WARNING:  This might be a big tear-jerker. I wanna give a warning, but I kinda don't b/c it may spoil it for some.  I do mess with the Sentinel Universe a little in this one, but it's not AU. If you can't stand to watch Old Yeller, then don't read this (no, I didn't kill off any of the guys!) Beta'd by Hephaistos. Thanks, Jane!! I don't know how I ever survived without you!  PG-13


In the Arms of Angels



  We humans like to believe we're born innocent, but that's not true. We're born pre-programmed, with genes that determine our development, intellect, talents, height, weight, gender, race, and even our overall level of happiness. Behaviors like smoking and alcohol consumption have been shown to have a genetic basis. We are prisoners of our biology, as surely as any subversive locked behind bars. People like to think they have free will, but they don't. Artists are artists at four years old just as surely as they are forty. Child prodigies like Mozart had their fates sealed the moment the sperm met the egg.

You're no different, Blair, my boy. I'm so happy to have found you.

Blair Sandburg looked up from the letter, and, for a moment, it seemed as though time had stopped. The bullpen was alarmingly quiet -- not a rustle of paper nor a ring of a telephone disturbed the peace. His gaze fell to Simon's door, and he saw Jim shaking his head in the office, his jaw firm as he peered at the Captain.

Blair swallowed, his heart pounding like a jackhammer in his chest. With shaking hands, he snatched the envelope off the desk and turned it over, examining the return address. Palo Alto, California. That's all. No name, no street address. Nothing.

The Captain's door opened and Jim walked into the bullpen. Blair looked up to see the Detective making a bee-line for the desk, and the expression on the larger man's face told him that the Sentinel had heard the sudden increase in his heartrate.

"What's up, Chief?" Jim asked, his brow furrowed with concern.

Blair's throat felt thick, like a wad of cotton had been shoved down his esophagus, and he swallowed again in an attempt to find his voice.

"You okay, Sandburg?" the Sentinel asked, propping himself on the edge of the desk.

Blair nodded slowly, gazing up at the man looming above him. Jim's gaze fell to the paper clutched in his hands, and Blair looked down to see the letter shaking in his grip.

"What's that?" Jim asked, reaching out tentatively to grab the sheet, his eyes seeking permission as his fingers closed around the material.

Finally, two words made their escape from Blair's throat. "A letter," he croaked.

"From who?" his partner asked, pulling the paper firmly out of Blair's almost vice-like grip.

"Uh..." Blair closed his eyes, leaning back in the chair. "My father, I think... Maybe."

Jim eyes shot up from the letter, surprise fluttering over his face. "Your father?"

The anthropologist nodded. "Yeah, I think so," he said, relieved that his voice seemed to be coming back.

Jim read the letter quickly, then looked back down at his stunned partner. "When did you get this?"

"Today," he said. "It came with the mail. I just got around to opening it now."

Jim snatched the envelope off the desk and looked at the handwriting. The letter had been mailed to the station, addressed to Blair Sandburg.

"No signature? No return address?" Jim asked, though the questions were obviously rhetorical.

Numbly, Blair nodded, his gaze falling to the floor as he pondered the significance of those "oversights". If the letter was from his father, why hadn't he included his name and a return address unless he didn't want to be found? But then why send a letter if he didn't want to meet his son?

A firm hand on his shoulder broke through his thoughts, and he looked up to see a pair of blue eyes staring down at him. "You okay, buddy?"

Blair managed another slow nod, his body working on automatic while his brain ran into overdrive trying to decipher the meaning of the letter.

"Do you want me to have this dusted for prints?" Jim asked, indicating the paper he held with a slight raise of his hand. "We might be able to find out the guy's identity."

Blair's heart stopped for the briefest of moments. "I... Uh... I don't know," he stammered. "I mean, if he wanted me to find him, he'd have given a return address."

Jim frowned. "We're not sure it's from your father, Blair. He doesn't say he's related to you in anyway. Hell, for all we know, he could be some stalker psycho."

"That's a bit paranoid, don't you think? I mean, I know about our track record with psychos, but why would anyone want to lie about being my father? It's not like I'm rich," Blair commented, his voice noticeably steadier. He pushed himself out of the chair and maneuvered around the desk, taking a deep breath as he passed the Detective. "I'm gonna go get something to drink," he muttered absently as he made his way toward the break room.

Jim slid to his feet and followed after his young partner. "I can get this to forensics A.S.A.P., Chief. We could have an ID on this guy by tomorrow morning, maybe even tonight."

"I don't know that that's such a good idea, Jim." Blair hurried toward the break room, but Jim only increased his pace to keep up with the younger man.

"Why not, Chief? Don't you want to know who it is? I know I sure as hell do. It's a pretty damn cryptic letter, and, I don't particularly like the way he ended it. 'I'm so happy to have found you,'" he read. "That leaves the ball in his court, like he's watching you, or something."

Blair spun around suddenly, and Jim almost plowed into him. "You think?" he blurted, his eyes wide. "You think he might have checked me out and..." his voice dropped off suddenly, and he turned quickly back around, resuming his swift pace to the break room. "I guess if he is, he doesn't want to see me, Jim. Maybe I'm not exactly what he had in mind for a son."

Blair ducked into the break room, heading for the soda machine, but he only made it as far as the table before his knees gave way, forcing him to make a quick descent into the nearest chair.

"That's ridiculous, Blair," Jim said. "You're a doctoral candidate, for chrissakes -- not exactly a parent's nightmare. Besides," Jim continued, sinking into the chair next to Blair, "you don't have to contact him. If we get an ID on him, you'll know who he is, and that'll even things up a bit. He obviously knows who you are, after all."

Blair opened his mouth to reply when Simon stormed into the room. "Ellison, I just got a call. We're minus a witness in the Slomanson case." His eyes blazed fire as he glanced between the two men. "Janet Slayden was taken out an hour ago by a sniper's bullet."



Jim and Blair walked into the loft, and the older man shuffled wearily into the kitchen, retrieving two beers from the fridge.

"So, are you going to call Naomi?" the Detective asked, handing his partner one of the bottles.

Blair sighed. "I don't think she's back from Mexico yet, but I'll try to contact her anyway, I guess."

"How do you think she'll react?" Jim asked as Blair walked into his room to deposit his backpack.

"I don't know, Jim," Blair replied, strolling back into the living room and plopping himself down on the couch. "She told me once that she wasn't sure who my father was. I mean, if my own mother's not sure, how can this guy be sure?"

"Maybe he's not sure. The letter wasn't all that specific, Chief," Jim commented.

"Yeah, tell me about it," the younger man mumbled, grabbing the remote and turning on the television as he took a sip of his beer. He took a deep breath and looked over at the Jim as the larger man sank into the armchair. "What do you think he meant by all that stuff?"

"What stuff?"

Blair took another swig of his beer. "About genetic determinism and child prodigies. He said that I was no different. What do you think he meant?"

Jim frowned. "I'm not sure, but the whole tone of the letter leaves me with a bad feeling."

Blair wrinkled his brow, setting his beer down on the coffee table. "You really don't think this is some kind of a veiled threat, do you?"

Jim shrugged. "With you, anything's possible," he said, offering a small smile to soften his words. "You attract psychos like bugs to a light."

A shadow of dark emotion flickered across Blair's face, and Jim kicked himself mentally, seeing the memories of Lash dance behind Blair's eyes. The young man recovered quickly, however, offering a raised eyebrow and a smile in response.

"One of those insecticide lights," Blair commented, his words light but his voice strained. "I end up being the bait, and you're the bang!" He clapped his hands together sharply to illustrate the point.

Jim chuckled, but it was more forced than genuine. "I suppose that's what they call teamwork," he jibed.


Blair skimmed his notes as the students filed into the classroom. Several minutes of shuffling and talking passed before he looked up at the filled classroom.

"I believe we finished the last class discussing the religion-based practices of various tribes in New Guinea, right?"

The voices quieted, and the shuffle of papers indicated that students were flipping through their notes. Blair noticed an unfamiliar face in the upper left hand corner. An older man with greying hair and glasses sat in one of the desks. Rainier did have several older students, so the man's age, in and of itself, didn't make him out of place in the undergraduate class, but the fact that there was no pen or paper on his desk and no backpack on the floor next to him did.

"Anyway," Blair continued, pulling his gaze away from the stranger to take in the rest of the classroom. "We'll be watching a film today illustrating some of these practices."

He spared another glance at the stranger, possibilities as to the man's identity flashing through his mind. Prospective student? No, didn't look the type. Evaluator? Maybe, but they usually took some notes. Parent of a prospective student? Yeah, probably. Serious, interested, somewhat nervous... Yeah, definitely the type, Blair decided.

Relieved mutterings floated through the classroom as Blair prepared the projector, and he managed a small smile. "Yeah, I know how excited everyone gets on movie day," he said, then hit the light switch, bathing the room in darkness.

The students chuckled, but quieted quickly when Blair turned on the projector and started the film.

Thirty minutes later the film came to an end, and Blair turned on the lights, spending the remaining class time in discussion. At the end of the hour, most students rushed out of the classroom, but a few came up to ask questions. Blair glanced at the upper left hand corner of the classroom, but the newcomer wasn't in his seat. Students filed out both the lower and upper doors, and Blair figured that he missed the guy on his way out.

Finishing with his students, he hurried out to his Volvo, glancing at the unmarked sedan parked a few feet away. With a smile, he waved at the officer sitting behind the wheel, then hopped into his car. "This babysitter thing is getting old, Simon" he muttered, hoping that the trial he and Jim were involved with would end quickly so he could get back to having some privacy.


The next morning, Jim and Blair sat in Simon's office, listening to their very angry Captain vent some emotional steam.

"I don't know how our guys slipped up, but I know it wasn't anyone in this department," he ranted, casting a glare at the two silent men. "That's not stopping the commissioner from breathing down my neck, which means I'm breathing down yours! Got it?"

Both men nodded quickly. "Yes, Sir," Jim said.

"Now, we've still got two witnesses, not including you and Sandburg," Banks said. "I want you personally in charge of security, Ellison. No more slip-ups. Use those senses of yours, your covert-ops training, whatever, just see to it that those witnesses make it to trial."

"Uh, Sir," Blair interrupted, his voice hesitant in the face of Simon's tirade. "Is that a good idea?"

Simon turned his dark gaze onto the smaller man, and Blair nearly cringed under the glare.

"What did you say, Sandburg?" Simon asked, his voice low and dangerous.

Blair swallowed, glancing at Jim, but the Detective kept his gaze straight ahead. "I mean, Jim's a witness, too," the young man ventured, "which means he's also a target. Having him protect the witnesses... well, isn't that sorta like the blind leading the blind?"

Simon took a long deep breath before replying. "Thank you for your concern, Sandburg. However, I said Jim was in charge of security, I did not appoint him bodyguard. Rafe and Brown have that duty, but Jim--" he threw a hard glance at the Detective, "--is going to hand-pick the rest of the team and give the safe house a very thorough once-over. I'd have you both staying there if Jim weren't also so crucial on the rest of the case. Slomanson's black market ring is still alive and well, and I want to make sure we shut it down for good."

"Oh," Blair said, sinking deeper into his chair.

"And, if it's any consolation, Sandburg, take heart that yours and Jim's testimony, while helpful, is not crucial. While I have assigned some men to keep an eye on you two, I don't think either of you is a target," the Captain added.

"That's so reassuring," the anthropologist muttered.

Jim cracked a small smile.

"What was that, Sandburg?" Simon asked.

"Nothing, Sir," Blair replied quickly.

A firm knocking interrupted the conversation, and Simon looked up in irritation. "Come in!" he barked.

The door opened, almost hesitantly at first, and an older, distinguished-looking man peeked his head into the office. "Captain Simon Banks?"

Blair immediately recognized the man as the stranger in his classroom that morning.

"Yeah, that would be me," Simon said, approaching the stranger. "What can I do for you?"

The man looked at Blair, then Jim, then returned his gaze to the Captain as he stepped into the office. He extended his hand. "I'm Dr. Jeffrey Maxwell," he said, shaking hands with the Captain. "I understand you could use an expert on rare, lethal drugs that don't normally show up on tox screens?"

Banks' eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Yeah, as a matter of fact..."

The man smiled nervously. "Good, I'm here to help. The D.A. sent me over to consult with you on the Slomanson case. I run a lab over at a dinky little college most people call Stanford," he said, flashing a grin. "Ricin and other drugs happen to figure prominently in the work I do."

"What?" Simon asked. "What's ricin? And why are you here from Stanford?"

The man's smile faltered, and he glanced briefly at Sandburg. "Well, I was in Cascade, and I... uh... well, this is somewhat awkward. Look, you'd normally pay someone of my caliber hundreds of dollars an hour for such services. I'm offering it all for free."

"Oh, and just why, might I ask?"

Maxwell took a deep breath. "I have an interest in working with Mr. Sandburg," he said, glancing nervously at the young man.

Jim rose to his feet, taking a step toward the researcher. "What's your interest in Sandburg?"

Maxwell took a step back from the towering Detective, casting another anxious glance at Sandburg. "Well, I had kind of hoped to talk with him in private for a moment."

Blair finally rose to his feet, his chest heavy with a mixture of confusion and apprehension. "Who are you?" he asked, clenching one fist behind his back to steady the trembling in his voice.

Jim turned around to look at him, his brow lined with sudden concern at Blair's tone. He gave the younger man a critical once-over, then turned his gaze back to Dr. Maxwell, his eyes filled with sudden realization.

"Uh... well, this isn't the way I'd planned it," Maxwell began, taking a step around Ellison to stand in front of Sandburg. "I wrote the letter," he stated, "which I hope you got by now. Did you?"

Blair's jaw dropped open, and he nodded.

Dr. Maxwell smiled, extending one hand out to the younger man. "Hello, Blair. I'm Dr. Jeffrey Maxwell, your father."

"WHAT?!" Simon asked, grabbing the edge of the desk as though he needed the support.

Blair's legs gave way, and he dropped back into the chair. Jim took a step toward Simon, giving the two men some space.

"I'm sorry, this isn't the way I imagined telling you," Maxwell said, sinking into the chair Ellison had occupied a few moments before. "I know this must be a shock for you."

Blair nodded again. "Yeah, you could say that." He fidgeted under the man's intense blue gaze, trying to be subtle as he examined the man's face for some resemblance to his own. He thought he saw a bit of familiarity around the eyes, but he couldn't really be sure.

Simon cleared his throat. "Um... I'm gonna go get some coffee, Jim. You want some?"

"Huh?" Jim looked up, tearing his gaze away from the researcher. "Oh, yeah. I'll come with you, Sir," he said, following the Captain out the door.

Blair watched the two men leave. The soft click of the door seemed amplified in the now-silent room. Almost reluctantly, Blair looked back at the man claiming to be his father. He really wished Jim had stayed, because he now found himself facing a man he'd spent his whole life wondering about, and his mind had become a sudden blank. His arms and legs felt cold, almost numb, and his lungs suddenly felt much to small, as if they couldn't possibly take in enough oxygen to fill the need.

"So," Maxwell began, looking almost as nervous as Blair, "I came to your class today. You're quite a teacher, and you really seem to know your stuff."

Blair swallowed the lump in his throat and managed a shaky smile. "Yeah, I saw you."

"I know. Sorry I left so abruptly. I really was planning on approaching you after class, but I lost my nerve." He managed a shaky chuckle. "It turns out your old man's a chicken. Pretty disappointing, eh?"

Blair took several deep, calming breaths. Finally, he asked, "When did you know my mom?"

"1968," he said. "I met her at a rally, a 'save the Earth' thing. I was a bit of a hippie back then." He smiled sheepishly. "I was, obviously, much younger, and, fortunately, I've also matured a lot."

"So you met my mother..." Blair prompted.

Maxwell's smile faded. "We hit it off. It was a one-night-stand thing. She said she rarely did that, and it was the first time I'd ever done anything like that myself. She was so beautiful, and so free-spirited." He paused for a moment, his gaze falling to the floor. "I never knew about you, never even suspected." He inhaled a deep breath. "I saw you on the news. Something about the Slomanson case, a little blurb on CNN. I actually did a double-take. It was like I was looking at myself of thirty years ago," he said, looking back up at Blair. "We have the same eyes, I think, and your hair looked exactly like mine did back then. I didn't really think that much about it until I saw your name. Sandburg. Then it hit me. Naomi, and you looked about the right age." He swallowed hard, dropping his gaze back to the floor. "The news report said you and Ellison worked with the Cascade PD, so I started doing some digging. I found out that Naomi raised you alone, and that fueled my suspicions. The real clincher was the article you wrote on heightened senses. Would you believe my masters thesis examined how the brain interprets sensory input? I was shocked when I read it. I also learned that you started college early. So did I. I matriculated at Yale when I was fifteen. I went through that whole 'too old in the mind, too young in the body' thing. I was quite an arrogant little brat, so I've been told," he said, offering a wistful smile. "I hear you gave some advisors grief, too."

Blair forced a smile, focusing on controlling his breathing. "Maybe a little," he admitted.

Maxwell chuckled. "Like father, like son, I guess," he said, then his face grew more serious. "So, anyway, I know this is all a shock for you. It was for me, too. I don't know how you're feeling about this, but I'd like to get to know you some more... if that's okay."

Blair closed his eyes briefly, feeling his heart hammering in his chest and his blood roaring in his ears. He half-wondered if he were dreaming. Maybe he'd wake up in a few minutes and find himself in his room back at the loft.

"Blair?"

He opened his eyes and looked at Dr. Maxwell. "Yeah, sure. We can get to know one another. How 'bout dinner?" How 'bout dinner? Good going, Sandburg, you wait your whole life to meet this man, and all you can say is "How 'bout dinner?" What about the letter? Ask him what he meant by all that "we're prisoners of our biology" stuff.

Maxwell smiled. "Sure. Today?"

Blair nodded, glancing through the windows of Simon's office to see Jim and the Captain sitting at the Detective's desk, both men peering intently at the computer while Jim pecked away at the keyboard. He decided to save discussion of the letter until later. Maybe once he knew the man a bit better, he'd feel more comfortable talking to him about it.

"Good," Maxwell said. "Anytime. You pick the place."

"Would you mind if Jim came along?" He desperately wanted Jim there. He needed some kind of support, someone to fill in any awkward silences that might arise, someone to keep him from saying something stupid.

"Uh, no," he said, but there was a note of hesitation in his voice. "He can come along if you like."

"Okay, then. How 'bout Jupiter's at six?"

Maxwell nodded. "Sounds good." He took another deep breath. "Have you spoken with your mother lately? I know she moves around a lot."

Blair shook his head. "She's been in Mexico for the past couple of months. I can't really reach her there."

"Oh? Will she be returning soon?"

"I'm not sure," Blair said, then tilted his head. "If you'd like to speak with her, I can try to get ahold of her."

Maxwell shook his head. "No. That's okay, I just thought that if she was in town, I could see her. It's been more than thirty years, after all."


"Doctor Jeffrey Maxwell," Jim said. "Clean as a whistle." He studied the report displayed on the screen for a moment longer, then glanced back at the Captain.

"Not entirely clean as whistle," Simon commented, and, when Jim looked curiously back at the screen, added, "He did receive two citations for speeding, and he was in an auto accident four years ago."

Jim grunted. "And he's still on the streets, free as a bird. Unbelievable," he muttered dryly. With a sigh, he pointed to the photograph and glanced at the two men seated in Simon's office. "This picture was obviously taken years ago. Look at it Simon, it doesn't even really look like him. I wonder how frequently they update the driver's license pictures in California," he commented.

"The picture may be a bit old, but it does look like him," Simon remarked. "Just because he has dark hair in the picture doesn't mean it's all that old. Lots of people go grey suddenly. Hell, he could have even dyed it. You know those California yuppie types, they're all vanity. You're taking this big brother thing a bit too far, Jim. Stop being so paranoid. It's not like Sandburg's rich, so why would anyone lie about being his father?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't know. His heartbeat was going a mile a minute in there, and--"

"Of course he wouldn't be nervous about meeting his son for the first time," Simon interrupted.

The Detective sighed. "I know, Sir. It's just that--"

"You're feeling a bit threatened perhaps?"

Jim's head snapped around to look at the Captain. "Threatened? What's that supposed to mean?"

Simon raised his eyebrows and propped himself on the edge of the desk. "Come on, Jim. You're the only male authority figure the kid has had in his life," he glanced at his office, "until now."

Jim released a sharp chuckle, but it sounded more like a bark. "If you're saying I'm jealous, that's ridiculous. I'm not jealous, and I'm not feeling threatened, and if that guy really is Sandburg's father, then I'm happy for the both of them."

"I'm sure," Simon muttered. "Why don't you pull up his Stanford info again? Come on, Jim, the guy's a respected researcher. Hell, he was up for the Nobel prize a few years ago. Go on, take another look. He's a certified genius."

Jim clenched his jaw. "I read it, Simon, thanks. I'm not senile, you know."

He caught Blair's eye through the windows of Simon's office and recognized the silent request in his partner's gaze. Rising to his feet, he nodded curtly at the Captain and maneuvered around his desk. "If you'll excuse me, Sir," he said. "My partner calls."

Banks grunted and took up Ellison's now-vacant chair, turning his attention back to the computer as he began typing vigorously on the keyboard.

Jim walked into the office and the two men rose to their feet. "What's up, Chief?" he asked, glancing between his partner and Maxwell.

"You free for dinner tonight, Jim?"

"Sure, Chief. What time?"

"Six."

"Sounds okay." He looked past Blair at the older man standing behind him, noticing the thin sheen of perspiration on the researcher's forehead. "So, you're really his father?"

Dr. Maxwell nodded. "I think so, yes."

He glanced briefly at Blair. "Well, congratulations to the both of you. I can have our forensics lab run the DNA tests for ya." He leveled steady eyes on the older man, his meaning clear. "That way we'll all know for sure."

"That's very accommodating of you," Maxwell replied. "Thank you, Detective."

Blair looked warily at Jim. "Yeah, thanks, Jim."

Jim could tell by the tone in Sandburg's voice and the look in his eyes that the kid knew exactly what he had meant by the question. It was obvious Blair hoped that Jim and Maxwell would get along, and the silent plea in his partner's gaze sent a twinge of guilt through his chest. Okay, Chief, he promised silently, I'll behave myself.

Clapping his hands together eagerly, Jim forced a broad smile on his face and asked, "So, where will we be going for dinner?"

"Jupiter's," Blair answered, mirroring Jim's smile. "That okay?"

Jim suppressed a groan. He hated eating at places that had "delicacies" such as "fish eyes" listed on their menus.

"Sure. Sounds great."


"Twenty minutes, Chief!" Jim yelled.

Blair looked up from his journal and shouted a quick reply. "I'll be ready!" God, sometimes the big guy had far too little faith in him. Like he'd really be late for this dinner date. I'm having dinner with my father. With my Dad...

Dad. The word sounded foreign to him. Hey, Dad, how're you doing? Hey, Dad, I got straight A's on my report card. Hey, Dad, can I have some money?

He chuckled briefly at that thought, turning his attention back to the leather-bound journal on his lap and shifting to a more comfortable position on the futon mattress in his room.

I'm having a hard time believing this is real, he wrote. I spent most of the time trying NOT to look like I was looking at him. I was trying to see some of myself in his face, but I don't think he looks very much like me. Well, maybe a little bit around the eyes, but that's all.

My father. I just can't get past that word. All my life I've wondered who my father was, but I never really thought I'd find him. Naomi knew a lot of men, and I'd try to picture myself growing up with some of them. Geez, I even thought Timothy Leary might have been my father. Talk about being waaaay off base. Rather than a tuned out druggie I get a highly respected academic.

I don't know whether to be happy or worried about that. I mean, he's a STANFORD researcher. Me? I'm just an anthropologist at some second-rate university. I wonder what he thinks about me? Am I what he expected? He knows my mother, so he must have had SOME idea of how I'd turn out. He couldn't possibly have expected to find a "little Dr. Maxwell" running around... I hope.

But what did he mean in his letter? We're pre-programmed? Our fates are sealed? I'll never admit it to Jim (well, at least not anytime soon), but I have to agree with the big guy on this one. The letter does sound a bit weird... not at all like the guy who walked into Simon's office.

I saw them typing on the computer (Jim and Simon, that is) while I was in the office with "my father" (even now it's weird for me to write those words). By the expressions on their faces and their constant furtive glances toward the office, I kind of gathered they were checking up on the guy. Well, I guess working around cops does have its advantages.

I can't help but feel like this isn't real. It's like it hasn't hit me yet. I mean, all my life... ALL MY LIFE... I've wondered. Not that I really missed having a father all that much. You can't really miss something you never had. For me, growing up with Naomi and moving around a lot was just the way things were... normal. I never knew anything different. Sure, I saw other kids with their Dads, and I wondered about my own, but half of me was happy that I didn't have a second person telling me what to do. Not that Naomi was all that rigid. She was pretty cool, and let me develop into my own person. Kids would always talk about their Dads and "being grounded" and having to do chores... For awhile I was damn happy I DIDN'T have a father around. I mean, who needs the added stress, right? I was a good kid (and modest, too, of course). But, really, I was a good kid, and, for the most part, I tried to keep my nose out of trouble. Naomi got a little overprotective at times, but I always knew that she loved me and she was always there for me. I never missed having a father. Never.

Not until I got older.

Naomi's my only real family. She was all I had in the world growing up. God, I remember one of the first times I got lost. It was at some amusement park. We never went to many of those things, but once in awhile Naomi would see one and, on the spur of the moment, decide to take me. I guess she sometimes missed seeing me just be a kid (I was something of a bookworm as a child). Anyway, the sun had set and it was dark outside. We were watching this fantastic parade. There were dancers leading this great big paper dragon down the road. I pushed through some people to get a better look, and then, a few minutes later, I went back to the spot I thought I'd left, and she wasn't there. That was the night I discovered panic. It wasn't being out of her sight that got to me. Naomi and I are both pretty independent souls and there were many times I stayed alone as a child. It was seeing all these strangers around me and there was absolutely NO sign of Naomi.

That was when it hit me for the first time. If anything ever happened to Naomi, I'd be completely alone. It scared the hell out of me. She was all I had in the world. When you're a kid, your parents are your world, but at least most children grow up with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and siblings. Me? I had a few casual relatives, but no one I REALLY thought of as family. Naomi and I moved around far too much to put down solid roots (though Cascade always kind of acted like a home base). So, back to the point. Normal children have an extended family base. Parents may be a child's world, and they may fear losing them, but when they ask, "Who will take care of me?" usually they can think of SOMEONE. Grandma will take care of me. My brother will take care of me. Aunt Edna will take care of me.

So there I was, a little kid standing in the middle of a great big crowd in a great big amusement park, and, for just a split second, I imagined that something horrible had happened to Naomi. Or maybe, just maybe, she decided she didn't want me anymore. After all, I WAS an accident. I knew that much by that age. And I remember exactly what I was thinking... exactly what I was feeling at that moment. I couldn't even breath. I just stood there, wondering who would take care of me if Naomi was gone.

No one. I had no one. Five billion people on the planet, and I had no one but Naomi. It was one of the loneliest and scariest moment of my life. There was only one other time I felt like that, and that was waking up in that dark, empty warehouse after LASH knocked me out. But even that was different. When Lash took me, I was facing my death. In that amusement park, standing alone in a crowd that seemed oblivious to my tears, I was facing life alone... on my own. All by myself.

And then a security guard saw me. I was crying. Damn, I'm starting to cry now. Shit. Shit. Shit. Jim's gonna know, and I definitely can't let him see me like this.

Speaking of Jim, my fifteen minutes are up. Anyway, to make a long story short, the security guard took me back to the lost-and-found for kids. It was me and two other children sitting in a small room with a stack of Highlights magazines. I wasn't there very long before Naomi rushed in, her face white as a sheet. By that time I'd stopped crying, and I put on my "no big deal" face as she swept me up into a hug. Seeing the naked fear on her face, I realized that she'd never leave me, and I felt really bad about thinking that she might.

And now, here I am today, sitting in this room. My life is so different than....

"Sandburg!"

Blair slammed the journal closed and wiped quickly at his eyes. "Coming! Geez, don't pop a blood vessel. It's my dinner date, after all."

He took a deep breath and pushed himself off the futon.

"'Get your ass out here!" Jim yelled.

"I'm coming!" He walked through the french doors and saw Jim standing by the kitchen island, his arms crossed in front of his chest.

"It's about time," the Sentinel remarked. Then his eyes narrowed and he peered more critically at Blair.

Blair ducked his head and hurried toward the door, grabbing his coat. "Well, come on. You're the one yelling that we need to leave."

"You okay, Chief?"

Shit. "Yeah, fine." He shrugged into the coat and opened the front door. Evasive action, Mr. Sulu! Hard to port. "You are ready, right? You haven't been throwing this little tantrum just for the hell of it, right?"

"Smartass," Jim muttered, shuffling toward the door and grabbing his jacket on the way out.


As it turned out, Jeffrey Maxwell was ten minutes late.

"Sorry," he apologized, joining them at the table. "I got a little lost. This is my first time in Cascade."

"Oh, well, we could have picked you up at the hotel," Blair said.

Maxwell smiled and shook his head. "Oh that's okay. It was a bit of adventure, and it gave me the chance to get to know the city better." He picked up his menu and opened the cover hastily, scanning the entrees. "So, what's good here?"

"Uh, just about anything," Blair replied.

"That's debatable," Jim muttered.

Blair threw the Sentinel a quick glare, then looked back at the man sitting across from him. "So, exactly how long have you been in Cascade?"

Maxwell closed the menu, setting it carefully on the table. He looked up, meeting Blair's gaze. "A few days. I had to arrange some time off of work, but I got here as soon as I could after... Well, after that broadcast."

"So, where'd you meet Naomi?" Jim asked, his expression carefully neutral.

"At a rally back in '68," Maxwell replied. "We, uh, felt an instant attraction toward one another."

A small jump in Maxwell's heartbeat put the Sentinel on alert.

"Oh?" Jim continued, leaning forward in mock-interest. "What did Naomi look like in the sixties? Weird hair? Strange clothes?"

Maxwell chuckled. "Long hair, and she dressed just like all us kids did back then." A slow grin spread across his face. "She was a real knock-out."

Blair groaned. "Cut it out you two. This is my mom, remember?"

"My name's Kathy and I'll be your server this evening. Are you guys ready to order, or do you need some more time still?"

Jim looked up to see a young women with long, dark hair pulled back in a bun. She held a notepad in one hand and a pencil in the other, poised to take their orders.

"I know what I want," Maxwell said.

"Me too." Blair placed his menu neatly on top of Maxwell's.

The waitress looked expectantly at Jim.

"Uh, I guess I'll have the steak," the Sentinel decided.

"Anything to drink?"

"Green tea," Blair said.

"I'll have a beer," Maxwell ordered.

"Me too," Jim chimed.

"And to eat for the rest of you?"

After the orders were taken, the waitress picked up the menus and headed back to the kitchen. Not having anything to divert their attention, Sandburg and Maxwell made an uneasy attempt at conversation. Jim kept his hearing tuned to the man's vitals, trying to determine if his apparent anxiety was due to simple nervousness or something else.

"So, anthropology," Maxwell began. "What got you interested in that?"

"I'm not sure," Blair replied. "I've been interested in other cultures for as long as I can remember. I guess some of that comes from having moved around with Naomi so much."

The rest of the evening was spent in light conversation. After finishing their meals, Blair and Maxwell arranged a time with Jim for the following afternoon to submit blood to the forensics lab. Shauna, one of the lab techs, was a certified phlebotomist, and had agreed to do the simple procedure. By the time they were ready to leave the restaurant, four hours had passed. Blair and Maxwell made plans for the breakfast in the morning, and then each retired to his respective abode.


As Jim and Blair walked to the truck, the Sentinel reflected on the evening. He'd noticed that "father-and-son" were keeping a polite distance from one another. He could tell that Blair was deeply affected by Maxwell's arrival, and he could hardly blame the kid. Finding one's father after more than thirty years was, to put it simply, a big deal. However, the two men had kept the physical contact to a minimum, shaking hands quickly and offering polite smiles. He wondered if some of that distance resulted from his presence. He knew Blair had wanted him along for moral support, and he figured the kid probably wasn't all that comfortable displaying his emotions in front of him. Oh sure, the kid had no problem showing anger, frustration, and even fear, but when it came to the deep, heart-wrenching emotions like grief, Blair tended to pull away.

Not that he could blame the kid. He himself wasn't exactly one to display emotions. When Maya had broken Blair's heart, the young man had spent a great deal of time in his room and at the university, doing a real good job of not talking about anything of significance.

As he slid the key into the passenger side door, he focused a critical glare on his partner and tuned his hearing to the young man's heartbeat. He noticed the redness at the edges of Blair's eyes, the small slump of his shoulders, and the hands in his pockets which indicated the kid was deep in thought. Blair's heartbeat was somewhat elevated, but otherwise normal, and his breathing came in a slow, shallow rhythm.

"You okay?" he asked.

Blair glanced up at Jim, looking like he had just been jarred from another plane of existence. "Huh? Oh." He waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Yeah, sure. Fine. Thanks for coming."

Yeah, sure, Chief. Uh-huh. "No problem," he said, opening Blair's door.

Blair hopped into the cab, and Jim walked around the front of the truck. As he slid into the seat, he threw another quick look at the young man. Blair stared out the side window, and Jim was pretty sure that, although the kid's body was in the truck, his mind was miles away.

Jim took a deep breath. "How long are you gonna do this?"

Blair almost jumped, looking quickly at the Detective. "Do what?"

"Have you spoken with Naomi?" Jim asked, delaying until he could figure out the right way to approach his partner.

Blair shook his head. "No, I told you she's out of the country."

"You wanna talk about this?" he asked finally, deciding on the direct approach.

"Talk about what?"

Jim sighed. "Come on, Blair. Some guy you've never met before pops out of the blue after more than thirty years and claims to be your long-lost father. This is kind of a big deal."

"You say that like you don't believe him. It's not like he'd have motive to lie. I'm not wealthy, not by a long shot," Blair retorted, turning his gaze back out the window.

"I know that," Jim said. "I'm just concerned, that's all."

"Thanks, but it's not necessary. I'm fine," Blair insisted.

"I'm the human lie detector, remember?"

He heard the sudden jump in Blair's heartbeat, and saw the flicker of frustration cross the young man's face as he realized Jim had most likely heard the increase.

"What do you want, Jim?" Blair asked.

"I want the truth, that's all," he replied.

Blair looked back at his partner, the redness in his eyes more pronounced. "I don't know what the truth is right now, Jim," he admitted. "I don't know how I'm feeling, or how I'm supposed to feel. I don't know how I'm supposed to act or what I'm supposed to say." He turned away again. "It's like a dream. I keep expecting to wake up."

"Do you think he's really your father?"

Blair shrugged one shoulder. "I don't know. I guess we'll find out soon, though."

Jim nodded solemnly, preparing himself for the next question. He didn't want to ask, but he had to ask. "What if he is your father? What then?"

Another shrug. "I don't know," Blair replied.

Jim took a deep breath. "You two have a lot of lost time to catch up on -- if he is your father, that is."

Blair suddenly shifted in his seat to look at the Sentinel. "Maybe, but he's at Stanford and I'm here. Besides, I'm all grown up now. I don't need a father." He said it almost bitterly, and the tone took Jim by surprise.

"You helped me through the difficulties with my father. It seemed to matter to you. Doesn't this matter to you? I mean, come on, Chief, he could be your father. And let's not overlook the fact that he's brilliant, wealthy, and highly respected. I can see him asking you to transfer to Stanford. I'm sure they've got a very good anthropology department, and you're always complaining about the weather here--"

"Wait a minute, Jim," Blair interrupted, his eyes narrow as he gazed at Jim. "What are you getting at? You think I should transfer?"

"No. No. It's just--"

"Is this some kind of a hint, man?"

"NO!" he protested, raising one hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose. "I just meant that, well, what if he does want you to go to Stanford? He's on the faculty, which means you'd be pretty much guaranteed a spot. I'm sure their fellowships pay more, and it'll do wonders for your career."

Blair sighed. "You've got a point. It is a lot warmer there, and it doesn't rain as much," he said.

Jim's heart nearly skipped a beat, but he made a point of looking out the windshield as he nodded. "Yeah, and you'd fit right into the San Francisco scene."

"But, seriously man, you think you could swing a transfer to the Palo Alto PD?"

Jim's jaw dropped open and he turned to look at his partner.

"I mean, come on, man," Blair continued seriously, but Jim could see the slight twitch at the edges of his mouth. "That place is like SO yuppie-ville. I've got a few friends there. It's nice and all, but the high schoolers joke around and call it Palo Alto 94303 after that Beverly Hills show. They actually loan out the cops to the neighboring city, East Palo Alto, which is, like, a major drug area. Very poor. It's actually interesting from an anthropological standpoint. On one side of the railroad tracks is Palo Alto, an affluent community with a prominent university, and on the other side is a very poor, very crime-ridden city with very little funding. I was driving through there once and got pulled over for a speeding ticket. The cop actually used the bullhorn and asked me to stay in the car. He called for back-up. Can you believe that? It's like some kind of standard procedure for the cops to call for backup to write speeding tickets -- not because giving tickets is so dangerous, but because they've literally got the manpower to spare. I mean, they might be the only city with too many cops and too little crime. You'd be bored stiff, but, if you really think--"

"Wait a minute, Chief, I'm not transferring," Jim said.

Blair raised his eyebrows, looking genuinely surprised. "Oh? So, like, you meant I should just pack up and leave? What? You got another guide lined up? Let me guess, he's got a buzz cut, hates incense, and, in his spare time, polishes your shoes and irons your pants."

Jim narrowed his eyes in a glare. "Okay, I get the point. You're not leaving."

Blair shook his head. "Just try to dump me. I'll rent the loft down the hall and steal your mail so you're forced to come get it."

"That's a federal offense," Jim said. "I'd have to bust you."

"I'll sue for false imprisonment, police brutality, and intentional infliction of emotional distress."

"You'd never win," Jim said.

"With your reputation? The department would settle the same day they got the papers."

Jim grunted. "I see Naomi didn't teach you much respect for your elders."

"She taught me age doesn't matter. It's who you are that counts, and I can dig up several official reports that say you're an egocentric asshole with delusions of grandeur. As a matter of fact, I could probably get expert psychiatric testimony to support-"

Jim whacked him on the back of the head. "Then I'll claim insanity when I'm up for your murder."

Blair grinned, rubbing the back of his head in mock-pain. "This is SO like you, Jim. See? Police Brutality. All because you were losing the argument."

"I wasn't losing."

"Puh-lease! You were sinking faster than the Titanic."

Jim started the engine. "You know, I've been thinking I really could use your room as a den. We can move your bed out onto the balcony."

"Great! Then, when I'm changing for bed, I can moon that old man across the street who keeps his eyes peeled to the window."

Jim burst out laughing as he pulled the truck away from the curb.


The next morning, Blair rose early. He and Maxwell were scheduled to meet for breakfast at 7 a.m., just before Blair's first class.

I hate 9 a.m. classes, he thought as he shuffled into the bathroom.

He showered and dressed in record time, having decided which clothes to wear the night before. Normally, he had little problem deciding what to wear, but this was going to be his first "event" alone with his father, or, at least, the man claiming to be his father. The guy was one of the world's most brilliant researchers and Blair suddenly felt inadequate as a simple anthropology major at some no-name university.

They met at a little diner that served great food. Blair saw Maxwell sitting at a booth near one of the windows and hurried up to the man.

"Hello, Blair," Maxwell said. "How are you this morning?"

"Fine," he answered, sliding into the seat. "You?"

"Okay. So what's good here?"

"The pancakes. The blueberry ones are fantastic," Blair informed him.

A waitress approached them and set down two glasses of ice water. "Just let me know when you're ready," she said, eyeing their unopened menus, then she turned and walked back toward the kitchen.

"So, I guess we have a lot to talk about," Maxwell began.

The abrupt change in subject surprised Blair, making him suddenly nervous, and he wiped his sweaty palms on his dockers. "Yeah, I guess so."

"I always wanted a child, but things never worked out," Maxwell confessed. "I'm glad I found you."

"If we are, indeed, related," Blair amended.

Maxwell smiled, nodding. "I have no doubt about that, Blair. You remind me of myself in many ways."

Blair wrinkled his brow. "How so? I'm an anthropologist, you're a biochemist. Those are two very different fields."

"I'm not talking about academics," Maxwell said. "You're just like I was at your age. So full of life. So energetic. Passionate. Intelligent. I've gotten old, and seeing you reminds me of that."

"You're not that old," Blair said, then winced inwardly at his statement.

Maxwell chuckled. "No, but I am old. I have a great career, but not much family. It's been a lonely life, and, well, finding a son means a lot to me." A hint of tears touched the man's eyes, and he took a quick drink of his water.

Blair swallowed past the sudden lump that formed in his throat. "So... uh... Naomi never spoke with you after that night?"

Maxwell shook his head. "No. We spent one wonderful night together, and then she was gone. It never crossed my mind that I might have a child out of that union."

Blair fidgeted in his seat. "My mother's had a lot of men in her life, but she's never much been into the one night stand thing."

Maxwell shrugged slightly. "Neither was I, but, like I said, it was sort of an instant attraction. She was a very beautiful woman."

And still is, Blair amended silently. "And if you had found out about me, what would you have done?" Would you have really wanted me in your life?

A small, wistful smile formed on Maxwell's face. "I would have been involved. I would have wanted to see you, maybe even watched you grow up. I'd have provided for you. Paid for your college. Given you the best of anything you wanted. You could be at Stanford right now, or Harvard. Wherever you wanted to go. You're very smart, with an impressive academic record, you could have gone anywhere you wanted."

"I wanted to go to Rainier," Blair said. "I like where I am. I'm happy."

Maxwell nodded, looking suddenly apologetic. "I know that you are. It's quite obvious that you're happy. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you weren't living up to your potential. It's just that, well, I missed everything. I missed your birthdays, your first date, your first day at college. I just wish I'd known sooner, that's all."

"I wish so, too."

"So tell me about the work you do for the police," Maxwell said, obviously trying to lighten the mood. "What's an anthropologist doing at the Cascade PD?"

"It's for my thesis," Blair recited. "I'm studying closed societies, and using the police force as a model."

"Really?" Maxwell raised his eyebrows. "That sounds interesting. And do you work on cases?"

Blair nodded. "I'm partnered with Jim, as you know. We work things together."

"Like the Slomanson case?"

Again Blair nodded.

"I guess I'm supposed to be helping out on that, but the D.A. just pointed me in the direction of Simon Banks and told me to go. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be doing."

"Well, Slomanson is the leader of a large underground assassin ring. Apparently, he acts as a distributor. Someone wants someone taken out, he relays the request to various hitmen who bid on the job. An assassin wants some special, uh, tools, and he gets them," Blair explained.

"Like lethal drugs?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah. A visiting dignitary was killed just last month. He was talking to a group of reporters and just suddenly collapsed. The pathologist still isn't sure if it was murder, but Jim found evidence linking Slomanson to the death."

"Well, I can run a sample of the victim's blood."

"Forensics already did that," Blair said.

Maxwell nodded. "There are several chemicals that won't show up unless one specifically looks for them, and they're rare enough that most people haven't even heard of them."

Blair nodded. "We can mention that to Captain Banks."

"So what kind of evidence does Ellison have against Slomanson?"

Blair shrugged. "You can talk to Jim about that. I can't really discuss the particulars."

Maxwell nodded. "Of course. I understand." He smiled and winked. "It's hush-hush, right? Top secret?"

Blair chuckled. "Something like that. So, uh, how long are you in town for?"

Maxwell's smile faded. "One week. I wish it were longer. It's not nearly enough time for me to get to know you."

"I know," Blair agreed. "Maybe, if the test comes back positive, we can work something out. I can always spend one of my vacations down in California."

Maxwell's face lit up. "That would be great. I'd love having you! I can show you around Stanford, take you through a tour of San Francisco. Whatever you want."

"Oh, I've been to the bay area before. Once. It was very interesting."

"A lot drier than Cascade."

Blair laughed. "That's true." Then his expression grew more serious. "So, you mentioned not having a lot of family. Is there anybody?"

"I've got a brother in L.A.," Maxwell said. "My father's still alive and living in Menlo Park."

Blair's mouth suddenly went dry, and he took a drink of the water. "So I might have an uncle and a grandfather on your side?"

Maxwell nodded. "You do, Blair. Like I said, test or no test, I'm sure you're my son. You've got my eyes, and...  I  just know it. I can't explain it. That's not very scientific, I'm afraid."

"That's okay," Blair said, offering a small, nervous smile. "I guess I'm just trying to be cautious. Jim always says I trust too easily. It's just... Well, I grew up without a father, and now to finally have one..." his voice trailed off, and he looked away quickly. "Well, I just want to be sure before, uh--"

"Before you get emotionally involved," Maxwell finished for him, his voice gentle. "I understand, Blair. The last thing I want is to hurt you, but I am your father. I knew it the first time I saw you in person."

Blair decided it was time to bring up the question he'd been pondering for the last couple of days. "So, what did you mean in your letter?"

"About what?"

"About humans being born pre-programmed, with our fates sealed," the young man explained.

Maxwell shifted, taking another sip of his water. "Uh, well, just that you have me in you. Didn't you ever wonder about your other half? What traits you got from me? I think your curiosity comes from me, but I'm ashamed to say that I don't know Naomi well enough to say for sure. Scientists, by nature, are curious. You may not be a scientist, but anthropologists are just as curious. It's why we study what we do. I study nature. You study humanity."

"Well, I anthropology is a social science," Blair amended.

Maxwell offered a small smile and a nod, but Blair got the impression the man was being almost condescending, as if to say that social science wasn't really science. Okay, well, maybe it wasn't science, but much of his Sentinel work entailed scientific observation and testing.

"So, uh, you're not at all disappointed that I didn't turn out to be a biochemist?" Blair asked, gazing at one of the ice cubes in the cup.

"No! No!" Maxwell answered quickly.

Blair offered a shy smile and looked up. "I only said that because, in my experience, scientists tend to be a bit... uh... derisive of fields like mine.  They kind of view anthropology along the same lines as basket weaving."

Maxwell laughed. "Don't be absurd. It's more like underwater basket weaving."

Blair's eyes narrowed. "That's cruel, man."

The older man shrugged casually, a broad smile on his face. "Hey, you walked into that one." He leaned forward. "But, seriously, no, I'm not at all disappointed in you, Blair. You're the best thing I could have imagined."

Blair's face grew hot, and he ducked his head, letting his curls fall forward to hide the redness in his cheeks. "Thanks," he blurted awkwardly, then raised the glass and took a long drink of water.

"So are you at the university all day today, or will you be at the station... before the test, that is?" Maxwell asked, obviously changing the subject.

"I've got classes 'til two, then I'll be at the station," he said.

Maxwell nodded. "Good, we can work on the case together. Get to know one another. I'm eager to take the test. Then maybe you and I can try to make up for some of that lost time."


Blair walked into the bullpen at two-thirty and saw Maxwell sitting at Jim's desk, typing furiously on the computer. The young observer glanced at Simon's office, but Jim was nowhere to be seen. Shifting his backpack on his shoulder, he walked up to the researcher.

"What're you working on?" Blair asked.

Maxwell flinched in surprise, his head snapping. "Uh, just doing some research into potential toxins." He glanced back at the monitor, clicking the mouse as his eyes drifted over the screen.

Blair maneuvered around the desk to look at the computer screen. Nature Online stood in bright red colors at the top of the web page.

Maxwell grinned. "The internet is a wonderful thing, isn't it? One subscription and I get full access to Nature's database."

Blair smiled, dropping his backpack to the floor. "Where's Jim?"

"I think he went down to the evidence room, or something," Maxwell said.

"Ah. Well, I'm gonna take a quick trip to the bathroom. I'll be right back."

Maxwell nodded. "Okay, I'll be here."

Blair turned and headed into the hallway. The researcher shut down the program, watching the young man retreat, then yanked his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and hit the autodial. Three rings sounded before the other line was picked up.

"I've got some news," he announced without preamble. "Blair and I are getting along fine. He's a good kid, so things are easier than I thought they'd be... Uh-huh... Yeah, about as well as expected... The case isn't that bad. I've found a lot of the information needed.... No.... We're scheduled to get our blood drawn at four this afternoon, so you wanna move it up a bit?... It's hard to say. I guess we'll just have to see. Okay?... Okay. I'll be ready, no problem." He ended the connection and returned the cell phone to his pocket.

A few minutes later, Blair returned. "So, do you need any help with anything?"

Maxwell shook his head. "Nah. It's pretty easy going."

"Hey, Chief." Jim walked into the bullpen and the two men at the desk looked up as he approached.

"Hey, Jim," Blair greeted.

Maxwell rose from the chair. "I'll give you your seat back, Detective." He glanced at Blair. "I'm gonna hit the men's room myself," he said. "Be right back."

"Okay." Jim sank into this chair. After Maxwell disappeared into the hall, he looked at Blair and asked, "So how did things go at breakfast?"

Blair grinned, leaning against the edge of the desk. "Pretty good. He seems like a really cool guy. He's so sure he's my father that I'm beginning to believe it myself." His grin grew wider and he leaned forward eagerly. "I really do hope the test is positive. I only hope Naomi doesn't freak when she finds out."

Ellison's cell phone rang and he yanked it out of his pocket. "Ellison." After a brief pause, the Detective smiled and looked at Blair. "Yes, Naomi. He's right here," he said, handing the phone to his partner.

Blair eagerly grabbed the cell phone. "Mom? Hi! How are you?... You got my message? Great... No, nothing's wrong. Well, not exactly... Yes, yes, I'm fine. So, you're back from Mexico? How was the trip?... That's great... No, I'm not stalling. Why would you say that?"

Jim released a short chuckle, and Blair threw him a warning glare, then resumed the conversation with his mother. "Okay, okay. Yes, I do have some news for you..."

The desk phone rang and Ellison snatched up the receiver. "Detective Ellison here."

"I'm not quite sure this is something I should tell you over the phone," Blair continued.

"Who is this?" Ellison barked, and the tone grabbed Blair's attention. The detective waved at Brown, pointing frantically to the receiver in a silent request for a trace.

"Uh, Mom, can you hold on for a moment?" He pulled the phone away from his ear and gazed at the Detective. 'What?' he mouthed.

Ellison clenched his jaw, flashing an angry glare at Blair, then shook his head. "What do you want?" he asked the person on the other end.

Blair's heart sank. 'Who is this?' and 'What do you want?" when spoken together were never indicative of good news.

"No way," Ellison said. "You talk to me... That's not acceptable... Let me talk to him." His jaw clenched tighter, and, after a brief hesitation, he held the receiver out to Blair.

"Who is it, Jim?" Blair asked, using his free hand to take the phone. "What's going on?"

Jim's gaze softened. "Sorry, Chief. There's no easy way to say this, so I'm just gonna come right out with it."

Blair felt the color drain from his face. "What?"

"Someone's claiming to have abducted Dr. Maxwell."

The cell phone dropped from Blair's grip, clattering to the floor. Naomi's faint voice could be heard emanating from the discarded phone, but Blair seemed oblivious as he raised the receiver.

"Hello?"

"Mr. Sandburg?"

"Yes," Blair said. "Who is this?"

"Associates of Mr. William Slomanson. We'll make this short and sweet. We have your father. We know you're trying to trace this call. Here's the deal. We know you're about to issue an arrest warrant for John Slomanson. His brother is very concerned about this. You're to take no action for forty eight hours. After the forty eight hours, the younger Slomanson will be out of the country, and then you'll have your father back. Got it?"

"What?" Blair's head spun. None of this made any sense. They didn't want to argue testimony for the older Slomanson? No 'back off the case or he gets it' threats? All the guy wanted was for Simon and Jim to hold off on making an arrest?

"You heard me, Mr. Sandburg."

"Let me speak with Dr. Maxwell."

"Of course." There was a brief pause, then, "Hello? Blair?"

"Dr. Maxwell?" Blair's heart leapt into his throat. "Are you okay? Did they hurt you?"

"I'm fine, though it'd be nice to hear you call me 'Dad' just once... You know... Just in case."

Blair swallowed. "Whatever you want, Dad." The word still felt weird on his tongue. "Don't worry, we'll--"

"Good-bye, Mr. Sandburg."

"No, wait! I can't make that kind of--"

The line went dead, leaving Blair with a cold feeling in his chest. Jim gently slid the phone out of Blair's hand, then moved around the desk and picked up the cell phone.

"Naomi, can Blair call you back? Or you call him?... I'm not sure... He has that number?... Okay, then. Good-bye." He hung up the phone, placing a hand on Blair's shoulder as he looked at Brown. "Did you get it?" He knew the answer, though.

Brown shook his head. "No, Jim. Sorry. What was that all about?"

"Someone kidnapped Dr. Maxwell," he said, looking back at his partner. Blair hadn't spoken a word, and that worried the Sentinel. "You okay, Blair?"

The young man blinked, then slowly turned his eyes to look at Jim. "This is a dream, right? Please tell me this is a dream, man."

Oh christ, kid. Jim steered his partner to the chair and pushed down on his shoulders, forcing him to sit. "Take it easy, Chief. We'll get him back." He looked up at Brown. "How 'bout some water, H?"

"Coming right up," the Detective replied, scurrying out of the bullpen.

Not wanting to leave Blair alone, Jim picked up the receiver and dialed Simon's office. He heard the Captain's phone ring a few feet away.

"Banks here."

"Sir, someone just called. Dr. Maxwell's been kidnapped, and his abductors want us to hold off on our arrest of John Slomanson for forty eight hours, until the guy can leave the country. His brother managed to orchestrate this whole thing from his jail cell."

Jim saw Banks shoot out of  his chair and slam the phone down. Seconds later, his door flew open and he stormed into the bullpen, his face a mask of rage. He took one look at Blair, and his anger immediately melted to concern.

"I'm sorry, Sandburg." Simon stood in front of the desk, glancing back and forth in concern between the detective and his partner. "We'll do everything we can to get him back safely, kid."

Blair nodded, his face blank and his eyes fixed on some point on the floor. "Like Janet Slayden?" he asked softly, leaning forward to bury his face in his hands, unaware of the shadow that crossed over Simon's face. "This can't be happening," he muttered. "They're gonna kill him, Jim. I finally find my father, and they're gonna kill him. If he'd never come here, he'd be safe. If it weren't for me --"

"Don't go there, Chief," Jim warned, placing a firm hand on the distraught man's arm. "This isn't over yet." He looked up at the Captain. "So what are you gonna do, Sir?"

"They'll kill him no matter what you do," Blair said miserably. "You both know that."

 

"Do you think they'll comply?" the fat man in the expensive suit asked, taking a puff on his cigar as he leaned back in his chair.

"I'm not sure. We really didn't have as much time as we'd planned."

"You have apparently convinced him that you're his father. That should be sufficient, Mr. Schwabach."

"I guess we'll have to wait and see. Anyway, I got you the information from Ellison's computer, so I'd like the payment, now."

The fat man opened a drawer in the desk and pulled out a large wad of cash. "Your ten grand."

"It was twenty," Schwabach amended.

The fat man shook his head. "Only if Johnnie gets out of the country."

Schwabach bit his tongue as he grabbed the money. "If your men have 20 collective IQ points among them, that shouldn't be a problem."

"We'll see."

"Why this little charade? Why not just snatch someone he cares about?"

"Like who? His partner, the ex-covert-ops-special-forces police officer? Or perhaps his mother? A lady who apparently likes to travel out of the country quite often. Besides, this afforded you the opportunity to steal valuable information."

"Okay, so what about that Ellison guy? You could've snatched Sandburg."

The fat man shook his head. "Too much security, and past incidences show that Mr. Ellison is quite adept at finding his partner. We have researched this thoroughly, Mr. Schwabach, believe us. You have your money, the rest is of no concern to you. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly," Schwabach replied. "I'll be heading back to the hotel now. Don't contact me until Johnnie is out of the country, and then only on the cellphone."

"Of course," the fat man said. "Good-bye, Mr. Schwabach. It was nice doing business with you."

 


"Blair!"

Blair spun around in time to catch his mother as she barreled into him, wrapping firm arms around his torso. "Oh baby, are you all right?"

Blair blushed, returning his mother's hug as he glanced in embarrassment at Jim. The Detective raised his eyebrows and rose out of his chair.

"Mom, what are you doing here?"

Naomi released her son, pulling back to get a good look at him. "You sounded so strange on the phone. I left as soon as Jim hung up. Good thing I ended my trip early."

"Hello, Naomi," the Detective said, moving around his desk to stand next to the pair. "How are you?"

Naomi turned toward Jim, her face breaking into a warm smile. "Oh just wonderful. I had a great time in Mexico." She looked back at Blair. "Now you're going to tell me what's wrong."

Blair took a step back, his gaze faltering. "Uh, maybe you'd better sit down, Mom."

Jim rolled the chair over to her. "Here you go, Naomi."

"Uh-oh. This can't be good," she said, her expression wary.

"Just sit down, Mom," Blair suggested solemnly.

Without further comment, Naomi sank into the chair.

"Mom, do you remember a man named Jeffrey Maxwell?"

Naomi shook her head. "No. Why?"

Blair glanced in surprise at Jim, then looked back at his mother. "You don't know the name at all? You met him at rally in 1968 and, uh, supposedly got, um, very close with him."

Naomi looked back and forth between the two men. "Are you saying I had sex with him, Blair?"

The young man briefly closed his eyes. "Uh, yeah. I am."

"I think I'd remember that," she said. "I'm sure I don't know a man named Jeffrey Maxwell."

"I'm not liking this, Chief," Jim said.

"Maybe if we show her a picture," Blair suggested.

"Fine. Show me a picture," Naomi agreed. "But I know I've never slept with anyone named Jeffrey Maxwell. You think I'd forget something like that, Blair? Is that what you think of me?"

Blair shook his head, kneeling in front of his mother. "No, mom. It's just that..." he glanced uncertainly at Jim. "Well, he showed up here a few days ago. He claims to be my father."

Naomi shot out of her chair. "Your father?! Not possible. I never slept with a guy named Jeffrey back then!"

"Sshhhhh..." Blair urged, glancing around in embarrassment at the curious looks thrown his way by the other Detectives. "Mom, just how many men... uh... I mean... oh never mind!" With a weary sigh, he sank into the empty chair, rubbing his hands over his face. "He says you and he had a one night stand. He's a researcher at Stanford. Are you sure you never met a man named Jeffrey in 1968?"

Blair's distress was evident, and Naomi leaned forward, placing an arm around her son's shoulders. "Oh baby, I'm sorry. I didn't know this affected you so much. I promise, Blair. I don't know anyone by that name."

"Take a look at this, Naomi," Jim said, swiveling the monitor around so she could see the screen. "This is his picture. Unfortunately, it's a bad picture of him. Do you recognize him?"

Naomi shook her head. "Not at all."

With a clench of his jaw, Jim glanced at the open notepad on his desk, then picked up the phone and dialed a number. Seconds later, he said, "This is James Ellison of the Cascade Police Department in Washington. I'd like to inquire into the status of one of your researchers, a Dr. Jeffrey Maxwell... Uh-huh... When did he leave?... Where did he go?... When is he expected back?... Do you have a number where he can be reached?... This is important, Ma'am... I see... Thank you very much." He relayed the phone number to her and thanked her again.

Blair looked expectantly at the Detective as he hung up the phone.

"Well, Chief, Doctor Maxwell did leave Stanford on vacation to visit family, but he's in Southern California. His secretary wouldn't give out the number, but she will relay a message and have him contact us.

"So that guy wasn't Maxwell?"

"Probably not," Jim said, his voice soft. "I'm sorry, Chief."

Blair rose to his feet. "But why lie? Why the big charade?"

"To pull this little stunt and... Shit!"

"What?"

Jim hunched over his keyboard, typing furiously. A few seconds later, he muttered a curse and looked at Blair. "He broke the password on the case files, Chief. He and his cohorts now know everything we do."

"Oh man!" Blair slammed his fist down on the edge of the desk so suddenly that Naomi jumped. "I can't believe I trusted that guy! God, I'm stupid! I'm so sorry, Jim. He suckered me, and --"

"This isn't your fault, Chief. He had us all duped. They did a damn good job of picking this guy, and he looks enough like the real Dr. Maxwell to make it believable against the older picture. Damnit! I called Stanford earlier to check on him, but when they said he was on vacation visiting family, I assumed that meant you. I didn't press for more information. These guys were meticulous, Chief. They had it all planned out."

"Yeah, and they found the perfect sap," Blair mumbled, sinking back into the chair. "Well, at least we can still arrest John Slomanson, right?"

"You're not a sap, Blair," Naomi said. "This is all my fault. I should have talked with you more about this."

"We'll be taking Slomanson in A.S.A.P.," Jim said. "And Naomi's right. You're not a sap, Chief. You're just human."

"Uh-huh," Blair muttered, unconvinced, his eyes angry.

Simon walked out of his office, heading toward the trio. "Hello, Ms. Sandburg. How are you?"

"Fine. Just fine," she said, barely glancing at the Captain before turning her attention back to Blair. "Look, honey, why don't you and I go talk about this? I'm sure Jim and the Captain can handle the case for a little while."

"That's a good idea," Banks agreed.

Naomi finally turned on the man, her eyes angry. "And just what do you have him doing that some big crime lord would want to pretend to be his father?"

"Mom, just calm down. This isn't anybody's fault but the bad guys. Okay?" Blair insisted.

"If you weren't working with the police, this kind of thing wouldn't happen to you, sweetie," Naomi replied. "I just don't want to see you hurt, that's all."

"I know," Blair said, rising to his feet. "Look, why don't we go grab a bite to eat? There's a little deli at the end of the block." He glanced at Jim, who gave him a small smile and a brief nod.

 


Barney Light pulled the headphones out of his ears and turned off the recorder. Flipping open his cell phone, he dialed the boss.

"Barney, here. They know about Schwabach. It's no good.... Uh-huh." He saw Sandburg and a woman exiting the police station. "Uh, that kid Sandburg just left with some woman -- his mother, I think... Uh-huh. You sure? I mean, he's right in front of the police station... Yeah, I know he's one of the witnesses, but what about... Yeah, that'll send a message, but these are cops, and... Of course, Sir. Right away."

He flipped the cellphone closed and started the engine, driving the black sedan passed Sandburg and the woman. Parking the car in a place that gave him just the right angle, he rolled down the side window and grabbed the rifle from beneath the blankets in the back seat. The tinted windows provided him the privacy he needed, and he aimed the crosshairs on the young man walking down the street.

"Sorry, kid," he muttered. "This just ain't your day."

 


"Are you really okay, honey?" Naomi asked, giving her son's shoulders a reassuring squeeze.

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine, Mom."

"You don't sound fine."

Blair's eyes flashed with anger. "I'm embarrassed, okay? And pissed. Here I've been parading around like a fool the past few days thinking I'd found my father."

"Is this something you've been thinking about?" she asked. "Do you want to find your father?"

Blair shrugged. "I thought about it once in awhile, but I'm almost thirty years old." His smile grew wider, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I'm practically an old man. I don't need a father."

"But you liked the idea of having one?"

Blair's smile faded, and he nodded, offering a small shrug. "Yeah, a little."

"Blair, I --" She broke off suddenly, squinting toward a black sedan parked approximately a hundred feet away. "That's odd. I thought I saw -- Oh Blair!"

Naomi shoved her son to the side just as a shot sliced through the air.

 


"Jim! Captain!" Brown rushed into the bullpen, and all activity ceased when the Detectives saw the panic on his face. "Shots fired out front. Sandburg and his mom are down!"

"Oh God." Jim flew past Brown, barely aware of Simon at his heals.

"Call the medics! Get a team out front and find that gunman!" Banks bellowed.

Jim took the stairs, not willing to wait for the elevator. He practically flew down the seven flights, leaving Simon breathlessly behind by the third floor. Seconds later, he emerged onto the ground floor, exploding through the outer doors like a bull. He spotted Blair a few yards down the block, and he didn't need Sentinel ears to hear the young man's soft cries.

"No. No. No." Blair rocked his mother in his arms, her back pressed to his chest. A pool of blood collected on the sidewalk beneath them.

Naomi. The sight of his distraught partner, covered in blood, cradling his limp mother stopped Jim cold.

Banks pushed through the front doors, followed by a small army of officers. "Christ."

That single word jerked the Detective out of his stupor, and he rushed toward Blair. The stench of blood overwhelmed him, and he quickly dialed down his sense of smell. Extending his hearing to listen for Naomi's heartbeat, the Sentinel tuned out the panicked shouts around him. He released a relieved sigh when he found the faint rhythm.

Kneeling down, he placed a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder. "Come on, Chief, let me see. We have to stop the bleeding."

Tears slid down Blair's face, and he turned tormented blue eyes up at Jim. "I tried," he croaked. "Too much. It's too much blood."

Jim swallowed hard. A soft moan pulled his gaze downward.

"Mom?"

Naomi's eyes fluttered open, and her brow creased with pain. "Blair?"

Jim shrugged out of his jacket, quickly removing his shirt.

"Don't move, Mom. You're gonna be okay," Blair blurted through the tears.

Naomi raised one blood-covered hand toward Blair's face, and her fingers stroked his cheek. "Sorry, honey. Your father, I--"

Blair shook his head. "No. Shhh. It's okay. Just be quiet now. Rest."

Jim pressed the shirt against Naomi's chest, but the flow of blood continued relentlessly, soaking the shirt in seconds. Jim clenched his jaw, his eyes hooded as he felt the warm liquid seep between his fingers. He'd seen enough gunshot wounds to know that this one was fatal.

"Love you," Naomi whispered, then her hand fell to the sidewalk and her eyes drifted closed.

"Mom?" Blair gave her a gentle shake.

Naomi released a long, shuddering breath, then her chest fell still. Sirens screamed in the distance.

"No." The single word came out as barely a whisper. Blair clenched his eyes shut, hugging his mother tighter against his chest. "No, God, please no."

Jim's heart felt like it would burst. "Blair--"

"NO!" he screamed, his voice filled with angry denial. He began to shake, his arms locked around the lifeless body, and he opened his eyes, his gaze locking with the Sentinel's. "She's not dead. Listen, Jim, please. Can you hear a heartbeat?"

Jim swallowed, shaking his head. "I'm so sorry, Blair."

The ambulance pulled to a screeching halt in front of the crowd, and two paramedics leapt out of the vehicle.

"Let us see, Sir," one of them ordered firmly.

Jim knew it was too late. Knew it without a doubt. Just like he also knew how heart-breakingly difficult it would be to get Sandburg to release his hold. Still, he knew the paramedics were duty-bound to try.

The two EMT's knelt down next to the man and woman. "Sir. Please. Let us work on her," one of them urged.

"Are you hurt?" the other asked Blair.

Slowly, Blair shook his head, and to Jim's surprise, the young man's arms slid off his mother, but one hand remained closed in a soft embrace around his mother's fingers. He pulled his knees up to his chest and continued to rock back and forth , occasionally shaking his head in denial. The paramedics wasted no time as they gently laid Naomi's body flat. After taking her vitals, one of the men shook his head and barked information into the radio.

"Please," Blair whispered, his blue eyes locked on his mother's limp form as the paramedics worked on her.

Several grim moments passed while the paramedics attempted to revive the woman, barking information into the radio as they communicated with the trauma center. Jim winced when he heard the "DOA" pronouncement, and he glanced at Blair, but the young man seemed oblivious to the paramedics' conversation, his blue eyes fixed on Naomi's bloodied figure. Finally, the paramedics rushed the woman onto the stretcher and into the ambulance.

Blair scrambled to his feet to follow, but one of the paramedics stopped him with a firm hand on his chest. "Sorry, Sir, but we'll need to be working on her during transport, and you'll just be in the way."

"I'm going," Sandburg blurted, pushing the EMT's hand off his chest.

"Please, Sir," the paramedic insisted, backing quickly toward the rear of the ambulance as he blocked Sandburg's access.

Blair made an attempt to push past the man, but one look from the EMT spurred Jim to action. He knew why the paramedics didn't want Sandburg in the ambulance, and he agreed with them. Naomi was dead, and they would be forced to follow procedure and maintain resuscitation efforts during transport. Jim didn't think Blair needed to see that.

He placed a firm hand on Blair's arm and pulled the young man back. "Come on, Chief, I'll take you in the truck."

"NO!" Blair cried, yanking away from Jim. "I'm not leaving her!"

"Blair please," Jim said, glancing at Simon for help.

The Captain rushed forward to grab one of Blair's arms as Jim took hold of the other. The paramedic nodded gratefully and jumped into the back of the ambulance as Jim and Simon restrained the distraught young man.

As the ambulance squealed away from the curb, Blair doubled over with one deep, shuddering sob, then passed out.

 


The siren flashed silently on the truck's dashboard as Jim followed the ambulance to the hospital. He spared only quick glances at his partner, who remained slumped unconscious in the passenger's side, the seatbelt holding him securely in place. Jim now had two reasons to make haste toward the hospital. One was Naomi, even though he knew the woman was beyond hope, and the other sat in the seat beside him.

Jim clenched his jaw as he took a sharp turn. He kept his ears tuned to Blair's steady heartbeat and shallow breathing, almost relieved that his partner had passed out. It spared him the grief of seeing the young man's distress. It also gave him time to think about what to do next. Blair was in shock, that much was obvious, but how would the young man react once he woke up? Jim couldn't even imagine what Naomi's death would do to his young Guide. Blair had been raised single-handedly by the remarkable woman, and, in many respects, she had been his world for many, many years. He was far from a momma's boy, but he also possessed a deep bond with her. Both were equally protective of the other, and, just as Naomi had chewed Simon out during her first visit for placing her son in danger, Blair had ripped into the psychic during the kidnapping case when he thought the man had misled Naomi.

Jim remembered when he'd first found out about Naomi, and a smile tugged at his lips with the memory. She had called Simon's office phone, then his own cell phone, to announce her approaching visit. Blair had told her to let herself into the loft and make herself comfortable in his room. Jim had tried to be his most intimidating as he protested her stay, but when it came to Naomi, the young man was as immovable as a forty-story building. Blair had slapped Jim's hand away from the cell phone and blatantly ignored the protests, somehow making him feel about three years old and two inches tall.

He spared another quick glance at his partner, and his smile faded. Now Naomi was dead, and Blair had lost the only family he'd ever known.

Except for me, Chief, he amended silently. You still have me.

The ambulance pulled in front of the hospital trauma entrance, and Jim drove the truck around the side of the building to find a parking space. Once that was accomplished, he slid out of his own seat and trotted around to Blair's side. Gently, he unhooked the seatbelt, catching Blair as he slumped forward.

"Come on, kid. Let's get you checked out," he whispered as he lifted the limp figure in his arms and kicked the door closed.

 


"Can I get some help here!" Jim yelled as he carried Sandburg through the hospital doors. He caught a glimpse of Naomi's body just before a team of doctors whisked her behind a curtain.

An orderly and a nurse rushed up to him, grabbing an empty stretcher from against the wall.

"What happened?" the nurse asked, her round glasses resting low on her nose. She had short, dark hair and large brown eyes that gazed at the limp young man in concern.

Jim jerked his chin toward the curtain that hid Naomi. "He saw his mother get shot," he explained, carefully placing Sandburg on the stretcher. His breath caught when he saw that Blair's eyes were now open and staring blankly up at the ceiling.

A white-clad doctor with peppered hair rushed up, quickly placing the stethoscope over Blair's heart and yanking out his penlight.

"Is any of this blood his?" the doctor asked, shining the light in each one of Blair's eyes.

"No," Jim blurted, placing one hand on Blair's forehead and leaning over his motionless partner as the doctor moved down to test Blair's reflexes and responses. "You with us, Chief?"

He got no response, and looked up in time to notice the concerned glance that passed between the doctor and the nurse.

"Get a psych consult down here, " the doctor told the orderly, who nodded and shuffled off quickly.

 


"He's definitely in shock," the psychiatrist pronounced, a short man in his late forties with a greying mustache. He glanced at the young man on the stretcher before meeting Ellison's hooded gaze. "I'll give him an injection to combat the physiological effects, and that should make him come around," he said, positioning the needle over a vein in Sandburg's arm.

Jim nodded. "What can I do for him once I get him home?"

The doctor sighed as he drove the needle into Blair's arm and emptied the vial into Blair's bloodstream. "Just make sure he gets plenty of sleep, fluids, and food. People in the midst of grieving tend to forget about those things, and, as a result, often end up spiraling into full-blown depression. Keep him away from alcohol, as most people like to drown their sorrows in it, and that's obviously not healthy. If he begins to exhibit signs of serious depression, such as excessive lethargy, refusal to get out of bed, overeating or undereating, self-destructive behavior, or prolonged insomnia, give me a call. If need be, I'll prescribe some anti-depressants to ease him through the process."

A small groan pulled the Detective's attention down to his partner. Blair blinked, his eyes automatically focusing on Jim.

"Blair? Can you hear me, buddy?" Jim asked.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Sandburg?" the Doctor inquired.

Blair took a deep breath and pushed himself into a sitting position, swinging his legs over the side of the stretcher and letting them dangle over the edge. His brow creased with confusion, and he looked momentarily disoriented as he scanned his surroundings. Then his eyes found Jim's, settling there with an eerie calm.

"Naomi? Was it a dream?"

Blair's solemn gaze clutched Jim like a hand around his throat, leaving him speechless, so he raised one hand to Blair's shoulder and shook his head sadly. Tears welled in Blair's eyes, and he shifted his gaze to the doctor.

"Can I see her?"

"Of course," the Doctor said.

 


Blair sank into the chair next to Naomi's bed, his only privacy a thin curtain that formed a tiny cocoon of pseudo-isolation around the deathbed. A sheet covered the body, and he reached up with trembling hands to pull down the white material. Naomi's face looked almost as pale as the sheet, her eyes closed and her expression peaceful. Blair tucked the sheet around her shoulder, noticing the material's pristine cleanliness, as if someone had taken great care to remove all evidence of the severe trauma she had endured.

If only I hadn't suggested we get something to eat... If only you hadn't arrived when you did... If only I'd listened to you and stopped working with the police...

Oh, Mom...

Tears spilled onto his cheeks and he dropped his head onto her shoulder, immersing himself in the bittersweet waves of grief that rocked his body.

I'm all alone now, Mom. Why'd you have to do it? Why'd you have to leave me all alone? That was my bullet, Mom. MINE, and, God forgive me, but I hate you for this. I hate you for taking what was mine. Didn't you know what this would do to me? I never thought I could feel like this. I never even knew it was possible to hurt so much. It's like a big hole has been ripped right through me, and there's nothing, absolutely nothing that makes it better. How did you expect me to live like this? Damn you, how could you do this to me? How could you just die? You gave up. I saw it in your eyes, Mom. You gave up and left me. It should be me, Mom. It should be me laying here, not you. Oh God, not you, Mom. Not you.

 


Jim sat next to Simon in the small waiting room, separated from Blair and his mother by hollow walls and a cheap door. Both men were silent, sitting with hunched shoulders in the wood chairs.

Blair's tormented sobs drifted to the Sentinel's ears, filling his chest with hot pain that seemed to radiate to the very ends of his limbs.

"Not you."

Blair's plea hit Jim like a whip, and he almost flinched.

God, Chief, I'm so sorry. He leaned forward and buried his head in his hands, releasing a pained sigh.

"Jim?" Simon's gentle, deep voice reverberated through his skull.

"God, Simon, this shouldn't have happened." He rubbed his hands over his face and leaned back in the chair.

"I know, Jim. At least we caught the guy, not that it matters much now... Not for Naomi, anyway."

Footsteps caught Jim's attention, and he turned his head to see Brown, Rafe, and Joel walking toward them. Rafe carried a small duffel bag in his right hand, and each man wore grim expressions, their eyes filled with uncertainty as they sank into empty seats.

"Clean clothes," Rafe said as he set the duffel bag on the floor.

Banks managed a small, tired smile. "Thanks, Rafe. I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

"The son of a bitch is going away for a long time for this. Makes you long for the days of firing squads," Brown snarled.

"How's he holding up?" Joel asked.

Jim shook his head. "Not well."

"If there's anything we can do, just say the word," Rafe offered.

The door opened and Blair stepped out, his head hung low. All five men rose, but only Jim moved toward the young man.

God, he looks so lost, Jim thought, stopping only inches from his young Guide.

Blair kept his face forward and his eyes lowered to the floor as he shuffled slowly passed Jim, seemingly unaware of the Detective's presence.

One of the doctors Jim recognized as having worked on Naomi approached, carrying a clipboard in his hands. "Mr. Sandburg," he began softly, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I know this is difficult for you, but there are a few matters we need to attend to."

Blair stopped and raised his head to look up at the doctor, and the strain of the past few hours was clearly etched in his face. His skin looked much too pale, and dark circles hung beneath his bloodshot eyes. Jim clenched his jaw and took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm his anger. He knew the doctor was only doing his job, but the last thing Blair needed to worry about at the moment was filling out paperwork.

 


Blair heard the doctor's voice, and saw his lips moving, but his brain had trouble processing the question. It was like everything was delayed and he had to focus very hard to decipher each word. The doctor stopped talking and looked at him as though waiting for a response.

One thing at a time. It was the only way he could function. Maybe some of the pain would go away if he could just focus on doing whatever came next.

Firm hands grabbed his shoulders, urging him forward. He felt himself being gently pushed down, and a chair seemed to appear miraculously beneath him to stop his descent.

"Can't this wait?"

He heard Jim's voice, and, this time the words pierced his muddied brain with refreshing clarity.

"The sooner we get this done, the better," the Doctor said, kneeling in front of Blair. "Time is very important in this situation, Mr. Sandburg. Have you given any thought to allowing your mother's organs to be used for transplants? Due to the nature and time of her death, we need to work especially quickly to salvage the undamaged organs."

Shivers coursed through Blair's body, and he crossed his arms protectively around his torso. Why is it so cold in here?

"Mr. Sandburg?"

"Blair?" Jim's voice jarred him back to attention.

"Fine," Blair croaked, his voice hoarse with emotion. "Just give me the pen."

The clipboard appeared on his lap with a small white pen resting on the top sheet. Blair reached for the instrument, but his hand shook so badly he could barely keep his grip on the small cylinder. He scribbled a grossly illegible signature on the bottom line, then let the pen drop from his hands back onto the page.

"Thank you, Mr. Sandburg. There are a few other matters. We need you to fill out some paperwork for billing. I don't know what kind of insurance you have and what it covers, but we also need you to decide between burial and cremation. If you want her body to be cremated, we can arrange for that here, if you prefer."

"The Cascade PD is responsible for this bill," Simon's voice interrupted. "I'll handle the insurance forms."

Blair kept his gaze focused on the thin white pen as he listened to the drone of voices. It all seemed so bizarre to him. A beautiful, irreplaceable life had ended, and the world was going on with talk of how to pay for the death.

"Okay, those forms are on the clipboard. Please fill them out before you leave. Mr. Sandburg, have you decided what to do with your mother's body?"

"Look, Doc," Jim's tight voice replied, "Captain Banks will fill out the insurance forms, but the rest can wait. Look at him, for chrissakes. He hasn't even had a chance to change yet."

Change? Blair's eyes drifted to his shirt, taking in the dark blotches of dried blood. Mom's blood. Suddenly, the stench hit him, sending his stomach into an unexpected revolt.

"Bathroom," he blurted quickly, shooting to his feet.

"Right there," the Doctor said quickly, pointing to a door only a few feet away.

One thing at a time. He focused on the door as his feet propelled him forward. Within seconds he was on his knees retching violently over the toilet.

 


Jim hesitated only long enough to grab the duffel bag before hurrying after his partner. He paused briefly by the door and turned to Brown. "Guard the door, H," he asked, ducking into the bathroom just as the other Detective nodded an acknowledgment.

He saw Blair huddled in an open stall, hunched over the toilet in a fit of dry heaves that died down as soon as he approached the young man.

"There's a change of clothes for you here," Jim said gently, stopping just outside of the stall to set the duffle bag on the floor. "Rafe brought them."

Blair lifted his head only long enough to glance up at the Detective, then he dropped his forehead back onto the cool porcelain. "Thanks... Could you leave me alone, please?"

Jim took a deep breath and crouched down closer to the young man. "Blair, it's okay," he began softly. "It helps if you let other people in. Believe me, I know."

"Nothing can help," he whispered, and lifted his head as he raised shaking hands to unbutton his shirt. His face was a mask of pain, with deep lines carved into his forehead.

His fingers fumbled with the buttons of the bloodied shirt, and Jim finally grabbed the trembling hands in his own. "Let me."

For a moment, Blair looked like he would acquiesce, then he shook his head and scooted away from the Sentinel, wedging himself in the narrow space between the toilet and the wall. "I can do it," he muttered shakily. "Please... Just go. I need to be alone for a few minutes, okay?"

Jim hesitated a moment, listening to Blair's pounding heartrate and reading the desperate plea in his eyes. Finally, he nodded and rose to his feet. "Okay. I'll be right outside."

Blair nodded, remaining silent as Jim walked out of the bathroom.

 


"How's he doing?" Joel asked as Jim exited the bathroom.

The Sentinel released a long sigh and raised one hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose. "I don't know, Joel. He won't talk to me."

"Give him some time, Jim," Simon said, the clipboard clutched under his arm. "That's really all you can do."

"He's right," the Doctor commented, reminding Jim that the man was still there. "If he wants, we can schedule an appointment with one of the psychiatrists for him."

Jim shrugged. "I'll talk to him about it."

The Sentinel sank into his seat, and the rest of the officers followed his example.

"Just give that to the desk nurse when you're finished," the Doctor told Simon, indicating the clipboard with a wave of his hand. "And please remind Mr. Sandburg that we need him to fill out the forms telling us what to do with is mother's body," he added, then turned and headed off toward the front desk.

Simon nodded, glancing briefly down at the insurance forms he'd been filling out.

"Look, Jim," the Captain began. "I'm giving you tomorrow and the next day off. I wish I could spare you longer, but I need you on the Slomanson case... Now more than ever. Obviously, I won't be expecting Sandburg in for some time. Let the kid know that he can take as long as he needs. Okay?"

Jim nodded. "Sure, Simon. Thanks."

"Is there anybody else he needs to contact?" Rafe asked. "I mean, I don't know much about his family, but if there are some people he needs help contacting or tracking down, Henri and I will be glad to help out."

"Of course," Brown confirmed.

Jim shrugged. "I'm not sure. He didn't have much family other than Naomi. Not close family, anyway."

"So she's pretty much all he had?" Joel asked, shaking his head. "Poor kid."

His comment left the five men in solemn agreement, and the group fell into an uneasy silence as they waited for their young friend to emerge from the bathroom. Jim kept his ears tuned to his partner, hearing his rapid, shallow breathing accompanied by the soft rustle of fabric. Nearly fifteen minutes passed before the bathroom door opened and Blair stepped out, his shoulders hunched with the empty duffel bag in his right hand. He was now dressed in a clean blue flannel shirt and jeans. Even the shoes had been replaced with untarnished sneakers.

All five men rose to their feet, but kept their distance, allowing the young man his space. Blair kept his head low as he walked up to Rafe. "Thanks, Rafe," he said.

"No problem," the Detective replied, reaching down to take the empty bag. "I'll hold this for you, if you want."

Blair nodded, releasing his grip on the bag. "Thanks," he muttered absently, then turned his attention to Simon. "Are there more forms I need to fill out?"

Simon glanced uncertainly at Jim, then looked back at the younger man. "Uh... Yeah."

Blair extended his arm and Simon handed him the paperwork.

"The Doc says you need to tell the hospital what to do with... Uh... Naomi," Simon added hesitantly.

Blair nodded. "Thanks." He dropped into one of the empty seats and paged through the papers, oblivious to the concerned glances circulating among his friends.

It took the young man about thirty minutes to complete all the forms, about twice as long as Jim estimated. Blair seemed to exercise extraordinary care with each form, reading the lines slowly and checking each box with a neat, clear mark. Finally, he clipped the pen onto the board and rose from the chair. The five men rose with him, but no one followed him as he walked up to the desk nurse and handed her the forms.

When he returned to the group, Jim studied the young man, worried about the pallor of his friend's face and the lines of exhaustion around his eyes. Blair studiously avoided all the eyes focused on him, his gaze low as he stood next to Jim.

"I'd like to get out of here, now," Blair muttered in a soft, strained voice.

Jim placed a reassuring hand on his partner's elbow and steered him toward the door. "Okay, Chief, let's go home."

 


The ride back to the loft was made in silence. The ride up the elevator to the third floor was also made in silence. Blair seemed lost in a world all his own, and Jim just couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't sound trite or hollow.

The Sentinel unlocked the front door and gestured for his friend to go ahead of him. In silent acquiescence, Blair shuffled past the larger man and headed straight for his room. He closed the french doors, and a subtle click indicated that the lock was engaged.

Jim's shoulders sagged as he made his way to the refrigerator, and he suddenly felt like he carried the weight of the world on his back. So much had changed in the past few hours. In the blink of an eye, Blair's world had been shattered, and, worst of all, it had been because of the police work. His work. He'd always been afraid the kid would see too much, feel too much, get shot, beaten, drugged, or kidnapped once too often, or, God forbid, get killed on the job. But the bullet hadn't touched Blair this time. It hadn't left so much as a scratch, but it might have destroyed him just the same.

Jim was pretty sure Blair was feeling guilty over Naomi's death. He knew Blair's thoughts most likely mirrored his own - that if it hadn't been for his association with one Sentinel cop, Naomi would still be alive; and, the clincher, as they say, would be that Naomi herself had objected to his police work, saying it was "too dangerous". Only nobody imagined that it would result in her death.

With a tired sigh, Jim retrieved a beer from the refrigerator and walked over to the couch, sinking into the cushions. Oh, Naomi, what am I going to do with your son, now? How do I help him get through this?

 


He felt her arm draped warmly across his shoulders as they strolled down the sidewalk, the soft autumn sun tickling his face. In the next instance, she slammed into him, sending him crashing into the wall of the building. A sharp crack echoed through the air, and he felt Naomi slump against him, his arms automatically moving to catch her. Her weight dragged him down, and he sunk to the cold sidewalk with her, cradling her limp body against his chest.

No. No. God, no...

He was alone. Suddenly, the world around him shifted, fading to darkness. He found himself crouched in a tree, cradled in the elbow of a branch. Looking down, he saw only blackness, thick and impenetrable like a heavy fog, and he felt like a blind man, trapped in a world of darkness. His heart thudded in his chest, and he wrapped his arms tight around the branch, afraid of the fall. Cold seeped through his thin shirt, and he shivered, curling against the branch in a futile attempt to find warmth.

The darkness below shifted, and a pair of yellow eyes emerged. His eyes locked with the beast's, and he felt himself falling into the ephemeral golden gaze. The darkness took shape, becoming recognizable as a large black cat. The feline scaled the trunk with silent grace. He felt himself being pulled down by some invisible force, and he slid along the branch, finally coming to stop in the crook where the branch melted into the trunk. The cat wrapped its lithe form around him, shielding his body with a comforting warmth.

He closed his eyes, giving into the silent comfort offered by the creature. He felt the fur shift beneath him, and, when he opened his eyes, he saw a thick arm wrapped around his chest, felt a steady heart beating in sync with his own.

Jim? "Jim?"

He opened his eyes to darkness, blinking in momentary disorientation as he looked up into the star-speckled sky. For a moment, he felt a twinge of panic at his unfamiliar surroundings. Then, as the biting cold brought him more awake, he remembered sneaking out while Jim had slept, an astounding feat in and of itself. He'd kept his music on, low enough so that Jim wouldn't think he was trying to cover up other noises but high enough that the Sentinel would be tempted to turn down his hearing or wear the white noise earplugs. He'd sought out the isolation provided by the roof, his need for solitude overcoming his fear of heights. As long as he stayed away from the edge, he was fine.

But now he was cold, and the strange dream had left him with a strange knot in his stomach. Was the dream just a dream, or was it something more? Was it supposed to have a meaning, or was it just the simple manifestation of his subconscious?

His sweats provided very little comfort against Cascade's night chill. Still, he didn't want to return to the loft. He wanted to stay outside, beneath the dark sky, and gaze up into eternity. Alone. The hollow ache in his chest seemed to be expanding with each passing hour, threatening to consume him. He didn't have the energy to be around people, to make polite conversation, to deal with the pity in their eyes... The pity he saw even in Jim's eyes.

Pushing himself into a sitting position, he scooted back against the wall of the staircase, pulled his knees up for warmth, and tilted his head back to look at the stars, wondering briefly if his mother were looking back at him. He'd never really staked claim to one particular religion, but almost all religions believed in an afterlife. Maybe, just maybe, there was a heaven and Naomi's soul had found its way there. Or maybe the spirit world existed in another form, complete with jaguar animal spirits and ancient souls. Or maybe there was no such thing as the soul and it was all just a crock, an invention of man's tortured mind to ease his fear of death. Maybe Naomi was really gone forever.

Tears stung his eyes and he dropped his head forward. Oh, Mom. I miss you so much already.

 


A word, softly spoken, broke through his sleep, and he opened his eyes, his Sentinel vision automatically adjusting to the darkness.

Blair?

He extended his hearing, encountering the gentle rhythm of drums emanating from downstairs. Pushing his hearing further, he listened for his Guide's heartbeat, and shot out of bed when he realized Blair was gone. He jumped into a pair of sweats and trotted down the stairs. Stopping by the french doors, he listened again, but again heard only the music. He tried the doorknob and was relieved to find it unlocked. Stepping inside, it took him only one glance to confirm that the room was unoccupied.

Damnit, where could he have gone? Hoping the kid was nearby, he extended his hearing even further, and released a sigh of relief when he encountered the soft rhythm. He glanced up toward the roof and headed to the front door, grabbing his jacket on the way out.

Opting for the stairs, he emerged onto the roof in seconds, and immediately spotted Blair hunched against the wall with his head resting on his knees and his arms wrapped around his legs. A quick sensory scan revealed that the young man was awake, but he gave no sign of having heard Jim's arrival.

"Blair?" Jim shrugged out of his jacket and crouched beside his partner, draping the heavy jacket over his shoulders. "You okay?"

Blair remained in his hunched position, but he nodded his head, his face hidden by a mass of curls.

"Is that why you're sitting out here freezing in the middle of the night?" Jim asked gently. "Come on, Chief. Let's go inside and I'll make you some tea."

Blair shook his head. "Not right now, Jim."

"It helps if you let other people in, you know."

Blair remained silent, hunched in his protective ball. Finally, Jim sighed and rose to his feet. He didn't want to leave Blair outside, but he also didn't have the right to force him back to the loft.

"Okay, Chief, I'll leave you alone for now, but don't stay out here all night. There's a nice warm bed waiting for you just downstairs."

"Thanks, Jim," Blair muttered.

"No problem," he said, opening the door and ducking into the staircase. He kept his ears tuned to his young partner, knowing he wouldn't get to sleep until Blair returned to the loft.

 


Blair ventured back to his room a little past four in the morning, collapsing like a ragdoll onto his bed. He kicked his sneakers off, then slid out of Jim's jacket as he snuggled under the covers, immersing himself in the comforting warmth.

He managed brief, sporadic periods of sleep punctuated by dreams that he couldn't quite remember, but that seemed to amplify the hollow feeling in his chest. When the light began to filter into his room, he pulled the covers over his head and turned away from the window, leaving himself a little airpocket at the top of the blankets. He didn't know how much time passed, but eventually the distinct aroma of eggs and biscuits filtered into his room.

He scooted further under the covers, knowing that Jim was awake and would most likely call him to breakfast soon. His stomach still remained tied in knots, and he had absolutely no appetite. All he wanted was for Jim to leave so that he could have the loft to himself. He wanted to be able to wallow in his grief without being disturbed. He felt miserable, and, more than that, he welcomed the misery. He didn't feel like putting on a strong front, facing the world, and smiling politely at the condolences offered. All he wanted was to be left alone with his grief and the memories of his mother.

A knock at the door confirmed his fears, and Jim's hesitant voice broke through the silence. "Chief? Breakfast's ready."

Blair wrapped the covers tighter around his body. "I'm not hungry," he answered, his voice muffled by the blankets.

"Come on, Blair. You haven't eaten since yesterday morning. You haven't even had so much as a glass of water," Jim insisted.

"Go away, Jim. Please."

"Not until you eat something," Jim replied.

Blair decided just to ignore the man, curling himself deeper into the blankets and letting the suffocating darkness envelope him.

"Blair?" The doorknob jiggled, but it was locked. "Sandburg, open the door," Jim ordered.

No, Jim. Just go away. At least when he'd lived in the warehouse he hadn't had anybody breathing down his neck. He almost wished he were back there now where he could hide from prying eyes and concerned do-gooders like overprotective Sentinels.

He heard Jim's footsteps retreat, then the soft creaking of the stairs that indicated the man was heading up to his room. A couple of minutes later, the Sentinel returned, and the lock jiggled. Seconds later, the french doors opened, and Jim's footsteps approached his bed.

"C'mon, Chief, I need you out of bed," Jim said.

Blair didn't move, holding his breath as he tried to wish his partner away. The covers slid off of him abruptly, but he refused to turn around, keeping his back to the Sentinel

"Breakfast, Blair," Jim said slowly. "Doc's orders. You need food and liquids."

"I said I'm not hungry," he muttered. "Now go away and leave me alone."

He felt a hand wrap around his arm, and, the next thing he knew, he was being pulled out of bed. Anger flared in his chest, and he twisted out of Jim's grasp, his eyes blazing. What was even more infuriating was that Jim looked wide awake, like he'd been up for hours. He was dressed in jeans and a crisp, blue shirt, and looked more than ready to tackle the day.

"I don't want any goddamned breakfast, Jim!" he snapped. "What part of that don't you understand?" With an angry sigh, he flopped back down on the bed, but Jim grabbed his arm again and yanked him up.

"Sorry, Chief, but it doesn't work that way. You're obviously not willing to taking care of yourself, so I guess it's up to me. I'll be damned if I'm gonna stand by and watch you make yourself sick."

Recognizing the immutable tone in Jim's voice, Blair allowed himself to be guided to the kitchen table. Firm hands pushed down on his shoulders, forcing him to sit. Moments later, a plate filled with scrambled eggs, sausage, and a biscuit was placed in front of him, and a large glass of orange juice soon followed.

"Simon's coming over in an hour to take your statement," Jim said.

Blair looked up as Jim set his own plate down on the table and dropped into the chair. "You going into work today?" Translation: are you going to be here hovering over me all day?

Jim shook his head. "Nope. You're stuck with me." He stabbed one of the sausages and jerked his chin toward Blair's plate. "Now eat." His expression softened visibly, accompanied by a faint smile. "Please."

Blair took a sip of his orange juice, then scooted his fork under a small helping of eggs. He raised the food slowly to his mouth, then took a bite, his stomach churning in protest. One thing at a time. He swallowed more orange juice to wash down the eggs, then took another small bite of the food. He kept with that rhythm, taking slow, small bites and washing each one down with the juice. He finished his eggs and biscuit, and most of his orange juice, but the sausages reeked of grease, and he knew he'd never be able to keep them down.

Pushing his plate away, he rose from the chair, his eyes challenging Jim to stop him as he made his way to the bedroom. The Sentinel finished the last of his sausages in silence, apparently appeased now that his partner had food in his stomach. Blair stepped into his room and locked the french doors behind him, falling back into bed and burying himself beneath the covers once again.

 


Jim had just finished washing the dishes when he smelled the familiar scent of Simon's cigar. Drying the last dish off, he placed it in the cabinet and walked over to the door, opening it just as Simon raised his fist to knock. The Captain raised his eyebrows, then scowled, lowering his hand.

"Morning, Sir," Jim said.

"Morning, Jim. You know, one of these days I'm gonna figure out a way to surprise you."

Jim managed a chuckle, keeping an ear on his partner in the room. He could tell by Blair's shallow breathing and normal heartbeat that his roommate was still awake.

"So how's the kid?" Simon asked, glancing toward the bedroom doors.

Jim shook his head. "Not too good, Sir," he said, his voice low so Blair wouldn't overhear. "He didn't get much sleep last night and I practically had to force him to eat this morning."

Simon released a sigh and followed Jim into the kitchen. "Losing a parent is hard enough, but watching your mother get shot and holding her in your arms..." his voice trailed off and he shook his head sadly. "Poor kid."

Jim nodded in solemn agreement and grabbed a mug from the cabinet. "Coffee, Sir?"

Simon nodded. "Yeah, thanks." He took a seat at the kitchen table and pulled out a microcassette recorder from his pocket. "I hate doing this to the kid so soon, but--"

"I'll get him," Jim said, setting the mug of steaming coffee in front of his Captain. Then he walked over to the french doors and tapped lightly on the glass. "Blair? Simon's here waiting to take your statement."

He held his breath, waiting for a response. He didn't want to use the key again, and he certainly wasn't going to drag Blair out in front of the Captain. He released the breath when he heard the mattress creak and footsteps shuffle across the floor. The lock disengaged and the door swung open.

Blair looked up at Jim, his shoulders slumped in resignation. He seemed about to say something, then obviously thought better of it because he shifted his gaze to Simon and walked past the Detective.

Simon rose from his seat, his brow lined with concern. "How're you doing, son?"

Blair shrugged but remained silent as he took a seat opposite the Captain. He eyed the recorder and asked, "So you wanna get started?"

Simon glanced at Jim, then sank back into the chair. "Yes, if you're ready," he told the young man.

Blair nodded. "Ask away," he said flatly.

Jim took a seat at the end of the table, keeping his senses tuned to his young partner.

"Just tell us in your own words what happened, Blair," the Captain began.

Taking a deep breath, Blair relived the incident, telling them how Naomi had somehow spotted the shooter and pushed him out of the way. He ended the story at the point when Simon and Jim had arrived at the scene, then fell into an uneasy silence, his gaze locked on the table top.

"Did you get a look at the shooter?" Banks asked.

Blair shook his head.

"I need you to say it out loud, please," Simon instructed gently.

"No, I didn't see the shooter."

"Did you notice anyone or anything suspicious?"

"No."

"Did Naomi say anything before she died? Anything that might help identify the shooter?"

"Just that she loved me," he said, his voice cracking slightly.

Jim closed his eyes. The pain he heard in Blair's voice hit him like a stake through the chest. He'd caught a glimpse of Simon's eyes -- enough to know that his Captain was having a hard time with the questions himself.

Simon pressed the stop button on the recorder and placed the small machine in his pocket. "Thank you, Sandburg. I know this is hard for you. I don't know if Jim's told you or not --" he glanced at the Sentinel, but Jim shook his head, "-- but we caught the triggerman."

Blair's head shot up, his eyes flashing with an indescribable emotion. "Who?"

"A guy named Barney Light," Simon informed him. "A career assassin, but not one of the brighter ones."

"Bright enough," Blair mumbled, lowering his gaze back to the table. "Are we finished?"

Simon nodded. "Yeah, we're finished."

"Have you caught the guy who was posing as Maxwell?"

"No, not yet, but we've got a few leads," the Captain said.

"What about the hit?" Jim asked. "Just because the guy didn't succeed the first time doesn't mean his boss will give up."

Simon looked at the Detective, a predatory glint in his eyes. "Light turned over on the guy. We've got more evidence now than we had before, and Rafe and Brown are arresting Light's boss this morning. The guy's name is Kevin Greene, a long-time associate of the Slomansons'."

"So that means the guy struck a deal, right?" Blair asked, his voice barely a whisper.

Simon nodded. "Yeah. The DA reduced it to second degree implied malice murder."

"What's that mean?"

"He's still going away for a long time, Sandburg, but with the plea bargain, there's no chance of the death penalty, and he'll be eligible for parole."

Sandburg's eyes blazed and he stood up abruptly. "That's better than he gave Naomi," he said, then turned around and walked stiffly back to his room, slamming the door behind him.

Simon sighed and leaned forward on the table, sliding his hands under his glasses to rub his eyes. "Damn. Sometimes I really hate this job." He pushed his untouched coffee away and rose to his feet. "Well, I'd better be going." He jerked his chin toward Sandburg's room. "Take care of the kid."

Jim nodded, offering a small smile. "It's my job," he said, then his smile faded, "and something I owe Naomi."

He walked the Captain to the front door, locking it after him. His ears picked up movement in Sandburg's room, and he treaded lightly over to the french doors, knocking twice. "Can I come in, Chief?"

"You didn't seem to need my permission before," came the reply.

With a sigh, Jim opened the doors and stepped inside...

... And froze when he saw Blair fully dressed and stuffing clothes in a large duffel bag.

"What are you doing?" he asked, his voice tight.

"Packing," Blair answered tersely, avoiding Jim's gaze. "I need to get out of here for awhile. It's nothing personal, Jim, I just need some space -- some privacy."

Jim took two deep breaths before responding. "Look, Blair, I know you're hurting right now, but shutting yourself off from people isn't going to help."

"Kinda hypocritical there, aren't you, Jim?" he snapped, stuffing a shirt from his drawer into the bag.

"Okay, so you've got a point there, Chief, but remember this. I've been where you are right now. I know what it's like."

Blair's shoulders sagged infinitesimally, and he finally raised his head to look at Jim, his eyes pained. "I know you have, and I appreciate what you're trying to do. I just need to be alone for awhile, but I will be back."

There was no way Jim intended to let the kid out of his sight. It wasn't that he thought Blair posed a lethal danger to himself, but he knew his friend was hurting, and he knew Blair wouldn't take care of himself. Having been in Blair's shoes many times, he knew the kid needed him -- even if Blair didn't know it himself. Jim had made a silent vow to Naomi while waiting for Blair to say his good-byes in the hospital, and that vow meant looking after the person she had given her life to save. He'd make sure she hadn't died in vein.

"Blair, I really don't think that's a good idea. I'm asking you to stay."

Blair shook his head. "Sorry, Jim," he replied, his voice whisper-soft. "I just can't be here. I'm not a good person to be around right now."

"It wasn't your fault, you know," Jim said.

Blair turned sharply away from Jim, grabbing a pair of socks from his top drawer. "Not now, Jim. Please. I can't do this right now."

Jim sighed, knowing he wasn't going to be able to talk Blair out of leaving. "Where will you go?"

Blair shrugged as he zipped up the duffel bag. "I think I'll crash in a nice secluded motel for a couple of days, then maybe head off to the monastery."

"But what about... I mean, what are you going to do about a memorial service?" Jim asked.

Blair remained silent for several seconds, staring at the duffel bag. "I can't do that right now. I'll arrange something when I get back. She would've wanted something small and serene, not a lot of people and tears."

Jim nodded. "Whenever you're ready," he encouraged the younger man. "Do you know what motel?"

Blair shook his head. "I'll call you when I get there. Okay?"

"Okay, buddy," Jim said softly. He reached into his back pocket and retrieved his wallet, pulling out his credit card. "Here," he said, holding the card out to Blair. "For emergencies."

Blair looked at the card, then shook his head. "Thanks, Jim, but I don't need it."

Jim reached over Blair's shoulder and tucked the card in his shirt pocket. "It'll give me peace of mind, okay?"

Blair nodded, the dark circles under his eyes making it look like the conversation had already tapped most of his energy. He stuffed his laptop case into his backpack and rubbed his eyes, releasing a tired sigh. "Okay," he mumbled, slinging the duffel bag over his shoulders and grabbing his backpack. "Thanks." He walked past Jim and headed into the living, grabbing his coat off the rack as he opened the door. He hesitated, then turned to Jim, who now stood in the doorway to the room. "I mean it, Jim. Thanks. I'll see you soon."

Jim nodded, forcing a smile that he hoped looked sincere. "Don't forget to call me when you get in, okay?"

"Okay, big guy," he said, then walked out and closed the door.

Jim stood there for several minutes, listening as Blair took the elevator down to the first floor. Then he rushed upstairs, grabbed his gun and cellphone, and trotted back down to the lower level. He picked up the receiver, dialed the number to forward calls to his cellphone, then grabbed his jacket from the rack and hurried out of the loft. He'd made a promise to Naomi that he intended to keep, and what the kid didn't know, wouldn't hurt him.

 


Jim parked the truck several blocks away from the small motel Blair had chosen, a little place just outside of Cascade. Dusk approached, bathing the landscape in a soft, fading light. Blair had stopped off at the university to complete some business and arrange someone to cover for him, and then headed off to these remote parts. Extending his hearing, he filtered out the surrounding sounds and listened as Blair paid for the room.

"Here's your key. Room 115," a male voice said.

"Thanks," Blair muttered.

"Heater's working only on low right now, but we hope to have that fixed tomorrow."

"No problem."

He saw movement up ahead, and his Sentinel vision focused on Blair as he stepped out of the office and turned right toward a row of doors. Stopping at the fourth one, he inserted the key and stepped inside. The door closed behind him, and Jim listened as Blair dropped his bags. The lights remained off, but moments later a toilet flushed. Then Blair shuffled to the bed and dropped down on the creaky mattress.

He heard Blair dialing the telephone and, seconds later, Jim's cellphone rang.

He snapped open the phone. "That you, Blair?"

"Yeah. I'm at the Carlson Motel off of Route 29. The number here is 555-0225."

"Thanks. How long do you think you'll be there?"

"Probably for tonight and tomorrow night. I just wanna get some things straight in my head before heading off to the monastery."

"Okay. Call me if you need anything."

"Thanks," Blair said, then ended the connection.

Jim closed the phone and tossed it onto the passenger seat. He remembered passing an Alamo Rent-a-Car a few miles back off of the main highway. If he could switch cars, he'd be able to keep closer tabs on his partner. The Slomanson case wasn't completely wrapped up yet, and even though more arrests had been made, and he was almost certain that no further attempts would be forthcoming, he didn't want to take any chances with his partner's life. Besides, it gave him a rational excuse to stake-out his partner. The thought of Blair laying alone in a dark, cold motel room turned his stomach, and it made him feel a little better knowing that Blair wasn't truly alone, even if the kid wasn't aware of his presence.

 


An hour later he returned with a blue Ford Explorer and parked it a block away from the hotel. Extending his hearing, he heard Blair's angry voice.

"Oh, well, that makes up for everything! Why didn't you just say so in the first place? Now get the hell out of my room and out of my face. The next time I see you, I hope it's behind bars. Got it?"

Jim gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles white.

"Look, I didn't come here seeking your forgiveness."

Oh shit. Jim recognized "Maxwell's" voice and pulled out his gun, slipping quietly out of the truck.

"I'm sorry about your mother. You're a good kid, and you don't deserve what's happened. Your mother was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The sound of flesh hitting flesh spurred Jim to move faster. He reached the hotel room in seconds and, hoping the door was unlocked, turned the knob and flung himself into the room, his gun poised.

"Cascade PD! Hands in the air!"

Both men jumped, and "Maxwell" spun around in surprise, his hands in the air. Blood ran from his lower lip to the bottom of his chin. Sandburg stood behind him, his eyes wide and his arms raised.

"Not you, Blair," the Detective said, his eyes trained on Maxwell as he kept Blair in his peripheral vision. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Blair gulped, his hands still poised above his head.

"Call 911, Chief."

Blair nodded. "Right."

The young man moved over to the phone and lifted the receiver, punching in the three numbers. He relayed the information to the dispatcher, then hung up the phone and sank onto the bed.

"You sure you're okay, Chief?" Jim asked again. He didn't like the vacant look in his partner's eyes.

Blair raised his head to look at the Sentinel, and the emptiness in his eyes was replaced with anger. "You came after me?"

Jim nodded. He'd explain it to Blair later, right now he needed to keep his attention on Maxwell. "Yeah, Chief, I was worried something like this might happen."

"I wasn't going to hurt him," the man protested. "I just wanted to talk."

"And now you'll have all the time in the world to do that - to a judge and a jury," Ellison countered, his voice flat and his eyes cold. "How'd you find out he was here?"

"I followed him from the university," he said.

"Impossible," Jim said. There was no way he wouldn't have spotted a tail.

"I used electronic tracking to stay out of visual range. My mistake, because I obviously missed you."

"The last mistake you'll ever make."

"Please, what I did amounted to impersonation and theft. You know I'll strike a deal and end up with very little prison time," the man said. "Though, I must admit, I guess I'm getting foolish and sentimental in my old age." He looked at Blair. "I meant what I said kid. I don't know why I felt compelled to come here and tell you that, but I did. You're a good guy, Blair. You just messed with the wrong people."

"Go to hell," Blair snapped. "Didn't you know I'd call the police, anyway? Why'd you come?"

"I was supposed to get in and out. I didn't see any surveillance on you when I arrived, so I intended to be long gone before the cops ever showed up."

"Sorry things didn't work out like you planned," Jim commented sarcastically. He heard the sirens in the distance and kept his gun aimed at Maxwell until the cruisers arrived.

 


Jim watched as the cruiser carrying Maxwell vanished in the distance. He turned to his partner and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. "You've been awfully quiet."

Blair shrugged out of his touch and began walking toward the Volvo.
 

"Sandburg." Jim took off after the young man. "Look, we need to talk."

"I told you I wanted to be alone, Jim, but you obviously couldn't respect that."

"I was worried about you."

"That's not an excuse. I don't need a baby-sitter."

Jim grabbed Blair's arm and turned him around. "And what if Maxwell had come to do more than just talk?"

Blair was rigid under Jim's touch, his eyes locked on the hand around his arm. "Let go of me," he ordered, his voice low.

Jim was surprised by the venomous quality in Blair's voice. Listening to his pounding heartbeat and rapid breathing, he realized Blair was on the verge of snapping. Quickly, he released the young man, and Blair spun around and resumed his trek to the car. Jim followed. There was no way he was going to let Blair get behind the wheel in his emotional condition.

"Sandburg..."

Blair ignored him, his head hunched as he readied his keys. He was just about to place the key in the driver's door when Jim's hand closed around the set and yanked it from his grip.

"You shouldn't be driving," he said.

Blair remained very still for several long seconds, then, all at once, he exploded. He kicked the car, slamming his hand down on the roof, then spun on the Detective.

"You're a real piece of work, Ellison," he hissed. "Now give me those damn keys."

Surprised by the intensity of Blair's fury, Jim took a step back, gripping the keys tighter in his hand. "Absolutely not."

Blair lunged for the keys, but Jim sidestepped him. "You're going to need to make an official statement on what happened here. After you're done with the paperwork, I'll drive you to the monastery, if you --"

Blair's fist connected squarely with his jaw, sending the Sentinel stumbling back. There was a hushed silence as the surrounding officers looked on in shock at the David-and-Goliath scene before them.

Blair shook with rage, and he looked on the verge of tears. "I've had it with you, Jim! I've had it with you and this cop stuff. Naomi was right, but I didn't listen to her. I told her it was my life, but it wasn't, man. It wasn't! Now you've got the gall to throw more of this police crap in my face! What does it take, man, fucking skywriting?! You, the station, the guys... It wasn't worth her life, goddamnit!" His eyes did fill with tears with that statement, and he quickly brushed them away. "It wasn't worth her life," he said, this time a whisper.

Jim stood in stunned silence. He's leaving. He didn't know what to say or how to react. One of his worst fears was coming true, right before his eyes. Blair had been hurt one too many times because of his work with Jim... A hurt that nothing could completely heal, not even time. Not only had Blair lost his mother, but he'd have to live with his self-imposed guilt for the rest of his life.

Blair's words came back to him in astonishing clarity. "The Chinese have this belief that when you save a man's life, you become his Blessed Protector." For three years he'd taken that duty seriously, even though he knew Blair hadn't really meant or expected him to take up the title.

And now Blair was leaving.

"Give me the keys, Jim," Blair ordered again, holding back more tears as he stepped closer to the Detective.

Jim tightened his grip on the keys. He might not be able to stop Blair from leaving, but he could stop him from getting in his car. He'd no more give Blair the keys to a car than he would a drunk. The young man was still shaking with emotion, his breathing shallow and his heart pounding like a jack-hammer.

Not knowing what to say in response to Blair's outburst, but determined to prevent Blair from getting behind the wheel, he made his decision. He didn't like it, could barely stomach the thought, but he knew Blair was too upset to listen to anybody at the moment.

His jaw twitched. He took a deep breath, then pocketed the keys and walked away, heading back toward the Ford Explorer. "If you're not right behind me, Chief," he began, not bothering to look back, "I'll have you arrested for assaulting a police officer. Either way, you're going back with me tonight."

It was a threat he hoped he wouldn't have to carry out, but the kid left him little choice. Of course, he'd tell the guys to go easy on the handcuffs, and there was no way he'd follow through with the booking, but at least it would get Blair back to the city where he could make his statement, calm down, get some rest, and then continue on to the monastery when he was in better shape to drive -- or else he'd be getting a chauffeured ride from one duly appointed Blessed Protector. If Blair chose to pack his things and leave for good, there was nothing Jim could do to stop him. He didn't even have the right to stop him, not after what the kid had lost. But, God help him, he didn't know what he'd do if that happened.

When he heard the footsteps behind him, he released a relieved sigh, then opened the passenger door for Blair. The younger man walked right past him, his body tense, and yanked himself into seat. Jim locked the door, then closed it, and moved around to the driver's side. As he slid into the seat, he spared a glance at his partner. Blair's jaw was set tightly, his eyes straight ahead. His heartrate was still off the map, and Jim noticed tiny tremors in the hands that were clenched on the kid's lap. With a sigh, he started the engine. First he had to pick up his truck. Then he'd continue onto the station -- a drive that would no doubt be made in excruciating silence.

 


Jim opened the door and walked into the loft. Blair brushed past him, heading straight for his room. Jim braced himself, turning down his hearing just before the door slammed. He grimaced, tossing his keys into the basket. Well, at least he didn't lock it this time. Probably figures it's futile. Blair hadn't spoken a word to him since their argument, and, after two hours at the station filling out paperwork and giving their statements, Jim decided it was time to go home.

Now all he had to do was figure out a way to talk to the kid. Blair hadn't eaten since that morning, and the only liquids he'd had were the glass of orange juice and a cup of water at the station. Since his partner was obviously furious with him, Jim didn't think he had much of a chance in hell of getting him to eat anything he dished out.

Much to his surprise, the french doors opened and Blair shuffled out, obviously going out of his way to avoid looking at the Sentinel. Jim stood by the kitchen island, his eyes silently tracking the young man. Blair ignored him, opening the refrigerator and withdrawing a bottle of water and an apple.

Jim opened his mouth, but couldn't form the words. They died in the back of his throat, and he watched in helpless frustration as Blair walked back into his room and shut the door.

 


He was blind, trapped in a world of darkness. Terror gripped his chest, clamping down on his heart and stealing his breath. He reached out with his hands, his fingers probing the area. Hard. Rough. Cold. It felt like bark. A tree. He was in a tree.

A growl rumbled through the darkness, and he froze. "Who's there?"

Something soft and warm, brushed up against him, and he flinched backward, his back pressed against what felt like a branch. He felt hot breath in his face, and he turned his head away, curling into a protective ball against the thing in the darkness.

Scratchy wetness touched his cheek, and he released a low whimper, expecting death to come at any moment but unsure what form it would take. The thing pressed up against him, practically wrapping its lithe frame around his body. Something heavy rested on his shoulder, and the creature licked his ear, then released another low rumble.

And then, in one of those rare moments that touch the subconscious, he realized that he was dreaming, and he remembered that he'd had almost the same dream the night before.

The creature morphed, and he felt Jim's firm arm around his chest. He couldn't see the Sentinel, but he knew without a doubt that it was Jim behind him, holding him. That, in and of itself, he mused, would prove it a dream. Jim wasn't the touchy-feely type.

A voice penetrated the darkness, breaking through his thoughts.

"You're not alone," Jim whispered. "I'm here. Let me help."

"Jim?"

Blair jerked to awareness. A drop of salty wetness slid between his lips, and he brought his hands up, feeling the wetness on his cheeks. A dream? Two nights in a row? The dream left him with a hollow ache in his chest, a yearning for something he couldn't quite define.

A chill coursed down his spine, making him shiver, and he slid out of bed. Quietly, he opened the bottom drawer of his bureau, grabbing his grey sweatshirt. His hand brushed against something hard, and, setting the shirt aside, he withdrew the object.

The unexpectedness of it took his breath away. He stared at the small box, and, with shaking hands, lifted the cover. A small brown stone sat in a wad of toilet paper, bringing a swell of emotion to Blair's chest.

Oh, Mom...

They stood on the beach, the wind whipping his hair around his face. He looked up at her, his eyes bright.

"I like this place, Mom. Can't we stay a bit longer?"

She looked down at him, a soft smile on her lips. Cupping his chin in her hand, she kneeled down and pressed her lips against his cheek in a gentle kiss.

"You'll like the next place, too, Blair."

She looked away from him, her eyes scanning the beach. A brown stone rested in the sand, its surface so smooth it looked almost polished. Her fingers wrapped around the rock and she pressed it into the palm of his hand.

"Here," she said. "Now you can take a little piece of the beach with you, and, when you look at the rock, you'll remember this moment." She smiled brightly, her eyes shining. "It's better than a picture," she chuckled. "It'll never fade. It'll always be exactly as it as now, as long as you take care of it."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Oh, Mom!"

She pulled back, forcing a mock-glare. "'Oh, Mom' what?"

Blair grinned sheepishly. "Nothing." His fingers closed around the rock, and he looked down at it, studying its surface in the light. "What kind of rock is this?"

"I don't know, honey."

"It doesn't look like the cliffs. Where'd it come from?"

"Maybe the sea. Maybe someone else dropped it."

"Why are some rocks brown, some grey, and some white?"

"Minerals, I guess."

"What minerals make it brown?"

She chuckled. "Are you going to make me regret giving you that rock?"

He smiled. "No, I like the rock." He tucked it in his pocket and pecked her on the cheek. "Thanks, Mom."

 


Jim laid awake, staring at the ceiling above his bed. Worry gnawed at his stomach as he replayed the earlier argument in his head. Blair needed help, that much was obvious, but getting him to accept it was proving nearly impossible. Gradually, his eyelids became heavy, drifting closed.

Darkness pressed against him, nearly impenetrable, but his sensitive eyes deciphered the shadowy outlines of things around him. He was crouched in a tree, his arms wrapped around a shivering, huddled figure.

Blair.

"You're not alone," he whispered. "I'm here. Let me help."

"Jim?"

His eyes shot open, the soft whisper echoing through his skull. Pushing the covers off, he slid out of bed, trotting down the stairs in his black boxers. He heard motion inside Blair's room, and then a soft scratching sound indicated a drawer being opened. His heart sank. Surely the kid wasn't thinking of leaving in the middle of the night?

A strangled gasp reached his ears, and he stopped in front of the french doors, his head tilted and his brow lined with concern. His hand wrapped around the knob, and he turned it, pushing the door open a fraction. Peeking through the crack, he saw Blair standing near his bureau, his back to the door and his head lowered.

"Blair?"

The young man didn't move, didn't even seem to be aware of his presence. Jim pushed the door open further and stepped inside. He moved to Blair's side, peering down at the small stone clutched in the palm of his hand. Tremors shook his body, and Jim bent his knees to get a look at Blair's face. Tears lined his cheeks, and his eyes remained focused on the brown stone.

"She's really gone," the young man whispered, a tremor in his voice. "She left me alone."

A quick surge of emotion welled in Jim's chest, and he reached out, placing a hesitant hand on Blair's shoulder.

"You're not alone, Chief."

Blair raised his head, his eyes tinged with something akin to surprise even as his chin trembled with the force of emotion he struggled to keep at bay.

"I'm here," the Sentinel whispered. "Let me help."

"Jim." It was said softly, almost a whimper, and then the damn broke and the sobs escaped.

Blair sank to the floor, and Jim followed him down, wrapping his arms around his friend's chest and pulling him into a tight embrace.

"Let it go, Blair. Just let it go."

And he did.

 


Epilogue
Cascade Forest and Wildlife Preserve
One week later...

Jim held the sapling steady as Blair sprinkled the ashes around the base. Then the younger man grabbed the shovel and filled in the hole, packing it tightly as he finished. He looked up at Jim, his eyes bright and tinged with a hint of sadness.

"Thanks for doing this with me," he said. "And remind me to thank Simon for getting us permission."

Jim nodded, moving around the tree and draping an arm over his friend's shoulder as he took a look at their handiwork. "She would have liked this."

Blair nodded, leaning against the Sentinel. "From dust to dust," he whispered, "and the cycle continues."

The two men stood in silence for a few minutes, each lost in their memories as they gazed at the tiny silver card secured low on the trunk of the sapling. It read: In remembrance of Naomi Sandburg.

Finally, Blair glanced up at his friend, and they turned together, walking back to the truck.

"I miss her," Blair said.

Jim tightened his hold on the young man. "I know. Me too."

 


Stephen Schwabach, A.K.A. Maxwell, was sentenced to five years in prison. Slomanson and his brother went down for life, and the gunman received a sentence of 25 years to life. The black market ring was shut down, earning an award of recognition for Banks, Ellison, and Sandburg from the Commissioner. Yes, Blair decided to keep working with Jim and the Cascade PD. Would I really mess with THAT? :-)

 


 

Comments? No pressure this time *grin*
(Okay, maybe a *little* pressure).

I'd like to thank you-know-who-you-are for the dream-sequence with Blair in the tree.
It was an actual dream, and the gal who was privileged to experience it asked if I could somehow use it in a story. Great timing! I thought it fit in perfectly with this story!