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2002

The river water was cool against his skin, never less than thigh deep. Sometimes it rose to his hips or above his waist and he let his feet up and drifted downstream, for miles and miles. Sometimes the land was open, other times trees draped the riverside. It was summer, but raining, a gentle misty drizzle. The water reflected the grey of the sky, or alternately deepened to the brown of the earth, especially where it passed through forest.

He had the urge to dive, to swim in the water like a salmon, so he did, fearlessly, air magically unnecessary. He admired the rocks of the riverbed, all of them somehow placed with the beautiful precision of a Japanese stone garden he'd once admired. He looked more closely, realised that one of the stones was a skull, sheltered in the lee of a big boulder, a scapula close by. He looked downstream, saw with preternatural sight the ribs and long bones gently dragged along the riverbed by the current.

His chest filled with a sharp pang of bereavement and relief combined. At least he knew now, and this was better than some of the possibilities that had filled his nightmares. He reached out, kicking against the rich, earthy water, but the bones always lazily skittered out of his reach, Jim's bones, scattered across the river stones.

***
1999

Sid Graham was absolutely crazy, that much he was sure of. He had about an hour to return Blair's call, or else Blair was going with speech option number two. Hell, this was going to be humiliating enough; Blair had no compunction about sharing the wealth. He reviewed his notes, 'embarrassing miscommunication' 'media frenzy' 'work of fiction' yadda yadda. He was going to be in deep shit with Edwards as it was, but he'd already discovered that he could endure her displeasure during the Ventriss mess. He wanted the media off his back and especially off Jim's. Maybe, just maybe, he could salvage their friendship out of this debacle.

There was a knock on his office door. He swore to himself, but yelled out, "Enter!" The door opened and Jack Kelso negotiated his wheelchair through the door.

"Jack! What brings you all the way to Hargrove?"

"It's not the wheelchair access, that's for sure. Look, Blair, I had to have a word with you, I know that things are crazy right now. Somebody told me that you're holding a press conference shortly, about this sentinel business."

Blair nodded warily.

"Have you and Ellison cooked this up between you?"

Blair flushed. "Jim and I, uh, we aren't really on speaking terms right now."

Jack regarded him steadily.

"Look, Blair, I don't know what's going on, I don't want to know, but I thought you should know that I'd heard whispers that there are other whispers going around about Ellison in certain circles, and all this furore isn't quietening them down."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Jack looked a little uncomfortable.

"It means that you'd better be sure of the consequences of whatever you're planning to say this afternoon, that's what it means. Look, Blair, it may be nothing, I may be jumping at shadows here, but just, be aware that there are maybe, only maybe, people taking an interest in all this that you do not want to be taking an interest. You get me?"

Blair felt sick, but he dredged up a weak smile. "Yeah, a word to the wise and so on. Thanks Jack, I appreciate the heads up."

Kelso smiled grimly.

“I'll be on my way, as discreetly as a man in a chair can be in this damned warren. Luck, Blair."

"Yeah. Luck." Jack left and Blair sat stunned. Fuck, and double fuck. For one panicky moment, he checked how close the wastebasket was. He was scared that he was going to throw up. People that he did not want to be taking an interest. Oh yeah. With shaking hands he ripped up the prepared speech notes and threw them in the trash. He grabbed paper and pen, and sat still a moment before he began to scrawl a new speech across the pad. Something that would be convincing. He leaned his head in one hand. Yeah, it had to be convincing all right. He swallowed hard. It might be better if the friendship wasn't salvaged after all. A particularly good phrase struck him and he scribbled it down, his writing travelling in great loops over the page as fine motor control dissolved in tremors. 'In our media-driven culture...' He shifted his hand to begin another paragraph and looked into an immediate future of burning all his bridges behind him, before he put the despair away and kept on writing.

A couple of days later, he sat by Jim's hospital bed; nearly asleep despite the extremely uncomfortable chair he was in. Jim was asleep, finally, after a very painful evening where his senses spiked like crazy as the doctors were trying to treat his leg. The effect of the local had been patchy at best, and Jim had asked for Blair. In some doubt, the doctor had let Blair into the cubicle, and he had stood jammed against the wall, gripping Jim's hand while the sweat stood out on Jim's face in drops.

He should, Blair thought, go home. If Jim's blood pressure stabilised, and there was no reason now that it shouldn't, they would maybe think about letting him go home tomorrow evening. Blair should shower, put together some clean clothes and gear for Jim, give some thought to how they would manage around Jim's injury. Naomi had retreated in good order to the home of a friend. He stood up, and saw Jim's eyes flicker.

He leaned over him. "Hey, you're supposed to be asleep. Is it getting sore again? You want the nurse?"

Jim blinked up at him.

"Nah, I'm okay. You going now?"

"Yeah, but I'll be back tomorrow."

Jim's hand scrabbled across the bed, and Blair took it.

"Why'd you do it, Chief?"

Blair didn't pretend he didn't know what Jim meant, but he tried to avoid the issue.

"Hey, partner, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

"You shouldn't have said fraud, Blair, you're not a fraud."

Oops. Looked like the drugs were kicking in now, when they weren't really needed.

"Don't worry about it, Jim. It'll be okay."

"Should have obfuscated better, Chief, you're the obfuscator."

"Yeah, sure, Jim. Go back to sleep."

Blair picked up Jim's hand and pressed a very quick kiss across the back of it. When he'd written and delivered that speech, he'd known what the end of all this had to be. Who knew if there'd be another chance for this sort of casual affection; and for good measure he kissed Jim on the forehead as well. Jim's eyes were shut, but he smiled. Yeah, the drugs were kicking in for sure.

The next day he took Jim home. Seeing Jim, even a grouchy Jim who needed determined instruction about dials, was familiar and a balm after the day he'd spent cleaning out his office. He hadn't bothered to sort anything, just bundled everything that was his into boxes and stuffed the car with them, shuttling back and forth between Rainier and Prospect. He'd left instructions with an embarrassed but courteous anthropology department secretary as to who needed to be contacted to collect other items.

Once home, he got Jim settled in the yellow armchair, his leg lifted onto the coffee table, which was padded with a couple of throws. Blair had moved the furniture around for comfort, convenience and a good view of the tv. His boxes were in the basement. Let it all mould, what was the point anyway. He'd made sure that the tv was set to the sports channel, given that he wasn't too interested in current affairs right now. He was also studiously avoiding the flashing light on the answer machine.

Jim shifted in the armchair, trying to find a comfortable position.

"You want anything?"

"Nah, I'm fine."

And now, thought Blair, for the last confession. "Uh, Jim, I have something to tell you."

Jim looked up, startled. "Jesus, Chief, how much more?"

"Well, I sure hope this is the last thing. Look, before the press conference, Jack Kelso came and saw me, and he told me that the whole media mess was raising some interest that worried him, of the covert variety, you know."

Jim shut his eyes. "Well, that's just dandy. Kelso have anything more concrete to go on?"

"If he did, he didn't say so." Blair had been in a quiet panic most of today. He'd trashed his career because of a few vague hints. But whenever he tried to imagine ignoring Jack's warning, he felt worse.

Jim looked straight ahead, his expression thoughtful.

“Were you going with the fraud thing from the get-go?”

Blair shook his head. "I originally planned going for the massively humiliating balls-up approach. My mother sent the wrong file, blah, blah. "

"And you didn't think to come to me about this."

Blair swallowed hard on a surge of anger. "Oh yeah, sure, Jim. Jack only caught up with me about two hours beforehand. When the hell would I have seen you before? I was going to tell you, but you got shot. And of course, you've taken so much pleasure in my company the last few days."

Jim lifted his hand, waved it in an 'okay, okay' gesture.

"Chief, just how badly have you screwed yourself here?"

Blair looked at the floor. Jim wasn't stupid, but sometimes people had to ask rhetorical questions of the 'it's cancer, isn't it?' variety. Work their way up to things.

"How badly do you think, Jim?"

"Fuck."

"Maybe, when the fuss dies down...we'll see." And there was a major obfuscation right there, shading perilously close to outright lying.

"Blair, you know that Brackett almost certainly blabbed. The sort of circles that Kelso's worried about, they might have been keeping their ears to the ground anyway. That cat was well and truly out of the bag."

Blair jumped up. This was not what he needed to hear in the aftermath of one of the most abrasively painful things he had ever experienced. Jim hadn't wanted the dissertation in the first place, not really, and now he didn't want the consequences of repudiating it.

"Yeah, well, Jim, I really think that I should have gotten a clue that time when Lee came to town, y'know? And you were so resigned to having your big secret all over the news. You wanted it all to go away, well it has. You're the unlucky cop who was screwed over by that little hippy wannabe, you could spot a flea on the roof of Wilkinson Towers from the ground and nobody will believe you now. You've got your life back, everyone's going to tell your dad what a shame it all is, not ask him what it's like to live with the freak!"

Jim looked hugely frustrated. Blair imagined that he really wanted to get up and pace right along with Blair, but that leg just wouldn't permit it.

"Yeah, sure, I didn't want to be a freak in front of everybody here, this is my real life, and I don't want the creeps I'm trying to catch to know about me. But, god, Chief, this, this is too much."

"Well, that's just tough. I did the best with what I had at the time, Jim. I mean, what Jack said, it scared the shit out of me." Blair leaned his hands on the back of the couch. "Look, I need some air. I won't be long, I just need to get out of here."

He picked up his jacket and left Jim behind, with a little ignoble satisfaction in remembering all the times Jim had walked away from him over the last week. But he only stayed out half an hour or so. Jim was still in a lot of discomfort. And they had to set up a bed for him yet. And organise a meal. Blair knew that he'd spent a lot of time over the last four years thinking about Jim, organising him, fussing over him. You should have worn the damn floral apron, he thought wryly, and then concentrated on trying to walk out that anxious, always on the brink of tears feeling that had been his constant companion since that first phone call from Sid Graham. It didn't work.

Over the next two weeks it really would have been better if Jim had stayed mad at him, but Blair's desperate abnegation of his research had shocked Jim into a more conciliatory mood. Blair spent his time making what excuses he could to any of his friends and colleagues he thought really did want to know, and working out whatever opportunities were open to a self-confessed fraud. He acknowledged them to be depressingly limited. He spent a lot of time visiting Naomi, feeling guilty about the fact that he'd rather have spent the time with Jim. But you had to start as you meant to go on, sometimes. Naomi had a lot of contacts, and he'd asked her to put out feelers for him, and ignored the deep, deep irony of that. Wondering why Jim had asked to meet him in Major Crimes, already in a bittersweet mood as he wandered the office, he was startled and deeply moved by the offer of a detective's badge.

He dragged himself out of the ruthless noogie that Jim was inflicting on him, and smiled as warmly as he could.

"I really appreciate this, and I swear I'm going to think hard about it, but you guys have got to give me some time. It's kinda unexpected to say the least."

"But you will think about it, won't you?" Megan asked. Blair smiled and shrugged.

"Of course I will." But he didn't miss the way that Jim and Simon looked at each other. Sorry, guys, he thought. It was a nice idea. It really was a nice idea. Those who were off duty adjourned to a nearby bar, a regular cop hangout. Blair and Naomi nursed one drink each, quietly wrapped in their own thoughts.

"They're good friends."

"Yeah, Ma, they are."

"Oh sweetie, I'm so sorry." She looked her age, despite the dim light of the bar.

He squeezed her hand. "Did you talk to him for me?"

"Yes, they're finding it hard to attract qualified staff, and they won't care about all this."

"Good. I'll call him tomorrow."

Jim had been at the bar for this conversation, and when he came back he slapped his beer down on the table and then ignored it.

"Sorry, ladies and gents, but we have to get Blair's mom to the airport. See you all later." He hauled Blair to his feet, his face shut down in what Blair all too easily recognised as Ellisonian displeasure. Jim had undoubtedly heard some of his conversation with Naomi. Well, Blair thought, you know what they say, Jim, listen not at a keyhole, or in this case with sentinel hearing in a noisy bar, lest ye be vexed. And Jim was very vexed indeed.

They took Jim's truck, with Blair driving. Blair's car didn't have that much gas in it, and Jim's leg got stiff towards the end of the day. Naomi's luggage was collected from the friend's house where she'd been staying and she was seen off at the airport with all due civility. Jim's showing good will and forgiveness, thought Blair, not to mention making sure that she really is gone. As soon as Naomi was waved through the gate, Jim had a hand under Blair's elbow.

"Home, Chief."

Blair knew that he ought to be nervous about what was surely going to be an incredibly stressful face-off with Jim but he didn't have the energy any more. He hopefully now had a fall back position, a means of feeding and clothing himself, and maybe paying off some student loans. Jim's grief and disappointment was just going to have to stand in line behind Blair's.

They were barely even in the loft when Jim started, his expression set in a sneer.

"So, what's Mommy Dearest jacked up for you now? Is it as good as a possible Nobel prize?"

Blair ignored the slur at his mother. Let Jim say what he wanted, it was all over now anyway. He answered the question as neutrally as he could.

"I'm looking at working at a small community college in rural Maine. Partly admin and a few computer courses, working with adults who want to get their high school diplomas, probably a little history and psychology as well." If he was lucky, as the college developed. If he actually got the job.

"Jesus, Sandburg, are you nuts? Being a cop might not be what you planned, but at least you'd be using some of your skills. What, you really want to spend your days teaching some hick county matron what C.P.U stands for, how to troubleshoot the printer? You're kidding me."

"No, no, I'm not kidding you. I can't be a cop, Jim; I'm a fraud, an admitted liar, a person of doubtful probity. It was," his throat was getting tight, he hadn't been on the point of tears all the time like this since he was a child, "kind of Simon and you to do that, but for god's sake, Jim, I can't possibly accept it."

"I wasn't being kind, Sandburg." Jim stopped for a moment and then burst out, "Why the hell did you have to say it was fraud? You could fight it. Fucking Berkshire doesn't have a leg to stand on, you know that."

"Because it had to look convincing, Jim, that's why. I know that you said that maybe the covert types were watching anyway, but, man, all the more reason I can't stay living in your home and - and trailing around after you all the live long day. And I'd be lucky to get a job asking 'do you want fries with that' if I stayed in Cascade. It has to be this way."

Jim's face was pinched and pale. "I don't want you to go."

Blair was goaded beyond endurance. As if he wanted to be anywhere but here either.

"You don't get a say, Jim. It's over." Blair turned for the sanctuary of his room, where he could be miserable with at least the semblance of privacy, but was pulled up short when Jim stumped after him, the cane thudding on the floor, and grabbed his upper arm.

"The hell it is."

"Let go."

Instead Jim tugged him even closer.

"Jim, this is stupid."

Jim's grip on his arm didn't loosen. The cane clattered to the floor as Jim's other hand wrapped across the back of Blair's neck. Neither hold was strictly intended to cause pain, but it was evident to Blair that he wasn't going anywhere unless he was prepared to physically hurt Jim.

"I don't want you to go," Jim repeated. Blair's head was full of all the times that he had been close to Jim, all the times that they had looked and then looked away, or laughed. But none of them had been quite like this, with the heat of anger and adrenalin rapidly transforming to an entirely different heat.

"Don't go," Jim whispered, and bent his head to nuzzle Blair's hair. Blair couldn't help jerking as if with an electric shock, and then stood motionless as Jim explored the rest of his face with his own, rubbing, nuzzling, licking gently across Blair's eyebrows. The hand on his neck was looser now, gently kneading Blair's nape, the hand on his arm had travelled to the small of his back, and was skimming across the back waist of Blair's pants. Jim started dragging Blair's shirt and tee out, rested his big hand across the skin underneath. Blair made a small, needy sound.

If the stupidest thing he'd ever done was leaving his mother alone with his laptop, then what he did next surely had to count as the second stupidest. He put his arms up to cradle Jim's head, ran his fingers through the fine, soft hair. He reached up and mussed Jim's hair a little, just because he could, because Jim was letting him. Jim's hum of pleasure vibrated across his skin. Blair's hands travelled down to smooth across Jim's neck, grip his shoulders. And that was the moment when Jim moved his hand into Blair's hair, and gently used the grip to pull back Blair's head and kiss him. 'Soft' Blair thought. Who would have thought that such a stern looking man would have such a sweet, soft mouth? Blair opened his own mouth, kissed Jim back with all the passionate attention to detail that he could find. If they were committed to doing this stupid, stupid thing, then it ought to be done properly.

Jim pulled back and pulled Blair's clothes over his head, breathing as if he'd chased a suspect four blocks. Blair shivered a little, partly cold and partly nerves, before he was folded up in a warm embrace once more, hands travelling up and down his back and across his shoulders.

Jim walked them back a few steps, leaning on Blair. "Your bed's closer," he said.

Blair kept silent. If he tried to talk he was going to talk them out of this, and he was desperate enough for more of Jim's touch to say the hell with higher brain functions. Fuck impulse control, if he was leaving, and he was leaving, then he wanted to take with him the memory of the two of them together in physical pleasure. He answered Jim with the nastiest kiss he could summon, and a little grind against his groin.

"Oh yeah, come on, Chief."

They clambered onto the bed, Blair belatedly undoing his pants when he was already there, Jim stripping with awkward but efficient speed before he got into the bed and laid the warm bulk of his body on top of Blair. "Oh god," was all Blair could find to say, before Jim went for his mouth as a drowning man for air. Jim had one arm harsh across Blair's back. The pressure against his ribs wasn't comfortable, but Blair knew that protest was pointless. Jim had the idea, not so unlikely, that Blair might be planning on going somewhere. Just not quite yet. He moved his hips up against Jim's, sighed when Jim returned the movement, and they settled into basic rhythm. Blair grabbed Jim's buttocks, filled his hands with smooth hard muscle, soothed the want in him by running his hands over skin. He chased after sensation, rode it, pushed it where he wanted to go, and then there came a point where the sensation rode him instead. Blair tilted his head back, and let the cry come out of him.

Jim muttered, "Yeah, come, come, oh god, come." Each word was punctuated by a frantic jab of his hips against Blair, but Blair was too caught up in his own pleasure to really be aware of it all, until it was nearly over, and Jim moved against him in little arrhythmic jerks, hunting down the last jolts of feeling.

Discomfort and the need to breathe came to the fore and Blair pushed himself more securely up the pillows of his bed, while Jim slid down a little, lying between Blair's open legs, his feet nearly hanging off the end. Jim laid his head against Blair's chest, and brought one hand up to gently rub a thumb against a nipple. His eyes were closed.

"Don't you go," Jim whispered and Blair wondered at the shiver of feeling that ran through him.

He stroked Jim's head with hopeless tenderness, and tried to speak as gently as he could. "You know that I have to."

And without another word, Jim clumsily hauled himself off the bed, gathered up his clothes, and walked out with uneven, limping steps. Blair lay on his bed a while longer, eyes shut, unthinkingly running his fingers through the remnants of semen left on him. Sighing, he got up and poked his head out of the doors. No sign of Jim.

"Jim,' he called. No sound. Brooding upstairs obviously. "I, uh, I'd better have a shower. Unless you want one first."

"Go ahead." That was it, no other comment.

Blair dragged himself into the bathroom, and stood under the shower. He washed away the mingling of Jim's come and his, Jim's sweat and his. In all the miseries of the last few weeks he'd cried once, and that when he was alone, when there was nobody else in the loft, especially not Jim. And now he cried again, choking the sobs into quiet, as he rinsed all trace of Jim off his body.
***
2004

When the phone rang, he cursed. He was right in the middle of a tricky part of the spreadsheet, and he was tempted to just leave it. They had to have sign-off on the budget as soon as possible. But then he decided to pick up. It might be Celia, or even his mother, although he wasn't holding his breath. He interrupted whoever it was mid-flow in leaving a message. A man's voice he didn't recognise, not Celia or Naomi.

"Blair Sandburg, and it had better be good."

There was a pause while whoever it was regrouped, and then, "Uh. Blair, it's Stephen Ellison here."

Blair's heart lurched. He could only think of one reason why Stephen Ellison would contact him. He felt peculiarly light even as he flopped heavily into the desk chair.

"Stephen. Has somebody found..." but his throat was too dry. He stopped and tried to swallow.

Stephen's voice stuttered a little.

"No, no, I'm sorry, I thought you might think that. No, it's nothing to do with Jim. Well, not exactly." There was a silence, but before Blair could impatiently ask, "what?!" Stephen took a breath and said, "Carolyn wrote a letter to Dad, needing to know about our family health history. Jesus, I still can't believe that she...she has a little boy. He's Jim's son."

Blair thought that he was going to die of shock, on the spot, in that stupid ergonomic chair. Instead he sputtered into the phone, "What? How?" His voice broke on the second word.

"I have the 'how' pretty sussed," Stephen said dryly. "I'm more interested in the 'why'. Dad was not impressed."

Blair was too startled to be amused at that piece of Ellison understatement. He could imagine William Ellison being vehemently and viciously unimpressed and a brief moment's sympathy flared for anyone nearby, before he was again overtaken by shock, and growing curiosity. He started a breath exercise, down, into the gut, exhale slowly, that's the way.

"I appreciate getting the news, but why? This is a family matter for you guys, surely?"

But he already knew why.

"Sounds like Robbie, Robert James Plummer, that's what she named him, he's uh, having a few health problems. A lot of allergies and sensitivities and what they thought might be petit mal epilepsy." Stephen's voice grew indefinably rougher. "Come on, Blair, you're not stupid. Dad and I want you come to San Francisco, have a look at the boy, talk to Carolyn..."

"Be somebody that the warring states can find common cause against?" Blair interrupted sourly.

"It won't be that bad." The unspoken 'I hope' echoed over the line. "Dad will pay your expenses."

"I'm not that badly off," Blair began.

"You're not Donald Trump, either. This is for Jimmy's son, Blair. Please."

"Okay, okay. Give me a contact number, and I'll check out flights and let you know when you can expect me. Shit, I'm going to get hell over this, but too bad."

Blair dragged out pen and paper, wrote down details, and then he and Stephen awkwardly said goodbye. For a long time he sat staring at the clutter on the desk. Robert James Plummer. Jim had a son, and it looked like the kid was maybe a sentinel. William Ellison surely wouldn't invite Blair anywhere near the boy unless he thought it was a possibility. Jim had a son, and he'd never known. Blair broke into a noise, half sob, half laugh, and buried his face in his hands for a moment. Then he stood up, stumbling a little and dragged himself through all the things that had to be done to get him to San Francisco, starting with ringing the Director of Keepston County Community College to tell him that Blair was taking leave, regardless of budgetary deadlines.
***
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me; undoubtedly one of the most stupid and lying items of folk wisdom ever to be stuffed down the throats of young people anywhere. Blair had experienced the hurt that came from broken bones, bullets and beatings, and he granted that the hurt wasn't much fun. But words had always been far more deadly. You expressed all sorts of emotion with words - grief, contempt, the agony of too little, too late.

He was winging across the continent to see Jim's son. Blair wondered if Jim would have agreed to his involvement if he were around to have any say. He was powerfully good at holding a grudge, was James Joseph Ellison. But the child might need help, and if he was a sentinel - that was Blair's area of expertise. He still had all his old notes, and quite a lot of disks. Nothing on any computer that connected to the Internet, though. He kept his laptop purely for word processing these days, did some of his web surfing on public terminals at the library. Too little, too late? Except that he didn't know. Nobody did.

Three years, two months and a miscellaneous number of days since Jim's truck had been recovered from a swollen river. There'd been flooding all over the state and his body was never found. Some experts had voiced the possibility that the body was washed all the way to the sea. Or else it had been buried in river silt, or trapped under a big rock pushed by the spate, or caught under a snag or...Or else, and Blair told himself that he was being paranoid, somebody had picked their moment so that Jim could disappear without trace. Blair was sickly afraid that his occasional nightmares of Jim frantically struggling in roaring muddy water were a best-case scenario. There were other nightmares that involved Jim alone in small white rooms, strapped to tables, forced to do dreadful things.

Without a body there was no closure, and god, Blair had come to hate that word. He had plenty of closure. He'd been out of Jim's life for two years when Stephen considerately rang him with the news. He didn't ask how Stephen knew where he was. Was it better to assume that Ellison money had paid to track him down, or that Jim had his address written down in the plain-cover index book that lived in a kitchen drawer, but had never used it?

The plane came down through the clouds to the accompaniment of a little gentle bouncing. Stephen was waiting for him at the terminal and they greeted each other with polite constraint. They collected Blair's baggage and headed off to the parking lot and from there drove to a small B&B, apparently within twenty minutes walk of Carolyn's home.

"Dad did offer to pay the cost of a rental car, if you need it."

Blair stared out the window. "He must be really worried about Robbie. I've always assumed that I was about as popular with him as a turd on the carpet."

Stephen winced. "You're underestimating the PR job Jim did with him on your behalf after the press conference." Blair found the idea that Jim had defended him to his father equal parts warming and distressing. "Besides, I don't think that Robbie's that badly off, but Dad's in shock, well, I know I am and I doubt it's any better for you. But you know Dad, when in doubt, throw money at the problem."

Blair had never been particularly friendly with Carolyn, but he was grateful that she was a tough woman. William Ellison trying to buy his way into his newly discovered grandson's life would be formidable.

"What the hell was she thinking? I worked out the dates. What was it, once around the block for old times sake before she left for San Francisco?"

"Something like that, with a little accident with the birth control. And the way she puts it, she felt like such a fool, and didn't want to put Jim under obligation, so she just decided to do it on her own."

"Not to mention that she was leaving Cascade to start a new life. No room for the ex in it," Blair said. "Suppose we should be grateful that she didn't just have an abortion."

"Dad and I were both pretty damn angry when we got that letter, but - it's good to know that there's something left of Jim."

Something infinitely more valuable than a pile of useless documentation that Blair couldn't bear to let go of. But if Robbie was a sentinel, then it wasn't quite so useless. Blair pushed down a sense that Robbie was a second chance to get somehow get things right. Robbie was his own person, not a substitution for his father.

Stephen continued. "Carolyn's taken some time off work. Dad and I are staying nearby, we've met Robbie of course. It's all been kind of strained, big surprise, but he's a nice kid. Has Carolyn's colouring, but his features take after his father."

Blair looked out the window again, seeing nothing.

"And those little health problems?"

"Well, let's just say that they're suggestive. And I guess that Dad has figured out a few things over the years, such as the necessity for even Ellisons to trust somebody. And Carolyn knew about the press conference, and started wondering when stuff started with Robbie. So..."

"I'm the closest thing you have to a resident expert."

Stephen sounded intent. "He's a little boy, Blair, not even eight. Not a project."

Deeply offended, Blair rapped out, "And if you thought that I'd treat him like that, then why the fuck did you ever invite me out here! God, Stephen, not exactly a ringing endorsement here."

Stephen shrugged, his knuckles white where they wrapped around the steering wheel.

"Would you have rather have had Dad say it to you? He would have been a lot more forthright. I told him that I'd do it."

Blair struggled not to give in to the impulse to demand that he be driven straight back to the airport.

"Your father, of all people, knows that I lied at that press conference. I destroyed my reputation for Jim! Where the hell does William fucking Ellison get off thinking that I'm going to use Jim's son as some sort of stepping stone! Oh, but of course, he still wants the sentinel thing to stay the Ellison dirty secret. God, do you know the damage he did to Jim?"

Stephen's voice was stiff. "Probably no more than you did when you walked out on him."

Silence. Then Blair spoke. "I'm sorry. I've got no right to criticise your father. Sorry."

Stephen's voice was still unbending. "It's okay. It's just, you didn't have to see Jim after you left. Not that I saw that much of him. But - he missed you, he missed you a hell of a lot. I can understand that you couldn't hang around the cops anymore. But why leave Cascade as well?"

"I had to."

Stephen took a steep corner with special care. He wasn't the driver that his brother was. "Dad and Jim never - I didn't know the whole story until late in the piece. I think that Jim thought sometimes, when he was in a really shitty mood, that you left to punish him. You know how Jim could be touchy."

Blair blinked back tears. For god's sake, he should be past this by now. But this further example of how Jim always thought the worst hurt. "Yeah, touchy. That was Jim, sometimes."

It was hardly necessary, but Stephen helped carry in Blair's bags, a small gesture. The room at the B&B was pleasant, decorated in greens and browns, with a tiny en suite bathroom. Blair dumped his bags on the tasteful counterpane and tried to pull himself together. Come on, Sandburg, concentrate on the important stuff. He had to be on form. Robbie was Jim and Carolyn's kid, ergo, neither stupid nor insensitive to atmosphere. If he was a sentinel to boot, then Blair knew that he needed to be a lot more emotionally under control. And he had to look and sound like he knew what the hell he was doing if Carolyn was going to trust him as well. A couple of hours to clean up and rest and then Stephen would come to pick him up again. Try not to attack the man's father again, he decided, even if we do all know that he's an asshole.

Blair took a speedy shower and dressed in something a little less rumpled, dragged a comb through his hair and redid its tail at his neck. Then he plugged the laptop into the outlet and settled down to writing some more of a parent's guide to bringing up a sentinel.
***
Carolyn looked good, older, but still possessed of the sharp, poised prettiness that austere work clothes had only emphasised. She was cool but civil. Blair was grateful that she'd greeted him simply with his name. No polite lies about how nice it was to see him again.

"Would you like coffee?" she enquired.

Blair accepted, knowing that jokingly requesting a good stiff drink wouldn't go down well. William Ellison was sitting on a couch, looking through what looked like a photo album. There was a file box on the floor in front of him.

"What about you, Stephen?"

"I'm fine, thanks."

Carolyn directed Blair to a seat and disappeared into the kitchen.

"How was your flight?" asked Ellison senior. His hair was whiter and his face more gaunt than when Blair had seen him last.

"Calm, which is good, it's not as if I'm that happy a flyer, although I tend to be worse in small craft. The bigger commercial planes aren't so bad, although I can't say I cope with turbulence too well..." Will you shut up, his internal auditor demanded.

"Good," William grunted. To Blair's experienced eye, he didn't look like a man in shock. He looked like a man quite in control of himself, and planning on being in control of his surroundings as well. But there was a look of tiredness about him, a suggestion that the air of command was a demand on his resources. He must be over seventy-five, Blair realised.

"Dad, maybe Blair would like to see the pictures." The album was carefully closed and handed across to Blair without a word. Blair opened the book with a constricted throat, determinedly not thinking about Jim looking at baby photos with Naomi.

Carolyn returned with coffee and a plate of cookies. "Hey, home baking," Blair said.

Carolyn smiled. "Courtesy of Mom. She's enjoying reverting to Donna Reed." She sighed, looking over Blair's shoulder. "He was a beautiful baby, but so damn fussy. If Mom hadn't been so good I don't know what I would have done."

Robbie was indeed a beautiful baby, with big blue eyes and a fuzz of gingerish hair. The album showed his growth into a long limbed, good looking little boy, and Blair put the album down carefully away from the food and drink.

"There're more pictures on cd if you want, but we took the nicest to make into an album for Bill to take back to Cascade."

"Yes, you've been very organised," Bill replied dryly.

"He'll be here soon," Carolyn said. "Mom's picking him up from school for me." Not at all the sort of words to sound like a warning, but all three men heard it. `Behave; my son isn't responsible for my actions.'

Shortly, childish noises could be heard, and a small boy burst through the door, followed more sedately by a tall, thin woman with casually immaculate white hair. "Hi Mom, hi Grandad, hi Uncle Stephen, I'm starving and I need $5 'cause we're going on a field trip." He stuttered a little in his enthusiasm over the last comment. When Robbie spotted Blair on the couch, he moved in a little closer to his mother. Yeah, thought Blair, just what he needs, yet another stranger bursting into his world.

"Robbie, this is Blair Sandburg, a friend of Grandad and Uncle Stephen. Put your things away and then you can have something to eat." Robbie eyed Blair, who gave him his very best friendly smile. Robbie tentatively smiled back as Blair tried not to stare. He was going to be so like his father, that dark auburn hair notwithstanding.

Robbie dashed for the living room door, before a brief command, "lunch pail in the kitchen" sent him on a detour. He returned to dash back again, two cookies clutched in one fist and a saucy smile on his face. Caroline scowled. "You know where the dustbuster is." And then he was gone.

The two women had exchanged quick hugs while all this went on. "Mom, this is Blair Sandburg, Blair, this is my mom, Jessie Plummer."

Blair had already stood up, now he came forward to shake hands.

"Mrs Plummer."

She smiled tightly. "It's Ms now, as it happens."

Well, given that he'd thought that Carolyn's parents lived in Cascade, that answered that question. Looked like Carolyn wasn't the only person who'd needed to start a new life.

"And what's your interest in my grandson, Mr Sandburg?"

Some demon prompted Stephen to speak up. "Blair has a background in psychology." Identical expressions of consternation passed over the faces of both Jessie Plummer and Bill Ellison, and Carolyn's eyes rolled. Blair wondered whether Stephen was needling the Plummers or his father, and then smiled as winningly as he knew how.

"It was just some background work in motivation - sports psychology, figuring out how people can be trained to move past discomfort and pain and still achieve. I knew Jim, we were good friends."

The atmosphere cleared a little, and then Jessie said, "I'd better help that boy organise himself. Never saw such a child for focus - when it suits him. He's probably deep into his new gameboy by now."

She cast a look at the Ellison men and excused herself.

"Still shovelling the BS, I see," said Carolyn, casting a quick glare at Stephen, who was sitting apparently impervious to both that and the parental disapproval that Bill was radiating. "For a long time I was pissed at you for dropping Jim in the shit with your lies and now I have to rearrange my head."

Blair shrugged. Whether he told the truth or lies, he had dropped Jim in the shit. "So do I," he said. "Your news was quite the shock."

"Yes, well, we can get down to brass tacks later. I take it you want to do some tests or something at some point."

Jessie put her head around the door. "Carrie, where do you hide your broom and pan? I used too much soda again, according to our boy, and there's a heap of crumbs all over his carpet."

"Hall closet." Carolyn looked at Blair. "It's just little things like that, but they come when he doesn't expect them, and people get exasperated with him. They don't understand why he's making a fuss, and now I've got his teacher suggesting he might have epilepsy because he's had a couple of spells."

Bill Ellison looked up and said heartily, "Jimmy coped with all this. Robbie will, too. I'm sure that we can get it all straightened out."

Yeah, Blair thought. The non-person that you haven't bothered to call by name yet will sweep it all under the carpet for you. Like hell.
***
After careful negotiation, Stephen and William Ellison had left after exacting a promise that all four adults would go out to dinner. Jessie Plummer would visit a nearby friend and return to look after Robbie. And Blair would do a little testing of Robbie's abilities under the watchful eye of his mother.

"Robbie, you know that Mrs Liebowtiz and I are a little worried about the way that you drop out of things sometimes. Blair might be able to help you with that."

Robbie looked nervous. "Are you a doctor?" he asked Blair.

"No, no, Robbie, but I might know why you drop out, why things taste bad to you but not to other people. Is it all right if I ask you a few questions, do a few things with you?"

Robbie looked at his mother. "Mom?"

"Blair wants to help, baby. It's okay."

"I'm not going to do anything that will hurt, Robbie. I'm hoping that some of it might even be fun." Blair smiled. "Or at least, not completely crappy, anyway."

The child still looked a little unsure, and Blair wondered what was going on. But if things like zone-outs had happened at school, then maybe the teacher had said something upsetting, maybe his classmates had teased him.

Blair had brought a small bag with him to the Plummer's house. He took two ping-pong balls out.

"Put your hands behind your back." And that gave Blair a reminiscent shiver. Suddenly he could have sworn that he smelled charred wet wood overlaid with a chemical tang, the pleasant must of earth and trees.

Robbie followed the instructions, and Blair put the balls in his hands, knelt by his side. "Okay, I want you to think about how these feel." Blair kept his voice calm, encouraging. "One of them has some scratches on it. Can you feel them?"

He watched, fascinated, as the little boy rubbed his fingers over the balls. "They both have scratches," Robbie complained. Then his face changed.

"You found them, huh. What do the scratches say? Can you figure that out?"

Robbie smirked. "They say 'Rob'."

"Yeah, that's right. Well done, man."

"Can I keep them?" Robbie asked hopefully.

"Robert James Plummer!" But Blair spoke over Carolyn's wrathful tones, "Yeah, sure. I put your name on one, after all."

Blair took out a piece of paper he'd printed, and stood at the other end of the room.

"You good at reading, Robbie?"

"I'm nearly eight," was the indignant, if slightly exaggerated reply.

"Well then, fire away."

Robbie looked a little doubtful, and so did his mother. But he started.

"The night Max made mischief...hey, that's Wild Things."

"It most certainly is, but I've cheated. All the other sentences are out of order, so you can't guess them from memory. Carry on."

Robbie got them all right. Blair smiled at Carolyn, who was starting to look a little shell-shocked. "Eight point print, at twelve feet. Bet that would surprise your optician."

Blair left Carolyn with Robbie in the living room, with instructions for Robbie to listen, and tell his mother what to write down. Then he quietly read out a selection of titles from the boy's bookcase. Robbie got all of those right as well, and the second time, when his disbelieving mother did the reading out and Blair did the writing. Blair dragged out some samples for taste and smell that he'd put together, and handed Carolyn the little bottles of flavour extracts he'd bought back in Keepston, saying that maybe Jessie or she could use them for baking, before casually mentioning that Robbie was identifying at a ratio of one part per several thousand. Both Blair and Robbie were enjoying themselves by the end. The same could not be said of Carolyn. Blair toned down his jubilation, god, this took him back, but he was still enthusiastic as he said, "So, you see what we're dealing with here?"

Carolyn shook her head. "I see it, but I don't know if I understand it."

"All five senses are hyper. The two main problems are zone-outs and sensory spikes. There're techniques to deal with both of those."

"Yeah, 'cause Dad told me about the dials," said Robbie, and then clapped his hand over his mouth as both Blair and his mother turned to him.

"Dad?" demanded Carolyn, while Blair blurted out, "Dials?"

All of Robbie's enthusiasm melted away. "Ah, crap," he said in complete childish dismay. "I wasn't supposed to say that."

Carolyn sat down and gestured Robbie over to stand between her knees. "Robbie, how could your Dad tell you anything?"

The boy shifted from one foot to another. "When I'm dreaming. Special dreams in the blue place."

Blair sat down hard. His legs gave him no choice in the matter.

Carolyn looked a little reassured. "Dreaming," she said. "It's nice that you dream about your father, but I wouldn't rely on what you find out there, okay."

Robbie looked somewhat mutinous at this piece of maternal advice. "Can I go now, Mom?"

Blair spoke up. "Carolyn, can I ask Robbie something?" Carolyn looked askance at Blair and at her son, who was poised ready to bolt.

"All right."

Except that Blair found that he really didn't know what to ask. The dials concept, the mention of the blue place, left him in no doubt that Robbie was - what? Being guided from beyond the grave by his father? He could see Carolyn joyfully taking on that particular idea. Oh, for sure.

"Does your Dad look happy?" Such a stupid question, redolent of con-artist mediums and fake ectoplasm, but somehow the only one he could think to ask.

The little boy looked down at his sneakers. "He looks kinda worried. But I don't know for sure, I could be wrong, I don't dream about him that much," he said earnestly.

"I see. Okay, thanks Robbie."

"Mom, can I go now?"

Carolyn looked at Blair, taking in his obvious shock. "Sure, honey. Off you go."

When her son had shut the door behind him, Carolyn said, "If I didn't know better, I'd say that you were taking that seriously."

Blair tried to collect himself.

"How much does he know about his father?" he asked.

"Well, I've told him as much as I thought was appropriate, that Jim and I couldn't be together before, that his father was dead. He's seen a couple of old wedding pictures. He hasn't asked why Bill and Stephen haven't seen him before now, but I know that it's coming. He thinks about things, and then he comes out with the damnedest questions. Old soul."

Carolyn stopped, abashed at being caught out in a maternal ramble. Blair took a deep breath, and prepared to completely blow his credibility.

"Carolyn, there's a lot to the sentinel thing. It's hard to judge, Robbie's young, but I'd say that he'll be just as strong as his father was, and Jim, Jim was phenomenal sometimes."

Carolyn's eyebrow was raised. She clearly recognised that Blair was building up to something. "And this phenomenon included dreams, did it?"

"There were times when Jim - saw - things, that he knew things that weren't knowable in a physical sense, even with his senses. Look, if Robbie says that he dreams things, or sees things, just don't dismiss it out of hand. It can be a tough thing, sometimes."

Carolyn stood up. "I don't believe I'm hearing this, Blair. You really think that my ex-husband is turning up in dreams to have cosy chats with his son? Come on. The sentinel thing - well, the level of it is a shock, but, it makes sense at least. But this? You have to be kidding me."

"The dials - it's something I worked out for Jim. It's one hell of a coincidence that Robbie knows it. I know it sounds crazy, but keep an open mind on this. Please. Look, was there any point recently where he was having problems?"

"About a year ago, he was having some trouble at school and home, a little disruptive, a lot cranky. He wasn't sleeping well, he'd tell me that it was too noisy to sleep..." Her face was thoughtful as she mulled over the meaning of that. "Look, Blair, clearly he had trouble with - spikes -," Blair nodded that she had used the term correctly, "but that doesn't mean that he needed any damn mystic guidance to deal with it."

She stopped. And then she blushed.

"You're wondering if he's listening to us," Blair said flatly.

"Yes, yes, I am. Oh my god. Jim and his damn duck waste, and that scene at the restaurant. And you and all those questions. Spousal viewpoint on the thin blue line, my ass."

"Jim was just Jim, Carolyn. And Robbie is still Robbie, just with a few extra features. You've been living with this unconsciously, now you know what's really going on. Like I said, there's ways to deal with everything. He's a bright kid, he'll adapt. So will you."

"You want in on this, don't you?" Carolyn asked.

Blair lowered his head. "He's Jim's son, and he's a sentinel. Of course I'm interested. I'll help any way that I can. But, I'm not sure that I should get too close. I've got my own life, and you'll want to be on good terms with the Ellisons. Having me hanging around probably won't help that."

"I will choose who I associate with, not William Ellison." But she seemed relieved all the same that Blair didn't want to be too involved. All Blair could think was that if Jim could visit his son in dreams, then why couldn't he have done the same for Blair? It was petty, it was jealous. It made him ashamed, but it burned in his gut regardless, in sudden flame.

"Yeah, well, I've got some stuff in writing for you, what I can't finish before I go I'll send to you, how to deal with all this stuff. Even if you don't want to use the sentinel word to the school, you need the information. How about Robbie's doctor? You think he's trustworthy?"

"I doubt he'll call in tv crews," Carolyn said tartly. Blair bit back an angry retort. Carolyn didn't know everything about that. She saw his face, and said, "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. It's just..." He could see her struggling, with words and the realisation of what all this meant for her son. And there was one warning that he couldn't keep back.

"Don't make him feel like a freak over this, Carolyn, please."

She looked offended, and then her face softened slightly. "Little Ellison family history there, huh? He's my son, Blair, of course I want to do right by him."
***
Blair walked back to his accommodation. He needed the break and the activity. Everyone had eventually agreed on Italian food, and Bill had suggested a restaurant a friend had told him came highly recommended. Blair wasn't so sure. It sounded expensive, but Bill jovially overrode both his and Carolyn's objections, said that treating them to a good meal was no hardship. Blair didn't doubt that, and dragged on his decent pants, a plain white shirt and a jacket, with forebodings about the evening. Everyone was maintaining courtesy, but that didn't make the undercurrents any less dangerous.

Carolyn picked him up punctually and they drove to La Bella in quiet. Bill and Stephen Ellison were already seated, and menus and drinks were organised with dispatch.

"So, how did it all go?" Bill asked.

"Your grandson is a very talented young man, Mr Ellison," Blair replied. "Takes after his father."

"I see," said Ellison snr, his eyes flicking between Blair and Carolyn. "I take it that you're going to be discreet about how you handle this?" He addressed himself to Carolyn, but his gaze kept turning to Blair, who found that off and on regard was distracting him from deciding on his entree.

"I think that you can rely on my wanting my son to have as normal a life as possible." Carolyn's head was up, her face set in determined civility.

"It's not always as easy as that. People aren't always forgiving of anything that doesn't fit their ideas of normal."

"And what's normal?" Blair interjected. He wondered if Bill Ellison had assumed that corralling everyone in a public place would prevent scenes. He might not be a number one sensitive man, but he was astute enough.

Bill's eyes took in Blair's appearance, his long hair, a pewter ring that Naomi had given him prominent on his index finger. "True enough that the definition of `normal' might have broadened since I was young. But people still have to fit in, especially if they're going to get anywhere in life."

Carolyn's pale skin showed a flush well. "I don't think that you need to worry about my son's future. Robbie will get all the assistance and care he needs, I can promise you that."

By this point, the waitress had returned. Conversation was forcibly turned to what looked good on the menu, with Carolyn and Blair both choosing smaller, cheaper options for their mains as well, despite claims from Bill that he'd be offended if they didn't eat well. When it was just the four of them again, Bill resumed the attack.

"I don't in any way want to imply that you haven't done a wonderful job with Robbie. But now that I know about him, I can't help but want the best for him. And I know the pitfalls associated with bringing up a child who's different to other kids."

Blair kept back angry words about the pitfalls of being brought up by a father who cared more about appearances than his children. It was, he knew, not completely fair. William Ellison had meant well by his children, even if his techniques were ham-fisted. And Robbie was Carolyn's son, and she was quite capable of looking after herself.

"Look Bill, things have changed. And San Francisco's a cosmopolitan place. Robbie hasn't suffered for not having a father. There's plenty of children at his school with no father around, no mother around -"

"Or with two mothers or two fathers," put in Blair, unable to resist comment.

Bill's mouth pursed a little. "Why am I not surprised that you'd remind me about that little modern wrinkle?" Blair blinked.

"It's a different world these days," said Carolyn. "There's a child in a wheelchair at Robbie's school, another child with autism. In those circumstances I think that we can gloss over his gifts well enough for everybody around him to cope without making him the town freak."

Bill looked frustrated. "Those `gifts' of his can get your boy into trouble. There's every chance of him seeing, discovering things that just aren't appropriate for him."

"It's called growing up. Robbie and I will cope."

Blair was considerably relieved when Bill swallowed whatever he'd been about to say then, and called the wine waiter over. There was a lively discussion that went over Blair's head before a couple of bottles were decided upon. Stephen fairly obviously used the wine choices to steer the conversation into the wine industry of Napa Valley, and his plans to do one of the combination sightseeing/wine tours. That conversation lasted until the arrival of the first course.

"Carolyn, at the risk of you thinking that I'm a senile old fool..."

Stephen cut in. "Oh for god's sakes, Dad, not the conspiracy crap."

Bill quelled his son with a hand gesture that painfully reminded Blair of Jim. Between that and an unpleasant presentiment of what the old man was leading up to, Blair could feel his heart speeding up.

"Have you ever considered that maybe Jim didn't drown in that river? There are always people, inside and outside of government, looking for an advantage. It's human nature. And what Robbie can do, what Jim could do, that's one hell of an advantage for a lot of business, whether it's legal or not."

Carolyn looked disturbed. Whether she saw his point of view, or merely shared Stephen's obvious embarrassment, Blair couldn't tell.

"You think I'm a grieving old fool, hoping that his boy isn't dead. Well, I'll tell you; in some ways I hope that he is dead. And if you think that it's all such a stupid idea, you ask yourself why he," and Bill Ellison's fork stabbed across the immaculate napery of the table towards Blair, "went to so much trouble to make himself out a liar after his mother leaked his paper."

The tablecloth became less immaculate as the forkful of Blair's food, which had been hovering above the plate, fell out of his suddenly nerveless hand. There was contempt in Bill's voice, but mainly it seemed aimed at Naomi. It seemed Bill Ellison had received a careful catechism from his elder son.

"Shit!" Blair exclaimed. He made a great show of wiping and covering the stain with his napkin, artlessly apologised for his language, and then looked across the table at William Ellison's face and prepared himself for some determined evasion.

"Oh, I'll give you your due. I know how you two felt about each other - always did look at my son as if he'd hung the moon. Took me a while, but I've come to accept it." His tone suggested an act of tremendous magnanimity.

Blair's tight guard on his reactions, and his jaw, very nearly dropped in the shock of this conversation. Bill Ellison couldn't mean what it sounded like he meant.

"So I appreciate that you were looking to protect Jimmy as much as yourself - but I'm guessing that Rainier's anthropological wunderkind had particular reasons for that damn press conference."

Blair had been bracing himself for Daddy Ellison's anger ever since he walked into Carolyn's home. It was just as well he'd been braced, because he was completely unprepared for the slightly uncomfortable, cagey compassion being offered from across the table.

"Mr Ellison, there was that little matter of Klaus Zeller. Your son, hell, the whole Cascade PD couldn't do their job because of the media circus. It was my fault, my mess, my cleanup."

Bill Ellison's expression was almost amused. Blair had seen that `you can't fool me' look on Jim's face more than once.

"Son, I might have believed that up to a point, but it's five years later and you never made any attempt to salvage your professional reputation. You lied about being a liar and you stuck to it." Grim amusement did break through at that. "You're still working in Nowheresville, and I'll bet that nary a whisper of sentinels, or anthropology for that matter, has passed your lips."

"It was well and truly time for a new direction in my life. Old school academia can be a little constricting, even when you enjoy your subject. I like what I do now."

"I did a little digging on you, right after that mess with those Foster madmen. Read a couple of articles that you had published in journals, as far as I could without having a five-volume dictionary by my elbow. There was a lot of intellect, a lot of ambition, in those articles." Blair swallowed his irritation that Bill Ellison had him investigated. That didn't surprise him in the least.

"It's like I said. Cleaning up the Zeller mess was a catalyst to changing my life direction," Blair said doggedly. He wasn't going to admit to anything, not least because agreeing with the possibility raised by Jim's father meant admitting to the utter futility of it all. Blair wasn't going to confess that he'd maybe pointlessly thrown away career and home and love, not to anyone, and especially not to this man, who clearly had his own ideas as to exactly what sort of love Blair had thrown away. Well, he thought, I was Jim's lover. For about half an hour tops, one week before I was out of his life for good.

Carolyn weighed in. "Even if there was something in what you say, what do you suggest? Robbie's just a little boy, hardly up to cloak and dagger. Much better to try not to make too big a deal of it, fudge it all."

Bill Ellison opened his mouth again, but Stephen put his hand on his father's arm. "Dad, come on. Please."

"You need to think about these things," was Bill's parting shot, before he returned to his meal. He attacked his food with considerable zeal, but Blair noticed that the plate didn't seem to get any cleaner. The meal limped along, the conversation occasionally reviving in banalities, but nobody was in a mood for anything more than coffee for afters. Carolyn made her excuses, and Blair pointed out that it wasn't out of Carolyn's way to drop him off. The two of them gratefully made their escape.

Carolyn took a deep breath once they were out on the street. "What a lovely evening," she declared.

"Amen to that," Blair said fervently.

"Thank god they're going back soon. Although, I guess I'll have to get used to regular appearances from now on. Jesus."

"Give them time. It's been a shock."

"Hasn't stopped William Ellison the Great from trying to shoehorn his way in. "I don't want in any way to imply that you haven't done a wonderful job with Robbie'," she mimicked. "Just as well times are different, or he'd be charging to his lawyers to try and get custody."

They both got into the car. A fine drizzle had started, and the gentle thump of the wipers punctuated the car's move into traffic. Carolyn wasn't finished yet.

"And I don't know how you kept from spitting in his face during that nonsense about Jim. Give you your due indeed!"

Blair shrugged. "Frankly, that was a lot easier than I anticipated. I half expected to be reamed out for leading his boy off the straight and narrow, never mind the press conference." Blair meant that his efforts to help Jim with his sentinel abilities would have offended his father, and he was only half aware that his comment could be taken another way. He was briefly struck dumb as his mind processed what Carolyn said next.

"Well, that was a surprise to anyone who knew Jim. It was a really weird mixture of relief and shock when I finally came to grips with it."

After keeping his countenance in front of William Ellison, this was too much. A noise erupted out of him that was halfway between a cough and a giggle, and he put a hand up to his mouth to stifle it. When he could trust his voice he said, "Whoa! Carolyn, Jim and I weren't lovers."

Carolyn sounded exasperated. "Well, of course, now I know about the sentinel thing, but you two gave an excellent impression of significant otherness, even before I left Cascade. You lived with him for four years."

"While dating women galore! Hell, I was his fucking room-mate!"

Carolyn's voice was dry. "As opposed to his fuck buddy? Damn, Blair, now I have to figure out what went wrong with my marriage all over again."

"I can't - I'm speechless. I really am." And then, after a minute, "God."

Carolyn sounded embarrassed. "Hey, I'm sorry. But it just seemed to fit a lot of the available facts, you know?"

They drove on in silence. Blair knew that rumours about exactly why Ellison put up with the long -haired freak charged into the weird and lurid right from the beginning, especially around the police department. He'd accepted that as a natural hazard of his own appearance to conservative cop culture, and the circumstances of the sentinel study. But that was quite different to coming to grips with the idea that these people, close to Jim in their ways, all thought that the two of them were a couple. Then, just before they reached the B&B, Carolyn said, "I was watching you when Bill was telling us about his little idea. You don't think that it's so stupid, do you?"

Blair sighed. In the night-time cocoon of the car interior he could make at least a small confession. "I don't know. It sounds so dumb, but I just don't know. And I'm not likely to find out, am I?" They had pulled up to the kerb.

"It puts a different slant again on what I need to do about Robbie, though." Carolyn shook her head. "He's just a little boy, god damn it."

"Carolyn. We can't know. We just do what seems best at the time and hope. You know what I mean? Look. If you need to talk about any of this stuff, I can be available somehow. We'll work out something."

"Secret code rings?" she suggested humourlessly.

Blair grinned. "If need be. Thanks for the lift. I'll call you tomorrow."

He was inside and heading for the stairs when the manager of the B&B, a pleasant looking woman in her fifties called out, "Oh, Mr Sandburg, somebody left this for you." She handed him an envelope. Blair took it distractedly and then froze as he looked at the writing. He knew that square, precise script; he'd seen it on police paper work, and domestic notes and shopping lists for four years.

"Who dropped this off? How long ago?" he demanded, but then he didn't even wait for an answer. He tore out the door and ran onto the dark, wet street, looking up and down for any sign of a tall, long-legged man. Nothing. He scanned the cars parked in the street, but he didn't see anybody. He wished fruitlessly for sentinel vision, although even that couldn't find what wasn't there.

The manager came out to him.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"I'm fine," he muttered, still hunting up and down the street.

"Well, if you don't mind me saying so, you went as white as a sheet."

"Really, I'm fine," Blair said. "Who left this? A tall man, mid-forties maybe?"

"I don't know. I just found it on the desk, and passed it on to you."

"Okay, um, thanks."

She returned inside. With shaking hands Blair opened the envelope, cheap chain store stationery. Inside was one sheet of flimsy notepaper. He read it by streetlight. 'Chief, I know you mean well, but stay away from him.' There was no signature or initial.

"Oh my god, oh my god." His head was hollow, buzzing. Conversely his chest and guts felt as heavy as lead. He waited to see if he was about to faint or throw up. When he didn't do either, he turned and headed back inside. The manager said, "Are you sure you're okay? We have a very good doctor."

Blair shook his head. "No, no, I just had - had a surprise."

"Would you like me to call your frien -"

"NO! No, sorry, didn't mean to shout, I'll just go to my room. Thanks. Really." He stumbled up the stairs with the paper clutched in his fist, and threw himself on the bed, reciting a litany of disbelieving curses. Jim wasn't dead. He wasn't dead. He was alive. And the first and so far only communication that he'd chosen to make with Blair was a command to stay away from Jim's son.

He sat up and put the note on the nightstand, tried to smooth out the crinkles he'd put in it. He was only partly successful. Then he stared at it, tried to decipher it. It couldn't mean what it said - 'stay away from him'. But in the end he couldn't see any other meaning to it. Jim had given him this offhand, mistrustful warning. He had a moment's hysterical fantasy of wooing and marrying Carolyn, being Robbie's stepfather. Ha! Take that, Ellison!

But if Jim couldn't see Blair, if he'd just given him this unequivocal piece of paper, then he had to have his reasons. Couldn't see Blair, or didn't want to see Blair? Neither was good. Couldn't or didn't? The two options danced around Blair's mind in a crazy, ugly two-step. He shrugged off his jacket and dropped it beside the bed, before falling into a fitful sleep.
***
Blair had always cheerfully acknowledged the obsessional elements in his character. Overall in his life, they'd worked for him rather than against him, providing direction and focus. But really, the way that his life had revolved around Jim Ellison for the best part of a decade probably wasn't healthy. Maybe he should get some help.

He'd been home about six weeks. Six weeks of settling back into the mixture of teaching and admin that was work. Six weeks of seeing people at work, but nowhere else. He'd let Celia down, he knew, but he couldn't face her. He kept the note that Jim had written in his wallet. It might tell him that he wasn't required, but as proof that Jim was alive it was curiously sacred to Blair, in the way of a sacrificial knife laid beside the corpse of its victim.

There was a knock at the door. The Jehovah's Witnesses were apparently on the prowl in Argos, ten miles down the interstate, and Blair wondered if they'd moved on to Keepston. He was so not in the mood. He went to the door fully prepared to be as rude as hell. When he saw who was standing there, he had to reach out to the doorjamb for support. It was Jim.

The two of them stood there. Blair was vaguely aware that his mouth was gaping, that he must look like a moron. He couldn't move, couldn't say a word.

"So, can I come inside?" Jim asked. His expression was dour, ungiving. What was he doing here?

Blair dragged his jaw up. 'God, yes, sorry, yes, of course, come in."

Jim stepped into Blair's small living room. Jim's eyes flicked over the clutter; books and papers spread over the desk and coffee table, the dirty plate and mug from Blair's supper, the laundry piled into an armchair to wait on folding and sorting.

"I see some things don't change."

Blair took a deep breath. He was still leaning a hand against the doorjamb.

"You came here to comment on my housekeeping?"

Jim seemed to finally notice the state that Blair was in. "No. Jeez, sit down. You look like you're going to faint." Blair pushed off from the door, hoping that he'd have enough momentum to make it to the couch. Once there, he dropped into it, and looked up at Jim, who was standing as stiffly as a soldier on report.

"I...Jim, what the hell are you doing here? Where have you been?"

Five years since he'd seen this man. Jim's hair was very short again, and mainly grey. Blair couldn't get over that. Jim was grey. He was notably more lined than five years ago, lines of strain and distress, not just maturity. He was thinner, perhaps, but still powerful looking, impressive. If he'd been a stranger, Blair would have given him a surreptitiously thorough look. But he wasn't a stranger. It was Jim Ellison, here, in the middle of Blair's living room, looking like he was already regretting whatever impulse had brought him there.

Blair stood up. Hospitality, something to get Jim sitting down. “Can I get you anything? Coffee?"

"Coffee would be fine."

"Sit down. Sit down, Jim."

He hurried into his little kitchen, and with fumbling hands poured a glass of ice water out of the fridge and gulped it down. He speedily started coffee, and then turned to the door, frightened that if he looked out, that Jim wouldn't be there any longer. But he was.

"You still take your coffee the same?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

Blair brought out two mugs. Jim had shifted the laundry from the single armchair to one corner of the couch, and was sitting down. Blair handed him the coffee, hoping for a touch of fingers that was studiously avoided by Jim, and then sat on the couch.

"So...this is, uh, quite a surprise."

Jim sipped his coffee. "Yeah, I can imagine. But I felt that I owed you an explanation, after San Francisco."

Blair stared. "You didn't think that I'd just want to see you? God, everyone thinks you're dead."

"That was their intention. I've been - free, I guess - for about six months. Me and another two guys, we dealt with some of our situation, but we're all pretty underground, and not likely to do much surfacing."

"Underground?" Blair asked.

"Fake ID. I'm still Jim, just not Ellison. Recently downsized from my job, but with some redundancy settlement. I'm thinking about retraining. But I don't think I'll be going into any sort of work where you need a thorough background check."

"Are they still looking for you?"

"Maybe, the ones who are still alive. As joint government-private sector investments go, we went pretty sour on them." Jim drank. "This is good coffee."

Blair held on to the hot coffee in his hands like it was his sanity. Jim thought the coffee was good. But he didn't have a bag with him. This was just a flying visit. And he was yet to call Blair by any name. But at least he seemed inclined to talk. Blair would keep him talking, keep Jim here. If need be, he'd get out the staple gun he'd bought when he'd put up his rough and ready bookcases, and he would attach them flesh to flesh.

"Who's we?"

"Some guys. Good guys."

"Sentinel type guys?"

Jim shrugged and smiled unpleasantly. "Hey, this is top-secret stuff. I can't go around telling secrets." He made 'secrets' sound like the filthiest word imaginable.

Blair's spurious calm cracked a little. "Oh, Jim, what the fuck did they do to you?"

Jim's face gentled. "Hey, it's okay. But I can't - there are other people at stake here, you know? I shouldn't even be here. They were watching you for a while. I saw some of the files, after."

Blair stood up, began to pace. "God, so it was all for nothing."

"Yep. Waste of a promising career there."

Blair spun around, unable to believe his ears. He drew in his breath, and he yelled. Yelled out the shock and the anger and the sorrow.

"You prick bastard! You think that I've been grieving for my fucking career all this time! You think I wake up in the morning and think 'gee, I should still be an anthropologist'! God, I do not believe you. Fuck!"

He wanted to storm out with dramatic door slamming, maybe a bit of fist shaking, a little furniture breakage. Punching Jim good and hard in the guts would be fun, but a complete fantasy. But if he left, he knew that Jim would be gone when got back and he would never see him again. He stood by his shabby green couch, and he shook uncontrollably. He hugged his arms around himself, but nothing could hide it.

Jim had stood up as well. "Sandburg." Blair's name came out his mouth uncertainly. "I'm sorry. But thinking well of people - it hasn't been a survival skill the last few years. They were watching you, for all I know somebody might still be watching you. And that was why I don't want you to have anything to do with Robbie and Carolyn. I can't take that risk, you can't take that risk." Jim's voice was quiet, and even in his desperate distress, Blair loved that voice.

"It killed me to leave you, it really did," he told Jim, even as he kept his eyes on the floor. "And it was for nothing."

Jim came forward a few steps. "If it helps, I think that you confused them for a while. I think they would have picked me up sooner if not for the press conference. It never just was your stuff, I promise. Brackett talked to whomever he thought would listen. He's dead now." Jim's voice was grimly satisfied.

Blair took in all these painful hints about what had happened in the last three years. Eventually he took a deep breath, blew it out. Jim still kept his distance, poised like a nervous animal. Blair hurt, but he wasn't ready to say good-bye yet.

"I'd better make up the spare-room bed for you," he pronounced, as if it was an absolute given that Jim would stay the night. "Did you drive here? How about you bring your stuff inside? You eaten yet?"

And this was it. Bulldoze the bastard, and see if he'd lie down and take it, or instead flatten Blair on his way to the door.

"Uh, no, I haven't eaten."

"That's fine. I just had a sandwich earlier, I could eat. You get your things, and I'll organise."

Jim went out and Blair went to the kitchen and stood tensely until the sound of Jim coming back in relaxed him enough to actually start cooking. That pasta sauce macaroni bake, it was about all he had the ingredients for, but he could get some vegetables and stuff tomorrow. Tomorrow was Saturday - plenty of time.
***
Blair knew that 'didn't want to' was winning out over 'couldn't', when it came to why Jim had waited six months to contact him. Jim had changed, had experienced things that he couldn't or didn't want to discuss with Blair. Despite Jim's assurances, Blair knew that if his bright little ideas about sentinels hadn't reached the public arena Jim might have lived in as much peace and quiet possible to a man with his particular combinations of responsibility and recklessness. And Blair had lived, unchanging and static, like Snow White in a glass coffin, whistling the occasional snatch of 'Someday my prince will come'. The prince was here, definitely not as drawn by Disney, and had barely been convinced to stay the night, let alone kiss anybody. Blair turned in his bed, the sheets rumpled and uncomfortable. Experimentally he said, "Hey, Jim, you awake?" When nobody appeared to wearily ask 'what, Sandburg?' he could tell himself that Jim was asleep.

He dozed, before waking to incoherent shouts coming through the thin walls. He leaped out of bed and ran to the door of Jim's room. "Jim, Jim," he called, "it's all right, hey wake up, come on."

Jim quietened a little, but still tossed restlessly on the bed. Then he stared, shouting again, "Luis, Christ, no, Luis!" Blair knew that he was risking a black eye or worse, but he couldn't stand there any longer. He approached the bed as cautiously as he could, talking all the while. Jim quietened again, and Blair gingerly sat on the edge of the bed. Whether it was his weight or simply the natural progression of the nightmare, Jim started violently and sat up.

"What the fuck are you doing here?"

Stung, Blair snapped, "Radio Ellison was broadcasting at top volume. You were having one hell of a nightmare."

Jim rubbed his face. "Sorry."

"You need anything? A drink?"

"I'm fine. Go back to bed."

Blair knew that trying to take advantage of Jim in the aftermath of his nightmare was unfair. He didn't care.

"Who's Luis?"

"What?"

"You were calling out to somebody called Luis?"

"I worked with Luis, sometimes. He helped me with the senses."

Jealous fury flicked lightning-like through Blair. He helped Jim with his senses, not some acronymed bastard in a suit. You used to help Jim with his senses, the sensible part of him retorted. Five years is a long time.

"Come on, Sandburg, don't look like you just found your best girl in bed with your best friend." Jim's voice was hard. "Besides, you should be grateful. If I hadn't proved that I could work with other people, they would have brought you in too."

Blair thought that might have been preferable to three years of uncertainty and grief that were now being topped off with an awkward visit from a bitter stranger. At least that way he would have taken his due share of consequences.

"Never let it be said that I don't know how to be grateful. Guess I'd better get back to bed." He got up to go, and then turned at the door. "Jim, you won't just disappear into the night? If you're going to go, you'll say good-bye first." He tried his very best to make it an undisputed statement. There was silence from the dark figure still sitting upright in the bed. "Jim."

"No sneaking off. Check."

Blair went back to bed, but his sleep remained disturbed. He remembered Jim as a man who held to his word, but he didn't trust him to not leave despite the grudgingly given assurance. But when he got up in the morning, Jim was still asleep in bed, his back to Blair. Blair watched him, studied the line of t-shirt clad shoulders and back. He was painfully aware that one part of him, the stupid part, thought that it would be incredibly right to just climb into that bed and spoon up against Jim. He wouldn't care, a little voice whispered, after all, who initiated the sex that one time? Five years, he told himself. Get a grip. He moved away from the door and headed for the kitchen

Blair put on some coffee, got out everything he'd need for breakfast. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Jim said "Good morning."

Jim didn't smile, but his eyes crinkled. "A little jumpy there, Sandburg?"

"I'm not used to company in the mornings."

"Still loving them and leaving them at their place, huh?"

"Something like that. Eggs?"

"Be good."

"Fine. Shoo. There's no room in here for two people."

Blair was stirring the eggs into the pan when Jim reappeared at the kitchen entrance with a large envelope in his hand. He looked furious, and scary.

"What is this?" It was the flat-toned voice of a man who was offering a choice between answering questions or being efficiently disembowelled. Blair recognised the envelope. It was the last of the notes he had organised for Carolyn. He'd finished them last night with the intention of posting them this morning. Except that he'd been distracted last night, and he was in big trouble right now.

"It's..." he started to say.

"I thought I made it very clear to you that you were to have nothing to do with them." Jim tossed the envelope onto the countertop and moved into the kitchen, as steady and menacing as the panther he had told Blair about so long ago. Blair was left backed up against the sink, thinking that the old proverb about being careful what you wished for because you might get it was being proved nastily correct once more. He'd wanted Jim to lose the constraint about coming near him. Jim's hands dug hard into Blair's upper arms, and Blair thought miserably that this was not what he had in mind.

"Hell, Jim, I did what you wanted. I exited San Francisco with my tail between my legs like a good boy. But Carolyn needed some help. If she has information she can make appropriate judgements about how much to tell Robbie's doctor and his teachers - "

"Tell?" Jim ground out. "Tell? What the fuck do you two think you're doing? Jesus, what do you think you're doing?" He shook Blair hard.

"Damn it, let go of me!"

"You can't tell people about him!" Jim let go of Blair and stormed into the living room. Blair followed him, as Jim spun around to face him once more. "If people know about him...Fuck, do you want what happened to me to happen to him?"

Blair tried to talk calmly.

"Jim, what do you suggest? He's coming on line, way on line, and he's just a kid. What would you prefer? That Carolyn tell him that it's all in his head and we all just hope that he represses it for the next twenty-five years or so? She's not going public with him, just having a few quiet words with people. She's not stupid, she'll probably tell a few white lies here and there."

Jim put his head in his hands, clearly only half listening. "Christ, hell of a time to find out how much I've got in common with my old man. But..."

Blair was torn. If Jim was right, then Robbie was in danger. But Jim had escaped from whoever took him, claimed to have dealt with them. Unless, they'd let him go. He shook his head. He could go crazy trying to work it out.

"Jim, he's just a kid. I mean, maybe they were so interested in you because you had a - a proven record in the sort of work they wanted done?"

Jim's head shot up and he pinned Blair with a harsh gaze. "That a subtle way of saying that they knew that I could kill people, Sandburg?" Blair had heard that silky, insinuating voice before, usually used on perps that Jim had found particularly contemptible.

He shrugged. Barring accusing Jim of being outright paranoid, he could see no way that this conversation could go any more badly. "If you like. Look, could I be under surveillance? You implied that whoever took you was out of business now. I mean, what the hell is Carolyn supposed to do? Go into hiding?"

"Nobody's watched you recently. And there's no evidence of any surveillance devices around here." Jim's tone was reluctant.

"And you'd know that how?" But of course, Blair knew how.

Jim's grin was twisted. "I'm a trained man. I checked this place out while you made dinner last night. And I was watching you for two weeks before I knocked on that door."

"Two weeks!" Blair squawked. And then, at the same time as Jim's head tilted up a little, "Oh shit, the stove."

The eggs weren't salvageable, but he had some hope for the pan. The high tension of their argument was lost in the bathos of scraping and trashing the food, and sprinkling salt over the pan. Jim stood in the doorway and suggested uncomfortably. "I hate to say this, but I'm not coping with the smell. Is that diner on Washington any good? My treat."

"Yeah, why not," Blair said. Perhaps it was better if they got out of the house. "Walk there? Ecologically sound, and you'll need something to work off the cholesterol I presume you're planning on."

Jim looked mildly offended. "I was planning on checking whether they offered granola and a fruit cup."

"You're shitting me."

"Yeah."

There was some speedy showering and shaving rather than the lazy, and intimate, morning Blair had hoped for. The sky was overcast, but there was no immediate threat of rain. Blair kept up a mock tour-guide's patter all the way along their walk, pointing out such points of Keepston interest as the house where they had regular brawls on a Saturday night, and the park gifted and planted with oaks by one of the town fathers. He was, he thought, an idiot, but there was so much pleasure in simply horsing around while walking down the street with Jim. Never mind that there was every chance that after breakfast that Jim would drive away never to be seen again. Never mind that...He took the conversation back to serious matters.

"You were watching me for two weeks?"

Jim shrugged, and then looked a little shamefaced. "Precautions. And I was working up my nerve. It's been a long time, and maybe I could've done things better in San Francisco. But, jeez, I'm still getting my head around the idea that I have a kid. I dreamed about him, wondered if I was going crazy. But it was a soothing sort of crazy, so I didn't fight it."

"They didn't know?"

"I don't think so. It's not like Carolyn and I had a lot to do with each other after the divorce..."

"Except for that one time," Blair interjected.

"Well, I'd say that was stupid, except that Robbie came out of it. She registered him as father unknown, and I pity any clerk who looked at her the wrong way. So, no, I don't think anyone knew. And they're not going to, either," Jim said.

"Jim..."

"I don't want to hear it, Sandburg. Maybe I'm paranoid about this. Maybe I really am, but I don't give a damn."

"Your father and Stephen are involved now, as well. You don't think that your Dad isn't going to boast about his grandson at the country club?" And then Blair thought of William Ellison's well-justified suspicion about his son's fate, and wondered again. The prospect of Robbie being yet another Ellison family secret unutterably depressed him. "Look, either they're watching your family and friends, or they're not. If they are, then if they don't know about Robbie then they could still find out, whether you or I are there or not. Yes, there's a risk, but don't you think that your family would be glad to see you again? That Robbie would like to see his dad in more than the occasional dream? Where you're no doubt giving good advice about keeping his abilities under wraps." Blair found that he wasn't hungry. This was crazy. He couldn't walk into a diner and have a sanely normal breakfast with Jim.

"Damn. He remembers that stuff. And he told you."

"He's seven, Jim. It just sort of slipped out of him."

"Because you were there, talking about the senses, putting it all in his head." Jim paused and Blair prepared himself for a further blast from Jim in the new role of protective father. "If you're so damn eager to take chances and risks, then maybe you should have done that five years ago instead of fucking off and leaving me!"

That unexpected dose of venom bit hard at Blair's most vulnerable spot. Scalding heat ran through his body like a flash flood down a dry riverbed. He knew his face must be scarlet. "So now we get down to it. What, a week of barely talking to me before I could get out from under wasn't enough? You have to come back so that you can - can - upbraid me for what happened five years ago, and, Jesus, I know I made mistakes, but I never, never intended any harm by anything I did. I wanted to help you, protect you, and yeah, I wanted to help my career in the beginning as well, and yeah, I'm a big fat failure at it all!" God, he was roaring all this bile out at Jim, and it was early Saturday morning and quiet, but not that quiet. Passers-by were staring at them; a couple of people were looking out their windows. Jim was pale, his face stiff with surprise, and Blair presumed, his own anger. He lowered his voice with an effort, but without the shouted force of air behind it, it betrayed him by breaking. "I'll stay away from your precious family. Happy now? At least I know how come I never got invited to any blue place dreams, huh?" And he turned and, legs locked to keep him upright, walked back the way they'd come.

He got about half a block before he turned and looked back. He couldn't see Jim. So, that was it, he thought. He went and sat in the park for a while, to give Jim a chance to retrieve his belongings from Blair's home. Maybe he wouldn't bother. Maybe he'd just take himself and his new identity and leave. A holdall with a change of clothes was easily replaceable.

When he got home he saw that Jim's nondescript sedan was still parked outside. Doesn't mean a thing, Blair told himself. He unlocked his door with shaking hands, kicked it open, and kicked it closed. The burnt smell of the aborted breakfast lingered in the air. Can't go home again, can't go home...because this tiny rented house, with its second-hand and makeshift furniture certainly wasn't home.

He headed for the spare room, where Jim's bag still sat packed and neat by the dresser. He picked it up and then dropped it again. It was one more thing that Jim would have to lose because Blair Sandburg couldn't keep ideas and opinions to himself, just blundered on yelling `look what I've found!' `hey, know what I think?' as oblivious to end results as Curie was to the dangers of radium. In complete misery, he got into the bed, shoes and all, lay between Jim's sheets and tried to tell himself that he could feel some trace of body heat left there, that he could smell something more than clean sheets. His face flamed again as he remembered his accusation to Jim about his dreams, and he rubbed his cheek along the bedding trying to find a spot to cool his skin. Of all the things he could have said, he couldn't imagine anything more pathetically revealing or humiliating.

He lay quietly, pulling the covers practically up to his nose and then almost unaware dropped off to sleep. He woke up perhaps an hour or two later. Jim's bag still sat by the dresser. Blair looked at it balefully - Macbeth endured Banquo's ghost at the feast, Blair clearly was going to have to deal with the bag in the spare room. But not now. Still a little foggy, he decided that a drink of water and some food and coffee were all good ideas. Maybe he could pretend that last night and this morning, hell, the last six weeks or so, had never happened. He stepped out into the living room, rubbing at his eyes, and stopped short.

Jim was sitting in the armchair, one elbow leaning on its arm, his hand propping up his chin. Well, of course. Blair had made him promise not to sneak away. He stood up as Blair came into the room.

"Hey. I thought I'd let you sleep. Guess you needed it." Blair blushed, yet again. Between the scene on the main street, and being caught fast asleep in Jim's presumed deserted bed, he couldn't have proclaimed his feelings any more clearly than if he'd spray-painted ‘Blair 4 Jim 4 eva’ across his wall. It didn't help that Jim was clearly as uncomfortable as he was. Pity for the poor lovesick fool most likely. Blair affected a briskly indifferent, completely false, manner.

"I don't know about you, but I still haven't had any breakfast. Toast and coffee?"

"Blair..."

He turned for the kitchen and said back over his shoulder, "No, man, it's all right. We'll get you fed and you can be on your way, no harm, no foul. It's cool."

"God damn it!" Jim's hand closed around Blair's biceps, and Blair had a moment's startled deja vu. Jim's face was openly distressed, the mask of don't-care cynicism completely gone.

"I don't know why I could dream about Robbie and not you. You think that I wouldn't have wanted that? Why the hell do you think I'm here, if it wasn't because missing you made me nuts, and thinking about you in the middle of all the crap they made me do kept me sane. It's not cool, it's not fucking cool at all!"

Blair slowly put his right hand up over the fingers that Jim had around his arm, as if gentling a nervous animal. Jim looked at his hand on Blair's arm as if he didn't know what it was, and then it was Jim's face that flushed. "Hey," Blair said. "Come on, it's okay, you can let go now, Jim."

Jim's grip loosened, and Blair curled his hand around Jim's and lowered it. They stood there, hand in hand. Jim's head hung low, turned away to look anywhere but at Blair, but he didn't withdraw his hand. Blair suspected that Jim was hardly even aware of it. He was. He held Jim's big, fine-boned hand and tried to impress every detail of it into his memory.

"I shouldn't have done this," Jim said dully. "Knew it would be no good."

"Come on," Blair coaxed again, "come and sit down. Come on, man."

Jim was talking, and Blair didn't know why his defences were so thoroughly collapsed, but they were.

"I didn't mean to even check on Caro and Robbie, I was in San Francisco for - for something else, and when I saw you coming out of her house I just - Jesus, if they ever knew, maybe they won't, but they knew that you and I hadn't seen each other for years, they just held Dad and Stephen over my head, but you and Robbie...Jesus. They could make me do fucking anything..."

"Jim, it's okay. It's over."

Jim shook his head. "You don't know that. I don't know that." They'd made it to the couch by now. Jim sat hunched on the cushions, Blair crouching down beside him. It wrung his heart to see Jim this upset, but there was a warmth that he hadn't expected to ever feel. Jim's note had been the expression of desperate, and for all Blair knew, perfectly reasonable concern for the safety of people still dear to Jim. Blair's own fears that Jim blamed him for whatever had happened had played him false. What Jim blamed him for now was leaving him alone.

Okay, Blair thought, that one I can fix. Even if he had to go underground with Jim, and he knew that there would be one hell of an argument about that, but Blair was serenely certain that he could win it. He knew that he was messed up, but he was a hell of a lot more emotionally competent right now than James Ellison. No contest.

He hauled himself up onto the couch and put his arms around Jim, leaned his head against Jim's. "Maybe we could go fishing, play catch-up," he said. Jim shook his head. "No, really, man, just a quiet break, I can take cash, not use my real name, very covert." Jim snorted at that, but Blair could feel the shudder go through him. Blair shut his eyes and held on to the damaged man in his arms and indulged a little daydream - Jim up to his hips in a river somewhere, anywhere, fishing reel in hand, his face relaxed and open and enthusiastic. Maybe it couldn't ever happen, but you had to try, right?

"So, this'd just be for a week or so, Sandburg?" Blair grinned like a fool; relief was now the ride at today's emotional funfair. Next attraction - hope.

"Yeah, sure Jim, just a week."