THE REASON FOR IT ALL

by: ANNIE

burtonnominee2005.jpg (9972 bytes)

Nominee - Best Original Character - David Samuels

EMAIL: Annie

DISCLAIMER: The usual disclaimers apply.

SEQUEL TO: Love and Other Bruises

CHAPTER ONE

Blair Sandburg was pacing restlessly when his partner, Detective Jim Ellison, let himself into the loft. An envelope flapped from his hand and he barely looked up as Jim closed the door behind him.

"Hey, Chief," Jim said. "What's up? Bad news? Is Naomi -"

"It's not about Naomi. I'm sure Naomi's fine, man, wherever she is," Blair replied, almost hitting the balcony doors before turning and pacing back the opposite way. "It's from Conover… I think it's about Sam."

"Oh." Jim waited till Blair reached him then extended both hands and put them on his partner's shoulders, holding him firmly in place and preventing Blair from turning around. "What's it say?"

Blair shrugged under Jim's hands. "I don't know. I didn't read it. I was hoping maybe you would… read it first and tell me…"

"I don't know if I should do that, Chief. It's sorta personal stuff, don't you think?"

"Fine, don't bother. I'll just stick it away somewhere till I feel like reading it." Blair started to turn away, wrenching himself free of Jim's restraining hands.

"Whoa, slow down, Blair! If you really want me to read it first, I will. I just wanted to make sure you were really okay with that," Jim said, taking the envelope from Blair's unresisting hand.

"Thanks." Blair moved over and slouched down on the corner of the coffee table, watching with half-shuttered eyes as Jim opened the envelope, took out the letter and read it.

Jim looked over at Blair as he finished reading the letter. He said the only thing he could. "Chief, I'm sorry-"

"What?" Blair jumped to his feet and grabbed the letter from Jim's hand. "Dear Detective Sandburg, we regret to inform you that Samantha Richards and her sister were both killed in an automobile accident on 11/12/02... Oh God, oh man, Jim, this can't be true… That's just two days ago." He looked down at the paper and read on. ""Ms. Richards had been released into her sister's care the day before and they were travelling to Seattle with Ms. Richards' 3 month old infant daughter. The child received only minor abrasions and is currently in a foster home. Ms. Richards claimed you were the father of the infant, although she did not name you on the birth certificate. I would suggest, if you wish to claim the child as yours, that you contact the Child Protection Agency as soon as possible. Otherwise, as Ms. Richards had no other family surviving, the child will be placed for adoption. Oh man, Jim…"

Blair's face paled and Jim grabbed for him as he saw his partner's knees give way. He steered Blair over to the couch and pushed him down, bending him forward so his head was between his knees. Extending his hearing, he waited till he heard Blair's heart rate return to something approaching normal, then helped him to sit upright again, keeping one hand on his friend's shoulder as he sat down next to him on the couch.

"Sam's dead, Jim. Her sister, too. Oh god, man, what the hell am I gonna do about the baby?"

"What do you want to do about it, Blair?" Jim asked quietly. He understood how difficult this must for his Guide.

If the child was Blair's, she was the result of a rape that Samantha Richards had perpetrated against Blair, after stalking him and then kidnapping him a year before.

Blair had finally seemed to be overcoming the emotional and physical injuries that he had been left with by the assault.

Jim wondered if this was going to put him several steps back in his recovery.

"How the hell should I know? I didn't do anything about it when I was told she'd given birth but now… I mean, it's a little baby, Jim. A defenceless little kid who had no part in what her mother did to me -"

"Wait a minute. Back up, Chief. What do you mean you did nothing? You didn't have a DNA test done like I suggested? You told me you did."

"Oh, Jim, I'm sorry." Blair dropped his head, refusing to meet the Sentinel's all-too-sharp eyes. "I was going to but I was almost through with the therapy. I didn't want to dredge it all up again, you know? I felt like I was finally getting past it and I just thought, well, it's not like I'm ever gonna see the kid or anything. Sam had already told her doctors to tell me she didn't want me to pay child support or help her raise the baby, or even see it. So I guess I just let it slide… I guess I sorta figured my mom managed, you know, and I know I told you Sam was really adamant about not wanting me involved in any way. Her sister was looking after the baby till Sam was well enough to be released. Like the letter said, she didn't actually name me as the father on the birth certificate. I was still so damn confused about the whole thing back then, Jim. And you kept asking me about it, so eventually I just told you that stuff to make you stop."

"You also told me the test proved the baby was yours, Chief." Jim tried hard not to sound accusatory but truth be told he was hurt that Blair had lied to him about something so important. "Guess you didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth."

"All I can say is that I'm sorry, Jim. Look, this whole thing with Sam put some pretty heavy stresses on my trust issues, you know. I really just wanted to put it all behind me. I should have told you the truth but I didn't and it's too late to go back and change it so can we just deal with the present now?" Blair said earnestly.

"I guess so. Well, first thing you've got to do is get that DNA testing done, Chief."

Blair shook his head. "Why? I think it's pretty obvious she's mine, man. And it's not like anyone else is coming out of the woodwork to claim her. This little girl is going to have enough to deal with, if she ever finds out how she was conceived. I'm not going to add to that by letting her think that I didn't believe she was mine, that I got a DNA test to find out. Anyway, it doesn't really matter anymore, Jim. She needs me and I'm going to be there for her. It wouldn't matter what the test said. Not now when I'm all she has left. Either way, whether she's really mine or not, I can't just leave her in foster care…"

"She'll be fine there for a while, Sandburg. She's a little baby. Probably happy as long she's fed and diapered," Jim tried to reassure him.

"No, I have to go get her." Blair stopped then stood and faced his friend. "Look, man, I know you won't want a baby in the loft. Give me a couple of days to organize stuff and I'll find another place for me and… Oh man! I don't even know her name."

Jim stood as well and fixed his Guide with a steady look. "You'll do no such thing, Chief. If you want to raise her, then bring her home here. That's where she belongs. Besides, I always wanted kids. It was Caroline who didn't. I remember you telling me once how much you wanted kids, too, Chief." He smiled reassuringly.

The words, meant to comfort, obviously had the opposite effect as Blair flushed and stiffened. "Yeah, I did," he said quietly. "But not like this, Jim. Would you?" Turning, he headed quickly for his room, closing the door behind him.

"Crap!" Jim cursed himself. He blew out a pained breath and waited several seconds then marched resolutely over to Blair's door and knocked. Hearing no summons after a couple of raps, he pushed open the door anyway and entered the room.

Blair was sitting on the side of the bed, his head down, hair covering his face. He didn't look up as Jim sat beside him.

"I'm sorry, Chief. That all came out wrong. What I meant was that I think this little girl is going to be very lucky to have you for her father."

After a moment, Blair looked up, a tremulous grin lighting his face. "Yeah?" he asked.

"Yeah." Jim reaffirmed. He pulled Blair into a sideways hug. "And I know for a fact I'm a terrific uncle," he added, "Just ask Steven's kids.

"Thanks, Jim. I'm sorry I got all bent out of shape there…"

"Hey, you're entitled. So, why don't you get on the phone and find out where she is and we'll go visit?"

"We? You mean like us?" Blair parodied one of the first things he'd said to his partner when they'd met.

"Yes, I mean like us, wise guy. Go!" Jim stood and pointed to the living room. "Phone!"

CHAPTER TWO

"Oh man, Jim, look at her." Blair looked down at the child he was holding then grinned delightedly up at his partner.

"Yep, she definitely looks like a Sandburg to me," Jim said, passing a hand gently over the baby's dark almost curling hair. He smiled as dark blue eyes opened and fixed him with a drowsy stare.

"She's so small. I don't think I've ever held a baby this small before," Blair said, his voice sounding awe-struck. He put one hand down to rub gently over the little girl's hand and laughed softly as the tiny fingers wrapped around one of his larger ones. "God, Jim, she's beautiful. I don't know what I was thinking."

"About not wanting to see her?" Jim placed a warm hand on Blair's shoulder. "You were hurting, buddy. You'd been betrayed at a pretty deep level there. You sure about this, though? I mean, the Hendersons seem like really nice people. You could visit her any time you wanted -"

"She's my daughter, Jim. I know it. I never had a dad. I'm not going to leave her without one, now that Sam's…" Blair broke off as the baby began to wail and looked around in confusion. "What's wrong with her? Is she okay?"

Jenny Henderson, a warm motherly woman well used to this sort of reaction from new parents of the babies placed in her care, hurried forward. "She's fine, Detective Sandburg. She's just hungry. It's time for her bottle, that's all."

"Call me Blair, okay, Mrs. Henderson?"

"Well then, you'd better call me Jenny." The woman smiled as she reached down and took the child from Blair's arms. "You can feed her the milk if you like. Jobie's got quite an appetite."

"Jobie?" Jim queried. "I thought her name was Johanna."

"It is," Jenny said as she held the baby comfortably in one arm and placed a bottle in the microwave with the other, making it all look ridiculously easy, Jim thought. "But my five year old son's name is Joseph Andrew and when Johanna turned up, he decided he was Joe A and she was Joe B, for Johanna Blair. Well, gradually that got changed to Jobie. It's just a nickname, Detec - Blair. You call her whatever you like."

"Jobie." Blair said softly, as if trying the name on for size. "I like it. What do you think, Jim?"

"It's a nice name, Chief. What's say we keep it? It suits her," Jim replied.

"Well, that's settled then, Jobie." Jenny addressed the now wide-awake baby as she took the warmed bottle from the oven and handed it to Jim while she passed Jobie back to Blair. "Jobie Sandburg. It has a nice ring to it."

CHAPTER THREE

Three months later

Things were falling into place pretty well, Blair decided as he headed up the stairs to put Jobie down for the night. To Blair's surprise, there'd been no major obstacles placed in his path by the court. Part of that was due to Captain Banks' staunch estimation in court of his detective's worthiness to be Jobie's father and partly because it seemed the only other choice was to keep the child in care. Blair guessed the powers that be were happy enough not to have one more child stretching their slender foster care budget. He preferred not to bother his head over the whys and contented himself with knowing that Jobie had a loving safe home at the loft.

Somehow, having the baby with him had done much to heal the harm her mother had done and brought him an immense measure of peace.

Naomi had been thrilled to learn she had a grandchild, less thrilled at what had happened to cause that. She'd come to see Jobie several times in the past three months, but becoming a grandmother hadn't changed an iota of Naomi Sandburg's peripatetic soul. Instead of being rocked on Nanna's knee, Jobie was gathering a collection of unique artefacts to rival her father's own, all courtesy of her grandmother's constant wanderlust.

Blair still didn't feel entirely comfortable about Jim giving up the big loft bedroom and moving into Blair's much smaller room downstairs but Jim insisted he didn't mind. And, Blair reminded himself, now that the apartment downstairs was going to be vacant again, it was only a matter of a few weeks before Jim could have his bedroom and apartment back. Jim had finally acquiesced to Blair and Jobie moving out when he realized they'd be in the same building, just one floor below. Jim had suggested that maybe, in a few months, he should sell the loft. Then he and Blair could pool their resources and buy a house in one of Cascade's nicer suburbs, something with a big yard where Jobie could play freely.

It warmed Blair's heart to know his partner wanted to do that. It meant their friendship was strong, free at last from the stresses that had once threatened to tear it apart. Also that Jim had finally laid to rest the demons from his own past that caused him to instinctively mistrust those closest to him, the instinct that had cost Blair his academic career, and almost, his life.

They'd found an excellent child care center for Jobie to go to during the day when Blair was working and had a small army of volunteers made up of the crew from Major Crime and their families for times when both partners had to work outside the center's hours.

It was all helped along by the fact that Jobie was normally a placid and happy child who seemed not to mind the changes in her routine too much.

Blair had been somewhat surprised by that, considering the way his daughter had been brought into the world. But he was grateful for small mercies nonetheless. Grateful as well for the way Jim had welcomed the little stranger into his life and his home and made room for her. The big cop had grown adept at changing diapers, giving baths and soothing a temporarily fretful colicky baby back to sleep. And Jobie seemed to love Jim as much he obviously loved her.

Blair couldn't have done it without him. Or without his co-workers from MC.

It was poker night at the loft tonight, the first one they'd hosted since bringing Jobie home and Blair was determined that the baby would have all her needs taken care of and be asleep by the time the gang arrived. He put Jobie into the crib, covering her snugly against the chill night air and patted her a couple of times before heading back downstairs to find that Simon Banks had just arrived.

"Hey, Captain, how you doing?"

"Are you ever gonna get it right, Sandburg?" Simon asked, grinning to take the sting from his words. "Tonight, I'm Simon. But tomorrow in the office, I'm back to being Captain Banks to you." He stopped and darted a look up the stairs. "Sorry, kid. Didn't mean to talk so loud. Don't want to wake Jobie up."

"Simon, I've told you before. We desensitized Jobie to sound when we first brought her home. As a matter of fact, the womb is an incredibly noisy place anyway. Louder than a vacuum cleaner, actually. Babies tend to sleep better when their parents don't limit normal noise around them. It's the oddness of quiet that tends to wake them up. The only thing that seems to wake her is the phone so we muted the ringer. Jim can hear it, anyway," Blair said, grinning. "Seriously, I'm glad you guys are coming over. Jim and I have missed taking your money."

"Not tonight, Sandburg. I have a foolproof plan to take yours instead," Simon replied, opening the door to quiet rapping and letting in Megan, Joel, Rafe and Brown.

"Listen up, guys." Blair looked across to where Jim was setting out dips and chips on the dining room table. "Um, I just wanted to say thanks to you all for everything you've done to help me with Jobie. It means a lot to me."

A chorus of "No problem, Hairboy" came from Brown and Rafe. "Glad I could help, Blair," Joel said feelingly and Megan leaned in and kissed his cheek, whispering, "It's no biggie, Sandy." This last prompted a lewd whistle and raised eyebrows from Jim.

"Knock it off, Jim," Blair said, blushing as he went into the kitchen to pull out beers for everyone.

"Blair."

Sandburg turned to find Banks had followed him.

"I told Jim the night we found you that we'd do whatever it took to get you through what happened," Simon said in a quiet voice. "It's no more than what you've done for all of us, especially Jim, in the past."

Blair nodded and swallowed down a hard lump that had moved up into his throat. He turned and handed his Captain a beer. "Thanks, man. You have no idea how much that means to me."

"Enough that you're gonna let me keep some of my money tonight?" Simon asked, a hopeful tone lighting his voice.

Blair snorted as he walked off to deliver the rest of the beers to the others. "In your dreams, Simon."

CHAPTER FOUR

The next morning, Blair dropped Jobie off at daycare on his way to work. He was leaving when he became aware of the feeling of being watched. His instincts kicked in and he found himself lingering outside the center for fifteen minutes, watching to see if anyone suspicious was around.

Finally, when nobody except other parents and their children came and went, he got into his car and headed for the station. He found himself checking his rearview mirror every few seconds and thought he was onto something when a dark blue Ford stayed behind him almost the entire way in. But it turned off about three streets away from the precinct and Blair gave himself a shake and tried to shrug off the eerie sensation that he was being followed.

Entering the bullpen, he thought about mentioning it to Jim but decided he'd be better off waiting till he had something a little more concrete than a feeling to base his worries on. He sighed as he sat down at his desk and started his computer. Maybe it was just being a new parent that was giving him the heebie-jeebies. He'd have to ask Simon if the captain had ever experienced something similar when Daryl was small. He shivered a little as a sensation of impending dread settled on him and quickly opened up his Word file. Maybe writing boring case reports would help him push all of this to the back of his mind.

And it did.

Right up till he and Jim left work together and they headed over to pick Jobie up from the center.

Jim had decided to follow him there so they could do the marketing together on their way home.

It was easier if one of them took care of the shopping, while the other amused Jobie. That job always seemed to fall to Jim, though he didn't seem to mind as he spun the shopping trolley in circles and made racing car noises up and down the aisles, stunts that always got Jobie laughing and garnered them a few odd looks from other shoppers.

~oOo~

Blair carried the baby out to the car and strapped her into her car seat. Straightening up, he closed the door then walked round to climb into the driver's seat. He froze as he was caught up short by the distant reflection of a man in his side mirror. He pretended to fumble with the door lock for a few minutes, taking his time getting into the car, all the while straining his eyes to try to bring the man's features into focus.

Suddenly, Jim was at his side.

"What's wrong, Chief?" Ellison asked.

"There's a guy behind me. He's standing next to a dark blue car. Can you see him, Jim? I'm pretty sure he followed me from the daycare center this morning," Blair muttered, slowly opening the car door and easing inside.

Blair watched as Jim focused his vision on the mirror's reflection, seeing the Sentinel's pupils dilate as his enhanced vision kicked in.

"I got him, Chief. Just stay here. I'm gonna see if I can outflank him, find out what he's up to, all right?"

Blair nodded tightly then turned and waggled his fingers at Jobie as the baby began to cry. "Hey, it's okay, sweetheart. Daddy's here. We're going home real soon, Jobie. Uncle Jim just needs to check out something. Don't cry, honey." He huffed a silent sigh of relief as Jobie stopped crying and flashed him a full faced gummy smile. "Yeah, that's better, sweetheart," he said, smiling back and playing peekaboo with her around the corner of the driver's seat.

By the time Jim came back, Jobie was getting restless again. "Sorry, Chief, he took off before I got to him, but I got a partial plate number. The rest of the plate was covered in dirt." Jim leaned in the back door and tweaked Jobie's cheek gently then handed her a stuffed bear from the floor of the car. "Here ya go, babe. Let's get you home to bed." He backed out of the car and reached to pat Blair's shoulder. "Head for the loft, Chief. I'll be right behind you all the way."

"Did you get a good look at the guy, Jim?" Blair asked as he put the car in gear.

"Yeah, I did. I'll talk to you when we get home, though, okay? Jobie's tired. Just drive safely, buddy."

~oOo~

"Well?" Blair asked as he walked downstairs after putting Jobie down to sleep.

"Come and sit down, Chief. We need to talk." Jim patted the seat next to him on the couch and waited till Blair was sitting down before beginning.

"You said you got a good look at the guy, Jim. What? Did you recognize him?" Blair asked.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure I did. Remember the Samuels case?"

"Jim, the Samuels case happened the same time Sam abducted me. Of course I remember it. What's it got to do with this? Shit! Is Samuels out -?"

Jim grabbed Blair's arm and gave it a firm squeeze. "Slow down, buddy. Let me go through this slowly, okay? I don't want to miss anything. I called Fremont State Prison. Samuels is still there. I'm positive the man outside the daycare center was Aaron Zabinski."

"What?" Blair looked stunned. "I thought he went to prison too."

"He did, Chief. He got out two weeks ago."

"But why would Zabinski be following me around, Jim? I mean, we helped the guy. Helped him cut a decent deal. And he had to have been following me. How else would he know about Jobie and that I was taking her to the center?"

Jim pushed himself to his feet and started to pace, the way he thought best. "I'm not sure, Blair. Maybe he followed you from the loft and didn't even know about Jobie till today. What we need to do is get an address on him and go talk to him, find out what the hell he's up to. And in the meantime, I don't think Jobie should stay here."

Blair was on his feet then too. "I'm taking her back to the Henderson's place, Jim. Can you call them while I get her stuff together? Oh, and I want to get in touch with Simon, ask him about getting some security over there as well."

Jim walked across and pulled Blair to a halt. Looking down, he injected his voice with as much confidence as he could. "I'll take care of it, Chief. You just get Jobie organized. Wait till she wakes up in the morning before taking her over there, though, okay? No need to upset her unduly. It's gonna be hard enough on her and you as it is. I'll call Simon, get him to put a couple of uniforms and an extra patrol on the loft. All right?"

He could hear Blair's heart thundering away beneath the layers of clothing his partner was wearing, smell the sour taint of fear for his child on his skin and heard the panicked puffs of breath. Suddenly, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Blair's back, pulling his friend into a hug, holding him in place with one hand and patting comfortingly at his shoulder with the other. "I won't let anything bad happen to Jobie or to you, Blair. You know that, don't you?"

Blair looked up, his panic appearing to abate. "Better than that, big guy. I trust you not to let anything happen. You're my Blessed Protector, right? And now, you're Jobie's too."

Jim gently pushed Blair away and walked over to the phone. "Damn straight," he said as he picked up the receiver and began dialing.

CHAPTER FIVE

(The next morning)

Jim lifted Jobie out of her car seat outside the Hendersons' house. He took a quick Sentinel look around before he turned his attention back to the little girl he had come to think of as his niece. "Hey kiddo," he whispered, bending his head close to the soft curls covering the baby's head, "You be a good girl, okay. I'll miss you but your Daddy and me will be back to get you real soon." He tipped a finger gently under Jobie's chin and kissed her cheek. "Bye, Jobie. See you soon, honey." Turning to Blair, he handed the baby over then moved to stand at the front of the car, his eyes sweeping left and right, keeping watch.

"You coming in, Jim?" Blair called.

Jim shook his head, not taking his eyes from their surroundings. "You go on ahead, Chief. I'll wait for you here, okay?" He motioned Martinez, one of the uniforms who'd accompanied them, to help Blair with Jobie's belongings then leaned back against the hood of the truck, dropping his chin to his chest but keeping his senses alert. He was glad Blair hadn't pushed him on going in. He really didn't think he could've done that. It all was way too close to when his mother had left. Same feelings, same fears. The only difference was that now he was the one leaving behind someone he'd come to love. He found himself coming to a whole new understanding of what his mother must have gone through.

Hearing the front door of the house open and close he turned and met Blair at the passenger side of the truck. "You okay, buddy?"

Blair shook his head, his eyes downcast. "No, how could I be? She started crying the minute I handed her over to Jenny." He looked up as Jim pulled open the door and put a hand on the Sentinel's shoulder. "Let's sort this out, Jim. I need Jobie to be safe again."

"I know, Chief. Let's get to work."

CHAPTER SIX

They both knew the best place to start was by questioning Zabinski. Unfortunately the man had gone to ground. There was an APB out on him and the car Jim had seen him driving but chances were the car had been dumped by now. Not liking his next idea much at all, Jim ran it past Banks anyway.

"You want to go see Samuels? What the hell for?" Banks asked.

"He may know what Zabinski is up to, sir. They were obviously pretty close before," Jim explained.

"Look, Jim. Don't get me wrong. I don't want anything to happen to Sandburg or Jobie either, but think about it. Zabinski hasn't actually done anything, apart from following Blair around. How do you know he's gonna do anything?"

"He participated in the murders of five young men, Captain, and maybe he wasn't as uninvolved as we thought he was. Maybe, Blair was right about him and he was more involved in the killings than we thought. You know how fixated Samuels was on Sandburg. Maybe, Zabinski thinks he's doing Samuels a favor if he gets Blair for him. The problem is, this time, it's not just Blair. Jobie could get caught in the middle," Jim said. He stood up from his chair in front of Banks' desk and fixed his superior with a steady look. "I just want to talk to the guy. Ask a couple of questions. All right?"

Banks sighed and ran a hand over his cropped hair. "Okay. You go, but no Sandburg. He's too personally involved in this and after the way Samuels hit on him last time… well, I just don't think Blair'll be able to hold it together. Take Rafe or Connor."

Jim shook his head firmly. "No way. I need Blair there, sir. The very fact that Samuels *liked* him…" Jim almost gagged as he said the words. "It could be to our advantage, Captain."

"Christ, Jim, are you trying to send me grey before my time?" Banks growled. "All right," he said, capitulating suddenly. "Sandburg can go. But you keep him on a tight leash, Detective. I don't want any comeback from Fremont about two of my men getting heavy with a prisoner doing his time."

Jim nodded. "Thank you." He left the office and closed the door behind him. Looking across the bullpen he saw Blair watching anxiously from his own desk. Giving his partner a thumbs-up, he walked over and grabbed both their jackets, tossing Blair's to him. "Let's go talk to an old friend, Chief."

~oOo~

Blair walked into the interview room behind Jim, mentally preparing himself to face David Samuels again. The man had made his skin crawl the last time they'd met and neither he nor Ellison had been sorry when Samuels had been given five life sentences for his crimes. The fact that the man's capture had coincided with his own abduction and rape tended to color his thoughts more darkly, as well. It was a time Blair wished he could completely forget.

Samuels was handcuffed, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, the color turning his pale skin even more sallow. He hadn't changed much, Blair noticed, though he looked fitter, as if he'd taken to working out in prison. When he placed his hands on the tabletop, Blair saw a name etched across the knuckles in a typical jailhouse tattoo. Squinting, he made out the letters - B-L-A-I… He jumped back, his gasping breath causing Ellison to turn and look at him in concern.

"Sandburg?" Jim spoke quietly.

"It's okay." Blair pulled himself together and took a seat across from Samuels, leaving Jim to stand and do the intimidation from his superior height. He snuck another look at the tattoo, vaguely aware of Samuels' smile as he did so.

It was an N. The last letter was an N. The letters read Blain, not Blair.

For a moment, Blair felt as if he was caught in some surreal dreamworld. What were the chances of Samuels striking up a relationship on the inside with someone whose name was so close to his own? He shuddered slightly then caught himself as he realized Samuels was talking to him. Feeling a vague sense of déjà vu, Blair looked across at the murderer and caught the last part of his question.

"… wondered if you were okay, Detective Sandburg," Samuels was saying, the same sickly smirk on his face that Blair remembered.

He nodded quickly then looked up at Jim, signalling his partner to begin.

"Mr. Samuels, what do you know about the current whereabouts of Aaron Zabinski?" Jim asked, watching Samuels carefully. He focused his hearing on the man's heartbeat, listening for the acceleration or missing beat that would clue him in to any lies the killer told.

Samuels smiled slowly then shrugged. "Aaron? I really don't know, Detectives. We were kept separate while he was here. I heard he'd been released but my interests lie elsewhere now." He looked down at the tattooed letters adorning his knuckles then glanced quickly at Blair, still smiling.

Swallowing, Blair stood up and moved to stand next to his partner.

"What do you mean, your interests, Samuels?" Jim continued, looking reassuringly at Blair. "Zabinski was one of your victims, as well, wasn't he? You trying to say he was with you voluntarily. You took him off the streets when he was a drug-addicted teenager and turned him into your little slave. A slave who helped you dispose of the bodies of those boys you murdered." Jim's voice was flat but the disgust in it could still be heard.

Samuels nodded slightly. He scratched the side of his neck thoughtfully then shrugged as if he'd made some decision. "I'm never going to leave this prison alive, you know?" he said finally, almost conversationally. "Oh, I could probably try to escape but that's not really me. I'm not what you'd call the escapee type. And I'm pretty sure there are vigilantes on the outside who'd have preferred me to have gotten a death sentence and who'd be happy to carry it out themselves, if I was ever released. I make no pretensions to being brave." He smiled at them and just for a moment there was a glimpse of the disarming man Samuels might have been before his soul had become so warped and evil. "Besides, for someone like me, it's really not so bad in here. I have a roof over my head, three meals a day, a bed to sleep in. I even have a television and a vcr. And I have a companion…" He looked down at the name on his hand again, rubbing his fingers over the letters as he spoke. "You have a child now, Detective Sandburg, don't you?"

In an instant, Blair was leaning across the table, his hands grasping the front of Samuels' jumpsuit. "You leave my daughter out of this, you creep," he snarled.

Samuels' hands came up and wrapped around Blair's wrists as Jim grabbed his partner's shoulders and pulled him away. Blair released Samuels reluctantly and moved back to stand just behind Jim, trying to catch his breath and calm himself.

"You and your partner seem to have this unfortunate habit of attacking me whenever I try to tell you the truth," Samuels said sardonically, his hand rubbing at this throat where the jumpsuit had tightened when Blair grabbed it.

"Talk, Samuels. How did you know about the child and what does she have to do with why Zabinski is following Sandburg around?" Jim asked tersely.

"Ah! So I was right. Aaron is after you. As to your first question, I've kept up with news about Detective Sandburg since we last met. You told me yourself he'd been abducted." Samuels shrugged. "Word gets around, even here. If you really want to know something there are ways of finding out." He motioned to the chairs at the table. "Why don't we all calm down and sit down and I'll tell you what I believe Aaron is up to, Detectives?"

Jim sat down and motioned Blair to the chair next to him. "Why are you being so cooperative, Samuels? You're pissed with Zabinski for turning over on you in court so now you're gonna try to pin something on him?"

"Not at all, Detective. As I said, this place has become quite a home to me and after all, you came to me with this information about what my dear friend Mr. Zabinski is up to these days." Samuels arched an eyebrow at them and Jim nodded.

"Go on," he said.

"Aaron got away with murder, you realize." Samuels held up a hand as Blair began to interrupt. "Let me finish, Detective. Oh, you're right, at first he was just a junkie I picked up. I knew with his unfortunate habit, he'd be easy enough to manipulate. But he surprised me. By the time we picked up the reporter's kid, Aaron was getting off on the rush that killing gives people like us as much as I was. I admit he only helped me procure the first four, and dispose of the bodies. But Ryan… he was all Aaron's idea. He picked the boy out, followed him around for a few days, much as he's obviously doing with you now, Detective." Samuels gave Blair a mirthless grin.

"Why did you let him get away with it?" Jim asked.

"I was going to go down for the other four, anyway. Four or five life sentences… I'm never leaving here, except in a box." Samuels shrugged slightly.

"All right, say we believe you on that…" Blair looked over at Jim, who gave a barely perceptible nod, telegraphing that Samuels seemed to be telling the truth. "Why is he following me now and why are you now willing to turn him in?"

"He's following you, Detective, for revenge. You see, Ryan Haas was Aaron's gift to me. His way of showing me that he was now completely mine. When he realized we weren't going to stay together in prison, and especially when he found out about Blain… well, I think he blames you for taking me away from him. As for why I'm willing to help you - same reason, really. Revenge. No matter why he did it, Aaron betrayed me when he went to the police. I could have remained free if he hadn't over-reached himself. When he took the Haas boy, I had no idea who the boy's father was, not until it was far too late. I told Aaron he'd brought the heat down on us but he simply said he didn't care what happened as long as we were together," Samuels replied. He waited, then spoke again. "You're wondering why he didn't admit to helping me with all the killings or at least to murdering the Haas boy. Why shop me if he loved me?"

"It crossed my mind," Jim replied dryly.

"Aaron may have been a junkie, but he's bright enough. He knew if we both went down for life, we'd likely end up in different prisons. With his sentence being so much less than mine, he knew there was a good chance he'd end up at Fremont, in the minimum-security wing. He did. We were separated but there are always ways to communicate in prison. He planned on breaking us both out before his time was up. When I refused to go along, he couldn't understand. He asked me why. I told him what I just told you and then he found out about Blain." Samuels sighed. "I suppose he figured if he waited out his sentence, he'd at least be able to get one thing he wanted - revenge on you, Detective Sandburg, for helping to take me away from him." Samuels reached his cuffed hands across the table as if to touch Blair's then jumped as Jim's large fist clamped around his wrist.

"Don't!" the Sentinel warned softly.

Samuels pulled his hands back and held them up in a conciliatory gesture. "I really have no idea where he is, Detectives. However, I'm sure he'll come to you." Samuels stood, signalling that the interview was over as far as he was concerned.

"Wait. Why did you mention my child?" Blair asked. "Do you think Zabinski would do something to her?" He stood, facing Samuels, his whole body tense as he waited for the killer's answer.

Samuels gave the cold grin they'd come to know so well. "I wouldn't put anything past Aaron. If he can't get to you, I believe it's conceivable he would go after the child. After all, he's killed a child before. It wouldn't bother him unduly." He glanced at Jim inquiringly. "I believe I'd like to go back to my cell, now, gentlemen."

Jim nodded and walked over to tap on the window of the interview room door. He stepped back as it opened and a guard came in. The man checked Samuels' cuffs then prodded him through the door.

Samuels stopped and turned. "It was nice to see you again, Blair. Take care of that little girl, won't you?" He smirked and walked forward, as the guard gave him a firm nudge in the back.

Blair slumped down into the chair he'd been sitting in before. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. "Man, that guy still gives me the creeps."

Jim grabbed an arm and levered him to his feet. "You and me both, buddy. Let's get back to the station, okay."

"We need to get Jobie and the Hendersons moved, Jim."

"I'm on it, Chief," Jim replied, leading the way from the interview room and down to the front office.

They went through the checking out procedures and retrieved their weapons then headed out to the truck. The minute they hit the parking lot Jim pulled out his cell phone and called Banks, filling him in on what Samuels had said and requesting that the Henderson family and Jobie be moved to a safehouse with extra guards around the clock. The entire time he was on the phone he kept his eyes on Blair, noting the way his partner sagged with relief as he heard what Jim was asking for.

Blair climbed into the truck as soon as Jim unlocked the doors and leaned back tiredly in the passenger seat, closing his eyes.

"You all right, Chief?" Jim asked worriedly, wondering if Simon had been right and it had been a mistake to bring Blair along.

"Yeah," Blair replied, his voice husky with emotion. "I just really miss Jobie, you know?"

"Me too, Chief. So let's get Zabinski so we can get her home again, okay?" Jim patted Blair's leg encouragingly then started up the truck and peeled out of the parking lot.

CHAPTER SEVEN

It wasn't till he was heading for a stop sign and hit the brakes that Jim realized they were in trouble. He swung a swift look at Blair, glad to see his partner had his seatbelt on. "Hold on, Chief!" he yelled as his foot pumped uselessly at the brake pedal. "We've got no brakes."

"What?" The squawk with which Blair greeted his words might have been comical if it hadn't been for the seriousness of the situation.

Jim saw Blair grab for the dashboard in front of him and brace himself. Then there was no time left to worry about his partner. He sawed the wheel violently to the right and managed to avoid the red sedan that had already entered the intersection ahead of them.

The road dipped downhill from there and Jim fought just to keep the truck from veering off the road as he angled the vehicle around the bends of the steep road. He tried shifting down into first gear but, though they slowed marginally, the incline more than made up for that. He chanced a look down and found the handbrake and hauled it up then whispered a word of thanks as he felt the truck shudder into a skid as the wheels locked up.

"Oh shit."

Jim looked up at Blair's murmured, horrified words and saw the traffic lights ahead were already red with at least three cars already blocking their way through. He reached out and managed to flick on the switch for the siren, then he pulled the steering wheel as hard as he could to the left, aiming for the bushes abutting the soft shoulder of the road. He felt the truck fishtail as gravity took over and then they were heading for the side of the road in a more or less controlled spin.

Jim's hands left the wheel and instinctively came up to cover his face. He caught a glimpse of Blair out of the corner of his eye, his body doubled over, his head buried in his arms.

Then they hit, the truck turned back the way they'd come, the passenger side taking the brunt of the collision against the hillside but their momentum finally halted. Jim felt his head snap forward and pound into the steering wheel then back hard against the seat as the truck finally ground to a complete halt.

It took a few moments for Jim to gain enough equilibrium to turn to check on Blair. He could feel a trickle of blood running from his forehead down his face and he brushed his hand against it as it reached his eye. Blair was slumped forward, his head still covered by his arms.

"God, no, Chief." Jim reached out a hand, undid his partner's seatbelt and gingerly pulled Blair back to rest against the seat, surprised when he did to find his partner's eyes wide open and glaring at him accusingly.

"Geez, Jim, if you're planning on trying out for the stunt car derby, how about you give me a heads-up, man?"

Jim puffed out a sigh of relief as he realized Blair wasn't hurt then found himself pushed back in his seat as his Guide saw that the Sentinel was.

"Oh man, Jim, I'm sorry. Are you okay? No, don't answer that. Of course you're not okay. Look at you!" Blair unbuckled his seatbelt and reached for the radio. He put in a call for an ambulance and back up then rooted around under the seat till he found the first aid kit. He shushed Jim's protests that he didn't need an ambulance as he wiped away the blood from the head wound and kept pressure on it till the medics and the uniforms arrived.

~oOo~

Jim stood up from the tailgate of the ambulance where he'd been sitting while the cut on his head was cleaned and dressed.

"Is he all right to go?" said a voice from just behind his left shoulder and he looked around to see Banks standing there.

"He'll be okay," the paramedic said, packing up his kit. "The cut didn't need sutures and he said he wasn't knocked out so he doesn't have a concussion."

"*He's* also standing right here and perfectly able to speak for himself, thank you," Jim said sarcastically, but he smiled as he spoke. "Thanks, Matt." He shook the medic's hand and looked around for Blair, finally spotting him standing a few yards away from the truck, talking into his cell phone.

Forensic techs were swarming over the truck and a mechanic pulled himself out from under the jacked-up wheels as Jim and Simon reached Sandburg.

"Anything?" Banks asked.

Blair put his phone back in his pocket and patted Jim's arm, "You okay?" he mouthed.

Jim nodded then turned his attention to the mechanic. "Well, come on, Charlie. You were under there long enough. What did you find?"

Charlie Sanders pulled off the gloves he'd been wearing and dropped them into his toolbox. "Pretty much what you thought, Detective. Brake lines have been cut and drained of fluid. They'd tampered with your transmission as well but only managed to push the belt offline. Probably didn't have time to do any more damage. That's why you were still able to downshift and why shifting down didn't help much. We're gonna take her in to the yard so the Forensic guys can dust for prints properly, okay?"

Banks nodded agreement. "Thanks, Charlie. Come on, Jim, I'll give you and Blair a ride back to the station. You're gonna need to sign a car out for a few days unless you'd rather use Sandburg's car till the truck's cleared to drive?"

"Hey, my car's a classic, sir." Blair's voice was mock indignant and for those few seconds everything seemed to be almost normal again. "I spoke to Jenny," Blair added, shattering that particular illusion and reminding Ellison that maybe there was no such thing as normal in the Sentinel-Guide world.

Jim climbed in front of the car next to Simon, then turned in his seat, resting his arm along the back, so he was able to see Blair. "Everything all right there?" he asked.

Blair swallowed hard. "Yeah, she said they're all fine. Joe thinks it's neat playing hide and seek in a whole new house and he's been following Rafe everywhere. Seems Rafe told him he's really a spy like James Bond and that's why he doesn't have to wear a uniform like other policemen."

They both chuckled at that but then Blair's face lost its animation. He looked past Jim, his eyes suspiciously damp-looking. "She put the phone down for Jobie to listen," he said. "I could hear her making that funny noise she does that sounds like she's trying to say hello. Remember?"

"I remember," Jim said softly. He patted Blair's leg then turned back toward the front of the car as Simon started it up. "She'll be home soon, Chief," he said firmly, meeting Blair's eyes in the mirror.

"Yeah," Blair replied shakily. He turned and fixed his gaze on the passing scenery through his window.

CHAPTER EIGHT

"You want the first shower, Chief?" Jim asked as soon as they walked through the door of the loft, hoping his partner would say no. Jim felt as if his whole body was one enormous bruise. The cut on his head throbbed, keeping time with his heartbeat and his chest ached where the seatbelt had held him in place. He knew it was better than the alternative. His mind still cringed from the memory of Blair hunched over in his seat after they'd crashed, looking so still, so lifeless… He shut off that train of thought quickly as he took off his jacket then looked over at Sandburg who still hadn't answered him. "You okay?" Jim asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Jim. Sorry. Just keep flashing back to when I saw all that blood running down your face, you know? That was way too close, man," Blair responded, at last.

"So - you want the first shower?" Jim asked again.

Blair shook his head. "Nah, you go ahead. You need the hot water more than I do. I'm gonna start dinner."

"You saying I stink, Sandburg?" Jim quipped as he headed for the bathroom.

"Hey, you're the Sentinel, man. You should know," Blair shot back. "Left-over chilli all right for dinner? I think there's still some cornbread in the freezer too."

"Sounds good, Chief." Jim walked into the bathroom and stripped off, turning the water on. He made it as hot as he could bear it then stepped in, a sigh of relief escaping as the cascade of water hit his skin and he felt the tiredness and pain begin to leech away.

Blair had the table set and a salad made by the time Jim was dressed. They were just starting to eat when the phone rang, making them both jump, having forgotten they'd turned the ringer back up after taking Jobie to the Hendersons. Blair leapt up to grab it, his eyes darting up to the loft bedroom as he did. He shot Jim a small embarrassed smile and Jim understood that his partner had momentarily forgotten there was no baby in the apartment for the phone to disturb. Jim looked down at his plate, not wanting to see the pain in Blair's face at the realization.

"Hello, Sandburg speaking."

There was a short silence as Blair listened to the caller then he spoke again, his voice sounding tight. "Who is this? Look, I'm sorry. I think you've got a wrong number, man."

Curious, Jim looked up, put his fork down and focused his hearing on the voice coming from the other end of the phone. He didn't want to eavesdrop but Blair's tone was wrong and his breathing was hitching as he listened to the caller.

//My name is Dan Taalman and I need to speak to you urgently, Detective Sandburg. //

"What about?" Blair asked. "You said something about Samantha… I'm probably not the person to speak to about Sam. You should call Conover…"

//I need to talk to you.// Jim stood as he heard the caller's tone become more forceful. //I knew Sam. We were… Well, let's just say I knew her very well. I also know she had baby before she was killed and I need to speak to you about the child. Look, I can't talk to you over the phone. Can we meet somewhere? I could come to your apartment or the police station. I don't mind where, but I have to see you. Please, Detective.//

Blair looked across at Jim, his eyes telegraphing his uncertainty. He spoke into the phone again. "Hold on a minute, will you?" He covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "Jim? Did you hear?" At Jim's nod, he asked, "What should I do? He knows about Jobie, Jim. What if it's a trap set up by Zabinski?"

Jim approached his friend and rested a calming hand on his shoulder. "I don't think so, Chief," he replied in a low voice. "He said he'd meet you at the PD. He wouldn't suggest that if he was working for Zabinski. Call his bluff, Blair. Tell him *we'll* meet him downtown in thirty minutes."

Blair nodded, noting with relief, the emphasis the Sentinel placed on the word "we". "Okay, you're right." He took a deep breath, obviously trying to regain control of himself then lifted his hand and spoke into the phone. "Mr. Taalman, my partner, Detective Ellison, and I will meet you in the Major Crimes Unit at the Cascade PD in thirty minutes. Is that all right with you?"

//That's fine. Thank you. Um… is it okay if I bring my wife? She really needs to be there too.//

Blair's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Ah, your wife? Sure, okay. See you in a half-hour." He hung up the phone and turned to Jim, his face pale. "This is weird, Jim. Wonder what the hell it's about?"

Jim gathered up their dishes and covered them with plastic wrap and put them in the fridge for later. "Let's go find out, Chief."

~oOo~

Jim knew his mouth was hanging open. He closed it with a snap, then turned his head to look at his partner and then slowly back again to stare at the man Dills had pointed out to them as being Dan Taalman.

Blair looked as stunned as Jim felt. "Maybe I should ask Naomi if she ever knew a guy by the name of Taalman," he muttered sotto voce as they crossed the room.

"I'd say so, Chief," Jim agreed.

Dan Taalman was taller than Blair by two or three inches but apart from that, they could have been brothers. There were slight differences, of course. Taalman's hair was a shade lighter than Blair's, though just as curly, the pony tail he wore it in reminding Jim inexorably of how Blair had looked before he'd become a cop. He even wore glasses similar to Blair's. Overall, even a passing observer would have taken them as being closely related in some way.

Taalman stood as they approached and Jim was amused to see his own look of shock mirrored on the man's face.

The woman who'd been sitting next to him rose to her feet. "Oh my God," she said faintly. "He looks just like you, Dan."

Blair held out his hand. "Hi, I'm Blair Sandburg. This is my partner, Jim Ellison. You must be the Taalmans."

Dan Taalman nodded mutely and shook Blair's hand. "I think I understand now," he whispered, sinking back down onto the chair after acknowledging Jim with a nod. Abruptly, he rose again. "I'm sorry. Where are my manners? I was just a bit shocked when I saw you… Um," he turned to the woman. "This is Jessie, my wife. Thank you for agreeing to see us, Mr. Sandburg… or should I call you Detective?"

"Blair's fine, Dan. Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Taalman."

"Jessie, please," the woman interjected, her voice firmer now.

"And I'm Jim. So now that we're all acquainted and on our way to being friends, how about we take this somewhere a little more private." Jim shot the three a quick grin then ushered them ahead of him out of the bullpen and into one of the vacant interrogation rooms down the hall. Once they were seated, he offered to get coffee or soft drinks for the Taalmans. When they declined he sat down next to Blair and gave him a small smile of reassurance. "This is your party, Chief."

"Oh, right. Yeah. So, Dan, you said you knew Sam well?"

Dan cast a swift look at his wife, his face flushing. Jessie grasped his hand in hers and he visibly relaxed. "It's all right, Dan. Tell them. It'll be okay."

Dan cleared his throat. "About a year and a half or so ago, Jessie and I were having some problems - marital problems and we split up, temporarily, while we tried to sort things out. We were seeing a marriage counsellor but we had separate appointments. One day I was at the therapist and I met Sam Richards in the waiting room. Long story short, she was lonely, I was lonely and we had a very brief affair."

"Whoa, back up a minute, Dan," Blair interrupted. "Sam wasn't married. Why would she be seeing a marriage counsellor?"

"She told me she'd been having problems with her boyfriend. She later told me that was you, Blair. She said she wanted to get married, settle down, have kids, but he kept putting it off, breaking up with her then getting back together with her a few months on."

Jim saw Blair's cheeks redden. That part of Sam's story had been at least partly true. Blair had broken up with her on several occasions though not for the exact reason Sam had given Dan. He'd kept trying to make it work, hoping that this time Sam would be different, less demanding, less intense. But she never was.

Blair nodded and Taalman continued. "After a couple of weeks though, she started to demand I divorce Jessie so we could get married. I told her I couldn't do that. I was still hoping Jess and I could work things out. Sam was really angry. She said she was going to kill herself and when I tried to talk to her she threatened to go after Jessie and Zak, our son. Anyway, that really scared me so I left. I called the police and they came and cautioned her. I didn't want to press charges. I was too embarrassed. So I got a restraining order against her so she couldn't come near my wife and son. Then I went to see Jessie and I told her everything."

Jessie gave his hand a squeeze. "We went back to counselling but this time together and about three months later Dan moved home." She had a light pleasant voice that matched her attractive features, Jim thought.

"Okay, you mentioned my daughter…" Blair began, casting a tense glance at Jim.

Jim could almost read Blair's thoughts from just that look alone. *Jobie might not be mine, after all* it said and Jim felt his own heart clench at the thought.

"I suppose it's obvious," Dan said quietly. "There's a possibility the child could be mine. Sam insisted she was yours but she refused to agree to a DNA test and when I found out she was in Conover, I was reluctant to push the issue. I didn't want to cause her greater mental anguish. I spoke to her sister. She told me what Sam had done to you -"

"Oh God," Blair whispered. He brought his hands up to cover his face.

Jim extended his hearing, searching for and finding his Guide's heartbeat. It was rapid and Jim could hear the small calming breaths Blair was taking to try to regain his balance. He reached out a hand and placed it on Blair's neck, squeezing gently. "You all right, Chief? We can stop now, do this some other time…"

Blair looked up, scrubbing a hand across red-rimmed eyes. He shook his head firmly. "I'd rather do it now, Jim. Thanks anyway, buddy. It's just something I've tried to forget, you know? And something I would have preferred as few people as possible knew about. Guess the cat's out of the bag now." He smiled reassuringly but the smile didn't reach his eyes, the Sentinel noticed.

Jim found himself hating these people, the Taalmans, with their quiet voices and pleasant manners. Whether they intended to or not, they were hurting his Guide, something the Sentinel and the friend in Ellison couldn't bear. He sighed then nodded his agreement. "All right, but if you need a break or you want to call it quits just say so." He turned to Taalman, his eyes icy now. "Go on."

"I want DNA tests done," Dan said. "If the child is mine, I should be the one providing a home for her. Jessie is willing to welcome her, to be a mother to her and we know our son would be happy to have a little sister."

Blair nodded, his face pale. "You'd win that point in court anyway," he said. "I guess it would only be stalling for time to refuse the test. I'll agree to the paternity test."

"I was wondering if we could see the baby," Jessie put forward timidly. "We wouldn't bring Zak with us. We wouldn't want to get his hopes up until we're sure, but we'd very much like to see her, if that's okay with you, Blair."

Jim stood up. "That's not possible right now," he said, walking to the door. He wanted the Taalmans gone. Blair looked destroyed and Jim just wanted to get him home so they could call the safehouse. Blair could talk to Jobie and feel close to his daughter again.

"Why not?" Dan Taalman was on his feet as well, glaring suspiciously at Jim. "We just want to see her for a few minutes. You can stay with us the whole time."

"Jobie's in protective custody at a safehouse," Blair replied tersely. "Even I haven't been able to see her for several days. We can't risk that somebody may follow us there…" His voice trailed off and Jim could hear his Guide's heart galloping wildly once more as Blair contemplated the danger Jobie could be in if Zabinski discovered her whereabouts.

"It's because you're a cop, isn't it?" Taalman asked. "You had to hide the child away because someone's threatening to harm you and you think they'd go after her as well?"

Blair nodded, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed hard. "Yes," he said at last. "It's because of me that she's at risk. I'm sorry. I'll organize to have the test done as soon as we catch this guy and the case is wrapped up."

"I want to take her home with us now," Taalman said firmly.

"What?" Blair looked up, his voice sounding shocked. "You can't do that. You don't even know she's yours -"

"She'll be safe with us. Whoever this person is doesn't know about us. She should be with people who could be her family, not in some safehouse with strangers," Taalman interrupted.

"They're not strangers," Blair said hotly. "They're the family Jobie stayed with until I could bring her home after her mother died. The Hendersons are as much family to Jobie as Jim and I are."

"Fine," Dan Taalman spat out. "I'll see a lawyer tomorrow and demand the DNA testing is done immediately. I'm not having any child of mine placed in this sort of danger!"

"You don't know she's yours!" Blair was on his feet now too, his tone pleading. His eyes were filled with tears and he swiped them away impatiently. "Please, Dan, she's safe and happy where she is. She's a little baby and she's been through so much turmoil already. Don't do this to us."

"Dan." Jessie spoke quietly but firmly as she reached out and grasped her husband's shoulder. "Sit down and stop this."

"No, Jess, I'll speak to my father tomorrow. Ask him to get the best attorney he can for us -"

"Sit down, Dan!" Jim gaped as the diminutive woman raised her voice and literally pulled her husband off his feet till he was sitting in the chair once more. "You'll do nothing of the sort. I swear, Dan, if you're going to start acting like your father I'll go home and get Zak and leave you tonight. Listen to what Blair is saying. For the past few months he has been the only father, the only parent that little girl has known and surely you can see how much he loves her. These men are policemen and they've taken steps to ensure the child's safety and that she is with people she knows and who care for her. She doesn't know us, Dan. And Blair's right. We don't even know for sure that she is your child. I think we should go home and when the time is right we'll have the tests done and then, if she's yours, we will come to some agreement that is fair on everyone, especially on Jobie." She smiled across at Blair and Jim, her own eyes damp now. "I love her name. They told us it was Johanna Blair."

"It is," Blair whispered, sinking down onto the chair again. "Jobie's a nickname her foster brother, Joe, gave her." He stood again and pulled his wallet from his pocket then looked across at his partner. "Jim, do you think it would be okay…" he began.

"Go ahead, Chief. The munchkin's growing so fast she looks different every time I see her." Jim smiled affectionately and watched as Blair pulled a photo from his wallet.

"Oh, she's beautiful," Jessie said softly, angling the photo so her husband could see it. "You must be so proud of her."

"Yep," Blair said. "Jobie's something, right, Jim?"

"She is that, Chief."

"She looks like Sarah," Dan said so softly that even Jim could barely hear him.

"Who's Sarah?" Jim asked.

Jessie gave a soft smile and touched the photo gently with her fingertips before handing it back to Blair. "Sarah was our daughter. She was killed three years ago by a hit-run driver. She ran into the street to get her kitten."

"I'm sorry," Jim said, feeling profound sympathy replacing the anger he'd felt towards these people only minutes before.

"She was only four," Dan said. "It's what tore Jessie and me apart. We just couldn't seem to talk or understand what each other was feeling." He looked across at Blair. "I'm sorry, Blair. You must be feeling the same way at the thought of losing your little girl." He stood, grasping his wife's hand and pulling her to her feet. "I won't do anything about the test. Just give me a call when you're ready. Here's my card."

"You're a teacher?" Blair asked, examining the business card.

"Yes. I tutor from home as well. Jessie was a schoolteacher too. That's how we met," Dan gave his wife a fond smile. "Blair, take good care of Jobie, all right?"

"I will, believe me," Blair replied firmly.

Jessie reached out and embraced him in a hug as she passed by. "You watch out for yourself, too, Blair. We don't want to hear you've been hurt by this person either, okay? Jobie's been very lucky, you know, to have you and your friend care for her." She shot a warm shy smile at Jim.

"Thanks," Blair said, returning the hug.

Jim opened the door and waved Dills over to see the Taalmans out then he crossed to where Blair was standing, looking lost, his face still pale, and his hands shaking visibly. The Sentinel pulled his Guide into a firm embrace, cupping Blair's head with one large hand and rubbing soothing circles on his back with the other. "You can let go now, Chief, if you want. I've got you."

Blair's head dropped forward onto Jim's chest as his shoulders began to shudder under the force of silent sobs. "Oh God, Jim, I'm going to lose her, aren't I?" he whispered brokenly.

"Not if I can help it, Blair," the Sentinel said. He held his friend within his arms till the storm of emotion passed then he led Blair from the room, one arm around his Guide's shoulders, supporting him and protecting him from the curious and concerned glances thrown their way.

CHAPTER NINE

"Why don't you call the safehouse while I reheat dinner?" Jim suggested as they got inside the apartment. He didn't miss the look of gratitude on Blair's face at his words but he simply picked up the cordless phone and handed it to his partner as he moved past him into the kitchen.

Within minutes he had the chilli reheating in the microwave and was making a fresh salad. He smiled as he heard Blair talking to Jobie, his friend's voice sounding lighter than it had been since they'd met the Taalmans. He looked up as Blair called his name.

"Yeah, Chief? What's up?"

"You wanna talk to Jobie, Jim?"

Jim's chest tightened at the invitation and he nodded quickly, not bothering to hide his pleasure at being asked. "Sure. Of course I do." He went and took the receiver from Blair who walked into the kitchen and took over preparing their late meal. Jim glanced up once or twice as he cooed baby talk to Jobie, catching the grin on Blair's face as his Guide shamelessly eavesdropped. Jim could care less about that. Blair was smiling again and that was enough for now.

Jenny came back on and asked Jim if he'd talk to Joe for a few minutes. It seemed the five-year-old was miffed at missing out on his fair share of phone conversation. Jim agreed cheerfully and spent another five minutes assuring the little boy that yes, he knew Rafe was a spy like James Bond and yes, he was definitely one of the good guys. He heard Blair laugh outright as he overheard Jim agree with Joe, in a serious tone of voice, that Rafe was definitely one of the bravest men he'd ever known. By the time Jim hung up, Blair was almost convulsed with laughter.

"I need to have a talk with Rafe when this is all over," Jim said gruffly as he grabbed the cornbread out of the oven and set it on the table. "You know he's got Joe thinking he's James Bond and Superman rolled into one?"

Blair brought over the chilli and salad. "Hey, every kid needs a hero," he remarked. "Joe could've picked a worse one than Rafe. I'm just grateful he's been willing to be there all this time, keeping an eye on them all. I know he's had help from the rostered duty officers, but he's the one who's been there 24/7 and I know Rafe would step in front of a speeding bullet to protect Jobie and the others."

"You're right there, Sandburg. Rafe's a good cop and a good friend. Guess we'll be having a thank you party when this is all over."

"You bet, Jim. By then, hopefully we'll really have something to be thankful for," Blair replied.

Jim tipped his beer bottle towards Blair's and clinked them together. "To bringing Jobie home," he said.

"To good friends," Blair responded cheerfully enough, but his eyes were still shadowed with fear, Jim thought.

They cleared up the dishes together then Jim went into the small room under the stairs while Blair climbed the stairs to the loft bedroom.

Lying in bed a half hour later, Jim could hear his partner tossing and turning, muttering imprecations under his breath as sleep continued to elude him. He thought about going up to talk to Blair but had no sooner made the decision to do so when he heard the soft padding of feet on the stairs that told him Blair was coming to him. He sat up and threw his legs over the side of his bed, scrubbing a hand tiredly over his face, then looked up with a small smile as Blair stealthily pushed open the door and crept in. Blair startled as he realized Jim was up, a guilty look crossing his face.

"Sorry, did I wake you?" Blair asked, remorse evident in his tone

"Nah, couldn't sleep. My room-mate upstairs was tossing and turning too much." Jim grinned. "Guess he couldn't sleep either."

"Sorry," Blair repeated. "Um, Jim, I was wondering… Could I sleep down here tonight? Not with you!" he said hurriedly. "I thought you could take the upstairs room tonight and I could sleep here. I keep looking at the crib and stuff… and… well… you know…" He stumbled to a halt, gazing at his feet, his arms wrapped around his chest in a self-hug.

"Sure," Jim said easily. "It's fine, buddy. Whatever will help you sleep." He stood and grabbed his pillows then moved past Blair. "Stay here, Chief. I'll bring your pillows down for you. You want some tea or something while we're up. Chamomile maybe. It'll help you relax."

Blair nodded jerkily, still looking down.

"Good. Get under the covers, I'll be back in a few." Jim walked past his partner then turned back and tossed the pillows onto the end of the bed. He wrapped his arms around Blair and gave him a quick hug then pulled back and lifted Blair's chin with one hand. "You are not alone in this, Blair. I'm here for you. You got that?"

Blair nodded again and huffed out a sigh. "Yeah, I got it. Thanks, Jim."

"No problem. Get into bed." Jim pushed Blair in the right direction then grabbed his pillows again and left the room, turning on the kettle for tea before going up to get Blair's things. He was just heading back down again when the phone rang and he quickly went to answer it, dumping Blair's pillows haphazardly on the couch on his way.

"Ellison," he barked into the phone as he picked it up, figuring that at this hour, it could only be work.

//Um… Detective, this is Dan Taalman. I really need to speak to Blair. //

"It's a little late, Dan. Blair's in bed…" Jim began, furrowing his brow. "Can't this wait?"

//No! I have to talk to him now! //

Jim paused, focusing his hearing past the caller's voice. Taalman sounded… odd, scared almost. He cast aside the sound of the man's heavy breathing and his rapid heartbeat, zeroing in on a voice he could hear in the background.

//Get Sandburg on the line, Mister, or I'll put a bullet in your kid right now.//

*Shit!* Jim knew it could only be Zabinski. He heard Taalman turn and whisper, //Please don't. He's coming,// urgently under his breath then turned as Blair stumbled from the bedroom, his eyes blinking in the harsh light.

"Who is it?" Blair asked. "Is it Jenny? Is something wrong with Jobie? Let me talk to her, Jim."

He walked over and tried to take the receiver from Jim's hand but Jim held it fast, putting one hand up to cover Blair's mouth, effectively silencing him. Removing his hand he held up a finger in a shushing gesture, then spoke into the phone again.

"Hang on, Dan. I'll see if I can wake him up." Jim placed the phone down on the table and grabbed Blair's arm, towing him into the bathroom, where they wouldn't be overheard.

"Jim?" Blair looked confused and more than a little worried.

"Dan Taalman's on the phone. He wants to talk to you, was *very* insistent about it, in fact."

"Okay, I'll talk to him. Why did you tell him I was asleep? You knew I was awake, man."

"Because Zabinski's at Taalman's house," Jim explained concisely.

"What? How do you know?" Blair asked, his voice rising.

Jim tapped his ears and gave a small grim smile that contained no humor whatsoever. "He said he was going to shoot Taalman's son if you didn't get on the phone. My guess is he's gonna want to talk to you, tell you to go out to the Taalman's or he'll kill everyone there-"

"Jesus, Jim, I have to do it. I can't let anything happen to their little boy," Blair interrupted hotly. He grabbed the Sentinel's arm, his fingers tight enough to hurt. "Jim, I have to do it. You know that? Even if Zabinski tells me to come alone, you can still back me up, listen in to everything, right?" He looked into his partner's face, his eyes fiery with determination.

Jim nodded unhappily. "I think it's the only way we can catch the bastard, Chief. But I'm still going to call Simon, have some other backup and some medics hidden around the place as well. We'll do it all on silent running, okay?"

Blair nodded then went back into the living room and picked up the receiver. "Hello, Dan?"

The voice that answered him wasn't Taalman's and Blair felt a chill run down his spine as he recognized it as that of Aaron Zabinski.

//Remember me, Sandburg?//

"Yeah," Blair responded, his throat dry. He looked across at Jim for assurance, seeing his partner whispering urgently into his cellphone, still inside the bathroom.

//If you're not here in 30 minutes, this nice family's gonna be dead, okay?// Zabinski snarled, his growled accents a far cry from the whiny tones Blair remembered.

"If I come there, you'll let them go?' Blair asked. He jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder then turned and flashed a nervous grin up at Jim, who was now standing behind him.

//If you come alone, I will. Don't bring that Neanderthal partner of yours, all right? Make up some story to tell him so he doesn't come with you, got it?//

Blair nodded at Jim, certain Zabinski didn't know Jim had heard him in the background while speaking to Taalman. He could only think Zabinski didn't follow the news and so had never heard about Ellison having heightened senses. "All right," he said into the phone. "How do you want to do this?"

//When you get here, come up and knock twice on the door. Leave your gun in your car. I'll search you anyway. Someone'll let you in. Then, when I'm sure you're on your own, I'll let these nice people go// Zabinski instructed. //No tricks, got it?//

"Got it." Blair hung up the phone then walked over and unlocked the drawer where he and Jim kept their weapons. He hefted his own in his hand then replaced it, instead picking up Jim's, along with two clips. He handed them to his partner. "Let's do it," he said.

CHAPTER TEN

Jim pulled his truck up behind Blair's four houses away from the Taalmans. He got out and jogged up to Blair's car and tapped on the glass. "You be careful in there, buddy," he said quietly. "Jobie's counting on you coming out of this okay. So no heroics. You got that, Chief?" He leaned in and tousled Blair's curls and gave him a steadying smile.

"Hey, no problem, man. I am *so* not the hero type," Blair joked back, his ears barely catching Jim's muttered sceptical "Yeah, right." He grasped his friend's hand firmly in his, pulling it away from his head and squeezed it firmly. "I'll be fine, man. After this, it'll be over, right?" Releasing the Sentinel's hand, he put the car in gear again and released the brake then turned and motioned Jim over to the window again.

"Yeah, Chief?" Jim asked.

Blair waggled a stern finger in his face. "Stay awake, partner. And Jim, stay in the truck!" Then he gave a slightly hysterical laugh and drove off.

~oOo~

Jim climbed back into his own vehicle then did a u-turn and drove back past where he knew Banks and the backup was stationed. He flashed his headlights once as he passed the captain's dark sedan and got two flashes back, then he went back the way he'd come and took up his position a street away and around the corner from the Taalman's home. He opened the glove compartment and pulled out a sharp straight roofing nail. Blair would be pissed if he found out how Jim planned to keep from zoning but the Sentinel figured pain had stopped sedatives affecting him once before, so it was worth trying it for this. He'd never forgive himself if he zoned, tonight of all nights, and something happened to Blair or the other innocents inside the house. Climbing from the vehicle, he checked he had both his weapons and his cuffs then stealthily made his way to the outskirts of the Taalman property, hunkering down under a huge oak tree that he was sure would conceal him in its shadow. To the left of the driveway, concealed by the shadow of the garage was a small side gate, no doubt leading to the backyard.

Jim scurried to it, bending almost double in the shadows and climbed over, quietly making his way round the rear of the house. He knew the Taalman's vehicle was parked at the bottom of the driveway, off to one side. He'd run a check on the plates before leaving the loft, in case Zabinski tried to use it as a getaway car. He prayed silently the Taalmans didn't have a dog and was relieved when his stealthy approach wasn't met by noise any kind. Parked in a rear drive, facing a fence with wide-open gates was a dark colored sedan.

Jim made his way over to it, mostly on hands and knees, and checked the driver's door. It was unlocked. He cautiously popped the hood and crept around to the front of the car and leaned over the engine.

It took him only a minute or two to complete his task, then he went back the way he'd come, padding as silently as his spirit animal, and crouched down under the tree again.

Gritting his teeth, he extended his hearing, searching out his Guide's heartbeat and used it as a compass to find Blair's voice, then he pushed the nail deep into his thumb.

~oOo~

Blair pulled up in the drive of the Taalman's neat home. "I'm here, Jim," he said, hoping like hell that Jim was close enough to hear him. He knew his partner would have moved as close to the house as he dared, but once inside, Blair would have to be careful what he said.

They'd worked out a code of sorts. If Blair said Zabinski wasn't doing what he'd promised, Jim would be through the door in an instant and half the MCU would be right behind.

If, on the other hand, Zabinski let the Taalmans go, Jim would wait till they were clear, then go in and rescue his Guide.

Blair had complete and utter faith in his partner, but it didn't stop his heart from banging frantically against his ribs as he walked up to the front door and knocked loudly twice, as he'd been instructed then spent anxious seconds waiting for the door to be opened.

When it did, it was by Dan Taalman, who edged it open a few inches hesitantly and looked with undisguised relief at Sandburg. "Thank you," he whispered. He pulled the door open enough for Blair to enter then cast an anxious look outside. He was probably checking that Blair had come alone, Blair thought.

Blair stepped inside, coming to a halt as he froze in shock at the scene before him.

Seated on a kitchen chair, her arms secured behind her, was Jessie Taalman, her pretty face pale and tear streaked. Blair could the red imprint of fingermarks across her cheek.

Movement to his right made him turn away from her. Zabinski was suddenly there, looking nothing like the pathetic junkie he'd been last time their paths had crossed. He'd gained weight and muscle and appeared to have stayed clean.

What grabbed Blair's attention, however, was the small boy Zabinski held firmly in front of him. He had one hand wrapped in the child's dark curls, the other held a gun against the small head. Zak's eyes were wide with fear, the pupils dilated. The skin around his eyes was swollen and red and tears leaked steadily down his face, dripping off his chin.

"Let the boy go. You've got what you want. You're hurting him," Blair said.

"When I'm ready," Zabinski countered. "You," he nodded his head at Dan. "Frisk him. Make sure you don't miss anything or you know what'll happen."

Blair held his arms out to the sides and stood passively, spreading his legs so Taalman could do a thorough search. He even unbuttoned his jacket and shirt so Zabinski could see he wasn't wearing a wire. "Happy?" he asked sarcastically as Taalman finished and moved over to stand next to his wife.

Zabinski glared at him then turned to Taalman again. "Untie your wife and both of you move over to the front door. Open it slowly and step out. Go the bottom of the driveway and walk two houses down. Wait there for exactly fifteen minutes, no more, no less. Then you can call the cops if you want to. Me and pretty boy here'll be long gone."

Taalman was already undoing Jessie's bindings and helping her to stand. He turned to his son, "Come on, Zak," he said, holding out his hand.

"Not yet," Zabinski growled, tugging the child hard up against him as the boy tried to move toward his father. "I'll send the boy out after you. He stays here for ten minutes, then I'll send him out."

"No!" Jessie's voice was midway between a scream and a plea. "Let him come with us, please. He's just a little boy. He's scared. Please…"

She stopped as Zabinski flicked the safety off and dug the weapon hard into the boy's head. "I give the orders here," he spat. "Go!"

Zak began to wail as his parents moved toward the front door, while Jessie made shushing noises and Dan kept repeating they'd be waiting for him down the street.

Blair's mind spun. If he used the code words now, Jim would come in like gangbusters and a gun-battle would erupt and the Taalmans could get caught in the middle, but somehow, he had to let Jim know that things weren't going exactly to plan. Coming up with an idea, he spoke to Zabinski, taking care not to use the exact code-phrase, hoping Jim would hear and understand. "This isn't what we agreed on, man. Let the kid go with his parents."

"Shut up!" Zabinski spun toward Blair then twisted his head back toward the Taalmans. "Go now or I'll splatter the kid's brains all over the floor."

With a choked sob, Jessie allowed Dan to push her through the door. Blair could hear their footsteps receding down the driveway, Jessie's cries growing more hysterical as they moved further from the house.

"Let the boy go, now, Aaron. You wanted me, you've got me," Blair said, his arms still held wide from his body, showing he was no threat to the killer.

Zabinski smiled. "He's my bonus," he said. "He's coming with us. Move." He turned and ushered Blair ahead of him through the back of the house and out a screen door into the rear yard.

Squinting in the darkness, Blair could just barely make out a car a few feet ahead, facing a fence, the gates open. *Shit* Blair looked around again, wondering if Jim was still in front and thinking now was the right time to use the code. He took a small step back toward Zabinski, then said clearly," You're not doing what you promised." One more shuffling step back and he could feel Zak pressed against his back.

Blair ducked and turned, grasping the child around the waist, taking Zabinski by surprise and spinning the child free. He heard a thud as Zak hit the ground a foot or so away and stood, in time to see Zabinski bringing the gun up to aim at the boy.

"Run, Zak!" Blair screamed then he stepped in close and grabbed for Zabinski's gun arm. The killer was strong and Blair had to put his whole weight on the arm, trying desperately to pull it down. He finally managed to twist the gun away from where Zak had gone but Zabinski still had an iron grip on it. *Now would be a good time, Jim* he thought as he continued to struggle for possession of the weapon. Sweat began to pour down his face as he finally managed to get his other hand free and brought it back and connected with Zabinski's face as hard as he could. There was an explosion of sound and Blair felt a white-hot pain flare across his forearm. He managed to stay on his feet but his world was dipping and spinning. He felt Zabinski push past him, heading for the car and Blair fell to his knees, reaching out desperately, trying to grab the killer's ankle as he went past. He missed and felt himself fall forward in a slump, wondering despairingly where the Sentinel was.

Rolling to his side, one hand clamped over the bloody wound in his other arm, he watched through a fuzzy haze as Zabinski made it to the car and climbed into the driver's seat. He could make out muttered curses, as Zabinski tried to start the car.

Suddenly, like a wraith in the darkness, Blair saw Ellison creep up to the open driver's door, gun in one hand, the other holding something that had wires trailing from it.

Zabinski jumped as Jim pushed the gun into his neck then hauled the killer out, shoving him roughly to his knees. The detective put his weapon in its holster, still holding Zabinski in place with his other arm, then reached behind and grabbed his cuffs, snapping them tightly over Zabinski's wrists. "Missing something, Zabinski?" Jim snarled, dangling what looked like some sort of engine part in front of the killer's face.

He pulled Zabinski to his feet then shoved him at a surprised Banks who'd just rounded the corner of the house. Banks turned and passed the struggling man onto Brown. "Get this slime out of here," the captain growled. "Don't forget to read him his rights. We don't want any misunderstandings in court."

Blair let his head drop to the ground, his fingers involuntarily loosening their hold on his bleeding arm. He closed his eyes in relief then opened them as he felt a large hand cover his own. "You need to keep pressure on that, Chief."

Sandburg smiled shakily up at his partner, seeing the worry plainly evident in Jim's eyes. "It's not that bad, is it?" he asked.

Jim lifted his hand from the wound, just as quickly clamping it down again as blood began to flow freely again. He shook his head. "Nah, just a flesh wound. It's bleeding a lot, though. Just lie still and relax, Chief. You did a great job. The paramedics will be here in a minute."

"Oh man," Blair said, grimacing. "Hospital?"

"Yep. Sorry, buddy."

"It sucks, Jim."

"I know."

"What did you do to the car?" Blair asked.

Jim smiled broadly. "Pulled out the distributor cap. Saw it on "The Sound Of Music" the other night."

Blair managed a chuckle. "Good thinking, partner. I knew you'd like that movie."

"You kidding?" Jim retorted. "I almost had to go for insulin shots after watching it."

Blair looked over to Banks, who was crouched at his other side, watching the byplay with a small smile on his face. "The Taalmans?" he asked.

"They're all fine. The little boy has a graze on his knee but that's about all. Connor's with them. We'll take them to the hospital to get checked out anyway," Banks replied, patting Blair's shoulder. "Good job, Sandburg. You too, Ellison." He and Jim both moved back to let the paramedics work on readying Blair for the trip to the hospital.

"Hey Jim?" Blair asked, wincing as a medic inserted an IV cannula. "It's over, right? Jobie's safe now?"

Jim kneeled next to his partner again and took Blair's uninjured hand in his. "Jobie's safe, Chief."

"Could I speak to Blair for a minute?"

Jim turned to see Dan Taalman standing behind them, his wife and son held close against his side.

"Hey, Dan, you guys okay?" Blair asked as he was lifted onto the gurney.

"We're fine, Blair. Thank you for what you did… being willing to sacrifice yourself. You don't even know us and after the way I acted at the station…" Taalman moved over and shook Blair's hand carefully.

"It's all right, Dan. We're all just trying to do the right thing for Jobie," Blair mumbled. He felt nauseous and dizzy now. He closed his eyes, hoping the feelings would abate. He had a vague impression of someone kissing his cheek gently and then forced his eyes open as he heard a child's voice.

"Thank you, Blair."

Blair looked at the boy and managed a huge grin. "You're very welcome, Zak. Thank you for being so brave. You're one tough dude, you know that?" He raised a hand in a smart salute to the child as he was wheeled away to the ambulance, Jim walking alongside.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Jim walked inside the apartment and held out one envelope from the bundle in his other hand. "It's from the lab," he said quietly.

Blair stood and walked across, casting a quick glance across to where Dan sat holding a drowsy Jobie on his lap. He took the envelope from Jim's outstretched hand and swallowed hard. He ripped it open then stood frozen for a moment as his eyes scanned the document. Finally, he looked up and met Jim's eyes, his gaze tear-filled. He nodded then turned and went to Dan. "Can I take her?" he asked huskily.

Dan nodded jerkily. "Of course. What did it say?" he asked as he passed Jobie over to Blair's arms.

Blair bent his head and brushed a soft kiss over Jobie's curls, smiling as she pulled at his glasses. "Here," he said, passing over the lab report. "Jim?" he said, turning to the Sentinel.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"Give us a few minutes, will you?"

"Take all the time you need," Jim replied, watching as Blair took the baby up the stairs to the loft bedroom. He deliberately kept his hearing dialed down. He had a fair idea what the report said, just from Blair's reactions and he didn't think he could bear to hear what Blair was going through right now.

"Oh my God!" Dan's voice was stunned and Jim turned to look at him.

"What does it say?" Jim asked.

Dan looked up, his eyes filled with anguish. "Blair is Jobie's father," he whispered. "God, I'm so sorry… I really thought… Oh man, Jim, I'm sorry… I would never have done any of this if I hadn't really believed she was mine. I guess Sam played me for a fool too. Jessie is going to be so upset when I tell her. I should get going… get home to Jessie and Zak. Tell Blair I'm sorry. I'll be in touch, okay."

"Dan, wait." Blair was coming down the stairs, Jobie held tightly against his chest, one hand cupping her head as if in protection. "Don't go yet. We need to talk." He looked across at Jim and nodded firmly. "All of us, all right, Jim. This has as much to do with you as with any of us. You're Jobie's Blessed Protector. You deserve to have a say in her future."

Jim felt as if the lump in his throat would choke him. He managed to nod agreement. "Thanks, Chief. That means a lot to me."

Blair looked down at the sleeping baby in his arms. "I'm just gonna put Jobie in her crib. Please stay, Dan. We still have some things to talk about."

"Okay," Dan agreed, sinking back down onto his chair.

~oOo~

Jim looked over at his Guide. Blair looked pale and tired but he was responding to everyone around him as if he hadn't a care in the world. *Typical Sandburg behavior* the Sentinel thought. Blair always seemed to put everyone else's feelings ahead of his own.

They were having a barbecue at the Taalman house. The entire MCU crew were there, kids were laughing and screaming around the yard. The atmosphere bore the aura of celebration.

Blair plonked himself down in the deckchair next to his partner. He raised a bottle of beer and clinked it against Jim's. "Remember?" he asked quizzically.

Jim nodded. He did remember. It was the night Aaron Zabinski had held the Taalmans hostage. He and Blair were having dinner at the loft and they'd made a toast to bringing Jobie home.

"To Jobie and her dad," Jim said.

"Thanks." Blair said, sounding embarrassed. He looked across to where his daughter sat on a blanket a few feet away, giggling at the antics of the children playing around her.

"You gonna be okay with this, Blair?" Jim asked, reaching out a hand and grasping his friend's shoulder, pulling him around so they were facing each other.

Blair gave a small smile and Jim could sense how hard his Guide was trying to control his emotions. He tightened his grip on the young man's shoulder.

Finally, Blair replied. "Not quite yet," he said. "But I will be. I mean, this is for Jobie, right? Jenny and her family can't keep taking her. They have other foster kids they're responsible for. I mean, that's what they do. There are other kids out there who need them as much as Jobie did. But this way, Jobie will be as safe as we can make it for her and she'll have what I always wanted. A mom and another dad and a big brother. Dan and Jessie love her and you've seen the way she's responded to them and Zak. And it's an open adoption. I get to keep guardianship. We get to see her whenever we want, get to have her with us on our days off and for holidays, and the rest of the time she's safe with people who've come to love her as much as we do." Blair nodded firmly as he turned back to watch his little girl.

Jobie was laughing out loud as gaily wrapped gifts were piled in front of her. On either side of her sat two little boys - Joe A, her foster brother and Zak, her adopted brother. Both leaned forward at the same time and planted wet sloppy kisses on her cheeks.

"See, Jim, that's it right there. The reason for it all, for everything that's happened. That little girl… *my* little girl… she has so many people who love her and so many people to love. It's all that matters." Blair shot a blindingly brilliant smile at his partner.

Jim grinned back and nodded his understanding. "Yeah," he said softly. "You're right, Chief. It is all that matters."

The End (at last)

January 2nd 2005