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The Major Crime division of the Cascade Police Department was more than usually chaotic this morning. In the midst of the bullpen sat an island of calm that consisted of one man, Jim Ellison. The star detective of Major Crime - though he would have rejected the label vehemently - was staring at his comms screen with an intensity that left no room for him to be distracted by the noise and bustle around him.

It was a grisly view, not at all alleviated by lighting dimmed by yet another brownout - the third this month, though he'd long ago given up counting such things. He'd been assigned a particularly high profile murder case: the nephew of a city councillor. So far it looked to be a random act of violence, with no motive other than, possibly, theft. Yet something told Jim that there was more to this case than was immediately apparent. It was an instinct honed by experience, and it rarely failed him. Now, if only his gut feeling could provide answers, rather than more questions...

"Jim, can you come to my office, please?" Simon Banks' voice cut across Jim's wandering thoughts and he was out of his chair before he realised that something was out of place.

Usually, such requests were never made in anything less than a mild bellow, but Simon had spoken softly enough that only a Sentinel would be capable of hearing. Furthermore, the captain was still standing by the door, instead of disappearing into his office to await Jim's arrival. Add that to the unnatural politeness of the request - not order - and it all meant one thing: trouble. Big trouble.

"Sir?" He paused at the side of his friend and superior officer.

"Jim, I want you to keep an open mind on what we're about to discuss." Simon put a hand on his arm. "There are some indications that the Lindstrom homicide may be one of a series of killings. I've got an advisor in my office and I want you to listen to what... what this expert has to say." The dark eyes held his for a long moment. "I want your word on it."

The fact that Simon felt it necessary to give this warning, the seriousness of his expression all told Jim that the simple homicide case was likely to turn into a career-breaker, or, if he cracked it, a ticket to a Lieutenant's desk.

"Come on, Simon. You know I'll listen to whatever he has to say." He shrugged, forced a smile to his lips. "Whether I'll act on it is a whole other matter."

"That's what I figured." Banks turned into the office, his bearing like that of a man going to his doom. Jim followed.

The "expert" was a surprise. Short, longhaired, with wide blue eyes and a faint beard shadow on the line of his jaw, he glanced over his shoulder as they entered, then turned away from the shelves of antique legal tomes he'd been studying. He didn't dress like any profiler or psychiatrist Jim had ever met before.

Actually, he dressed like one of the more poverty stricken students Jim was accustomed to seeing hanging around the university. A faded jacket hung to thigh level atop worn jeans and a pair of cheap sneakers that looked ready for the trashcan. As he faced the two men, Jim saw that he was wearing a soft, slightly clinging sweater... and that was when Jim realised why Simon had warned him to be on his best behaviour. His eyes travelled from the wide shoulders and the swell of small, high breasts to the flat belly and noticeable bulge that was accentuated by the well-worn fabric of the jeans.

It wasn't as though Jim had never seen a hermaphrodite before. As a beat cop, he'd had dealings with the occasional herm working the streets as a prostitute, but for the most part the herm community kept to itself and rarely called on the police or any other outside authority. They tended to live in a particular area of town, and things being what they were, most normal people had moved out of the area pretty quickly, once the herms started moving in.

"Jim, I'd like you to meet Blair Sandburg. He... I mean..."

"You can use the masculine pronoun if it makes you more comfortable, Captain." Sandburg's voice was deeper than Jim had expected, a rich contralto with a slightly resonating timbre. "It's a pleasure to meet you Detective Ellison. I've heard - and read - a lot about you."

The easy words were belied by the hesitation in the herm's stance, and the reserve that was apparent in his eyes and smile. He didn't hold out his hand, so Jim simply nodded politely. "I can't say the same about you. Why don't you fill me in on your background?"

Sandburg glanced at Banks and then back to Jim. "I'm a teaching fellow at Rainier University, specialising in psychology with particular reference to intersexed/gendered relations."

"Wait a minute. You think this has something to do with your people?" Jim looked from Sandburg to Simon in surprise. "There's no evidence linking..."

"With respect, detective, the circumstances of the killing show remarkable similarity to the murders of three intersexed citizens carried out in the last two weeks." Sandburg's eyelids flickered slightly before drooping, while his face emptied of any expression. "I don't believe there's been much public, or police, interest in the cases."

"Those cases are being handled by Homicide." Simon didn't have to say anything more. His tone indicated his opinion of that particular division. "Now that we have a possible link, I've requested the cases be reassigned to you, Jim. Dr Sandburg has kindly volunteered to act as your liaison with the her... the intersexed community."

"Simon, I work alone. You know that." It was all he could say in front of an outsider. The last thing he wanted was responsibility for three more unsolved cases; especially cases that involved herms, which were notoriously difficult to close. He certainly didn't want one of them trailing around behind him. He smiled apologetically at the herm. "I'm sorry. It's nothing personal."

"Detective, if this is because of your Sentinel abilities," a warm smile sent a message of appeasement, but Sandburg's eyes were wary, expecting rejection. "I'm fully aware of accepted practices. I minored in Sentinel studies."

"Then you know why I work alone."

"Jim, please..." Simon caught his arm and turned him so he was side on to Sandburg. "You know you'll get nowhere without help from someone who knows the people. You need him."

"He's a civilian, dammit." It wasn't the first time Jim had worked - always temporarily - with a civilian, though, and Simon sighed irritatedly. "Simon, please."

"Sure." Simon gave him a brittle smile and his tone was exaggeratedly reasonable. "And you can explain to Councillor Brankston why her nephew's murder is never going to be solved."

Now it was Jim's turn to sigh. He lifted his hands slightly in surrender. "All right. You win." They both turned to face the herm. "Dr Sandburg, I'll just go get the records for the other three murders. Simon will arrange for your ID." He threw a glance at Simon that dared him to object to his relegation to messenger status.

They spent the rest of the day poring over the files of all three cases, without making much progress. The murders were certainly similar, though notably missing were any of the ritualised aspects that normally accompanied a serial killer's modus operandi. In fact, they all seemed remarkably lacking in any kind of clue to the perpetrator's identity.

None of the victims knew each other, at least on the surface. Since Jim had been unaware of the other murders, and these had been assigned to three different teams in Homicide, who hadn't cross-referenced the cases, it was always possible that there was some kind of link. That, apparently, was where Sandburg came in.

At seven pm, Jim pushed back his chair and stretched. "We won't get any further tonight. Tomorrow morning is the time scheduled for Lindstrom's autopsy, and after that I'd like to start interviewing family members again. See if they know any of the other victims."

"Okay." Sandburg stood and, pushing his hips forward, arched his back, hands on his lower back. The movement tightened the clothing over his chest and groin, emphasising the incongruities of his figure. "These chairs are almost as uncomfortable as the ones at the university. So, I'll see you tomorrow?"

Uncomfortably aware that, if his companion had been anyone else, he would have invited him to share a meal, Jim nodded and looked away. "How early can you start?"

"What time will you be here?"

He wouldn't sleep much. He never did when involved in this sort of case. "I'll be here by seven-thirty, but you don't have to..."

"That's fine. I'll see you then." Sandburg shrugged into his jacket, picked up a couple of books he'd been referencing, and walked to the door. He didn't seem to expect Jim to accompany him, and this, combined with Jim's guilty awareness of his own ungracious behaviour, was enough to prompt Jim to action.

"Hey, Sandburg. You want to get something to eat?" He smiled faintly as the herm looked back at him with open surprise. "I know this deli close by that's open late."

A genuine smile crossed the undeniably attractive face for the first time that day. "Sure. I could eat."

When he got to the PD next morning, Jim found Sandburg already sitting beside his desk, chewing on a bagel and reading a file. The herm looked up as Jim approached, and smiled. "Hey. I got some extra bagels, if you're hungry. Help yourself."

"Thanks. You want coffee? It's drinkable - just."

"Sure. White, no sugar." Sandburg reached, without looking, for another file, his attention firmly returned to the file he was reading. By the time Jim returned with the coffee, he'd finished and was just popping the last of the bagel into his mouth. "I still can't see any real links between the first three murders, much less with this latest, but the word going round the intersexed community is that they're all the work of the same person."

Jim nodded noncommittally. He was no expert on herms, but like any small, closed society, people tended to know things that weren't discussed outside their own group. "It could be a hate crime, but if that's the case, why kill Lindstrom? There's no sign he'd ever had any dealings with herms. Uh, I mean..."

Sandburg simply shook his head, ignoring Jim's discomfort. "Maybe some of the relatives and friends can tell us something. When do you want to start?"

"Lindstrom's autopsy starts in half an hour. After that, I'd like to interview the victims' relatives in the order of the killings." Jim checked the list on top of the case files, "so that's Federon first, then Watanabe, and last of all Schwartz." He glanced at Sandburg, noting his air of nervousness. "You don't have to attend the autopsy if you don't want to."

"No." Sandburg licked his lower lips, gnawed it a little with small even teeth. "No, I'll go. It'll be... um... interesting." He smiled bravely.

When the time came, Jim offered again to let Sandburg pass on the autopsy, but the answer was the same. He led the way down to the basement office of the coroner, and signed them both in to the morgue. "Look, if you feel faint or nauseous, there's no shame in leaving, okay?"

"Okay." The young face was set in determined lines, but Jim could hear his heart beating faster than normal. He followed Jim through the last set of double doors and into the autopsy room.

The body was laid out with a light blue cloth draped over is. Jim heard a faint hitch in Sandburg's breathing, but ignored it as he greeted the coroner and introduced his companion. Dan Wolfe simply nodded, his face impassive as usual, and then turned to the table.

"We have a white male, aged about twenty five. Dark brown hair, no obvious distinguishing marks, brown eyes. Apparently killed by a single deep stab wound to the chest. All other injuries were inflicted post-mortem." He pulled the cloth away, revealing a naked body, its greyish-white skin mottled with bruises and covered with gaping wounds. "Victim has multiple knife wounds of varying depths, made with a slashing, rather than a stabbing motion."

Behind him, Sandburg's heartbeat spiked. Jim glanced over his shoulder, but the herm's pale face was set in determined lines, and he was staring fixedly at the body. Mentally shrugging away his concern as over protectiveness, Jim turned his attention back to the table as Dan made the first incision.

Alexis Federon had no family that anyone knew of. What that meant, Jim discovered from Sandburg, was that the herm had probably been born to a normal family and had left, or been kicked out, when the kid had been old enough to look after itself. Aged eighteen, Federon had already worked as a prostitute for several years before being murdered.

"Can't have been much fun growing up with a family that couldn't accept... you know." His own family had been less than thrilled when Jim had tested in the top percentile for Sentinel abilities, but they'd at least accepted the situation. "You'd think they'd... I dunno, maybe have it... the baby, I mean, adopted or something."

Sandburg shrugged. "Herm might have been one of those who only start to show signs at puberty. Most norms, if they have what appears to be a normal baby, don't think to have any tests done."

That, too, was news to Jim, who had never cared to know much about herms. They existed, and that was the extent of his knowledge on medical matters concerning them. "I guess. The only people who claimed to know... uh... herm at all were some of the other prostitutes."

"Kids who are on the streets find it difficult to maintain relationships with anyone who isn't in the same situation. Regardless of gender." Sandburg looked up from the file he'd been reading - he was always reading - almost as if seeking something from Jim. "I've worked with a number of intersexed prostitutes, and with the people who try to help them. It's hard for anyone who hasn't experienced the life to understand what it's like for these kids."

It seemed like Sandburg was speaking from his own experience, and Jim glanced at him sharply. "Have you?"

"No." The blue eyes met his without the slightest hint of diffidence. "There are other ways of being... distanced... from accepted community standards."

"I guess I know what you mean." Jim acknowledged the vague confidence with a nod. "Being a Sentinel... it's supposed to be an honour, but people treat you differently when they know."

"People feel threatened." Blair smiled faintly. "They probably think you can read their darkest secrets."

"I wish I could." Jim grinned as he pulled the hovercar to a stop. "It would make my job a whole lot easier."

The two young herms they'd come to interview were definitely on the feminine side of androgynous - delicate, smooth-skinned creatures dressed in softly draped fabrics which clung to their breasts and coyly hinted at the ambiguity of their loins. They cast coolly appraising glances in Sandburg's direction, then turned limpidly appreciative eyes on Jim.

There was little, however, they could offer in the way of information. Federon, apparently, always worked alone.

"We offered, more than once." Altair Berowne laid a soft, cafe-au-lait hand on Jim's wrist. "Sometimes our customers like to watch, you know? Two is fine, but three's better."

The other herm, pale and blond and with little to say, nodded wisely. "Thass right."

"You didn't see her... uh, herm last customer?" Jim couldn't help throwing an appealing look to Sandburg, who was watching with just the hint of a grin.

Altair shook artfully tumbled, fuchsia coloured curls. "We were busy. He wasn't one of Lexi's regular customers. Herm would have told us."

"Well, thanks for your help." Jim rose smoothly from a chair that was built for a much smaller body and held out his card. "If you remember anything at all, please call me."

"Maybe if you come round while we're working..." Altair smiled beguilingly and left the implicit invitation hanging in the air between them.

Jim forced a smile. He couldn't imagine an offer he was less likely to accept. "Thanks, but I'm gay."

"Oh." The demure sensuality disappeared entirely from the herm's demeanour, replaced by an aura of disinterested practicality. "Well, if we think of anything."

"Whoever did this is still out there. It's in your own best interests." With one last stern look, Jim led the way outside. "I thought you were supposed to help me."

"You were doing fine on your own." The grin nearly split Sandburg's face in two. "Are you really gay, or was that just a line?"

Jim looked at him in surprise. Why would he lie about it? "I'm really gay. I don't need to lie to a couple of... of prostitutes to protect my ass."

The grin disappeared. "Of course not. You probably could have broken them in half with one hand."

"I probably could. That doesn't mean I would." Frowning, Jim led the way to his car. He heard Sandburg mutter something angrily under his breath but didn't try to hear what he said.

Their next call was to a very different part of the neighbourhood. Jim had never been much further than the fringes of the area inhabited by the herms, and thus had never seen the neat apartment blocks, with real trees outside in huge planters, that the middle classes inhabited. The hallways were lit to an almost unbearable brightness, in a blatant display of conspicuous consumption.

Karma Watanabe was one of the oldest people he'd ever met. There were so many non-invasive methods of cosmetic enhancements, that it was rare to see silvered hair - unless it was a fashion statement - or wrinkled skin. The wrinkles were fine enough that they were barely noticeable, but to Jim they were as shocking as the sight of a deformed limb or a scar would have been.

Watanabe was part of a generation that had been born long before the laws had been passed to prohibit gender reassignment surgery on herms below the age of consent. Jim had come across the type before - bitter and angry, wearing the physical contradictions of a herm as though they were a badge of honour. A softly feminine hairstyle and smooth cheeks contrasted with the small tuft of coarse hair beneath the chin and, like most herms, clothes that enhanced rather than veiled their sexual characteristics. It showed too in the proud stance, and the suspicious glare shared equally between Jim and Sandburg.

This herm had little reason to like or trust a norm, but Jim was puzzled by Watanabe's obvious distrust of his companion. "Well. Have the Police finally decided to investigate my child's murder? I must admit I'm surprised."

"We have reason to believe that Neith's murder was not an isolated incident." It took a conscious effort not to respond to the herm's antagonism, even though he had to admit it was completely understandable. "Unfortunately, it's taken a while to link the murders together, since we haven't been able to find any pattern, apart from the actual method."

"Mer Watanabe, perhaps you can help us. Did Neith know Alexis Federon, Dana Schwartz, or Greg Lindstrom?" Blair's question, offered in a quiet, deferential voice, seemed to further incense the herm.

"Why would you think my child would have anything to do with a prostitute, or a man?" Watanabe's hazel eyes narrowed angrily. "However, as far as I know, Neith had never met Mer Schwartz. Herm was not part of our circle of acquaintances."

"All we know is that the same person murdered all four victims. If we can find some kind of link between them, it might help us apprehend the killer before he strikes again." Blair smiled pacifically. "Surely, you want the same thing that we do. An end to the killing, and justice for Neith."

"Don't presume to know what I want." From merely cold, Watanabe's voice had turned glacial. "Neith was truly a part of me and now I have nothing to give to the future. You couldn't possibly understand what that means."

Blair glanced down at his knees. "Of course I can't. I've never had a child. I never meant to imply otherwise."

"How is your mother, by the way?" The tone was sweetly acid, and Jim saw Sandburg's lips tighten. His heartbeat spiked, too, and Jim wondered exactly what was being communicated between the two herms.

"Naomi's just fine, thank you." The calm gaze that Blair levelled at the older herm was enough to stop whatever else Watanabe was about to say. "Jim, didn't you have some questions for Mer Watanabe?"

Jim pulled himself out of a fascinated stare that was threatening to turn into a zone. "Uh, yeah... do you know if Neith was planning to meet anyone the night of the murder?"

"I do not."

"Okay. Do you know where Neith was going?"

"Herm was going to a concert." A tiny crack appeared in the herm's icy facade. "Herm had invited me to go too, but I wasn't in the mood to..." a faint gasp was the only sign of emotion that was allowed to escape. "Perhaps if I had been with Neith, herm would still be alive."

This, Jim could deal with. It was almost a relief to get a normal reaction out of this formidable person. "Or you might be dead too. It's natural to second guess in a situation like this, but there's really no way to tell what would have happened."

"Perhaps." Mer Watanabe's iron control was back. The emotion of a moment ago might never have happened.

There was nothing more they could achieve here. Jim went through the routine of leaving his card and they left. Outside, he took a deep breath of polluted air that seemed less stifling than that of the apartment, and tried not to choke on the rank scent of hydrocarbons.

Sandburg smelled of distress and anger. His heartbeat was still a little fast, too. Jim decided to indulge his curiosity. Besides, who knew if it might have some kind of bearing on the case? "You want to tell me what all that was about?"

He got a blandly innocent, if unconvincing, smile. "All what, Jim?"

"The snide remark about your mother. You remember. The one that sent your heart rate through the roof."

"Now you see, Jim? That's why people look at you differently when they know you're a Sentinel." Blair's expression was part annoyance, part nervousness. "My heartbeat ought to be between me and my doctor."

Refusing to be sidetracked, Jim simply grunted noncommittally. "That old biddy upset you. I just want to know why."

"That 'old biddy'?" An unwilling smile tugged at the corners of Blair's mouth. "Jim, you do know what that means?"

"Sure I do." He grinned, though he wouldn't have been willing to bet his retirement fund on it. The term was insulting, and that was all he really needed to know. "So, what was it about?"

"Most intersexed people don't have a mother, they have a parent." Blair shot him a glance to check that he got the difference. Jim nodded obligingly. "An intersexed person is twenty times more likely to have an intersexed child than the rest of the population. Added to that, it's been estimated that thirty percent of abortions in the gendered population are carried out because the foetus is showing signs of being intersexed. Anyway... I have a mother."

"So, your mother was a norm?" He could imagine that wouldn't go down well with a proud, bitter person like Mer Watanabe. "Is that why the old biddy doesn't like you?"

"No, she wasn't a norm. Nobody would be upset by that." There was amused exasperation in Sandburg's voice. "She was intersexed by birth, but she had a man inseminate her - she never would tell me who - and then after I was born, decided she liked the idea of being a woman and had the operation. You can imagine how well that went down with the intersexed community."

"Yeah. I think I can." Jim put his hand on Sandburg's shoulder, turning him towards the car. He let it slip down between the herm's shoulder blades, and gently pushed him in the right direction, ignoring the stares of the herms who were passing by. "So they take it out on you."

"It's not that bad, most of the time." Sandburg shrugged. "But let's just say I'm not exactly at the top of anyone's popularity ratings."

The interview of Dana Schwartz's roommate yielded no more useful information than either of the others had, and they were headed towards the Lindstrom family home when Jim's portable chirped shrilly. He hurriedly engaged the autopilot, which he rarely used, so he could answer the incoming call. His eyes flicked over the incoming data, taking in the main points.

"Shit!" Jim glanced across at Sandburg. "Greg Lindstrom was a herm. He'd had gender reassignment, but his DNA had both male and female chromosomes."

Sandburg's eyes widened, but he didn't say anything, and Jim suddenly recalled the spike in his heartbeat when he'd seen Lindstrom's naked body in the morgue. "You knew! In the morgue, you knew. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I wasn't sure." Sandburg swallowed audibly. "It wasn't... it was just a feeling I got."

This changed everything. "Would other herms have known, just from looking at him?"

"Maybe." Sandburg tugged a hand through his hair. "I don't know. Can you tell when other people are gay? Not a hundred percent of the time, I'll bet."

"No. But most of the time." Jim's lips compressed to a thin line. He could feel a muscle twitch in his cheek. "We have to assume, though, that the murderer knew."

"It certainly explains the apparent change in the type of victim." Sandburg looked even more troubled. "But, Jim. That would almost certainly mean..."

"That the killer was a herm?" Jim nodded grimly. "That's exactly what it would mean."

"Dammit, Jim, I'm not about to allow speculation like that." Simon chomped furiously on his unlit cigar. "Not without proof."

Jim shifted uneasily in his chair. "I understand, Sir. I just think it's something we have to consider."

"Based on the fact that Sandburg had a hunch? Jim, even he wasn't sure until you got the autopsy results." He removed the cigar from his mouth, inspected the chewed end and then replaced it. "You know what's gonna happen if, god forbid, it turns out you're right."

"There'll be a backlash against the herms. I'm very aware of that. But what are we going to do? Refuse to consider the possibility because we don't like what it implies?"

Simon shook his head frustratedly. "Whatever anybody thinks of herms, they're rarely violent. I've never heard of any kind of serial killers among them. It just seems so damned unlikely."

"Except for the fact that a herm is more likely to have recognised Lindstrom as one of them, I'd be inclined to agree." Jim watched as Simon paced some more. He could only be glad he wasn't in Simon's shoes - all he had to do was to establish the facts; Simon would have to deal with the fallout.

Finally, Simon stopped and turned a scowling face in Jim's direction. "You don't say anything about this to anybody. Make sure the kid understands."

Sandburg was unusually silent for the rest of the day. When they arrived belatedly for the interview with the Lindstrom family, he quietly suggested that he remain in the car. When Jim asked why, he smiled faintly. "I really don't think the family is going to want to see me, Jim. Think about it. You've got to assume they didn't want anyone to know about Greg being intersexed. I wonder if herm ever really had a choice about the reassignment operation."

Jim could see his point. "In that case, I wouldn't refer to him like that in front of the family, Sandburg."

"No. I don't suppose you would." Sandburg pressed his lips tightly together and drew in a deep breath through his nose. Jim could feel the tension emanating off him. "Why do you work alone, Jim?"

"Huh?" The apparent non sequitur threw him for a moment. "You know why. If I develop a bond with a partner, it could interfere with the Guide bond, when I find a Guide."

"You're kind of old not to be bonded to a Guide, aren't you?" Sandburg looked him squarely in the eyes. "Why is that?"

"I just... it just hasn't happened yet. Besides, I lost my abilities in my early teens and they didn't resurface until four years ago. I wasn't really looking for a Guide until then." Jim shifted uncomfortably under the steady gaze. He couldn't help feeling that Sandburg knew he hadn't been looking very hard for a Guide in the intervening four years either. "What the hell has this got to do with anything?"

"So, how did your family feel about you being a Sentinel?"

"They hated it." He ought to just tell Sandburg to shut up and let him wait in the car if that was what he wanted to do. They were wasting time. "Dad wanted me to take over the family business. Mom... I think she just wanted me to be happy, and my brother was pissed because it meant he'd have to work with Dad."

Sandburg nodded as though he'd expected nothing else. "Do you think that had anything to do with you losing your Sentinel abilities?"

"Why should... you mean you think I suppressed them?" Jim wrenched open the door of his car and got out. "This discussion is over. Are you coming in with me or not?"

"I'm coming." Sandburg got out and stood waiting while Jim came round the car to join him. He put his hand on Jim's arm. "Jim... I'm just trying to illustrate how seriously a child's perception of himself can be influenced by the people he cares about."

"Well, leave my family out of it. Okay?" Jim nodded towards the apartment building. "And try not to piss off the Lindstroms, will you? They have influential friends, and I like my job."

After a moment Sandburg grinned. "I'll try."

It was obvious from the first seconds that Greg Lindstrom's parents resented Sandburg's presence at the interview, although they made no comment on it. Jim's questions elicited little information that had any bearing on the case, and he was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that he would have to raise the issue of Lindstrom's hermaphroditism when the remaining Lindstrom sibling - Greg's sister - arrived.

Jim glanced at Sandburg as the introductions were made, but a tiny shake of the head indicated that he didn't believe Paula Lindstrom was a herm. When they sat down again, Blair leaned forward and Jim realised, with a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach that the herm intended to ask some questions of his own.

"You've said that Greg didn't mention where he was going that night. Do any of you know whether he had any acquaintances in the Corona district?"

There was an almost silent inhalation of breath from everyone in the room. The Corona district was a notorious melting pot for herms and those norms who liked to hang around the fringes of their society. All the victims' bodies had been found in, or close to, the area. Lindstrom's body had been found just two blocks south of there, but nobody had mentioned that fact until now.

After a moment's stunned silence Lindstrom's father turned a furious glare on Jim. "May I ask what this... person is doing here, and what gives it the right to question us in this way?"

"Dr Sandburg is a Police consultant. Herm is assisting us with this case." Jim glanced warningly at Sandburg. "We believe your son's murder is related to three other recent murders, all within the same area. The other victims were all from the intersexed community. Your son's autopsy indicated that he was intersexed."

It was, obviously, no news to any of the three, but Mrs Lindstrom sobbed once, quietly then turned her face away, and her husband's lips tightened into a white line.

Only Paula seemed to keep her equanimity at all. "You mean Greg was murdered because..."

"My son had a medical condition." Lindstrom interrupted. "He was not one of those sideshow freaks. If this is the direction you intend to take this case, I'll be speaking to my sister about your conduct."

"Mr Lindstrom..." Ignoring Jim's unspoken warning, Sandburg was leaning forward, his voice soothing. "It's not unusual for people with medical conditions to seek out others in the same situation. It doesn't mean..."

There was not the slightest softening of Lindstrom's expression. "Greg's medical condition had been corrected. There's no reason why he would want to associate with people like you."

"Dad." Paula touched her father's shoulder. "I think Greg was meeting with... with some of Dr Sandburg's people. He told me once he was curious about them. He said that under different circumstances he would have been a part of their community."

Taking advantage of Lindstrom's shocked silence, Jim turned his attention to the young woman. "Do you know who, in particular, he was meeting?"

She shook her head. "He didn't say any more than that."

"With your permission, we'd like to examine Greg's personal comms data." Jim rose from the couch he and Sandburg had been sharing. "There may be some clues there to who he was meeting."

"You think one of them did it. Don't you?" Lindstrom glared at Sandburg before switching his attention back to Jim.

"We think someone is preying on the intersexed community and Greg was in the wrong place at the wrong time." Jim snapped shut his portable. "There's nothing, as yet, to indicate who that person might be. We'll keep you informed of our progress. Blair? Do you have any other questions you want to ask?"

Sandburg blinked at the use of his given name, but recovered fast. "No. I don't think so."

"Then we won't impose on you any longer." He led the way to the front door of the apartment, where a young black woman waited to let them out. She silently handed over a data chip. "From Mr Greg's portable."

Jim nodded. "Thanks. If you find anything else among his possessions that might help..."

She glanced at Mr Lindstrom, still standing in the doorway of the lounge. "I'll let you know, Detective."

Down on the street again, with dusk rapidly falling, Jim examined his companion surreptitiously. Sandburg's heartbeat was a little elevated, and his sweat smelled of equal parts anxiety and arousal. It wasn't an unusual reaction to an unexpected attack, even if it had been only a verbal one. He couldn't help glancing briefly at the heavy outline beneath Sandburg's jeans.

"You okay?" He touched Sandburg's shoulder lightly. "That was pretty unpleasant."

"I've dealt with worse." Sandburg smiled weakly. "I feel sorry for Greg, though. Herm would have had a rough childhood, I'd guess."

"You're probably right, but it's not going to help the investigation." Jim smiled ferally. "Unless you like the idea that his old man killed the kid when he found out Greg was mixing with herms."

Sandburg tilted his head, considering the idea. "And the other deaths?"

"Cover. Set up a series of murders to hide the one intended victim," Jim shrugged, "or he's an opportunist taking advantage of the other murders."

"As much as I'd like to blame the murders on him, I really think Mr Lindstrom didn't know, Jim. He looked pretty shocked."

"Yeah, I know." He dropped an arm around Blair's wide shoulders and guided him towards the car. "We might as well finish for the day. Tomorrow I'd like to go over the earlier crime scenes. I've already seen Lindstrom's scene, but there might be something, some kind of similarities the original investigation missed."

"The Police would have had Sentinels examine the crime scenes, right?"

"Yeah, but none of them knew the crimes were related. They might have missed something that wasn't out of the ordinary, but was there at all four scenes." Jim moved away from Sandburg as they reached the car. "You just never know. A lot of what we do is as much instinct as anything."

A comms call at three a.m. is never welcome, particularly in a policeman's life. Still, it was Jim's first chance to examine a fresh crime scene, no more than a few hours old. He called Sandburg, receiving a grumpy, lethargic, but acquiescent response to his request for backup.

Sandburg was waiting for him when he pulled up outside a run down apartment block in one of the poorer areas of the herm ghetto. "I hope you've got coffee."

"In the thermos. I got doughnuts too."

"Doughnuts? Sugar, fat and refined flour... are you trying to kill me?" Sandburg picked one out and bit into it. "Hey... cool..."

"Best doughnuts in Cascade, and open all night too." Jim grinned. "Thanks for coming along, Chief. I really appreciate it."

Sandburg shrugged. "I want to catch whoever's doing this as much as you do, man."

Now that the PD knew they were dealing with a serial killer, there was much more care being exercised in keeping the crime scene clear, even of Police personnel. When they arrived, the end of the alley where the body lay had been blocked off and not even the Coroner had been into the area.

"Think you can handle this?" Jim stopped Blair with a hand to his arm. "There'll be a lot more blood than there was in the morgue."

Sandburg paled, but nodded convulsively and followed without hesitation when Jim led the way into the alley. As promised, there was a lot of blood. The victim seemed, like Lindstrom, to be a normal male, but Jim, crouching beside the body, glanced up at Sandburg for confirmation.

"What do you think? Another Lindstrom?"

"Uh... no. I don't think so." Sandburg swallowed, breathing heavily. "Can't be a hundred percent certain, though."

"Okay." There was no weapon at the scene, as usual. So far, they'd established that the same, or identical, weapons were being used for each murder. He looked around the alley, dialling up his sight for any signs of who might have been through this area in the last few hours. "There's defensive wounds on the arms. It looks like this one might not have been such an easy target."

Blood spots further down the alley indicated that the initial attack might have started a few yards away. Jim rose stiffly from his crouch and walked over to the largest of the spots. "There's a spray of blood on the wall here. I think the initial attack started here, but the wound wasn't instantly fatal. The victim tried to run, but collapsed over there from blood loss."

Sandburg was keying in notes on his portable. "Can you smell anything?"

Too much. For a moment the alley greyed out, then Sandburg's hand, slowly rubbing his arm, brought him back. Jim staggered slightly. "Thanks."

"No problem." Blair smiled, looking pretty damned pleased with himself. He moved a little closer and put his hand on the small of Jim's back; the classic position for a Guide to ground his Sentinel. "Try again."

Cautiously, filtering out the smells of blood and garbage, Jim extended his sense of smell. The rich, warm scent of his companion distracted him for a moment, and Jim reluctantly filtered that out too. There was a musky undercurrent of arousal; not strong enough to indicate actual intercourse, but whoever had been in this alley had certainly intended to have sex. And there was mud.

"Mud? In Cascade?" Sandburg's surprise was not unexpected. It wasn't as if there were any parks within the city limits. The endemic overcrowding meant that land was at a premium, far too valuable to leave undeveloped; the closest thing Jim had ever seen to a garden was the trees that were grown in large planters in some of the more affluent areas. "From a building site, maybe?"

"Could be." Jim cast his eyes around, searching for the source of the smell, and found a couple of small clumps of soil, compacted into the surface of the alley. He extracted an evidence stasis bag and scraped the mud into separate compartments. "We'll find out."

He spent the next hour thoroughly searching the alley for physical evidence of anyone who'd been there recently, finding hairs from several different individuals and a couple of scraps of cloth. Perhaps clothing from the perpetrator, if they were lucky. The sky was just beginning to lighten when the pair of them stumbled to Jim's hovercar.

"Think you can make it to the autopsy?" Jim stifled a yawn and engaged the autopilot, keying in the address of Blair's apartment building. "I can pick you up, if you like."

Sandburg groaned, then nodded. "Yeah. I can make it. I'll get one of the grad students to take my classes this morning."

"Okay." The rest of the journey passed in weary silence until the car cruised to a halt. In the early morning light, the building looked even worse than it had in the dark. "Can't you afford somewhere better than this?"

Sandburg shrugged. "It's not so bad inside. Besides, I like the area."

Jim stared at the herm in surprise. "You're kidding."

"No. Really." A soft chuckle acknowledged the predictability of Jim's reaction. There was nothing particularly lovely about this neighbourhood. "Most of the people who live here are students, or artists, musicians. They're much less... conservative. More open. There's even a sizeable number of norms who live around here."

"So they don't mind about your mother?"

"Or my appearance." Blair smiled as Jim's brow furrowed. "Come on, Jim. How many herms have you seen with a five o'clock shadow? Or hands like these?" He held up hands that weren't much smaller than Jim's - broad, square palms and long tapering fingers, that looked even more masculine in comparison to his slender wrists and forearms.

"Not many." Not any, actually, though his experience with herms was fairly limited. He could even see a hint of chest hair in the V of Sandburg's flannel shirt. "If you wore shirts like that more often, nobody would even think you were a herm."

"Thanks. I think." Sandburg's voice was dry, but he smiled sleepily. "The thing is, I don't fit the image the intersexed community has of itself."

Jim was starting to understand the reactions he'd seen from the herms they'd interviewed in the last few days. "I get that, but why is it such a bad thing that you're masculine?"

"A marginalised group will often fixate on the thing that causes them to be marginalised and make that a source of pride. Like an androgynous appearance." Blair brushed a fingertip across the dashboard absently. "It can be a good thing. Affirming."

"So they don't like other herms who could maybe pass as norms?" He'd hit pay dirt, he realised, as Blair's shoulders tensed fractionally. "It's hardly fair, but I understand it." Jim realised, too, that whenever Blair spoke of herms as a group, he never said we, or they, but talked as though it was some academic discussion unrelated to his personal life. "Is that why you study herm society? Because you don't really feel a part of it?"

The blue eyes widened momentarily, then crinkled into a smile. "You're good, Jim. No wonder you're Major Crime's top detective."

He grinned modestly, then yawned. "I'd better get home while I can still program the damned car. I'll be back around noon. The autopsy's at one o'clock."

Sandburg nodded, and fumbled at the door handle, blinking drowsily. Jim had been meaning for a while to get the door seen to - the handle was stiff and the door sometimes required a little jiggling to release the catch, but Sandburg had been managing well enough until now. A yawn wrenched Sandburg's jaws apart, and he cursed under his breath at the resisting door.

"Here. Let me." Jim leaned across, flipped the door handle just right and shoved hard. The door opened abruptly and Jim had to catch the frame to stop himself from toppling onto Sandburg's lap. His face was suddenly less than an inch from Blair's.

Jim could smell the coffee and doughnut Blair had eaten earlier and the herbal scent of toothpaste. A waft of musk that carried overtones of pheromones sent Jim's libido straight into the stratosphere. Even the fact that the scent of arousal was not entirely masculine made no difference.

There was a moment when all Jim wanted to do was lean forward and taste the lush depths of Sandburg's mouth. Judging by the startled look in his eyes, the herm felt the same tug of attraction. Then Jim steadied himself and pulled back into his own seat.

They stared at each other in breathless silence for a second or two, then Blair licked his lips. "I'll, uh... I'll see you around noon, then."

"Yeah." Jim's voice echoed hoarsely in his ears. The moment Sandburg was out of the car, and the door closed, he stabbed the autopilot button and the car shot away from the curb.

It was a grim trio that gathered in Simon's office after the autopsy. The latest victim, Adam Sherman, was without a doubt a completely normal male. It threw the entire balance of the case off kilter. They were back at square one.

"So, what do we have left? Are you sure this is the same perp?"

Wearily, Jim watched Simon pace, scowling. He'd managed about an hour's sleep this morning, and had woken from that sweating and aroused, with vague memories of Sandburg's face haunting his dreams. "The killings all took place within a five block radius. The method is the same. The weapon is the same." He rubbed his forehead where the tightening band threatened a blinding headache in the not too distant future. "Maybe the killer's targeting anyone in the area, not just herms. There are simply more herms who live around there."

"Or maybe the killer got it wrong." Blair's voice revealed the same fatigue that Jim felt. "Maybe the killer thought Sherman was a herm."

"You didn't think he was."

"Well, no... but it's a very subjective thing. He wasn't obviously one or the other, if you know what I mean." Sandburg shrugged. "Maybe the killer thought both Sherman and Lindstrom were norms."

Simon groaned. "I do not want to hear that. Or anything else that means we're no further towards finding this perp than we were four days ago."

"It can't be helped, Sir." Jim shifted uncomfortably in the narrow chair. "Maybe analysis of that mud will give us some leads."

"Maybe I'll sprout wings and fly," Simon said sourly, "but I doubt it."

"Look, we all know that serial killers have a reason for doing what they do. They have a routine and they follow it." Sandburg in lecturing mode, again... Jim stifled a groan. The herm continued obliviously. "We just haven't figured out the pattern yet."

"Those patterns usually include the age and gender of the victim." Jim ticked off an imaginary list. "There's usually some kind of ritual. The closest thing we have to a ritual is the slashing of the corpse."

Blair stared at him dazedly and said nothing.

"Look, you two go home." Simon's nasal voice interrupted a threatened zone. "You're dead on your feet. But I want you both on top of things tomorrow morning, you hear?"

"I hear." Jim refrained from wincing, as his hearing spiked suddenly. "Come on, Chief, I'll give you a lift home."

Jim's stomach rumbled audibly just as they reached his car. It was answered by a growl from Blair's midriff. Jim sighed. "How about we get a meal first? There's a good diner not too far from here."

"Sounds good to me."

It was actually a good deal better than your average diner. The food was standard Asian/Pacific fusion, but the young chef had flair and it showed in the subtle seasonings and melding of flavours. Blair whistled softly as he scanned the menu. Jim, who knew the menu by heart, spent the time staring down curious looks from the other customers.

When the food arrived they ate hungrily until their plates were half cleared, then slowed the pace to enjoy more fully the quality of the food.

"This is really good, Jim. I'll have to tell my friends about it." Blair glanced around the room, obviously noticing for the first time that he was the only herm present. "Or maybe not."

"No. You should. I don't think there'd be a problem."

The herm shrugged noncommittally. He chewed slowly on another mouthful of food and swallowed. "Jim, about this morning..."

"We'd had a long night. I was tired. It was nothing." Jim kept his eyes on his plate. "I'm sorry."

"Jim, you don't have to apologise for..." Blair choked slightly and took a sip of water. "Actually, I guess it's flattering. Is it?"

He reached across the table and brushed a fingertip across the back of Blair's hand. The skin felt smooth and warm and he let himself sink into the sensation, then had to pull back as the edges of his world began to melt into nothingness.

"I've been feeling it for days. Don't tell me you haven't noticed." He studied Blair's face for a moment, seeing the same confused need that he felt. He dropped his voice to a murmur. "Don't tell me you haven't felt it too."

Footsteps behind him heralded the return of the waiter. Jim leaned back in his chair, his hand resting on the table only inches from Blair's.

"Is there anything more I can do for you? Tea? Coffee?"

"Blair?" Jim enjoyed the way the name rolled sensuously off his tongue. A rising tide of pink indicated that Blair liked it too.

"Uh... I think I'll wait till I get home." He smiled shakily at the waiter. "Thanks."


Jim cocked his head slightly, his eyes never leaving Blair's face.

His Adams apple bobbed as he swallowed. "Of course, you're welcome to... ah... to join me."

Jim smiled up at the waiter. "Just the check, thanks."

Blair's apartment was sparsely furnished, but pleasant. Although the furnishings were old, they'd been chosen with an eye for beauty as well as usefulness; even if the beauty was no more than a richly coloured throw rug tossed over a threadbare old-fashioned easy chair. Outside, the late afternoon sun was turning the smog-laden sky a golden bronze, which reflected off the shabby, painted walls, lending them a gilded elegance they would certainly lack in the full light of day.

Blair hung up his coat and took Jim's to hang beside it. He seemed to be regretting his invitation already, and barely glanced at Jim before heading for the alcove which obviously housed his sketchy kitchen arrangements. "Tea or coffee, Jim?"

"Look, you don't have to..." He faltered to a stop as Blair turned to face him. "Do you want me to go?"

Blair sighed, and moved towards the single, large window where a sturdy table stood covered with books and papers. He fingered one of the books, an old one, for a moment before answering, his eyes still following the movement of his hand. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."

"All right." But Jim didn't move.

Finally, Blair looked up at him with an expression of mingled longing and reluctance. They both knew he wasn't going to leave, and they both knew Blair wasn't going to ask him to go. The air in the apartment suddenly seemed too heavy to breathe. Blair turned, leaning back against the table, with his hands resting on the edge. Behind him, the sun touched his hair with a red-gold nimbus and Jim caught his breath at the sight.

"Please." He took a step forward, sure now that he wanted this. That he couldn't go another day, another minute, with this attraction between them unacknowledged. "Blair, please."

"What do you want from me, Jim?" Blair voice sounded raw, suddenly. Even afraid. "We both know this isn't going to go anywhere. If I sleep with you will your curiosity be satisfied?"

"It isn't curiosity." Stung, his denial was sharper than he'd intended. Too sharp. Honesty compelled him to continue. "It's not just curiosity. What I feel..."

"Don't." Blair's eyes met his. "Whatever it is you feel, I don't want to know. Feelings aren't going to change the situation. Whatever we do, once we leave this apartment, it's over."

Defeated, Jim was about to turn and leave when Blair lifted his hand and began, shakily, to unbutton his shirt. "Are you sure this is what you want?"

"Yes." His voice was reduced to a harsh whisper as his mouth went dry. He watched as Blair unbuttoned the shirt to the very bottom and let it fall open.

All he wore beneath the shirt was a narrow band of cloth that moulded itself perfectly to support his breasts. Blair looked down at his body as if, like Jim, he was seeing it for the first time. He ran his hands lightly down to his waist, over pale olive skin. There was a scattering of fine dark hair across his chest, thickening in the centre to a noticeable line running down into the waist of his pants.

He glanced at Jim again before lifting his hands to the breast band and parting the cloth with the quiet tearing sound of a Velcro fastener. When his hands dropped again, the cloth fell with it, revealing small, rounded breasts tipped with cinnamon-coloured nipples. For the space of a few heartbeats Jim could only stare, then he moved towards Blair, reaching out to touch and then finding that he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. Instead he cupped his hand against Blair's cheek and tilted his face upwards for a kiss.

The full, soft lips resisted for a moment, then parted reluctantly. Instead of taking whatever advantage he could, Jim opted for patience, brushing his lips and tongue over the moist surface without venturing deeper. When Blair's hands came to rest on his waist, Jim smiled and deepened the kiss until Blair moaned into his mouth. The sturdy body was ready now, pliant and eager as his hands travelled down Blair's arms and sides, sliding the thin shirt against his skin. He broke the kiss and took a small step back.

He cupped his hand over one breast, no fuller than an adolescent girl's, cradling it easily against his palm. His thumb caressed its smooth roundedness, feeling the fine downy hairs like silk over the satin skin beneath. Blair gasped and the nipple hardened against Jim's palm. It took a conscious effort to control his breathing, and his reaction to the scent of desire rising from the heated skin. He lowered his head, angling it so he could bury his face against Blair's throat and immerse himself in the delicious aromas there.

"Jim..." Blair stroked a trembling hand over the short fine hairs at his nape and then groaned as Jim licked away the sweat that had gathered in the hollow at the base of his throat. He pushed urgently against Jim's caressing hand and Jim responded by moving the stroking thumb from the curve of Blair's upper breast to his nipple, lazily drawing the sensitive flesh between his thumb and forefinger until Blair shuddered and clutched at his shoulders. "Oh! Oh, that feels..."

"Shh. I haven't even started yet." Smiling, Jim nuzzled the centre of his chest, the valley between his breasts where the hairs grew longer and slightly coarser, then turned his head and flicked his tongue over the straining nipple. He sucked and kissed the soft mound and then took the nipple gently between his lips.

For several minutes there were no sounds other than the shallow, gasping breaths above his head and the wet, suckling sounds Jim made as he lavished attention on each breast in turn. Then he straightened, not without some residual stiffness, to cover Blair's mouth in a deep demanding kiss and to bury his hands in the silken mass of hair.

This time Blair swayed towards him, his body betraying the need that Jim sensed within him. He slid his hands down and fumbled with the button at the waist of Blair's pants. Immediately, Blair stiffened slightly and pulled his mouth away. "Jim, are you sure? You don't have to do this."

"Relax. I want it." He dropped to his knees and pressed a kiss against Blair's abdomen, just above the top of his pants. "Chief, I'm gay, remember? Believe me, the last thing that's going to freak me out is your dick."

Blair grinned faintly, but still seemed unsure. Jim waited as he chewed his bottom lip uncertainly for a moment, then nodded hesitantly. He unfastened the top button and lowered the zipper with a single smooth motion, then taking the pants and underwear beneath, pulled the whole mass down to Blair's ankles. He spent some time in removing Blair's shoes and socks so he could get the clothing off completely and toss it aside before sitting back on his heels to look up at Blair.

Haloed by the dying sunlight, he still leaned back against the table, his bare torso framed by the white shirt from shoulder to hip. Jim hadn't been entirely sure what to expect. He'd seen the herms in the mortuary, and they'd had noticeably undersized dicks, but Blair's was perfectly normal, if not the largest he'd ever encountered, and drooping in a heavy arc against his thigh. From the waist down he appeared to be completely masculine. And so damned beautiful it took Jim's breath away.

He leaned forward and nuzzled the swollen dick, licking and nibbling teasingly, before lifting his face to rub against Blair's belly. He stroked his hands up and down Blair's thighs, cupped the small, tight balls in his hand, gently massaging them. But there was more, and Jim could smell the mingled scents of male and female arousal coming off Blair in waves. He pushed against Blair's hips, angling him further back against the table, encouraging him to part his legs still more.

The heavy dick was almost fully erect now and Jim stroked it almost absently, while trying to mentally prepare himself for what he was about to do. He pressed his face into the space between Blair's legs, angling up until his questing tongue found the slick sweetness in the hidden folds of the herm's body. Again, Blair shuddered, his hands clutching at Jim's head.

It was a strange sensation, an unfamiliar taste, but not unpleasant, Jim decided. He focussed on the more masculine scent of the precum that spilled luxuriantly over his stroking fingers and found that he was quite enjoying himself. Blair was shaking and sobbing, obviously close to losing all control and it gave him a pleasurable sense of power that he could bring his partner to the brink so rapidly. He drew back and with a quick turn of his head, took Blair's dick into his mouth.

Blair cried out, his hips thrusting jerkily for a moment, then settling into a reasonably smooth movement. Jim reached up between his legs and stroked his fingers along the moist slit, allowing one finger to penetrate the shaking body. He stroked the smooth internal wall and rubbed the spot just behind Blair's balls with his thumb tip. With a wail, Blair convulsed, sending a hot jet of fluid into the back of his mouth. Humming contentedly, he continued to milk every last drop from the softening cock as Blair sobbed his name.

He was still breathing fast when Jim got to his feet and wrapped his arms around the compact body. Blair lifted his head expectantly and they kissed with slow satisfaction. "Jim, this isn't fair. You haven't taken off a single item of clothing and I'm practically naked here."

"Then why don't you do something about it?" Jim smiled somewhat wolfishly as Blair's eyes became intently focused on his chest.

It didn't take long for Blair to unbutton his shirt and slide it off his shoulders. He trailed his fingers lightly down Jim's bicep and then rubbed his nipples through the thin cloth of Jim's undershirt. His breathing was coming faster, his arousal quite evidently returning. With a little sigh, Blair peeled the undershirt off over Jim's head. Jim lifted his arms obligingly.

He had to wait, then, while Blair investigated his chest, rubbing teasing circles around his nipples, spreading his palms flat against his pecs and kneading the firm muscle. Then Blair leaned into him and inhaled deeply. "I wish I could sense all the things you can. I wish I could know you the way you know things."

For a moment Jim was unable to speak, and then Blair pressed his face, eyes closed, against his chest, seeking blindly for his already painfully erect nipple. It set off tiny explosions of sensation along every pathway of his body. Jim moaned softly, drawing Blair's head against him, guiding that delicate flickering of pleasure over the surface of his body.

"Jim. Jim..." Blair breathed the words against his skin like a benediction, like a prayer. He reached down between their bodies, stroking, squeezing through the stiff cloth of Jim's jeans. "Take them off."

Their hands fumbled, interfering with rather than aiding the removal process, but at last his jeans were somewhere down around his knees and Blair's hand was wrapped around his dick, pumping eagerly. "Fuck, Blair, slow down or it'll all be over before you know it."

He thought for a moment that Blair was going to get down on his knees, but he didn't want that. Somehow the thought of him in such a subservient posture was disturbing, even though Jim had been in that very same position only minutes before. "How about we take this to your bed?"

Uncertainty chased desire across that expressive face. "Uh, it's the couch, Jim. It folds out."

"Will it hold us?"

"Oh yeah. It's really sturdy." Blair looked past him at the couch in question. "I'll just get it ready, okay?"

Jim needed the breathing space, as Blair bustled about. He managed to make it to a chair and sat down to disentangle himself from his boots and jeans and underwear, watching Blair as he folded his clothing and placed it on another chair. The kid was still wearing that white shirt, and the sight of it floating loose around his body with the air currents generated by his movements was almost hypnotic. Breaking point - Jim's, at least - came when Blair bent over to tuck in a stray corner of the sheet, exposing his smooth, rounded ass to Jim's suddenly intent gaze.

"Just stay like that." Jim's voice came out husky and low, and Blair froze, still turned away. A heartbeat later, one blue eye appeared questioningly over Blair's shoulder as he turned his head. "Don't move."

Jim's first instinct, to drive hard and deep between those tempting cheeks, he discarded immediately, though regretfully. But it was no hardship to drop to his knees again, and slowly, lazily kiss and lick his way across the sweet curve of Blair's ass, to delve gently into the cleft and tease his way to the delicate opening. He stroked himself languidly, enjoying the almost liquid moans of pleasure that escaped Blair's trembling body and with his free hand, slipped between Blair's parted legs to part the soft, moist folds of his cunt.

"Jim! Jim, please... I can't..." Blair's whole body was shaking helplessly and Jim took pity on him. He put both hands on Blair's hips and tumbled him onto the newly made bed, then crawled after him with a predatory air.

He spread Blair out before him, arms and legs sprawling, not allowing anything to be hidden from his greedy gaze. He tasted every inch of Blair, from his toes to the sweetness of his breath and then returned to the slow, detailed explorations of his genitals, sucking, licking, probing gently with tongue and fingers, drawing Blair to the edge of ecstasy and then holding him back, only to draw him even higher with his next caress.

But there came a moment when Jim knew that he could go no further. He eased back a little, ignoring Blair's pained groan. "I've never been inside a woman, only men. Would you... Blair, can I fuck you?"

Even saying the words made his groin tighten dangerously. But Blair was staring up at him wide-eyed and hungry. His tongue darted over swollen lips and he nodded.

Jim eased himself down onto Blair's body, carefully taking his weight on his elbow and forearms, though Blair was no fragile flower. Blair's arms came up to receive him as they kissed hungrily. They were both impatient for it to start, both a little afraid. Blair took a deep breath and brought his legs up, wrapping them loosely around Jim's hips.

"Go on, Jim. Do it."

Jim groaned with the intensity of his need and finally... finally, took his cock in his hand and pressed the head into the slick embrace of Blair's body. There was a slight resistance as Blair tensed and caught his breath. Jim paused, waiting out the onset of nerves, and after a moment Blair breathed out and smiled shakily. Jim pushed a little more insistently and suddenly he was sliding easily inside Blair, his cock surrounded by wet heat.

Blair was sobbing, incoherent fragmented words mingled with pleasure sounds. He arched his body up against Jim's, demanding more, and pulled his head down against his breast. Jim sought eagerly for the nipple and suckled it, tugging hard with his lips. Blair's body undulated beneath his and it was enough just to remain still for a while and allow Blair to fuck himself on his dick.

Sweat made their bodies slippery, sweetened the friction between them and scented the air with its sharp tang. Blair's fingers dabbled in the droplets that slithered down either side of Jim's spine and then spread out to capture his hips, to urge him on with hungry, demanding fingers. He felt his control, what little he had left, evaporate in the heat of his need and barely heard Blair's anguished cry as the tight smooth channel contracted around his cock. The turgid pulsing of Blair's cock sent liquid fire gushing between them. His own climax seemed endless, and yet all too evanescent. As his body collapsed, Jim still managed to fall mostly to one side so that Blair wouldn't have to bear his weight.

The niggling sense of something being wrong drew Jim out of a light sleep. He lay half over Blair, and his cock had softened enough that the link between them was tenuous at best. As he stirred and pushed himself up on one elbow he felt his cock slide free of Blair's body and was unprepared for the feeling of loss it evoked. But the sense of wrongness increased, and Jim frowned, taking a deep breath to steady himself.

Blood. He could smell blood.

He looked down and saw the red smears on his cock. For a moment he almost panicked. It couldn't be possible. He'd been careful, more so than usual, since he'd had no idea how experienced Blair was. How could he have torn... but, of course, he couldn't have. He hadn't fucked Blair's ass. He leaned over Blair, running a cautious hand up the inside of his thigh, and saw more blood. A small amount, only, but it was enough to send his heart up into his mouth.

A faint sigh and the rustle of cloth against a stirring body warned Jim that Blair was awake. He looked up to see sultry blue eyes blinking slowly into wakefulness. A faint smile tugged at the corners of Blair's full lips; a tiny, complacent smile that Jim recognised all too well.

He refrained from groaning with an effort. "Chief, tell me you aren't a virgin."

"Well, hardly." The smile widened into full-blown smugness. He yawned and stretched seductively.

"Are you out of your mind?" He almost shouted the words, shaking with reaction. "I could have hurt you. You do realise that?"

Blair seemed totally unconcerned. "But you didn't."

"I could have. Fuck, Blair..." He ran a nervous hand over his hair. His emotions were so chaotic he didn't know what he was feeling. "It was your first time. It should have been special."

"Jim, it was special." Blair smiled up at him, but when he didn't react, the smile faded. "So, I guess this isn't a good time to tell you that... that" he waved a hand vaguely towards his groin, "wasn't the only first time for me."

"What do you mean?" Jim stared at him numbly, wondering what else he was going to come out with. "Your first time with a man?"

"Man. Woman." Blair shrugged. "Anyone."

"You've never had sex before?" This was just getting better and better. "Then why? Why me, for gods sake?"

Blair looked surprised. "You really don't know much about us, do you, Jim?"

Stung, Jim reacted as he always did when he felt he was being attacked. "I know more than I want to." He saw the hurt look, quickly masked, on Blair's face and sighed. "I'm sorry. That wasn't fair. Why don't you explain?"

He already knew Blair well enough to know that the kid couldn't resist a chance to expound on any subject under the sun. Sure enough...

"Are you sure?" Blair actually waited for his brief nod before continuing. "All right, I'll put it simply. Nobody wants to sleep with me." He smiled at Jim's instinctive shake of the head. "No, think about it, Jim. Norms don't want to sleep with me - current company excepted, I guess. Women just don't seem to be interested in us, and the guys who like a walk on the sleazy side now and then... they usually tend to think of herms as chicks with dicks. Those kind of guys aren't gonna want to have sex with someone who looks like me."

"You mean someone who's hung like you." Jim grinned, enjoying Blair's discomfiture. He stroked his fingertips lightly over the soft cock, nestled cosily amongst the dark curls at Blair's groin. It was hard to imagine anyone could not think it - or Blair - incredibly beautiful. But there were plenty of gay men who wouldn't touch a guy who boasted less than eight inches. "I see your point. I guess I tend to think of you as a guy with a vagina."

"And breasts." Blair grinned lecherously.

"Actually, I'm surprised how much I like that. Them." He wasn't joking, but Blair snorted with amusement and he couldn't help laughing. "So, why don't other... others like you... why won't they sleep with you?" Surely this whole masculinity thing Blair had told him about wasn't that important. "Not because of the way you look?"

"Well, yes, there is that, of course." Blair nodded. "It's a small community, here in Cascade, Jim. Everybody knows everybody else's business. Most of them know about my Mom."


Blair shrugged. "I'm considered genetically unreliable, because of my father, as well being as the product of what they would regard as a dangerously dysfunctional family. Nobody would want to risk having a child with me."

"I'm talking about sex, Chief, not settling down and raising a family."

Blair laughed, somewhat bitterly. "It doesn't matter. For the intersexed community, sex is always about reproduction. It's not unusual for herms to never have sex with a partner - the main reason they would is because they're unable to self-inseminate. But nobody would ever choose me to co-parent, even if I was good looking,"

"If they think you're unattractive, then they're getting caught up in the details and missing the big picture." Jim leaned forward to kiss the parted lips as Blair frowned slightly. "You're beautiful, Blair, and if they can't see that, it's their loss."

He actually blushed. Jim laughed and kissed him again, his hand rising to stroke the shirt-covered shoulder. With a soft moan of encouragement, Blair sank down, moving closer to Jim, and began to shrug out of the shirt.

"Don't." Jim caught hold of his upper arm. "Leave it on."

"You like it, huh?" Blair brushed his fingertips down Jim's chest. He smiled suddenly. "You're a man and you're smoother than I am."

"I'm not complaining." He nuzzled between Blair's breasts, then turned his head and took a nipple between his lips. It tightened against his tongue, far more prominent than a man's, and he suckled it greedily. Rolling onto his back, he pulled Blair over on top of him and they rocked against each other with slow sensuality, gradually growing hard. "Would you like to fuck me?"

Blair's head came up suddenly, and his body jerked in surprise. "Can I?" He licked his lips nervously.

"Oh, I'd say you can." Jim gave a little thrust of his hips to underline his point. "You don't have to, if you don't want to."

"I want to," Blair assured him fervently. "I guess I never imagined..." his eyes grew a little distant. "Wow... Jim... I don't really know what to do."

"Luckily, I do." Jim kissed him reassuringly, and parted his legs a little so that Blair slid down between them. "We'll need some lube."

Blair grinned and slithered off him, padding into the utility area on bare feet to retrieve a small bottle of something. "Oil, natural, unscented. I use it on my hair sometimes when it's dry."

"Should work." Jim lay passively, watching as Blair dribbled oil into his palm, holding it there for a moment before dipping a finger into it. "Use a couple of fingers. You won't hurt me."

"Okay." Blair reached down between his legs, stroking gently between Jim's ass cheeks. Jim pulled his knees up to his chest obligingly and Blair flushed as he watched the deliberate movements of his fingers.

Jim groaned with pleasure as Blair's well-lubricated fingers slid into him. In spite of what he'd said, it had been a while, but that only made the sensations more intense. He rocked his hips to deepen the cautious penetration, hungry for more. "That's enough. I want you inside me."

Blair withdrew his fingers and dribbled some more oil over his dick, smoothing it over the surface with a quick, twisting stroke of his fingers. Jim could hear his heartbeat accelerate, and the quickness of his breathing. When Blair glanced up at him, his pupils were so dilated the blue of his eyes was almost swallowed up in darkness.

His eyes dropped again as he moved into position. Jim felt his dick nudge against his ass hole and he moaned. "Push. There'll be a little resistance. Nothing to worry about."

Blair gasped as he breached Jim's body, even though he was barely inside. Then he must have realised that Jim was ready for him. He slid deep, then; stopped for a moment and then with one more smooth thrust, was buried to the hilt.

Jim wrapped his legs around Blair's hips, holding him in place, and reached up to stroke his cheek, his lips. "See? It's that easy."

"It's..." Blair bit his lip. His eyes were wide. "Fuck... Jim... it's..."

"That's right." Jim grinned. "Fuck Jim. I'm waiting."

A weak chuckle greeted his attempt at humour. "It feels so good. I never imagined..."

Jim nudged his hips upward a fraction in a less than subtle hint. At last Blair began to thrust, awkwardly and with no real rhythm. After a moment Jim shifted his hands to Blair's hips, guiding his movements, showing him the perfect angle and tempo to give them both maximum enjoyment.

It wasn't long before Blair's hesitancy evaporated and he was driving hard into Jim. Sweat poured off both of them and they were breathing in raucous gasps, still striving to find that perfect moment of abandonment. Then Blair lowered his head and bit, hard, on Jim's nipple. He cried out in shock at the intensity of the sensation, unable to distinguish, for the moment, between pleasure and pain, and his cock jerked wildly, pumping out white heat. Inside him, he felt Blair's ejaculate swirl in hot torrents along his channel. He caught the compact body as Blair collapsed forward and held him close.

In spite of the fact they slept little that night, dawn came too soon. Jim watched the grey rectangle of the window slowly lighten over Blair's shoulder, lying spooned up behind him. They'd exhausted each other, as Blair had sought to experience all he could. Both of them steadfastly ignored the deeper emotions that lay between them.

Jim sighed and nuzzled Blair's shoulder, seeking to bury himself in Blair's unique scent. His hand slid over Blair's belly, rising to cup one slender breast as Blair stirred drowsily. He kissed Blair's neck and tasted salt, and the oil they'd used last night, which had gotten everywhere.

"Mmn..." Blair's hips moved back, pressing his smooth ass cheeks into Jim's groin. Still more than half asleep, if Jim was any judge, he moaned Jim's name longingly.

"Shh, Blair..." his other hand drifted down, caressing the softly tumescent cock, pushing it down between Blair's legs and into the moist crease behind his balls. He rubbed the swollen cockhead between slick labia, coating his own fingers with Blair's juices in the process. "Is this what you do when you're alone?"

"Not as good as this..." Blair sighed, squirming sensually in Jim's encompassing embrace. "Everything's better with you..." he pushed back a little more and Jim gave into the temptation to nudge Blair's knees apart with one of his own.

That was all his dick needed to slide into the warm cleft of Blair's ass. He heard Blair's breath catch and prepared to withdraw, but Blair wriggled against him with another little moan. "Don't you want to? It's the only thing we haven't done, I think."

"I didn't want to hurt you." Jim nuzzled his throat again, and then kissed the pulse point, feeling the heat and throb of the blood so close beneath the skin. "Do you want to try it?"

Blair's answer was simply to pick up the small bottle, now almost empty of oil. "Think there's enough?"

"Should be." Jim got some of it on his fingers, with Blair's help. "If it hurts, or you don't like it, just tell me, okay?"

"Sure." Blair sighed contentedly as Jim stroked delicately across the small opening. "But I don't think it's gonna be a problem."

He took it slowly, seducing the sensitive flesh into accepting first a fingertip, then a whole finger. Blair was relaxed and still a little drowsy in his arms, content to let Jim set the pace. When he added a second finger, Blair gasped.

"No. It's okay. Really." Blair's voice stopped his instinctive withdrawal. "It's just... surprising. I thought it'd be like... like it was the other way. And it is, but it's different too."

"You want me to stop?" But he already knew the answer, and began to twist his fingers a little, stretching the tight ring of muscle, loosening it for his cock. "I'm going to add another finger. If you can't take that, you won't be able to take my dick, so tell me if it's too much."

But although Blair groaned, he pushed himself further onto Jim's fingers, his body saying louder than any words that he wanted more; wanted everything Jim could give him. At last, Jim was satisfied that Blair was ready. He slid his fingers free and used them to slick up his dick, adding more oil as a precaution.

"Here, draw your leg up a bit." He showed Blair how to lie, rolling forward, almost onto his front, with his uppermost leg pulled up towards his chest. He gave the pouting muscle one last coating of oil and pressed his cockhead gently into the opening.

"Oh! Ohhhh..." Blair arched his back, seemingly attempting both to escape the intrusion of Jim's cock and to welcome it. "Fuck... that's... that's..."

"Yeah." He couldn't remember ever having a lover so tight and yet so pliant. He rocked carefully, sliding deeper with each forward movement until he was fully sheathed inside Blair. He kissed Blair's shoulder, sighing with pleasure and more than ready to give him all the time he needed to adjust.

Blair twisted in his arms, turning his upper body so they could kiss. Jim delved deep into that lush mouth as he began to move his hips slowly. He rubbed his hands up and down the taut lines of Blair's body, mapping every curve and plane from breast to groin.

When Blair's body began to jerk and shake uncontrollably he reached for the hard, eager flesh at Blair's groin and pumped the sturdy shaft in time with his thrusts. With a choked cry, Blair spilled his cum over Jim's fingers, and his ass tightened around Jim's dick.

Still, Jim continued to thrust, and his fingers caressed the softening shaft while his free hand moved to that other opening, plunging two fingers as deeply inside as possible. Caught at the moment his orgasm was trailing to an end, Blair was dragged, sobbing, to the precipice again, his body entirely at Jim's mercy. Another series of shudders racked his body and his cock surged briefly; then another, and this time, he took Jim over with him.

For a time, Jim was aware of nothing outside himself except for his connection to Blair's body. But even that tenuous link was enough to anchor him, and he was grateful for that. He sighed and stirred, and as he did, his cock slipped out of Blair's body. The light in the window was much brighter now, and Jim felt his heart sink.

He pushed himself away from Blair's still body, tempted, for a moment, to leave while Blair slept. To make it easier for... who? Himself, or Blair? He knew the answer and shook his head grimly. He wasn't going to sneak out of here like he was ashamed of Blair or of what they'd done. He owed Blair that much. It would hurt, but at least it would be a clean wound.

He lowered his head and breathed in Blair's scent. Sharp with sweat, musky with a mingling of male and female that was unique in Jim's experience. He could still catch a hint of the spicy Ethiopian food they'd had delivered in the early hours of the morning, and of the shampoo Blair used. Carefully, he committed it to memory and brushed aside the coiled strands of hair to kiss Blair's temple.

"I have to go now." Jim spoke softly. He felt the tension in Blair's body, though they were barely touching. "I need to wash up and change my clothes before I go to work."

"Okay." Blair's voice was subdued. "I'll see you there."

Jim hesitated. He'd expected it to hurt, but not like this. "You don't have to... I mean..."

"I'll be there." Blair spoke sharply, but Jim could hear the tremor in his voice, smell the salt tang of tears. "We've got a job to do, remember?"

"I remember." He kissed the dark tangle of hair. "I'm sorry. I'll see you at the station."

He swung his legs off the bed and stood stiffly, all his contentment of a few minutes ago vanished. Blair lay still, his back turned while Jim dressed and pulled on his boots. He went to the door, and hesitated, looking back at Blair. There wasn't the slightest sound or movement from the bed; Jim quietly opened the door and left.

If the killer's schedule was to be trusted, they had three more days before the next murder. The two of them hit the streets, showing photos of the victims, asking questions, hoping against hope to find some information, or shake something loose that would crack this case wide open before somebody else died.

The newscasts were covering the killings now, though there was little about the first three killings. Murdered herms didn't push up the ratings in the way a counsellor's nephew and a rising young business executive did. Jim knew that Simon was taking a lot of pressure over the case, but so far, had managed not to let it filter down to him.

"So, you think that Sherman went into the alley with his killer?" Blair took another bite from his sourdough sub and watched Jim's face expectantly while he chewed.

"It seems probable." Jim glanced away; he was finding it more and more difficult to act as though nothing had happened between them. Unlike Blair, it seemed. "Given the area, I'd guess it was a prostitute."

"Which means a herm." Blair put his sandwich down and sighed. "I think you're right. I really wish I didn't, though."

"That doesn't explain Greg Lindstrom. Somehow, I can't see him going for a walk on the wild side. Not with his background."

"Doesn't really fit the profile for Dana Schwartz or Neith Watanabe, either." Blair considered for a moment. "Alexis Federon could have been with someone herm knew on the street."

"Nothing about this makes sense." Frustration boiled to the surface, and Jim glared at Blair as though somehow it was his fault. "The hairs we found in the alley belong to five different people, only one of whom is on our database. The mud... we're still waiting on an exact analysis, but anyone could have tracked it into the alley."

"We're doing everything we can, Jim." Crumpling the sandwich wrapper into a ball, Blair tossed it into the nearest trashcan. "At least with all the publicity, it's gonna make people more careful"

"And the killer harder to find." Jim rose, dropping his mostly uneaten lunch into the same trashcan. "Damn it."

They spent the rest of the afternoon continuing to canvas the area where the killings had occurred, without any break in the case. Jim was beginning to suspect their only hope of stopping the killer was to catch him, or herm, in the act. A risky proposition at the best of times. Still, it wouldn't hurt to raise the possibility of putting undercover cops into the area.

Jim was just about to suggest that they call it a day when his portable beeped. The results of the mud analysis had come through. Catching Blair's arm, he pulled the herm aside so they could both read the data.

"Compost? Isn't that used in gardening?" Jim stared at the screen in bewilderment. Where the hell in Cascade would anyone use compost?

Blair was on tiptoe, peeking over his shoulder. "Compost has to be made, right? It's a combination of vegetable and animal waste, isn't it?" At Jim's questioning look, he grinned faintly. "Crap, Jim. It's made with animal crap. And plant cuttings. It's made commercially and sold to gardeners, so if we can figure out which composting plant made it and get a list of their customers..."

"Yeah..." Jim smiled. Something in his gut told him this could be the vital piece of evidence that cracked the case wide open. He keyed in the query and snapped the portable shut. "Come on. I'll spot you a coffee."

Blair had long gone home, and Jim was hanging around waiting for the information about composting services when the call came in from beat cops in the Corona district. Another victim of the killer that everyone was now calling the Corona Slasher had been found. Jim had the dubious pleasure of telling the good news to Simon.

"Dammit, he's two days ahead of schedule." Simon slammed his hands down on the desk. "This is not good. Are you any closer to identifying the killer?"

"I'm following up on a lead, but the information I requested hasn't come back yet." Jim shrugged. "I'm heading out now for the scene. If we can match any physical evidence from this attack with the samples we already have..."

"Then what are you waiting for?" Simon scowled and made a shooing motion. "I'll just call the Commissioner and let her kick my butt around for a while."

Trying to stifle a grin, and not succeeding very well, Jim sketched an ironic salute and left. He called Blair's apartment, but there was no response from there, or from Blair's portable. Well, the kid had hardly had a moment to himself since he'd become involved in the case. He'd just have to manage on his own.

When he arrived at the scene, however, the first thing he noticed was Blair, arguing with one of the beat cops, his hands sketching agitated circles in the air. Before Jim could reach him, another cop grabbed the herm by the shoulder of his jacket and pulled him roughly aside.

"Sandburg!" Heads turned in Jim's direction as he produced a bellow worthy of Simon Banks. Jim forced his way through the knot of officers and bystanders to reach his partner's side. A scorching glance at the beat cop encouraged the young man to release Blair and step back. "Glad to see you could make it. What's happening?"

"I was talking to people at the nightclub over there, when the word started circulating that another body had been found." Blair frowned up at him, absently flexing his shoulder. "They're all scared, Jim. Even more so, now that norms are being killed; but they don't trust the police enough to cooperate."

"I don't blame them." He jerked his head towards the cordon of police. "Let's go take a look."

The scene of the crime was a parking lot. Dimly lit, with little traffic at this time of night, it was almost as isolated as the alley had been. There was no lingering smell of pheromones, and no mud. The victim lay in the darkest area of the lot, behind a couple of hovercars. Blair took one look and turned away retching.

It wasn't unusual for serial killers to escalate, but it wasn't only the frequency that had changed. This victim had been eviscerated, and, if the dark clots of blood at his groin were any indication, castrated as well. Jim hurriedly dialled down his sense of smell, clamping his mouth shut against the bile that rose in this throat.

The body was still warm. There was little question about its gender, since no herm that Jim had ever heard of would grow a full-face, neatly clipped beard. When news of this killing got out, there was going to be serious trouble.

As he rose from his crouch, Jim could feel Blair's presence at his back. "You don't have to be here. Go wait by the others."

"No. Jim, you need to use your senses, and I can help you." His hand touched Jim's back lightly and immediately some of the gut clenching tension eased from his body. "Now filter out the scent of blood. What else is there?"

He didn't need Blair's instructions to tell him how to proceed, but hearing the calm voice made it easier to concentrate. He prowled around the edges of the parking lot, using sight and smell to locate anything that appeared out of place. There was a trail of bloody marks headed towards an alley at the back of the lot, but by the time they emerged into the next street, the minute traces had petered out.

Jim turned back, scanning for more evidence as he went, but this was obviously a well-used route and there were too many overlaid scents for him to pick out any individual trail.

Even in the five or so minutes they'd been gone, the crowd had grown. Now it was composed of roughly equal numbers of herms and norms, uneasily mixing in agitated confusion. Jim signalled to the sergeant in charge of the scene. "Get your people into the crowd. We want witnesses. Send some of them into the clubs too. We want any information, no matter how small. Okay?"

"Right." The sergeant glanced around. "I'd better call for backup. This could get ugly real fast."

"You do that. Call my boss, too. Simon Banks. Let him know what's going down here." He turned to the restless crowd and raised his voice. "Anyone who has information about this, please come forward. Everybody else, please move away now. We need the area clear."

It was going to be another long night. Beside him, Blair kept a hand unobtrusively on his arm.

Morning came, and with it a burst of newscasts of varying levels of hysteria. Jim watched them, with Blair still at his side. Afterwards, he drove the herm back to his apartment, even accompanying him upstairs.

"I want you to be careful who you open this door to." Already there'd been reports of herms being beaten up by roving groups of norms. "It's only going to get worse before it gets better."

"I'll be careful." There was a thin edge of temper to the words. "I've survived this long, Jim."

"Good." He resisted the urge to pull Blair close. He looked tired, and worn. "I'll call you this afternoon. By then we should have a lead on who sold that compost, and the people they sold it to. The Commissioner's made this case the top priority, so any requests we make for information will be dealt with first."

"Now that norms are being killed." Blair's eyes were stormy.

"It isn't right, but at least it's happening now." Jim shrugged wearily. "I don't want to see any more deaths, whoever the victims happen to be."

"Yeah. You're right." Blair heaved a dejected sigh. "It's just..."

"I do understand, Blair." He pulled the herm into a hug, resting his cheek against the soft hair. If he hadn't been so exhausted he might have tried to take it further, but as it was... he drew back after a moment and cupped the tired face briefly between his hands. "I'll see you later. Get some sleep."

As promised, the information was waiting for them when they arrived at the station. Jim, had insisted on picking Blair up outside his apartment building, and if he'd thought he could get away with it, would have made Blair wait inside his apartment for Jim to escort him down.

The situation in Corona was getting rapidly worse. There were twice as many beat cops on duty in the area, but still herms were being accosted and harassed, if not worse. The Mayor had gone on the newscasts to appeal for calm, but it didn't appear to be having any effect.

Scrolling down through the information, they quickly located only three customers who were anywhere near the Corona district. "It has to be one of them. That mud couldn't have been tracked very far."

Blair shrugged. "Unless the killer has a car."

"Unlikely." Jim only had a car because he was a cop. With fuel reserves almost drained and overcrowding a major problem, it wasn't easy to get a permit to operate a car these days. "We could check out the condos, some of them operate a cab service for the apartment owners. Otherwise, my bet would be on one of the local places."

He sent through a request for that information and grabbed his jacket. "Let's get going. I don't want to risk the killer moving up his schedule again."

Three hours later, they were back at the station and Jim was convinced that none of the people they'd interviewed were likely to be the killer. Though most of them had been nervous, he hadn't detected any sign that they had lied to him. Nevertheless he'd taken hair samples from each interviewee for analysis.

"What next, Jim? It's nearly dark. If the killer's going to strike again..."

"I know." Jim scowled at the comms screen. "I'll get Brown and Rafe to check out the condos that have cabs, but I'm going down to Corona. Look." He pulled up a map with the kill sites marked out. "It's a small area. If I station myself here," he indicated a point in the exact centre, "I should be able to hear anything that's going down."

"I don't know... there's a lot of strip clubs and nightclubs over here." Blair drew a line across the south side of the district. "The noise could be a problem. What if I acted as a decoy? You could home in on me more easily than you could cover the whole area. Like you said, I could pass as a norm if I wear a loose enough shirt."

"No!" Appalled, Jim snapped the veto out. "I can't put a civilian in that kind of risk."

"But, Jim, it makes sense..." Blair's jaw was set in a stubborn line. "And we don't even know if the killer will strike again tonight. It's just a precaution, man."

"The kid's right, Jim." Simon's voice interrupted before Jim could refuse again. "We can fit him out with Kevlar. He'll be as safe as we can make him."

Annoyance that Simon had managed to get so close without him realising made Jim's voice sharper than was tactful. "Which is not a hundred percent, Simon. I can't believe I'm hearing this."

"Jim, if there's another murder, my people are going to be attacked. I can guarantee it." Blair leaned forward, his voice insistent. "If Simon... uh, Capt Banks... agrees, then I'm doing it. Every night, if necessary, until this killer is caught."

Simon tapped Jim on the shoulder. "End of argument, Detective. Now get Sandburg kitted out and let's get this under way."

Jim leaned against a wall, in the exact centre of the area the killer had been prowling, arms crossed over his chest and scowling furiously. People were tending to avoid him, but he hardly noticed. All his attention was on the sound of a familiar heartbeat three blocks away. Using it as a focal point, he was able to scan the area surrounding Blair for any suspicious sounds.

"I'm heading east on East 65th, towards Lexington, Jim." Blair's soft mutter was as clear as if the herm was standing right beside him. I'll turn south once I get to Roxburgh."

Jim relayed the information to Joel Taggart, who was directing the uniformed and plain-clothes cops who were wandering the streets. Two other Sentinels were on watch as well, while their Guides acted as decoys. It didn't reassure Jim in the slightest. The Sentinel/Guide teams were trained police officers; Blair was completely inexperienced in either surveillance or unarmed combat.

"Too many people around here. I'm gonna come back towards you, then head off west." The sound of whooping and raucous singing underlined Blair's decision. Jim heard the whoosh of a passing car and tensed. "Just a cab. Nothing to worry about man."

"Damn it, be careful." If only Blair could hear him.

There was a sound of gasping breath and hurried footsteps, then an 'oof' and a scraping noise. "Hey!" Blair sounded more startled than anything. "Hey, are you all right?"

"I thought I heard..." a female voice, breathless. Jim relaxed. "Back there." She giggled almost hysterically. "And I dropped my purse. I'm so stupid, but with all this horrible stuff going on..."

"It's probably nothing, there's a lot of cops around tonight." Blair's voice, reassuring. They were walking again. "The Slasher would have to be crazy to do anything round here. I don't see anything."

"Fuck. Be careful." Jim hissed in annoyance. He pushed away from the wall and began walking, needing to be closer to Blair. Without noticing, he picked up the pace, his long legs covering the ground with deceptive speed.

Blair was obviously casting around, looking for the purse, while the young woman made sounds of helpless confusion. "It's not here. Are you sure...?"

"Maybe over here. I was so scared I wasn't thinking." She was very close to Blair now, and there didn't seem to be anyone else around.

"What are you... fuck!" There was pain as well as shock in Blair's voice.

Piggybacking his senses on the sound, Jim smelt blood. He broke into a run, and lifted the comms unit to his mouth. "Taggart! It's a woman! She's got Blair now. They're on 65th between Lexington and Roxburgh."

Dimly he heard Taggart's acknowledgement, but all his senses were focused on the struggle that was continuing. Only two blocks away now. Surely someone was closer. He heard running footsteps and a shout. "Police! Drop the knife!"

No gunfire, though. More sounds of struggle and Blair's frantic heartbeat. One block. Another cop had arrived. Jim heard him cursing at the impossibility of getting a clean shot. The woman was screaming - curses and threats, descending into incoherence.

He could see them now. Two cops and Blair, struggling with a small, slender woman with a very big, sharp knife. A scream of rage tore at his eardrums, and Jim saw Blair go down. Somehow he found a burst of speed he hadn't known was in him, as the two cops finally managed to subdue the woman. By the time Jim reached the little group two other plain-clothes cops had arrived. One of them was bending over Blair.

"Blair. Sandburg, are you all right?" Jim dropped to his knees beside the herm, hands reaching to check him over.

Pale as a ghost's, Blair's face turned up to Jim's with a shaky smile on his lips. "It's just a scratch." He was clutching his upper arm. "Who would have thought a woman was the killer? Oh, man..." the smile wobbled and Blair looked decidedly nauseous.

"Fuck! Let me see." He prised Blair's fingers off the wound and ripped the shirtsleeve open. Blair was right, it was only a scratch, but a long, deep scratch that had bled quite a bit. "Call an ambulance. I want him checked out in a hospital."

"But, Jim..."

He put a hand over Blair's mouth. "Humour me."

As much as Jim wanted to accompany Blair to the hospital, he knew it was impossible. The woman would have to be taken downtown, her identity ascertained, and booked for attempted murder. That would be enough to hold her while they established whether she was, in fact, the Corona Slasher. Judging by the difficulty the two much larger officers had had in subduing her, Jim had no problem believing that they'd found their killer.

Unexpected corroboration came in the form of Detective Henri Brown, who, with his partner Rafe, had been following up on the condos that provided a cab service. The young woman was a Miriam Gillespie and she, along with her father, had been the concierge of one of the most exclusive condominiums in Cascade. One of its claims to fame was the rooftop garden. Mud from the garden had been found in the car that was used to ferry the inhabitants around town. It perfectly matched the mud found at the scene of Sherman's death.

"Have they located the father yet?" Jim was on his third coffee and it wasn't helping much. He wanted desperately to leave, go to the hospital, and take Blair home with him.

Simon shook his head. "Nobody's seen him in days. She won't say where he is. She won't see a lawyer, either."

"Huh. Better be careful, then. We don't want her getting off on a technicality." Jim rubbed the back of his neck wearily. "At least the herms are off the hook now."

"Just as well too. I'm in no mood to deal with a riot." Simon yawned cavernously. "Jim, I want you in on the interrogation. If anyone can get her talking, I'll bet on you. I want this all cleared up so the Commissioner can have her moment of glory on the morning newscast. And then maybe this city can get back to normal."

Miriam Gillespie looked completely different with her hair pulled back into a ponytail and wearing the prison coveralls that had replaced her torn dress. Jim wasn't inclined to pity, not when he'd seen her dragged, struggling and screaming like a banshee, off Blair. Not when her pretty face was devoid of any expression and her dark eyes seemed to open onto an even darker soul.

He sat in the chair opposite, just watching her for a while. She didn't acknowledge his presence in any way. Finally, he laid out the photos of her victims on the table one by one. "Alexis Federon. Neith Watanabe. Dana Schwartz. Greg Lindstrom. Adam Sherman. Boyd Kowalski." He leaned back again. "It must make you feel pretty good, knowing that a whole city was on the verge of hysteria. All because of you.

"Or maybe not." Jim leaned forward when she didn't respond. "Maybe that wasn't what you wanted. Maybe you just wanted to hurt, to kill. They meant nothing to you. Their friends, their families meant nothing to you."

"I'm sorry." A small hand reached out, touched the picture of Greg Lindstrom. "About him. I thought..."

"You thought he was a herm." Jim nodded. "But he was."

"No!" Her face twisted. "Not like they were. He was... he wasn't one of them."

"And Sherman? Kowalski? They weren't herms at all. You must have known that."

"What does that matter? You're all just as bad. All of you." She pushed the other photos away, leaving Lindstrom's alone in the centre of the table. "Disgusting, perverted, hateful. All of you."

"Except for Greg Lindstrom." Jim turned the photo around and studied the young, blood spattered face. "Why Greg, Miriam?"

"He knew." She moaned softly and doubled over as if in pain. "He knew..."

"Miriam. I'm going out for a minute. If you need anything just call. There's an officer outside, okay?" She didn't pay any attention to Jim as he stood and left the interrogation room.

Simon met him in the corridor. "What?"

"I've got a hunch. Has the analysis been done on her hair sample yet?" Dammit, he wished Blair was here.

"I'll check. You keep an eye on her." Simon clapped him gently on the shoulder as he passed.

Jim went into the observation room. Next door, Miriam Gillespie was sitting perfectly still, but her eyes were fixed on the, to her, upside down photo of Greg Lindstrom. Slowly, her hand inched forward until her fingertip touched the corner; then she turned it until it was the right way up again. She studied his face, stroking the photo with her fingers.

It was nearly ten minutes before Simon returned. His face was grim as he handed over the printout. "How did you know?"

"I told you. A hunch." He handed the paper back again. "I want to check out her apartment. While I'm gone, can you make sure she has a thorough medical exam?"

The Gillespie's apartment was small, neat, and very bare, with the exception of Miriam's room. That was almost stereotypically feminine, with frills and fussy little knickknacks on every available surface. In the closet were rows of gauzy dresses and delicate little shoes, with one glaring exception. A pair of sensible, sturdy sneakers with mud clinging to the sides and soles.

"Bag those." Jim watched as his instruction was carried out. He wasn't going to take any chance of a procedural slip up now. Not after everything that had happened. "I'm going up to the roof."

The rooftop garden was impressive. Some of the trees must be at least twenty years old. Jim reflected that the roof must have been heavily reinforced to take this kind of weight - it would have cost a small fortune. He prowled the gravel paths, not sure exactly what he was looking for, but certain he'd know when he found it.

In the end, he smelt, rather than saw it. Following the scent of decaying flesh led him to a patch of soil that had recently been disturbed, then hastily flattened down again. It was in the midst of a cluster of small trees, several feet away from the path. Only a Sentinel would have caught the faint smell. She'd done a good job. Forensics would have to deal with this, so he called the team in and left a uniformed officer to guard the site.

Back in the apartment, a small team was sorting through the contents of the kitchen and lounge. Two officers were in Miriam's room. "Sir. This could be useful."

"Thanks." He took the flimsy and activated the scrolling function. Images, mostly still, cycled through the liquid crystal screen. It was a photo album of the Gillespie family's life. Two simply dressed adults and a small child who seemed happy enough.

Things changed around the time Miriam reached puberty. The images weren't so happy; then the woman disappeared. Miriam grew to young womanhood, now wearing the kind of dainty, exaggeratedly feminine clothing that currently inhabited her closet. Jim powered the flimsy down. "Keep this as evidence. I want you to look for any medical records, or insurance claims. Any medication. I'll be back at the station. Call me if you find anything."

On the way back to the station, Jim called in at the hospital, but wasn't able to find anyone who could tell him what had happened to Blair. The emergency room was too busy, the nursing staff too stretched to deal with non-essential issues like a detective trying to locate a friend. He couldn't locate Blair with his senses, and could only hope he'd gone home and locked himself inside. He called Blair's comms number but got no answer.

Simon was waiting for him in the bullpen. "What have you got? We're gonna have to move fast on this one. Rumours are spreading."

"The father's dead. She buried him on the rooftop; probably the same night she murdered Sherman." He followed Simon into the captain's office. "That seems to be the turning point. Up till then, she'd targeted herms."

"Did she kill him?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't know. The body was buried. I left it to Forensics to dig up. It looks like the father belonged to some fundamentalist religious group that believed herms were an abomination. Guess he wasn't too happy when his daughter turned into one of them."

"Poor kid." Simon's mouth twisted in distaste. "The doctor I had examine Gillespie said she'd had gender reassignment surgery. Except, he called it butchery. Probably some back street quack who'd operate on under-aged kids if the money was good enough."

"So she's brought up hating herms, then finds out she is one." Jim perched on the edge of Simon's desk and rubbed a hand over his face. He felt like he was a thousand years old. "I haven't figured out what set off the original killing spree, but when she found out Lindstrom had had surgery too... she must have felt like she'd killed the only person who might have understood her."

"So she blames the father?" Simon smiled grimly. "Well, that figures. Darryl always seems to think everything's my fault."

"She said we're all as bad as each other. I guess from her perspective you can't fault that assessment."

"You can't help feeling sorry for the kid, but what she's done is going to cost more lives than just the six - or seven - she killed herself." Simon turned to his comms unit. "I'm gonna call the Commissioner. I want you to get a full statement out of her, do you hear? Maybe it'll help."

Jim paused in the doorway. "I doubt it, Simon. I don't think anything's going to help."

The riot had already started, though they didn't know it at the time. Word of mouth had spread the message that the Corona Slasher had been caught, and that the killer was a herm. That was all that was needed to get the rednecks out prowling the streets, where they started clumping together into bands of ten, twenty, or more. They fell with righteous abandon on any herms unfortunate enough not to have heard the news and still be on the street.

More police were called in, but it was far too late. The groups were getting more aggressive as they found fewer victims to prey upon. When daylight came and the newscasts confirmed the rumours their numbers were bolstered by those, usually more tolerant, who had been living in fear of the serial killer. Realising that it had been a herm who had been hunting them, their fear turned to anger. The streets were completely under the control of the roving packs, outnumbering police so comprehensively that the officers had to pull back.

Ironically, it was areas like the one where Blair lived that were the first targets. Everyone knew where the herms were, and there were enough angry, frightened neighbours who were willing to point those places out to the rioters.

By the time that Jim had finished the interrogation and could escape from the station, it was too dangerous for him to even attempt to get to Blair's apartment building. He tried anyway, but was forced back by blockades of rubble and broken furniture taken from looted buildings. In desperation, he abandoned the car and joined one of the gangs, working his way from group to group, always closer to Blair's apartment.

It was in flames when he arrived. He found an alley that lead to the back of the building and managed to get in that way; the fire was in the lobby of the building and hadn't, yet, reached the service stairway at the back.

Blair's apartment had been ransacked, the door smashed off its hinges. There was no sign of Blair. He could only hope the herm had had the good sense to go somewhere safe - if such a place even existed in this nightmare.

By nightfall, the Mayor, in conjunction with the Governor, had called in the National Guard. Appeals for calm fell on deaf ears and even with the Army's assistance, the Police made little headway. Fire fighters could not reach burning buildings because of the danger from snipers, and all public transport services were either closed down or rerouted well away from the danger zone.

Jim had been on the comms unit all afternoon, calling the university and the hospitals in the hope of finding Blair, but without success.

"Go home, Jim." Simon's hand came down firmly on his shoulder, and he flinched. "There's nothing more you can do. If the kid doesn't turn up when everything calms down, then I'll put out an APB on him. Right now, I wouldn't count on it not putting him at greater risk. Some of the uniforms are pretty damned edgy at the moment."

Home. Jim tensed as a thought occurred to him. Blair had never been to his apartment, but he knew the address. Maybe, just maybe... he pushed himself to his feet, reaching for his jacket. "Simon, maybe he could've gone to my place."

"Well, good. But if he hasn't, don't go out again tonight, okay?" Simon steered him towards the door. "Even for you, it isn't safe alone out there."

But, of course, Blair wasn't at his apartment.

It was an exhausted, traumatised city that slowly began to pull itself back together on the third day. Even the most dedicated looters could find nothing left worth taking, and the violence had gradually degenerated to the occasional random outbreak, easily contained. Finally, the fires that had painted the sullen sky with red and orange were being brought under control, though it was taking every fire unit in the city to achieve it.

Jim had hardly slept in those three days; instead he prowled restlessly around his apartment and made the same round of calls, over and over - the hospital, the morgue, the university. When he dared, he slipped out among the crowds, hoping to see an unruly mop of dark curls, or hear the familiar sound of Blair's voice.

On those trips he saw sights that sickened him; any herm unlucky enough to be caught in the open, or dragged out of damaged or burning buildings would have been lucky to escape with no more than a severe beating. Many were raped, some killed; in most cases there was nothing Jim could do to help them. He could only be grateful that none of them was Blair. He'd been in war zones that haunted him less. This was his own city, his territory, and at times he felt like he could hear its anguished screams in the wailing of the sirens.

Still - even now that the violence had ended - there was no sign of Blair. He'd obtained a list of Blair's co-workers from the university, and he'd returned again and again to the ruins of Blair's apartment building. None of the other erstwhile inhabitants who showed up there had seen Blair since before the riot. None of his colleagues had seen him either, but some were able to add names to the list of people that Blair might have contacted.

Every contact turned up a dead end.

Jim took leave from work, so that he could keep on looking. He tried to contact Blair's mother, listed as his next of kin, but she was travelling somewhere and couldn't be reached. True to his promise, Simon had put out an APB with Blair's description, but to no avail. The body count continued to rise, but Blair wasn't one of them. It seemed as if he'd disappeared off the face of the earth.

"Look, Jim... you've got to face facts. Either the kid's dead, or he doesn't want to be found." Simon's face seemed to be set in lines of perpetual worry these days. Jim didn't want to know how his own looked.

"I can't." Jim slumped over his desk, only his clasped hands, supporting his head, kept him upright. "He was my partner, Simon."

"Now, come on, Jim," Simon sounded startled. "It was only a couple of days. Next you'll be telling me the kid was your Guide."

Jim's head jerked up and he stared up into his boss' dark face. His Guide? That... that just wasn't possible. Simon was right. He'd been pushing himself to the limit and beyond for too long, and it was taking a toll on him. "Just... give me a couple more days. Okay, Simon?"

His captain snorted inelegantly. "You think I'd let you work in this state? Just be back here next Monday, ready to work."

That night, as he had every other night for the last two weeks, Jim went out to walk through the Corona district and the surrounding areas where the herms had used to live. There were few buildings now that were habitable in that part of town. The clean up crews were working around the clock, but so far had made little headway.

The worst of the debris was off the streets, but many buildings were damaged beyond repair, and it would take months, maybe years, before they were pulled down and replaced. Many herms had already left Cascade, and the exodus was likely to continue for a while, not least because there simply wasn't anywhere for them to live.

On the south side, where the nightclubs had been, there was, incredibly, the first stirring of resurgence in the local community. Somebody had managed to open one of the less badly damaged nightclubs, and music poured out from its open doors to lure the passers-by in. With a shrug, Jim paid the entry fee and went inside. Maybe somebody in here had seen Blair, though by now he'd almost completely given up.

The crowd was still thin, though enthusiastic, and the music was loud. Jim winced and turned his hearing down until it was at acceptable levels. He watched the gyrating bodies on the dance floor, but none of them had that peculiar, sturdy grace that he was looking for. He roamed the fringes of the dance floor for a while, then turned away. There was nothing here for him.

As Jim edged out the door, a flash of fuchsia caught his eye and he hesitated. Something about it made him think of Blair and for a moment his hopes soared, until he remembered Altair Berowne, the little herm prostitute he'd interviewed with Blair. Still, he supposed it was worth trying... he made his way across the dance floor until he reached herm. The other one - the quiet pale one, whose name he couldn't remember - was there too. They turned twin stares of barely suppressed resentment on him. He was getting used to that. He might be considered a hero by the norms, but the herms blamed the Police, especially him, for the riots.

"Have you seen Blair?" He had to shout the question, and for a moment they pretended not to understand. He stepped closer, grabbing the pale one's arm. "I'm looking for Blair Sandburg."

Altair stopped dancing and turned to face Jim "Herm isn't here. Leave us alone."

"I know he's not here. Have you seen him?" He leaned forward, towering over the delicate herm, using his height and bulk to intimidate.

Unexpectedly, it was the pale one who hissed, "Herm doesn't want to see you."

"What?" Abruptly, Jim's attention transferred to the other herm. "You know where he... uh... herm is?"

Other dancers were noticing them now, and a murmur was going around the dance floor. Angry looks were being cast in their direction and Jim knew he didn't have much time before another riot started right here.

"Look, I don't want to make trouble, okay? I just want to find Blair." He took a deep breath and released his grip. The little herm rubbed the arm he'd held and winced. "I'm sorry. Please... I just need to know herm is all right."

The two herms exchanged a look, and then Altair shrugged. "Blair's gone."

"Gone! Gone where?" He refrained, with some difficulty, from grabbing one of them again.

"We don't know. Away." The tone of herm voice indicated a complete lack of interest. "People blame herm for the riots. They say herm should never have worked with the pigs. Herm wasn't welcome here any more."

Monday morning came, and somehow Jim managed to drag himself into work. Simon took one look at him and pulled him into his office.

"What's happened, Jim?" Simon passed a mug of his best Guatemalan roast to Jim, who accepted it with total indifference. "You look ten times worse that you did last week. Did you find Sandburg? Is he...?"

"As far as I know he's alive." Jim blinked suddenly, as his vision wavered. He took a sip of the coffee and tried to pull himself together. "He's left Cascade. That's all I've been able to find out."

"Okay. Well, that's good, isn't it?" Simon hesitated. "I mean, it's good that he's alive and presumably well."

"He should have come to me!" This was what had been keeping him awake nights, torturing him through the long hours since he'd got the news. Why hadn't Blair come to him? Did that mean that Blair hated him just like all the other herms did? The thought of that was unbearable. "God, Simon, I would have protected him. It wasn't his fault! He should have come to me."

Simon lifted a large hand, palm out. "Whoah. Jim what are you talking about? What wasn't Sandburg's fault?"

"The riots." What little energy he had left deserted Jim, and he sank down further into his chair. "The herms blame him, say he shouldn't have worked with us. I don't mind them blaming us, but it wasn't Blair's fault."

"That's rough." Simon shrugged, clearly losing interest. "Understandable, maybe. But there's nothing we can do about it, Jim. He's gone; maybe it's better for him to start over somewhere else."

It wasn't better. It couldn't be, but what could he do about it? Armed with the information Altair had given him, Jim had interrogated Blair's friends thoroughly, but without success. Jim shook his head exhaustedly. "They won't even tell me where he's gone. Said he didn't want to see me."

"Well, maybe he doesn't." Simon came round from behind his desk and perched on the corner. "Jim, maybe it's for the best. Sandburg will find a new life somewhere else. It'd probably be easier for him than toughing it out here. Let it go."

"Jim? Jim!" Simon's voice brought Jim out of his reverie with a start, and he looked up at his captain with a frown.

He hadn't zoned, exactly, but he hadn't heard Simon's approach either. It was only the latest evidence of a long, slow decline in his Sentinel abilities. "Yes? What do you want?"

Simon scowled at the sharp tone, and Jim realised that he'd sounded downright belligerent. "Sorry, Simon. I wasn't expecting..."

"I called you and you didn't even look up." The scowl disappeared to be replaced by a concerned expression. "Jim, what's the matter with you?"

Jim rubbed a hand over his face and sighed, trying to release some of the tension that was his constant companion these days. "I don't know. I'm off my game, that's all."

His captain grunted. "You're telling me. Your arrest rate has being going down for months, everybody's afraid to speak to you, and from what I can see, your senses are barely sharper than mine."

What could he say to that? Blair was his Guide; he was sure of it now, but it was too late, much too late. Jim stared at Simon for a moment, then off into the middle distance.

"In fact, it seems to me that you haven't been the same since that kid..."

Jim looked up sharply. Simon hadn't mentions Blair since... God, it was six months ago now. "He's got nothing to do with it."

"Sure." Simon smiled sceptically. "Well, if you want to know where he is, just come into my office sometime." He walked off while Jim was still staring at him open-mouthed.

He was out of his chair by the time Simon had made it half way to his office. By the time he'd reached the door, Jim was right behind him.

Blair's apartment building was even more dilapidated than the one he'd lived in when he was in Cascade. It was situated in a run down area of New York, but was probably more expensive than Jim's own well maintained apartment back in Cascade. Not for the first time, Jim wondered if he was crazy for coming here. Blair had left of his own accord, after all, and had obviously wanted to get well away from anywhere Jim might meet him.

He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He'd come all this way, and he wasn't about to turn around and go away again just because his stomach was in knots and his hands were shaking. Of course, he could always blame it on the weather, unseasonably cold for this late in Spring, and the fact that the sun had disappeared from these streets hours ago, although it was only just beginning to grow dark.

With a sigh, Jim crossed the street and opened the door with a frown. It worried him that Blair lived in an unsecured building, especially after the events in Cascade. Blair's apartment was on the fourth floor and there was no lift. The stairway was dark and dank; the scent of cheap disinfectants barely covered the stench of urine and mould.

Outside Blair's apartment, Jim hesitated again before raising his hand to knock. He extended his hearing as best he could and heard movement from inside. There was no reasonable excuse he could give himself for not knocking. The rapping of his knuckles sounded incredibly loud, and not because of his Sentinel abilities.

"Who is it?" The low voice sounded no different than it had six months ago, and Jim closed his eyes briefly, struggling for control.

"Blair? It's Jim." He heard the gasp quite clearly. Then silence. He waited for a count of twenty. "Blair, please. I need to talk to you."

"No! Jim, I can't. Please, just go away."

He leaned heavily against the wall, his worst fears confirmed. In a way it was a relief. He knew, now, where he stood. "Blair, I just want to talk to you. If you still want me to leave after that, I'll go."

Another long silence stretched his self-control to the limits. "You've got a nerve, you know that? Just turning up like this."

"Well, you didn't exactly leave me many options, Chief." Jim laughed bitterly. "It wasn't me who disappeared off the face of the earth."

"I know. Jim, I..." he could hear the misery on Blair's voice. "Look, not now, okay? Give me some time. A couple of days. Leave me a number where I can get hold of you."

"All right." Jim pulled out the hotel's business card and pushed it under the door. "This is where I'm staying. Call me, okay?"

"I'll... all right."

It wasn't a very convincing response. "Please, Blair. Promise me you'll call."

"I promise I'll call." He heard a ragged breath from behind the door. "That's all I'm promising."

So it wasn't going to be easy. Well, he hadn't really expected it would be. Hoped, but not expected. After a restless night's sleep, Jim decided to hit the nearest gym and work off some of his frustration and fear.

Three hours later, worn out but relaxed by a sauna and massage, he returned to the hotel. There wasn't a message for him, and he went upstairs and slept for a couple of hours. By late afternoon he was going stir crazy, knowing that Blair wouldn't call so soon, but afraid to go out and miss him.

Thanks to Simon's thoroughness, Jim knew that Blair had a job at a local community college and that he also tutored underprivileged kids outside those hours, but he didn't have a timetable. Blair could be home right now, or might not return for hours. He even considered going to the college to see Blair, but commonsense prevailed. If he wanted to really piss Blair off, that would be the way to do it.

Finally he pulled on his jacket and headed for the outside. On his way past the desk he stopped to check with the concierge, but there was definitely no message. He arranged with the reluctant man to forward any calls to his portable and walked quickly in the direction of Blair's apartment building.

Jim had told himself he wouldn't go inside this time. It would only irritate Blair if he came knocking on the door again. Still, there was no reason why he couldn't stand in a doorway, sheltering from the chill breeze, about half a block away from the building and watch people walk past.

Nearly an hour later his patience was rewarded, as Blair came trudging slowly up the street. His appearance shocked Jim. Had he been the one to put that defeated looking slump in Blair's shoulders, or the despondent frown on his face? He walked with none of his usual decisive energy and seemed almost hunched over, with a backpack slung over one shoulder and an armful of books clutched precariously to his chest.

Without thinking about what he hoped to achieve, or the possible consequences of his actions, Jim stepped out of the doorway and crossed the street to intercept Blair before he could reach his building.

"Blair." Jim stood directly in front of him, so that Blair would have to walk around him on the narrow sidewalk. "Can I help you with those?"

"Jim." The winter-pale skin grew even paler. Blair seemed to be completely at a loss for words.

"Look, I know you said you'd call..." Jim reached out a steadying hand as Blair swayed slightly. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. I just didn't expect to see you." Blair's eyes met his, and there was an almost frightened look in them, swiftly replaced by a flash of anger. "You said you'd wait, man."

"I know. I know... but, Blair, can we just talk? Not in your apartment, if you don't want to." Jim struggled to think of an acceptable alternative, "how about that diner down the road. I don't know about the food, but at least it would be warm inside."

For some reason, that seemed to be a mistake. Blair dodged to the side, clearly intending to get past him, and Jim grabbed him by the arm. He'd only intended to keep Blair from escaping, but the overburdened herm staggered, his books scattered and his body twisted in a desperate attempt to keep his balance. It pulled the loose material of his jacket tightly across his body, revealing for the first time a neatly rounded belly that couldn't possibly be due to weight gain.

If Jim had been in any doubt about what he'd seen, Blair's frightened, defiant expression would have disabused him. He still held Blair's arm, half supporting him, but squeezing far too tightly. It seemed impossible to move and he stared at Blair, his mind, emotions, senses, all numbed by this discovery.

"Is this... person bothering you, sir?" The speaker, a uniformed cop, looked Blair over with contemptuous dismissiveness, but he was clearly speaking to Jim.

Furious anger released Jim from his almost fugue state. He turned his famous Ellison glare on the unfortunate cop. "Shouldn't you be asking herm that question? I accosted herm." he snapped the words out icily. "Detective Ellison, Major Crime." He fumbled out his badge and flashed it quickly in the young cop's direction, making sure he wouldn't be able to see the 'Cascade PD' logo at the bottom. "What's your badge number, Officer?"

"Uh... ah, sorry, Sir." The young man snapped to attention, his face appalled. "It's 14096, Sir. I didn't mean..."

"I'm sure your Sergeant will understand that, Officer." Jim smiled grimly. "But it isn't me you should be apologising to, now, is it?"

"No, Sir. I'm sorry, si... I mean..." He stumbled to a halt, obviously having no idea how to politely address Blair.

Jim helpfully supplied the information. "Dr Sandburg."

"Dr Sandberg, I... I apologise. I didn't mean..."

"That's okay. Don't worry about it." Blair flashed an irritated glance at Jim, in no mood, clearly, for such games. "Jim, can you give me a hand here?"

Brought back to earth with a thud, Jim began collecting the books while the young cop took the opportunity to escape. He straightened, but kept a strategic hold on the books. "I'll carry them for you. So, were you planning on telling me about this?"

"I don't know." Blair looked miserable. "I hadn't really got much beyond blind panic, actually."

"And if I hadn't turned up?"

"No. I wouldn't have told you." Blair met his eyes squarely. He was shivering, Jim realised, and suddenly he seemed terribly fragile.

"We'd better get inside." Jim laid a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder and turned him towards the door of his apartment building. To his relief, Blair walked docilely beside him.

As Jim had expected, this apartment was even more dismal than the one Blair had lived in back in Cascade. At least the other one had been decorated with an eye for what was pleasing, but apart from a couple of pieces of art that Jim recognised from before, Blair hadn't made much of an effort here.

"It's freezing in here." He was tempted to keep his jacket on, but Blair seemed to be expecting him to hand it over, so he did. "Surely the building's heated."

Blair shrugged. Dressed in sweats and a loose shirt over what looked like several layers of clothing, his pregnancy was barely noticeable. "The furnace broke down a couple of weeks ago. I guess the manager decided it wasn't worth getting it fixed this late in the Spring."

He glanced around the small room. There was a tiny old-fashioned microwave on a counter. That, and a couple of faucets over a plastic washbasin seemed to comprise the kitchen. A curtained alcove that would hardly hold a human body must be the bathroom, or maybe Blair shared the facilities. Either prospect was equally appalling to Jim.

He sniffed the air. "It's damp. I can smell mould."

"It's too cold for mould to grow, man." Blair grinned weakly. "You want coffee?"

"No. Where the hell do you sleep?" There was no sign of a bed, only an old couch and a table with a comms unit and a couple of chairs. "Does the couch fold out?"

"No, but it's big." Blair shrugged. "It's comfortable enough. The place where I work doesn't pay much and it's only part time."

"Come back to my hotel." Jim caught hold of his wrist as Blair edged away. "It's warm and dry and there's two double beds."

Blair pulled half-heartedly at his grip. "What's the point of that? This is my home."

"Come back to Cascade with me." It was hard to tell which of them was more startled by his invitation. But, after all, wasn't this why he came to New York? Jim smiled, relaxing a little, now that his cards were on the table. "I mean it. Come home with me."

"Are you crazy?" Blair's voice rose on each word. "Don't you remember how this started? Nothing's changed, Jim."

"You're wrong." He reached out and, for the first time touched the swollen belly. "Everything's changed."

Blair backed away, his eyes filling with tears. "Don't. Don't do this to me, Jim. If anything, this makes it worse. Do you have any idea what it would be like; the two of us being together, with a child?"

"I don't care." He moved closer, cornering Blair by the couch. "It doesn't matter, anyway. I came after you because I love you, and if I'd had any guts I would have told you that six months ago."

"No." Blair turned his head away, visibly fighting for control. "Please, Jim."

"You love me, you're pregnant with my child and I. Love. You." He captured Blair's face between his hands and turned it up to meet his gaze. "Tell me any of that isn't true." Leaning down a little, he brushed his lips against Blair's temple. "Tell me."

Blair's eyes closed, and his lashes were spiky with unshed tears. Jim drew him into a gentle embrace, rubbing his back soothingly. Blair sighed, leaning his forehead wearily against Jim's shoulder. "It's all right, Chief. It's gonna be okay, I promise."

A watery chuckle greeted this announcement. "You can't promise. You can't fight the world single-handed."

"I won't be singled handed. I'll have you." Jim tightened his grip. He could feel butterfly-soft movements even through the layers of clothing that separated him and Blair. His child; he'd never imagined he would ever say those words. "Please, come with me to the hotel. It's warm there, and safe. I can't go back there and leave you here alone. Just come to the hotel."

Blair sighed. "All right. But it doesn't mean I've changed my mind. Okay?" He pulled back and looked up at Jim earnestly. "I'm not committing myself to anything."

"I understand." Jim's heart lifted. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

If Jim had been in any doubt about what to expect, his arrival at the hotel with Blair at his side would have shown him. Just walking through the lobby together, they drew stares. A middle-aged woman joined them in the lift and pointedly looked in the other direction until they got out on the fifteenth floor.

He didn't say anything, and neither did Blair, but Jim could sense his relief when the door to his hotel room closed behind them. Blair shrugged out of his jacket and Jim hung it in the closet with his own.

"It's nice." Blair nodded approvingly. "Warm."

"Is that your definition of nice? Warm?"

Blair shrugged. "It's a good start." He wandered over to the window and looked down into the street. "I've never stayed in a hotel like this. Does it have room service?"

"Sure. You hungry?" Jim reached for the room service menu. "Order whatever you want."

"No, I'm just..." Blair cast a nervous glance in the direction of the beds, then away. "I really gotta pee."

Jim sighed as Blair disappeared into the bathroom. Maybe he'd moved too fast, but the thought of leaving Blair in that cold, smelly, and probably unsafe, apartment had been completely unacceptable. He dropped into one of the armchairs by the window, as far away from the beds as he could get and tried to look casual.

"Hey, a bath!" Blair's voice drifted from the bathroom. There was a long pause; Jim heard the toilet flush, then water from the faucets. Finally, Blair emerged grinning. "Man, you must have paid a bundle for a room with a real bath."

Jim shrugged; he would have paid a lot more just to see a smile on Blair's face again. "Why don't you have a soak? I'll order some food. It'll take a while. Then we can relax, watch some sports or a movie on the vid."

"You don't mind?" Blair looked longingly back at the bathroom door.

"Knock yourself out." Jim waved towards the door. "What do you want to eat?"

Blair was already back in the bathroom starting the bath. "Oh... just pick something. I don't mind." The door shut with a firm click.

Jim laughed and shook his head. It seemed the old Blair was still alive and well in there somewhere. Now all he had to do was find a way to draw him out more often. He reached for the menu and studied the dinner options dispassionately. He'd give Blair at least half an hour before ordering.

Blair emerged from the bathroom in a waft of cedar-scented steam just as room service arrived with their meals. Jim dragged his eyes away from the sight of Blair's tumbled wet curls and robe-clad body long enough to admit the waiter with his trolley.

"One cheeseburger with all the trimmings and one tofu and spring vegetable stir fry" The young man slid the heaped plates onto the side table standing between the two armchairs. "Uh, you ordered a glass of milk too?"

"And a couple of beers." Jim ignored the waiter's sideways look, and fortunately Blair missed it, while he was busy towelling his hair. He held out a credit chip in dismissal. "Thanks."

"Smells good." Blair wandered over, allowing his towel to drop around his neck. He yawned hugely then smiled. "Sorry. I didn't sleep too well last night."

"Me either." Jim pulled the armchairs around to face each other across the small table. "Let's eat."

Jim was hungrier than he'd realised and the food disappeared quickly as they ate in silence. Finally Blair laid down his chopsticks and drained the last of the milk. He looked at Jim with a tiny smile. "You know, for a gay guy, you've spent an awful lot of time staring at my breasts."

A guilty flush spread over Jim's cheeks. It was true - the soft robe was wrapped across Blair's pregnant belly, but the tie drew the cloth in under his breasts in a way that emphasised their new fullness, and the open V revealed the shadowy valley between. "Does it bother you?"

"No." Blair shrugged his wide shoulders.

Jim smiled, relieved that Blair was taking it well. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't lost some sleep over how much I like them."

Blair fiddled with his napkin, his eyes firmly fixed on his fingers. "It makes me feel like you want all of me, not just the... the bits you're supposed to want."

"I do. Blair..." He reached across the table and laid his hand over Blair's. "I love you - all of you. I can't separate out one part of you from another. It's an all or nothing thing for me; and I don't want it to be nothing."

"Jim, if we did this... this thing... none of your friends, or your family, would accept it." Blair's fingers tensed on the napkin. "Before I left Cascade my friends were already... I could see the way they looked at me. And they knew me, man. There'll be a lot of people who will judge us the moment they see us."

"Probably." Jim felt anger bubbling up inside him at the so-called friends who'd put the misery into Blair's voice. "You're wrong about one thing, though. There's at least one person who's already accepted us. It wasn't me who found out where you were, it was Simon."

Blair's eyes lifted to his, wide with surprise. "What? But why would...?"

"He said he was sick of listening to everyone complain about me." Jim grinned. Now it seemed funny, but it hadn't for the last six months. "I was too busy feeling sorry for myself and trying to pretend I didn't care that you'd walked out on me. So he pulled some strings and when he found out where you were, he told me to come get you."

"I can't believe it." Blair smiled shakily. "I thought he didn't like me."

"He'll stand by us." Jim briefly ran through a list of his friends and colleagues in his mind. "Maybe a couple of others. You?"

"Mom won't mind." He rolled his eyes. "Of course."

He released a breath he hadn't been aware of holding. "So, does that mean I get to meet her?"

"Jim, I..." He heard Blair swallow. "After the birth... I could have the operation... it might make things easier. If I was a man."

"Is that what you want?"

Blair shook his head, his expression miserable. "I'm comfortable with what I am. But..."

Jim released his hand and stood. "I don't want you to change who you are. Not for me, not for anyone." He walked around behind the chair Blair was sitting in and rested his hands on Blair's tense shoulders. "I like you the way you are."

He kneaded the tight muscles gently and Blair sighed, relaxing a little under Jim's hands. He could smell the clean scent of the shampoo provided by the hotel, rising from the still slightly damp hair, and he bent over and rubbed his cheek against the soft curls. As Blair relaxed still more, Jim allowed his hand to stray down over Blair's shoulder, sliding under the open front of the robe to cradle one full breast.

A soft gasp made him hesitate, but Blair made no move to avoid his touch. Indeed, he moaned quietly, and his nipple hardened instantly against Jim's palm. For a few moments, Jim squeezed and stroked the tight flesh while Blair's breathing became more and more erratic. "Sensitive."

Blair caught his whisper and nodded, his curls tickling Jim's cheek. "Very. It was the first thing I noticed."

That reminder of their situation brought Jim back to earth with a jolt. He pulled his hands free of Blair. "I'm sorry. I gave you my word..."

"Jim..." Blair twisted in the chair, pulling the edges of his robe together with one hand. "It's okay, man."

"Look, I don't know about you, but I'm bushed. How about we call it an early night?" He ran a hand over his hair. "I'll just go have a shower."

"Okay." Blair smiled at him, seemingly unperturbed. "That sounds good to me."

"We can talk some more tomorrow." Jim all but fled to the bathroom, shutting himself in with a sense of relief.

He took his time with the shower, and when he emerged from the bathroom Blair was, as he'd hoped, already in bed, lying on his side with his back to the room. The main lights were out and only the dim table lamp was still switched on. Jim turned it off, then dropped his bathrobe on the corner of the unoccupied bed and pulled back the covers.

"Jim?" Blair stirred, turning onto his back. "You don't have to sleep over there."

"You want me to sleep with you?" Jim hesitated a moment, then decided he needed to know the score. "Just sleep?"

It wasn't so dark in the room that he couldn't see the flash of teeth as Blair grinned, or the exasperated roll of his eyes. "No, not just to sleep. Come on."

He slipped into the other bed as Blair turned to face him, feeling unexpectedly nervous. They'd had one night together over six months ago, and since then so much had changed, not least of which was the swelling belly of his lover. He stroked his fingers down the smooth skin and rough bristles of Blair's cheek. Everything about him was a contradiction.

"Jim, it's okay." Blair captured his hand and kissed the backs of his fingers. "Like I said, there's no pressure. Tonight is just for tonight, okay?"

"That's what you said last time." Jim smiled, though the memory was not without pain. "You were wrong then and you're wrong now. I can't walk away from this. I don't want to."

Strong fingers captured his chin, and tilted his head slightly so Blair could kiss him. "Then don't. But I won't hold you. You have to stay because it's what you want."


Another kiss silenced him for a good long while and when it ended Jim no longer had any inclination to talk. Blair's body, under his hands, was a catalogue of enticing textures that should have seduced him into a zone within minutes; but Jim had never felt more in control of his senses. It was confirmation enough, if he'd needed it, that Blair was his Guide.

Maybe he should tell Blair about that, later. A lot later. As much as Blair didn't want him to tie himself down with promises, Jim, too, could not bear the thought that Blair might feel duty bound to stay with him. Losing Blair would be terrible, keeping him with that kind of obligation would be worse.

"Jim..." The low, resonant voice sent shivers through Jim's body. Blair stroked his cheek, his throat, then slid his hand to the nape of Jim's neck, holding his head in place.

Soft kisses deepened, became a warm, wet dance of tongue on tongue. Blair's taste expanded in Jim's mouth, filling him, spreading heat through his body. He needed to touch Blair everywhere, and his hands moved constantly, alighting here and there, but always moving on to some new texture, some new curve or plane. He would never have his fill of this.

All too soon, the familiar, urgent pressure warned him that he was, after all, only human, and that his body's demands needed to be attended to. Judging by Blair's flushed cheeks and restless movements, he wasn't the only one. Jim kissed one dark, erect nipple, his lips clasping it lingeringly and felt Blair tremble against him.

"Soon, love. Easy." He reached down, gently stroking his fingers along the ardent length of Blair's cock. "We have to be careful."

A soft groan greeted his words, but Blair blinked and nodded, his breath coming in harsh gasps. "On my side. Oh god... Jim..."

He understood, or thought he did. Helping Blair to roll onto his side, facing away from him, Jim lay down, spooned against his lover's back. "Like this?" He stroked his fingers down the cleft of Blair's ass.

Another moan and a convulsive nod confirmed he was on the right track. Carefully, he prepared his lover, hindered more than helped by Blair's eager participation. Finally, he was able to press his cock against the loosened hole and press inside.

"Blair? Is this all right?" He held still, half in and aching to slide all the way home.

"Yes! God, yes."

Blair's hips pushed back, too eager and Jim nearly lost the connection. He held the trembling body still and eased himself further in. It was enough. He rested there, his arms wrapped around Blair, stroking his belly and nuzzling the sweaty curls on the back of his neck.

"Jim, come on, man. Don't stop." Blair's hand over his own, drew it down to caress the thick cock. Not content with that, Jim moved lower, into the hidden wetness between Blair's legs. So hot, there. Blair moaned and trembled harder. "Fuck me, Jim. I've wanted this for so long."

"Me too." He began to thrust gently, forcing himself to be careful, controlled. It wasn't going to take long, for either of them. "I've dreamed about this, about you."

"You have?" Blair sounded surprised. He twisted his upper body to look back at Jim, making it harder for Jim to thrust so deeply.

Better that way, because Jim wasn't really sure he could trust himself to be careful for much longer. He kissed Blair's open mouth, sliding his tongue deep, then pulled back and angled his head down to suck Blair's nipple. It was awkward, for both of them, but it kept Blair in that position and, god, it felt so good.

Blair arched his back, his hips trying to thrust, and Jim fisted his cock, stroking hard, trying to end it quickly. A choked cry preceded, by a split second, the splatter of semen over his hand and tiny, rippling contractions around his cock sent Jim tumbling into orgasm.

He greyed out briefly, and then woke to the weight of Blair's body leaning back into his. Gently, Jim encouraged Blair to move into a position that was more comfortable for both of them, spooned together on their sides. Tremors still ran through both of them every so often and it seemed a long time before his body felt even remotely normal.

Blair was half asleep, but Jim was nowhere near ready to shut down. He nuzzled Blair's shoulder lazily, and found his hand was slowly rubbing the pregnant belly. It only took a minor effort at concentration and he could feel the flutter of a second heartbeat.

Entranced, Jim moved his hand, and found a line of tiny beadlike protrusions. It took a moment to realise what they were. He moved his hand and, yes, there was the head, no larger than a tennis ball. Back the other way and a sharp percussion against his hand told him that the baby was definitely awake and kicking.

Blair laughed breathlessly. "Guess this means I'm not getting any sleep for a while."

"Should I apologise?"

"Oh no. No apology needed, Jim." Blair turned in his arms, lying half on his back, and smiled up contentedly. "Don't even think about it."

He dialled up his vision to see Blair more clearly in the dark. "Do you mind?" He lifted the covers a fraction.

Blair shrugged, a hint of uncertainty on his face. "Knock yourself out."

He pulled the covers down, exposing Blair's body completely. There was no disharmony in the appearance of dark hair between the full breasts, or the heavy cock lying lax beneath a distended belly. It was just Blair, and therefore beautiful to him. He rubbed lightly over the tightly stretched skin. "I guess I don't need to ask whether it's a boy or a girl?"

"Actually..." Heat gathered beneath Jim's hand and crept up into Blair's face. His heart skipped a beat and began to race. "Um... it's a girl."

For a moment he froze. "Does that bother you?"

"No." Blair's physical reactions told another story, and Jim lifted an eyebrow. "Okay, it's... awkward, given I'm not really accepted by herm society as it is. But it doesn't mean I won't love her." He smiled shakily. "I was going to call her Jamie, but if you're going to be around..."

"Maybe not such a good idea then." An unexpected rush of emotion made Jim's voice husky. "We could name her after your mother."

"Or yours."

"Or both. Grace Naomi." He tried it on his tongue, but it didn't feel right. "Naomi Grace. What do you think?"

"I think I need to pee again." Blair pushed himself, grumbling softly, into a sitting position and swung his legs to the floor. "And I really hope you're good at back rubs."

Jim caught his hand before he could move away, and pressed a kiss into the square palm. "I'm willing to practice."