d lost at least fifteen pounds. His face, wrists and hands had a lean, almost austere look of maturity and unexpected elegance. The heavy five o’clock shadow and the bruise-like shadows under his eyes emphasized his pallor, as if he was both going without enough sleep and also didn’t spend any time in the sun. Jim figured that made sense if he’d been spending the past three months researching and writing a whole new dissertation. The man looked like he’d been through fire and, like steel, had come out the other side stronger, more refined. Seeing Blair again, especially this sexier version of the former hippie throwback, ignited the old hunger and left Jim’s mouth dry with desire. Finally, feeling he was behaving a little too much like a voyeur, Jim straightened as he rapped sharply on the door and stepped into the office.

A small frown at the interruption creasing his brow, Blair glanced up and did a double take. Jim was gratified by the wide smile that burst across Blair’s face and the light that sparked in eyes that seemed bigger and wider than he remembered. But Blair quickly and visibly struggled to quash his spontaneous welcome in favor of an expression of muted surprise. “Hey, man, what are you doing here?”

Beneath the studied calm, though, Jim could hear the leap in Blair’s heart rate and the way his breath was catching in his chest – all signs that Jim took to mean the kid at least wasn’t indifferent to him and maybe was even happy to see him, though he clearly didn’t want to admit it. “Why didn’t you answer when I called you earlier?” Jim asked with a predatory smile as he dropped into one of the two leather armchairs in front of the desk, confident of Blair’s reaction and certain the man was only too glad to see him. “You said you’d always be available to us if we needed you.”

Blair blinked and looked away, clearly considering whether or not to exercise his famous talent for obfuscation. Finally, though, he gave a little shrug and again met Jim’s gaze. “I figured if there was trouble, it would be Simon or Joel, or maybe one of the others, who’d be calling. Since I’m fairly confident you’d rather die than ask for my help, I was pretty sure there was nothing urgent about your call.” His tone was measured and confident – as well as so distant and impersonal that Jim felt chilled, and far less self-assured than he’d been moments before. After Blair paused to draw a quick breath, there was a harder, almost bitter edge as he huffed a harsh laugh and threw up his hands. “I have to admit that I almost answered just out of plain curiosity, to find out why you’d be calling now when you haven’t bothered to get in touch for the last three months. But then I remembered I’d sent the books and, well, I guessed it was about that and I didn’t feel like talking about the diss. It’s done, I’ve got my doctorate, and we move on; that’s it, that’s all.”

The echo of hurt under the bitterness cut Jim deep, and he lost all sense of being in command of the meeting. “Why haven’t you called? Let me know how you’re doing?” Jim asked, and didn’t even care that he sounded more vulnerable than he’d intended.

“Why didn’t you?” Blair countered.

“You’re the one who left.”

“You’re the one who kept pushing me away,” Blair slammed back, then lifted his hands, a plea for space. “I know I made mistakes, big ones,” he went on softly, his gaze dropping away briefly before he looked back into Jim’s eyes. The deep pain there was clear for Jim to read, not hidden away, not buried behind some pretense of being fine. “But you ... you believed the worst of me. You never trusted me, not really. And you wanted me gone; more than once, you wanted me gone. So, so I’m gone, man. I’m out of your life.”

“I was wrong,” Jim cajoled, holding his hands wide, still expecting Blair’s ready forgiveness. Unable to bear the mute anguish in Blair’s gaze, uncertain in the face of Blair’s pain and silence, he glanced out the window, and was struck hard by the sight of the damned fountain. “I brought you back,” he went on, his throat thick with the memory.

“I’ve often wondered why you bothered,” Blair sighed, and scrubbed his face with his palms before pushing his fingers through his curls.

Shocked, Jim jerked his gaze back to Sandburg. “How can you say that?” he demanded, feeling stripped raw. “I couldn’t let you go and we ... we merged. You know, you know how I feel about you!”

“I know that you told me you didn’t want to take that trip,” Blair charged, his voice tight, his gaze averted. “I know you left me behind to go after her, to have some kind of mystical sentinel homecoming at the Temple, that you’ve never wanted to talk about. I know I didn’t belong there and you didn’t want me there. I know you have been pushing me away ever since.” His eyes flashed up, the fury burning now in the brilliant blue piercing Jim’s heart. “That’s what I know.”

Too many emotions, too much left unsaid for too long. Too much that was misunderstood. Jim didn’t know where to begin, how to explain. In truth, he’d always thought Blair had somehow understood without the words, and had been giving him space to figure it out. But Blair hadn’t understood anything. “You don’t understand,” he rasped.

“Don’t I?” Blair challenged. And Jim was no longer sure whether he did or didn’t. Blair had always seen him with more clarity than he was able to see himself. But this was all wrong. If Blair understood, really understood, he’d know –

“I think you should go,” Blair said, the words cutting into Jim’s whirling thoughts. “It’s dangerous for you to be seen with me. Too many people would ask too many questions neither of us wants to answer.”

“Not yet,” Jim argued. “We need to talk.”

Blair huffed another hollow laugh and lifted his gaze to the ceiling as he shook his head. “Talk? Now you want to talk?” He sighed heavily and looked at his watch. “Sorry, I don’t have time,” he said briskly as he stood and shuffled papers into file folders and turned off his computer. “I have to be somewhere else and I’m already late.”

“Where else? Doing what? A class?”

“As if you care,” Blair muttered, as much to himself as to Jim. But as he packed his bag, he explained, sounding more weary now than angry. “Eli recommended me for a huge cataloguing and display project that needs to be finished in the next month. It’s not the kind of work that you’d find at all interesting.”

“You don’t know that,” Jim objected, but he felt a little sick to know Blair was right. Cataloguing sounded deadly dull, little more than making an inventory of stuff that had probably just arrived at the university from who knew where, and he really didn’t have any interest in what kind of ‘stuff’ it was. Damn it, he knew Blair hadn’t always found all aspects of his job scintillating – stakeouts came to mind – but Blair had hung in and had always done his best to know what was going on and to be helpful. What was wrong with him that he couldn’t – hadn’t ever – returned the courtesy?

“Sure I do,” Blair retorted as he came around the desk and pulled his black leather jacket from the coat rack in the corner by the window. “I’ve got four years of experience in knowing you’re not interested in what I do. We’re done here, Jim. I think we’re done, period. Unless you really need help. I’ll ... I’ll always be here for you if you really need me.”

“Why? Why would you say that when you obviously don’t give a damn about me?” Jim accused, hurt by the rejection, chilled by Blair’s cold anger, and more than a little ashamed. Once again, Blair was willing to go the extra mile for him, if needed, when he’d done little of the same in return.

A wistful smile flickered across Blair’s lips and was as quickly gone. “You know why,” he said, sounding tired and empty and more than a little lost. “We merged. You know all there is to know about me.” Looking up at Jim who had risen from his chair to stand in the doorway, he said with broken grief heavy in each choked word, “You know I’d die for you.” Pushing past, he grated over his shoulder, “And still you didn’t trust me; you still believed I could willfully betray you.”

Then he was gone, striding quickly down the long hallway while Jim stood in the office doorway, pole-axed by the pain he’d caused, the damage he’d done. Until that moment, he’d never really understood why Blair had walked away that day. He’d only been thinking about himself, about what he wanted, even needed, and he’d been so sure Blair would never deny him. Because, yes, he did know how Blair felt about him ... and like everything else about his partner, he’d taken it for granted that Blair would always be there for him. In truth, with what he now could see was self-indulgent arrogance, up until the day Blair left he hadn’t ever thought it would be possible for Blair to leave him. He’d thought he had all the time in the world to wrap his head around what it all meant, and how he felt.

God, he’d been such a fool.

He didn’t have a clue about where to start to fix all the damage he’d done, if it was fixable at all. With a shudder, Jim wondered if he’d waited far too long to sort things out between them, and if it was now too late.

“I’m sorry, Chief,” he murmured in a hoarse whisper, but Blair was long gone, far too far away to hear the words, and Jim thought that maybe he really should just let the man go. Maybe Blair was a helluva lot better off without him. Looking around the office, then closing the door softly as he left, Jim thought that it looked like Blair was doing just fine, building a new life, a successful life, on the ashes of what they might have had. All Jim seemed to bring him was pain.

Head down, hands shoved into his jacket pockets, Jim plodded down the hall. He knew he should just walk away, like Blair had done; knew it was probably too late to begin again. But he kept thinking about how Blair’s face had lit with unconscious joy in the first few seconds of seeing him. And he kept hearing Blair’s voice saying, “You know why. You know all there is to know about me.” Despite everything, Blair still loved him; the kid just wasn’t prepared to keep setting himself up to be rejected. Jim couldn’t fault him for that, not when he himself was so wary of being rejected, of being betrayed, that he took the initiative to reject others first.

Was love enough? Jim shook his head. Apparently not. If it were, Blair would still be with him. Sighing heavily, he pushed through the heavy door and ambled down the few steps to the sidewalk. Chewing on his lip as he trudged toward his truck, he struggled with what he should do, what he could say or do, to make things better. But the hell of it was that he really didn’t know how to go about winning back Blair’s trust and confidence in him, especially not when Blair was pretty clearly determined to have nothing to do with him. He didn’t have anything that Blair needed.

“Ah, hell,” he sighed as he climbed into the Ford. With nowhere to go and nowhere to be, and no one to be with, he headed home to his empty apartment.

**

Three weeks later ...

“Ellison!” Jim winced at Simon’s bellow and realized that, once again, his dials had slipped out of alignment. When Jim looked up, Simon gave him an impatient wave to join him. Evidently confident that Jim would follow, he turned and went back inside his office to drop into the chair behind his desk. Sighing as he stood, Jim rubbed absently at the persistent headache that seemed to have taken up permanent residence between his temples and behind his eyes.

Frowning, trying to get his dials aligned while wondering what had gotten his boss’s tail in a twist this time, Jim asked as he entered the inner sanctum, “What’s up?”

Simon rubbed his mouth and then waved him to a seat. “I hope you don’t have plans for Saturday night,” he began with an expression of disgruntlement, “because our presence has been requested to oversee the security arrangements at a big charity event.”

“Ah, Simon, come on,” Jim started to protest, but his boss cut him off.

“I’m sorry; did I suggest we have a choice? The request came through His Honor, the Mayor, to the Commissioner, who suggested to the Chief it would be politic to agree. The Chief turned it into an order, to me. Believe me, I’ve got better things to do, too, than supervise some private security yo-yos at some high society soiree. But,” he went on with a forced, pained smile, “like the Chief says, it’s all in a good cause.”

Jim grimaced in defeat and sat back in the chair. “Okay. When and where?”

“Faraday House, seven P.M. But we’ll need to go over the security arrangements that afternoon.”

“Faraday House?” Jim echoed, sitting a little straighter. “The philanthropists? Jeffrey and Jessica King?”

“The very same, only I gather it’s just the widow. Jeff King died three or so months ago; car accident, if I remember correctly.” Simon frowned. “How is it that you know the Kings live in the old Faraday mansion?”

“I’m sorry to hear that, about Jeff, I mean,” Jim replied softly, thinking back to long past days. “I knew him, well, all of them, when I was a kid. My father belonged to the same country club. I had a lot of time for Jeff and Jess; used to caddy for them. Nice people, not overblown with their own importance, which given their marriage was a merger of the two richest families in the northwest – Faraday Shipping and the King timber and transport dynasty – is saying something. The kids, though, were something else ... not theirs, but they took in Jeff’s brother’s kids when he and his wife died in a plane crash. I guess the oldest was probably about thirteen at the time, and they’d been spoiled rotten.” His lips twisted with distaste and he shook his head. “I don’t know; I guess losing both parents is tough. But ... there was something about them that grated. They sure thought the sun rose and set for them alone. We were all around the same age but they didn’t socialize with the locals like me and Stephen when they were home from their fancy private school; we weren’t good enough for them.”

Simon snorted with wry amusement. “I can just imagine what they thought about ordinary folks if the Ellisons weren’t good enough for them.” Clearing his throat, he waved all that aside. “The function is black tie.”

“What’s going on? Another charity auction?”

“Nooo, I don’t think so,” Simon returned with an expression of uncertainty. “I gather it’s some kind of ‘by invitation only’ open house, to unveil some art from her late husband’s private collection. Invitees have been asked to RSVP with a modest two thousand dollar a head donation to some new project Jessica King is supporting; she’s committed to match whatever is raked in from the guests.”

Jim whistled, then grinned. “I’ll bet there’ll be a great buffet.”

Simon smiled in return. “Good. Then the night won’t be a total loss.” He studied Jim for a moment, concern darkening his eyes. “How’re you doing? With the senses, I mean.”

Jim looked away, to stare out the window, and shrugged. “I’m managing,” he replied. His expression studiously bland, he looked back at Simon.

“You’ll let me know if they become a problem, right?” his boss pushed, a worried frown creasing his brow. “I saw you wince,” he explained with a gesture toward Jim’s desk, “and you look like you’ve had the headache from hell for weeks now. Is there something we could be doing to give you better support? Do I need to call Sandburg, ask him to drop by to see if there’s anything–”

“No!” Jim interjected as he rose to his feet. “No, there’s no need to involve Sandburg. The others are doing great, helping me when I’m on stakeout or at crime scenes.” He hesitated, rubbed his mouth and then kneaded the back of his neck as he tried to figure out how to explain what he didn’t fully understand himself. Beginning to pace, he offered, “I’m doing okay. When the senses get out of line, I can bring them back to normal. I haven’t zoned in months. It’s just ... this headache won’t quit. It’s like there’s constant low level irritation around me all the time, everywhere. It’s exhausting. I don’t know how else to describe it. All little stuff.”

He stopped at the windows and stared down at the street. “I never realized how much Sandburg did to ease things for me every day. Never noticed. So I’m having to learn to do things, like find the right soaps or cleaners that aren’t available at the supermarket; I have to trawl through health food and other natural product shops. Takes time. I’m getting there but ... well, it just takes time.” Turning back to his boss, Jim kept his gaze averted because he knew only too well that it took too damned much time and he was doing his best to survive with what he could easily buy. But, gradually, inevitably, everything seemed to be getting worse.

“Okay, I understand. Let me know if there’s more we can be doing to help,” Simon allowed, sympathy rich in his voice, which Jim found unaccountably annoying. He didn’t want special treatment; didn’t want his senses to be a burden or concern to anyone else. They were his problem. But he bit back the words and simply nodded as he turned away to return to his desk.

Though he’d been trying to pretend to himself as well as everyone else that everything was basically fine, Simon was right; things weren’t ‘okay’, and he couldn’t continue to ignore the inconvenient facts. As time went on, his senses were becoming harder and harder to manage. His skin was prone to itchiness at the least irritant in the fabrics he wore or even in the air, some days to the point of driving him up the wall. His senses of smell and hearing often slipped out of control, overwhelming him, and too often lights felt harsh and hot, searing his eyes. Taste was the only sense that seemed to have gone the other way; everything tasted bland now, so he took no pleasure in what he ate or drank – and often just didn’t feel hungry at all. Little things, nothing big or out of control, just little, ongoing, debilitating irritations that were wearing him down.

Jim dropped into his chair and drummed his fingertips on his desk, stopping when the soft rapping sounds sharply escalated, rolling like thunder, merging with the ear-splitting clatter of pens dropping onto desks, fingers banging on keyboards, phones shrilling, all mingling with the unholy rattle of the incessant rain against the windows. Swiftly, he closed his eyes and readjusted the dial controlling sound. Sagging with relief when the noise returned to a normal level, Jim eased back in his chair and rubbed his temples. For the hundredth, or maybe thousandth time, he wondered why he didn’t just turn the damned things off. Not that he really knew how, but he figured he could because he had in the past. Not only that, but Incacha had told him that he’d be a sentinel so long as he wanted to be one. So it seemed to him that when the hassle of the senses outweighed their value, he might unconsciously turn them off, or they might simply spontaneously disappear.

He’d never been that comfortable with them, had never accepted them fully. Had always felt like a freak of sorts. So why didn’t he just turn them off?

Jim grimaced at the half-formed thoughts and feelings, reactions and hesitations that swirled whenever he challenged himself with that particular question. He could never find a satisfactory answer in the muddled confusion in his mind. In part, he felt a responsibility to keep them and use them in his work, to be the sentinel of Cascade. But more, he thought his reluctance to turn them off had something to do with Sandburg: with the kid’s awe and joy at having found someone with all five senses enhanced and with Blair’s conviction that they were a gift to be cherished, not a curse to be resented. Most of all, in a weird way, Jim felt if he turned off his senses, he’d lose his last link with Sandburg, and he couldn’t bear the thought of that.

**

Simon and Jim arrived at Faraday House early on Saturday afternoon, to meet with the supervisor of the rentacops that would be on duty and to rigorously review every detail of the security arrangements – from how the valuables were being displayed and alarmed to the surveillance arrangements for all entries and exits. They soon found that the private security firm knew its business, so Jim and Simon decided they were there more to satisfy the Mayor’s concern for appearances than because their skills were actually needed.

Having expected to see paintings on display – based upon Simon’s understanding that the event concerned the late philanthropist’s private art collection – Jim was astonished to see room after room of beautiful dioramas and evocative Peruvian artifacts and antiquities, tastefully arrayed with careful lighting and beautifully scripted explanations of each piece. True, there were two large paintings near the entry in the front ballroom, but they were draped and Jim expected they would be removed before the evening’s activities. Instead of traditional artwork, there were maps in each room – to show where the individual pieces had been found – and wall-size panels displaying photographs of the flora and fauna in the jungle habitat of the aboriginal peoples whose ancestors had used the various pieces and who, to some extent, still used similar tools and artifacts to this day.

The collection was massive; it included painted and glazed pottery cups, jugs and plates, stone-chipped tools, weaponry, beadwork, bone and stone knives, wooden and stone pestles and mortars, carved spoons, clothing made of cloth and leather and decorated with beads and feathers, whistles, drums, rattles, figurines, woven mats and cloaks – everything the people used in their everyday lives from the mundane to the spiritual. Many of the pieces reminded Jim of his time with the Chopec – and all of it made him think of Blair, made him wish Blair could see it because he’d love it. But the high price of attendance at the charity function would be far beyond Blair’s means. Biting his lip, Jim wished he’d known about it sooner; he’d’ve gladly made the donation on Blair’s behalf, to have the opportunity of sharing it all with him.

In one second-floor room, though, he was brought up short, startled and more than a little shocked to see displays that very clearly related to the traditional beliefs in watchmen or sentinels, including photos of the ruins of ancient temples that were reminiscent in style and design to the one he’d seen up close in Sierra Verde. Chilled to the bone, he wondered what Sandburg would make of all this; whether it would excite him, or only serve to remind him of Mexico and all that had happened before and since.

“Wow, this is really something,” Simon breathed behind him. “Somebody has gone to a lot of work here.” Lowering his voice, he added, “But I’m surprised to see all this ‘watchman’ stuff.”

“Yeah,” Jim agreed, uncomfortable with the sheer size of the collection – room after room of displayed artifacts – and he wondered if the pieces had been looted from their original owners. But this roomful of sentinel artifacts made him particularly twitchy. He dearly hoped none of the representatives of the media, mostly society page reporters, would be paying enough attention to the details to notice. Frowning, he considered the museum-like atmosphere of the display, its size and comprehensiveness, the fact that it took over a good chunk of the mansion and that it all looked permanent. “You get the feeling that this is all more than just a one-night charity exhibition?”

“Mmm, yes,” Simon agreed. “Looks like too much work for a temporary showing – and I think the rooms all have special climate and light controls.”

“They do,” Jim confirmed, “to keep humidity low, and to ensure minimal damage to the pieces.”

“Very observant, gentlemen,” a cheerful, lilting voice said behind them.

Turning, Jim recognized Jessica Faraday King and couldn’t help but smile. She was a little plumper, and her once abundant chestnut curls were now silver, but she still looked like a well-dressed, not quite elderly elf with sparkling dark blue eyes and a bright, cheeky smile. When he’d been a kid, she’d always made him and Stevie welcome in this huge old mansion, and she’d been a lot more fun than her stuck-up, spoiled wards. He’d always wondered how she and Jeff could put up with such useless brats and he figured the snooty private school the kids attended – not to mention their deceased parents – had a lot to answer for.

“Jim!” she greeted him, her smile widening as she stepped forward to give him a hug. “It’s been far too many long years since you’ve visited! I’m so pleased you agreed to ensure these family treasures will be adequately protected tonight. And you, sir, must be Captain Simon Banks. Thank you so much for personally overseeing the security for this event.”

“It’s nice to see you again, Mrs. King,” Jim said, surprised by the warmth of her welcome.

“It was ‘Jess’ years ago, and it still is, Jimmy,” she corrected him with a gamin grin. “You know I don’t stand on ceremony.”

“I remember,” he agreed, his smile fading as he went on, “I was really sorry to hear about Jeff.”

Her vivacity dimmed briefly as grief shadowed her face and eyes. “Thank you,” she said quietly, a slight catch in her voice as she turned away to gesture at the treasures in the room. “He and my younger brother, Jordon, both loved this culture and the beauty, the wisdom of the people and what they created over the centuries. Most people don’t know that both men donated a lot of their time and personal resources to protecting the natural habitat and environment of the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. Much of what’s here was given to them as gifts by the leaders and shamans of the various tribes they got to know over the years.” Her smile was soft with memories. “Jeff and Jordy were more than half convinced that they’d been Chopec in a former life. The artifacts in this room, in particular, were Jordy’s – he was always fascinated by the idea of tribal watchmen and he worked with one when he lived with the Chopec.”

Surprised by the information, Jim searched his memory and came up with a hazy recollection of Jordon Faraday – a young hippie home from college with a dark mane of curls, seven or eight years older than he’d been – who had laughed and teased as he’d played ball games with them out in the massive backyard or at the country club. God, that man had had a killer arm; he could nail any pitch, any football pass. Jordy, he now recalled with an unconscious smile, had taught him a lot about how to judge space and distance, and how to rely on his natural hand/eye coordination. Remembering how much fun Jordon had been, how generous he’d been with his time – as if he was every kid’s big brother – Jim was sorry to realize he’d forgotten the man.

When Jim looked up, he found Jess studying him and he knew without doubt that she’d seen all the media hype months before and was curious about it – about him. He stiffened, expecting her to say something about it all, but her gaze shifted away and she gestured toward a small exquisite lapis sculpture of two warriors standing back to back. “A watchman and his companion,” she explained as she caressed the smaller figure with the tip of her well manicured finger. “Jordy was thrilled when the shaman told him he was a companion, and trained him to work with one of the tribal watchmen. He sent us letters – he said he was living his dream and couldn’t be happier.” Her voice faltered, then steadied as she continued, “He and his watchman died protecting their community from rebel insurgents; he was only twenty-nine years old. So long ago, more than thirty years, but I still miss him dearly. Everyone adored him; he was brilliant and so full of life and enthusiasm, brimming over with energy – he could light up a room with that smile of his....”

An uncomfortable, awkward silence fell between them. She was careful not to look at Jim, but Simon met his eyes, clearly sharing Jim’s astonishment at the story – and his conviction that this explained why she’d asked the Mayor to spare them for the evening. Clearing his throat, Simon broke the silence by observing with bland calm, “It’s a very extensive collection.”

“Yes, and this is far from all of it,” she replied with a light laugh and a wide gesture that encompassed all the other rooms. “I’m donating this house and these artifacts, and those still in storage, as an anthropological museum to Rainier University, and I’ve set up a trust fund for its long-term maintenance. Just seems right, somehow. The house was Jordy’s, but he asked Jeff and I to live here and take care of it while he was in university and then later, when he went to South America. Now that Jeff’s gone, the place is too big for me. I think they’d both like it to be used for this purpose.” A slight frown furrowed her brow as she murmured more to herself than to them, “I really must tell the children about these arrangements ....” But her air of concern dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. With a small shrug and gesture of dismissal, as if she was waving away her thoughts, she turned again to Jim and said brightly, “Your father and Stephen both seem to be doing well. I see them from time to time at the club, out on the links or in the dining room.” Without waiting for a response, she turned to Simon. “So, what do you think about the security arrangements? Anything we need to address before this evening?”

“No, the company you hired has everything well in hand,” Simon told her with a warm smile. “I doubt there’ll be any trouble, but it’s wise to take the appropriate precautions.”

“Mmm, the insurance company insists upon it,” she agreed with a brisk nod. She glanced at her diamond-studded watch, shook her head and unconsciously finger-combed her curls back behind her ears. “I’m sorry, but I’m late for an appointment.” As she shook their hands, she added, “I’ll look forward to seeing you both this evening – say around seven? The guests will begin arriving around seven-thirty.”

“That’s fine,” Simon agreed.

Jim watched her hurry away with a feeling of fond bemusement and an odd sense of unexpected familiarity. He’d forgotten her amusing and slightly disconcerting tendency to jump from one subject to another, her boundless energy, expressive and expansive gestures, her cheerful kindness – and her knack for making him and everyone else feel right at home. Despite the passage of more than twenty years since he’d last seen her, he was glad that she apparently hadn’t changed a bit.

**

Though it was only mid-October, heavy clouds overhead and a fine drizzle had brought an early dusk. Floodlights illuminated the open wrought-iron gate and lined the winding paved road through the lush and partially forested grounds to the brightly-lit stone Georgian-style mansion perched on a cliff overlooking the city and the ocean. Their uniformed driver dropped them off at the front of the house after assuring them that Dispatch would send a patrol car for them as soon as they called at the end of the evening’s function. Simon, resplendent in a tuxedo, headed straight for the entrance to advise their hostess that they’d arrived. Jim melted into the shadows to check out the perimeter and ensure the rentacops on outside security duty were alert and where they were supposed to be. The rainy fall evening was chilly as well as wet and, pulling up his collar as he strode around the side of the house, he was glad he’d worn a coat over his formal attire.

When Jim looped around the back of the massive house and the large parking area near the ten-car garage, he blinked and stopped short when he spotted the familiar but unexpected Volvo huddled in the midst of other, grander vehicles. But, upon reflection, he supposed he shouldn’t be so surprised that Sandburg had wangled an invitation given the kid’s interest in anthropology and the artifacts on display. On the other hand, only the very rich could afford an invitation to this shindig. More likely, Blair was part of a contingent representing Rainier, or at least the anthropology faculty, all of whom would no doubt be thrilled by Jess’s donation of such a magnificent ‘museum’.

Focusing on the house, before he was even conscious of what he was doing, Jim had sorted through the cacophony of voices to locate Blair in one of the second floor display rooms. Jim couldn’t help but smile with wry bemusement as he listened to Sandburg blithely telling somebody how to better light one of the exhibits, like it was any of Sandburg’s business. But then, the kid had never hesitated to share his two cents’ worth, whether he knew what he was talking about or not. When they’d first started working together, Jim had put it down to bravado, a nervous desire to make a contribution, but he came to understand that Blair just couldn’t help himself. If he knew something or had an idea, he just had to share it.

Taking a breath and exhaling slowly, Jim was very glad to have had a chance to adjust to the fact that he’d be seeing Blair in a matter of minutes. The simple sound of Sandburg’s warm, rich tones left his throat bone dry, and he was conscious of a shaky sense of anticipation mingled with dread. The last time he’d seen and spoken to Sandburg in the kid’s new office at Rainier, things hadn’t gone all that well. With some reluctance, he had to accept that the responsibility for that was his, for never having been really straight with Blair ... for a whole lot of reasons including the fact that Jim knew Blair was better off back in his old life, safe within the walls of academia. But he missed the man; missed him more with each passing day, with an ache of loneliness that only grew stronger the longer they were apart.

Blair’s rippling, musical laughter filled his ears, distracting him from his thoughts, from the cold, from everything as he clung to the timbres of each note, to hold onto them, to memorize every delightful tonal detail....

“Yo, Jim, you need to come back, man,” he heard, and felt the old familiar touch on his back and light grip on his arm. Blinking, Jim was abruptly and abjectly aware of what had happened, and sick to his soul that Blair had caught him. Dammit! Of all times to zone. He needed and badly wanted to be strong in front of Blair, not weak and vulnerable, certainly not dependent and, worse, helpless. Nevertheless, and knowing it was wrong, Jim also almost desperately wanted to lean into that strong touch, into the heat he could feel even through his overcoat; but sanity prevailed and he jerked away. He knew, though, the instant he saw Blair’s expression harden and close that, once again, his reaction was the wrong one. “Sorry,” Jim muttered in humiliation, rubbing his eyes to buy himself time. God, the kid looked great dressed in a tux that might have been made for him, the tendrils of hair curling around his face lifting on the chill breeze and glinting in the spotlights around the house. “Not sure what happened. Haven’t zoned in ... well, I can’t remember when.”

“Uh huh, well, I’m glad to hear it,” Blair replied in even tones, but Jim could hear the low notes of mingled hurt and anger. “When I looked out the window and saw you making like a statue, I wondered if this had become a regular thing that you just hadn’t bothered to tell me about.”

“Nah, you would have heard about it,” Jim assured him with wry, if bleak, humor. Not that he would ever have called Sandburg, but Simon or Megan or Joel would be only too quick to blow the whistle on him if they thought he needed Blair’s help. None of them seemed to understand that their alienation from one another wasn’t his idea. It was Blair who didn’t want anything more to do with him.

He drew another shaky breath, trying to regain his equilibrium and, with a quick glance around, finished his check on the rentacops. Everything seemed to be fine, so he moved toward the back entrance, Blair pacing along beside him, studying him in a way that was disconcerting. There were times when he was certain that Blair could see all the way to his soul, and then other times when he realized that Blair didn’t understand him at all. Wanting to make up for pulling away from Blair’s touch, he reached out to lay a hand on Sandburg’s shoulder, but it was his turn to be rebuffed as Blair increased the space between them. “So, uh, you’re here with the contingent from Rainier? For Jess’s announcement about the new museum?”

Blair nodded, but flicked a sharp look at him. “Jess? You know her?”

“Yeah,” Jim replied, explaining, “They used to have the kids from the country club here on a pretty regular basis, to play with their wards – Jeff’s brother’s orphaned kids. But Jess, and her late husband, Jeff, as well as her kid brother, spent more time with us than those kids ever did.” Looking up at the house and around at the dark grounds, Jim added, “I used to love coming here. Something about the place, about the people, I don’t know ... I felt good here. Things just seemed easy, or something. Can’t explain it.”

Blair’s brow furrowed in thought as he regarded Jim from the corner of his eye, and Jim wondered if he’d heard Jess’s story about her brother, Jordon. But Blair shrugged as he reached to open the door, evidently sloughing off whatever he’d been thinking about. A crooked smile flickered across his lips, and his tone was somewhere between teasing and ironic as he echoed, “Country club?”

For the space of those moments, as their eyes met, it was as if all the shit had never happened. He couldn’t help but grin in response, even as he felt himself blush and shrug with the awkward discomfort he always felt when his childhood was contrasted with Blair’s nomadic existence. Blair’s knowing chuckle was low and soft as he pulled the door open and ushered Jim inside. Though he knew it was completely nuts that such a small sign of normalcy and maybe forgiveness could make him feel so happy, Jim felt a burst of joy and didn’t try to suppress it. He craved this ... just this. Time with Blair. Being near him. Having Blair’s clean, enticing scent fill his senses and hear the solid sound of his heartbeat mingle with the soft susurration of his breath. Jim’s fingers itched to reach out, to touch, and his throat tightened with the knowledge that his touch wouldn’t be welcome. Ah, the hell with it. “You look great,” he observed, throwing caution to the winds.

Blair did a double take and grinned in surprise. “Thanks,” he replied, and looked genuinely pleased. But his gaze narrowed as he examined Jim in the brighter light inside the house. “Wish I could say the same. Don’t get me wrong,” he hastened to add, “you always look ... impressive. But tonight, well, you look tired, man. And like you’ve lost some weight. You sure you’re okay?”

Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, Jim slid his gaze away from those penetrating deep blue eyes. “I’m managing,” he said, not wanting to lie straight out, but unwilling to burden Blair with the truth.

“Ah, there you are,” Simon called from the end of the long hallway. “Everything okay outside?” he asked, and then he seemed to register who was with Jim. “Blair! I didn’t expect to see you here,” he exclaimed as he strode toward them.

“Sandburg’s here with the University crowd,” Jim interjected, falling into his old pattern of taking charge and explaining Blair’s presence, as if the man couldn’t speak for himself. Wincing, he hoped Blair hadn’t caught it, but his ex-partner’s arched brow and slight rolling of the eyes before he turned to Simon and held out a hand in greeting let him know that Sandburg wasn’t missing a trick.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Blair confirmed with a smile as he shook Simon’s hand. “I heard you guys would be here to make sure the security arrangements were up to speed. Good to see you again.”

Huh, that’s interesting, Jim thought, gratified that their presence hadn’t dissuaded Blair from coming to the charity event.

“Guests are starting to arrive,” Simon told them, with a head nod toward the front of the house. As they moved in that direction, he said to Jim, “Mrs. King’s, er, Jess’s children are here, or three of them, anyway. They don’t look like happy campers.”

“They’re not,” Blair confirmed, his expression unhappy. “They vehemently object to the house being given to Rainier, as a museum. I’m not sure I blame them. Can’t be easy to lose your childhood home.”

Jim snorted. “Childhood home? Those brats hated it here, and were always mouthing off about how much more fun it was on the Alps or on the ‘Med’. Trust me; they don’t give a rat’s ass about the house. Not unless they’ve had heart transplants since I last saw them.”

“That’s harsh, man,” Blair chided.

Jim shook his head and shouldered through the door that linked the utilitarian hallway that he remembered was part of a network of passages for servants, to the more opulent front of the house. “They were really rotten kids,” Jim asserted with no apology as he peeled off his coat. “I’d bet good money that the only thing they care about in terms of this house is how much they could get for it on the open market.” Blair’s brows twitched but he didn’t argue the point any further. Simon’s lips thinned but he gave no other reaction as they all entered the now crowded three-story-high grand foyer. A servant appeared to relieve Jim of his wet overcoat.

Chamber music from a classical quartet on a second floor balcony filled the air, along with the heady fragrances worn by the guests that made Jim sneeze before he hastily turned down his sense of smell. Immaculately clad waiters circulated with flutes of champagne and trays of delectable morsels. Members of the media mingled with guests garbed in tuxedos and designer silk gowns, the ladies all arrayed in diamonds and a rainbow of other precious gems. Jess looked radiant in an elegantly simple gray silk gown with black pearls on her ears and around her throat, a nod, perhaps, to the fact that she was still grieving the loss of her husband. Despite her private sorrows, she smiled broadly as she warmly greeted old friends and welcomed strangers she seemed to have always wanted to meet. People relaxed under her spell, their own smiles blossoming, shoulders easing, their laughter filling the hall and drowning out the music. Jim turned to Blair, wanting to keep him close, but his former partner had already slipped away into the ballroom beyond the foyer. Simon, too, had moved off and was talking with the Mayor, who had just arrived with his wife, no doubt reassuring the politico that everything was well under control.

Gradually, Jim eased around the people, past the magnificent marble floating staircase that swept up to the next floor, and through a lofty stone archway into the brightly-lit ballroom that was now the entry exhibit. Jim was surprised the two large draped paintings were still on the wall, and belatedly realized they must have something to do with the exhibit. As it had been that afternoon, his attention was immediately caught by the breath-taking diorama on a raised platform in the center of the room depicting a traditional Chopec family grouping around a campfire deep in a jungle that stretched up toward the ceiling. Rivulets of water cascaded down a mock stone cliff, as if from a natural spring high above. The scent of rich earth and exotic blooms filled the room, along with the occasional squawk of a parrot high in one of the trees. The surrounding walls sported maps of Central and South America and more detailed versions illustrated the jungles and mountains of Peru. Around the diorama and arranged in small groupings throughout the cavernous room, manikins wore traditional garb and pin lights focused on exhibits of woven cloth, beautiful pottery, and personal jewelry. A graphic chart beside the doorway on the far side of the room set out the exhibits to be found further inside and on the second floor.

High above them, an elaborately carved wrought-iron balustrade encircled the room and, beyond the carpeted promenade, doorways led to the exhibits on the second floor. Rentacops discretely kept watch in the entry of each room, and also held strategic vantage points around the upper rim of the ballroom.

Among the many people admiring the diorama, Jim saw Blair chatting with two distinguished men that he was sure he should know; with a grimace that it had taken him so long to recognize them, he realized they were Dr. Eli Stoddard, Blair’s mentor and advisor, and Dr. Sidney Oldham, the Dean of Anthropology. He hadn’t met them more than once or twice in passing, but two men who played such important roles in Blair’s life were men he should know better than he did. One more example of how he hadn’t paid much attention to his former partner’s interests or academic world. Blair shook the Dean’s hand and gave Stoddard a companionable pat on the back that reminded Jim of how Blair used to do the same to him. Drawn like a moth to a flame, he moved closer to them, but Blair had already moved on before he could ease through the press of people filling the ballroom. As he watched Blair walk toward one of the displays in the far corner, Jim’s attention was caught by the conversation between Stoddard and Oldham, who were again studying the awesome diorama.

“Magnificent work,” Sid enthused. “And to accomplish it all in so little time ....” He shook his head, evidently too impressed to find adequate words to describe the scope of the achievement.

“Mmm,” Eli grunted in agreement. “When he focuses, he’s capable of outstanding work; but then, we’ve always known that.”

“You say he has no idea of what’s to be announced? Or of his relationship...?”

“None,” Eli affirmed with a tight-lipped smile. “And I’ll wager this is just the beginning of a long and illustrious career. About time, too.”

Jim’s interest in their conversation waned. They were evidently discussing the person who had set up the displays for Jess, and it all meant nothing to him. He continued to make his way through the crowd toward Sandburg, and was now close enough to hear Blair instructing someone – another hapless lighting technician from the comments he was making – to adjust the pin lights to better highlight the decorative pottery in the display.

“Geez, Sandburg,” Jim interjected with a smile as he looped an arm around Blair’s shoulders, “give the guy a break.”

Blair moved away from his touch and scowled at him. “Excuse me?” he challenged, clearly not happy with Jim’s intervention.

Determined to keep things friendly, Jim held onto his smile and waved around at the various displays. “Well, it’s not like any of this is your responsibility, right? I know you can’t help yourself, that you have a compulsion to share your two cents’ worth when you think you’ve got something to offer, but can’t you just relax for a change and simply enjoy the evening – all this stuff is right up your alley, isn’t it?”

“I’ll take care of it, Doctor Sandburg,” the technician muttered to Sandburg.

Blair nodded absently at the young man who then slipped away, but his cold gaze was reserved for Jim. “Compulsion, huh?” he echoed, clearly angry. “To help.” Blair studied him for a minute, then shook his head. Jim had the sinking feeling that he’d just been judged and found wanting. “Fine,” Blair said, now flat and hard. “I’ll leave you to your security duties.”

With that, he abruptly turned away, but Jim caught his arm, holding him in place. “I thought, maybe, we could, uh, look at the exhibits together,” Jim offered hastily. “I could tell you about what I remember from Peru and....”

Blair glared at the hand gripping his arm and then his searing gaze met Jim’s eyes. “Are you out of your mind?” Sandburg challenged, his voice low and hoarse with tension. “You want to hang out together in front of the Mayor, the media and half the power structure of Cascade? God, when did you become so completely self-destructive? We can’t be seen together, Jim. I thought you understood that – hell, I thought that’s what you wanted: me out of your life, right?”

“Blair, I–”

But Sandburg wasn’t listening. He wrenched his arm from Jim’s grasp. “Stop it, Jim,” he snarled. “Whatever is going on with you, get a grip.” And then he strode away, swiftly losing himself in the crowd.

“God dammit,” Jim breathed, furious but helpless in the face of Blair’s anger and scorn. Rubbing his mouth, trying to get a handle on his emotions, he looked around, checking the crowd, wondering if there was any point to being there, given the presence of all the rentacops. His gaze roamed upward, to the second-floor balcony overlooking the ballroom, and he was surprised to see three people he’d never expected to encounter again when he’d left Cascade twenty years before. Paul, Gwen, and Jo-Jo (whom he supposed went by Joseph these days) King were stationed by one of the thick sculptured pillars that rose elegantly to the lofty frescoed ceiling. The three of them looked like they’d recently swallowed lemons.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jess glance up at them, her ever-present smile faltering before she looked away and re-engaged with her guests. Jim felt a surge of indignation on her behalf. So far as he knew, those kids – those men and that woman – had received everything they’d ever wanted throughout their entire lives; everything and then some. Okay, so maybe it hadn’t been easy to lose their parents, but he’d never seen any sign of grief or mourning, and he’d never been convinced that they’d cared much or missed their socialite and often absent parents. They were, without doubt, better off with Jeff and Jess, but he didn’t think they had a grateful bone in their bodies. For them, it had always been about entitlement, and he’d experienced petty cruelties from them in days gone by. Jo-Jo had been a particularly nasty child, playing up to adults, all smiles and charm, or tears and quivering lip, but sly and hurtful with other kids, and downright predatory with those younger and smaller than he’d been.

He was distracted from his distasteful memories by the sound of a too familiar and completely unexpected voice. Wheeling toward the entry foyer, he saw his father – elegantly attired in a tuxedo and smiling broadly – enter the ballroom. William moved with practiced grace through the crowd, shaking hands, jovially gripping shoulders, until he reached Jess and held out his arms for a hug.

“William!” she exclaimed in delight as she embraced him. “You came.”

“I told you I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he replied with a grin. His hand slipped inside his jacket and withdrew an envelope. “My promised contribution, m’lady.”

“Your generosity is incredible,” she replied with a pleased smile as she took the donation and kissed his cheek. “I’m so grateful for your support of this project.”

“Well, it’s near and dear to my heart for reasons I suspect you’ve guessed,” he muttered. “I was too hard on the boy, both boys. Haven’t seen ... well ....” He sighed and shrugged. “Enough about that.” Gazing around, his attention was caught by the glorious diorama in the center of the room. “My God, look at that,” he murmured. “His talent is astonishing.”

“I’m so proud of him!” Jess replied, hooking her arm in his. “Let’s get you a glass of champagne, and then I suppose I should get the announcements over with, so everyone can just relax and enjoy the rest of the Collection.”

Wondering if the evening could get any worse, preferring not to be seen by his father, Jim slipped behind one of the broad pillars supporting the upper balcony. Simon, having managed to escape the Mayor, joined him. “That’s your father, isn’t it?” he queried.

“Yeah,” Jim agreed with a grimace. “Didn’t expect to see him here.”

“So I gathered,” Simon observed with a wry expression as he eyed their position in the shadow of the pillar. “Where’s Sandburg?”

Jim didn’t have to look; his senses had been homed in on Blair since he’d come out of his zone. “Over there, on the other side of the room, on the far side of the dais.”

Some signal passed between Jess and her major-domo at the door, presumably that the majority of guests had arrived and were now crowded into the ballroom. Jim watched her move to a podium, a modest lectern between the two draped paintings, positioned on a small platform two steps above the floor. Given her diminutive height, he could understand her preparations to ensure her guests could see her as she formally welcomed them. She tapped a microphone lightly, a trick to garner attention, and then beamed at everyone with that smile that had always lit up every room she’d ever been in.

“Thank you, all of you, for being here on this very special night,” she began, holding out her arms in an expansive gesture of welcome. “And thank you for your generous donations to the establishment of this new Collection of South American historical and anthropological artifacts. As promised, I’ll be matching each of your donations, and the total will be added to the trust fund I’ve established to support this educational endeavor.

“Tonight, I want to formally announce the creation of the trust fund to support this modest museum, and introduce the inaugural members of the Board of Trustees who have agreed to their recent appointments: Doctor Elijah Stoddard, our pre-eminent leader of the world’s anthropological community; Doctor Sidney Oldham, Dean of the Anthropological Faculty at Rainier; Mr. William Ellison, our most generous patron, and myself. There will be one more permanent member who has not yet been approached, someone I and the other board members have selected with great care: the new curator of this nascent institution. I had not thought to ever again see the passion, the excitement and the pure joy of learning and of coming to understand another culture as I saw in my brother, Jordon, and in my husband. But I have found it all again in the brilliant young man who helped me create this magnificent exposition. I was in awe of both his genius and his limitless energy as he worked day and night to catalogue the Collection, design each display and stimulate and direct the commitment, energy and activities of his team of graduate students – from a number of different faculties – to bring it all into actuality in record time. Truly, all the artistic, creative, leadership and academic credit must go to him.” She laughed. “All I had to do was supply the space and the artifacts and pay the bills.”

The crowd chuckled with her, but Jim was conscious of Blair stiffening and of his heart suddenly speeding up. Curious, he wondered if Blair had been on the team of grad students, working on this project over the summer while he also finished his dissertation. Scanning the crowd, Jim idly speculated on which of the strangers present was this apparent paragon of academic virtue, not that he particularly cared. This was Sandburg’s world, not his. Of more interest to him were the low, snide comments from the peanut gallery above as Jess’s wards muttered their predictably sullen views of the new museum, and their bitterness about both the trust fund and the commitment of the family mansion to a purpose other than their wealth and comfort.

Across the room, Jess held out a hand in Blair’s direction. “Doctor Blair Sandburg, I’ll never be able to thank you enough for bringing my dream into such exquisite reality. Blair, I sincerely hope you will accept the Board of Trustees’ offer of the position of curator – which, by the way,” she added with an impish grin, “includes a fully-furnished suite of rooms here in Faraday House, as well as a lifetime position on the Board of Trustees.”

Jim gaped at Jess, and then at Blair. If he’d been sucker-punched by one of the guests, he could not have been more astonished.

“My God,” Blair breathed, so softly only Jim could have heard him through the tumult of congratulation. “I didn’t expect ....” His wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression showed that he was clearly stunned by the munificent offer, and he seemed frozen, unable to move. But after William warmly shook his hand and clapped him on the back, he gathered himself together and moved toward the dais while the crowd enthusiastically applauded. Every step of the way, he graciously accepted compliments and congratulations from the people he passed.

Jim looked at Simon, and could see his boss was as dumbfounded as he was. Blair had created all this? When had he had the time? Where had he gotten all the knowledge? Or skill? Curator? Their long-haired, hippie throwback, perpetually curious and cheerful observer? Blair had told them he was a genius, the wunderkind of Rainier, which was how he’d survived the press conference and obtained his PhD, but Jim hadn’t really taken it in, hadn’t thought about what that meant – and was ashamed to realize he hadn’t really believed him.

Blair looked across the ballroom, meeting his gaze, the joyful expression on his face muting in that moment to something dark and guarded, the smile curling almost into a sneer and his eyes narrowing as if to say, ‘See, I’m not as useless as you always seem to think I am.’ But he looked away and his expression was again so open and unguardedly joyous that Jim could have doubted what he’d seen.

But he didn’t doubt it. He knew damned well that he’d once again managed to hurt and alienate the one person he most wanted to appease.

Aghast at how badly he’d misread everything, how deeply he’d underestimated Blair, Jim’s gut twisted with shame that only worsened when he recalled his earlier patronizing and dismissive comments to Sandburg. In that moment of frozen time, as Blair’s gaze had bored into his own, he finally understood Blair’s anger and maybe even his evident disappointment. Jim hadn’t, not even for a second, considered that Blair could have done all this. Belatedly, and far, far too late, he now recalled Blair saying he was working on a massive cataloguing and display project that Eli had helped arrange, but he’d offered nothing more. He’d said Jim wouldn’t be interested, and he’d been right. With cold certainty, Jim realized for the first time that he really didn’t know a damned thing about Blair or his life, and that he’d never considered the man as anything but an extension of himself and his needs. The realization left him feeling utterly sick. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed, but Blair had already looked away.

Above him, Jim heard one of the younger Kings snarl, “My God, she’s gone bonkers over the little shit. An apartment? Here? This is outrageous. I won’t stand for it.” Jim dragged his gaze away from Blair and glanced up, but couldn’t tell which of the men had whispered the hoarse, angry words. But he could clearly see Gwen assessing Blair, her eyes narrowing with speculation. “You know, he looks an awful lot like dear-departed Saint Jordy,” she said, sarcasm dripping from her tongue. Her smile grew predatory. “I wonder if he’s married.”

“Oh, come on,” Jo-Jo sneered with exaggerated disgust. “Do not pretend you find ethnic trash like him attractive. Besides, he’s far too young for you.”

Gwen gave him a withering look but, tiring of their childish commentary, Jim dialed down his hearing and returned his attention to the far side of the room, where Jess was hugging Blair. She drew back from his embrace but retained a light grip on his arm when she again looked out over the crowd; her smile grew softer as sadness darkened her eyes. “Finally, tonight, last but not least, I want to formally name this new undertaking in honor of the two men who made it possible. These two men dearly loved the people who created and once used these artifacts and antiquities, and they both did all they could to help preserve the habitats and culture of the indigenous peoples. My husband, Jeffrey King picked up the torch when my brother, Jordon Faraday, met his tragic and untimely end at the age of twenty-nine. Jordon was pursuing his lifelong dream of working with the Chopec in Peru as the companion to their tribal watchman. My only solace even now is that I know he’d never been happier in his life than he was with his sentinel.” She looked across the hall, her gaze meeting Jim’s as she said, “They truly belonged together – as if they were soulmates – and I sincerely doubt either man could have lived long without the other.”

Jim was shaken by the awareness and conviction in her eyes, and the eerie sense he had that she was both worried about and disappointed in him. Beside her, Blair stared at him, his eyes dark and his expression enigmatic until he turned his face toward Jess and his expression softened with compassion.

The room was utterly silent when her voice broke and her eyes misted. Blinking and looking away from Jim, she cleared her throat and carried on with determined grace. “So,” she raised a flute of champagne, “please join me in a toast to the new Faraday-King Anthropological Collection of South American Antiquities.”

The guests applauded and cheered her announcement as two servants removed the drapes from the two paintings. Jim immediately recognized Jeff King on the right, though he was decades older in the portrait than when Jim had last seen him. But the likeness on the left stopped the breath in his throat – and he heard both Simon and Blair gasp in similar surprise.

His memories had blurred over the years. He’d forgotten Jordon; forgotten what he looked like.

From the thick, riotous curls that framed the face of a Botticelli angel and the darkly blue eyes glinting with warmth and humor to the generous mouth that curved in a smile that matched his sister’s, Jordon Faraday could have been Blair’s twin – except that he’d died not too many years after Blair had been born, when he’d been younger than Blair was now. With an internal shudder, Jim realized that Blair had been exactly the same age when he’d drowned in the fountain, but he pushed the disturbing thought away, as reluctant as ever to contemplate the mystical aspects of their lives. He sure didn’t want to know any details about how Jordon had died.

Jim’s gaze flashed to Blair, and he could see the kid was struck dumb, pale with shock while his heart hammered a rapid tattoo only Jim could hear. Clearly, Blair had had no idea; he looked shell-shocked. Blushing now, his expression anxious and guarded, Blair looked around, obviously checking to see if anyone else had noted the similarity that seemed so obvious.

Once again studying Jordon’s portrait, Jim found himself wondering about this whole thing – the creation of the museum, the donation of it to the university, the trust fund – which she then, for all intent and purpose, practically gifted to Blair as curator and lifetime director. Was this Jess’s way of giving Blair what she thought was his due inheritance from her long dead brother? Blair was only too clearly astonished by his resemblance to Jordon Faraday, but Jess would have spotted the likeness immediately months ago; maybe even before then. Maybe during a certain press conference?

Frowning thoughtfully, Jim looked at Eli Stoddard, who must have known Jordon when he attended Rainier – and who may have even sent Jordon off on a field trip to Peru, on a study project which had then turned into so much more and had ultimately cost the young man his life. How long had he and Jess been planning all this? Years? Was all this stuff about Jordon why Stoddard had been supportive of Blair’s hare-brained ideas about sentinels and the possibility of their existence in the civilized world? Had Jeff been in on it? Or was it something that had fallen into place after he died?

Was Blair Jordon’s son, or was the uncanny resemblance a fluke? Studying his friend, struck by how overwhelmed Blair seemed to be, Jim found himself wondering for the first time what the ‘J’ stood for in Blair’s name. God, if it was ‘Jordon’, then ... well, then it couldn’t all be a coincidence. Besides, Jim didn’t believe in coincidences. In that moment, all Jim felt was a pure and uncomplicated happiness for Blair, that he would finally know who his father had been, and that the man was someone of whom Blair could be proud. And he couldn’t help but smile as he looked around the opulent surroundings and reflected that it all as good as belonged to Blair now. The kid was set for life and, so far as Jim was concerned, no one deserved such good fortune more than did Sandburg.

Then as the reality of it all sunk in, Jim found himself wondering what a museum curator who lived in a historical mansion would ever find of interest in a middle-aged detective who hadn’t had the sense to appreciate him when he’d had the chance. Biting his lip, he felt as if Blair – who had already drifted so far away from him – was now totally and completely out of reach. The magnitude with which he’d underestimated his former partner, the degree to which he’d had no idea of Blair talents, depth of knowledge and creativity staggered him, and left him feeling both humble and ashamed. Swallowing hard, Jim forcibly quelled the hopes he’d secretly harbored that they might someday reconcile, and that Blair would one day return to be his partner and would again live under his roof. No way in hell was that ever going to happen now. Blair didn’t need him, and Blair had quite clearly moved on with his life.

“Jesus, Jim,” Simon muttered. “I had no idea Sandburg was capable of all this. Did you?” He frowned. “You don’t think he’s really Jordon Faraday’s kid, do you?”

Bleakly, staggered by everything he’d never known, never appreciated about Blair, Jim could only shake his head as he listened to Blair thank Jess for her ‘amazingly generous offer’ and pretty much indicate that it was all too good to be true, and certainly too incredibly wonderful to decline.

In those moments, Jim knew that though Blair was only about fifty feet away, he might as well have been a complete stranger on the far side of the world. As happy as he was for Blair – and he truly was – Jim suddenly felt as if he was dying inside, barely able to breathe for the vise of emotion that was squeezing his chest. The noise level sharply escalated, the voices deafening him, as if everyone was shouting, their applause thundering in his ears. He felt as if he were suffocating from the cloying perfumes and colognes that clogged the air.

“Simon, I’ve got to get out of here,” he muttered, loosening his bowtie as he panted shallowly, hungry for air but sickened by the thick smells surrounding him.

“Surely not before you congratulate Blair,” Simon countered, obviously surprised but then his expression clouded with concern and he took Jim’s arm in a supportive grip. “Are you alright?”

“No,” Jim gusted, shaking his head. “I need some air. All the perfumes....”

“Okay, okay,” Simon agreed, letting him go and reaching into his pocket for his cellphone. “I’ll call for a squad car to take you home. And I’ll explain to Sandburg, congratulate him for both of us.”

Jim nodded but couldn’t speak. Jaw clenched, determined to hold himself together, he slipped into the next room, and then into a hallway that looped back to the foyer under the curved arch of the staircase. He grabbed his coat from the cloakroom and, in seconds, he was outside. Leaning against one of the columns supporting the portico, he gulped in air and blinked hard against the burn in his eyes. Behind him, the door opened and he stiffened against the knowledge of who was standing there, an unconscious sensory assessment of scent, heartbeat, and footsteps on the stone entry.

“Jimmy, are you all right?”

Throat tight, he half turned to look over his shoulder but couldn’t meet his father’s anxious gaze. Shifting to look back across the broad drive to the trees beyond, he finally managed a hoarse, “Yeah, sure. I’m fine.”

“Are you coming back inside?”

“No.”

His father approached but didn’t touch him. “I thought you’d be pleased for Blair.”

“I am,” Jim insisted, and dragged in a deep breath, hoping to loosen the tight band around his chest. “He ... he deserves this.” Jim hesitated and then asked, “Is he Jordon Faraday’s son?”

“Eli Stoddard and Jessica are convinced he is,” William replied. “I didn’t know anything about it until a few weeks ago, when they asked me to be on the Board. But I gather Eli managed to get a DNA sample years ago, because of Blair’s uncanny likeness to Jordon, without Blair’s knowledge. Compared to Jess’s DNA, he’s very obviously a close relative. I guess that’s good enough confirmation, especially given how much alike they are, were ... not just in appearance, but in their manner and interests.”

Jim chewed on his lower lip and nodded. “Blair’s always wondered who his father was,” he said softly. “I’m glad it’s someone he can be proud of, someone who lived a life Blair can identify with and understand.”

“Hmm, well, yes, amazing, really, that both would search out sentinels,” William murmured. Out of the corner of his eye, Jim could see his father studying him. “Are you really okay, Jimmy? I mean, without Blair helping you at work?”

“I’m managing,” Jim insisted, conscious of how often he made that assertion. It was true, so far as it went, but ‘managing’ covered a lot of ground and hid a world of problems.

“I’m sorry, son,” William said then. “Sorry I wasn’t ever there for you. Sorry I only added to the pressure a few months back.” He paused then added ruefully, “Sorry I didn’t understand how Blair was helping you. He’s, well, he’s been up one side of me and down the other, for how I treated you as a child, and for not supporting you, the man you are.”

Surprised, Jim looked fully at his father and couldn’t help a slight smile of appreciation. He didn’t know many men who would chew out William Ellison; particularly not a university professor, given that his Dad was also on Rainier’s Board of Regents. William laughed at his expression. “Yes, yes, I know, I deserved it,” he said as he laid an affectionate hand on Jim’s shoulder. “But you do know I’m proud of you, don’t you, son? You know I love you?”

All the old feelings of resentment washed over him, and Jim hesitated. But he caught himself and realized that things had changed between him and his father some time ago and that he did, indeed, know that his father was both proud of him and cared deeply about him. Acknowledging that to himself for the first time felt good, as if an old burden had finally been lifted away from his stiff shoulders. Nodding, he murmured, “Yeah, Pops, I know.”

William looked both relieved and very pleased. “That’s good, Jimmy,” he said, his voice a bit thick with emotion. “I’m glad.” Silence fell between them for a moment, and then William encouraged, “Come back inside, Jimmy. Congratulate Blair. I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”

Heaving a sigh, Jim shook his head. “I doubt that,” he grated. “Sandburg ... Sandburg doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. We haven’t talked, not really, for months.” Gesturing back at the house, he added, “I had no idea he was working on this, or that he could do anything like this.” Rubbing the back of his neck, he admitted, “Blair’s been a better friend to me than I’ve ever been to him. I think I have to accept that there’s no place for me in his life now.”

“Nothing says that’s the way it has to be,” William argued, but gently. “Come back inside.”

Jim saw the patrol car slowly wending its way up the long drive and shook his head. “No,” he declined again. “No, I have no place in there. No place in his life now. There’s my ride. I’m tired, Pops. I’m going home.” He drew away from his father’s hand, took a step down to the pavement then half turned back. “Tell Blair ... tell him I’m really glad everything is working out so well for him. That nobody deserves it all more than him.”

William’s expression was sorrowful, but he nodded. “I’ll tell him,” he promised.

His throat again too tight for words, Jim dipped his head in gratitude and then climbed into the patrol car. He didn’t look back as the car pulled away. But when the vehicle slowly wound around a curve in the drive, movement in the corner of his eye caught Jim’s attention and drew his gaze to the sideview mirror. He saw Blair leave the house to stand beside his father and, with his extraordinary vision, he could see their expressions clearly. His father looked sad. Sandburg was harder to read, but Jim thought he saw concern and disappointment on his former partner’s face, and the slump of his shoulders just looked plain tired. Then the car shifted direction again and he lost his view of the men standing behind him, watching him leave.

Why had Blair come out of the house when he should be fielding congratulations inside? Because he’d seen Jim leave in a hurry and was worried about him – or more likely, about his senses? Jim scraped his palms over his face and sighed heavily. Even in the midst of his triumph, it seemed Blair was ready to drop everything if Jim might need his help. So even in leaving, in hastily removing himself from Blair’s presence and consideration, he’d probably just managed to tarnish what should have been the best night of Blair’s life. Jim grimaced at the bitter taste in his mouth: the taste of grief mingled with regret for all he’d had and hadn’t recognized or appreciated. He’d thrown away everything that was of import to him because of his stubborn refusal to trust, his pathological need to be in control ... and his fear of caring about – of loving – someone so much that if he gave into it, admitted it, the pain of loss would be unendurable.

Because of his pride and his stubbornness, he’d made a mess of everything, had ruined what they’d had and finally driven Blair away. The good news was that Blair had not only survived, but thrived. The bad news was that Jim was going to have to find a way to let go, a way to give up all hope of any possible reconciliation. What they’d had was the best friendship he’d ever known, the happiest, most settled time in his life, but it was over, really over. God, he wished he could blame someone else, lay it all on someone else’s doorstep, so he could give vent to his fury and rage at the unfairness and waste of it all, the absurdity of having it all in his hands and letting it slip away.

Letting Blair slip away.

Sure, he could share the responsibility for it falling apart with Sandburg; the kid really shouldn’t’ve put his name in the draft paper. But Jim knew all too well that the problem, the chasm between them, went back farther than the dissertation. So he couldn’t really blame Blair for how it had all ended. No one knew better than he did how hard Blair had tried, how long he’d held on even though Jim had given him no reason to hope, no reason to stay.

The increasingly ever-present rash on his arm distracted him from his dreary rumination, the itchiness nearly overwhelming, and he sighed with irritation. Rough emotions always made his senses act up. Smiling with rueful bitterness, he gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to scratch the itch. Instead, he closed his eyes and focused on his dials, concentrating on turning down the one for touch until he felt relief. Blair had taught him well. He could do this, could manage just fine on his own, if for no other reason than he owed it to Blair to give the man the space he needed to get on with his own life, a life that was just opening up and that looked pretty damn good.

They truly belonged together – as if they were soulmates – and I sincerely doubt either man could have lived long without the other.

Jess’s words, the look in her eyes, haunted him and, with a pang in his heart, he wondered if ... but no, that was nonsense. The idea of soulmates, of one person being unable to live or even be happy without the other, was romantic nonsense, something she told herself to accept the tragedy of Jordon’s death. Sure, sure, he missed Blair and hadn’t really been happy since Sandburg had left but ... and Blair sure seemed to be doing just fine without him. Blair was fine, better than fine. He was getting on with his life, fulfilling the promise .... Jim shook his head and fought to breathe through the ache in his chest. Blair was set for life, and that’s really all that mattered.

The patrol car pulled up in front of Colette’s and, with a quiet, “Thanks,” Jim got out and crossed the sidewalk to the front entrance to his apartment building. Not even checking to see if the elevator was working, he slowly trudged up the two flights and along the upper corridor to his loft apartment. Letting himself into his quiet, Spartan abode, he reflected that he was forty-one years old and living the independent life he wanted. Snorting disparagingly, he shrugged off his coat and then grabbed a beer from the fridge.

Crossing the floor, he stood in front of the balcony doors, undid his bowtie leaving the black silk ends dangling over the fancy white shirt, and humorlessly toasted his reflection in the glass. “Congratulations, Ace. This is your life, just the way you wanted it to be.” He gave a slight shake of his head and took a long pull from the bottle. Then, kneading the back of his neck, he murmured, “You are so full of crap. If you weren’t such a control freak, and such a goddamned coward ....” He closed his eyes and, just for a moment, he allowed himself to remember how good it had been when the loft had been filled with light and warmth and laughter, with the sight, scent and sound of Sandburg, and he smiled wistfully.

But that was then and this was now.

Opening his eyes, Jim sighed. ‘Now’ was cold, dark, silent and very alone. But ‘now’ was all he had. It was time to stop whining about what might have been. Straightening his spine, squaring his shoulders, Jim took a deep breath. It was time to put the memories, the hopes and the regrets away, time to bury them, as he’d buried so much of his life in the depths of his mind and heart.

It was time to move on.

**

Tuesday afternoon, ten days later ...

Jim was finishing off the last report of the capture of gunrunners the night before and hoping like hell that the DA’s office wouldn’t blow it, and that whatever jury finally heard the case would find the bastards guilty so they’d go away for a very long time. Too often, it all just seemed so damned futile. He and his colleagues risked their lives to protect the city and get murderous scum off the streets, only to have them go free because of confusion over forensic evidence or any number of other reasons. Jim understood the law, understood the rules protected the innocent as well as the guilty, but he was tired, so damned tired, and sometimes it just all seemed like so much useless, wasted effort. Not having had any sleep since ... well, he couldn’t really remember, his skin irritation driving him nuts and his ever-present headache throbbing like a marching band, he was anxious to be done. He wanted to go home, get out of his filthy clothes and shower, and drop onto his bed. When the phone rang, he reached for it without thinking and was still on auto-pilot when he answered, “Major Crime, Detective Ellison.”

“Jimmy, have you heard?”

Scowling at the distraction, still focused on the report, he grated, “Heard what?”

“About the terrible accident at Faraday House!”

Jim froze. Icy tendrils clawed into his lungs and belly, gripped his heart. Faraday House? Accident? Blair? What? Fire? Explosion? No, no....

“Jimmy, are you still there?”

Swallowing hard, he managed to rasp, “What accident?”

“Jessica King. She’s dead. Blair just called me. He got home from Rainier a few minutes ago and found her lying at the bottom of the staircase.”

Jim was ashamed at the rush of relief he felt, but it was closely followed by a wave of sincere sorrow. He’d liked Jess and couldn’t imagine her vibrancy and compassion so swiftly snuffed out. Knowing how much her death would hurt Blair, his gut twisted in helpless regret. A sense of futility pressed down upon him. As hard as he worked, as they all worked to save lives, to protect people, accidents happened and the ones who mattered, who made a difference, still died before their time and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. But ... he frowned. “The staircase in the entrance foyer?”

“Yes.”

Jess would have been up and down those stairs every day of her life. Still, falls on stairs happened: people slipped, got distracted, overbalanced.

“I want you to meet me there, Jimmy.”

“What?” Jim exclaimed, surprised. Uncomfortable with the idea, reluctant to see Blair again when there was no point, his first instinct was to refuse. But his father didn’t ask much of him – hell, he never asked for anything. “Why?” Another thought occurred. “And why did Blair call you? Because you’re on the new board?”

His father hesitated, and his voice was softer, the pain more evident when he said, “That and because I visited Jessica often. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there in the past few months.”

“Visited? You mean, you were dating her? Jesus, Dad, isn’t that rushing things a bit? Jeff hasn’t been dead more than four months,” Jim challenged, disgust heavy in his tone.

“Are you always this quick to judge? Quick to condemn?” his father snapped. “My God, how did Blair put up with you for so many years? As it happens, Jessica and Jeff were close friends for forty years and, yes, I loved her. I was not dating her. She was devastated by Jeff’s death and I was there to help her in any way I could. But none of that is any of your business. I called you for help, Jim: I want to be certain this was an accident. And I called you because I think Blair might need a friend right now. He’d just found an aunt he didn’t know he had, and was learning about his father, and now she’s dead. Never mind, forget it. I can’t imagine why I thought you’d want to help. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“No, wait, I’m sorry,” Jim hastened to interject before his father hung up, and silently cursed himself for his sharp tongue. “I’ll head over to Faraday House now.”

“Fine. I’ll see you there,” his father replied, but his tone was distant and cold, the damage done.

Jim’s mouth thinned with self-disgust as he hung up the phone and stood to reach for his jacket. Was he always so quick to judge, to condemn? Not in his job, maybe, where he meticulously gathered facts before charging someone with a crime. But ... but in his private life? Wasn’t that what had gotten him into trouble with Blair? Jumping to conclusions? Rendering judgment ahead of getting the facts? Being too quick to condemn? What the hell was wrong with him that he judged those closest to him the harshest?

Frowning heavily, he made his way to Simon’s office to tell his boss where he was going and that the last of the reports would be ready in the morning. Simon was shocked to hear of Jessica’s death and immediately decided to go with him.

**

A patrol car was already parked in front of the mansion when Simon pulled up, but Jim didn’t see any sign of his father’s sedan. Inside, they found Blair standing to the side, his back to the corpse and his arms tightly crossed as he answered a uniformed officer’s questions. When they walked in, his eyes widened in surprise, and Jim could easily see they were red-rimmed and shiny with unshed tears.

“What are you guys doing here?” Blair asked, sounding more bewildered than offering a challenge. He glanced at the uniforms, and asked, “Did you or Dispatch call ...?” But they also seemed surprised and confused by the unexpected appearance of a captain and a detective.

“My father called me, asked me to come over,” Jim explained, reining in his emotions about the dead woman as he and Simon paced across the marble floor to study the remains of Jessica King.

“Oh,” Blair murmured with a slight frown. “I got home from Rainier about fifteen minutes ago and I found ... I found ....” His voice cracked as he gestured toward her body and he turned away to take a deep breath in an evident effort to calm himself. “Sorry,” he rasped as he swiped at his eyes. “I really liked her, you know? I can’t believe ... I ... it just seems so wrong.”

Simon gripped his shoulder while Jim examined the scene. For a moment, he simply stood and marshaled his emotions so that they wouldn’t interfere with determining what had happened and when. But it was hard to set aside his sharp sorrow and heavy sense of loss. Though he’d not seen her for years until recently, he remembered her, her husband and Jordon as being important to him as a youth; they had made him feel accepted and liked, made him feel welcome and at home. Now they were all gone. Grief welled as he examined her body, but he forced himself to bury the emotion in order to concentrate on the details of her death.

Jess was crumpled like a broken doll at the bottom of the stairs, her body sprawled awkwardly, her head on the last step and the rest of her on the floor. Her sightless eyes stared at nothing and it looked like her neck was broken. She was dressed casually in a light blue loose shirt and jeans, socks and loafers, with an incongruous long diaphanous beige scarf knotted tightly around her throat – it didn’t clash so much as it didn’t fit with the outfit, but Jim shrugged it off; he was no fashion expert. Dropping to one knee, he touched her hand and, from the chill, thought she must have died at least two hours before.

Skirting around the body, Jim climbed the steps, carefully examining each one, the wall and the banister every step of the way but saw nothing to suggest why or where she’d slipped or tripped and fallen. At the top, he hunkered down to closely study the floor, looking for any skid marks or scuffs, anything that might have tripped her, but found nothing to explain why she’d taken a fatal fall. Sniffing, blocking out the odors of death, he picked up the scent Jess used and another light floral perfume. He also caught Sandburg’s masculine herbal after-shave astringent, odors from cleaning products that made him sneeze, and other male colognes, one of which he recognized as his father’s – none of which told him anything, given the scents probably all belonged there. Standing, he looked back down at her body. She hadn’t been carrying anything that might have caused her to over-balance or to miss a step. It didn’t make sense.

Downstairs, William hurried into the house and went directly to Sandburg, taking the younger man into his arms. “I’m so sorry, Blair,” he said, his manner and tone comforting. “Are you alright?”

Blair nodded and hugged him back before stepping away. “I’m sorry, too, William,” he replied somberly. “I know you really cared about her, that she’s been a good friend for a long time.”

Jim watched, astounded. The father he’d considered most of his life to be cold and indifferent to others and the man he loved but who no longer wanted anything to do with him had evidently become good friends. The irony of it all was bitter and, for a moment, anger flared, that his father could touch Blair, hug him, when Blair wouldn’t allow the same familiarity from him. But then he again felt shame and a weary kind of self-recrimination. He should be glad that his father was there to give Blair the support and comfort he so badly needed, and his father no doubt needed comforting, too. Jim told himself that he was supposed to be letting go, getting on with his life, leaving Blair in the past. But ... but God he wished....

Ruthlessly, he shut down the thought and headed back down the stairs.

“Jimmy?” William asked.

Jim shook his head. “I can’t find any reason for her to have fallen. There’re no skid marks, no scuffs, nothing to trip over, no reason to trip unless, maybe, she was hurrying and mis-stepped.” He shrugged. “It’s sad and very unfortunate, but accidents happen.”

William sighed heavily, and frowned, but he nodded, accepting Jim’s assessment of what must have occurred.

Simon asked, “Are there any servants, anyone in the museum, who might have seen or heard something?”

“No,” Blair said, shaking his head. When Simon scowled at him, he wearily reported, “Imogen is Jess’s personal secretary, and she’s usually here to answer the door and guard Jess’s time, but she had today off. A cleaning service comes in Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the catering company fills up the fridge and pantry every Friday afternoon. The cleaning service takes out the laundry and dry cleaning and returns it the next day they’re here. Weekend and special events, like the one that announced the new Collection, are contracted separately with an events coordinator and the caterer, who brings serving and cleaning staff. The Collection isn’t open to the public yet; the board is still discussing whether to staff it with volunteers or only open it on weekends when I’m home and have grad students working with me to catalogue, clean and restore artifacts, as well as set up new displays.”

“So, no witnesses,” Simon grumbled around his unlit cigar.

Just then, the three younger Kings breezed in, laughing loudly about something only to dramatically stop dead when they saw the police. Jim thought they were more casually dressed than usual, in bulky expensive sweaters, jeans and sneakers, and he noted that the three of them accounted for the perfume and colognes he hadn’t pegged to anyone else there. They gaped in wide surprise, gasped and gestured, each of them loudly demanding what was going on, and then they seemed to see Jess’s body, whereupon they all exclaimed in horror.

Jim found it an interesting performance. For one thing, they couldn’t have missed the patrol car parked in the drive, so their ‘astonishment’ at finding the police there was pure nonsense. In fact, none of them exhibited any real surprise even at the discovery of the body: there were no changes in heart rates, no true widening of the pupil as happened in shock, no tears or other evidence of genuine grief. Their complete lack of natural reaction was so odd as to be suspicious. For the first time, he seriously wondered if it really had been something other than an accident that had killed Jess King. “You’re all still here?” he observed, more than a little surprised that they hadn’t flitted off to somewhere a lot more glamorous than Cascade.

“They live here,” Blair said flatly, clearly no fan of theirs.

“You bastard,” Paul snarled, advancing on Blair, pointing at him with high drama. “You killed her, didn’t you? Wasn’t enough that she’s given you room and board and a job! What? Did she come to her senses and tell you she was getting rid of you?”

“What? Are you crazy?” Blair exclaimed, blinking at the accusation. “I just got home and found her like this.”

“Yeah, right,” J.J. drawled sarcastically. “We all know you were planning to be home early this afternoon, to work with Jess on the ‘Collection’.”

Blair’s lip curled in aversion and he shook his head decisively. “My faculty meeting ran late. I only got home about twenty minutes ago.”

“Anyone could say they ‘found’ her, after pushing her down the stairs,” Gwen countered coldly.

“You’re all being ridiculous,” William cut in, his tone sharp. “There will be any number of people at Rainier who can confirm Blair was at the meeting and only left less than half an hour ago. Besides, he had no reason to kill Jess.”

“Implying that we do?” Gwen laughed with extravagant amusement that grated on Jim’s ears.

William didn’t reply, but Jim asked, “Where have the three of you been?”

“Why? Are we suspects?” Paul demanded, sounding insulted. “How dare you!”

“So far, there doesn’t seem to be a crime,” Jim replied, keeping his tone bland. “You’re the only ones suggesting it might not have been an accident. Jess has been dead for at least two hours, so Sandburg couldn’t have killed her. So, I repeat, where were you?”

The uniforms looked from one to the other and continued taking notes of all that was transpiring.

“We went for a drive down the coast, walked along the cliffs over the ocean,” J.J. said with a shrug. “We’ve been gone for hours.”

“Any witnesses?” Simon asked.

“I doubt it,” Paul sneered. “We didn’t know we’d need any.”

Jim sighed. He didn’t like them, but that didn’t make them murderers. Innocent people often didn’t have alibis or witnesses because, just as Paul had said, they didn’t know they might need them. But there was something hinky going on here, and he thought it might be more than his simple aversion to these three people. “Well, maybe you don’t. Like I said, it looks like an accident. The medical examiner should be here soon, and the pathology report will determine the cause of death.” Turning to the uniforms taking notes, he added, “Get the details of their trip today, car make and model, routes, distances and times, where they stopped, whether they got gas, how they paid for it – you know the drill. Maybe someone saw them.”

“We know you, don’t we?” J.J. said then, as he studied Jim. “You’re the kid who used to caddy for pocket change at the club, and then hang around here, tossing balls with Jordy.”

Jim returned the cold, flat stare. “Yeah, that was me. I was taught to make a dollar before spending one.”

“Really? How quaint,” Gwen returned, still seeming to be vastly amused by him. She swept her gaze from his head to his feet and back again, and blew a kiss at him.

Paul shook his head at her antics, but then returned his attention to the corpse. “I’m sorry – we’re all sorry – this has happened to Jess. She was, well, she was like a mother to us.”

Aha, here it comes, Jim thought, the sorrowful family act, establishing turf, while they wait impatiently for the will to be read.

“As for you,” Paul went on, turning a cold glare on Blair, “you can pack and get out. This is our home now and we don’t want you here.”

Before Blair could reply, William raised his hands and stepped between the two men. “Now just hold on. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“This is none of your business, old man. No matter how often you were over here sniffing after Jess, you’re not family,” J.J. sniped.

William looked at him with the distaste he usually reserved for cockroaches. “It is most decidedly my business. I’m Jess’s executor and I’m well aware of what is in her will. I’d suggest that if there is any packing to be done, Doctor Sandburg won’t be the one who will be moving out. After all, let’s not forget, none of you were related to her, and I think you know her tolerance for your presence in her home was growing very thin.”

“She raised us,” Paul snapped.

“She tried, yes, but you were lost causes,” William countered coldly. “She and Jeff both tried to instill some decency, some integrity, into you three, but you’d already been ruined by your indolent and self-indulgent parents. All they could do was clothe and house you, and long for the day when you’d all be of legal age and no longer any responsibility of theirs.”

Paul raised a fist, as if intending to slug William for the insult, but Jim grabbed his upraised arm and twisted it back behind Paul’s back before he quite knew what was happening. “Calm down,” Jim grated. “All of you. Or do we have to run you in just on general suspicion?”

“Oh, we’ll behave,” Gwen assured him with a world-weary, contemptuous look at her brothers. “Trust me; they’re all talk and no action.”

Jim wasn’t sure he believed her. If they’d killed Jess to keep the estate, it appeared they were too late. His father had as much as said everything was going to Blair in the will, and that should remove any material motive to kill him because then everything would just go to Blair’s heirs. But there was nothing to stop them from killing Blair out of spite, so he wasn’t at all sure it was safe to leave Sandburg alone with them. The three of them just weren’t normal, weren’t healthy; his gut told him they were psychopaths. But they weren’t stupid. Surely they wouldn’t do anything that would land them in prison? That wouldn’t go well with their rich and famous lifestyle. Deciding to make it clear that Sandburg was off-limits, he growled at Paul, and swept the others with his glare, “Let me be very clear that if anything happens to Doctor Sandburg, I’ll be coming after the three of you.”

“Threats? Police harassment? Be very careful, Jimmy,” Paul threatened. “We could have you suspended for that.”

Just then, Dan Wolf, the medical examiner walked in, creating a brittle silence. “Captain Banks, Detective,” he acknowledged, with a wary glance at the strangers in the foyer. “I didn’t know this was a Major Crime case.”

“It’s not,” Simon told him. “We’re here because we knew the victim.”

“Ah, I see,” Wolf replied as he moved across the floor toward the body, but he paused when he spotted Sandburg and said with genuine warmth, “Blair, it’s good to see you. Been too long.”

“Thanks, Dan; it’s good to see you, too.”

“Guess you got to know everyone in the cop shop before you outed yourself as a cheat and a fraud, huh, Blair?” J.J. taunted.

“That’s enough,” William snapped before Jim could intervene. “Upon reflection, I think the three of you had better pack your bags and find yourselves a hotel for the next few nights, until I can make arrangements for the funeral and the official reading of the will.”

“You’re throwing us out of our own home?” Paul demanded, aghast.

“It’s not your home,” William told him. “And it never will be. If need be, I’ll get Jess’s lawyer over here, and she’ll have these police officers eject you.”

Gwen tossed up her hands and gave a great theatrical sigh. “Oh, please, can we all stop with the dramatics? Fine, fine, we’ll gather our things and find a hotel for a few days. But, be assured, we’ll be getting our own lawyer to contest the will. This is far from over.”

“You do what you have to do,” Jim drawled, stepping back and gesturing for the three of them to leave the foyer to get on with their packing. “We’ll wait and see you out.”

She smiled and winked at Jim, as if he’d been flirting, then linked her arms with her brothers and drew them away along the corridor under the arch of the stairway. She gave him the creeps. Turning away from them, he picked up on Blair’s shaky respirations and looked across the foyer at him. Pale, hands shaking, Blair looked shell-shocked and none too steady on his feet. He was staring at William, a perplexed and bewildered expression on his face, frowning as if he was trying hard to make sense of something. “William, what are you saying? You can’t ... I mean, all this,” he gestured at the house, “her estate – you can’t be suggesting that she left it to me?”

“I think we should wait for the full reading of the will,” William soothed. “There’s nothing for you to worry about right now.”

If possible, Blair grew even more pale. Jim knew he was more than capable of reading between the lines and putting together the kind of clues his father had been giving. But his Dad was right. This wasn’t the time, particularly not with the two patrol officers avidly taking down every word.

“Dad, could you take Blair to his suite; maybe get him a brandy?”

“Yes, of course,” William agreed. “I should have done so sooner. Come on, Blair. There’s no need for us to be here right now.”

For a moment, Blair looked like he was going to protest, but then he gazed down at Jess’s body and sorrowfully nodded his head. “I guess that’s a good idea,” he allowed, sounding subdued and utterly wretched. He took a step toward the ballroom and the corridor beyond that led to his suite of rooms but paused. Looking back over his shoulder, he said to Simon and Jim, “Thank you, both of you, for coming here today. For helping. I’m sure Jess would appreciate it, and I know I do.”

“That’s okay, Blair,” Simon replied. “If you need anything, I hope you know you can call on us anytime.”

Blair looked at him uncertainly, but again nodded and then walked away.

Jim found himself wondering how many times now he’d watched Blair walk away from him. William was about to follow Blair when he said, “Oh, Jimmy, before I forget – I’ll be in touch about the reading of the will, and I’d like you to be there.”

“Huh? Why?” he asked.

“Because you’re mentioned in it,” William replied cryptically, and followed Blair from the foyer.

Dan Wolf stood back from the corpse and, frowning, looked up the sweeping steps and then lifted his head to look at the balustrade of the second floor, directly above the body. “What have you got?” Jim asked. Moving to stand beside Wolf, he also glanced upward as he wondered what Dan was thinking. He abruptly realized that Jess could have fallen as easily from there as down the long flight of steps.

“No more than I’m sure you’ve already determined,” Dan said in his deliberate way. “You see any signs of her tripping on the stairs?”

“Nope, nothing to explain why she fell.”

“Huh. I guess that scarf could have caught somehow when she first fell, snapping her neck or throttling her,” Dan mused and rubbed his chin, leaving Jim to picture the unpleasant notion of Jess hanging above them. “I’ll let you know the results of the autopsy.”

“Thanks, Dan,” Simon said, “but it’s not really our case.”

“So, you’re not interested in whatever I find?”

“Oh, we’re definitely interested,” Jim interjected, uncaring of the glare he drew from his boss. He had a gut feeling that things weren’t as they seemed, regardless of the lack of evidence. But he couldn’t discount the fact that he could well be prejudiced simply because he genuinely loathed those three people.

Conscious of the uniformed cops who were watching them all like they were a vastly entertaining sideshow, and who were definitely recording everything they saw and heard, Simon sidled over to Jim and muttered, “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“No,” Jim replied as quietly. “It just feels a little hinky.”

Simon gazed down the corridor the Kings had taken and heaved a heavy sigh. “Yeah, I know. They’re an obnoxious bunch, aren’t they?”

“Yep. They’ve always been obnoxious,” Jim concurred as he settled back to wait for their return, so he and Simon could escort them off the premises. “But I guess being obnoxious doesn’t necessarily mean they’re guilty of anything.”

“No, guess not,” Simon agreed, crossing his arms as he leaned against the wall, also evidently prepared to wait as long as necessary to see them out of the house. “How does Sandburg manage to get himself in the middle of these messes?” he asked with wry amusement mingled with wonder.

Jim shrugged and shook his head. “Just lucky, I guess,” he muttered. So much for his good intentions to put Blair and everything about him – memories, regrets, hopes, aching needs – securely in the past. It was all he could do not to follow the faint sound of Blair’s heartbeat to his suite and hold him, comfort him ... and tell him everything was going to be okay.

**

When Dan Wolf entered the bullpen just before ten A.M. the next morning and jutted his jaw toward Simon’s office, Jim followed him inside and closed the door.

Simon leaned back in his chair and regarded Dan thoughtfully. “Oh, I don’t like the look on your face,” he observed, then turned to pour them each a mug of coffee. Jim caught a mocha scent and was glad it wasn’t anything more exotic. Handing out the mugs, Simon said, “Okay, shoot. Give us the bad news.”

Dan slouched a little in his chair, getting comfortable, and blew across the hot liquid to cool it. “You’re not going to like it,” he warned.

“Why am I not surprised?” Simon muttered, and gestured for Dan to get on with it.

The pathologist took a sip, then leaning forward, he said, “I found a depression and minor skull fracture on the back of her head; the bruising and inter-cranial bleeding indicate it happened before she died. The blow was hard enough to render her unconscious, and was made by a rounded object, meaning it didn’t happen by banging her head on one of the steps on her way down. I’d look for something the size of a baseball; a paperweight, maybe.”

He paused, took another sip of coffee and cradled the mug in his hands. “There’s also severe bruising around her neck, just under the jaw, from that scarf being pulled very tight; tight enough to strangle her. The knot in the scarf might have broken her neck but I’d doubt it; takes skill to both make and position a hangman’s knot properly. My bet is that the cervical bones snapped when her head and neck hit the first step and the rest of her body crashed onto the floor. Other than the traumatic contusions around the breaks in her legs and the soles of her feet, there’s no other bruising of the body, indicating that death from the severed spinal cord – when it happened – was instantaneous. If she did die by falling down those stairs, then it was immediately, so that she rolled like a sack with no resistance and no general bruising – but that wouldn’t account for the broken legs. I also can’t explain how she could have been rolling with enough force to make it around the curve of the staircase and all the way to the bottom. So, I don’t think she went down the stairs. No, I’d say she either hung herself or was hung from that railing above where we found her but that slinky cloth that the scarf is made from gave way, slipped out of however it was tied around the railing, and she fell straight down. Blunt trauma breaks in the bones of her legs would support that theory as would the broken neck and her position at the bottom of the stairs.”

“Which is more likely, suicide or murder?” Simon asked, sounding unhappy.

Dan shrugged. “Hard to say, but the bump on her head suggests she was unconscious when she was hung; that would also account for the lack of any indication that she tried to free herself. I suppose she could have banged her head against something when she went over, knocking herself out ... it’s possible it could have happened that way. I guess you’ll have to find out more about her state of mind and, even then, it will be an educated guess. Sorry I can’t be more definite, one way or the other.”

“I can’t imagine Jess killing herself,” Jim temporized. “But Dad did say she was devastated by Jeff’s death. Maybe it just all got to be too much?”

Simon frowned and his lips thinned as he pondered the problem, and Jim could imagine what was going through his boss’s head. Technically, a suicide – or even homicide – wasn’t a major crime, but the death of someone as prominent as Jessica King needed to be handled delicately. No one would want the press speculating about whether or not she had hung herself.

After a moment, Simon straightened and laid his palms on the desk. “I’ll brief the Chief and advise him that we’re already involved in this case, so we might as well continue with it. Jim, you’re too close to this thing; hell, from what your father said last night, you might even be a beneficiary of her estate, so I can’t give it to you. I’ll ask Joel to follow up with the Kings, your father, Sandburg and Jess’s lawyer and personal physician, as a minimum, to see if we can get a handle on her state of mind. Once we have that information, we’ll decide whether it needs to be taken any further. For now, publicly at least, it can stand as an accident.”

Though he hated to let the case slip out of his hands, Jim couldn’t argue with Simon’s reasoning. Reluctantly, he nodded; after all, there was no reason why he couldn’t at least help out, albeit quietly. “While Joel talks to Blair at Faraday House, I’ll check the balustrade for any signs of a hanging and look around for a paperweight. If I spot anything, we can get a warrant to have Forensics go in to do a formal sweep. Dad called last night to tell me the funeral will be the day after tomorrow at Bethel United, with the reading of the will immediately after the reception. I’ll take Joel with me; that will give him a chance to observe the major players interact with one another.”

“Good enough,” Simon agreed. Standing, he held out his hand to Wolf. “Thanks, Dan, for bringing this to us personally.”

Acknowledging Simon’s gratitude with a solemn nod, the pathologist rose to shake his hand. When Dan left the office, Simon called Joel inside, to bring him up to speed.

“So, suicide or murder? Either way, it’s a sad situation. If the media gets wind of it, they’ll have a field day,” Joel mused when Simon’s briefing ended. Standing, he nodded to Jim. “Okay,” he went on, glancing at his watch, “I’ll start with Blair; will he be at Rainier or Faraday House this time of day?” When Jim and Simon both shrugged, neither having any idea of Sandburg’s current schedule, Joel gave a slight shake of his head. “You’ve really lost track of him, haven’t you?” he observed mildly. “Alright, I’ll give him a call and set up an appointment at the house, so Jim can snoop around a bit while I talk with Blair. I’ll let you both know what I come up with in a day or so.” A small smile played over his face. “It’ll be good to see Blair again.”

**

Imogen LaRue opened the door when Joel rang the bell. She was a tall, middle-aged brunette, dressed in an elegant beige business suit; her eyes were reddened and puffy, as if she’d been crying. “Detective Ellison,” she said, sounding surprised, no doubt recognizing him from when he and Simon had overseen the security arrangements. “I didn’t know Doctor Sandburg was expecting you.”

“He’s not, Imogen, but we need a few minutes of his time, and the university said he’s working at home today. Captain Taggart has a few questions for you and for Blair, and I’d like to look over the staircase again, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” she agreed, with a curious look at Joel. “Come in.”

Jim moved past them and continued up the staircase and around the balcony to examine the railing where Jess would have gone over, while Joel held her attention, keeping her back to Jim while he asked his questions. Jim almost unconsciously tuned into her heartbeat and respirations, to determine whether she was telling the truth. As he listened, he detected nothing to suggest she was anything but what she appeared to be: a bereaved secretary and, after so many years, probably a close personal friend.

“I’m sorry; this must be a very difficult time for you. Had you worked for Mrs. King long?” Joel began.

“Twenty-three years,” Imogen replied, her voice close to cracking. Clearing her throat, she dabbed her eyes with the tissue she drew from her jacket pocket. When she went on, her French accent was a little more pronounced, “I’m sorry. I thought the world of Mrs. King, and it’s just so hard to know I’ll never see her again.”

“I understand,” Joel murmured consolingly. “When did you last see her?”

“Just after lunch yesterday, when I went out to do some shopping.”

“Was she alone in the house when you left?”

“No, the younger Kings were here, finishing their lunch in their suite upstairs.”

“Hmm, I see. What were her plans for the afternoon, do you know?”

“Well, she had some reading to do – business reports, financial documents, that sort of thing. I know she had no plans to go out and was looking forward to seeing Doctor Sandburg when he got home from the university. They’d been spending most of their free time together, getting to know one another better.”

“What was she wearing when you last saw her?”

“Wearing?” Imogen echoed, as if she couldn’t imagine why he’d ask such a thing.

“Well, if she’d changed her clothing it might indicate that her plans had changed, or that she decided to go out after all. She might have been rushing down the stairs....”

“Oh, oh, I see. Well, let me think. A light blue blouse, jeans and, I think, her black loafers.”

“Huh,” Joel murmured, making notes in the small book in the palm of his hand. “When she was found, she was also wearing a very long, silky sort of beige scarf.”

“That’s odd,” Imogen said. “Mrs. King never wore long scarves; she wasn’t tall and she thought they accentuated her short stature. It sounds more like something Gwendolyn would wear.” Imogen sniffed reprovingly. “That woman is a slob, leaving her personal possessions scattered all over the house, expecting the world to pick up after her – and she can be vicious when things aren’t where she thinks they should be. Mrs. King probably found the scarf somewhere and put it on as a reminder to talk to Gwendolyn again about picking up after herself.”

“Okay. I’ll have to ask Miss King about it. If you don’t mind me asking, could you tell me about Mrs. King’s state of mind?”

Imogen’s gaze sharpened. “State of mind? Why? What does it matter? It was an accident.”

“Oh, well, we have to complete our official reports,” Joel obfuscated. “Her husband died not all that long ago.”

“I see,” she replied, but her manner had stiffened, as if he was treading on personal matters that didn’t concern him. “As you can imagine, she was grieving his death. They’d been a happy couple, great friends who did everything together, so she missed him in a thousand ways. But she was better the last month or so, working with Doctor Sandburg. She was happy again, smiling, laughing like she used to, after Blair moved in. They spent a great deal of time together, you see, talking about the Faraday family history, about her brother, Jordon, and she enjoyed hearing about Blair’s past. He’s breathed new life into this old house.”

Joel nodded thoughtfully, and glanced up at Jim.

Jim had examined the smooth stonework and could find no trace of the scarf that had been tied around Jess’s neck, no threads, no marks of wear – nothing. He shook his head at his colleague to signal his lack of success and circled a finger in the air, to indicate that he planned to do a little looking around. Joel gave a minute nod and said to Imogen, “Thank you; I appreciate your candor. And knowing Blair,” he added with a warm smile that caused a slight thaw in her manner, “I very much understand what you mean about the impact he has. Could you take me to see Blair now? And, if it’s not too much to ask, maybe you could get us some coffee?”

“Certainly, no trouble at all,” she allowed. “Blair’s office and suite are this way.” She led Joel out of the foyer and through the ballroom without glancing back at Jim. Not having turned his hearing back down to normal, he easily heard their footsteps move to the far side of the house, toward the back.

Looking for a round paperweight, Jim swiftly began checking out the second floor chambers in that wing – a mélange of comfortable sitting rooms, a library, guest bedrooms and, finally, Jess’s office. He kept his ear tuned so he’d know where everyone was and wouldn’t be surprised while he conducted his informal search. Consequently, he clearly heard the rich delight in Blair’s voice when he welcomed Joel, and he couldn’t help but wish his presence would engender the same uncomplicated joy.

“I’ve missed you, son,” Joel said. “We all miss you.”

“Ah, that’s nice of you to say, Joel. I miss all of you, too. Hey, have a seat.”

“Nice office,” Joel observed with mingled amusement and awe.

“Yeah, it’s something else, isn’t it?” Blair laughed, and Jim found himself wondering what the office looked like. “So, what brings you all the way out here to Faraday House?”

“Just a few things to clear up around Mrs. King’s death,” Joel replied, his tone neutral. “Imogen was just telling me that she’d been happier since you moved in, that the two of you were spending a lot of time together.”

When Blair didn’t reply right away, Jim – having just found the office – could picture him nodding, his expression thoughtful. “Yeah,” he finally said, his voice soft, as if he was remembering. “She was a really wonderful, fascinating person. And, well, she was telling me about her family – I guess, my family – and especially about Jordon, her brother, who she was convinced was my father.”

“What do you think about that?”

“Well, I’ve been trying to track down Naomi, to find out for sure, but no luck so far. There’s no question that I sure look a lot like Jordon Faraday when he was around the same age, and we have amazingly similar interests and the same athletic abilities, you know, like a strong throwing arm. And apparently they did some genetic testing a few years ago. Eli Stoddard, my advisor at Rainier noticed the resemblance when I first started there because he’d also taught Jordon; there seems to be no doubt that I’m part of the family. But I guess what convinces me that it’s probably true is my middle name. I always thought Mom chose it because we’re Jewish, and that it was a reference to the Holy Land or something. Turns out, it was my Dad’s name....” Blair’s voice cracked and Jim heard him clear his throat. “It’s ... it’s not fair, man. I just find my family,” he said in a rush, “just start finding out about them and start to love her, and, and she’s gone. I just, I just feel ... I don’t know what I feel. Lost? Overwhelmed? Angry at fate? Yeah, royally pissed off that she died like that; so pointless, so tragic.”

“Ah, I’m sorry, Blair, really sorry. But at least you had a little time together,” Joel soothed.

“You’re right,” Blair sighed. “I just wish that she and Eli hadn’t waited so damned long to clue me in. But she said they didn’t want to take over my life and that I was doing so well on my own. Eli thought it was important to me to achieve success through my own efforts, and Jess and her husband agreed with him. And I guess they were right; I think things mean more when you really have to work for them, than if they’re handed to you on a silver platter. It’s just that I would have liked to have known her, and her husband, too, for years, not just a few months; and even then, I didn’t know until the night of the opening of the Collection that we were related.”

“So she was in good spirits, then, this last little while?”

Again there was a pause, and Jim could imagine Blair studying Joel; the kid was quick, and no stranger to police work and interrogations. “What are you getting at, Joel?” he asked, his voice lower, more serious. “It was an accident, wasn’t it?”

There was the barest hesitation while Joel considered his response, but Jim was sure he’d share the truth with Blair. He grinned to himself while he hastily searched the desk drawers, pleased to have called it correctly, as he heard, “I’m really sorry to have to tell you, son, but no, we don’t think it was an accident. Dan Wolf found indications that she’d been hit over the head hard enough to be knocked unconscious and the ligature marks around her neck suggest that someone tried to hang her, if she didn’t try to hang herself.”

“Oh my God,” Blair gasped, horrified. “But who, why? She wouldn’t’ve tried to kill herself. We were making plans, you know, for Thanksgiving, to get Naomi here to meet her. She was murdered?”

“We don’t want to say anything officially yet, not until we’re sure of the facts,” Joel cautioned him. “Since she was apparently alone in the house, well, we’ve got to start from scratch.”

“Okay, yeah, I understand; I won’t say anything, but it’s just, you know, unbelievable.”

“Well, I guess that’s all I need,” Joel told him. “We really do miss you downtown, Blair – Jim especially.”

When Jim heard Blair snort, and his disparaging, “Yeah, right,” he stopped the search and straightened to devote all his attention to listening. He knew he shouldn’t, that Blair obviously didn’t realize he was in the house, but he couldn’t help himself.

“What do you mean by that?” Joel challenged. “I know for a fact that he wanted you to be his official partner.”

“No, he didn’t,” Blair retorted, then heaved a heavy sigh. “Ah, man, I haven’t talked about this since I walked out of Simon’s office that day.”

“Then maybe it’s time you talked about it,” Joel encouraged. “Maybe it would help.”

When the silence stretched, Jim thought Blair was going to decline the offer of a sympathetic listener. But then he heard a long exhalation, and Blair began to speak. “Joel, you can’t miss someone you never knew, and if he really wanted me to be his partner, he had a funny way of showing it. You know, the first time I talked to Jim, he threw me up against the wall – I guess to show me who was in charge – and he called me a ‘neo-hippie, witchdoctor punk’. Looking back, I think that’s the way he always saw me: ‘neo-hippie’, sort of a joke, someone to not take seriously; ‘witchdoctor’, with all my homeopathic remedies and preferences for natural over synthetic, knowledge about, well, sentinels, and interests in people and society and how it all works; and ‘punk’, a smartass kid, definitely not someone to respect. He put up with me in the beginning because of the help I could give him, but last year? He was ditching me every chance he got. He bitched if I was late, but never gave me anything to do except be his personal gofer. In the last six months, he told me three times, at least, that he couldn’t ever trust me, and told me to get lost twice. Hell, he even kicked me out of the loft.”

“Hey, now, you know that was because of that Alex Barnes,” Joel argued, but gently. “Jim felt really badly about, well, about how he treated you over the dissertation.”

“The problems went back before Alex and the dissertation,” Blair replied, but he sounded subdued, so sad Jim’s heart twisted in response. “Joel ... Jim and I got along okay so long as, well, so long as I was useful to him. But he was never interested in who I was, what I did at Rainier, what mattered to me, or what I hoped to achieve with my life. He never asked me questions about my past, and he used to turn me off whenever I talked about it or about something I was learning or doing or had done academically. He never showed any interest in learning what I liked to do or what hurt or frightened me – outside of how it related to his work or his interests, like fishing. To him, I was the guru of heightened senses, the personal gofer who was at his beck and call, and an endless source of amusement. And it wasn’t just him. So far as Simon was concerned, I was either irritating or invisible. You know he used to tell Jim to ‘control’ me, like I was some kind of pet dog, or something.”

“Ah, Blair, you can’t really believe all that,” Joel protested.

Blair paused and his voice was lower still, rough with emotion, when he went on. “At the fountain, when he resurrected me, we, uh, well, we had a kind of burst of mutual enlightenment, a sharing of who we are, really are. In those moments, he saw me clearly and knew exactly who I am and what matters to me – and afterward, he couldn’t get away from me fast enough. And where did he go? To Mexico, chasing after Alex.” Blair laughed bitterly. “He went to bring her back to face the law, and ended up making love to her – her, the woman who had murdered me! Shit, I try to let it go, try to tell myself it wasn’t his fault, you know, that it was a sentinel thing, but it’s hard, still hard, to think about the time there. During the last six months we were together, he generally avoided me like the plague, hardly ever worked with me and only when he absolutely had to. He disparaged anything I had to say, treated me like shit or, frankly, like a bad joke, ignored me, bitched whenever I needed him to do something for me, and repeatedly accused me of willful betrayal.”

Jim heard Blair begin to pace in agitation, heard the hurt and anger in his voice. “I’m sorry, man, but that’s not how friends treat one another. Okay, I know I’m not blameless, that I made mistakes – big ones. But I did my best to clean up the mess. God, Joel, I thought I was giving up everything that really mattered to me when I held that press conference to fix things, to safeguard Jim and his secret: my best friend – hell, Jim was more family than friend – work I valued, my home ... but it was all an illusion. I was seeing what I wanted to see, not what was really there. It took me awhile to figure it out, because, well, because I really care about Jim and ... and I felt like I had a home for the first time in my life. I loved working with him and the rest of you guys, and I thought I was helping, you know? But when I walked out of the office the day Simon offered me the badge, I didn’t hear from Jim again for three months. That’s when I really gave up, you know? Because if ... if our friendship mattered to him as much as it mattered to me, he would have been in touch, would have made sure I was alright. I was right to walk away; our relationship, whatever it had been, had become toxic.”

Jim shook his head and scrubbed his face with his palms. It had never occurred to him that Blair would want him to get in touch, and had been waiting in vain to hear from him. He was desperately sorry for how things had appeared to Blair, especially during those last six months, but he couldn’t blame the kid. God knew, he’d acted like a jerk. But he’d thought Blair had understood because, well, because Blair always understood him, often before he understood himself. Clearly, this time, Blair hadn’t understood, and had been badly hurt.

“Then, the other day, at the reception,” Blair said as he plopped back onto his chair, “he told me I was ‘compulsively helpful and couldn’t stop myself from sharing my two cents’ worth, whether it was any of my business or not’ – like I’d always just been in the way, an annoyance who didn’t know when to shut up. It only too clearly never occurred to him that I could have had anything to do with setting up a collection like this, let alone be the creator of it. But I set up at least a dozen museum exhibits while we were working together; he just didn’t know, didn’t care. Don’t get me wrong – I still love the guy and, God help me, I guess I always will. But I knew then, for sure, that walking away, making my own life, had been the absolute best, most healthy thing I could have done for myself, and probably for him, too. Trust me, Joel; he was relieved when I walked away. He didn’t want me around in the first place, but accepted me as a necessary evil while he learned all I could give him; by the end, he desperately wanted his privacy and his home back, wanted to go back to being the loner he really is inside. From what I can see, and what I hear from others, he’s doing just fine without me.”

Damn it,” Jim cursed, and he started back toward the stairs, to go down to set things straight, once and for all, but then he heard Imogen return to Blair’s office, apparently with the coffee Joel had requested.

“Thanks, Imogen,” Blair said. “Oh, are you joining us for coffee? Great.”

“No, no, I thought Detective Ellison would have joined you by now,” she replied, her surprise that he hadn’t clear in her voice.

“Oh? Uh, okay, well, you can leave his coffee here,” Blair replied, sounding strained. Jim heard Imogen’s footsteps recede and then, “Jim’s here?” Blair demanded, his tone sharp with shock. “Here in the house? Damn it, Joel, I thought you were my friend. You let me go on about him, about how I felt, knowing that he could hear every word?”

“Blair, I’m sorry. Honest, I just didn’t think ... we forget, you know? Just take it for granted.”

“Yeah, sure, okay, fine,” Blair allowed, but his voice tight and raw with anger. “I ... I think you should go now, and take him with you. I can’t see him. Not after baring my soul ... damn it, Joel, don’t I get to have any dignity left? Shit, man ... no, don’t – just go, okay? Just go.”

“Blair, I really am sorry, but I don’t think you said anything he wouldn’t already know or you hadn’t already said. I honestly think he cares a whole lot more than you think he does. I wish ... I wish we could all get together, you know? Have a good dinner, a few drinks, sort things out, make them right.”

“You know I can’t be seen with him,” Blair murmured, sounding weary, defeated, overwhelmed by the losses in his life. “People would ask too many questions. I’m supposed to be the pariah, remember?”

“It’s not right, Blair.”

“It is what it is. Please, I know you didn’t mean any harm, but I really need to be alone right now.”

“Alright, son. But I hope you know you’re not alone, and that you can call if you ever need anything.”

“I ... I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me,” Blair replied, though his assurance sounded hollow. “Please, just go.”

blair

All too able to picture Blair in his mind, Jim froze on the steps, and hung his head, devastated by the abject pain in Blair’s voice. He couldn’t intrude now. Blair wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t be able to hear anything he said. No, Blair needed time to get his balance back. But soon; they needed to talk soon. There was too much that Blair had misunderstood. Jim wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to make things right between them, but Blair had to know that it hadn’t all been an illusion, that he hadn’t been wrong about everything over the years they’d lived and worked together. Those memories were all Jim had left, and he couldn’t bear to think that Blair now believed they were all a sham.

Joel appeared in the foyer and scowled at him. Jim sighed and nodded in acceptance of the condemnation he saw in Joel’s eyes as he continued his descent.

“I didn’t know things had gotten that bad,” Joel told him, clearly angry. “How could you treat him like that? I can’t believe he was imagining it all.”

Jim opened the front door and ushered Joel outside. “No, he didn’t imagine it. I guess I was so caught up in what was going on with me and my issues that I didn’t really notice how I was treating him. I’ve got a lot to make right,” he said in an effort to explain as much as he was going to as they walked to the car. He wasn’t used to justifying himself, and he had no intention of telling Joel what had been going on; it was none of his colleague’s business.

“Yeah, you do,” Joel grated. “He deserved a hell of a lot better, Jim; especially from you.”

“I know,” Jim agreed. He climbed into the car, and deliberately changed the subject. “So Jess King was in good spirits, and that scarf belonged to Gwen.”

Joel’s jaw tightened as he cranked on the engine. For a moment Jim thought Joel might refuse to let go of the issues with Blair, but then his posture loosened and he put the car in gear. “Looks like it was murder. You find anything?”

“No, but the place is huge. We’d need an army to search it all. We could try for fingerprints on the balustrade, but it won’t help to just find prints from people who live there – no proof of wrongdoing. Question is, which one of them did it? Gwen or one of the brothers?”

“Or maybe they were all in it together,” Joel suggested.

“Maybe, but I don’t know how we’ll ever prove it, one way or the other,” Jim replied, with an irritated shake of his head.

**

Two days later, early in the afternoon, Jim and Joel met at the church, half an hour before the funeral service. The closed casket and a portrait of Jessica King were already positioned in front of the altar. They chose seats in the back, and Jim pointed out the various players as they entered the sanctuary. Blair arrived a few minutes later with several others from Rainier, including Eli Stoddard. Sandburg acknowledged Joel with a nod but flushed and studiously avoided eye contact with Jim. Before long, the church was packed with mourners, and the sonorous organ music changed tempo as the robed pastor marched down the central aisle to the pulpit to the left of the congregation.

Jim fussed with his collar, hating the tight constriction of his tie and wishing he could pull the damned thing off. He hated funerals. They only served to remind him that he knew more dead people than live ones, reviving old grief that he tried hard to keep sealed away in the canyons of his heart. He didn’t find the rituals comforting, and he found no peace in the concept of a spirit dancing the light fantastic somewhere off in the eternal neverland of life after death. Wasn’t that long ago that he’d had no belief at all in spirits or other dimensions or lives beyond what he could see, touch, hear and feel. But the experience of a chill dawn beside the fountain at Rainier, a shaman instructing him from the other side, animal spirits and going after Blair into a blue jungle to bring him back from the dead had all forced him to revise his beliefs to at least grudgingly accept that there was more beyond the life he was living and the day to day world he could perceive with his senses.

Regardless of the existence of an afterlife, he hated death, and very definitely saw it as the enemy. He’d rather be out solving whatever had caused a given death than sit in a musty church practically celebrating the reality of death. Nor was he comfortable with the urging to give thanks for some spiritual reason that eluded him, and he was half suffocating from the overwhelming stench of lilies, carnations and mums mingling with the overly sweet scents worn by most of the women and the years of lemon oil soaked into the wooden pews. He didn’t want to think about Jess or the waste and futility of her death. Didn’t want to feel the hurt of knowing he’d never see her again. So, instead, he focused on the King siblings until their apparent indifference infuriated him and he gave in to focus on Blair. With little effort, he could single out Sandburg’s heartbeat and use it to home in on his uneven respirations. The kid was suffering, sniffing, trying hard not to weep at the enormity of his loss. Jim’s throat constricted and his own eyes burned in empathy, and he sighed heavily with the knowledge that there was nothing he could do to ease Blair’s pain.

God, he hated funerals.

Finally, it was over. William gathered up Blair and then came to collect Jim, to take them to the reading of the will at the lawyer’s office downtown. Jim introduced Joel and arranged to meet his father and Blair there, rather than ride to the office with them. Before they separated to go to their various vehicles, Jim reached out toward Blair but, knowing his touch was unwanted, stopped short of clasping his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, forcing Blair to look at him. “Really sorry. I know Jess was important to you, and you cared for her a lot.”

“Thanks,” Blair murmured, his gaze again falling away, mercifully hiding the dark pain clouding his reddened eyes.

“I’m sorry, too, son,” Joel offered and enfolded Blair in a hug that Blair all too clearly welcomed. Resentment that it was Joel and not him holding Blair surged so forcefully that Jim had to turn aside, as if in a hurry to be on his way. Apparently, Joel was already forgiven for what had happened the day before, but it sometimes seemed to Jim that Blair would never forgive him for all that had gone wrong.

“See you downtown, man,” Blair said to Jim as he drew away.

It was on the tip of Jim’s tongue to offer Blair a lift to the lawyer’s office but, expecting Blair would refuse, he bit back the words. Once again anger burned at the enforced distance between them, but he didn’t know who he was angry with. Blair? Himself? The media who still watched him like hawks? Damn it. Why did it have to be so damned hard? They’d been friends, best friends, for years. He missed those days, more than he’d ever imagined he would. Hell, he missed Blair, and all the good intentions in the world about moving on weren’t doing him any good.

Jim and Joel followed William and Blair out of the church. He was glad they’d each brought their own wheels, so he wouldn’t have to make any polite conversation with Joel or fend off his colleague’s curiosity about why Jim had treated Blair the way he had, or about what he planned to do to make it right. Truth was, he didn’t have any better idea about how to fix things than he’d had months ago. He and Blair just kept drifting farther and farther apart, so far now that there didn’t seem to be any hope of recovering old ground.

**

The lawyer, Margaret Winslow, met the four of them in an impressive, wood-paneled conference room and invited them to make themselves comfortable around the table, while they waited for the King siblings to arrive. There was coffee, tea, juice and bottles of water. Jim found the silence in the room was awkward at best so, restless, he appointed himself the waiter, and busied himself getting cups of coffee for his father, Blair, Joel and himself. Finally, the Kings swept in like they owned the place. Gwen stood out like an exotic bird in her crimson suit and rakish fedora, while all the rest of them were garbed in somber colors more appropriate to the occasion. Clearly, she wasn’t bothered about anyone knowing she didn’t mourn Jess’s death.

Once they’d taken their seats, Margaret sat down at the head of the table and reached for a thick sheaf of papers. In her sixties, briskly efficient and almost terrifyingly competent in her manner, she met each of their gazes before speaking. Once the silence was expectant, she began. “Jessica King revised her last will and testament the day after the new Collection of Antiquities was announced.”

Jim noted that the King siblings stiffened with evident surprise and poorly hidden dismay.

“I’ll be making copies of the will and all related documents available to each of the beneficiaries,” Margaret was saying, “but I thought this might go a bit faster if I summarized the charitable bequests and trusts as well as the minor bequests to long time friends and associates?” When they nodded, she swiftly recapped the total amount of donations and commitments to trust funds, a number that made Blair gape and even Jim blinked. Even the ‘minor bequests’ were beyond generous; Imogen, in particular, would never have to work another day in her life.

“And now on to the specifics which concern each of you. Jess asked me to read her last words to her former wards: Paul Edward King, Gwendolyn Marie King, and John Jason King.”

Margaret turned a page and took a breath. “Paul, Gwen and J.J., I’ve thought long and hard about what to do about the three of you. Jeff and I tried to instill some of our values in you, but you’d already been ruined by the indolence and self-absorption of your parents. You refused the education we offered, and also refused to pursue opportunities in our family businesses. You seemed to believe that honest work was beneath you. Instead, you have chosen to live worthless lives of self-indulgence. Your parents expended virtually all of their personal fortunes before they died, but Jeff and I were more than willing to meet all your expenses, indeed, to give you the best life we could, while you were our responsibility. In the years since attaining your majority, the three of you have sold off most if not all of your shares in the family businesses to finance your lifestyle. Your selfish self-indulgence could have cost us control of King Enterprises if Jeff and I hadn’t been able to buy up virtually all the shares you put on the open market. Apparently, that money has run out, so you have returned to Cascade and Faraday House, no doubt with the hope that we would once again bail you out and grant you limitless funds to waste. I’m sorry, but you’ve come to the well one time too many. You know that Jeff had no intention of giving you any more funds, and that he was going to have you removed from Faraday House if you didn’t leave voluntarily. When he died so suddenly, I didn’t have the energy for a confrontation with you but I, too, have determined that you have no place here in Cascade. Accordingly, if you have not already left Faraday House, my family home, you are to vacate the premises immediately. Providing you leave Cascade and never return, I have established a trust for you that will pay each of you the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year: one hundred thousand at the first of the year and fifty thousand on each successive quarter, for the duration of your lifetimes. This fund will not extend to any spouse you may yet marry or any children you may have. This sum will be much less than you’ve grown accustomed to but it is sufficient to live quite comfortably, even regally in some parts of the world. Be advised, if you gamble your annual allowance away or otherwise expend it before the year runs out, there will be no further funds forthcoming until the beginning of each new calendar year. I have no doubt you’ll challenge my will but I’ve taken pains to ensure that it is more than fair and very clear. You are no family of mine and I owe you nothing whatsoever. It’s up to you whether you choose to fritter away your annual allowance on litigation. Though I daresay you’d never believe it, I wish you well. Jessica King.”

Margaret sat back and looked at each of the Kings.

“This is absurd,” Paul sputtered.

“Outrageous and unbelievably insulting!” J.J. exclaimed, “Completely unacceptable!”

Gwen sat back, a cold, disdainful expression on her face. “You can be assured that we will be challenging this ridiculous bequest,” she said, her words measured. “We were the only children they had. They raised us, and we are the heirs of the King fortune. She had no right to deny us that. We certainly won’t be stepping aside for some bastard she imagined to be family. As for Faraday House ....” Gwen shrugged. “I’ve always hated that old monstrosity.”

Jim was furious at the way she referred to Blair but he clenched his jaw and kept quiet. Blair never had either needed or wanted Jim to defend him. As he considered the brothers and sister, Jim was struck by how Gwen seemed to be the powerhouse, the one in control – the obvious spokesperson. If anything, she barely even acknowledged her siblings, as if she held them in contempt. She was one cold piece of work. Studying the lawyer, who merely shrugged at Gwen’s threat, Jim wondered how solid it all really was, or if the estate would be tied up in the courts for years. It was no concern of his, but he hoped Blair wouldn’t have to be raked over the coals. Glancing sideways at his friend, he was struck by how pale Blair was, and how remote, as if his mind was somewhere far away; clearly, he had no interest in anything the Kings had to say and no fear of whatever they might do.

“Detective James Ellison?” Margaret went on, lifting her gaze to Jim’s. “Again, I’ll be referring to Jess’s own words: ‘Jim, I hope you will accept a lifetime appointment to the Board of the Faraday-King Collection of South American Antiquities. I could see you appreciated the Collection and, based on the eighteen months you spent living with the Chopec, you have an unusual personal appreciation of the meaning of the objects and of their traditions and culture that no one else on the Board can offer. I can think of no one better suited to help guide the evolution of this Collection while ensuring it remains true to the people it represents. I remember when you were a boy, throwing a ball with Jordy in our backyard. Jordy always said you were special, and I’ve come to understand what he sensed in you and how very right he was. In his memory, and to support his dream and his son, I hope you will agree to this appointment. All the best to you, Jess.’” Margaret added, “There is, of course, a generous stipend that supports this appointment and the time you’d be committing to the Collection. You can get back to me with your response once you’ve had time to think about it.”

Jim sat back, astonished. Working on the Board would mean working with Blair again, seeing him on a regular basis – the thought excited him and depressed him at the same time. Cutting a sideways glance at his friend, he wondered what Blair thought about the offer, and whether Blair would be willing to work with him. But though Blair was clearly paying attention now, his expression, normally so open, was giving nothing away.

His thoughts were interrupted when Margaret continued reading from Jess’s document. “‘William Ellison, my dearest friend. For more than forty years through good times and bad, you have been steadfast in your support and affection for Jeff and me. What would I have done without you these past months? It’s unfair, I know, but I fear I must reward your kindness by asking even more from you: William, please take my place as Chair of all the boards that govern and provide strategic direction to the family’s numerous business ventures. This is a gross imposition, but I know you appreciate that my principal beneficiary has no significant business experience; he will need your experience and wisdom in the years ahead. I also know you care about him, so I dare hope you will accept this onerous duty. All my love, Jess.’”

Sorrow was etched on William’s face and tears glazed his eyes. His lips pressed together, he sniffed and nodded his acquiescence. “Of course,” he managed to rasp. “Anything for Jess. Anything.”

Margaret nodded, and then turned her attention to Blair. Jim heard him take a deep breath and let it out slowly, as if to steel himself for the moments to come. Referring to Jess’s notes, Margaret read, “My dear Doctor Blair Jordon Sandburg, how wonderful it has been to get to know you these past weeks and months. I hope you won’t be offended when I say it’s as if my brother was alive again, you are so very much like him. I also hope you will forgive me for having orchestrated a DNA test some time ago that clearly revealed you are a close member of my family. I am convinced, and need no other confirmation that you are my brother’s natural son and the rightful heir to the Faraday fortune, as well as my only living relative. Therefore, I stipulate you, with the exceptions noted above, the beneficiary of all my worldly goods including but not restricted to our family shipping, lumber and transportation businesses, a fleet of merchant ships, automotive and trucking fleets, several million acres of forested land, logging operations, transportation companies, homes around the world, monies, stocks, bonds and investments; a complete list is appended to this document. Margaret and William can walk you through the details. I know you may find this somewhat overwhelming in that the pursuit of wealth has never been your objective, but this is your birthright, Blair, to do with as you deem appropriate. I hope you will take an active role in our philanthropic endeavors and, of course, I entrust you with the operations of the Faraday-King Collection. My only regret is that we didn’t know about you and missed so much of your life. I want you to know I treasured and am grateful for whatever time we shared; I’ve come to love you, Blair. I know Jordy would have been so very proud of you. Love always, Aunt Jess.”

Blair had lifted a hand to cover his mouth, and it was clear he was fighting against the tears that brimmed in his eyes. One escaped and trickled down his cheek before he could swipe them all away. He sniffed and struggled to regulate his breathing, his body vibrating with emotion as he fought for composure.

“What a farce,” Gwen sneered. “I thought there were laws against people benefiting from their crimes. The little bastard obviously knew he was going to inherit and he wasn’t prepared to wait. He killed her.”

“That’s a lie!” Blair replied with quiet dignity, though fury flared in his eyes. “Jess spoke to me often about the regrets she had about how all of you turned out, and her despair about what to do about you. The three of you are vicious, cruel, manipulative dilettantes who took advantage of Jess and Jeff for the past nearly thirty years. She worried about you because she loved you once – which probably accounts for her generous bequest to all of you. But she couldn’t abide the people you are now, and you knew that she was planning to kick you out of her home. If anyone killed her, it was the three of you.”

“Mark my words,” Gwen crowed to Jim and Joel as she pointed a finger at Blair, “people like him can’t stop themselves. He’s probably killed before to get his way, and he’ll kill again.”

“Enough,” William snapped in cold anger. “We’re finished with the reading of the will and the three of you can either leave freely or I’ll ask the detectives to escort you out. I hope to never lay eyes on any of you again.”

“Oh, you’ll be seeing us,” Gwen vowed as she stood and gestured to her brothers to be on their way. “Count on it.”

Jim watched them flounce out, and then exchanged a look with Joel, who followed them, no doubt to get information on where they were staying and to ask them more questions about where they’d been on the afternoon of Jess’s death. Replaying Gwen’s remarks in his mind, he found her assertions about the nature of killers both interesting and chilling. She’d spoken with the absolute confidence of someone who knew what she was talking about and, increasingly, he was sure that she was a very dangerous adversary. Puzzling over her behavior and about what Blair had said about Jess wanting them to leave provoked a new thought. What had Jess’s document said? Something about Jeff planning to give them their walking papers?

“Chief, how long have they been living at Faraday House?”

“Huh? Uh, I’m not sure. Months – since before Jeff died in that car accident. Why?” Blair asked, clearly struggling with his warring emotions and with the need to focus on the matters at hand.

“I’m not sure,” Jim murmured as he cupped his chin and rubbed a finger over his mouth.

“Doctor Sandburg, do you want to go over the details of your estate now, or would you prefer to make an appointment to do that at another time?” Margaret asked, swiftly returning the meeting to some degree of normalcy.

“Oh, later, definitely,” Blair gusted and raked back his hair. “I’m ... I’m overwhelmed and have no idea where to even start. And please, call me Blair.” He heaved a sigh and turned to William. “Thank you for agreeing to oversee the business end of things. I know I’d be absolutely lost – and I can’t promise to ever be interested in those matters. I ... I’m not particularly financially oriented, but I do want to be assured that you’ll be fairly compensated for all the work involved.”

William smiled and patted his shoulder. “I know,” he said warmly. “Don’t worry, we’ll work things out. For now, I think we should head home. You’ve had to grapple with enough for one day.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Blair concurred. He stared at the chairs the three Kings had vacated. “God, they are such horrible people.”

“Hmm, yes, they are, always have been,” William agreed as he pushed away from the table and stood.

“If you’ll come with me, we’ll make an appointment to meet next week, and I’ll give you your copy of the documents,” Margaret offered. Agreeing, Blair told William he’d meet him outside and followed her out of the room.

Turning to Jim, William said, “Jimmy, will you be joining us? I know you probably have questions about the board and what your role might be.”

Jim hesitated. He’d given up any hope of being able to forget Blair and move on with his life. If he believed in them, he’d swear the Fates were laughing at him as they wove their tapestry, persistently twisting his strand around Blair’s life force. But that was Sandburg’s shtick, not his. He only knew that he was feeling an increasing sense of urgency to make things right. If he didn’t, he was sure he’d lose the chance forever, and he couldn’t bear the thought that he and Blair would remain alienated for the rest of their lives. He had no hope of restoring anything beyond something resembling the friendship they’d once had; he knew he’d be damn lucky if he achieved that much. Even so, he might be hoping for too much. But he had to try. He owed it to both of them to clear up the misunderstandings and to find a way to explain why he’d behaved as he had, and to tell Blair how he really felt.

God, he’d rather have a root canal.

“Jimmy?”

“I don’t know, Pops. I think Blair’s had a lot to deal with today. I’m not sure dealing with me would make him feel any better. And I’m sure he’s got a lot of questions for you.”

“It doesn’t have to be like this, Jim. He needs a friend right now.”

“I know,” Jim gusted, wishing with all that he was that Blair would allow him to be that friend; but they were a long way from there. “There’s something I have to check out downtown – something that might help resolve a few things. If Blair wants to see me, I’ll be glad to come over later or tomorrow. Just give me a call, either at the office or at home.”

“Okay, son. I’ll talk to you later.”

But though Jim waited by his phone that evening, willing it to ring, the call never came. Blair sure wasn’t going to make it easy for him. Bitterly, Jim recalled the years when Sandburg had always met him more than halfway and wished he’d been more appreciative at the time. Once again, doubts assailed him. He wanted Blair back in his life – maybe even needed him – but to what purpose, what end? He had nothing to offer the younger man, and Blair was very evidently doing extraordinarily well on his own. Hell, he was probably the wealthiest man in the Northwest. And it was abundantly clear that Blair didn’t want to see him. Still, Blair had told Joel that he still loved him. Jim thought about his track record with relationships and, discouraged, shook his head. Maybe he should just leave things as they were.

Feeling bone-tired and heartsick, idly scratching the persistent rash that was now covering most of his body, Jim trudged up the steps to his bed.

**

Jim laid awake most of the night, tossing and turning, trying to blot out his memories of Blair’s voice, the words and the aching hurt. He’d done that, caused that pain. Him. Nobody else. Regardless of what else happened, he had to fix this, had to let the kid know that ... that it hadn’t all been an illusion. All? Hell, it had all been real. The good, the bad and the ... no, he wasn’t ready to drift into bad clichés, no matter how tired or ... he had to tell Sandburg, had to let him know that ... what? Something ... important ... Blair needed to know....

The sharp ring of the phone jolted him out of dreamless sleep. Groggy, cursing, he fumbled and shut off the alarm, only to groan when the ringing jangled again. Wasn’t it Saturday? He was sure – the phone rang again, cutting through his half-awake confusion and he grabbed it just to stop the noise that was shredding his ears and making his head thump mercilessly.

“What?” he half growled, half shouted in aggravation.

“Detective Ellison? Sir?”

“Uh, yeah, who’s this?” he asked, rubbing his eyes and forcing himself to sit up.

“Elaine, in Dispatch. I’m sorry, I know it’s not your case, but I thought you might want to know.”

“Know what?” he probed, forcing himself to be calm, to remain calm. Elaine was good at her job. She wouldn’t be torturing him like this without a good reason.

“There’s been a murder at Rainier University.”

“What?!” he shouted, surging to his feet. “Not ... not Sandburg?”

“NO, oh, no, sorry, I should have been – the Chancellor, Edwards, was murdered in her office. Patrol’s been out there for about twenty minutes and they called in the ME and Homicide. The detectives are probably just arriving at the scene.”

Jim frowned, certain that this should make more sense than it did. “Okay,” he allowed. “And you’re advising me because...”

“Because Blair Sandburg reported the murder, sir. I thought you’d want to know.”

Jim closed his eyes and shook his head. Only Sandburg could be in the middle of two murders within one week. Coincidence? Maybe. He wouldn’t know until he’d checked it out. “You were right, Elaine. Thanks. I owe you. Gotta go.”

Fifteen minutes later, wishing he’d had time for a shower and coffee, Jim careened onto the campus grounds. Scarcely more than seconds later, he slammed to a stop behind the patrol car in front of the main administration building. He loped into the building and down the long corridor to the Chancellor’s Office. He’d never been there before but found it easily; he just homed onto Blair’s voice. The kid sounded frustrated as he said with exaggerated patience, “I’ve told you twice already that I got a call to meet her here this morning. I walked in and found her. I don’t know anything more about what happened here than you do.”

“Hey, Chief,” Jim drawled from the doorway, where he leaned with elaborate nonchalance. “Was going to suggest we meet for brunch but I heard you were here. Thought I’d come meet you. What’s going on?” Belatedly, he acknowledged the two detectives. “Grady, Morton, hey, looks like you caught a messy one.”

Messy was an understatement. Someone had slit the Chancellor’s throat from ear to ear. Blood was splattered all over the office, on the ceiling, the walls and the windows; the front of the desk was drenched and blood had pooled and soaked into the plush, once white carpet. Edwards lay in a heap, like a disjointed marionette after the wires had been cut. The bloody blade was lying on the carpet beside her.

Jim recognized it as one of the artifacts from the Faraday-King Collection. Not good.

“Jim! What are you doing here?” Blair exclaimed, astonished by his unexpected presence. Jim gave him a half-shrug but otherwise ignored him, his attention on the crime scene as he tried to piece together what had probably gone down from what he could see. Even from the doorway, he could feel the ambient temperatures in the room, the warmth where the three men were standing and the still lingering warmth where the body was lying. The murder must’ve happened just before Blair found her. Tight timing. Also not good. There could be no question of coincidence or happenstance; someone was working hard to set Blair up for murder.

“You have no business here, Ellison. But if you want to watch to see how things are done, feel free,” Morton sniped. “Looks pretty cut and dried to us. Sandburg here had a well known grudge against the vic; he decided to get even, and thought calling it in would make him look innocent.”

“Uh huh,” Jim grunted as he prowled into the room as far as he could go without messing up the blood splatter, his gaze sweeping the desk and then his attention was caught by a smudge on the window next to the desk. “Okay, I can picture it,” he said. “The perp walked in, somehow got the victim to get up and look out the window as a distraction, and slammed Edwards on the back of the head, maybe with that round paperweight on the desk. I’ll bet you won’t find any prints but there’ll be a sizeable lump or fracture on the back of her skull. Then the perp rolled her over, so that she’s laying more in front of the desk than beside it, grabbed a handful of hair to pull her head back, and slit her throat, helpfully leaving the blade behind. Had to have gotten some blood spatter on hands and clothing, even cutting from behind.” Jim looked around. “Where’s the vic’s coat?”

“What?” Grady asked, sounding muddled as he tried to keep up with Jim’s exposition of how the crime had happened. “How do you know she was lured to the window and struck?”

Jim gestured toward the window. “There’s a smudge of makeup on the glass at about face height for Edwards, and you can see the makeup on her left cheek is smeared – the blow drove her hard against the window and knocked her out.”

“Smart ass,” Morton growled. “You guys in Major Crime think you’re pretty hot stuff.”

“Maybe because we are,” Jim replied with a shit-eating grin. “In any case, it’s pretty clear that that the perp, whoever it was, isn’t here now. He or she walked out, cool as can be, in the vic’s coat.” He looked pointedly at the rain coursing down the windows. No way would Edwards have ventured outside that morning without appropriate protection and risked getting soaked – didn’t fit with her upper crust attitude and demeanor.

“You don’t know that,” Morton argued. “I’d say the smart money is still on Sandburg, here.”

Blair rolled his eyes, shook his head, and crossed his arms. “What’s my motive?”

“Everyone knows Edwards kicked your sorry ass out of Rainier four months ago,” Morton sneered. “After spending half your life pretending to work on your degree, that had to bite.”

Jim laughed, deliberately drawing the attention of the detectives back to him. Still feigning amusement, he gestured toward Blair. “Aside from the fact that there isn’t a drop of blood on your preferred suspect, evidently you haven’t been introduced. Allow me to present Doctor Blair Jordon Sandburg, fully tenured professor in both of his doctoral specialties, anthropology and criminology. He’s also recently been identified as the son of the late Jordon Faraday, and nephew of the recently deceased Jessica King. Doctor Sandburg is the primary beneficiary of the Faraday-King fortunes, so he’s probably the richest man in the whole Northwest. The man has absolutely no motive for killing Edwards. She probably invited him here to suck up with the hope that he’d fund a new library. Doctor Sandburg, let me present Detectives Dumb and Dumber.”

“Hey now, no need for that,” Grady objected. “I guess we don’t keep up with the society pages like you apparently do.”

“Yeah, what’s up with you, Ellison?” Morton blustered. “Anybody’d think you’d be grateful to see the little creep get his just desserts. He found the body. He’s a legitimate suspect. We’re gonna run him in – and when we’re done with him, he’ll be sorry he ever lied about one of ours.”

Jim went cold and still, and then heedless of the blood splatter, he slowly stalked toward the two detectives until he stood eye to eye with Morton.

“Jim ... don’t,” Blair warned, his voice low.

Ignoring him, Jim growled, “The ‘little creep’ is my best friend, and for your information, he didn’t lie about ‘one of ours’. He told the absolute truth except when he disavowed his paper to protect me; I owe him more than I can ever repay. Most people downtown are smart enough to have figured that out a long time ago. Sandburg didn’t kill this woman and if you hassle him any further with no justification, I’ll be his star witness when he sues your sorry asses for harassment and false arrest. Are we clear?”

“The truth?” Grady gabbled. “You mean you – that you’re–”

“Yeah, I am,” Jim affirmed, then wheeled away. “C’mon, Chief. We’ll get out of here and let the nice Homicide dicks do their job.”

“Jim –”

“We can discuss it on the way. You owe me breakfast.”

“I owe you?” Blair disputed, but not resisting as Jim more or less playfully took him by the arm and shoved him out of the office.

“Yeah, you didn’t let me have my coffee the other day,” Jim replied, throwing all caution to the wind. They’d danced around things for too long, avoided discussion of stuff that was uncomfortable, that hurt, and it hadn’t done them any good. Blair’s eyes widened, sparking with anger and he flushed. Before he could reply, Jim hastened on with what he hoped was an engaging smile to show he was teasing, “And on top of that, I had to get up on my day off to come down here to cover your ‘sorry ass’.”

Unamused, Blair jerked his arm out of Jim’s grip. “Yeah, well, I didn’t call you and you shouldn’t’ve come,” Blair snapped as he came to a full stop in the corridor. “Damn it, Jim – you walk around admitting to whomever ....” Blair cut himself off and looked around, realizing that others could be listening. “They were right; it’s none of your business,” he hissed. “As far as you know, I did kill her.”

Jim snorted and kept Blair moving down the corridor. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I know you didn’t kill her,” he replied, his patience already growing strained by Blair’s persistent aggression. “Aside from the fact there’s no blood spatter on you, your body isn’t exhibiting any of the stress that would be present if you had just murdered her. Far from being capable of cold-blooded murder, I’m not sure you could kill to save your own life – maybe someone else’s but, even then, you’d have nightmares for the rest of your life. You’re not a killer, Chief.”

Blair’s face was a mask of contempt. “Oh, yeah, you know me so well,” he drawled sarcastically. “Just like you knew I had to have betrayed you a few months back. Face it, Ellison. You don’t have a clue who I am.”

Jim’s lips thinned at the thrust but he kept herding Blair until they were outside, and then he again grabbed Blair’s arm to hasten him through the rain toward his truck. “You did betray me,” he finally said when he could speak without heat.

“What?” Blair protested, so shocked by Jim’s assertion that he stopped fighting and Jim managed to manhandle him into the truck.

Just before slamming the passenger door, Jim looked straight into Blair’s eyes and said, “You put my name in the document after you said you’d protect my privacy. It was a mistake, a bad one, and we’ve both been paying for it.”

Blair gaped at him, and he could hear the man’s heart thundering as he jogged around the front of the truck and climbed in behind the wheel.

“Okay, okay, I’ll admit that was a mistake – a big one. But, but that wasn’t ‘betrayal’, not the way you meant it back then. Not the way you were treating me, like I’d sold you out.”

Jim cranked on the engine, and part of him was distantly amused that Blair was so engaged in the argument that he hadn’t yet realized that he’d been virtually kidnapped. He would have replied, but Blair was raking back his wet curls and still talking.

“And what do you mean ‘we’ve both been paying for it’? If I’m not mistaken, you got exactly what you wanted. I’m the one who lost the only place I’ve ever called home, the work that I actually really loved, and a whole group of friends. What, exactly, did you lose, huh? How have you been ‘paying for it’? And for the record, it could have all have gone down a whole lot differently if you’d just talked to me.”

Jim nodded, accepting the jibe. But he wasn’t going to roll over and die. “Would have gone down differently if you’d talked to me, too. Warned me that Naomi had leaked the document and how bad it was, and not let me be blindsided by a bunch of reporters with their microphones shoved in my face. How the hell did you expect me to react? Huh?”

“Just the way you did,” Blair grated, his arms tightly crossed, unconsciously shivering from having gotten half-drenched on their way to the truck. “Which is why I was trying to fix it so you wouldn’t have to know and go ballistic and do the ‘I can’t trust you anymore’ routine.”

“Seems to me this happens to us all the damned time,” Jim replied with a sigh as he flipped on the heat. “I don’t talk to you about visions and spirit animals, you don’t talk to me about other sentinels, and it bites us in the ass. You don’t talk to me about your paper and the same damned thing happens. You’d think we’d learn that we really have to talk.”

“This from the man who’d rather go to his grave than talk about how he feels,” Blair muttered, sounding disgusted. “Look, okay, thanks for butting in there this morning and setting Dumb and Dumber straight. But maybe you didn’t notice that the weapon is from the Collection.”

“I noticed. I’d bet the paperweight on her desk is also from Faraday House,” Jim said grimly. “In fact, I’d bet it’s the one used to knock Jess out.”

Blair shuddered and went a whiter shade of pale, but his face closed down. “Whatever. It’s no concern of yours.” He looked around as if just realizing they were on the move. “Where are we, anyway? Where are we going?”

“To get something to eat,” Jim said. “I’m starving and we need to talk.”

“Well, I’m not hungry and I have nothing to talk to you about, so you can just take me back to Rainier. I have to tell those two bozos where the knife came from,” Blair retorted. “Wouldn’t want to be charged with interfering with an investigation or suppressing evidence or whatever.”

Jim took a deep breath. “No. We’re going to breakfast and we’re going to talk.”

“Fuck, Jim, just stop and let me out of the damned truck,” Blair demanded, his voice shaking with what sounded like anger.

“No.”

“What is your problem? Huh?” Blair exclaimed, twisting to face him and thumping the dash with his palm. “Dammit, you know we can’t be seen together. And outing yourself with those morons ....” Blair shook his head. “You’re going to blow it all if you don’t get a grip and stop trying to ... to ... well, hell, I don’t have a clue what you’re trying to do.”

“Stop it, Sandburg. Just stop, okay?” Jim shouted. Struggling to rein in his temper, he gripped the steering wheel hard and went on with tight restraint, “I’m tired of the whole ‘we can’t be seen together’ shit, the ‘we can’t be friends anymore’ shit, and the whole damned routine where you claim you’re the only one who gave something up or who is paying a price for that damned dissertation and press conference. I hurt you, I get that. And ... and I get that you’ve been trying to help me as much as keep me out of your life. But damn it, Chief, this isn’t working. There’s got to be a better way, a way that doesn’t cost everything we had.”

Blair turned his face away and stared out the windshield. The silence between them grew fraught with tension before he rasped scarcely above a whisper, “I don’t think I can risk it. I’m ... I’m managing, doing okay. It’s been hard but I’ve, I’ve put it all in the past. Digging it up again seems counter-productive and I don’t see the point.”

Deciding that he was a hazard on the road, and having to devote all of his attention to the conversation, Jim swerved to the curb and pulled into a convenience store’s parking lot. Swiveling in the seat to face Blair, he replied, “You don’t see the point? You tell Joel that you think our whole time together was an illusion, not real–”

“Oh, the time was real enough,” Blair cut in, sounding bitter and still staring through the glass at the rain. “But how we saw that time?” He shook his head. His voice was flat, dead, as he continued, “Two different experiences, man. I thought, well, you know what I thought; that you were the best friend I ever had, family even. You know how I felt, and that hasn’t changed. But you, you never ... you didn’t want ... oh, fuck, can’t we just let it go and move on? I can’t do this.”

Jim heaved a sigh, and stared out the windshield, wishing he knew the right words, the magic words, to get Blair to listen, to believe him. “You know how I felt, too,” he said, his throat thick. “That hasn’t changed, either.”

“Oh, come on, give me a break!” Blair raged, turning to face him. “Yeah, okay, fine. We both got the shock of our lives when we realized that the other guy felt exactly the same way – that we loved each other in the carnal sense. Stupid me, I thought that meant something. But, oh no, no; all it meant was that you had to work extra hard to prove to me that you would never go there, that you weren’t interested, and that you sure in hell didn’t need me for a damned thing. So you took off after Alex, lusted after her ... like I needed that right then. God. But okay, that, that could have been – probably was – a sentinel thing. So I hoped when we got back home that we could, I don’t know, at least get back to normal. But you shut me out, man, more than ever. Most of the damned time. You wouldn’t talk to me. Hell, half the time you acted like you hated me. So I figured I’d better finish the diss and move on, you know? Get out of your life because I couldn’t stand it; it wasn’t healthy, loving you, being treated like crap. I’m nobody’s doormat, Jim, and I never will be. I’d hoped we’d still find a way to stay friends but then the diss ... shit.”

He sat back and thrust his shaking hands through his wet hair. His voice was low and hoarse when he said, “You believed I deliberately betrayed you. For fucking fame and money. I ... I can’t get past that, man. That you knew so little about me that you could believe that. You didn’t know me at all.” He heaved a deep breath, obviously struggling with his turbulent emotions. “The really scary thing was I was drowning, Jim; losing myself in you. But I wasn’t a whole person with you; just, I don’t know, a caricature of myself. I had to go. Had to get myself back.”

“I know I screwed up, okay?” Jim blurted, desperate to get a word in edgewise. “But there’s a whole lot you don’t understand about ... well, about why I was behaving the way I did.” Jim wiped a hand over his face and, against every instinct, he was as close to pleading as he’d ever been in his life. “Chief, you need to know those years meant a lot to me, too – still mean so much. You were the best friend I ever had, too. Closer than family, that’s for damned sure. I was trying to figure out what to do after we got back from Mexico. It’s hard to explain .... And the dissertation? You see it from your side. But how was I supposed to know you’d been trying to fix it all, huh? When those reporters came after us and just kept coming every damned time I was on the street, all I could think about was that I’d trusted you, trusted you with everything and ... and somehow, some way, something you’d done, looked like it was going to destroy my life. I ... it was easier to pull back, shut down, just do my job and hope the rest of it would go away. I never thought that would mean that you’d go away or that you’d never want to see me again.”

Blair turned to look at him. “I hear you, man. I hear you saying you’d like to ... to get what we had back. And I think you believe what you’re selling. But I’m not buying. A few words and a ‘it’s hard to explain’ doesn’t wipe out months of pushing me away. And I have to ask, ‘why’? Why now? Why does it even matter anymore? Because of that rash? What? You think I haven’t noticed you scratching your arms? Or because of the headache that makes you wince unconsciously and clouds your eyes?”

Blair snorted and waved his hands, brushing those problems aside. “I can see you’re basically handling your senses just fine, and if you weren’t, I know someone at the PD would have let me know. You’re only suffering the small irritating stuff because you can’t be bothered going to the right stores to buy the products you need. It’s not like you really need me anymore, just that it would be easier if I was your caregiver again, looking out for anything and everything that might set off your senses. You don’t want me back because it would be good for me or even because it would be good for some theoretical ‘us’. You want me back to make your life easier. Sorry, man, but that’s not good enough.”

Blair shifted to sit back in his seat, again crossing his arms, physically shutting Jim out. “And it’s sure not worth risking your security over. Nothing’s changed, Jim. If you don’t want people asking awkward questions, if you don’t want to risk the whole sentinel thing blowing up in your face again, you have to avoid me like the plague. Now take me back to the campus.”

Jim could see he wasn’t getting through, but he didn’t know what else to say. And he worried that Blair was right, that it was still all about him, his needs and what would make his life easier, and not about what would be good for Blair. But there was one thing he wasn’t prepared to do, and that was pretend that Sandburg was some kind of stranger, not now, not with what was going down. Unconsciously, he shook his head. When Blair looked like he was about to run off at the mouth with a thousand more reasons why it was all a mistake, he held up his hand. “I don’t care about the possible risks to my ‘secret’. Someone out there is gunning for you, Chief. We’ve got two murders that have been set up to make you look guilty. My secret isn’t worth your life. My ‘security’ isn’t more important than yours. So I’m sticking like glue whether you like it or not until we sort this mess out.”

“It’s not your case,” Blair argued.

“Like that would stop me! Like it or not, I still count you as a friend, my best friend. But regardless, Jess King’s murder is my case,” he insisted, ignoring the fact that it was Joel’s case, not his, “and that paperweight will probably link her murder to the one today. We both know what we’re thinking – that it’s those vipers, the Kings, who are out to discredit you, to have your inheritance disallowed so the money will fall back to them as the next closest relatives. But thinking that, even ‘knowing’ it, isn’t the same as proving it. And we don’t know if it’s all of them or just one of them. Gwen’s the brightest of the three of them, and I suspect the most ruthless, but that J.J. – if he’s not psychotic, he’s on the edge. I’m following up on some leads but they might not go anywhere. In the meantime, I’m not going to stand back and see you railroaded into a jail cell. So get used to having me around, Sandburg. At least until this is over.”

Crossing his arms, hunching his shoulders, Blair chewed his lip and looked distinctly unhappy. But he finally nodded. “Okay, fine, I can’t stop you when you’ve got your mind made up.” He hesitated, grimaced as if biting into something sour, then added, “I, uh, I was really glad when you showed up this morning. I knew those guys were going to try to hang it on me and with the knife, well, I figured I was in trouble. So, um, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Jim replied with a wistful smile, wishing things could be easier. Wishing he could just pull Blair into his arms and keep him safe.

“But we still need to tell them about the knife,” Blair insisted. “I can’t pretend I didn’t recognize it. That wouldn’t be either honest or credible.”

“Yeah, I know,” Jim agreed drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Who called you to the office? And when? Didn’t you think it was weird that Edwards wanted to see you early on a Saturday morning?”

“It was a woman – I didn’t really pay attention; late yesterday afternoon. I know it wasn’t her executive assistant, Kathy, but I figured it was just some temp. And, no, I didn’t think it was weird. Edwards was a workaholic; I don’t think she had a life outside Rainier. It wasn’t all that unusual for her to demand a meeting on a weekend.” Blair frowned in thought. “If it wasn’t for the knife – and even so – it could be someone other than the Kings. Anyone could have picked up that blade the night of the opening. Edwards wasn’t popular; you could say she was pretty universally despised. And she’d announced that she was going to terminate a number of untenured profs because of necessary budget cuts. One of them might have, I don’t know, flipped out, gotten desperate, figured if he or she killed Edwards then their job wouldn’t disappear. It’s pretty bleak out there for academics, not a whole lot of jobs. Someone with a family or a lot of debt might’ve panicked.”

Jim thought about it. “No, no the whole thing was too well orchestrated, too deliberate in planting stuff to incriminate you and to get you there. Doesn’t fit with someone who was panicking, and there’s no reason for a professor to also murder Jess. Oh, we’ll check it out – have to back up assumptions with facts – but I think we’ll come back to the Kings. I just don’t know how we’re going to prove it.”

Blair nodded dejectedly. “Okay,” he sighed. “I guess we’re back to working together, sort of. But that doesn’t mean you have to take unnecessary risks. We can meet in private most of the time and we don’t have to hang around together in public.”

“Let’s just play it out and see where it takes us,” Jim replied as he checked the mirrors and pulled back into traffic.

“You taking me back to Rainier?”

“No, we’re going for breakfast before we head downtown to write up our statements and officially ID that blade. You might claim not to be hungry, but I can hear your stomach and the acid rolling around in there is going to give you an ulcer.”

“Oh, gross,” Blair objected, screwing up his face in disgust.

“Hey, it’s your gut, Chief. I’m just telling it like it is. So ... pancakes?”

Blair rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. “Why do I even try to protect you? Sure, fine, pancakes are good. Drive on, McDuff.”

**

Preoccupied by Blair’s accusation that he was only seeking reconciliation for his own sake, Jim didn’t have much to say over breakfast. In days gone by, Sandburg would have filled the silence with one of his outrageous stories or musings about some philosophical point or other – if he wasn’t following up on something about ‘the senses’ – but he, too, focused on his meal and avoided Jim’s eyes. Disgruntled by the strain between them, beginning to wonder why he wanted things to go back to what they’d been, and seriously unsure if it was worth the aggravation to achieve that objective, Jim tossed down the bills to cover their meals. He didn’t bother to acknowledge Blair’s protest that he could pay for his own food, and led the way back to the truck. At least Sandburg didn’t kick up any more fuss about riding with him downtown rather than going back to Rainier for his own wheels.

When they pulled into the underground garage, Jim heard Blair’s heart start a rapid tattoo, though the man was doing his best to look calm and collected. Jim didn’t know what Blair expected to happen – nothing good by the way his respirations were getting faster – but Jim was pretty sure he had a fair idea of what to expect. After all, he’d been listening to commentary all over the PD for months about what his colleagues and the civilian workers thought of Blair, his supposed dissertation, his press conference, and how much they still missed him. A solid majority were convinced that there was no way Sandburg would ever sell out his partner, not after four years, not after all they’d been through – especially not the Blair they were sure they knew. The same majority wavered in their opinions of Jim: a few thought he was a class-A jerk to have let the public story stand, while most of the others thought it was probably a good idea to keep a lid on whatever it was he could do. They rationalized that if Sandburg thought it important enough to go on national television and trash himself to diffuse interest in his partner, then it must’ve been necessary, and that was good enough for them.

Jim figured he was lucky to have gotten off as lightly as he had.

When they strode through the door into the corridor to the elevator, Blair kept his head down, evidently hoping nobody would notice him. But one person after another, in the hallway and in the elevator did a double take and then greeted him with a wide smile and a warm welcome back. By the time the elevator opened on the sixth floor, Blair’s heartbeat and respirations had evened out and he was holding his head up – a smile had even begun to play around his lips. Jim shouldered him playfully as he led the way off the conveyance. “What? You thought you were some kind of pariah? Give the people a little more credit,” he lightly teased in the corridor. “Very, very few were fooled by your press conference.”

“Yeah,” Blair nodded. “Joel said that the day Simon offered me the badge. Guess I just didn’t really believe it.”

“Well, believe it. The vast majority think you’re a hero and half-way to becoming a legend. Even IA eased up after they ran all our old files to ensure our probable cause would stand.”

“IA?” Blair echoed, gaping at him with something akin to horror.

“Yeah, wasn’t much fun, but like I say, they got off my case when they discovered the files were clean.”

Blair blew a long breath. “But, Grady and Morton? They sure didn’t act like they were in my fanclub.”

Jim shrugged. “There are a few who always resented your easy entry into Major Crime, and they’re the diehards who believe the lie. I think that’s as much because they don’t want to think I can see or hear better than they can, as it is that they never much cared for you. Can’t please everyone, Sandburg.”

When they stepped into the bullpen, exclamations erupted and the next thing Blair knew, he was being mobbed, hugged, slapped on the back and soundly welcomed. Jim thought the tentative smile that finally blossomed was a pure joy to behold. While his colleagues held Sandburg captive, he went to his desk to call Simon, who was off duty that weekend, to bring him up to speed. He’d just finished when Joel walked in. Taggart beamed at Blair but cocked a curious brow at Jim, who waved him into Simon’s office to brief him. Blair extricated himself from the others and followed them inside.

Jim made short work of briefing Joel, while Blair sat back quietly chewing on his lip. By the time Jim finished, Joel was scowling with concern. “You’re both sure the knife was from the Collection?” When they nodded soberly, he shook his head. “That’s not good; worse if Dan connects the paperweight to the King crime scene.”

“I don’t want you guys going out on any limbs to try to protect me,” Blair stated.

Jim rolled his eyes and Joel snorted as he waved off the concern and asked Jim, “What do you think we should do?”

“I think we should put him into protective custody until we get this mess sorted out.”

“Protective custody?” Blair squeaked, popping up to his feet to pace and wave his arms in agitation. “Oh, no. I’m not going into any safehouse. No way. Besides, they’re trying to frame me, not kill me.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Blair,” Joel replied, his gaze flicking to Jim.

“I agree. The next step would be for them to fake your suicide, supposedly out of remorse for what you’ve done. The investigations into the King and Edwards’ deaths would be wrapped up, your inheritance would be disallowed and they’d clean up. Nice and simple,” Jim explained. When Blair still looked mutinous, he hastened to add, “Chief, you know the drill. What did you think about civilians who refused protection when it was obviously necessary?”

Blair looked ready to retort, but then he grimaced and sighed. “I thought they were idiots,” he admitted, though grudgingly.

“Exactly. The other advantage is, if we have you in protective custody for our case, we can argue there’s no need for Homicide to lock you up in suspicion for theirs,” Jim went on.

“Oh, man, a safehouse? That’s harsh,” Blair groused.

“Well, maybe not necessarily,” Joel offered, his gaze again meeting Jim’s. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“That we don’t have much and we need to draw them out?” Jim asked and added when Joel nodded, “Yep.”

“Oh, great, so now you’re going to make me a target?”

“If we’re right, you’re a target anyway, Chief.”

Blair plopped onto a chair and sagged back. “I thought I was done with all this cloak and dagger stuff,” he complained with a put-upon whine.

Jim chuckled at the histrionics. “C’mon, you know you love the excitement. You always were an adrenaline junkie.”

Blair glared at him, then snickered and sat up. “Okay, you’re right. So, how are we going to play this?”

Jim paced to the window and then turned to face them. “Something Gwen said has been bothering me – the accusation she made that you’d probably killed before and would again because it was just the way you were. She was so confident in her assessment. I think she was talking about them; I think they’ve killed before. So I’ve requisitioned the ME and pathology documents on Jeff King’s accident. And after we write up our reports from this morning, I want to look at the remains of the vehicle he was driving; it’s still down in the Forensics’ garage.”

Blair shuddered but then returned to the custody issue. “I really don’t want to go into a safehouse.”

Jim countered, “They know Faraday House inside and out, all the hidden corridors, the ways in and out; they grew up there. It’s not safe for you to stay there. I don’t think it’s safe for you to drive your car, either, not if my suspicions about Jeff’s accident are right.”

Blair’s jaw tightened and he combed his fingers through his hair, signs that Jim had long identified as some of his ways of trying to diffuse anxiety or irritation. “But if we’re trying to draw them out, moving out of Faraday House makes no sense.”

“He’s got a point, Jim,” Joel agreed.

Nodding, not liking it, Jim replied, “Maybe. Let’s set the living arrangements aside until I have a look at the reports and the wreck.”

“When you’ve finished your statements from this morning, give them to me and I’ll take them down to Homicide. Captain Honeywell and I go way back, so she might be a lot more reasonable about all this – and a lot less likely to jump to too obvious conclusions based on the knife – than Grady and Morton.”

“Thanks, Joel,” Jim replied, meaning it. Keeping Blair out of jail was his immediate priority. “Okay, Professor, let’s get to work.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Blair added with heartfelt sincerity as he followed Jim from the office. Staying out of jail was his priority, too.

**

Less than an hour later, they were down in the sub-basement, looking at the twisted, burned-out hulk that had once been a Lincoln SUV. Jim shook his head, deeply saddened that Jeff had died in a horrible, terrifying way, and angry that it might not have been an accident after all. But he was so used to setting aside his personal feelings that he simply tightened his jaw in helpless frustration, and then got to work. Wrinkling his nose, he turned down his scent dial to block the still strong stench of scorched metal, melted plastic and burned leather. Or, at least, he told himself it was burned leather.

Silently watching, Blair stood back and crossed his arms. Jim hoped that his former partner was having to physically force himself not to touch or verbally ground him, because that would mean that Blair still felt the inclination to work together.

Carefully, methodically, Jim worked his way from front to back, examining the blackened engine and everything else in the forward compartment, the wheel wells, the passenger space, and finally the storage space in the back. The windshield was shattered, and large sections of it were either gone or in tiny bits of glass in the front of the passenger section. There was no way to tell why it had shattered – whether from the force of the wreck, the heat of the fire or from some other reason. He found nothing in the engine area or in the wheel wells, but one of the semi-melted tires gave him pause. It had blown out, but there was no immediate indication as to why, no obvious nail or slash in the rubber. Then he found a clean round hole about the size of his fingertip; could be a bullet hole.

“Finding anything?” Blair asked, having moved closer.

“Maybe,” Jim allowed with a frown, wishing he could find something more definite. He peered into the remains of the tire but couldn’t see any spent cartridge. No exit hole, either, unless the blown-out back of the tire was the result of the bullet exiting. He’d have to ask Forensics to test for any residue but, since he couldn’t detect any himself, he didn’t hold out a lot of hope. Looking around, he spotted the creeper near the wall. He pulled it closer and laid down on his back to scoot under the wreck.

Blair hunkered down beside him and laid a light hand on his leg, as if instinctively knowing that Jim would be straining his sight to make out details in the dim shadows. At Blair’s touch, he first felt immense relief that Blair was still inclined to help him, and then a surge of heat and energy swept through him. Immediately, his senses were sharper, easier to focus and refine; the exhaustion and headache that he’d grown accustomed to living with were gone as if they’d never been. How had he forgotten how much easier it had been when Blair had helped him? Exhaling with a shudder, he remembered he’d noticed way back when they’d first worked together – the clarity, the way his senses settled down when Blair touched him, the calm he felt along with the rush of energy. But it hadn’t taken long before it was just the way it was, part of the routine of Blair helping him, and he stopped noticing how amazing it was. Like so much else, he’d just taken it all for granted. God, how he wished it had been as easy during all the months Blair had been gone.

“You seeing anything?” Blair asked, drawing his attention back to the task at hand.

“Not yet. Give me a minute.” The lines, joints and tubes were a mess, all twisted and burned, but most of it he could ignore. Effortlessly, he focused his vision and traced the burned, shriveled, almost totally carbonized brake lines until he found what he was looking for: a sharp, too-clean tear that would have leaked brake fluid and eventually destroyed the driver’s ability to stop the SUV.

Between the possible bullet hole in the tire and the cut brake line, Jim was certain his suspicions were on the money. Jeff King had been murdered. “Damn,” he sighed and briefly closed his eyes to mourn three people who had all made his difficult childhood better, and who were all dead by violent means long before their time.

“What?” Blair demanded, tightening his grip on Jim’s thigh.

Jim took a moment to focus on the feeling of Blair’s firm touch, wanting to imprint the memory because he didn’t know if it would ever happen again. He felt the weight of sorrow and regret in his gut, the tightness of it in his chest, but he forced himself to breathe and pushed himself back out from under the wreck. “Two things,” he reported as he accepted Blair’s hand to help him to his feet and then dusted his hands on his jeans. “A brake line has been cut – not all the way through, so in a cursory check it would only look torn given the rest of the damage, but the fluid would have leaked out quickly. On top of that, I’m pretty sure a bullet blew out the right front tire, which with no brakes and high speed going around the mountain curves coming down the cliff from Faraday House ... well, it’s no surprise he went over the edge.”

Turning once again to look at the windshield, thinking about the trajectory of the bullet in the wheel, Jim moved to stand in front of the SUV to think about line of fire, and then he re-examined the interior of the vehicle. In moments, he found a bullet imbedded in the merely scorched, fire-resistant upholstery of the front passenger seat.

“Bingo,” he breathed and straightened to point it out to Blair even as he drew out his cell phone to call Forensics to ask them to take another look at the wreck, to document his findings. Looking at Blair who was watching him closely, he said after he finished the call, “It was overkill – the brake line, the blowout, even the shattered windshield might individually have been enough. Whoever did this likes to kill.”

Blair swallowed hard and nodded. “And I’m next,” he replied quietly.

“No, you’re not,” Jim retorted, briefly slinging an arm around his shoulders to turn him toward the elevator, and then ruffling his hair and ducking away before Blair could swat him. “Because together we’re gonna catch them.” He took a few long strides, outpacing Sandburg, and then turned to walk backward as he said, “Thanks for helping me focus, Chief. You might not believe it or want to hear it, but your help makes a huge difference.”

“Yeah, sure it does,” Blair muttered, his gaze falling away.

“You must feel it, too,” Jim insisted, as he matched his stride to Blair’s. “The energy? I don’t know how I could have ever taken it – or you – for granted. I guess, I guess I just didn’t really know any different. Even when I was working on my own before you left, I think just being around you on a regular basis helped me, I don’t know, recalibrate?”

Blair gave him a sideways look and pushed the elevator button. But he didn’t say anything until the doors opened. Then, stepping inside, he asked, “So, what’s next?”

“I want to let Joel know what we found, and I’m going to have your car towed in to have its brakes examined,” Jim replied. “And then maybe some computer work, just general stuff, to find out what we can about the Terrible Trio’s finances, or lack thereof. After that, I guess we’ll get some lunch.”

Blair shook his head, and then huffed a laugh. “What?” Jim demanded.

“You’re loving this aren’t you? It’s just like old times,” Blair replied, his tone somewhere between sardonic and genuine amusement.

“Well ... yeah,” Jim admitted. “I’ve missed you, Blair. More than you realize.”

“Mmm,” Blair murmured, studying him. “You know, if you really expect anything to change, you’re going to have to do better than, ‘it’s hard to explain’, to account for those last few months.”

Hope surged so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that Jim felt his eyes sting, and his chest was so tight he could barely breathe, let alone speak. Staggered by the force of his emotion at the possibility that Blair might really listen, might give him another chance, he swiftly turned his face away. Caught completely off-balance, never having really believed reconciliation would be possible, blinking fiercely, he grappled with regaining control. Swiping a finger under his nose, clearing his throat, he struggled to get it together. “Yeah,” he finally managed to croak. “Yeah, I know that.”

When he dared look back at Blair, he found his former partner regarding him with stunned astonishment. But Blair quickly looked away, his brow furrowing the way it did when he was thinking hard about something he’d not expected.

**

Upstairs, after Jim advised Joel of what they’d found, the former partners returned to Jim’s desk. At first, Blair’s attention was taken by his former colleagues who wanted to know how he was doing. Henri, in particular, thought it was a blast that Sandburg was now probably the richest man in the Pacific Northwest. “You be careful, Hairboy,” he counseled with a wide teasing grin. “The women will be coming after you in droves, all of ‘em hoping to get rich real quick. Feel free to send some of them my way.” Blair laughed and seemed so much more like his old self that Jim’s heart ached at what he’d so carelessly lost. And then he frowned, thinking about Brown’s words and wondered if they’d prove to be prophetic. Once again, he felt Blair slipping farther and farther away.

The crowd around Blair adjourned to the break room and Jim got down to business, checking the financial records of the King siblings. Not long after, he was vaguely aware of the others returning, and then was surprised by the scent of fresh coffee. Looking up, he saw Blair putting his filled mug on his desk. How often had that happened over the past four years? Had he even noticed or was this something else he’d continually taken for granted? “Thanks,” he muttered, more gruffly than he intended, but his throat was thick with so many unspoken feelings he was lucky to have been able to speak at all.

Blair just nodded at him and took his own steaming mug to a vacant desk, where he booted up the computer, slipped on his glasses, and got to work. After he’d gotten into the system, he observed with indulgent amusement, “You know, you guys really should change your passwords when there’s a personnel change.” But that was all he said before he started his own searches into the trio’s background. Jim knew from experience that Blair would be going for family and social history information, while he hit the financial and law enforcement sites that his police clearance allowed him to access.

Felt good to be working with Sandburg again; felt real good. The tension in Jim’s back and shoulders that had been building up for months, began to ease. Was it just Blair’s presence, or was it everything he associated with Blair that made him feel better? The ease of working with Sandburg, the unconditional support he had come to rely upon; the inventive ideas and the good humor that Blair used to jolly him out of his darker moods and, of course, the constant, solid help with his senses, so that he didn’t have to worry about them. Not like now, when he had to be conscious of them all the damned time in case he got distracted and either zoned or ended up spiking. God, it was exhausting.

Within half an hour, they were comparing notes. Jim hadn’t found much since most of the trio’s fortune had been held in foreign, usually Swiss, banks. Whatever they’d had in US banks was gone, and he suspected the foreign accounts were empty, too, or why else would they have been hanging around Cascade for months? He didn’t have proof yet, but he was increasingly sure they’d killed the gander and the goose because they were in sore need of all the golden eggs. “What’ve you got?” he asked Blair.

Sandburg scooted closer on his wheeled desk chair and unconsciously tucked a thick strand of hair back behind his ear, while he scanned the notes he’d made. “Okay, well, the society pages can be pretty caustic, especially the ones in Europe.” He made a gesture of blowing off burned fingertips and shaking his hand. “Word is out that the King siblings aren’t getting any younger and are increasingly anxious to make good marriages because the gossip is that they’re broke.”

Gossip wasn’t much good in a court of law but it fit the profile Jim was building of the three troublemakers. “Uh huh, anything else?” he probed.

Blair frowned and chewed his lower lip. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “Some stuff from more than thirty years ago, when their parents were killed when their private plane crashed.” He grimaced and shook his head.

“What?”

“Well, apparently, there was some indication that the plane blew up and it was thought there might have been a bomb on board, but no one claimed responsibility. Plus, the plane flew from the private airfield on their pretty isolated estate in Bavaria, and there was no one in the mansion or on the grounds except the kids and their nanny – all the other staff had been let go because, according to the article, the Kings were nearly broke. The police investigated to see if a former disgruntled employee might have somehow smuggled a bomb on board, but there was no way, really. All the staff except the governess were long gone from the estate, which was up for sale, and would have had no access to the plane.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed as he did the math. “J.J. would’ve been nine, I think, when their parents were killed. Gwen was eleven and Paul was twelve.” He thought about it and sighed. “All of them were old enough.”

“Jim, they were just kids!” Blair objected, but his outrage seemed a bit forced, as if he wanted to believe what he was saying, but wasn’t really sure.

Jim nodded as if he believed the outrage, but inside he was sorry that he’d long ago contaminated Sandburg with his own cynicism. The lost idealism seemed like one more thing he’d taken – along with the cheerful bounce in Sandburg’s step, the light of energy and enthusiasm that had shone in his face, and the sparkle that used to dance in his now dark eyes – without giving anything of value back. It saddened him beyond words. But Blair needed to know the danger these people represented. “That’s probably what the authorities thought at the time, but I’m telling you, Chief, they were weird kids. Gave me the creeps. Wouldn’t be the first time psychopathic children have killed.”

Blair’s lips thinned and he looked away. “If it’s true, it’s really horrible, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, if it’s true,” Jim agreed, though he was increasingly sure they were dealing with an evil that went back a long, long way. Seeing discouragement settle on Sandburg’s still expressive features, he decided they needed to take a break, to step back for a bit, and give Sandburg a chance to wrap his head around what had probably happened a long time ago. “Okay, well, I think we’ve done as much as we can here,” Jim said as he gathered their notes together into a rough report for Joel. “Time to hit the road.”

“Where to?”

“Lunch?”

Blair shrugged on his jacket and nodded. “I could eat – but not Wonderburger.”

Jim just laughed as he grabbed his coat and, after stopping in Simon’s office to give Joel their report, led the way out.

**

Hoping to continue the détente between them, Jim chose a restaurant he remembered that Blair enjoyed, and he even ordered a relatively healthy meal of grilled fish. Blair lifted a brow and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t say anything, just ordered his usual rabbit food with dressing on the side. The waitress brought them water and left them in silence.

A silence that quickly grew uncomfortable.

Jim was wracking his brain for ways to fill it without falling back on the tried and true gambit about the Jags, and how badly they were doing again this year. Fortunately, the waitress returned reasonably quickly with their meals, providing some distraction, and they began to eat. Jim was about halfway through his meal when Blair said, “So, what’s so hard to explain?”

Jim was taking a sip of water and damned near choked; whatever appetite he’d had fled. “Now?” he protested. “You want to talk about that now?”

“Is there something else you’d rather talk about? That’s more important to you?” Blair asked with his oh-so-reasonable tone that Jim knew meant he was in deep shit if he didn’t spill his guts. Trouble was, he figured he’d be in deep shit even if he did.

But if he wanted to keep alive that faint flicker of hope that had blossomed in the elevator, he knew he had to give Sandburg the truth. Tense, wishing he could talk about emotions as easily as Sandburg did, he twisted the water glass on the table, creating little circles of moisture that glinted and refracted the light into tiny rainbows....

“Jim!” he heard and realized Blair had caught hold of his hand, stopping its nervous circling. “Don’t zone on me, okay? Just answer the question.”

Jim – now finding the sight and scent of the food nearly nauseating – pushed his plate aside. Only just remembering to turn down his dial for scent, he inhaled deeply and let it out slowly, nodded and leaned against the back of the booth. Briefly, he cast out his hearing to ensure no one was close enough to overhear. “Okay,” he rasped.

But he didn’t know where to start. Frowning, he did his best to focus and rubbed his suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans. “Mexico. I ... when we got back, I felt ... I didn’t understand what had happened between me and Alex and it, it – even if it was instinct or some damned thing, that doesn’t excuse ....” His voice fell away, his sense of shame and humiliation for having been unable to resist her allure too great to put into words, and he shook his head. “I could tell you were angry,” he tried again, his voice lower, his gaze fixed on the table. “And I couldn’t blame you. It was like ... like being insane. Totally out of control. And the worst of it is that I can’t promise it won’t ever happen again.”

“I know that,” Blair replied, sounding cool, distant. “Why didn’t you talk to me about it? Maybe we could have figured out some strategies to guard against any similar occurrence.”

Jim nodded, and cleared his throat. “That would have been a good idea but, but I needed to figure out other stuff, too. Things I couldn’t talk to you about until I had figured them out, and all the shit with Barnes was just part of everything else.”

“Like what?” Blair probed, giving no quarter.

Was there any point talking about all this now? So long after everything had fallen apart? Jim flicked a look up at Sandburg and found him silently watching him, waiting. Leaning forward, planting his elbows on the table, he scrubbed his face with his palms, and then said so low his voice was little more than a hoarse whisper, “You know that I’ve got a lousy track record when it comes to relationships. They all – ALL – fall apart. And, and I’m eleven years older than you; a cynical, balding cop. You were a student, full of energy and hopes for the future, with all kinds of possibilities open to you that would disappear if you hooked up with me. I, I felt as if I’d be taking advantage of you .... God, it was hard enough imagining there might be some hope for us when you were a grad student with your whole life ahead of you – it’s worse now. You’ve got life by the tail: your doctorates, tenure, wealth .... Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for you. I am. But I’ve got nothing to offer except a lifestyle that could get you killed. That has already gotten you killed.”

He swallowed hard to moisten his bone dry throat, and sincerely hoped he was scoring major points by baring his soul this way. God, it would be easier to face a hail of bullets. He couldn’t look at Blair, didn’t dare – was too afraid of seeing the rejection he expected in those incredible eyes. “But, after the fountain – and let’s not talk about how unnerving that whole thing was. I mean, it was a miracle and I’m damned glad of it but it scared the shit out of me,” he said in a rush, still staggered by what had happened whenever he thought about it. “I don’t ever want to ... to see you dead again. Not ever. When we got back, all I wanted to do was protect you, keep you safe, as far away from killers as I could.” He shook his head. “Not that I was successful. That time you were gassed, my God, I was sick, terrified you were dead. And then Kincaid and Zeller – the danger never stopped.” He again shook his head at the futility of what he’d tried to do.

“Anyway, after we, uh, merged, I knew how you felt. And I knew you knew how I felt. But, but ... I didn’t know what to do about it. It seemed unfair to take advantage of you when ... when I was sure it couldn’t last. Sooner or later, the excitement of working with a sentinel would end – more likely sooner, given that it had already been over three years. I told myself that eventually, when the adrenaline rush ended and the rollercoaster became a drag, you’d wish you’d taken Stoddard up on that trip to Borneo. And then,” he sighed and turned his hands palm up, “things just went from bad to worse. The whole situation with Ventriss was a mess and you damned near lost your job. Veronica showed up. Talk about ghosts from the past. I didn’t ... I was so confused by memories and regrets and the way I’d wished things had gone ... and I felt so much guilt, because I knew I shouldn’t still be attracted to her, that it wasn’t fair, either to my old friend or, or my best friend. Then I start seeing ghosts for real and I could tell you were disgusted with me because I wouldn’t admit it. But, but I just ... the mockery....”

He was deeply ashamed, and wished desperately that he didn’t loathe the idea of being a freak, but he did and he couldn’t seem to get past it. “Wasn’t the first time I’d left you hanging out to dry, taking the heat from the guys, not backing you up, and ... and I could see it happening again and again, and I could see you were losing your respect for me.” Jim took another sip of water. “It just seemed easier to, to keep some distance, to let you get the dissertation done. And ... and I needed to know that I could manage on my own because, if I couldn’t, when you left I’d be up the river without a paddle.”

The silence grew taut.

“Is that it? All the stuff that’s hard to explain?” Blair asked, his voice thin, as if he was having trouble controlling his reaction, or maybe just having trouble listening without jumping in.

Jim was grateful that Blair was giving him the time to get it all out because, if he stopped, he wasn’t sure he could get started again. His gaze still averted, his shoulders hunched, he went on. “I know I blew it when the dissertation mess hit the fan. But like I’ve said before, I didn’t know what to think when I was blindsided by the reporters, and I could hear your heart start to race and I could smell the stink of fear and guilt on you. I ... it made me sick. You knew what was going down but you hadn’t told me anything; hadn’t warned me. I didn’t want to believe you’d screwed me, but things had been bad and getting worse between us for months. What else was I supposed to think?”

He paused, his gaze flicking up to Blair’s eyes and away as he hastened on, his hands lifted for peace, “I know, I know, I should have trusted you, should have known you wouldn’t ever betray me. Not, not intentionally. But you, you left me at risk, Sandburg, when you put my name in the paper. You’re such a bright guy; I still don’t know why you did something so monumentally stupid.”

He sighed and shrugged. “I guess I just figured we’d hit the wall. That it was over. And with Zeller shooting up the city – God, when Simon and Megan went down ... I, I just couldn’t deal with anything more. I just had to do my job.” Finally, he looked up and met Blair’s eyes. “But you have to know, I wanted you to take the badge. I’m ashamed of that. I know that it would probably have gotten you killed; or it would have killed something inside you when you had to shoot someone and take their life in the line of duty. But, but I ... I love you. All the arguments I had against it ever working, knowing it wasn’t fair to you, that you deserved better, didn’t seem to matter as much as the fact that I love you and I ... I wanted to keep working with you, especially if we couldn’t ever have anything more. When you walked away, I forced myself not to run after you, not to track you down. I ... I don’t like to admit it but, but I might’ve, probably would have, begged you to stay and ... and that’s not what you wanted. You had a right – have a right – to your own life. A safer life.”

“Yeah, real safe. Within four or so months, I’m being framed for murder and you figure I may be the next target,” Blair retorted scathingly. “Is that it? All of it? You can’t promise not to lust after another sentinel? The life is too dangerous? You’re too old and cynical? I was bound to leave sometime so why even try? I deserve better? Something safer? You’d let me down too often and couldn’t guarantee not to do it again? You were confused?”

Jim sensed Sandburg’s anger and had to steel himself not to cringe. He’d known talking about this couldn’t be a good idea. So much for any flicker of hope that they might be able to get past everything that sat between them. Hell, the chasm was a mile deep and too wide to see across; there was no way to bridge the damned thing. So, one more time, he’d taken the leap, not so much with faith but with hope that Blair would hear him and understand, and maybe forgive him, but he didn’t see forgiveness in Blair’s eyes. “Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

Blair grimaced and looked away as he sat back and crossed his arms. “You arrogant jerk,” he snapped, his gaze flashing back to Jim’s. “Did it ever, even once, occur to you to talk to me about any of this shit? Huh? Do you have any idea how patronizing and insulting it is that you made all these decisions for me? As if I was a child you needed to protect and not a man you could respect as an equal? How dare you treat me like that? I’d followed you into the fire for over three years. Dammit, I came back for you,” he rasped, his voice nearly breaking. “And you left me; left me hanging for months, not knowing what you were thinking. Not understanding when you treated me like you hated me and kept pushing me away because, because I was so sure you loved me.”

Breathing heavily, he stopped and swallowed, pressed his lips together, evidently struggling to contain too much raw emotion. “I came so close to hating you,” he whispered hoarsely. “I knew I had to get away or I would hate you, and I ... I didn’t want that. Not after, not after everything we’d shared.” Sandburg blew a long ragged breath. “For the record? I put your name in the paper so it wouldn’t be so ... so impersonal. You hated the first chapter, and the way it made you feel like some kind of thing I was studying rather than a person and my best friend.” He looked away and raked his fingers through his hair. “It’s hopeless,” he sighed. “Love’s just not enough, is it? I guess it never was. You’ll never respect me and I don’t know if you can ever trust me.” Blair abruptly slid out of the booth and tossed enough bills on the table to more than cover their meal. “We should go,” he said, not meeting Jim’s gaze. “There’s nothing more to say about this and, and it’s just too painful for both of us to keep picking at the past, wishing it were different.”

Jim wished he could argue the point, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Sure, yeah, maybe he should have talked to Sandburg about it when they got back from Mexico but, at that point, his thoughts and emotions would have been too jumbled to make any sense. He’d been trying to sort it out in his own head first, but it was just so damned complicated, with so many different considerations. He’d never gotten to the point of being able to talk about it because he wasn’t sure of anything except that he loved Blair. And, somehow, that hadn’t ever seemed to be enough; had seemed downright selfish. He’d blown it big time when what he’d been trying to do was protect the person he loved best in the world. He’d withdrawn to find the best, least hurtful option for both of them, but hadn’t been able to find his way through the morass before it had all gone to hell.

Sliding from the booth, he followed Blair out to his truck. The rain had softened to a drizzle, little more than a light, cold mist.

“I need to go back to Rainier,” Blair said, sounding equal parts defensive and painfully tired as he hunched into his coat, “to get my laptop and some books. If I’m going to be stuck in a safehouse, I need to have stuff to work on.” He was opening his door when he added, “On the way to the university, I guess we may as well stop at a health food store so you can pick up the supplies you need.”

“Okay,” Jim sighed, going along with the attempt to pretend things were normal, even though he felt as if he was tearing apart inside. “After Rainier, we’ll go to Faraday House, so you can pack a bag for a few days.”

Blair nodded and climbed into the truck. Walking around the hood, Jim thought it was going to be a long afternoon. As he opened the door, something caught his attention, something ... he couldn’t quite catch it. A scent? Frowning, he looked around but could see nothing significant through the hazy rain that dampened and dulled everything around them. Shivering, he slid in behind the wheel. But he’d barely started the engine when Blair, sounding aggrieved, muttered, “I was sure I’d left you enough supplies to last at least six months.”

Jim shrugged. Sandburg knew he had a tendency to clean when he was upset, when life was totally out of his control. The last more than four months had been about as out of control as his life ever got. Blair looked at him, at first irritated, but then comprehension must’ve hit because his expression softened. Looking away, he seemed to be struggling with his own emotions. “Ah, I’m sorry, man,” he finally murmured. “I didn’t think it would be so hard, you know? I thought you’d be glad I was gone.”

“Glad?” Jim echoed in disbelief, and shook his head. “You eradicated yourself from the loft,” he accused, all the hurt boiling up. “I knew you were angry, but there was a violence about how thorough you’d been. Like ... like maybe you hated me.” He paused, then added softly, “How was I supposed to call you after that? You’d made it clear you wanted out of my life, leaving nothing of yourself behind.”

“Shit,” Blair breathed. “We both suck at this stuff, you know? Talking, clearing the air. It’s a wonder we didn’t kill one another years ago.” For a moment, he didn’t say anything more, and then all he offered was directions to the nearest health food store.

Once they got there, Blair walked him around the shop to show him where to find what he needed. Once he’d paid for his purchases, Blair again led the way back to truck, remaining a half step ahead as if he didn’t even want to look at Jim anymore, let alone talk to him.

On the way across town to Rainier, Blair stared mutely out the side window, frowning as if he was preoccupied by something and occasionally chewing on his lip as if biting back words, while his fingers tapped a restless silent tattoo on his jeans. The silence weighing heavily upon him, Jim grew increasingly morose as a sense of utter hopelessness crept over him. His life was never going to be better than this; it would only get worse. As hard as he tried, it took too much effort to always be on top of his senses without knowledgeable help and support. And he had tried; he had always done his best to do his job as well as he could, and he always would. But he was so damned tired and he was desperately afraid that, one of these days, he was going to lose it and someone else would pay the price.

He’d done his best to explain to Sandburg how he’d felt all those months ago, and why, with the hope that Blair might forgive him, might come back to him. He’d talked more than he ever had, but it wasn’t enough. Love wasn’t enough. Yes, he needed Blair because of the senses. But it was so much more than that. He needed the light and warmth that Blair brought into his life, the hope and energy and sheer joy; without Sandburg everything was all just so relentlessly bleak.

The irony was that Blair didn’t think he respected or trusted him, when it was just the opposite. He knew Blair was brilliant, and he also knew, if he’d pushed at the time, Blair would’ve probably chucked it all out of love. Hell, when he’d watched that press conference, he’d thought that was exactly what Sandburg had done. But to have accepted such a gift, to have run after Blair the day he turned the badge down to beg him to reconsider, would have been so incredibly unfair and selfish. It just wouldn’t’ve been right. When Jim got right down to it, it was clear to him that he’d held off acting on their mutual awareness of love because he owed it to Blair; owed him the life he’d’ve had if they’d never met. After four years, Jim bitterly acknowledged that letting Blair go was both the best and the least that he could do for the man.

Nope, love wasn’t enough. That was a lesson Jim had learned way back when he’d been a child. A lesson that had been repeated over and over as the years had passed. Sometimes, when he got right down to it, it seemed as though the central fact of his life was that love was never enough.

But it was all he had to offer to Blair. If it wasn’t good enough, then what was the point of living with the pain of it?

Duty raised its head, and he told himself the point was his job, to do his best to protect the people of Cascade.

Then, frustrated, discouraged, he wondered what the hell was the point of trying so hard to do his job when nothing he could do would ever be enough? One day, he was going to lose it, and it was only a question of when. Breathless at the thought, Jim was certain he’d never be able to live with himself if someone else died because he lost control of his senses. He’d lost too many people he’d cared about already.

He’d thought that spending time with Blair again might be a good thing; might even get them past the ... but there were too many issues, too much hurt and anger and pain. God, it was hard to be so close and not be allowed to touch, and to know his presence wasn’t wanted. By the time he parked the truck along the curb in front of Hargrove Hall, Jim was feeling as if his world was crashing in on him. His hearing was acting up, ranging from too loud to nearly nothing in the blink of an eye, and his headache was back full-force. Both problems were distracting him as he followed Sandburg into the building and up the stairs to the next floor.

He’d just turned into the hallway leading to Blair’s office when he caught that ephemeral scent again and his hackles rose. Where the hell had he smelled it before? Frowning, he turned a slow circle, trying to place the scent, figure out where it was coming from and why it signaled danger – damn, of course, it was Gwen’s scent! Once in a day was odd, but it was possible someone else wearing the expensive fragrance had passed by close to them on the street outside the restaurant. Twice was just too damned much of coincidence and meant something was probably going down. But how could the siblings know they were coming back here? And how had she or they gotten here ahead of them?

Belatedly, Jim realized that Blair had continued on ahead while he’d held back to puzzle out the scent, and now Blair was already at his office door, shouldering it open. Damn, didn’t he ever lock anything without being told to do so?

“Stop!” Jim called out, drawing his weapon even as he started running down the busy corridor, dodging and mutely cursing students that blindly rambled into his way. But his shout of warning was too late and Blair had already disappeared inside.

Jim cranked up his hearing, swearing when it didn’t respond properly. What the hell was going down in there? He skidded to a stop just beside the half-open door. His wonky hearing suddenly roared, nearly bringing him to his knees. In the midst of the hideous cacophony of chaotic sounds, he could hear Blair saying, “You don’t have to do this. The police know–”

Panting, he took a quick glance inside and saw Gwen stalking toward Blair, her silenced pistol aimed at his head. Blair kept glancing away from her, toward the door, unwittingly presenting the exact stance she probably wanted – a clear shot at his temple. Jim’s eyesight narrowed and he could clearly see her finger tightening on the trigger. There was no time to distract her, or to warn Sandburg to get down. No time for him to aim and fire. No damned time!

Jim lunged forward to push Blair out of the way, putting himself between her and Blair just as her weapon fired. Despite the silencer, he heard the muffled blast as an explosion so magnified that it deafened him. He felt the jarring kick in his upper back and chest, driving him down against his partner but Blair’s strong arms came around him, slowing his fall, easing him down. The world was spinning and the wound was a searing pain, excruciating, all out of proportion, stealing his breath away and dragging him down to darkness. He fought to stay conscious as he struggled with the damned dial to mute his pain, but he couldn’t seem to get a grip on it. Desperate, he clenched his hand, determined to keep hold of his weapon. One moment he was falling and the next he realized he was on the floor, cradled against Blair’s body, his back supported by Blair’s right knee and shoulder. Blair was clutching him close with his right arm, and his left hand pressed down on the hemorrhaging hole in Jim’s right shoulder. His body was still covering most of Blair’s, was still between him and the murderous bitch. Playing dead, he peered up through his lashes, watching her, marshalling his strength to make his move. He wouldn’t get more than one chance.

Jim felt Blair fumbling in the right pocket of his jacket, and knew whatever the kid was up to was out of her line of sight. The cell phone! Blair knew his speed dial numbers; he’d be calling Simon’s office. Jim prayed Joel was there to answer and hear what was going down. His hearing kicked back in and he heard Blair talking practically nonstop, trying to reason with her, trying to buy time, and muttering at him with equally nonstop encouragement. He felt the hideous pain of Blair pressing his palm hard against the wound, trying to stem the hot pulsing river of blood. Must have nicked an artery. Not good.

“How did you know we’d be here?” Blair was asking, then muttered, “Hang on, Jim. Dammit, just hang on.”

Gwen smirked at him. “I’ve been tailing you all day, and I heard you outside the restaurant. You made it so easy. You went shopping and I came straight here.”

“Look, like I told you,” Blair cajoled, “killing us is pointless. The police are on to you. They know Jeff and Jess were both murdered, and that you set me up for the Chancellor’s murder. They even know you probably killed your parents.”

“Really?” she replied, sounding intrigued. “Good for them. But knowing isn’t the same as proving, is it, darling Blair? Still, I’m impressed. Nobody until now has ever thought we might actually have killed our own parents. We were only children, after all.”

“How could you do it? Why?” Blair asked, sounding honestly interested as well as totally appalled. Jim could hear the strain of fear in his voice, the certain dread that help wasn’t going to save them this time.

Shrugging, she shifted away and perched on the edge of his desk. Jim silently cursed. She was too far away, the angle wrong for him to have a clear shot at her; his arm throbbed so badly he couldn’t lift his weapon, couldn’t even shift his hand.

“Why? Because they were useless and a waste of good air. They’d spent all the money and were nearly broke. They were going to fire our nanny and split us up, send us to different boarding schools that dear Uncle Jeff would pay for. Couldn’t have that, now, could we? All we had was each other.” She laughed, a chilling sound in the silent office.

Unaware of the deadly danger, people passed back and forth in the corridor. Even if Joel was listening, help would be too long coming. Blair was murmuring to him, so softly he doubted anyone else could heard him, “Jim, please, you have to be okay. Please, man. Please.”

Supremely confident, enjoying the chance to brag about their accomplishments, Gwen was taking her time, explaining how they’d done it. “J.J. was always a bit of a nerd, always interested in how things worked. I bet him he couldn’t build a bomb with a timer, and he bet me he could. I put it in a suitcase and left it in the pile of their luggage so it got loaded with everything else. Poor J.J.” she laughed again, the sound grating on Jim’s sensitive ears. “When he realized he’d killed Mommy and Daddy, he had nightmares for years and still does, sometimes. After we’ve killed someone else, it all comes back and haunts him. Paul knows, always did, but what could he do about it? Who could he tell? Useless, the two of them, just like dear departed Momma and Poppa. I’d get rid of them, too, except I’m still hoping one of them might manage to acquire a rich wife who doesn’t care if her husband is a penniless wastrel. But then, we won’t be penniless now, will we? Not after you kill the handsome detective in your arms and then yourself.”

“You can’t get away with this,” Blair ground out. “Nobody would believe I’d kill Jim.”

“No, well, you’ve lost your mind, poor man – you’re not responsible for your actions,” she crooned as she slid off the desk and began to saunter toward them. “I’ve already made that very clear in the note you’ve left on your computer, explaining everything, and being so very sorry that the idea of getting all that money made you crazy, crazy enough to kill dear aunt Jess.”

“Okay, fine, but why the hell would I kill Edwards, the Chancellor?” Blair demanded, beginning to sound desperate but still trying to stall her.

“Oh, because you hated her and you’d developed a taste for killing. That happens you know. It’s a real rush,” she drawled with a salacious smile. She was coming closer, ever closer moving to Blair’s side, probably to plant a bullet in his right temple. Jim watched her and he readied himself.

“Jim? Jim, can you hear me?” Blair asked, probably having felt his muscles tense. “God, Jim. Be okay, man. You gotta be okay.”

“So sweet,” she taunted. “Just like your father, saint Jordy; always worried more about others than himself. Is this one your pet sentinel?”

“What?” Blair gasped. “Sentinel?”

“Oh, don’t play so innocent, professor. I actually looked at all those exhibits, and when you came on the scene, I did a little research and even found a clip of that press conference you did on the internet,” she bragged. “Not hard to put two and two together.”

Blair gathered Jim close, as if he could protect him from being shot again. “You don’t have to kill him,” Blair begged. “There’s no point. I told you, the police know–”

“Don’t be ridiculous; he saw me,” she countered, unwittingly coming into the perfect position for Jim to take her down. “Besides, you have no idea how satisfying it is, what a rush to put a bullet in your brain, and then put the pistol in your hand to shoot him again. Have to have those pesky powder burns to convince the investigators that you pulled the trigger.”

“Stop,” Jim grated, peering up at her as he leveled his pistol. “Drop that weapon.”

He could tell by the widening of her pupils that she was startled by his voice, but she recovered quickly. Between one breath and the next, she swung her gun toward him and he went for a kill shot; but his hand was unsteady and his vision wouldn’t settle down. The bullet hit her weapon as she was lifting it rather than her body; her scream rent the air as her gun went flying and she grabbed her wrist. Pain and astonished surprise bloomed on her face, as if she had believed she was invulnerable. Jim couldn’t tell if she’d actually been hurt; he didn’t see or smell any blood but he was hoping for some broken bones. He wanted to fire again, knew he had to stop her, but his arm was too heavy to lift and, silently cursing, he couldn’t aim. Blair was now fumbling for his pistol with his left hand, tugging the weapon from Jim’s now lax fingers.

“This isn’t over!” she yelled in fury as she staggered past them, not having the time to find her own weapon. “I’ll get you; I’ll get both of you!”

Blair lifted the pistol, but she was already out the now wide-open door. Clutching her arm, she raced down the hall past startled, gaping students.

“Someone call an ambulance!” Blair shouted in desperation, dropping the gun and once again pressing his hand down upon Jim’s wound, making him grunt with pain. “Sorry, man, sorry,” Blair gasped. “Find the pain dial, Jim. Turn it down, okay? Jim, you with me? Jim?”

Jim struggled to reassure him that it was okay, but that it wasn’t a life without out him; he wanted to tell Blair not to worry or be sorry for anything or ... but Jim didn’t know whether he was making sense or if his numb lips were even shaping the words. Blair was gaping at him in horror. The ravaging pain was too much to endure and the world was spinning crazily around him. Darkness was crowding in, taking him away from Blair ... killing the light.

The last thing he heard was Blair snarling, “Damn you, Ellison. Don’t you quit on me! You hear me? Don’t you dare quit on me!”

**

Jim blinked and then squinted against the blinding light directly above him.

“Ah, at last, Sleeping Beauty awakes,” Blair drawled from somewhere to the side.

Aware of a sharp, throbbing ache in his right shoulder, Jim snorted at the jibe as he turned his head to regard Sandburg, and then scowled at the large bandage he saw through a long tear in Blair’s blood-soaked shirt. “What happened to you?” he demanded as he pushed himself up.

Blair hastily reached out to give him a hand, but the gesture was perfunctory rather than gentle, the impersonal nature of his touch resonating with the fury flashing in his eyes. “The bullet that went through your shoulder gouged out some skin over my ribs before slamming into my bookcase,” Blair replied, his tone cold.

“How long have I been out?” Jim asked, buying time to figure out why Sandburg was so pissed off. Avoiding eye contact, he looked down at the dressing on his shoulder and the sling that trapped his right arm against his chest, both stark white against the angry red rash that now covered much of his body.

“You fainted nearly two hours ago. The doctor is making noises about admitting you for observation and to treat that rash. I told him it was just a food allergy and that you had medicine at home to take care of it.”

“I didn’t faint,” Jim growled, stung by the cold mockery in Blair’s voice and ignoring the comments about the rash. What the hell was wrong now? “I just passed out from loss of blood.”

Blair rolled his eyes. “Trust me, you didn’t lose that much blood. The bullet tore through skin and muscle, that’s all. The doc stitched up the damage; said you’ll need to see your own doctor about physical therapy to make sure you’ll have full movement in that arm when it heals.” He looked around and then hissed, “You fainted because your senses were all over the map, totally off the charts. What the hell was wrong with you? And why the hell did you let that rash get so bad, huh? What? You enjoy suffering?”

His gaze again dropping, totally unwilling to admit he probably deserved to suffer, Jim clamped his mouth shut and shrugged. Just then, Joel walked into the small cubicle, saving him from Blair’s wrath or, at least, buying him more time to figure it out. “Oh, good, you’re awake,” Joel observed with evident relief. “You were starting to worry us. Okay, well, I know you probably don’t want to spend the night here, so I’ve made arrangements for a protection detail and a safehouse. H and Rafe will meet us there. They’ve gone over to Faraday House to get your gear, Blair, and then they’ll get Jim’s stuff from the apartment.”

“Safehouse?” Blair countered. “Why? You heard her confession. Just arrest them!”

“When we find them, we will,” Joel agreed. “In the meantime, she doesn’t know I heard nearly everything she said. As far as she knows, you two are the only ones who heard her brag about killing five people.” He chuckled and scratched his cheek as he went on. “I wasn’t the only one who heard, either. Grady and Morton finally got the news about the paperweight and knife being from Faraday House. They crashed my office, demanding to know where you were, Blair, and yelling that I had no right interfering in their case or to put you in protective custody. Your call couldn’t’ve come at a better time. They heard every word of her confession. Morton looked like he still wanted to dispute the matter, but Grady just pulled him away, saying they’d put the word out to pick up the three of them.”

Blair huffed impatiently and grimaced. Frowning, he studied Jim and then said, “We’ll be as safe at the loft as anywhere and it’ll be better for Jim to be home.” He rounded on Joel, his arms flying in broad, angry gestures. “I thought people were going to tell me when he had trouble with his senses. Geez, Joel, he’s zoning, spiking – look at that rash!”

“Chief, stop!” Jim intervened. “Everyone thought I was doing fine.”

“And that’s something you, me and Simon are going to have to talk about,” Joel promised, “but not here and not now. I’ll go see the doctor and get you signed out. I’ll also get prescriptions for both of you for antibiotics and pain killers.”

“I don’t need –” Jim started to protest, and heard Blair echoing his words.

“Neither of you are doctors, or at least not medical doctors,” Joel retorted, cutting them both off, his calm demeanor sliding into irritation as he gestured at their respective wounds and went on, “You both know antibiotics are standard procedure and that you’re both going to be in a world of hurt when the local anesthetics wear off. I should probably get some calamine lotion, too, for that rash.” Without another word, he turned on his heel and stomped out.

Blair raked his hair back. “Great,” he muttered as he paced back and forth. Glaring at Jim, he leaned close and warned, “You’ve got a whole lot of explaining to do, and not just to Simon and Joel. What the fuck did you mean when you said life just wasn’t worth it without me? Huh?”

Jim’s gaze jerked up to meet Blair’s furious eyes. He’d forgotten ... and now that Blair had reminded him, he recalled that he didn’t think he’d managed to make any sense. Biting his lip, humiliated, he turned his face away. Damn it. He’d thought he was dying. But then the despair he’d been feeling welled along with the frustrated discouragement that there was nothing he could ever do to make anything better. “What do you care?” he asked bitterly.

A stinging smack upside his head bounced him right out his pit of despair. “You moron,” Blair growled. “You’re lucky you’re hurt or I’d shake you until your teeth rattle!”

“Okay, that’s it,” Jim snapped, sliding off the table to loom over Sandburg, who didn’t seem the least bit inclined to back off. Fed up with Sandburg’s attitude, he sure in hell didn’t need the insults, not after he’d done his best all damned day to express his feelings, not to mention the small matter of saving Sandburg’s butt more than once. Okay, so he wasn’t a brain trust. So what? Irritated, and more than a little confused by Blair’s livid anger about what he’d said when he’d been spilling his guts, Jim returned Blair’s glare in full measure. “You could be just a little more grateful that I saved your sorry ass for the second time today.”

Blair looked ready to ream him out some more, but Joel returned with the doctor in tow. Sandburg growled in frustration and turned away. Jim was guardedly grateful that the kid was at least keeping the fight between them and not involving anyone else, at least not yet.

“Ah, I see you’re feeling better,” the physician observed, gesturing for Jim to sit back down on the table and handing him a tube of ointment. “That’s for your rash.” He performed a swift examination of Jim’s pupils and reflexes, explained the prescriptions he was ordering and pronounced them both good to go. Joel helped Jim drape his jacket around his shoulders while Blair pulled on his own jacket, and then the Captain ushered them out of the hospital.

The ride was painfully quiet. Jim fumed in the front seat and Sandburg sat in the back, silent, expressionless and unmoving, like a pale statue carved from alabaster. Jim was aware of Joel darting concerned glances at the both of them as he steered his sedan through the late afternoon traffic, but there was nothing he could say to alleviate his friend and colleague’s concerns. Ideally, he and Sandburg shouldn’t be put in the same safehouse, but being together made it a hell of a lot easier for Joel to ensure their security. Shouldn’t have to be for long, just until the authorities caught up with Gwen and her brothers; surely, the two of them could refrain from killing each other for a few hours.

As much as he wanted to hold onto his anger, though, and cherish it, nurture it like a child, Jim didn’t find it easy to sustain. For one thing, he knew for a fact that Sandburg was entitled to his anger, and that he’d hurt Blair worse than he had ever imagined to have the younger man behaving with such relentless bitterness. For another, the closer they got to the loft, the more aware Jim became that Blair was struggling. Though on the surface, he still looked as cold and remote as a stone angel, Jim could hear the hitch in his breathing, and the way he fought to breathe slowly and deeply. He could also hear Blair’s heart doing a tap dance, going faster and faster until he was afraid Sandburg might pass out. Yeah, he’d love to hang onto the defense of his anger and his hurt, but he couldn’t, not when Blair was so obviously suffering in the seat behind him.

As Joel pulled up at the curb outside Collette’s, he said, “I’ll have someone bring the truck back from Rainier. And there’s a uniformed patrol here to make sure you’ll be secure.”

Jim nodded, but Blair said with a voice that sounded not all that steady, “Tell whoever brings the truck back to bring up the bags of supplies on the front seat. We need to, uh, Jim needs to take care of that rash.”

Jim clenched his jaw on the inclination to mutter that Sandburg shouldn’t worry about him, and instead he said, “Tell whoever’s watching the place to stay down in the lobby, where they can see both front and back entrances, as well as the stairwells and the elevator.”

Joel again cast a troubled glance at both of them, no doubt understanding that there might be some yelling going on in the loft, and Jim didn’t want the uniforms to hear it. “You’ll keep an ear out for intruders, and keep the doors locked and bolted? Stay away from the windows?” Jim nodded. “Okay, then, that’s where I’ll station them: on the ground floor, front and back.”

Jim told Joel he needn’t bother accompanying them inside, but Joel was taking his responsibility for their safety seriously. The ease with which Gwen King had gotten far too close had unsettled everyone. So Joel shepherded them inside, harrying Sandburg a little when the kid showed an inclination to dawdle behind them, as if reluctant to enter. The elevator was working, which made things easier but Jim listened closely to determine if anyone was lurking in the stairwells. Upstairs, Joel entered the loft first, his weapon drawn, but all was quiet and he called the ‘all clear’.

“Okay, then, you need anything? Groceries?” he asked once they were inside.

“No, we should be fine,” Jim replied.

“Just what’s in the truck,” Blair reminded them in a low voice.

“Fine, I’ll have them call to let you know they’re on the way up when they get here, and I’ll tell the patrol down on the street where they’re to keep watch. H and Rafe should be here soon, too, Blair, with your gear,” Joel said from the door. Frowning with concern, he asked, “You two sure you’re alright?”

Blair murmured, “Fine,” and Jim nodded tightly, thinking ‘alright’ was a relative term. Joel searched both their faces a last time, audibly sighed and, with an admonishment to lock up behind him, closed the door.

Jim locked the door and turned to study Sandburg, who was leaning one shoulder against the wooden support column with his arms crossed and his head slightly bowed. His posture was rigid, unbending, and he seemed to be staring at the floor. Jim sighed and wished he had some idea of what to say to make anything better. He felt as if the day had been going on forever, with no end in sight. Even with the pain dial cranked way down, his shoulder was aching, his worsened rash was driving him nuts, and he was tired to the bone. Wearily, he went to the fridge to get a bottle of water. “You want a beer? Water? Juice?” he asked. Blair shook his head. Rather than ask for help, Jim used his teeth to loosen the cap and, after spitting it in the sink, he took a long pull on the plastic bottle. Still very aware of Blair’s too fast heartbeat, his shallow breathing, and prolonged silence, Jim wondered if being back in the home they’d shared for four years was breaking down Sandburg’s defenses. “You okay?”

Blair huffed a strangled laugh and gave a tight shake of his head. “I don’t think I can do this,” he said, his voice hoarse with effort. “I don’t think I can stay here.”

“Why not?” Jim pushed. He’d done all the talking that day and he figured it was time for Sandburg to start baring his soul. Would only be fair.

“Why do you think?” he retorted. When Jim didn’t answer, he sighed. “I was happier – and more miserable – here than I’ve ever been anywhere else. So many hopes; so many dreams,” he finally murmured. “And they came so close to coming true....”

“You’re the one who moved out,” Jim reminded him.

“Fuck you,” Blair snapped, revealing that the anger he’d known was still there, fierce and raw just under the surface.

“You know what?” Jim grated, again losing patience. “I don’t know what you want from me. All day, I’ve tried to be as, as open and honest as I could, and all you’ve done is call me names, put me down or curse me. I know I screwed up, but I wasn’t the only one.”

Blair stiffened, as if he was going to argue, but then his shoulders slumped in defeat. “You’re right,” he admitted, though he still didn’t look at Jim. “I’ve been so damned angry for so long, I guess I’ve forgotten how to be anything else.”

“You have reason to be angry,” Jim said, relenting in the face of Blair’s grief. “But it’s not like you to carry a grudge, Chief.”

“Yeah, I know,” Blair agreed, low but with a biting edge. “That’s more your thing, right? Buried, smoldering anger that erupts violently, and a chip on your shoulder a mile high, about how much you hate your senses, and how everyone in your life eventually lets you down.”

Jim was about ready to take Sandburg’s head off, but knew that wouldn’t get them anywhere. Silently fuming, he moved past, but he clearly saw Blair’s face out of the corner of his eye. The pinched look around the kid’s eyes and mouth, the haggard gray of his face, and the pain in those wide eyes staggered him. Anger wasn’t what he saw but anguish, and it wrenched his heart. So stricken was he that he unconsciously reached out to gather Blair close, but Blair flinched away, and his hand dropped. “Chief,” he offered, investing all the love he could into his voice, “maybe there’s still a chance for those dreams and hopes.”

“I don’t think so, man,” Blair countered with brittle emotion. “That ship sailed a long time ago.”

“Ships are always sailing away, but haven’t you ever noticed that they almost always come back?” Jim replied. “Maybe it’s time our ship returned to the dock.”

For the first time since they’d entered the apartment, Blair looked at him, incredulity written on his face. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he rasped. “Don’t you get it? It’s too late, Jim. I don’t know why you can’t seem to understand that.”

“Maybe because ... well, because I don’t want to accept it,” Jim returned. Wandering around the loft, he spoke slowly, as much to himself as to Blair, trying to explain as well as he could why he fought the idea of giving up on them completely. “I tried so hard,” he said, “to ... to not give in to how I felt about you. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t think it was fair to you. I didn’t talk to you about it because I knew you’d disagree, that you’d put yourself second, like you’ve always done. But I didn’t think that was right. And then all hell broke loose.” He took another swallow of water to moisten the barren dryness of his mouth and throat. “When you walked away, I was determined to let you go. You’d given enough – too much. But, but the thing is, Chief, I ... I can’t get past it. I love you. I have no right, and I have nothing to offer, but I just – nothing’s the same without you. It’s all flat and gray. I love you more than I thought it possible to love, and sure in hell more than I love my own life.”

“Stop, Jim, just stop,” Blair begged through gritted teeth. “You didn’t love me enough before and I don’t believe you’ll love me enough in the future to believe in me, to believe I’d never betray you. And God knows, you’ve never respected me. I don’t think you have a clue about who I am, so I don’t believe you can really love me. You just love who you think I am or wish I was.”

“Respect you? Are you kidding me?” Jim exclaimed, whirling around to pace up close, so close he was crowding Blair’s space. “Okay, I know I didn’t pay enough attention, but I am now. You blow me away, Chief. Maybe I don’t have a doctorate, but I know what it takes to get one – and you got two, in what? Two months? At least in terms of writing a whole new dissertation. And you’re so close to a hat trick of a third doctorate that it’s scary. On top of that, you’re the curator of an incredible Collection you designed and created. Jesus, Chief! It’s so beautiful that it took my breath away. I more than respect you. I’m in awe of you. And I know damned well I don’t have anything to offer you but ugly death and danger. I don’t have the right to ask but, but I wish ... I’d give anything to be working with you again. To be living with you again.”

Jim wasn’t sure he was making any headway because Blair just shook his head and hunched into himself. “You keep saying I don’t know you, the real you. But I do know you. I know you’re brave and that you don’t quit. I know you have a strong moral code – you obfuscate to keep from hurting people’s feelings or to deflect unwanted attention, but you won’t hurt anyone deliberately. You help everyone you can, and you don’t judge other people. I knew then and I know now that I can trust you with my life. I just ... it was overwhelming, Chief. I pulled back because I didn’t know what else to do. So, okay, I don’t know enough about your life at Rainier and I never did. But I know you’re one of the best men I’ve ever known, right up there with Simon and Joel. And I know what manner of man you are; I always have.”

Blair was gazing at him now, gaping at him, surprise written all over his face. But when Jim met his eyes, Blair flushed and looked away, his curtain of hair hiding whatever else he might be thinking or feeling. The silence between them stretched tight.

Jim pressed his lips together and bowed his head, certain it was hopeless. God, Sandburg owned Faraday House. Why the hell would he ever want to come back here? But he remembered what Blair had said a year ago, that he liked being on the rollercoaster and didn’t want to get off. He’d never wanted to get off – circumstances had conspired to throw him off; circumstances, Naomi’s good intentions, and Jim’s temper. Jim rubbed his hand over his head and tossed the empty water bottle in the trash. So much had gone wrong. Maybe there was no way of ever recovering what they’d nearly had, or even the friendship of their early years together, but Jim couldn’t get past how utterly miserable Blair looked. If Sandburg’s life was working out okay, why did he look like he’d lost more weight than he could afford, and why wasn’t that light back in his eyes?

“Sandburg, with all that you’ve achieved,” Jim asked tentatively, not sure if he had the right, but deciding there was nothing much to lose, “... are you happy? You used to be so filled with energy and, well, joy, I guess. But not now. Not for quite a while.”

“Happy?” Blair echoed with a frown, as if the question was something he’d not thought about. “Happiness is a state of mind and an act of will, as much as it’s a way of being.” He sighed and straightened, and scrubbed his face with his palms. Finally moving away from the pillar, he slowly approached the balcony windows but stopped short, maybe recalling Joel’s admonishment to stay out of sight. “I have moments of happiness, when a student gets it, and when I’m working with the Collection. I was happy hearing about my father and his family from Jess. So long as I keep going, working flat out from the moment I wake up until I fall into bed, I don’t think about it much. But, but no, not the way you mean. I don’t think I’ll ever be happy like that again. Like I was.” He laughed hollowly. “Guess I’ve finally grown up, huh? I know now life’s not a fairy tale and there aren’t any happy endings.”

“What would it take for you to have a happy ending?” Jim asked as he moved to stand close behind Blair. Muttering a curse when the phone rang, interrupting them, Jim ignored it but the machine clicked on. It was the patrolman with the truck, letting them know he’d arrived and would be bringing their supplies upstairs.

“Good,” Blair muttered, sliding past Jim and, once again putting distance between them, heading toward the door. “You need to take care of that rash. And then, considering you were shot today, you should probably go to bed.”

“Alone?” Jim ventured, knowing he was playing with fire, but feeling increasingly desperate. There seemed to be no way to break through Blair’s barriers and defenses against him.

Blair’s heart rate spiked and he froze between one step and the next, stumbling a little before he recovered. But that was it. With no comment, no other outward reaction, he continued to the door as if he hadn’t heard – or else, simply didn’t deign to acknowledge the outrageous query with a response. Feeling the rejection keenly even though he knew the suggestion was ill-timed and out of line, Jim wondered what in hell had possessed him to make such an asinine comment. He was about to turn away and pretend it didn’t matter that Blair very clearly no longer loved him as he once had and accept that it really was hopeless; but then he caught the elusive scent of pheromones and his heart lurched.

Maybe it wasn’t hopeless.

As Blair opened the door and accepted the two bags of supplies from the cop, Jim recalled the way Blair had begged him to hold on – and had begged Gwen to spare his life. He remembered how Blair had held him close and curled over him, as if trying to shield him from her.

Maybe Sandburg still cared a whole lot more than he wanted to admit.

Maybe, just maybe, if he didn’t give up, if he persevered and could prove he would never turn on Blair again, if he could win back Blair’s trust and ease the deep pain he’d never meant to cause, then there just might be a future worth living after all.

But how could he prove he’d never doubt Blair again? Had he finally learned to think before he reacted when the world seemed to be crashing in on him? To engage Blair when things got weird rather than keep it all to himself and pretend it wasn’t happening? With a shudder of revulsion, Jim remembered Sandburg on the early morning grass, cold, wet and dead; and on the beach in Mexico when Alex was about to kill him again. His gut revolted, as it always did, whenever he thought about what he’d been doing on that damned beach and how he’d repeatedly lost control of his reason in order to protect that bitch. Reeling away from those hideous memories, he saw again Blair’s face on the television screen, the grief and pain etched on his pale, haggard face as he denounced himself, labeled himself as a fraud. Jim felt the old rush of hot shame that he’d allowed it, that he hadn’t made things right. Sure, Blair had landed on his feet, big time, but they’d both been paying the penalty since Blair had walked away from him to keep the lie alive. How could he be sure he’d never reject Blair again, never turn on him? Or was Blair right that it would inevitably all play out again? Dear God, would he get Blair killed again? The very thought made Jim so sick that the world tilted around him as his heart clenched with icy dread and breath froze in his lungs.

“Jim? Jim! Hey, easy, slow deep breaths, man. C’mon,” he heard Blair urge and felt himself being led and pressed down onto his chair, his head pushed swiftly but gently down between his knees. Shaking, he struggled to slow and deepen his respirations. “It’s okay,” Blair crooned as he rubbed slow circles on Jim’s back. “That’s it, man, you’re doing fine.”

After a long minute, maybe two, Jim blinked and leaned back, swallowed carefully to ensure his queasy stomach wasn’t about to stage its own revolt. He felt cold and shaky, and he’d bet he was as white as a ghost.

“What happened, man?” Blair asked, sitting back on his heels but leaving one hand on Jim’s thigh to ground him. “Everything just catch up to you? Probably a little dizzy from blood loss. And I bet you’ve had your pain dial turned down to nothing for so long that you’re not paying any attention at all to the signals your body is sending you. Am I right?”

Jim gave a tight nod but reached out to grip Blair’s shoulder, to hold him close. “But that’s not what just happened,” he rasped. Shifting awkwardly, his bound right arm putting him off balance, he lifted his left hand and very delicately caressed Blair’s cheek with his fingertips. Blair’s eyes widened in surprise at the touch, but he didn’t pull away. “I was remembering ... Jesus, Blair, the things I’ve done, what you’ve suffered. Makes me sick, you know? Sick to my soul.”

Blair studied him, his expression inscrutable, but he didn’t immediately pull away. “We can’t change the past,” he finally said, sounding tired.

“Maybe not,” Jim allowed. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. I know you said love isn’t enough–”

“And it’s not,” Blair interjected, breaking the physical contact between them as he rose to his feet. “The mistake we both made was believing, hoping, it was. But if a relationship is going to work, it needs more, a whole lot more,” he went on, ticking points off on his fingers. “Commitment and communication, patience and understanding, and respect and trust. And, above all else, a long term relationship needs unconditional love, the kind of love that isn’t about sex but about accepting the other person as they are, without wanting to remake them. And it’s about accepting that sometimes ... sometimes people screw up badly, but you don’t stop loving them because of it.”

“Have you stopped loving me?” Jim asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer, but knowing he had to hear it, regardless. Nor could he stop himself from holding his breath in hope as he waited for Blair’s response.

Blair looked away and seconds ticked past until Jim wasn’t sure he’d get an answer. But then, “No,” Blair murmured, eyes still downcast and his voice so hollow that Jim could hear the distant echoes of a breaking heart. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving you. But I don’t think, I’m not sure – ah, hell. I just don’t know anymore if it could ever have worked, or if we’ll always hurt each other too damned much to get it right.” He gave himself a shake. “And we’re not going to figure it out today,” he went on more briskly, moving away. He bent to retrieve the shopping bags from the health food store which were lying on the ground near where Jim had been standing and then continued on toward the bathroom. “I’ll run a bath for you and put in the oatmeal flakes to ease that rash. Man, I don’t know how you can stand it. While you soak for a while, I’ll make some soup, and then you have to get some rest.”

Jim pushed himself to his feet to follow Blair into the small bathroom. “The rash hasn’t been this bad for more than a few days,” he explained as he fumbled with his belt buckle with his left hand; no reason for Sandburg to think he was more masochistic than he was. “Used to be only my arms, around my neck and waist.”

“Uh huh,” Blair grunted, down on one knee by the tub. “Like that makes it okay.” He’d plugged the drain and turned on the faucets, and was pouring handfuls of oatmeal into the rapidly filling tub. Glancing at Jim, he bit his lip and then observed, “I guess we can’t make it too deep or you’ll get your dressings wet.”

Jim nodded grudgingly, wishing he could soak in water up to his chin. Blair swished the flakes through the water and then stood to wipe his hands on a towel. He gave Jim an assessing glance, his expression guarded. “You’re going to need help, aren’t you?” he asked, sounding rhetorical and resigned.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Jim agreed with decided ambivalence. Having Blair’s hands on him, removing his clothing, soothing away the burn and the itch, was definitely a good thing. Being naked while Blair helped him would leave him at a decided disadvantage when it came to appearing indifferent.

After a moment of perfect stillness, Blair tightened his jaw and set about helping Jim out of his clothing and sling, and into the steaming water. He put a washcloth into Jim’s left hand to take care of the skin he could reach. Blair gently layered several other soaked cloths over Jim’s shoulder and back, and then carefully sponged the skin around the dressings on Jim’s upper right chest and back, taking care to keep them dry. “I have an idea,” he muttered, and was up and out of the bathroom before Jim could ask what it was. He heard a drawer open and close, and then Blair was back with the box of sandwich wrap. He tore a long sheet and carefully draped it over Jim’s wounded shoulder, down over both gauze bandages and patted it to ensure they were fully protected. Then he soaked a towel in the oatmeal treated bath water, and wrapped it around Jim’s shoulders and back, so that the moist, medicinal warmth covered most of the worst of the rash that Jim couldn’t reach for himself. “Okay, lean back and let that soak for a few minutes. Call me when you start to feel chilled.”

Jim muttered, “Thanks,” and closed his eyes, letting the warmth sooth him and ease the awful itch. Blair draped another soaked towel over his chest before he heard Blair leave him and then the rattle of a pan and the whirr of the can opener. Not long after that, he smiled wistfully at the homey scent of chicken vegetable soup – Blair’s homeopathic remedy to help stave off infection. God, though he hated to admit it, even to himself, it felt so good, so damned good, to be taken care of again. Absently rubbing at the ache in his chest, he wondered ... if he’d admitted it more often, along with his gratitude, would Blair still be with him?

He heard Brown and Rafe arrive with Blair’s gear. They talked for a while; said that they had leads on the two King men, but no one knew where Gwen was hiding out. With assurances that they’d soon have them all in custody, they left Blair to finish making their light supper.

Relaxing, he must’ve drifted off because the next thing he knew, Blair was quietly waking him and helping him out of the tub. Blair wrapped him in a bath sheet that must’ve been warmed in the microwave, and then carefully soothed the ointment the doctor had given him over his skin. “It’s mostly Vitamin E and aloe,” Blair murmured, “so it should really help clear this up quickly.”

Jim felt as if he was in a fog of comfort, not quite firing on all cylinders, but he was content to let Blair help him into his old, most comfortable sweats, ease his arm back into the sling and then guide him to a chair at the table. He blinked, and a large bowl of aromatic soup appeared in front of him, along with a crusty toasted roll fairly dripping with butter. The lump in his throat at the generous care Blair was taking of him, even to spoiling him well beyond what he deserved, made it hard to swallow the first spoonful of soup. “This – everything – it’s great, Chief,” he acknowledged with rough emotion.

“It’s just soup, Jim,” Blair returned as he sat down with his own steaming bowl. But his voice, so cold and distant for so much of the day, had warmed and he sounded almost pleased.

“Yeah, well, it’s great,” Jim asserted again, knowing Blair knew what he meant, and he was pleased at the tug of a small smile at the corner of Blair’s mouth. Maybe if they could just stay here, away from everything and everyone, cocooned with nothing to do but take care of each other for at least a month, maybe they could get back what they’d once had. Jim felt a wave of melancholy at how hopeless that wish was, but he forced it back. Right now, for as long as it lasted, he had Blair with him, they weren’t fighting, and he was damned well going to enjoy it.

When they finished eating, Blair cleared away the bowls. Moving stiffly, he returned to the table with the small bottles of pills that Joel had picked up for them on the way home: antibiotics and painkillers. He filled two glasses from the jug of ice water he’d put on the table earlier, and handed Jim an antibiotic capsule. “Would be better if you could handle the pain with your dial,” he said, peering at Jim with a questioning look.

Jim nodded his agreement and dry-swallowed the capsule, but he followed it down with a long draught of refreshing water. “What about you?” he asked, with a glance at Blair’s side. “You look like you’re starting to hurt.”

“Yeah, the local anesthetic is wearing off,” Blair sighed as he popped two of the pain pills along with his own antibiotic. Frowning, Jim thought the kid must be really hurting if he was taking a double dose without complaint or some whine about the perils of modern medicine. Blair set his water glass down and said, “You better head upstairs. I’ll be up in a couple hours to put more of the ointment on your skin.”

“Your bed is made up; the sheets are pretty fresh,” Jim admitted, feeling like an idiot. “Hope dies hard,” he added, nearly too low for Blair to hear, but the slight flush on Sandburg’s cheeks revealed that the words, and their implication, had hit home.

But Blair’s glance at the French doors held more of the look of a condemned man than of gratitude. Without looking at Jim, he stood away from the stable and mumbled, “I’ll be fine on the couch.”

“Oh, come on,” Jim began to protest, but Blair held up a hand. “Please,” he whispered. “It’s just about killing me to be here. Please don’t make it worse than it already is.”

The broken words pierced Jim’s soul, and he felt his eyes burn in response. Here he’d been quietly reveling in Blair’s company, while being there was akin to torture for Blair. God, how had things gone so wrong? “I’m sorry,” he replied gruffly as he pushed himself to his feet. “Sorry for every damned thing I ever did that hurt you.” Without another word, he lumbered up the stairs to his bed.

Behind him, Blair stood at the table for long minutes before Jim heard him go to the linen closet for a pillow and blanket and then to the sofa. The soft protest of springs told Jim that Sandburg was finally lying down and he dearly hoped the ghosts of memories wouldn’t keep the kid from getting some rest. Closing his eyes, guilty because he felt physically better than he had in months, he was nearly dozing off when he heard the slight wisp of sound.

“I’m sorry, too. For hurting you.”

His chest clenched with sharp emotion, and he gritted his teeth against the sob that rose in his throat. Sniffing, he pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stem the burn, but hot tears escaped to drizzle a path down the sides of his face. Jim told himself there shouldn’t be any need for Sandburg to apologize for anything, not after the price he’d paid to make things right. Seeing the torment he felt at being back in the one place he’d ever thought of as home made the cost of his gift crystal clear. But ... but Jim couldn’t deny that something eased inside, something long in need of solace. He’d never been comfortable accepting all the blame for everything – God knew, the weight of grief and guilt he bore was a heavy enough load. But he’d been hurt, too, cut to the quick by the thought that Blair had betrayed him; that it had been an accident had done little to ease the anguish of being thought a freak. Just as he’d been deeply wounded to learn Blair had been working with another sentinel behind his back, one who ended up nearly destroying both of them.

Blair was good at explaining, at defending, at confronting and cajoling, but he wasn’t a whole lot better than Jim at apologizing. Sure, he’d made the formal apology to ‘anyone he’d hurt’ during his press conference, and denying himself and his work was ... well, Jim still couldn’t really wrap his head around the magnitude of Blair’s gift to him. But Blair hadn’t ever, not really, apologized to him, not to his face, maybe because Jim had attacked so hard and fast both times, just like he’d attacked over the first chapter of the dissertation, that he’d forced Blair into a defensive position. Regardless, even with full acceptance of his own fault in the all the mess of the last terrible months, Jim hadn’t realized until he’d heard the soft words just how much he’d needed to hear them. And, his teeth worrying at his lip, he found himself wondering if Blair had needed to hear his apology just as badly.

He took a shuddering breath and swiped the salty moisture from his eyes and face. Sniffing, he drew another deep breath and stared up through the skylight into the night sky. Then, with thudding heart, he rose and made his way through the darkness down the steps to the living room. Hearing him, Blair shifted and sat up as Jim moved toward the sofa and then eased down beside him. Wordlessly, reaching out with his good left arm, he encircled Blair’s shoulders and drew him close. Grateful that Blair didn’t resist him, he bent his head to bury his face in Blair’s hair, savoring the clean scent, the silky caress of the curls.

When Blair lifted his head, Jim softly kissed his forehead and murmured hoarsely, “No matter what the future holds, don’t ever doubt that I love you. I have always loved you. And I always will.”

He scented the tang of salt then, and knew Blair was also struggling with his emotions. “I know,” Blair rasped, his head resting on Jim’s shoulder. “That’s what makes it so hard.” Blair’s arms came around him, holding him close.

Mutely, they clung to one another until sleep crept over them.

**

When the soft light of dawn woke Jim, they were still leaning against one another. Inhaling deeply, reveling in Sandburg’s scent, he was careful not to move, to not disturb Blair. Despite the awkwardness of sleeping sitting up and the dull ache in his shoulder, he knew he hadn’t felt so well in a very long time. Something inside had healed during the night, some old hurt or uncertainty, leaving only the warmth of gratitude behind. Gratitude for all Blair was in his life, all he’d been and all Jim fervently hoped he’d be in the future. Once again he dusted Blair’s brow with a chaste kiss while, in his heart, he vowed to do all in his power to heal all the wounds and tear down all the walls that held them apart.

Not long after, he heard the minute changes in Blair’s breathing and heart rate that signaled he was gradually waking. Then, not yet fully awake, Blair shifted and, with a hiss, stiffened.

“Your side hurting?” Jim asked softly.

“Yeah, big time,” Blair admitted. Carefully, he eased himself upright and raked his hair back from his face. “Oh, man,” he muttered around a yawn, “I can’t remember the last time I slept through a whole night. An’ I didn’t put more ointment on your rash.”

“Feels pretty good, though,” Jim assured him.

“Mmm, good,” Blair murmured, scrubbing his face with his hands, chasing away the dregs of sleep. “I better put more on now, though.” He stood and went to the bathroom to get the ointment, and Jim heard him splashing his face with water and brushing his teeth. Returning, Blair helped him remove the sling and sweatshirt, and gently smoothed the lotion over his upper body and down his back; the sensation was deliciously sensuous and Jim closed his eyes to enjoy it without distraction.

“Does look a lot better,” Blair said quietly as he finished. Once he had replaced Jim’s shirt and sling, he steered Jim to the bathroom, where he carefully shaved Jim’s stubble before attacking his own. Then he waved Jim back into the living room while he went to the kitchen. “I’ll put on some coffee and make breakfast,” he said unnecessarily over his shoulder, as if needing to talk to fill the silence that followed the intimacy they’d just shared. Swiftly, he busied himself, easing back into the familiar domestic tasks as if he’d never been gone.

The coffee was perking and sausages were frying in the pan when he finally stopped moving and, his back still turned to Jim, he said unsteadily, “What you said yesterday in my office ... I don’t want you to die for me. I don’t want you to die, period.”

Jim stood and walked into the kitchen, to stand close behind Blair. “Why not?” he asked. “For months you’ve acted like I don’t exist.”

Blair bowed his head and his shoulders tightened. When he didn’t answer, Jim laid a hand on his shoulder, gripping gently, knowing he was pushing but knowing they had to do this. “Why not?” he asked again. “Because I’m a sentinel?”

Blair shook his head, and then rested his cheek against Jim’s fingers. “Because,” he husked, and had to clear his throat. “Because I can’t bear to think about a world without you in it.”

Hesitantly, he half turned and lifted his face toward Jim. The heady, intoxicating musk of his pheromones filled the air, triggering a quiver of anticipation in Jim’s gut and a sweet, aching heaviness in his loins. Mesmerized by those full lush lips, he was unable to resist leaning down. “Jim, I don’t know ...” Blair breathed.

“Shh,” Jim soothed as he moved in closer still. He could feel the soft susurration of Blair’s warm breath on his skin and taste its minty freshness as his own lips parted – the shrill ring of the telephone made them both jump, killing the moment and the mood.

“Damn it!” Jim growled furiously, wishing he could ignore it, knowing he couldn’t, as he stormed into the living room where the handset was lying on the coffee table.

But before he got there, the answering machine kicked in. “Jimmy, if you’re there, please pick up,” William begged, hoarse and shaky.

Hearing the fear, and the sound of two heartbeats, one racing and the other nearly as fast, Jim froze and looked back at Blair, who was watching him with wide eyes filling with alarm.

“You heard your Daddy, Jimmy,” Gwen ordered. “I know you’re there. Pick up the damned phone.”

Resolutely, Jim grabbed the phone and growled, “He’d better be unharmed.”

“Of course, he’s unharmed – well, more or less – and he’ll stay that way so long as you do what I tell you,” she riposted. “Otherwise, I’d have no hostage and you’d come after me, guns a’blazing.”

“What do you want?”

“The cops picked up my brothers last night. That won’t do, Jimmy. That won’t do at all. Nobody separates me from my brothers. So I want them cut loose, and I want three first class airline tickets to the Caymans. And to make it worthwhile for me to go quietly, I want Jordy’s bastard to bring us twenty million in bearer bonds. That should keep us out of his hair for a ... well, at least a year.” Jim heard the catch in his father’s breathing and, if anything, William’s heart tripped into overdrive. Damn it; clearly there’d be a problem getting that kind of money together from the estate on a Sunday morning. “Oh, and Jimmy? I want you and darling Blair to bring my brothers and the bonds. And no cops – you hear me? You do that for me and your precious father might just get out of this with a whole skin.”

“It’ll take a while to get all that organized,” Jim grated, buying time. “The banks aren’t open.”

“You’ve got until noon to figure it out and get it done. After that, all bets are off.” The phone went dead.

The machine had continued recording so Blair had heard every word. “Oh, my God,” he breathed. “Jim, you know I’d do anything for your Dad. If the Judge doesn’t consider them flight risks, I can cover their bail with my settlement money but ... but I don’t have access to the Faraday-King fortune, not yet. William’s the only one who could–”

“I know, I figured that out,” Jim cut in. Scowling, his thoughts racing, he rubbed his mouth and ruthlessly shoved his feelings out of the way. “Doesn’t matter. We can’t let those two go. They’re accessories, or at least complicit, in five murders, maybe more for all we know. I’m just glad Joel has them in custody already. And we sure in hell can’t meet her without backup; she’d just kill all three of us.”

“Oh, man, what’re we gonna do?” Blair asked, watching Jim, his trust in Jim’s judgment and ability to get them out of this mess resonating in his voice and glowing in his eyes.

Jim punched in Simon’s home number. As he listened to it ring, he said with less confidence than he wished he could muster, “I’m not entirely sure, but I’ve got an idea.”

**

An hour later, Blair was perched on the edge of the conference table in Simon’s office. Joel was standing by the closed door, his expression deeply unhappy. Jim, leaning against the window sill and absently massaging his aching shoulder, was watching Simon, who was drumming his fingers on the desk, a ferocious scowl on his face. “If you’ve got a better idea ...” Jim offered.

Simon snorted but shook his head. “I don’t like it, but no, I don’t have a better idea. Joel?”

Taggart bit his lip and shook his head. “Blair,” he asked. “I know we said we needed you to draw them out, but – are you sure you’re okay with this?” Before Blair could respond, he glanced at Simon. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to give her two more hostages.”

“I know,” Simon sighed. Meeting Jim’s gaze, he added, “She’s a stone cold killer, a psychopath. I’m not sure you’ll be able to rattle her; her kind doesn’t know what fear is.”

Jim probed his cheek with his tongue, thinking about it. “No, maybe not,” he agreed. “But she’s got a very short leash on her temper. I think we can play her.”

“She’s as likely to shoot you –” Joel argued.

“I don’t think we have a choice. We can’t take chances with William Ellison’s life by sending SWAT in ahead of us,” Blair opined, cutting Joel off as he slid off the table, his matter-of-fact manner making it clear that he backed Jim’s plan all the way. “And we don’t have a lot of time. We need to flesh out the details – and get the DA on board.”

**

Three hours later, wired for sound and with a gun secreted under his sling, Jim led the way up the drive to the entrance of his father’s house. Behind him, carrying a briefcase, Blair matched his pace. They were both dressed casually in jackets over loose sweaters and jeans. Rain pattered straight down in the absence of any wind, creating a chilly, dismal day. Simon, Joel, and the SWAT van were around the corner, just out of sight of the house. Jim could hear the members of the tactical squad taking position behind the hedge bordering the backyard, and he knew the two captains would move up behind them once they were inside the house.

Focusing on the house, he picked up two heartbeats in the family room, just off the kitchen. “They’re very close to the patio doors in back. We’re just about to go in,” he said for the benefit of their listeners. Behind him, he heard Blair mutter about how he made no bones about his senses anymore, but he found it a relief to be able to share what he knew openly with his colleagues on the Force. Glancing over his shoulder, he paused and gave Sandburg one last chance to reconsider the madness of what they were about to do. “Chief–”

“Don’t say it,” Blair interjected, waving off the words he hadn’t given Jim a chance to express. “With that shoulder, you can’t handle this alone. And besides,” he went on with a quirky grin that belied his thundering heartbeat and frightened pallor, “she’s expecting me, right? Wouldn’t want to disappoint the lady.”

Jim snorted, but gave his partner a fleeting smile in return. Blair had never shied away from what had to be done, regardless of the personal danger; the kid had always been too damned brave for his own good. Torn between being glad that Blair was there to back him up and worry about the danger they were facing, he decided to just be grateful that Blair was putting himself on the line to save his father. Looping his left arm around Sandburg’s shoulders, he said with simple sincerity, “Thanks. For being here. For doing this.”

When Blair cut him a sideways look, Jim was startled – and moved beyond words – to see a glimmer of the old, long-absent teasing sparkle back in the dark depths. “Where else would I be?” Blair challenged and his wry grin flashed again. “Haven’t had this much excitement or been almost killed in, oh, what? Twenty or so hours?”

Despite the deadly danger they were walking into, the banter did its job of loosening them up. Jim grinned and took the opportunity to lightly ruffle Blair’s curls before stepping away to avoid a sharp elbow in his ribs. Sobering, he climbed the shallow steps to the front door. “Stay behind me,” he directed, rapping sharply on the door and pushing it open to move inside. “Gwen?” he called. “We’re here.”

“About time. We’re back here, by the kitchen.”

Leaving the door unlatched behind them, Blair followed him across the entry hall, past the stairs and through the living room to the doorway of the family room bordering the kitchen. Jim poked his head around the lintel to get a visual on his father and Gwen. She was wearing the same clothing as the day before and had lost her perpetual aura of complacency. Standing behind his father, she held her gun in her left hand and pressed it hard against the back of his head. Jim was gratified to see she’d also lost the use of her right arm and he dared hope he had managed to shatter a bone or two. The pain would erode her concentration and put her off her game. He could see a fine tremor in her hand, the rapid blinking that indicated agitation, and the fast and shallow way she was breathing.

The woman was definitely on the edge. That could work for them or everything could blow up in their faces. Once again, he wished he’d been able to talk Blair into staying well away from her. But Blair had brushed off the suggestion as quickly during their planning discussion as he had just moments before. Something had changed between them overnight, something fundamental. Blair was once more fully present, once more his partner. Jim rejoiced at the change even as he watched Gwen closely and dreaded the danger she represented.

But he deeply regretted how pale and exhausted his father appeared to be, and he wondered how long Gwen had been terrorizing him. Easing his way into the room, his good hand in the air, he said with as much calm confidence as he could muster, “Hey, Dad.”

“Son,” William acknowledged evenly. Jim gave him full marks for the unwavering gaze and strong voice. His old man had guts; he had to give him that.

“Where’s the Professor?” she demanded, and Jim could hear the strain of stress in her voice.

“Right here,” Blair replied as he stepped into the room behind Jim, and then deliberately moved out of Jim’s shadow to cross the floor toward a coffee table, where he put down the briefcase. “With your bearer bonds,” he said.

Jim wasn’t happy about Blair taking the initiative to ignore the directive to stay behind him. But he couldn’t fault the strategy of dividing her concentration. If he moved another step or two to the right, she wouldn’t be able to watch both of them at the same time.

“Where are my brothers?” she snarled, impatient and angry.

Good, Jim thought, her control is slipping. “They refused to come,” he told her, keeping his tone as bland as possible. “They said they’d had enough of being bullied by you. They didn’t want to be on the run all their lives, fugitives from the police. We offered them immunity and they couldn’t wait to roll over on you. We’ve got all the facts we need.”

“What?” she screamed. “I don’t believe you! You’re lying! They’d never betray me! Never!”

Jim shrugged. “You can call them. I’ve got a cell phone in my pocket that Paul programmed his cell number into. They’re probably still at the airport, waiting for their flight to parts unknown.”

She regarded him with loathing, but she nodded tightly. Carefully, he removed the phone from his jacket pocket and, holding it out, stepped toward her. But this caused her a dilemma because she couldn’t put down the weapon to take the phone and her right hand maintained a loose grip on the back of William’s shirt. “You,” she growled at William. “Take the phone. I’ll tell you what number to dial. Then hold it up where I can hear it.”

Jim handed his father the phone, and used the distraction to step back and to the side, further away from Blair who was across the room. Cautiously, he massaged his right arm as if in some degree of pain, to have his hand close to the weapon concealed in the sling. William finished punching in the numbers Gwen snapped at him and held the phone up near her face.

“I’ve got the bearer bonds, if you want to see them,” Blair said, distracting her further as she and Jim listened to the phone ring at the other end. Blair dropped down to one knee to click open the briefcase and lift the lid. Jim glanced at him with approval. The lid of the briefcase had been reinforced with a slab of steel, and dropping down behind it gave him some additional protection.

“Don’t move!” she yelled at him, and then the ringing stopped, distracting her from Blair.

Hello?” Jim recognized Paul’s voice and was glad they’d agreed to let him have his own phone in the jail cell. The two brothers had gotten a deal, alright, for agreeing to this farce and for coming clean about all the murders – and there had been more murders than they had known about, all of them allegedly orchestrated by Gwen. In return for the information, the brothers were assured they wouldn’t face the gas chamber. But both Paul and J.J. would do serious jail time.

“Paul! Where the hell are you?” she shouted into the phone. “You were supposed to come with Ellison!”

“I’m at the airport with J.J.,” Paul replied, as had been agreed. “We’ve had it, Gwen. Enough lies. Enough killing. We’re getting out while we can. Jess left enough for us to live on. Better than being on the run all our lives. Better than staying with you. We’re heading somewhere where shoes and shirts are optional and a half mill a year between us will be more than enough for a very comfortable life.”

“You cowards!” she screamed. “I did everything for the two of you! I’ll get you for this. I swear I’ll find you and–”

The line went dead. Paul had hung up on her, leaving her incandescent with fury. Jim knew these were the most dangerous seconds, when her behavior couldn’t be predicted except that she was bound to lash out. Behind him, he heard Simon and Joel creep silently into the house and down the hall.

Blair shouted, “Drop your gun, Gwen. It’s all over.”

She turned her attention back to him, her weapon coming away from William’s head to level on Blair. But she gaped when she saw that he was holding a primed grenade in his hand; his thumb holding down the trigger mechanism was all that was keeping the small bomb from going off. “We’re all going to walk out of here, nice and easy, and you’re not going to kill anyone else,” Blair said with slow deliberation. “If you shoot anyone, I’ll let this go and you’ll surely die.”

While she was distracted, Jim drew his own weapon from his sling. “Drop it, Gwen!” he ordered. “Dad, get down!”

His father tore away from the grip of her weakened right hand, lurching to the side and down to his knees. At the same moment, an almighty crash sounded behind her as the SWAT team smashed through the patio door. She jumped and trembled with fury and confusion but her weapon remained leveled on Blair. Jim thought for the space of a heartbeat that she was going to surrender, but then a feral smile bloomed on her face. “I’ll see you all in hell!” she shrilled venomously in a last desperate bid for a final triumph.

Jim fired just as her weapon exploded and less than half a beat later, two of the SWAT guys also fired. She jerked in a macabre dance as the bullets ripped into her, before she crumpled almost where she’d been standing. But Jim didn’t see her fall. Even as he’d pulled the trigger, he’d been already turning and moving toward Blair, seeing him be blown backward by the force of the bullet that had hit him, the grenade spilling from his fingers to roll on the floor.

Harmlessly.

The charge had been removed before the grenade had been given to Blair to place in the otherwise empty briefcase. It had only been a bluff, but it had gone wrong. Instead of keeping Blair safe, as had been the intention, it had gotten him shot.

“Blair!” Jim yelled as he charged across the floor to drop beside his partner. He could hear Blair’s heart beating, so he knew his partner was alive, just as he knew the moment Gwen’s heart stopped. But he needed to see, to touch; needed to be certain Blair was okay. Seconds later, Simon and Joel rushed in from the front of the house, both coming to a halt to stare at Blair, their expressions stricken.

William had crouched into himself as the bullets had exploded around him, arms shielding his head, but now he too was scrambling, half crawling toward Blair, who was splayed on his back on the floor at the end of the sofa. Jim was conducting a swift examination, shoving up Sandburg’s sweater to find the bullet lodged deeply in the Kevlar vest – damn, it had sheared through the briefcase lid and almost gone through the vest, the force of the heavy caliber at such short range staggering. He swiftly pressed down on Blair’s chest, needing to feel the steady strong beat even as he listened to the too-fast heartbeat and panting breaths. “It’s okay, Chief,” he crooned. “You’re okay.”

Blair was staring up at the ceiling, as if in shock, but he blinked and his gaze tracked toward Jim. Still gasping, he rasped, “Owe me ... a sweater.”

Jim laughed and patted his cheek with loving gentleness before loosening the vest and sliding his hand under Blair’s T-shirt to feel for cracked or broken bones. “You got it, babe. Whatever you want.”

Blair closed his eyes and struggled to slow and deepen his breathing, but the pain of each respiration was written in the lines around his eyes and mouth, and the furrow of his brow.

Jim carefully eased Blair up to brace his back against Jim’s knee. William helped him get the sweater and vest off Sandburg, and then Jim lifted his T shirt to check the already blossoming bruise.

“H-hurts,” Blair protested when Jim delicately touched his skin, assessing the damage.

“I know, Chief, sorry. Might’ve cracked a rib,” he murmured with a frown of concern. “We’ll have to get you checked out.”

Blair gave him a narrow-eyed glare but didn’t waste any breath on a protest. Gradually, as the SWAT teamed called in the ‘all clear’, he got his breathing under control.

“You want an ambulance?” Simmons, the lieutenant heading the tactical team asked as he held his radio to the side.

“No,” Jim replied with a tight shake of his head. “We can manage. Thanks. Oh, and your timing was impeccable. Great work.”

Simmons nodded and turned away to call the meat wagon and the M.E.

“The two of you are out of your minds,” William railed, able to scold them now that the danger was past and he’d gotten his own breath back. But he was haggard and he looked like he’d been through hell. One side of his face was badly bruised and there was a slight tremble in his hands. “Walking in here on your own? You could have both been killed. She was insane!”

“Easy, Pops,” Jim replied with a reassuring grin as he reached to lightly squeeze his father’s shoulder. “Everything worked out okay – although we didn’t expect her to go after Blair as the preferred target. Uh, where’s Sally?”

“At her sister’s place for the weekend,” William replied tersely.

Jim nodded and, unconsciously, he and his father both turned to look at the body. He waited a beat, then asked, “When did she get here?”

“Late last night,” William said with a sigh as he stood and brushed off his slacks, his actions automatic, as if he wasn’t really aware of what he was doing. “All night, she told me what she was going to do to the two of you, over and over.” He grimaced and looked away. Shook his head. “She was a monster.” He shuddered, but then drew a deep breath and stiffened his shoulders. Turning back to them, he asked with evident concern, “Blair, you sure you’re alright, son?”

Still focused on evening out his breathing, Blair nodded and then puffed, “Yeah. Just, uh, hurts. But that’s normal.”

Simon moved closer to help him to his feet and onto the sofa. “Just give us a minute and we’ll get you to Cascade General.”

“No rush,” Blair assured him, rubbing his chest to ease the deep ache, though he studiously refrained from looking anywhere near Gwen’s body. “I’m just glad it’s over and we’re all okay.”

Something in his tone drew Jim’s gaze to Blair’s, and he saw the question in the dark depths, and the uncertainty. He looked away, at Gwen, and then at the bullet buried in the vest that was lying on the floor. That bullet could so easily have .... But that was what was worrying Sandburg. Not that he’d almost been killed, but that the danger to his life would once again cause Jim to retreat and decide they were better apart, that Blair was safer. But it hadn’t been police work that had presented the danger this time, and the danger wasn’t the point anyway. Finally, finally Jim understood that the point was what they did about it, and what they meant to one another. A slight smile played around his lips and the tension he’d not even been aware of eased from his shoulders. Once again meeting Blair’s gaze, his smile grew and he nodded. “You’re right, Chief,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

The worry in Blair’s eyes bled away and then he, too, was smiling.

Jim thought he was the most beautiful creature in the world.

**

Jim overheard the Emergency doctor consult over the phone with his father’s physician, and wasn’t at all surprised when the two medicos decided Ellison Senior’s blood pressure was a tad too high for comfort and that the modest pistol-whipping he’d received could have resulted in a minor concussion. All in all, they deemed it best that he remain in hospital overnight for observation. Jim was relieved. It would alleviate the hassle of explaining to his father why he couldn’t stay at home overnight because it was still a crime scene. By morning, the techs would have done their work, the body would be long gone and the mess could be cleared away. When William did finally make it home, it wouldn’t be a place that would inspire more nightmares.

Blair had been sent for x-rays and the one minor crack in a rib near his sternum, just over his heart, wasn’t considered serious enough to even warrant binding. The emerging bruise was already an awesome shade of deep purple, a shade that was resonating with the smudges under Blair’s eyes. Time to get him home, where he could crash in comfort.

Which raised the question of – which home?

Standing to the side in the treatment room with Simon, Jim didn’t want to let Blair out of his sight or reach, but he couldn’t help but remember how hard Sandburg found being in the loft where there were too many memories that held too much pain. The tentative truce they’d reached last night and early this morning didn’t erase all of the shadows of the past, or guarantee anything about the future. Jim worried at his lower lip, then asked Simon if he’d mind getting Blair’s gear from the loft before driving him back up the long coast road to Faraday House.

Blair was just sliding off the examination table and drawing his T-shirt over his head. Pulling the garment down, he said with an elaborately casual tone, “I don’t think Jim should be on his own right now. He’s only got one good arm, and we’re just starting to get that rash under control.” Before Simon could comment, Blair hastened on, “I’ve got about a million bedrooms in the mansion, so it’s not a problem if he stays with me for a few days, until he can manage without the sling.”

“I’m right here,” Jim interjected, caught between annoyance at being discussed as if he couldn’t care for himself and being pleased that Sandburg wasn’t ditching him at the earliest opportunity.

Blair gave him a straight look, his expression enigmatic. “Okay, then. You willing to stay up at the mansion for a few days?”

“Yeah, I guess I could handle that,” Jim allowed, and lost his fight with his own expression as a grin slipped onto the corners of his mouth.

“Fair enough,” Simon said, settling the matter. He helped Sandburg put on his sweater and jacket. “We’ll stop by the loft, get Sandburg’s gear and pack up whatever you’ll need. You got enough food to last a few days? Because neither of you should be driving.”

“Only enough to feed a small army,” Blair replied with a grimace as they headed out into the hallway. “I’ve got to tell the catering company to cut back; maybe just cancel the contract.”

“Ah, the troubles that beset the stinking rich,” Simon murmured sarcastically to Jim, but he grinned. “Must be nice to know you’ll never have to work another day in your life, huh?”

Blair shrugged, then winced at the pull on his chest muscles and the still raw wound in his side. Again unconsciously massaging the hurt as they made their way outside, he said, “I guess. But not having anything interesting or meaningful to do would make for long days and a pretty boring life, don’t you think? I expect to keep working; you know, doing the things I enjoy.” He paused for a bit and then added thoughtfully, “We can see that just living the high life didn’t do much to make the King kids happy.”

Simon nodded in solemn agreement as he opened the front passenger door for Jim, and ensured he didn’t bang his head as he awkwardly slid inside; having his arm bound across his chest sure put him off-balance. He wondered how soon he’d be able to ditch the damned sling. With a slight hiss of pain that Jim was certain only he could hear, Blair settled himself in the back. When they got to the loft, with a barely perceptible shudder, Blair turned his back on the building. He gave Simon one of his patented wide-eyed puppy dog looks along with the request that Simon retrieve the gear Brown had dropped off the evening before. The performance was altogether shameless, which only went to show how desperate the man was to remain in the sedan. As he led the way inside, Jim was sorry that the place that had been their home for so many years had come to hold so much pain that Blair would actively avoid even a short trip across the threshold. It told him a lot about how much his partner was still hurting.

Blair was finally trying to meet him halfway, and that was better than good – but Jim didn’t kid himself that they didn’t still have a helluva lot of ground to cover, a whole lot of stuff to resolve, before they could move forward.

**

The ride around the curves up the old cliff road was quiet. Though it was only midafternoon, it had been a long, busy, emotionally exhausting day and it seemed as if they were all running out of steam. Scratching his cheek as he watched the road and the sheer drop to the sea, Jim reflected that none of them were getting any younger. Which only made it even more important to sort things out with Sandburg before they wasted any more time.

When they got to the house, Blair invited Simon in for a coffee, but was evidently relieved when Simon asked for a rain check. But as Blair was climbing out of the backseat, Simon said with a heavy, unusually sober tone, “Blair, you handled yourself well today, and Joel said it was like old times yesterday, with you fitting right into the investigation, doing more than your share.” He hesitated, then went on, “I know you’re probably not interested, and I don’t want an answer right now, but if you’d consider it, I’d be glad to have you back on the team in any role you’d be comfortable with – whether that’s as a fully qualified detective, or a civilian consultant or, well, as an occasional observer lending a hand.”

Startled, Jim said, “Simon, I–”

But Simon cut him off. “I know this comes as a surprise to both of you. And I know, Blair, that you have an incredible future in front of you. But ... but I can’t help but recall how well the two of you always worked together and how happy you both seemed to be most of the time. I hope you’ll at least talk about the possibility of working together again. Like I say, Blair, I’m sure I can accommodate whatever terms you specify.”

Blair gaped at him, seemingly speechless, but then he blinked and replied, “Man, you sure know how to surprise a guy with a ball right out of left field. I don’t know what to say, Simon, except, except I’m really honored to know you still want me. And, um,” he nodded, “yeah, okay, we’ll, uh, talk about it.”

“Good enough,” Simon agreed, and gave Jim a stony look as Blair climbed out of the back seat, non-verbally ordering him to not to blow it this time. Not sure what he thought about Simon usurping his initiative to talk Blair into returning, Jim frowned and looked away. But then he realized that his pride was getting in the way of the point, which was that he and Simon were on the same side, wanting the same outcome. So he nodded as he unclipped his seatbelt and Blair opened his door.

Blair helped him out of the car but didn’t meet his eyes. The kid’s hands were trembling, a dead giveaway that he was shaken by Simon’s unexpected offer. They mounted the steps to the front door, but Simon was already disappearing around the curving private drive by the time Blair found his keys in his jacket pocket and let them into the grand foyer. “Just dump your bags here,” he suggested, still avoiding eye contact, as he let his own carryall slide to the floor. “We’ll sort out sleeping arrangements later. You want something to eat?”

Jim hadn’t been thinking of food but, at the mention of it, he realized he was ravenous. They hadn’t eaten since – he had to think about it – the evening before. With a grateful nod, he followed Blair under the sweeping staircase and along the central corridor to the kitchen at the back of the house. As they ambled along, Jim was wondering how to broach the offer Simon had just made but Blair broke the silence, asking, “So, did that SWAT unit know about your senses before this afternoon?”

Startled by the question, not having expected it, Jim blinked. His thoughts returned to those tension moments as they’d approached the house, the SWAT team moving into position in the back. He’d heard some brittle remarks about Blair, speculation about why he was involved, and why the MCU team appeared to trust him, and his gut had twisted with the old sick despair. “No,” he admitted, but wasn’t inclined to explain.

Blair heaved a heavy sigh of frustration as he turned into the kitchen and flipped on the overhead lights. Jim lingered for a moment in the doorway, remembering it well from days long past. The paint was fresh and a different color, the counters now granite rather than the malachite they’d once been, but it was as cavernous as ever. Where most people had a refrigerator and freezer combination, or maybe a separate freezer, the Kings had a walk-in cooler, a walk-in freezer and at least two regular pantries, each at least the size of his whole kitchen. Blair opened the cooler with the cold cuts, cheeses, salad fixings and all the other paraphernalia he’d need to build salad and sandwich combos, and then found fresh bread inside a wooden box in one of the other pantries. “I’ve got to stop the deliveries,” he muttered to himself. “Way too much food here. Too much waste.”

As he built the sandwiches and made a quick side salad, he returned to his concern. “I really don’t understand, Jim. You seem bound and determined to let everyone know about your senses, regardless of how risky that is, when not so long ago you didn’t want anyone to know. What’s changed? Why is okay now but it wasn’t okay then?”

Jim appreciated how hard Blair was trying to keep his tone even and neutral, and not to slide into accusation or blame for having left him hanging out to dry rather than come clean about his senses before they’d split up – before Blair had felt it necessary to go his own way to protect Jim and his secrets. Thinking about it, Jim realized that this was a fundamental issue, one that had to be addressed before Blair would ever consider returning as his partner, so maybe Blair wasn’t avoiding Simon’s offer so much as approaching it obliquely.

Head bowed, his good hand stuffed in his jeans’ pocket, Jim moved into the room and leaned against the counter across from the island where Blair was assembling their meal. He chewed on his lip as he marshaled his thoughts, and then looked up to meet Blair’s direct gaze. “Well, like I told you downtown, most people in the PD have made up their own minds about you and the dissertation and the whole media uproar – and most of them come down on the side of believing there was some truth in all the hullabaloo. But, well, even if everyone downtown keeps it inside the PD, I know it’s only a matter of time before the secret gets out,” he said with grimace. “The media watch me like hawks. The others try to cover for me when they think of it, but it’s awkward. I ... it’s too hard, Chief. Too hard to remember everything like grounding one sense with another or being wary of bright lights or shrill sounds, while still trying to figure out as much about a crime scene as I can, or listen in during a stakeout or figure out where the bad guys are in a shootout. I’m always slipping up now, forgetting to always be – well, subtle, I guess – at the same time.”

He kneaded the back of his neck and admitted with no little sense of despair, “I’m gradually losing control. It’s been a slow thing, but the headache just gets worse, the rash gets worse, the senses spike or disappear without warning, and I’m bone tired all the damned time. I’m afraid ... well, I’m afraid I’m going to lose it at the wrong time and someone is going to get killed.” He swallowed hard and, for the first time, he said aloud in a rough, pained whisper what he’d scarcely been able to admit to himself, “I’m thinking I may have to quit.”

Blair’s frown deepened as he listened. “But you seem to be doing so well,” he countered. “Are you sure it’s not just, I don’t know, a transition thing? That it won’t get better?”

Jim shrugged, and then winced at the sharp stab of pain in his shoulder. “Maybe if I’d been using my senses all my life and they were second nature, but they’re not. I don’t think they ever will be. And I’m beginning to understand why sentinels always worked with a companion or guide or whatever title you want to use. I’ve missed you, more than I expected to ... or wanted to, to be honest. I don’t think you understand how much I wish I didn’t need you, because, because then you’d just get on with your life and not worry about me.” Blair rolled his eyes and looked away, but Jim chose to ignore the histrionics. He knew how Blair felt, and was pretty sure Blair would – even now – drop everything if he thought Jim needed him; but what Jim needed was to be sure Blair knew how he felt. “I thought I’d be able to manage just fine. But I was wrong. I just don’t want to be dead wrong – with someone else paying the penalty for my arrogance.”

“Oh, man,” Blair murmured as he cut the sandwiches in four to make the pieces easier for Jim to manage with one hand, and loaded salad onto the plates.

Jim scowled with the knowledge that Blair was struggling with the information and with the corollary that Jim needed him on the job – that it was very much a life and death thing; which brought them back to the secret and Blair’s determination to stay out of his life to keep the secret. How would they explain it if Blair would agree to return to his side?

Assuming Blair would be at all interested in doing so. Why the hell would he? But then, why had he ever been there? Certainly not just to study his senses, not for four years of dodging bullets and madmen. It had always been about friendship ... and about love.

Blair grabbed a couple of forks from a drawer and picked up the plates. Jutting his chin toward the walk-in cooler, he asked, “You think you can manage two bottles of beer?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jim replied.

“Good, then we can go eat in my suite. It’s a little cozier,” Blair said as he walked toward the swinging door and held it open with his body while Jim stuffed one bottle in his sling and carried the other out of the cooler, pushing the door closed with his elbow. Blair led the way through the warren of servants’ corridors to the west side of the house and then into a room that was all sliding, floor-to-ceiling windows on one side.

“Wow,” Jim breathed softly as he gazed out over a partially covered and railed stone terrace a few steps above the narrow strip of windswept grass on the edge of the cliff. Comfortable patio chairs and tables, potted plants and a barbecue adorned the terrace. Off to one side, Jim could see downtown Cascade and the waterfront; straight ahead were the low-lying blue-gray channel islands and the limitless horizon where sky met sea. On the far edge of his vision was a cluster of gnarled, twisted trees that had bowed before the wind for generations and, further out, the mountainous islands. Though the day was cloudy, misty with rain, rainbows shimmered in shafts of sunlight that rimed the distant clouds and burst through in places like narrow spotlights spangling the restless blue-green water.

The great room under a soaring, timbered ceiling held a galley kitchen with golden oak cabinets in the right corner with a round oak pedestal table and two chairs at that end of the windows. Cold coffee half-filled the glass pot in the machine and an unwashed mug and plate were stacked in the sink. A few crumbs littered the butcher block counter top.

In the center of the room on the wall facing the windows there was a small brick fireplace with white birch logs and kindling stacked to one side. Beside it, a bookshelf held a television and sound system along with hundreds of books on shelves that edged around the corner right up to another archway. An open, heavy oak door led into a bedroom that held an unmade king-sized cannon-ball bed covered with Blair’s brilliantly colored quilt and another wall of windows with their own exit onto the terrace. In the middle of the great room, a collection of comfortable sofas and chairs were angled for conversation, as well as to easily view either the fire and television or the magnificent view of city, sea and sky.

An old, battered footlocker sitting beside one of the chairs that faced the windows looked out of place in the comfortable but elegant room. A number of ancient, musty-smelling notebooks that resembled Blair’s journals were scattered around the lamp on the end table beside the chair, and on the table by the windows. Between the kitchen cabinets and the little table for two, there was another archway that gave onto a book-lined study that also looked out over the terrace and the eternal sea.

Jim could readily see why Joel had been so blown away by Blair’s accommodations. The place was breath-taking. But, grinning to himself, he thought that Blair hadn’t gotten any neater since he’d moved out of the loft.

“Make yourself at home,” Blair said as placed a plate and fork on the coffee table after clearing a space amongst the journals and two small, carved stone and wooden fetishes. Holding onto the second plate, he settled into what had to be his favorite reading chair.

Jim was sure the choice of living room versus the little table was far from accidental. Sandburg was making the point that in his house a person could eat wherever they felt like. He handed the beer bottle to Blair, and pulled the second one from his sling. For a moment, uncomfortable with his awkwardness, he looked at the plate on the coffee table and wondered how he’d balance it on his knee, eat and hold the bottle with only one hand. Though he felt like a walking cliché, he knew he’d be a lot more comfortable at the little table, but that would put him behind Blair, so that wouldn’t work.

“Sorry,” Blair muttered, flushing a little as he rose to his feet. “I wasn’t thinking. With that sling, you’ll be more comfortable at the table. Have a seat; I’ll bring your lunch and join you.”

Jim couldn’t help giving him a look of grateful relief at not having been forced to ask for the consideration, and then he wondered why it was so damned hard for him to admit even such a small need for accommodation. As he settled at the table, he glanced at the journals littering its top. “These aren’t your notebooks, are they, Chief?” he asked, looking up at Blair.

Sandburg put down the plates and his own bottle and slid into the chair across from him. “No, they aren’t,” he replied with a small smile that grew as he reached out to stroke one with evident reverence. When he looked up at Jim, the joy in his eyes took Jim’s breath away. “They’re Jordon’s. My father’s.”

“Oh my God,” Jim gasped, immediately understanding why they’d have such import to Sandburg. “When did you find them?”

“Late Friday afternoon. I was up most of that night skimming through them,” Blair replied. His smile was incandescent, the old light once again dancing in his eyes. “There’s so much, Jim: all his observations about his sentinel plus information about other sentinels, how they were identified and trained, and the role of guides, and then there’s the local mythology about sentinels and guides, about their intrinsic relationship. There’s a book in all this information about sentinels that wouldn’t be any threat to you, but that would let me get the information about enhanced sensory perception, sensory spikes and zone-outs into the public forum. And, get this, you won’t believe ....” Even as he spoke, he was jumping back up to go to the coffee table to gather up the small carvings, and then he grabbed one of the journals beside his reading chair.

“I found this one just before dawn on Saturday,” he said, holding up the journal as he slid back into his seat. For a moment, he just stared at it, but Jim could tell from the working of his throat and the tightly pressed lips that Blair was struggling with strong emotion. “It’s ... it’s about us,” he finally managed with a hoarse whisper.

“Us?” Jim echoed, startled. “But how?”

Blair swallowed convulsively and took a slow, deep breath. He sniffed and blinked, and swiped at his eyes. “Um, this is hard,” he admitted, and sniffed again. After blowing a long, slow breath, he explained, “The village’s shaman told Jordon that he had a son who was already nearly ten years old. He said the boy would grow up to be a shaman and the companion of his own Enqueri, who the shaman said was a man Jordon knew. Jim ... you ... you knew my Dad.”

Blair’s voice broke and he looked away, out the windows at the dying afternoon. A single tear slipped slowly down his cheek. “The shaman told Dad that he knew the young Enqueri had just put his feet on the path that would lead him to the people, where he’d help the tribe and learn his talents weren’t a curse. And, and, Jim? Jordon figured it out – he figured out that you had to be this younger Enqueri – that’s what his own sentinel was also called. He wrote about the peculiar feeling he had when he was with you, an urge to help you in any way he could. And he noticed your abilities to see and hear a whole lot better than other people. He wrote that he wished he’d known more about sentinels when he’d first met you. He remembered you, Jim; and he knew what you were.”

Blair’s eyes misted and he trembled with emotion. “My ... my Dad said he really hoped he’d also meet his son someday. Man, he was really shocked to hear he had a boy and he worked out the dates and his memories, and he said it had to be the beautiful young girl he’d met the summer he turned eighteen: ‘Naomi, his ‘woodland nymph’, who stole away at the end of the summer, taking his heart with her.’ She hadn’t even ever told him her last name; she said it wasn’t important, so he had no idea of how to find her again. He said, he said any son of Naomi’s would be a man he’d want to know.”

Blair again stopped to clear his throat. When he resumed, his voice was very low, so soft that Jim could barely hear him. “He wrote that when he said how much he wanted to meet me, the shaman just looked at him with sorrow in his eyes and shook his head.” Blair sniffed and pressed a hand over his trembling lips, his other hand fisted on the table as he fought for control. “Dad wrote that knowing he’d never meet me broke his heart a second time. But, but he was so glad to know that I’d be a guide, too, and would have my own sentinel. He said there could be no happier life, no greater joy.” Blair sniffed and swallowed hard. “He was right,” he whispered. “I was never happier than I was those first two, almost three years ... until things changed and....”

Blair cleared his throat, blinked to clear his eyes and shook his head. When he resumed speaking, his voice was stronger but still cracking with emotion. “He wrote that he hoped I’d find his journals someday, and that I’d know how much he’d wished he’d known me.” Blair swiped the wet trail of the tear from his face and heaved a heavy sigh. “I think they must’ve been killed not long after that because there are only a few more entries.”

Astonished by what he was being told, awed by all of it, Jim reached across the table to cover Blair’s hand with his own. But he didn’t know what to say.

“There’s more,” Blair murmured. With his free hand, he gently pushed the two tiny stone carvings to the center of the table. “These were in a pouch that was tied to the journal with a leather thong. The shaman said they were the spirit fetishes of Jordon’s son and his sentinel: his son was the wolf, and the sentinel was the black jaguar.”

“This is ... overwhelming,” Jim breathed as he studied the two perfect carvings. “Sorry, but I don’t know if I’m all that comfortable with the idea of destiny; that we were always supposed to meet. I like to think we’ve got free will.”

Blair’s harsh laugh was hollow, devoid of humor. “Yeah, well, I’d have to say you got your wish. Destiny only presents opportunities,” he said bitterly. “We can refuse them if we want; which is, I guess, what we continually did. Refused to accept our relationship. Refused to ... to trust or love enough or accept we needed one another.”

“You mean I refused,” Jim stated soberly. Suddenly impatient with the feeling of being bound, his neck aching from the weight of the sling, Jim pulled it off.

Blair gave him a disapproving look but refrained from other comment, perhaps because he was still focused on their discussion. All the light had gone from his face and eyes, leaving his expression bleak. “Not just you,” he countered, scrupulously fair. “I screwed up, too, more than once. I walked away.”

“It’s not too late, is it?” Jim demanded, feeling desperate in the face of Blair’s evident despair and once again gripping Blair’s hand. The hell with whether it was destiny or choice; what did it matter? All he knew for sure was that he wanted Blair with him for the rest of his life. “Dammit, Chief. It can’t be too late.”

Blair turned his face away, and again stared out at the sea. “I don’t know,” he whispered, raw with pain. “I don’t know if you’ll ever really trust me. I don’t think I can handle being told to go a fourth time. I really think it would kill me.”

Jim found himself on his knee beside Blair’s chair, his hand gripping Blair’s arm as if his life depended upon never letting go. “What will it take? What can I do or say to prove to you that you can trust me? Tell me, Chief. What do you need me to do?”

Blair faced Jim and, his eyes dark and stormy, his expression guarded, wordlessly studied him for a long moment. “I don’t think you can give that guarantee,” he said thoughtfully, without rancor or judgment. His gaze narrowed and he frowned, and Jim knew Blair was no longer seeing him but was lost somewhere inside his head, puzzling out some new idea.

“What?” he probed, still gripping Blair’s arm – still wishing he could make some kind of credible guarantee – but he was afraid Blair was right. His pattern was clear: when he was under threat, his tendency was to react defensively, even if that meant pushing Blair away.

“Maybe ... maybe you’re not the one who has to react differently,” Blair muttered, still staring at something Jim couldn’t see or even begin to imagine. But his gaze suddenly focused on Jim. “Maybe I’m the one who has to change. Maybe I have to stop allowing you to push me away.”

When Jim didn’t respond immediately, Blair urged, “Think about it. It’s a defensive reaction, right? You need to regroup and when you’re threatened, for whatever reason, you need time to, I don’t know, check your boundaries, figure out what’s going on, who to trust. It doesn’t last for long and you always end up coming after me or regretting ... What if I just stuck it out, kept reminding you that I’m not the enemy, did whatever I had to do to make you feel safe?”

Jim nodded. The idea made sense to him, but – “I’ll still do my best to never push you away again. I’ve learned my lesson, Chief. I really have. I know now that I need you.” He took a breath and added, “And I want you. I want you in my life in any way that you’ll have me.”

But Blair was off in his head again. He pushed his chair back, breaking Jim’s grip and stood to pace in front of the windows. “You know, every time we had a problem, one way or another, the flashpoint was the dissertation,” he mused, and wheeled to face Jim. “You never wanted me to write it, did you?”

Jim rose to his feet and rubbed the back of his neck. “I know we had a deal, Sandburg. And you held up your end.”

“That’s not what I’m asking,” Blair cut in. “You were never comfortable with having that paper written.”

“No,” Jim admitted with a tight shake of his head. “I never really thought about it; just, just ignored it, I guess, hoping it wouldn’t ever happen.”

“But it did, and now the media is watching you and you figure it’s only a matter of time before they realize it was all true.”

Grimacing, Jim nodded dejectedly.

“Then we need a story they’ll have no trouble believing,” Blair replied, once again pacing back and forth, back and forth. “I think we need to keep it simple,” he finally said. “How about we just admit that you’ve got better vision and hearing than the average person in the general population? I could say I noticed because of all the research I’d done back when I still hoped I’d find a sentinel. I can cite so many different case studies of people having one or two heightened senses that I’d put every reporter in town to sleep. But, but I can say that when I noticed, I got the idea of writing a novel about a cop who was a sentinel and then I wrote it, mostly for fun, but in the style of a dissertation to give it an aura of realism. You know,” he said with a confident smile, “I really think that could work. I even said the work was fiction during my press conference.”

“But what about when I’m using another sense like smell or touch? What if they notice that?” Jim queried, knowing he’d gotten sloppy about hiding what he did – and, deep down, being very tired of hiding, of lying.

Blair looked away, again lost in thought. “Well,” he temporized, “I guess we could say you’d been working on trying to develop better control over your other senses. Like a blind person’s other senses improve to compensate, so the possibility of the human norm being stretched is entirely feasible. And, depending on how much you’re willing to reveal, and what the DA is comfortable with, I guess we could do some baseline demos to show what your skills are, like for testifying as an expert witness.” Frowning, he looked back at Jim. “I don’t think we should put too much out into the public forum. I don’t like the idea of the bad guys knowing too much about how your senses work.”

“We don’t have to talk about zones or spikes,” Jim replied. “Those are the two ways I’m most vulnerable to people using my senses against me.”

Blair nodded. “Okay, we can run all this by Simon; see what he thinks.”

“So ... does this mean you’re going to work with me again?”

Blair hesitated and bit his lip. “I don’t think I can be a cop,” he said.

“Because of maybe having to shoot someone,” Jim replied with a sigh.

“No, not at all,” Blair countered, surprising him. “I’m okay with taking weapons training and getting certified and licensed to carry. I could kill someone to save someone else’s life. I could sure as hell kill someone who was trying to kill you. No, it’s not about the weapons. It’s the regs. If I’m a cop, well, first of all, I think I’d have to go through the same steps and exams as everyone else, and that would mean spending time as a rookie on patrol. I think the union would probably insist on that. And even once I got to Major Crime, I’d have to be a cop – you know, cover a back entrance while you cover the front or whatever. I couldn’t just back you up, cover you. And if I was a cop, then I could be arbitrarily reassigned by anyone senior to Simon.” He shook his head. “It wouldn’t work. I mean, imagine every time I had to testify – the defense attorneys would rip me apart on the credibility issue. I’d be a liability. And ... and, well,” he said, suddenly sounding uncertain, “life partners can’t be partners on the job. The regs are very clear about that. I know we’d be, uh, discreet, but someone would be bound to figure it out, right? So, so then what would we do? No, no, for all sorts of reasons,” he insisted, waving his hands, “wearing a badge won’t work.”

“A private consultant then?” Jim suggested, the elation growing in his chest making him feel almost giddy only balanced by the trepidation of visualizing Blair back on the streets, in the alleys, following him after armed opponents. The old fear of Blair being hurt – killed – shivered up his spine.

Blair scratched his cheek and gazed off into space. “But ... wouldn’t Simon have to share me with other departments? I mean, if I’m there as a cultural or forensic anthropologist, and being paid like everyone else, I can just see other departments, like community services for example, making claims on my time, and I’d bet the Chief would start insisting that I respond, you know? To keep peace, and to justify the salary but, really, I’d only be there to work with you and, okay, maybe share some ideas from time to time but that’s not what my real job would be. No, I think I have to go back as an unpaid observer. I could claim that I’m working on a follow-up to the original paper, exploring more about the closed society, how problems are resolved, the dynamics of relationships and the evolution of behavioral norms or whatever.” He looked at Jim and, with a gesture that encompassed the house, he grinned wryly. “It’s not like I need the money.”

Jim badly wanted to just agree and move on. But the old fear continued to haunt him and his conscience pricked, raising concerns that he should have had years before. “What about your own career, Blair? I don’t want you to give everything up for me. It wouldn’t be right and it sure wouldn’t be fair. You ... you’re brilliant at what you do and you’ve got a lot to offer the world in your areas of expertise.”

Blair shrugged and quirked a crooked smile. “Hey, I managed to juggle both for years, man,” he said, but Jim could hear the strain of forced cheerfulness; and he also remembered how perpetually tired Blair had been for most of every year. “And let me tell you, it would be a whole lot easier as a tenured prof. I have teaching fellows and assistants to take classes, mark papers, counsel students, and I only have to do research that interests me as opposed to fulfilling arbitrary credit requirements. I’ll still write articles so the ‘publish or perish’ thing isn’t an issue for me.” He hesitated and looked away. “There’s one thing I’d like to do, though – some field work that I think we should both ... we need to go back to the Temple someday. I think there’s a lot there that we need to learn. And I’d like to go to Peru, to meet with, well, maybe the shaman Jordon talked to is still alive. It’s possible. I can tell from his notes that he was in a village not far from the one you lived in when you were there.”

Though he didn’t know how to resolve his qualms about the costs and dangers of Blair once again being his full-time partner, especially as that was what he so desperately wanted, a trip to Peru held no over-riding threats. Jim moved closer, close enough to lightly grip Blair’s arm, drawing his gaze back. “We’ll do that, anytime you want.”

Blair peered up at him; his eyes were once again troubled, shadowed with uncertainty. “I can’t go back to living at the loft, Jim. I just can’t.” He looked around, his expression distracted. “I don’t know what to do about this house. It’s too big for just the two of us; but I really like this suite of rooms. And I like the idea of being responsible for the Collection – it’s like a link with my father, you know?”

“We don’t have to figure it out tonight,” Jim murmured, daring to caress Blair’s cheek with his fingertips.

“So you’d be willing to live here, with me?” Blair clarified, hope lighting his face.

Jim laughed. “Well, it’s a tough choice, Sandburg. Leaving the loft and that noisy building and the stench of the back alley for these grounds and gardens and that view, but I suppose I can make the sacrifice. For you.”

And just like that, as if the fiery sky blazing around the setting sun had suddenly kindled the desire smoldering in Blair’s eyes, the intoxicating scent of his pheromones filled the air. “You do know that I would not be willing to share you with anyone, right? This would not be an open relationship. If I could, I’d tattoo ‘property of Blair Sandburg’ on your ass.”

“You know what, Sandburg?” Jim drawled as he moved in closer still. “You talk too much when what you should be doing is taking possession of what’s yours.”

“Ah, God help me,” Blair gasped, sounding strangled, as he abruptly closed the remaining distance between them, his hands lifting to cup Jim’s face and draw him down to ravage his lips with a hunger that ignited Jim’s own enflamed passion.

kiss

 

Frenzied fingers stripped off sweaters and unbuckled belts. Desire – too long denied, raw and unbridled – drove them, stumbling with urgency as they shucked off their clothing, to Sandburg’s bed. The golden light streaming in through the windows burnished Blair’s body, taking Jim’s breath away. Briefly, as they tumbled down, concern flickered in the back of Jim’s mind: it wasn’t joy or even love he’d seen on Blair’s face just before they’d kissed, but a desperate need that could no longer be held at bay. Jim understood the need; he felt it himself and was as unable to resist. The heat building between them and their hunger overwhelmed the faint voice of reason that said they were moving too fast, that need wasn’t enough – warning him that if they didn’t get it right, he’d destroy Blair and probably himself, too.

All thought, all reason, was swept away on a tidal wave of sensation and tempestuous emotion. Blair’s musky scent surrounded him; Blair’s hands burned a trail over his body, tormenting him, teasing him, driving him wild even as he kissed and sucked, laved Blair’s ear, throat and nipples, desperate to taste, to fill himself with his mate as he made his way down Blair’s passion-flushed body. His hands slid down over the wide bandage covering Blair’s wound to clasp his narrow hips while he took a moment to drink in the sight of Blair’s burgeoning desire for him and he felt the growing heaviness in his own loins. Barely aware of his own injured shoulder, he unconsciously balanced his weight on his knees and his good left arm when he dipped his head to nuzzle Blair’s balls and then lick the length of his shaft. Blair moaned his name and his hands were scrambling on Jim’s shoulders, stroking, caressing, gripping hard, and his legs were bracketing Jim’s body.

“Easy, Blair,” Jim crooned, mindful of the bruised ribs and the long gash in Blair’s side. “Let me do the work, okay?” But, seemingly oblivious to any discomfort from his injuries, Blair squirmed and yearned toward him, trying to meld their bodies together, and he cried out, nearly convulsing when Jim swallowed him. God, the taste exploded on his tongue: sharp with an underlying smoky pungency that married with Blair’s intoxicating scent until Jim was wholly lost, aware only of wanting more, of needing more.

Blair’s hands gripped his head, fingertips squeezing tight; strong legs pressed against his ribs, holding him firmly as Blair thrust up into his mouth with a guttural keening of helpless desire. Jim could feel pressure building, feel the spiraling ache in his own body; could hear his heartbeat thundering along with Blair’s. The exhilaration of driving Blair wild, of seeing, scenting, tasting, feeling the throbbing heartbeat in his mouth even as he heard Blair cry out as his orgasm exploded took Jim – swallowing spasmodically, grunting with effort in his own extremity of singular pleasure – up and over the edge to his own mind-blowing release.

Rising up, one hand cupped and gentled Blair’s still tumescent cock as he captured Blair’s mouth for a lingering kiss. Blair hugged him close, drawing him down until they were lying skin to skin, bodies slick with sweat, legs entwined. Jim tangled his fingers in Blair’s hair and Blair’s hands roamed his back as they continued the languorous kiss while their breathing and heart rates slowed. Then, wrapping his arms around Blair, Jim rolled to the side and buried his face against Blair’s neck. Groggily, he cursed himself for having wasted so much time when they could have been together like this for at least a year, maybe more. He’d been a fool.

But even as he drifted into sleep, even as he exalted in the joy of having Blair’s hands caressing his skin and Blair’s whispers of abiding love in his ear, the small voice in his head was muttering bitter warnings and demanding to be heard. He didn’t want to hear it, tried not to listen, but the words, the warning, followed him down, down into sleep:

You’ll destroy him if you’re not careful. He loves you too much; he’ll deny you nothing. Will he have to die for you again?

Unconsciously, he held Blair close all through the night while his dreams tormented him with fractured images of the past and chilling visions of what the future was bound to hold. “No, no,” he muttered again and again, groaning as he clutched Blair to his heart and – unnoticed by either slumbering man – hot tears dampened Blair’s wild curls.

**

Dawn was barely breaking and the sky to the west was still dark when Jim woke. Blair was lying on top of him, their limbs entangled, his head tucked under Jim’s chin, his breath warm on Jim’s skin. At some point during the night, Blair must’ve drawn the quilt up and over them, keeping them warm while the temperature in the room cooled. For long minutes, Jim simply reveled in their closeness, nearly humming in contentment when images of the evening before flashed in his mind.

But that damned voice intervened, grew louder, and awoke blistering, sickening imagery from his broken, tormented dreams. Chilled now, his throat dry with dread, Jim carefully eased himself out from under Blair, murmuring quiet reassurances when Blair muttered in complaint and reflexively reached out for him. Gradually, Blair settled back into a deeper sleep and Jim lightly caressed his cheek and kissed his brow before tucking the covers around him, to keep him warm.

Finding his clothing, he drew on his jeans and sweater. Moving to the floor to ceiling window, hands stuffed in his pockets, he stood staring down at the city lights and then out at the restless ocean, watching it change from black to gray to green to blue as the sky above lightened and the city awoke to a new day. Yesterday, Blair had given him all he could have wanted and more, but Jim was uncomfortable with the solution being pretty much a rerun of all that had gone before. Blair would be covering for him. Blair would be backing him up as an unpaid observer. Blair, as always, would accommodate him and the exigencies of his world. Jim wasn’t entirely sure why he’d thought such an arrangement was fine for four years; maybe because Blair had only been a student then? And Blair’s focus had been on him, his other work not seemingly as important? Now, it just felt out of balance and unfair.

As the minutes ticked past, Jim wrestled with his ingrained sense of obligation, and thought about all the possibilities he could envision in various alternative futures. He then measured all the potential futures he could imagine against what frightened him most, what gave him the most joy, what he could afford to lose, and what was not expendable.

“Ah, man, please tell me you aren’t zoned,” Blair groaned softly from the bed behind him.

Smiling, Jim turned enough to regard him over his shoulder. “Just enjoying the view,” he said as he drank in the tousled curls and wide eyes still dreamy with sleep. “It’s early. Go back to sleep.”

Blair snorted and threw back the coverings enough to hold out his hand. “I can think of better things to do,” he suggested with a seductive smile.

With a low chuckle of unmitigated happiness, unable to resist, not wanting to, Jim turned toward him, drawing off his sweater and stepping out of his jeans as he moved toward the bed. Blair reached out to him, to draw him back into the warmth ... and he was nearly undone when he saw that joy had driven away the shadows and rekindled the light and laughter in Blair’s beautiful eyes. Tears threatened, and he nearly sobbed with the relief and gratitude of knowing that Blair’s spirit was still whole despite all he’d done to tear it asunder.

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” Blair asked, wrapping him in a tight hug.

He sniffed and sucked in air as he returned Blair’s embrace. “Nothing,” he finally managed to say, and he kissed Blair’s brow and nose, and then each cheek. Rising up, looking down into Blair’s eyes, he said with sincere longing, “I just wish I could tell you how much I love you. I wish I had the words.”

Blair’s smile was incandescent. As he drew Jim back down, he murmured, “That’s okay, action works, too. You’ve got a lifetime to show me.”

A lifetime, Jim thought as he sank into Blair’s strong embrace. A lifetime to feel safe and sheltered, accepted and cherished, by someone who loved him unconditionally, warts and all.

Jim still found it hard to believe and never ceased to be amazed by what Sandburg was willing to risk, let alone being willing to give up so much of what brought him satisfaction and joy in order to be by Jim’s side, where he was needed. A lifetime spent loving such a man sounded pretty good to Jim. But, as he had in the quiet early hours of the morning, he wondered with a sense of foreboding just how long their ‘lifetime’ would be if they stayed on the same path they’d been traveling over the past four years.

Blair’s caresses, kisses, demanded his attention. As he returned the ardent attention in full measure, his concerns were muted, pushed from the forefront of his mind – but were not forgotten.

**

Feathery touches along his brow and cheek, and butterfly kisses on the pulse point in his throat woke him slowly, gently. Sighing in profound contentment, Jim marveled at the delicacy of Blair’s touch. No one else could ever understand him or his senses so well; no one else had ever given him such sensory pleasure. When he opened his eyes, he found Blair watching him with fond amusement.

“What?” he asked, feeling as if he’d missed something.

“Nothing,” Blair replied, his smile widening. “I was just enjoying the view.”

Jim laughed and, yawning, scrubbed his face with his palm. “Guess we should get up, huh?”

“Mmm,” Blair agreed. “Shower first, then breakfast.”

They showered and shaved together in the large, glass-enclosed stall in the downright decadent marble bathroom adjacent to Blair’s bedroom, which had its own set of windows overlooking the turbulent sea. The shower had multiple, multi-directional jets for pulsing water and for steam, making the mundane daily ritual another new and delightful sensory experience. Once they’d dried one another with large, fluffy bath sheets, Jim re-bandaged Blair’s wound. Blair not only put new bandages on his shoulder wounds but also made Jim show him how much mobility he had in the arm. “Tomorrow, we’re calling your doctor to get a referral for physical therapy to make sure that shoulder doesn’t stiffen up permanently.” Then, though Jim’s rash had improved markedly, Blair insisted on smoothing the vitamin E infused aloe lotion all over his body before they dressed. Wordlessly, but with a meaningful expression that brooked no dispute, Blair held out Jim’s sling and then helped him put it on.

In the small kitchen in Blair’s suite, Jim felt awkward with only one good arm, but Blair put him in charge of scrambling the eggs, while Blair made the coffee, sliced tomatoes and an avocado, and buttered the toast. They dished up at the counter and ate at the table by the window overlooking the sea. Neither of them had had much to say since leaving the bed. The long silences between brief exchanges weren’t exactly heavy or tense, but they weren’t comfortable, either.

“Was the sex a mistake?” Blair finally asked as he pushed his half-eaten breakfast aside and cupped his mug with his hands, as if needing the solace of the heat.

“What? No!” Jim exclaimed, horrified that Blair could think such a thing. “At least, not for me. What about for you?”

“No, no, I’ve wanted you for, well, feels like forever,” Blair replied with a wry smile, though shadows again darkened his eyes. “But you’re so quiet – I can tell you’re worried about something. So, come on, spill.”

Jim pressed his lips together as he marshaled his thoughts, and then he gave a sharp nod. “Okay, uh, well, I don’t pretend to have this all worked out – it’s more ideas I want to discuss with you. But, but I think we need to make some fundamental changes to have the future we both want – a future that isn’t threatened every damned time we turn around by some scumbag who’d rather break laws than work for a living.”

Blair frowned. “Are you saying you don’t want me to be your partner? Because I don’t think that can work, Jim. I mean, isn’t that the whole point, what you’ve been telling me for days now?”

Jim held up his hand, palm out. “No, that’s not what I’m saying, I mean, yes, I do need you. Please, just hear me out, okay?”

Biting his lip, eyes narrowed, Blair studied him but finally nodded. “Okay,” he said, but sounded wary.

Jim grimaced at Blair’s uncertainty, evidence in his view that he had a long way to go to win back Blair’s unconditional trust. Restless, needing to move, he got up to pace in front of the windows. Blair leaned back in his chair to watch him and listen. Taking a deep breath, he faced Blair. “This morning, you said something about having a lifetime to show you how I feel. Well, I want that lifetime – fifty years, if I can get that much. I want to grow old with you.”

Blair’s expression softened, and he nodded his agreement. “I want that, too.”

“Okay, so we’re on the same page,” Jim went on. “But I don’t think we’re gonna get that if we continue with the life we were living for four years. There are too many risks, too many ... I don’t want to lose you, Chief. It would kill me if something happened to you.”

“Trust me, I don’t want to lose you, either. The risks you take scare me to death. But, Jim, it’s your job, man,” Blair countered. “It means everything to you.”

“It’s been my job, yes, and it has meant a lot to me, that’s true. But I’m not sure it’s what I want to keep doing, at least not full-time. And, for the record, it doesn’t mean everything to me. You do,” Jim replied, his voice thickening with emotion. Needing time to master his emotion, he ran a hand over his head to knead the back of his neck, his gaze sweeping from the sea to the city below. “I know, I know,” he continued before Blair could say it, “I’m the sentinel of Cascade. That’s what Incacha said. But,” he turned back to Blair, “does being the sentinel mean that I have to be a cop on the front line? I think there are other valid roles I could be playing here; roles that, that wouldn’t put your life – or mine, either – in danger, or at least not every other day.”

“Okay,” Blair allowed with a thoughtful nod. “What did you have in mind?”

“When can you get a chunk of time off?” Jim countered. “For a trip. To Peru, and to Sierra Verde?”

Blair blinked in surprise. “I’ll have six weeks off when the term ends before Thanksgiving.”

“That’s just over a month away. That would give me time to wind things up downtown, make sure all my files are in order, and put the loft on the market,” Jim replied, thinking out loud. Moving into the living area, he picked up one of Jordon’s journals. “How did you want to go about making his information public? Were you going to write a bunch of articles? A book? And, well, wouldn’t it make more sense to also append your own work? You know,” he went on, “exploring the reality of sentinels both in traditional settings and in urban environments? Because, because what you really want is for people to understand what sentinels are, right? So those who have maybe been misdiagnosed as autistic or schizophrenic or whatever start getting the support and help they need to function normally? Well ... well, I want that, too. I sure in hell don’t want to stand in the way of people like me getting the help they need to stay sane.”

“Jim, Jim,” Blair interjected, waving his hands as he came to his feet. “Are you really sure you want that? It would be a media circus all over again. You hated that, man. I ... I won’t do that to you. I won’t.” He raked a hand through his hair, combing it back from his brow. “I’m going to write a book based on Jordon’s journals, and then extrapolate what he found into how sentinels would react to all the stimuli in our urban environments. We don’t need to put you through the wringer to get the message out there.”

“Yes we do if I’m going to have the credibility to help you run the Faraday Center for Sentinel and Guide Research, Training, and Support,” Jim said, and waited with bated breath for Blair’s reaction. When Blair just gaped at him, he added softly, “You said you didn’t know what to do with this place. Well....”

Astonished, Blair whispered, “You’re serious.”

When Jim nodded, Blair wrapped one arm across his body and lifted his other hand to cover his mouth. He turned away to stare out over the ocean, and Jim could hear him struggling to master his breathing. Moving up behind him, laying a hand on his shoulder, Jim asked, “It’s a good idea, isn’t it? There are bound to be more out there, and surely to God they can’t all be like Alex. But I’d bet most of them need help.”

“It’s a great idea,” Blair agreed, sounding hoarse. He turned his head to look up at Jim. “But you love being a cop, man. And this city needs you. I can’t ask you to give that up.”

“You’ve never asked me to give it up, and I don’t think we’d have to, not completely,” Jim countered as he bent forward to press his lips against Blair’s brow. “I can still be your ‘organic crime lab’ on those cases where Simon needs my kind of input – I wouldn’t even have to be a cop for that, just a consultant. I just don’t want us on the front line, Chief. We don’t even have to be at the takedowns, except maybe as tactical support, to let them know where the bad guys are in a warehouse or whatever.” He paused and looked away. “I won’t say it doesn’t bother me to be letting other cops take all the risks but ... but neither of us is exactly replaceable. And whether I want to admit it or not, I’m getting a little old to be constantly dodging bullets. The bottom line for me is that I am not prepared to keep risking you when it’s not at all necessary.”

“But the media. You hated it, Jim. You said it made you feel like a ... well, like a freak.”

Jim massaged Blair’s shoulder and sighed. “Yeah, I know,” he admitted. “But like I said yesterday, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before it’s all public anyway. I was blindsided last time, totally unprepared.” Blair winced and his gaze fell as he turned away. Jim slid his arm around Blair’s chest and drew him close. “This time I’d have my lines straight – or maybe we’d just be in some jungle when the story breaks and it’ll’ve died down by the time we get back.”

“You wish,” Blair countered, but kindly as he turned to face Jim and hug him back. “A story like that never dies down. You’d be mobbed as soon as we got back.”

“It’s only a matter of time,” Jim insisted doggedly. “Better we do it on our terms.”

He rested his chin on Blair’s head and thought how much he’d needed this, this closeness. How much they’d both needed it. God, he’d been such a fool to resist for so long. But ... but it wouldn’t’ve been right then, when Blair was still a student, still somehow a kid in Jim’s eyes, however wrong he might have been. Now there was no question that Blair was all grown up, a respected professional in his own right. There was an equality between them now that hadn’t existed before; they’d be taking turns tagging along after one another. Smiling to himself as he looked out at the priceless view, he reflected that equality might be over-stating it. Blair had raced miles ahead, but that was okay. Jim got a kick out of how great Blair’s life was turning out to be. “We’ll get it right this time, Chief.”

“I’m not going to be the one to tell Simon,” Blair told him.

Jim grinned. “Coward.”

“Now, that’s not a very nice thing to say to the guy who’ll be supporting you after you quit your job,” Blair teased.

“Oh, I’ve got some money saved and the loft should sell for a fair price,” Jim countered. “I’m not exactly destitute.”

“Okay, you can pay the taxes on this mausoleum,” Blair offered, laughter in his voice.

“You’re right. I should be nicer to the man who’s gonna keep me in the style neither of us has ever been accustomed to.” Jim chuckled and dropped a kiss on Blair’s head.

Tilting his head back, Blair looked up at him, searching his eyes. “You’re really sure you want to do this. You’re willing to give up being a fulltime detective and take the heat from the press.”

Jim delicately pushed a long, errant curl behind Blair’s ear and then cupped his cheek. “You’ll help me deal with the press, and the job used to be who I was, but that’s not who I am now.”

“Who are you now?”

“I’m the guy who loves you.”

Blair laughed and his eyes sparkled the way they had before ... before so much had gone wrong. He lightly kissed Jim’s lips, but when Jim tried to hold him, he pulled away. “If you’re really sure, then you should probably call Simon and invite him to dinner,” Blair suggested while he busied himself with stacking Jordon’s journals. “He’s always stood by us and we owe it to him to let him know what we’re thinking. And we need to listen to whatever ideas he may have.”

If you’re really sure ... listen to whatever ideas .... “You still don’t trust me, do you?” Jim said, and wondered why that hurt so badly. “You think that I’ll change my mind.” After all that had happened between them, he’d be crazy to think a roll in the hay and a protestation of love would fix everything, but he’d hoped ... and Blair was happier, more relaxed.

Blair straightened and turned to look at him for a long breathless moment. Jim felt shaken and humbled by the compassion in the dark blue eyes, but he was deeply worried about the age-old sorrow he also read there, as if he was looking into the eyes of a very old, very wise, man.

“I have no doubt that you mean everything you’ve said. And I have no doubt that you love me,” Blair finally replied. “I believe you will do your best. But I also believe that your innate drive to protect your city will mean you’ll want to work more and more with Simon, and less and less with whatever learning institute we might establish here. I also believe that, well ... I guess I feel I need to be prepared for the next time things blow up and you decide that what we have isn’t working, or that you can’t trust me. I don’t ever want you to feel trapped in a life you don’t want. So I think you would be better to think in terms of part-time employment or a leave of absence rather than a resignation, options that I think Simon would probably offer and be glad to accept. That way, you wouldn’t be burning any bridges.”

Turning away, Jim felt diminished, as if he’d somehow failed the most important test of his life, but he didn’t know what else he could do or say to convince Blair ... he supposed that only time could do that. Time and living up to his word, to the commitments he was making.

Blair moved toward him and gripped his arms. “Listen to me,” he said, forcing Jim to meet his steady gaze. “I’m not rejecting you and from this day on, I’ll never leave you again. I’m sure now that this is part of my role, to understand that severe threat and pressure undermines your certainty and that you need time to regain your balance. I won’t take it personally the next time it happens.”

“If you’re so sure I’ll want to push you away, and that you can’t depend on me, I don’t know why you’d bother with me,” Jim challenged, feeling defensive but fighting the urge to stalk off, knowing that it would be a mistake.

To his surprise, Blair smiled at him and gave him a little shake. “It’s because I believe you really do love me, and you really do want it all to work out for us. Jim, if it was simply an act of will, I’d be certain that we’d never have another problem with trust. But I really think it’s probably something hard-wired into your sentinel circuits. In a time of absolute threat, of extreme danger, you have a basic, inherent need to test both your boundaries and who you let close, to make sure they’re safe.”

Jim bit his lip and looked away, wished it didn’t make a crazy kind of sense. God, he felt like he was on some kind of emotional rollercoaster, climbing the heights of joy and passion, and then dropping to the depths of uncertainty with no warning. Would they ever find themselves on an even keel again? “Okay,” he allowed, but not really feeling a whole lot better. So far as he could see, Blair was just making excuses for him, explaining why Blair would accept being trashed again – even why it was Blair’s responsibility to keep them together by absorbing the hurt.

None of that felt right.

There was something despicable about the idea that, fundamentally, Blair accepted that he wasn’t entirely trustworthy, not when push came to shove. But the senses did make him crazy sometimes, usually because of hormonal reactions he couldn’t control. Times like this, when they undermined the man he wanted to be, he hated the damned things; but he also wondered if he wasn’t using the senses as an excuse to avoid responsibility for his own disgusting behaviors. Jim didn’t know, didn’t have any answers. He just knew he was going to have think about it all and try to do a helluva lot better in the future. “Okay,” he said again, moving away from Blair. “I guess I’ll call Simon.”

He was walking toward Blair’s office and the phone he could see on the desk there, when Blair said just a shade too casually, “And, uh, you know you don’t have to tell Simon about, well, about us. I don’t expect you tell anyone. Even if I work for free, I know there could be problems with the regs if people knew we’re involved sexually.”

Involved sexually? Jim paused in mid-stride and half turned to look over his shoulder at Sandburg, who was doing his best to look nonchalant as he leafed through one of Jordon’s journals. What the hell did that mean? Jim thought they were a lot more than ‘involved’, as if it was temporary thing. This was for life. Sandburg knew that, didn’t he? Did Blair think he didn’t want people to know about them? Did he think it would be dangerous ... or maybe he was simply afraid that Jim would be ashamed to admit what they shared? That he was, for all intents and purposes, wedded to another man?

When Blair looked up and met his gaze, his expression was carefully bland as he held up the journal. “I think I’ll get started cataloguing these documents, to make it easier for referencing when I write the book. After you talk to Simon, you might want to just take it easy, relax for a bit – you’re still recovering from all that loss of blood and the shock of a pretty serious injury. I’ll check out the kitchen and pull something out of the freezer for dinner.”

“Uh huh,” Jim grunted with a nod of agreement, feeling a little as though he’d fallen into the Twilight Zone. He wasn’t fooled for a minute by Blair’s redirection, as if his earlier remarks about keeping their relationship private were no big deal. One minute they’re making a life commitment, and the next Blair was trying to act as if it’s all just a casual thing that could – and maybe should – be kept secret and hidden away. Dammit, the kid was giving him another out. Even the redirection itself set warning bells jangling in Jim’s head.

How often had he seen this same kind of behavior? How many times had he pushed Blair away, ignored what he had to say, been impatient, ridiculed the guy, treated him like an idiot, while Blair just took it, absorbed it, pretended it didn’t matter and carried on as usual? Years ... he’d done it for years. Right from the beginning, and Jim hadn’t noticed because his mind was always on something else, something more important – like a case. And Blair never protested, never complained, just carried on and got in his face if it was really important and he just had to listen. Why the hell had Blair put up with it – and why was he apparently still willing to put himself second?

With a flash of insight, Jim understood.

Because Blair expected it.

The guy might be a double PhD, and was unquestionably a genius, but growing up with Naomi and then the last year especially, had convinced him that he’d never come first, that he’d have to make do – worse, that he’d inevitably, ultimately, be abandoned. Jim felt sick at the thought that he’d unconsciously lent credence to the idea that Sandburg didn’t ever come first; except maybe, he supposed, when Blair’s life was directly threatened, like by Lash, and it was his job to save him.

But Jim hadn’t protected Blair from Alex, had he? He hadn’t stepped in to save Blair from his own good intentions when he’d trashed himself on national television. Sandburg had good reason not to trust him, good reason to be angry with him. Nodding to himself, Jim put the pieces together and realized that Blair was probably still angry, but burying it, as he’d buried being diminished and ignored for years. God, no wonder the kid had lost his bounce. It must take a whole lot of energy and determination to just keep his head up and keep going.

Well, things are going to change, starting now, Jim thought as he strode into the office and dialed Simon’s home number. While he listened to the ringing, he thought about what had just happened and what he might be able to do about it. “Hey, Simon,” he said when the call was answered. “Blair and I wondered if you could join us for dinner tonight. Say around six?”

When he concluded the call, he stood looking out at the ocean while he thought about everything Blair had said, and the way he’d said it. Without a crystal ball, Jim figured there was no way he could be certain about what the future would hold. So far as he knew, Blair didn’t have a crystal ball, either, so he was really just guessing and doing his best to protect himself – maybe both of them – from devastating hurt. Maybe Blair was right. Maybe it was inevitable that he’d have another meltdown someday and repudiate their partnership, and deny his trust in Sandburg. But it was equally possible that Blair’s analysis was flawed by his earlier experiences and expectations.

Jim wasn’t prepared to accept that he was some kind of automaton ruled by his senses and instincts, or that he couldn’t learn from past mistakes and change. And there were actions he could take in the here and now that just might convince Blair that he could depend upon Jim more than he thought he could. So far, Blair was giving him points for good intentions. Jim felt a need to give a whole lot more than that.

Imagining how the evening’s conversation might play out, Jim smiled and then laughed softly. He was pretty sure he was going to enjoy himself. And he was hoping that Blair would have a good time, too. Feeling calm and settled for the first time in as long as he could remember, he reflected that decisions were a whole lot easier when his priorities were crystal clear.

**

Simon arrived about five minutes early and seemed surprised that it was Jim who welcomed him at the front door. “I see you’re making yourself at home,” he drawled as he shrugged out of his black leather jacket and, in deference to Jim’s constrained right arm, hung it himself in the capacious cloak closet.

“You have no idea,” Jim laughed and waved him through to kitchen in the back of the house where Blair was putting the finishing touches on their dinner.

“Hey, Simon,” Blair looked up with a smile as billows of steam rose up from the sink where he was draining the noodles. “Great sweater!” he added in admiration for the bright multi-colored Swedish knit that Simon was sporting.

“Thanks, Daryl gave it to me for my last birthday,” Simon replied, preening. “Smells good. Anything I can do to help? I’ll bet the walking wounded over there hasn’t been much use.”

Blair laughed while Jim feigned annoyance. “Thanks but I think everything’s under control. Maybe you guys can ferry the salad, the garlic bread, and the wine to my suite. I’ve set out the dishes and brought in an extra chair for the table there – Simon, there’s a sheltered terrace right off the suite where you can have a post-dinner cigar, if you want. I’ll be right behind you with the pasta.”

Jim grabbed a bottle of red wine from the rack in one of the cooling pantries, and Simon appropriated the large bowl of salad and the platter of fragrant slices of garlic bread. “Wait till you see his ‘suite’,” Jim said with a broad grin. “And the view.”

But even with the warning, Simon was evidently surprised by the luxurious set of rooms. “Not too shabby,” he said with a wide smile of appreciation to Blair, who walked in behind them with a huge steaming bowl of spaghetti bolognaise. “But don’t you find it strange living all alone in such a massive, not to mention isolated house?”

“Yeah, I do,” Blair admitted, “for all kinds of reasons. But I have to admit that I’ve become fond of these rooms and the view of the city and the sea. If I ignore the rest, well, except for the Collection, it’s not too oppressive.”

“And we have some ideas for how we might use the house,” Jim added as he waved Simon to the table and handed him the wine bottle and then the corkscrew. “If you’d do the honors?”

“Sure, glad to,” Simon agreed, though he’d frowned a bit and given Jim a sharp look at the ‘we’. “Sounds like you two are back to being a team,” he observed, looking from one to the other. “Does that mean you’ll be coming back to Major Crime, Blair?”

“Yeah, I guess it does,” Blair replied with a grin, but he darted a glance at Jim that caught Simon’s attention.

“I get the feeling there’s something I’m missing here,” Simon observed as he pulled out the cork and poured three glasses before sitting at the table.

“Why don’t we just enjoy dinner, and then talk business,” Blair suggested as he dished up heaping plates and passed them around. He loaded salad onto side bowls for himself and Jim, and then passed the bowl to Simon. When he sat down, he took a slice of garlic bread from the platter in the middle of the table.

Jim quickly grew irritated with his sling and slid it off. “Just until we finish eating,” he said when Blair scowled at him. “This meal needs two hands for maximum enjoyment.” He smiled as he lifted his wine glass. “To the chef,” he toasted, which won a smile from Blair.

They all fell on the food like starving men. When there was little left, Simon sat back with a contented sigh. “Now that was a fine meal,” he said with a smile and another informal toast with his wine glass in Blair’s direction. After Blair clinked glasses with him in acknowledgment, he took a healthy swallow and set the glass back down. “So, who wants to tell me what’s going on?”

“I guess that would be me,” Jim said. He refilled his wine glass and suggested they move into the living room area and get comfortable. Once they were settled, he began, “Simon, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’m sure Joel has reported to you that I’ve not been fully honest about how well I’ve been managing my senses. My control has been slipping – slowly – but I know without doubt that I need Blair’s help to stay on top of them.”

“Then I guess it’s a good thing Blair’s willing to work with us again,” Simon interjected as he drew his cigar case from his pants’ pocket. Drawing out a stogie, he sniffed it and rolled it between his fingers. He looked from Jim to Blair and pushed, “Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Blair said with unequivocal conviction. “But,” he added and hesitated, his gaze again sliding to Jim.

“Ah, the inevitable ‘but’,” Simon sighed. “I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be that easy.”

Jim grinned. “No, I guess it won’t be,” he agreed. “Simon, like I said, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. For the first fifteen years of my life, I did everything I could to win parental approval. And then I handed myself over to other authority figures, like teachers and coaches, and military superiors, and then the PD. I don’t know, maybe it’s something about being a sentinel, about wanting to ... to serve, to know I’m making difference for the good. But I’m not a young man anymore, and I’m beginning to think I can serve in different ways, without having to dodge bullets for a living.”

“I can understand that,” Simon allowed. “You ready to try the Captain’s exam?”

Jim shook his head. “No. The thing is, I don’t think I can keep working with the PD,” he said.

“Jim!” Blair objected. “I thought we talked about this. You know,” he flicked a look at Simon, “part-time work, or maybe a leave of absence for a while.”

“I know, Chief,” Jim said as gently as he knew how. “I know you think I need to be a cop to be a happy. But I don’t, and I can’t be, for the same reasons you decided you couldn’t be a cop or even a paid consultant. The rules apply to me, too, and the same regs would prohibit me from working with you. I’m just not prepared to lie anymore, or put Simon in an awkward position any longer.”

Simon looked from one to the other, his eyes narrowing in thought. “I think I’m following the ball here, but does someone want to spell it out for me?”

“I’m going to come clean about being a sentinel,” Jim told him. “Blair’s found some journals written by Jordon Faraday, about his work with his sentinel in Peru, and Blair is going to turn it all into at least one book. I’ve decided that the book would have more impact if he could contrast the experience of guiding a sentinel in a traditional environment with that of guiding one in a modern, urban city. Blair isn’t sure it’s a good idea, but I want to move forward, and I’m tired of the lies. Please, both of you, understand that I’m grateful and always will be for the unconditional support the two of you have given me for years. But I’ve come to see that it hasn’t been fair to either of you. And I’m totally fed up with pretending that Blair was some kind of liar and fraud who used me – it’s not true and not right, and I’m done with it.”

“Jim, you don’t –”

“I think he does,” Simon cut in. “I’ve been surprised he’s lasted this long without blurting out the truth. It’s been hard enough to conceal the senses. Think about it, Blair. If it was reversed, and Jim was lying to cover for you, and paying certain penalties for that, wouldn’t you be uncomfortable?”

“Yeah, of course, but it’s different for me,” Blair argued but subsided immediately, looking as if he’d wished he hadn’t said anything.

“Why?” Jim demanded. “Why would it be any different for you, if our situation was reversed?”

Blair squirmed in evident discomfort, but he finally replied softly, “Because ... because I wouldn’t think the senses made me some kind of freak.”

Jim grimaced, but nodded. “Well, I have to get over that. In my head, I know it’s ridiculous. There’ll be another big hullabaloo, and then it will blow over. The important thing is that we set up an Institute here, to help other sentinels and guides.”

Simon looked startled. “You sure that’s a good idea?” he asked. “What if more of them turn out to be like Barnes? There’s nothing that says sentinels have to be good guys, is there?”

Blair blinked at the questions, as if he hadn’t considered that Alex had been anything more than an aberration. “I ... well, I don’t know for sure,” he allowed. “But the little information and mythology that exists suggests that sentinels usually play some helpful role.”

“Hmm, well, it would be great if that was a given,” Simon retorted. “But I suspect that was when tribes knew what they were looking for and brought sentinels up to be scouts or protectors or whatever. Someone growing up rogue could go either way.”

“I think you’re right,” Jim agreed, “which makes it even more important that Blair get the word out and around the world as soon as possible. We need to help young sentinels learn how to handle their senses in a supportive environment. It’s even more important to help adults who might be living on the fringes of society, and who could still have a useful life. Somehow, we also have to figure out how to find guides for the sentinels. There doesn’t seem to be much if any research about that, and guides are as important as the sentinels. A sentinel really can’t function without one, not indefinitely.” He looked at Blair. “That’s something we need to ask about when we go to Peru in December.” Returning his attention to Simon, he explained, “We plan to head to the jungle for a month or so, both in Peru and back in Sierra Verde, to see what we can learn from the Chopec and the temples in both areas.”

Simon nodded and took a sip of wine. “Okay, okay, I understand all that and even support it. But none of that explains why you think you have to resign. Being a sentinel doesn’t mean you can’t be a cop; and it will take at least a year, maybe more, to identify enough sentinels to make running an institute a full-time job.” He fixed a straight look on Jim. “You mentioned some regs...?”

Jim nodded. Blair murmured his name in a warning tone only he could hear, but otherwise didn’t intervene. “That’s right,” he said, striving to keep his tone level and mild. “The regs prohibit life partners from working together, and we both know I need Blair to work with me. It wasn’t an issue before because Blair and I, well, we hadn’t done anything about how we were feeling. But now we have and I’m not prepared to lie about it or cover it up, as if I was ashamed or some damned thing, when I’m not.” He looked at Blair, whose eyes had widened in surprise, and smiled. “Quite the contrary, I’m proud to be the kept man of the richest guy in the Northwest, and I don’t care who knows it. For the record, I don’t plan to ever let him go.”

Blair choked and Simon burst out laughing, which surprised Jim, and from the expression on his face, Blair, too. “What?” Simon asked, when he got his amusement under control. “You think most of us in Major Crime haven’t wondered if you were or weren’t, or how long it would take before you got a clue?”

“But we both dated,” Blair protested. “And Jim was even married!”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Simon acknowledged, his tone and expression kind. “But not so much that last year or so, Blair. Most of us noticed, even if Jim didn’t seem to realize that you weren’t off chasing skirts anymore. Some of us – Joel, Megan to some extent, Rhonda – worried about you those last few months. We were pretty sure you were pretty far gone on Jim, but you looked like you were giving up, and that it was killing you.”

Jim looked away and wondered again, for the gazillionth time, how he could have missed so much and been such a fool.

“I ... I’m sorry I was so obvious,” Blair apologized, looking mortified.

“Don’t be,” Jim intervened and stood to move across the room to sit beside Blair on the sofa, where he put his arm around Blair’s shoulders. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. But like you pointed out the other day, we can’t do anything about the past. We can only learn from it and do better in the future.” He returned his attention to Simon, “We want to be available to you, to work on tough cases as consultants – you know, to go over crime scenes, help track weird, nebulous clues, even help guide takedowns. But I don’t want Blair in the line of fire, which means I have to stay out of it, too. Do you think that can work for you?”

“Don’t see why not,” Simon replied thoughtfully. “So long as your rates are reasonable.”

“How does ‘free’ sound?” Blair offered with a small grin.

With a broad grin of delight, Simon said, “Why, that sounds perfect!” But then he sobered and looked around the suite. “You know, if you’re going to keep working with law enforcement, especially on tough cases, you’re going to have to beef up your security out here. With all the valuables you’ve got in this mansion, you should have already arranged something. I couldn’t believe it when I arrived tonight and found the gate wide open.”

“You’re right,” Blair agreed, rising to make coffee. “I just haven’t had a lot of time to think about it. I’d welcome any advice you’d have – and Simon? If you’d like rent-free accommodation in your own suite, on different floors there are several other suites in the house large enough to also accommodate Daryl when he’s visiting. You’d be more than welcome.”

Taken aback, Simon gaped at him for a moment. “That’s a very generous offer,” he finally said. “I wasn’t all that sure you appreciate my company that much.” He sighed and shook his head. “Those last few months were rough and ... well, and then I supported Jim in letting your press conference stand. I could have been a better friend to you.”

Blair looked around from the counter, where he was pouring water into the coffee machine. “Me? I thought you thought I wasn’t much more than a nuisance. And those last months weren’t easy for any of us – I know I was out of line more than once. But you were willing to take me on fulltime, and I won’t ever forget that, not when I know it couldn’t’ve been easy to get clearance to offer me that job.” Blair smiled, and added, “Seriously, Simon. You’ve been a damned good friend to the both of us for years. I hope you know that I’d do just about anything for you, and I know Jim feels the same way.”

Simon flushed as he bobbed his head and rolled his shoulders, obviously both embarrassed and very pleased. He cleared his throat and nodded. “Thank you, Sandburg,” he said solemnly. “I’ll bear that in mind.” But then he grinned. “Maybe I’ll give living in this old mausoleum a try by house-sitting while you guys wander around in the jungle. The place really should not be abandoned for weeks at a time.”

“That’s a great idea,” Blair enthused.

Amused, Jim drank the last of his wine, and said, “Face it, Simon. You’re stuck with us. So far as we’re concerned, you’re family.”

Once again, Simon looked taken aback, but he smiled, and nodded agreeably. “Speaking of family,” he said, turning to Blair who was leaning back against the counter, waiting for the coffee pot to fill, “I haven’t had a chance to ask – do you think Jordon Faraday was your father?”

Blair nodded, and a slow smile lit his face. “Yeah, I do. I still haven’t been able to reach Naomi, but there’s just too much to ignore: how much we look alike, the DNA family relationship with Jess, our shared interests and abilities – man, I was blown away by how much even his handwriting looks like mine.”

“Handwriting? Oh, yes, the journals Jim mentioned,” Simon replied.

“When we go to Peru, we’re hoping to find people who might remember Jordon,” Jim told him. “Chief, why don’t you tell Simon about what you’ve found out from the journals? And what you’ve been thinking about the trip and the book?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Jim. Simon might not be all that interested.”

Simon leaned forward, his interest evident. “On the contrary, Doctor Sandburg, I’d be very interested in hearing a lot more about what you’ve been finding out from your father’s notes, and what you and Jim hope to achieve by going to Peru. You’ve talked about writing a book – why? Is that something that has to be done quickly? To help identify the nascent sentinels you want to work with in whatever institute you set up here? I figure I have to understand this stuff a whole lot better than I do – partly so I know what kind of time the two of you will have left to help downtown, but also in case I take you up on your offer to move into an apartment here, to watch over the place while you two are traveling because after you publish, I daresay you’ll be invited all over the world.”

Blair’s grin widened at Simon’s questions, and that light that Jim adored began to flash in his eyes. Pushing away from the counter, his hands dancing in the air, he began talking a mile a minute about all the amazing things he’d learned so far from the journals, what they’d have to do to get ready for the trip, how long he figured they’d be gone, and whether he should publish before they left or after, and whether it would be one book or two, or maybe three because there was a ton of material to cover.

Jim was immensely grateful for the interest Simon was showing, and that Simon had just taken it all as a given, as if it was about time that Jim got his act together and acknowledged who and what Blair was in his life, giving Blair no cause for regrets or uncertainties about maybe having created problems in Jim’s life. Sitting back, he couldn’t help grinning with helpless amusement as he watched Blair dart around the room, lifting journals to show Simon specific extracts, making broad gestures to illustrate the points he was making. While he talked, without missing a beat, Blair poured mugs of coffee and handed them around, then cut and served slices of a cheesecake that he pulled out of the little refrigerator under the counter. His energy and enthusiasm was a palpable force.

Given Blair’s very apparent happiness and excitement about the future they’d share, Jim decided he’d been right in his hunch: Blair had needed to hear him come out loud and clear about their permanent relationship, and that he wouldn’t ever pretend he wasn’t anything but proud to be Blair’s lover. Then, Jim saw something that he’d thought was gone forever, something unconscious that showed just how deeply and completely happy Blair really was, and he felt his heart might burst with joy.

The bounce was back.

Finis