You'll NEVER believe what this is about. Okay, I'll tell you. I kind of have to, anyway, since it contains some probable spoilers for Season Four's FINALE. "What?" you ask. "Season four finale? Don't you mean Season three finale?" Nope. Season Four Finale, otherwise known as The Sentinel - By Blair Sandburg. The spoilers kinda bother me, and I KNOW it's not going to happen my way, so I thought I'd just go ahead and get it over with before the fanfic "market" was deluged with Season Four Finale fic pieces.  *grin*  Thank you, Hephaistos! Dedicated to the character of Blair Sandburg, one over-abused, under-used "sidekick" anthropologist extraordinaire.  Thanks, PetFly.

 

Badge of Dishonor


"This may bring back memories of the cold fusion fiasco, but, unlike that hasty but innocent mistake, we have here a case of academic fraud so willful and malicious that it has shocked the academic community, bringing disgrace to Cascade's largest university and subjecting the life of an otherwise private police officer to public scrutiny. Mr. Sandburg's thesis is better served as a fantasy novel than a doctoral thesis, and, since his swift dismissal from the university and accompanying academic disgrace, the only place he's likely to be hired is Hollywood. Who knows -- perhaps we'll see The Sentinel on the big screen as a summer blockbuster. Hollywood, of course, is the only place with a greater talent for dispensing fiction, it seems, than Mr. Blair Sandburg."

The image of the greying man with round glasses and a crisp grey suit cut to that of Blair Sandburg standing outside what appeared to be the entrance of Hargrove Hall.

"Mr. Sandburg, why did you falsify your thesis?" a female reporter asked.

Lights flashed, and Blair flinched, his bright blue eyes blinking as another flash hit his face.

"Did you feel unduly pressured? Have you heard about the Harvard graduate student who committed suicide? What can you say about the quality of life for graduate --"

"Mr. Sandburg, what are your future plans?"

Blair appeared to take a slow, deep breath, his face etched with deep lines and his eyes rimmed with red. He looked straight into the camera, his chin set rigidly but his eyes betraying an inner turmoil. "After years of work, my data wasn't supporting my thesis." He shrugged, a slow, empty shrug that accentuated the despondent slouch of his shoulders. "I wanted to graduate, so I made it up. I made it all up." His voice broke, and he looked away from the camera. "Sorry," he croaked, then pushed his way through the mass of reporters, disappearing into the crowd.

Jim's jaw was clenched so tight, the muscles popped out like thick cords. With a sharp flick of his wrist, he raised the remote and turned off the television.

"Damn," Simon whispered, his voice laced with the fog of medication.

He shook his head solemnly and glanced at the statue of a man sitting in the chair next to his hospital bed. Jim's face looked carved in stone, his jaw set at a severe angle, his eyes locked forward as though he could still see the image of the commentator on the screen.

After several seconds of silence, Jim spoke, his voice low and strained. "I can't believe he did that. I didn't ask him to do that."

"His career is ruined," Simon commented softly. "God... What's he going to do?"

"His observer status will be revoked," Jim muttered flatly.

"You said you didn't want a partner, Jim."

The Detective's eyes flashed at Simon, a mixture of anger and regret visible in their blue depths. He opened his mouth to respond, then suddenly cocked his head, his gaze falling to the floor. "Sandburg's coming."

"What?" Simon shifted uncomfortably in his bed. "I thought that broadcast was live."

"Guess not."

Seconds later, Blair walked into the room, his black jacket hanging loosely on his shoulders, the sleeves nearly covering his hands. He kept his head low as he walked into the room, his gaze directed to the floor.

"Chief."

"Sandburg."

Blair glanced up at Banks, a shadow of guilt darkening his face as he looked at the injured man. "I'm glad you're going to be okay, Simon," he said, his voice nearly a whisper. "I just stopped by to check on you... I, uh, I wanted to, uh, tell you how sorry I am. You and Megan --"

"We saw the news, Chief," Jim said, his voice tight. "Why'd you do it?"

The young man's shoulders sagged, and his gaze fell quickly to the floor. "He was aiming for you, Jim, and Simon and Megan almost died. You didn't ask to have your life turned upside down, Jim." He swallowed quickly, shifting away from the two men. "I'm sorry. I know it doesn't fix everything. I know it won't take back that bullet." He closed his eyes, running his hands over his face. "God, I... If you had died... I'm sorry." He turned quickly toward the door. "I wish I could take it back, but I can't. This was the best I could come up with. I'm sorry."

He moved toward the door, but Jim's hand wrapped around his arm, stopping him. "Where are you going, Chief? We need to talk."

Blair kept his face turned away. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail, allowing Jim to catch a glimpse of the pain at the edge of his friend's expression.

"Not right now, okay? I... uh... I wanted to get away from the reporters, so I came here to check on Simon. I have to go back and clean out my office, though."

"It wasn't your fault, Sandburg," Simon's deep voice insisted. "You didn't publish it."

Blair's shoulders fell another fraction. "Yes it is, Simon. Thanks. I mean, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but it is." He inhaled a slow, shaky breath. "I got careless. I lied to Naomi. If I'd told her the truth, she never would have turned it in. Now she's torn up about it, you almost died, Megan was shot, and Jim's life has been turned upside down. All those lives weighed against one. Mine. It's not really a contest, Sir."

Jim kept his grip on Blair's arm. "What are you going to do now, Blair?"

Blair shrugged - the same lifeless, hopeless shrug that Jim had seen him make earlier on the screen. "I don't know. I'll manage." He released a short, bitter laugh. "Um, but do you think maybe I could get an extension on the rent?" His voice cracked, and he twisted out of Jim's grasp.

"God, Blair. Of course, I --"

"Thanks. Sorry, man, but I gotta get back to the University."

"Let me drive you," Jim said.

Blair shook his head, turning his back to the Sentinel. "Thanks, Jim, but I'd like to do this by myself. Okay?"

Jim hesitated for a moment, his eyes drifting over the rounded lines of his friend's shoulders, traveling down one arm to take in the slightly trembling hand. Blair's fingers twitched spasmodically, as if he didn't quite know what to do with his hands -- quiet in contrast to his usual wild gestures. The Sentinel let his eyes drift back up to Blair's face, taking in the solemn profile. He swallowed, his chest tight. God, he looks so lost.

"Are you okay to drive?" Jim asked.

"I drove here. Yeah. I'm okay. I'll be okay. Don't worry about me." Finally, he raised his eyes to look at Jim, managing a small, strained smile. "Too many bad memories there, anyway. I didn't really like walking past that fountain every day. Now I don't have to."

Before Jim could respond, Blair ducked into the hallway, making a hasty retreat toward the elevators.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair sighed as he hurried into the office and closed the door. He closed his eyes and leaned against the glass. He'd managed to get from his car to his office without encountering one reporter, though he had to pass several students and even a few faculty on his way. The shameless stares and soft murmurings followed him into the building and through the halls like a dark cloud. Worst of all, he'd seen the looks of shock and disappointment in some of his students' faces -- faces he'd looked into every week as he'd stood in front of the classroom lecturing about tribal customs or religious practices.

The Chancellor had laid into him real good, asking him how he had had the nerve to sit in her office almost a year before and claim to be interested in the honor and integrity of Rainier university after catching one of his students cheating when he himself had been cheating all along. He'd passed Rick after the press conference, as he hurried to his car, and the young man had looked at him, his eyes sad, and asked, "You didn't lie, Blair. Right? I know you. You wouldn't."

All he could do was shrug and shove his key into the lock. "I made it all up, Rick," he'd muttered, unable to look in his friend's eyes as he'd told the lie.

It doesn't matter now. He opened his eyes and pushed himself away from the door, eyeing the empty boxes he'd set in the corner earlier, just before he'd made the decision to go public. It doesn't matter what they think. I know the truth. Jim knows the truth. The people who really matter know the truth.

If he kept telling himself that, he might even start to believe it.

No use stalling. Best to get it over with. He took a deep breath, letting his eyes scan the cluttered contents of his office... So many memories, so many years... His life's work, his passion, his love, all down the drain.

His eyes settled on a small wooden statue of a warrior with a knife held in his hands. The piece was on loan from UC Berkeley. Walking over to the shelf, his fingers wrapped around the small warrior. The wood felt smooth and cool beneath his skin, and he rubbed his thumb over its stone-like surface. The workmanship was so perfect that he couldn't even feel the grain of the wood. Whoever had created the small statue had obviously put a great deal of heart into the work. He'd have to make sure to pack it carefully in the box he'd be turning into the University. The figure was more than just a carved statue. It was a piece of someone's soul -- the carver's soul. To have such a thing destroyed would be a tragedy

A hot sting touch his eyes, and he ran his free hand quickly over his face, turning away from the bookcase. He caught a blur of motion outside his door, and was half-tempted to peek his head into the hallway to see who had been standing there. A curious student? A reporter? What does it matter? Everyone knows. It's not like I have anything to hide. With a sigh, he walked over to a stack of old newspapers and began the delicate task of wrapping the small warrior.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Have you seen him, Jim?"

Ellison and Banks looked up to see Naomi standing in the doorway of the hospital room, her large, wet eyes rimmed with panic. Jim rose from his seat and walked over to the distraught woman.

"He was here about an hour ago. He said he was going to the university to clean out his office."

Naomi stifled a sob and turned away from the Detective. "I saw the news... I'm so sorry, Jim. I never meant for any of this to happen. All I wanted to do was help him, and now I've destroyed his life."

Jim stiffened. There was a part of him that was still angry with Naomi, but another part of him knew she hadn't meant any harm. She only wanted what was best for her son, and if he and Blair had been honest with her from the beginning, they wouldn't be in the situation they now faced.

"You haven't destroyed his life, Naomi," Jim said, though the words sounded hollow. "He'll be okay. I'll see to that."

She spun around, a glint of anger in her eyes. "You don't understand, do you?" She shook her head. "How can you have lived with him for four years and not know how much his work means to him? Anthropology is his passion. He's soaked up everything he could about other cultures since he was old enough to read. He's worked hard to get where he is. He started school early, paid his way with loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study. It's all he's ever wanted to do. Now it's all gone." Another sob rose in her throat. "He loves learning. He loves teaching. Now what's he going to do? He's ruined. His reputation is destroyed, his life's work down the drain."

"Ms. Sandburg," Simon began, "I know things look bad now, but your son's not alone. He has friends. His life's work, at least from my perspective, is this Sentinel business. Jim is still a Sentinel and he still needs Blair. We'll figure out something." He turned his dark eyes onto Jim. "That is, unless you still want to go solo, Jim, like the pre-Sandburg era."

Jim's eyes flashed again, his eyes flittering to Naomi. The woman looked about ready to explode.

"You're turning your back on him?" she asked, disbelief in her eyes. "He gives up everything for you, and this is how you repay him?" Tears welled in her eyes. "He's lost everything, now. Damn you, James Ellison."

She spun around and rushed out of the room before Jim could form a reply. The Sentinel listened to her retreating sobs for a few seconds, then turned angry eyes back to the Captain. "Why'd you do that?"

"To make damn sure you reconsider," Banks retorted, his face dark. "I think we both know you need Sandburg, and right now, he needs you more than ever."

Jim sighed, the anger leaving his face. "I know, Simon. God, I know."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was nearly 1 a.m. before Jim heard the rattle of Blair's Volvo out front. Minutes later, the ding of the elevator signaled his friend's arrival. Seconds later, keys jangled and the front door swung inward. The Detective looked up from his position on the couch as Blair entered the dark loft, a generously-sized box clutched awkwardly in his arms.

Jim rose from the couch and approached the young man. "Here, let me," he said, taking the box out of Blair's hand.

The anthropologist seemed momentarily surprised as he released his grip on the box. "Jim? What are you doing awake? And why were you just sitting here in the dark?"

Jim carried the box to the french doors and laid it on the floor just outside his friend's room. "I was waiting for you," he admitted. "Naomi stopped by the hospital today. She saw the broadcast, and she was pretty upset."

A veil descended over Blair's face, and his expression went blank, almost cold. "I'll talk to her tomorrow. Right now, I just want to get to bed."

Jim glanced down at the box. "Your office stuff?"

Blair nodded. "Some of it. Rest is down in the car and back at the office. I'll have to make another trip tomorrow."

Jim studied his friend's face, noting the puffiness beneath Blair's eyes and the deep lines around his mouth. "You okay?"

Again, Blair nodded, ducking past the larger man to head to his room. "Yeah. Just tired. See ya in the morning."

"Blair?"

The anthropologist stopped dead in his tracks. "Yeah, Jim?"

"I'm sorry."

Blair's shoulders sagged. "Me too," he whispered, then walked into his room and closed the door.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim woke early the next morning, grateful for the weekend. He slid out of bed and slipped into a pair of sweats, then trotted downstairs. He showered in ten minutes, then headed into the kitchen to start breakfast. The least he could do for Blair after the kid had given up his career and reputation to protect the Sentinel secret was make him a decent breakfast -- eggs, turkey sausages, and maybe biscuits. Blair really liked those buttermilk biscuits he'd made a few months ago, and he was pretty sure there was still some of the mix left. A look beneath the cabinet confirmed his suspicions, and he set the oven to 350 degrees.

As the oven heated, he left the loft to retrieve the morning paper. He didn't glance at the publication until he returned to the apartment. Closing the door behind him, he pulled off the rubber band and laid the paper out on the kitchen table. The picture on the front page stole his breath.

The shot had obviously been captured through the glass of Blair's office door. The young man wore his black jacket, his head bowed and his eyes focused on a small figure clutched in one hand. From the angle of the photo, only a little over half of Blair's face was visible, but it was enough to turn Jim's stomach and destroy his appetite. Guard down, defenses off, Blair's emotions shone through like a beacon. Jim had never seen such raw pain written on a face before. A thousand impressions streaked through his mind. Lost. Alone. Afraid. Sad... No, he looks more than just sad, the Sentinel decided, his eyes caressing the two-dimensional vision of Blair's face. He looks hollow, like a shell encasing an air of despair.

His eyes shifted to the headline above the photo. "Rainier Grad Student Confesses, Claims Sentinel Thesis a Fake". His eyes drifted back down to the picture, and he read the caption: "Blair Sandburg caught in an unguarded moment as he cleans out his office at Rainier University".

Jim's stomach twisted, letting him know that any attempts to eat would be met with swift retaliation. He stood there for several minutes, captured by the picture, almost zoning on the soft despair in his friend's eyes. The ringing telephone jerked him out of his semi-trance, and he hurried over to the cordless, snatching the receiver up before it could ring a second time.

"Ellison."

"Jim. It's Simon."

The Detective raised an eyebrow. "Simon? How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine. Have you seen the morning paper?"

Jim took a deep breath. "Yes, Sir."

"Is Blair there?"

"Yes, Sir. Asleep."

"Good. That's good." He paused, an awkward silence. "Um... Is he all right? He, uh, doesn't really look so good in the picture." He sighed. "God, Jim, I've never seen anybody look so... so..."

"I know, Sir," Jim replied.

"And I hope to God I never do again. Look, I'm gonna get on the phone and see if we can invent a job for Sandburg."

"Sir, the commissioner's not going to allow--"

"We'll have to tell him the truth, at least, if we have any hope of securing Blair a position... But that's up to you, Jim."

Jim glanced back down at the picture on the front page. "Let's do it."

"I'll make the appointment and let you know when. Okay?"

Jim nodded, even though the gesture was lost on the Captain. "Thank you, Sir."

The rustling of covers reached his ears, and he tilted his head, listening to Blair stir in the room. "I'd better go now, Sir. Sandburg will be up soon and I'd like to have breakfast ready for him."

"Okay, Jim. Talk to you later. Bye."

"Bye, Sir," Jim said, then hung up the phone and, with paper in hand, headed over to the fireplace.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair's alarm clock squealed, jarring the young man out of an exhausted sleep. He rolled over and slapped the device, glancing at the red digital display. 7:30 a.m. With a groan he buried himself back under the covers. He'd forgotten to turn off the alarm yesterday, else he'd still be asleep. Hell, he could sleep all day if he wanted. He had no papers to grade, no tests to prepare, and no work with Jim. That thought twisted his insides. Since he'd gone public, he probably didn't have a position at the station, anymore. His observer status had probably already been revoked, and Jim just hadn't had the heart to tell him.

The light aroma of baking bread pushed its way beneath the covers, drawing the young man out of his cocoon.

"Breakfast's ready, Chief," Jim announced, his voice disturbing the morning silence.

With a resigned sigh, he pushed himself out of bed and shuffled out of his room. Jim stood by the table, setting down two plates filled with eggs, sausages and biscuits. Two large mugs of steaming liquid sat on opposite sides of the table, and the smell of coffee mixed with the thick aromas of eggs, bread, and meat.

Jim looked up and grinned at his partner. "I hope you're hungry."

Blair forced a smile. Not really. "Yeah, starved," he lied. Jim had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to make breakfast, so Blair supposed he should try to eat something.

Shuffling over to the table, he sank into the hard chair, eyeing his plate warily. Jim took his seat across the table, raising his fork and stabbing a mound of eggs.

"Thanks. This is nice," Blair said, but his voice lacked inflection.

Jim let the eggs slide off his fork, then pushed them idly around his plate. "You're welcome."

Blair scooped up a small portion of eggs and raised the fork slowly to his mouth, making a show of chewing and swallowing the food. Jim stabbed another mound of eggs, staring at his plate as though it were filled with manure.

Well, this is nice, Blair thought bitterly, lowering his own gaze to his plate. "Aren't you hungry?" he asked softly.

Jim sighed. "Blair, we need to talk." He dropped his fork to his plate and looked up at the young man.

Blair nodded, knowing the conversation had to come sooner or later. He looked into Jim's troubled face and decided to spare his friend the grief. "I know, Jim. My observer status has been revoked. They can't very well allow a notorious fraud access to police information." He said it so casually, he surprised even himself.

Jim blinked, taken aback. "Uh, well, yeah, that's something. I mean, it's not official yet, but it's almost a certainty. That's not what I wanted to talk about, though... Well, not entirely."

"What then?" Blair studied his friend's face, noting the clenched jaw and hooded eyes.

"You," the Sentinel stated simply. "I know what you gave up, Chief. Don't worry, Simon and I will think of something. I promise."

Blair dropped his eyes back to his plate. "Maybe if I cut my hair and change my name I might be able to get a job at Wonder Burger. I mean, at least then I'd be sure to see you during the day." He finished his statement with a small smile, but inside he felt like withering away.

Jim didn't return the smile. "It's not going to come to that, Blair. I promise."

The young man saw the determined glint in Jim's eyes and decided against arguing with the man. Instead, he offered a lax shrug and stabbed another piece of his eggs, quickly plopping them into his mouth in lieu of a response.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Monday afternoon...

"He's coming," Jim said, his hands wrapped around the arm of the chair in Simon's office.

The dark Captain fidgeted in his seat, stifling a grunt of pain. "How close?"

"On the elevator," Jim replied, his eyes doing a critical scan of the Captain. "You really should be in the hospital, Sir."

"I'll be fine, Ellison, thanks for the concern. Besides, we wanted to move on this, remember?"

Jim nodded, allowing himself a small smile. "Things are looking up, at least. The commissioner took me by surprise."

"Your arrest record speaks louder than words, Jim. I think that had a lot to do with it."

"I just hope Blair's happy about it," Jim commented. "I sure as hell know Naomi's not going to be."

"Let's just take one obstacle at a time, okay, Jim?"

The Sentinel nodded, his eyes darting to the bullpen. "He's here."

Simon followed the Detective's gaze, seeing the young man walking toward the office. Simon waved at Blair, gesturing for him to come inside. Seconds later, the door opened and Sandburg walked in, his eyes bouncing back and forth between the two men, finally coming to rest on Banks.

"How are you, Simon?"

The Captain nodded, smiling broadly. "Fine. Just fine. You?"

Blair shrugged. "Fine."

"Come here, Sandburg," Simon ordered, his voice gruff and his smile fading.

Blair glanced warily at Jim, looking like a man about to meet his executioner.

"Go on, Chief," Jim said, the edges of his mouth twitching upward.

Blair sighed and walked up to Simon's desk. "Look. I know, Sir. I'm okay with it."

Simon's eyes narrowed, and he glanced quickly at Jim before turning his attention back to the young man. "What exactly is it that you know?"

"I'm dismissed. I guess I'll just have to work with Jim when he's off-duty," Sandburg replied.

Simon grunted and picked up a black leather wallet-type case on his desk. With a nervous glance at Jim, he handed the item to Blair. "Here you go, Sandburg."

Cautiously, Blair took the item. He looked at Jim, but the Sentinel's face remained carved in stone. Finally, Blair looked back down at the leather case and slowly flipped it open.

Jim and Simon studied the young man carefully as he stared in stiff silence at the shiny new badge. After several long seconds, Jim rose out of his chair to stand in front of his partner. Simon rose slowly from his seat, grabbing the unlit cigar from his ashtray and chewing anxiously on the end.

"Congratulations, Officer Sandburg," Banks said, his mouth breaking into a huge smile.

When Blair looked up, his pained expression caught both men off-guard. "Does this mean I'm a paid cop?"

Jim swallowed. "Well, you'll have to go the academy, but, yeah."

Blair took a deep breath. "And carry a gun?" he asked quietly.

Jim glanced at Simon. "Uh, we'll work that out later, okay?"

Blair stared in shocked silence at the two men. Jim tuned into his partner's heartbeat, frowning when he discovered it pounding like a jackhammer. The leather case began to tremble in his grip, and the edges of his eyes flared red.

"Excuse me," he croaked, tossing the badge onto Simon's desk and whirling around, dashing out of the office before either man could say a word.

"Shit," Jim muttered, casting only a brief glance at his stunned Captain before taking off after Sandburg.

The Detective barely noticed the curious stares and tense silence as he ran through the bullpen after the young man. He heard Sandburg take the stairs, and increased his pace. His mind whirled with possibilities, trying to figure out why Blair had reacted so intensely to what was supposed to be good news.

He ran all the way from the seventh floor to the garage, panting fiercely as he blasted through the doors. He scanned the garage quickly, seeing Blair hunched over the hood of his small, green Volvo, his breath coming in quick, shallow gasps. Jim took a few minutes to get his own breathing under control, then approached his partner.

"Sandburg? Talk to me, buddy. What's wrong?"

Blair raised his head only a fraction to look at the Detective. "Sorry," he blurted, still out of breath.

Jim leaned against the car, placing one hand on Blair's shoulder. "Blair, if you don't want to join the force, you don't have to. It was just an option. Simon and I really thought you'd be pleased."

Blair shook his head, turning around to lean his back against the car. "I just got this image of myself with a buzz cut wearing a blue uniform with boots and a gun strapped to my waist. I mean, that just isn't the way I pictured my life, you know?" He chuckled sharply. "Naomi would freak."

Jim's face remained neutral, impassive. "It might not be that way, Blair. We've been talking to the commissioner. You've already got four years under your belt, so it is possible to have you graduate from the academy as a non-uniformed officer. And this thing about about carrying a gun, we can work around that. Lots of cities have positions for non-gun-carrying cops, or we could even go with a paid consultant position."

Blair nodded, a wave of relief washing over his face. "I could deal with something like that," he said, offering a weak grin. "But I definitely don't want to be carrying a gun. No way, man." His expression grew more serious. "But what about my, uh, announcement? They trust me?"

"We told the commissioner the truth," Jim admitted. "He was quite impressed by your sacrifice."

Blair raised his eyebrows, surprised, but released a short grunt. "That's good to know.... You're okay with that? With him knowing?"

Jim nodded confidently. "Yeah. It'll be okay, and this way you and I can continue working together in the field."

A genuine smile crossed Blair's face. "Yeah. So does this mean you'll start introducing me as your partner more often rather than your associate?"

Jim returned his friend's smile. "I suppose I'll have to."

"And I won't have to hear, 'You're not a cop, Sandburg,' from Simon anymore."

"But you'll definitely have to call him Captain," Jim pointed out.

Blair mocked a scowl. "I knew there was a down-side."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair leaned against the cushions, his new badge clutched in his hands. Jim was still at the station, and wouldn't be home for several more hours. Since he had nothing to do  -- getting fired tended to free up one's time -- he'd returned home early and decided to cook Jim a really nice dinner. At least that way he'd be doing something to pull his weight until he started getting another paycheck. He'd rather be with Jim at the station, but it seems he wasn't allowed on any cases until his position was finalized. Simon also figured it would be best for him to keep a low profile until the press died down. The Commissioner didn't want the media to find out that a supposed liar and fraud was now working cases with the Cascade PD.

A knock on the door jarred his thoughts. Rising from the couch, he looked through the peek hole, seeing Naomi standing expectantly in the hallway. Suppressing a sigh, he forced a smile on his face. While he was almost always happy to see Naomi, and loved her dearly, he just didn't look forward to breaking the news to her. She'd gotten as upset as he'd ever seen her when she first found out how extensively he worked with the police, even making that derisive comment about him ending up in a uniform. Well, mom, have I got a surprise for you...

He swung the door inward and forced a bit more warmth into his smile. "Hi, Mom. Come on in."

Naomi beamed, rushing forward and pulling him into a firm hug. "Hi, Blair." She pulled back, giving him a long, critical look. "How are you, sweetie?"

"Fine, Mom. I'm fine." He gestured for her to come inside, and she walked past him, glancing briefly around the loft.

"Jim at work?" she asked.

"Yeah, he's not due home for awhile."

She looked down at the badge in his hand, and her smile faded. "What's that?"

Blair swallowed. "Uh, well... Why don't you have a seat on the couch, Mom."

Warily, Naomi sank onto the couch. Blair took the armchair.

"I've been offered a position at the Cascade PD -- a paid position."

Naomi stared at him with wide eyes, a look of near-fear written on her face. "You're going to be a cop, aren't you?"

Blair nodded. "Uh, yeah, something like that. All the details haven't been worked out yet."

Naomi shot off the couch. "A cop? Come on, honey. I mean, I know things are... Well, I..." Tears filled her eyes, and she looked away.

Blair melted, rising to his feet and moving toward his mother. "Come on, Mom --"

"I'm sorry, honey. I know this is all my fault." She looked back at him, her cheeks wet. "I know I ruined things for you. I destroyed your career, but you're not made to be a cop, honey. Are you going to be carrying a gun? Do you really think you could shoot someone? Did I raise you like that?"

Blair's chest grew tight. The idea of shooting someone was part of what had made him 'lose it' in Simon's office. "Jim and Simon think I won't have to carry a gun. Banks might even be able to swing me a paid consulting position, and then I'd actually be more of a civilian." He sighed, sinking back into the armchair. "Besides, I have to pay the rent somehow, and Jim still needs me. No one else will hire me... Not after what I said I did."

"Blair." Naomi sat at the edge of the couch, inches from her son. "This changes your whole life. You've given up everything for Jim. Are you... Are you sure he really wants you to?"

A flicker of dark emotion crossed Blair's face. "What do you mean?"

Naomi sighed. "Honey, Jim told Simon... " Her voice trailed off, and she looked away.

"Told Simon what?" Blair prodded, a tight knot forming in his chest.

His mother looked back at him. "He told Simon that he wanted to go back to the way things were before he met you. He didn't want a partner anymore."

Blair paled, his head suddenly feeling much too light. "How do you know?"

"Captain Banks told me. I went to look for you at the hospital, and Jim was there visiting the Captain. That's when I found out."

Blair dropped back against the cushion, feeling like someone had just punched him in the gut. He had no reason to doubt Naomi. She never lied to him.

He doesn't want me as a partner. He just feels sorry for me -- doesn't want to feel like he's turning his back on me.

"Blair. Honey. You okay?"

He looked at her, wondering how on Earth she could ask such a question. Of course I'm not okay. Nothing's okay. My life is over. Everything I had is totally gone. Destroyed. And even Jim wishes I'd never come into his life. He almost sobbed at that last thought, but caught the well of emotion in his throat.

"Mom," he whispered, his voice strained.

She leaned forward. "Yes, sweetie?"

"Um... " He placed the badge almost reverently on the coffee table, then looked up to meet his mother's eyes. "I don't... I mean, don't take this the wrong way, but I'd really like to be alone right now."

Naomi's face fell, her eyes glistening with renewed tears, but she nodded slowly. "Okay. Sure."

She rose to her feet, and Blair rose with her, leaning into her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

"I love you, Mom," he said, his voice catching.

"I love you, too, Blair."

He walked her to the door. He gave her one final good-bye hug, closed the door, then sank to the floor and pulled his knees up, burying his head in his arms.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim walked into the loft a little after 8 p.m, opening the door to darkness. His Sentinel vision quickly adjusted, taking in the details of the spacious apartment with enlightening clarity. The enticing aroma of lasagna filled the loft, and he inhaled appreciatively. Oh, that smells great, Chief.  He extended his hearing, searching for his roommate's heartbeat but finding the loft silent.

His eyes fell on a folded white piece of paper on the table with the word 'JIM' scribbled in large bold letters on the top. Walking over to the table, he snatched up the note and opened it, quickly scanning the letter.

Jim,
Lasagna's in the oven. Enjoy.
I'm taking off for a week. Don't worry, I just need some down-time.
I need to clear my head and get away from people for a little bit.
I don't actually have a plan, just thought I'd hit the road, maybe
do some camping. I'll call when I can. Sorry for taking
off like this, but you can chew me out when I get back.
Oh, about the badge thing, I'm not so sure that's what I want to do.
Hope the Commish doesn't need an answer A.S.A.P. If he does, it's "no",
if he can wait a week, we'll talk about it when I get back. Okay? Take care.
Oh, and I left half of this month's rent on your dresser. I'll try to give you the rest
as soon as I can. Thanks for the extension. See ya soon.

Jim didn't realize he'd been holding his breath until his lungs began to burn. He released the breath, then read the letter again, slowly. When he finished, he folded the paper back up, just then noticing a different texture to the bottom edge. Furrowing his brow, he stroked his thumb over the corner, then raised the paper and set the very edge of the sheet against the tip of his tongue.

Salt.

The back of his neck tingled, sending a small shiver down his spine. He flashed on an image of Blair sitting at the table, scribbling the note, then furiously wiping tears off his face.

Maybe not, he argued silently. Maybe the salt's from his cooking. Instinct, however, told him otherwise. The tone of the letter was off, and he knew Blair wouldn't just take off without notice unless something was really bothering him. Blair definitely had a lot to be bothered about: losing his job, his reputation, and his observer status at the station. He'd honestly thought that Blair was okay with the idea of officially joining the Cascade PD, but the letter obviously dispelled that myth.

He scanned the letter one more time, noticing the subtleties woven through the words. I'll call when I can. In other words, "I haven't given a phone number because I don't want you to call me." Oh, about the badge thing... really meant, "Thanks, but no thanks. No big deal." Take care meant that Blair wanted to appear completely non-chalant about the whole thing.

Oh, and I left half of this month's rent on your dresser. I'll try to give you the rest as soon as I can. Thanks for the extension. In other words, "It's back to business between us. I don't want you floating me." See ya later. "Don't freak. I'll be back."

The tingling on the back of his neck grew more pronounced, spreading slowly over his shoulders and down his arms. It told him that Blair wasn't okay and that he'd better find him soon. The real question was, "How?" Blair probably wouldn't use his emergency credit card because he knew it was traceable... Unless he didn't have the cash to hold him, which was highly likely given his present circumstances.

He snatched up the phone and hit the autodial. Three rings sounded, and the line picked up.

"Hey, Simon. It's Jim..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair glanced back at the Volvo parked off the road, hoisting his pack higher on his shoulders. He was amazed the little car had made it all the way up the mountain, and he'd risked it only because he knew he'd barely make the climb on foot, especially with all the stuff he had to carry. His hiking pack carried a small tent, a change of clothes, food, water, and various other supplies. His sleeping bag was strapped to the top of the back, blocking his head from the rear.

As he trekked up the mountain, he took in the tranquil silence, listening to the rustle of wind through the treetops and the subtle backdrop of bird calls. At least in this wilderness, he was safe from prying eyes, sporadic whispers, and merciless reporters. The birds didn't care about his thesis; the trees didn't look at him with disappointment; and, the sky didn't frown disapprovingly at his existence.

The spot he had in mind laid ahead about half a mile and was completely inaccessible by car. The place was isolated enough that he didn't foresee any problem with leaving his car off the side of the road. Hikers rarely traveled this part of the mountain, which was exactly why he'd chosen the location. Normally, it was a bit too high up and too close to the cliffs for him, but at the moment it seemed just perfect. Oddly enough, the height thing didn't bother him much. Of course, he was still quite a ways from any kind of a cliff, and he'd likely change his tune once he actually caught sight of the view.

Thirty minutes later, he arrived at the campsite, plopping his baggage down with a hard sigh. He set up the tent up first, accomplishing that in a bout half an hour. Then he unrolled his backpack, started a small campfire to combat the chill, and retrieved a small paper bag from the pack.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Simon's office. The next morning...

"Jim, aren't you overreacting? I mean, the kid's had a rough week. Hell, I'd be more worried if he didn't admit to needing some downtime."

The Detective shook his head. "No, Sir. I've got a bad feeling about this. You saw the way he ran out of here... And, God, that picture. I mean, half the time he looks about ready to fall apart."

The Captain sighed. "I know, Jim. Things aren't great right now, but he'll bounce back. He always does. Give him some time to get used to the idea of having a badge. This Sentinel business is too important to him. You know that."

"He can't bounce back from everything, Simon. Everybody has a breaking point, Sir."

Simon bit down on his cigar, rising out of his chair. "Do you think he'd do something stupid?"

Jim sighed, shaking his head in consternation. "I don't know, Sir. I don't think so. It's just that... Well, I don't want him alone too much with his thoughts. Know what I mean?"

Simon grunted. "Yeah, I do. Okay, I'll put a trace on his credit card, and call-in an A.P.B. on his car, and, hopefully, something will turn up."

Jim nodded. "Thank you, Sir."

A knock at the door grabbed both men's attention.

"Come in, Joel," Simon said, spotting the officer through the glass.

The door opened slowly and the large man shuffled hesitantly inside, closing the door quietly behind him. He looked uncertainly at Jim, then at the Captain.

"Uh, well, we all heard about Sandburg, obviously," he began. Jim and Simon remained silent, waiting for him to continue. "I know he didn't falsify his thesis, Jim, and it's a damn shame the way things have turned out. I was just wondering how he was doing."

Jim felt like a balloon that had just deflated. "I'm not sure, Joel. He took off."

"Took off?" Joel repeated, his brow creasing with worry. "Where?"

Jim shrugged. "That's what Simon and I are trying to find out. He said he was going camping. Left a note."

"You're worried about him." It wasn't a question.

Slowly, Jim nodded. "Yeah, Joel, I am."

"Need any help?"

The edges of Jim's mouthed tweaked upward ever so slightly. "Yeah. Simon was just about to put an A.P.B. out on him."

Joel nodded decisively. "Don't worry too much, Jim. We'll find him, and, if we have to, we'll all go on strike until they give him a paid position here."

Jim's smile widened. "Blair would be touched, Joel, but we already got the commissioner to take care of that."

"He did?" the older man looked surprised.

"Yeah." The Sentinel's smile faded. "But I'm not so sure Blair's going to take the offer."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair Sandburg was drunk, his mood swinging like a pendulum from laughter to near sobs as he sat at the edge of the cliff. A fifty-foot wide chasm overlooking a green canyon rested before him, and he found himself admiring the view, something of a miracle given his fear of heights.

Occasionally, the world around him spun, and he wasn't quite sure if the valley was tilting and whirling or if it was his head doing the spinning. He hadn't been drunk in many years. He tried to remember the last time, but he couldn't retrieve the memory. His brain seemed to be enveloped by a thick fog, his thoughts drowning in a whirlpool of emotions.

He hadn't actually intended to get drunk - at least, he didn't think so. He'd bought the Brandy to wind down and keep warm with before hitting the sack, but he'd gotten a little tipsy and found that he enjoyed the peace afforded by the buzz. His problems hadn't seemed nearly so overwhelming or dire. He'd spent the night in blissful slumber, then woke to the agony of a clear-head. Fortunately, that condition was easily remedied, and his only lingering regret after draining almost the entire bottle of Brandy was that he hadn't bought a second bottle.

It was all kind of funny when he really thought about it. When he'd first met Jim, he'd thought that finding a full-fledged Sentinel had been the find of a lifetime, something that would make his career. Then, along the way, the Detective had become his best friend. The hilarious part was that he was wrong on both accounts. Not only was his career destroyed, but apparently Jim wasn't all that keen on him hanging around as a partner.

He wishes he never met me.

He released a bitter laugh, but it erupted from his chest sounding more like a sob.

He doesn't even want a partner. Doesn't want me around.

Of course, when it came right down to it, he couldn't really blame the guy. The only real thing he had to offer was a string of screw-ups: alerting Lash in the church, recognizing the danger posed by the Golden drug but not stopping Jim in time, helping Alex with her senses and keeping that information from Jim, and, of course, being careless with his Sentinel thesis and having it inadvertently published. Yep, that was the biggest screw-up of all. Megan and Simon almost died as a result of that one.

This really wasn't the way he'd pictured his life. He'd disappointed everyone, ruined everything. His students and peers thought he was a fake, his academic reputation was ruined, and his friendship with Jim practically destroyed. The only future he had was behind a counter serving burgers and fries, if he was lucky.

Maybe I can join the monastery? Another sharp laugh erupted with that thought. Yeah, no women for the rest of my life. I'd fail at that, too. Just like everything else.

Fuck it. He picked up a stone and tossed it over the edge, watching it sail through the air until it was too small to see. Fuck it all. He was so damn tired of trying to do the right thing and screwing it up. He'd given all he had to give, but, apparently, it wasn't enough.

But, God, he loved anthropology. He loved teaching. He loved the university atmosphere -- the books, the intellectual exchange. Then he'd met Jim and discovered, much to his own surprise, that he loved the roller coaster ride of police work. The adventure. The thrill. Of course, he could do without getting shot at, kidnapped, and drugged, but in the end he knew he was making a difference, and that's what really mattered. That's what made it thrilling. Rewarding.

And Jim. He occasionally pondered what his life would be like if he'd never met Jim, and the concept always sent a cold shiver down his spine. What if Jim had died in that helicopter crash? Or been hit by the garbage truck? Or what if he himself hadn't gone to Rainier? What if he'd chosen someplace other than Cascade to live? What if Dr. Stoddard had gone to Borneo a year earlier, and Blair had gone with him?

But none of those things had happened. By fate or chance, he'd met James Ellison, the best man he knew. The best friend he'd ever had. Jim had changed him in so many ways, that he'd probably be a completely different person now if he'd never found the Sentinel. He'd grown, matured, learned the true meaning of friendship and loyalty.

My love is greater for you than for that of a woman -- or something like that. It was a passage he'd read in the Bible a long time ago. Two friends -- a pure, platonic love -- not brothers, but soulmates.

How often does that come along? Maybe once or twice in a generation? He thought he'd found it, and that friendship was worth everything: his time, his career, and even his life. He'd given it all, spending more time with Jim than he ever did at the University, risking his position by taking too much time off. He'd admitted a lie and single-handedly destroyed his career to preserve Jim's privacy and career. He'd risked his life, even dying, because Jim was more important to him than anything.

Pathetic. And what a pity party he was having. He glanced at the brandy bottle sitting next to him, eyeing the last third of the alcohol. Quickly, he snatched the bottle off the ground and took a swig, savoring the sensation of the warm liquid snaking down his throat. The warmth spread, enveloping his chest and radiating down his arms. Nudging him just a fraction closer to blessed numbness.

Maybe I'll get lucky and topple off the edge. Solve everyone's problems, especially my own.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"God must be smiling on us, Jim," Simon announced happily, slapping the sheet of paper against Ellison's chest and wincing slightly as the motion jarred his injury. "An officer saw Sandburg's car late yeserday heading up the mountain near the Cascade River."

Jim took the paper, scanning the contents.

"He recognized Sandburg's car, beeped him to say hello, then got the A.P.B. a few minutes ago," the Captain continued.

Jim nodded absently, his eyes focused on the paper. "Great. This is great, Sir. Thanks."

Banks smiled. "So get out of my office already and go find the kid."

The Detective looked up at his superior and offered a lopsided grin. "Right away, Sir. Thanks."

As Jim turned to leave, Simon's voice stopped him. "You know, Jim, he's likely to be pissed when he realizes we, uh, misused police resources to track him down."

"I'll say it was all my doing, Sir," Jim commented, throwing a teasing look over his shoulder. "I know how much you hate to bring down the Wrath of Sandburg."

Simon growled a reply as Jim hurried out of the office. "Smartass."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Finding the Volvo turned out to be easier than Jim expected. A single road wound up the mountain, leading him straight to Blair's car. He pulled the truck behind the Volvo, grabbed his backpack from the passenger seat, and headed out in search of his partner.

The trail practically jumped out at him. Footsteps led away from the Volvo toward a narrow footpath that disappeared into the brush. He extended his hearing, encountering the echoing chirps of birds, the soft rustle of trees, and crunch of his own boots on the mountainside.

Fifteen minutes later, his ears picked up the beat of a fast, human heartbeat. Hurrying his pace, he tracked the sound, frowning at the accelerated, slightly irregular rhythm. His nose twitched, detecting the distant scent of alcohol.

Ten minutes later he emerged into a small clearing, his eyes immediately scanning the sparse campsite. A one-person tent sat a few feet away from a smoldering campfire, along with a backpack and sleeping bag. His gaze receded to the cliff, where the lone figure of a young man with long curly hair sat hunched near the edge, his feet dangling over the side.

Heavy dread slammed into the Sentinel, a tight knot of fear twisting in his chest. Something was seriously wrong if Blair's fear of heights wasn't preventing him from sitting precariously on the edge of a hunk of rock overlooking a impressive drop.

"Sandburg?" He dropped his pack and took several steps forward, but Blair didn't respond, remaining almost as motionless as a statue. "What's going on, Chief?"

His eyes fell to the empty bottle resting on its side next to the young man, and his frown deepened. Blair wasn't a drinker. In the four years that Jim had known Sandburg, the kid had never once gotten himself seriously drunk. In fact, there were only one or two occasions Jim could remember Blair getting even tipsy.

"It's funny," Blair's began, his quiet, barely slurred voice stopping Jim in his tracks. "This doesn't ssscare me, anymore."

"Well it's making me a bit uneasy," Jim replied. "Why don't you move away from the edge? Come over here and talk to me."

Blair shrugged. "Nothing to talk about."

Jim suppressed a sigh, walking slowly up to the young man. Blair made no move, his gaze fixed on the expanse of air beneath his feet.

"Look, Chief. I know things are tough for you right now." He paused, taking a slow breath. "I never asked you to --"

"Cut the crap, Jim," Blair said, raising pained blue eyes to look at the Sentinel. "Naomi told me."

Jim felt the blood drain from his face. Damnit... Damn that woman. Hasn't she done enough already?

He blurted out the first thing response came to mind. "I didn't mean it, Chief."

Blair released a laugh, letting his eyes drift back over the valley. "You never mean anythhhing, Jim."

"Blair --"

"Drop it, Ellison, oookkkay? I told you I came here for some peace, not to argue with you. Can't you resssspect that, man? We'll talk about it when I get back to Cassscade. Right now, I just want to be alone."

"...when I get back to Cascade." Jim was painfully aware of the omission in that statement. There was no way he intended to leave his friend sitting on the edge of a cliff while his liver tried to process an overdose of alcohol.

"I'm not leaving, Sandburg -- not until we talk about this."

"Fuck off, Ellissson. Don't pretend you want me around."

"That's not --"

Blair pinned him with a look, his eyes wet and rimmed with red, his cheeks flushed. "I'm sssorry I made your life so terrible, Jim." His voice broke, and he looked quickly away. "I'm sssorry you wish you'd never met me. But you don't have to worry about thhhat anymore."

Jim closed his eyes briefly. No, Chief. Oh no, that's not what I meant. He forced his eyelids back open to look at his friend.

"Blair, I... I don't --" he stumbled over the words, his throat tight as he struggled to voice his thoughts in a manner he hoped would get through to his partner. With a sigh, he squeezed the bridge of his nose and shook his head, deciding on the simple, straight-forward approach. "I'm not sorry I met you, Chief. That's not what I meant, and it's not what I want." He looked up to see if he had Blair's attention, but the young man's head hung low, his eyes drifting over the valley hundreds of feet below. "Sandburg, come on --" he grabbed hold of Blair's arm, hoping he could at least coax his friend away from the edge. "Let's go sit by what's left of the campfire and continue this discussion."

Blair remained rigid beneath Jim's pull, refusing to budge. "Go'way and leave me alone, Jiiimmm."

"Not an option, Chief," Jim said, rising to his feet and forcefully pulling the young man up with him.

Blair made a half-hearted, clumsy attempt to pull free of the Sentinel's grip, but Jim remained keenly aware of the danger just inches away and kept a steel hold on his partner, moving like lightning away from the drop. The next moment found Blair sitting in front of the almost-dead campfire, blinking as though he didn't quite know how he'd gotten there. Jim's hand remained wrapped firmly around the smaller man's forearm, with the Sentinel sitting like a conjoined twin next to his partner.

"Okay, so now we can talk," Jim stated.

Blair shook his head, looking suddenly a shade paler. "I don't think so, man. I'm gonna be --" He curled forward and emptied the contents of his stomach onto the campfire.

A sudden flash caught both men surprise, and Jim quickly yanked Blair away from the source.

"Whoa," the young man groaned, wiping a sleeve across his mouth. "Weird."

Jim looked from the source of the mini-explosion back to his partner, numb with shock. Blair's eyebrows were singed, giving him an almost-comical look. It took the Detective a second to realize that the unabsorbed alcohol formerly in Blair's stomach had caught the dwindling flames of the campfire. Now, however, the fire was completely out, offering no further danger.

Blair blinked, wide-eyed, at the Detective. Jim quickly scanned his partner's face and neck for burns, reassuring himself that the only casualty had been Sandburg's eyebrows. Almost against his will, it started -- first, as a subtle grumble that started in his chest, but then it quickly rose in volume until it bubbled upward, spilling out of his mouth in the form of laughter.

The shock on Blair's face in response to his reaction only fueled Jim's amusement, and soon the laughter completely overtook him, but he still managed to keep his grip on Blair.

"Sorry!" he blurted between peels of laughter.

Apparently his apology was unnecessary, or his laughter contagious, because it soon infected his partner. Within moments, both men were flat on their backs, laughing helplessly, Jim out of shock and genuine amusement, Blair out of the senseless lack of restraint that came with intoxication.

Too consumed by his own merriment, Jim didn't notice the change in his partner immediately. It wasn't until Blair curled over on his side, slinking toward the sleeping bag, that Jim realized the young man's laughter had turned to sobs.

He sobered immediately, suddenly feeling like the biggest Ass on the planet. "Blair... Don't do this. Look, I'm sorry, okay? For all of it."

The young man wrapped the unzipped sleeping bag around his small frame, pulling the material over his head. "You don't get it," he accused, his voice muffled. "It's all gone. My life's over. Everything... " a strangled sob choked off the rest of his words, and the sleeping bag shuddered in response.

"I didn't ask you to do that," Jim protested. "You didn't have to do that."

"Fuck off, Jim," Blair snapped. "You didn't ask me to do it, man. I knnnow that. I did it because I'm your friend. At leassst I thought I was. Anyway, I told you not to come here. I wanted to be alone."

"So you could self-destruct with no one around to see?"

"Yeah, sowhhhut? My business. Not yours. I'm tired of you pretending that you give a shhhit, so just leave me the hell alone. 'Kay?"

Jim took several deep breaths, knowing he wouldn't get anywhere with Blair until the kid sobered up. "Okay, I'll leave you alone... For now. But in the --" He stopped abruptly when he heard the gentle, muffled snoring that told him he no longer had an audience.

Extending his hearing, he tuned into Blair's heartbeat to make sure the kid wasn't faking his slumber. A worried crease formed in his brow as he listened to the accelerated rhythm. He couldn't tell if Blair was actually asleep, but, if he was, his heart was going a mile a minute even in his subdued state.

Damn fool kid. He scooted forward and pulled the sleeping bag off his partner. Blair lay on his side, curled into a ball. Jim took note of the young man's respiration and complexion, breathing a sigh of relief when he found both normal. Alcohol poisoning was one of those things difficult to judge, but he knew that Blair never drank enough to develop a serious tolerance to the stuff. He glanced back at the empty bottle near the cliff's edge, knowing what a shock such an amount would be to Blair's body, and, in particular, to his liver.

He adjusted the sleeping bag, unable to zip it closed because of the young man's awkward position. The rising sun provided enough warmth for the time being, so Jim tucked the edges of the material around Blair's small frame. He rose to his feet and walked inside the tent, stooping to avoid the top. A small pillow laid near the flap, and he quickly snatched it up, backing out of the tent and kneeling next to his unconscious partner.  Gently, he slipped the pillow beneath Blair's head, then retrieved his backpack and settled himself in for the day, keeping an ear tuned to Blair's breathing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gradually, he became aware of his body. The first sensation that prodded him toward consciousness was the thick feeling in his mouth. His tongue and throat felt like paste, screaming for water.

He opened his eyes slowly, hesitantly. Soft light blurred his vision, and he blinked several times until the fuzzy world swam into focus. A brown-grey blob of a mass filled his vision, and he blinked again, releasing a low groan as the throbbing in his head stirred to life. He shifted back, feeling something soft and smooth slide beneath his cheek. It was then that he realized the brown-grey blob was actually a rock.

And it might as well have been pounding a hole into his skull. He closed his eyes against the agony in his head.

"You want some coffee, Chief?"

Blair winced, the voice shooting into his head like a knife. Jim? With a reluctant groan, he opened his eyes, steeling himself against the bolt of pain that streaked along his optic nerve and sliced into his brain. The biting smell of coffee pierced the throbbing in his skull, and he reluctantly lifted his head to see a mug in front of his face, its contents pouring tendrils of steam into the air. He raised his eyes to see a pair of blue ones staring back at him.

"How are you feeling?" the Sentinel asked.

Blair dropped his head back to the pillow, immediately regretting the action as the impact sent waves of pain through his skull and down his neck, breaking at the base of his neck and forming a cramped knot between his shoulder blades. He waited several long seconds for the pain to recede to a tolerable level, and then he allowed himself to wonder just what had happened to him and why Jim was present. He was pretty sure he'd left the Detective back in Cascade... Make that positive. He remembered packing his things, writing the note, and then taking off for the mountain.

"Doosey of a hangover, I'll bet?"

Oh yeah, right. He now remembered stopping off at the grocery store for some last minute supplies, and he'd bought a bottle of Brandy on impulse. The clerk had asked him for his ID. Blonde. Green eyes. Pretty. He suspected she just wanted to see his name, age, and address. Any other day, he might have asked her for her phone number... No, he would have asked her for her phone number. At the time, though, dating had been the last thing on his mind. He was half-surprised that she didn't seem to recognize him. He'd walked through the entire store ignoring curious and derisive stares from fellow shoppers. He had tried to convince himself that it was all in his imagination, but that had been a lie. The news was all over the place. In every crevice. Pouring out of every radio and television set and taking space in every newspaper in Washington, and even a few national ones.

He was famous. Perhaps the most famous failure of the century, maybe even two or three centuries. Hell, why stop there, make it an even millennium.

None of that, however, explained what Jim was doing on the mountain. He supposed he'd have to ask.

"What are you doing here?" he croaked, surprised by how coarse his voice sounded.

A warm hand closed over his own, and the soothingly hot mug was pressed against his palm. His fingers wrapped around the cup, and he used his free hand to push himself into a sitting position.

"Thanks," he muttered, raising the cup to his lips and taking a tentative sip of the robust liquid. He eyed the Sentinel warily over the rim of the mug. "So what are you doing here, Jim?"

"I take it you don't remember anything from this morning?" Jim asked.

This morning? Blair lowered the mug and looked around, his eyes narrowed as if combating a headache. "What time is it?"

"Almost six."

"Friday?"

"Saturday," Jim answered.

Blair set the mug carefully on the ground, closed his eyes, and eased back down on the ground, pulling the sleeping bag up to his chin. "You still haven't told me what you're doing here," he muttered.

"Isn't it obvious? Checking up on you."

Blair grunted, shifting on his side. "Great. Just great. You didn't happen to bring any aspirin, did you?"

"Nope. Besides, I thought you weren't into pills."

"Drugs. Alcohol. What's the difference?" he grumbled.

Jim frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Blair opened his eyes and looked at the Sentinel. "Nothing, Jim. I just haven't gotten drunk in a really long time, and now I remember why."

"Why this time? You think it would solve something?" Jim prodded, his jaw set and his eyes critical.

Blair released a sharp breath. "When I need you to be my conscience, man, I'll let you know."

Jim's expression remained rigid, carefully detached. "What's going on with you?"

Blair almost laughed. What's going on with me, Jim? Hell, man, read the newspapers. Flick on the television. Take a stroll through Rainier. Talk to the students I let down and the faculty I disappointed. Better yet, take a look in the mirror, man.

What does it all boil down to? Nothing. No job. No friends. No Research. No partnership. Nothing.

"You gonna answer me, Chief?" the Detective asked.

"Do I have to, Jim? You've got eyes to match a hawk's and ears like a bat. You gonna play blind and deaf, or just dumb?"

The Sentinel stiffened, a flicker of amorphous emotion ebbing through his blue eyes. "Okay, Chief. Fair enough. I'll cut to the chase. I know you feel like your life is over. You lost your job, your reputation, and you think I don't want you as a partner anymore. Right?"

Blair's stopped breathing. He knows. But how? Naomi? Maybe. Or I got drunk, he found me, and I managed to spill my guts and don't remember a damn thing I said. He closed his eyes. Why wasn't there a hole around when you needed one to crawl into?

He took several slow, deep breaths, finally summoning the courage to open his eyes and meet the Sentinel's unyielding gaze. "What exactly did I say last night?"

"Naomi told you what I said, I know."

Blair pushed himself up, drawing his legs close to his chest and resting his arms on his knees. He felt way too shitty to have this conversation. His head hurt, and he really didn't want to have to do any serious thinking. Jim, on the other hand, was giving off his standard Ellison vibes, and it was obvious he wasn't going to let the matter drop.

"What do you want me to say, Jim?"

"Whatever you want, Chief."

Brilliant. He ran his hands over his face, trying to clear his thoughts. "What if I don't want to say anything? What if I just want to lay back down and listen to the quiet?"

"Then I'll stay here until you're ready to talk," Jim countered softly.

Blair dropped his head forward, running his fingers through his hair. "Okay, Jim. You wanna talk. We'll talk. But it doesn't seem like there's a lot to say." He looked back up at the Sentinel. "You want things to go back the way they were before you met me, right?"

"No." Jim said firmly.

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Really? So you didn't say that."

"I did say that," Jim admitted. "I just didn't mean it."

"I see." Good one, Jim.

"You don't believe me, I know."

"I don't really care. You did. You didn't. Point is you said it, so it came from somewhere, right?" He paused, letting his gaze drift to the grass. "I don't know what I'm going to do -- for a job, that is -- but I'm not going to stay someplace I'm not wanted. I don't want you to feel you've got to keep me on out of some misplaced sense of duty or because you feel sorry for me. I might not have a whole lot left, Jim, but I'm trying to keep just a bit of my self-respect." Though that pretty much went out the window last night, I gather.

Jim shifted, moving closer to him, his jeans scraping against the ground. "I want you around, Blair -- not out of duty, not because I feel sorry for you, but because things are better when you're around. I still have these senses, and I still need you, Chief."

Blair looked up, his face flushed. "I'm tired of being needed, Jim. No one really seems to care very much about what I need. Maybe it's time I started caring."

A wave of fear crossed Jim's face. "What are you saying? You want to move on?"

Blair felt like a porcelain doll that had shattered and been glued back together, only the glue didn't seem to be holding. "No," he croaked, looking away quickly. "It's not what I want. Nothing is the way I want it to be, anymore, it just is. I made my bed, and now I've got to lay in it. This isn't exactly what I had planned for my life, but it's the way it turned out and I guess I have to make do, don't I?"

"Things don't have to be that way, Sandburg. You've still got that badge waiting for you, and you still have me, Naomi, and Simon."

Blair shook his head. "It's a lie, Jim. Tell me you didn't mean it when you said it. Tell me, really... If you could, would you wish things back the way they were before you and I met?"

Jim didn't hesitate. "No."

"Then why'd you say it?"

"Because I was faced with losing my ability to function as a cop. I didn't mean that I wished I'd never met you. I meant that I wish I could go back to my job the way it was before these senses emerged. I was a good cop without them, but I've grown dependent on them... So has everyone else. You. Simon. Now the guys at the station know."

"They didn't buy my story, eh?"

"Of course not," Jim said quickly. "They've seen me use the senses before, they just didn't know what I was really doing at the time."

Blair sighed, his shoulders slumping. Listening was becoming painful, talking agony. His head pounded, the pain throbbing in his temples with each beat of his heart. "Can we talk about this later, Jim? My head's killing me."

"I'd rather talk about it now," Jim said.

Blair sighed, rising slowly to his feet, moving like a man three times his age. "Fine. Just let me take a piss first, if you don't mind."

Jim raised one eyebrow, slightly amused by the cantankerous quality in Blair's voice. "Be my guest," he replied flatly.

Blair wobbled off toward the nearest tree, his back to the Sentinel. He took advantage of the temporary respite to get his thoughts in order. The headache wasn't helping, and he cursed himself for getting drunk. Worst of all, Jim had been there to see it. He tried not to wonder too much about what exactly he had said earlier.

As he finished his business, he shot a glance over his shoulder. Jim sat in front of the dead campfire, staring intently at the ashes. Blair frowned, recognizing the zone. Quickly, he zipped up his jeans and turned around, walking back toward the Sentinel.

"Jim. Come on man, snap out --"

That's when he saw the face yards ahead, poking out from behind a tree. His brain registered the gun at the same moment his legs launched him forward. A sharp sound slapped the air as he slammed into Jim, and the back of his chest erupted with hot pain.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim gasped, his lungs expanding to pull in air, but a pressure on his chest restricted the movement, hampering his attempts to breathe. He blinked rapidly, rolling onto his side and displacing the weight that had pinned him to the ground.

"Oh God." Blair.

A dark patch of blood spotted Blair's blue shirt, it's edges expanding as blood continued to spill from his chest.

"Blair!" He yanked his own shirt off balled it up, pressing it firmly over his friend's chest. "Hold on, buddy."

Blair groaned, his eyelids fluttering.

"Take it easy, Chief. You'll be okay. Just take it easy."

His mind raced, his senses ballooning to explore the surrounding forest. He felt the warm liquid pulsing out of Blair's chest with each beat of the young man's heart. One bullet. But who? How? The last thing he remembered was watching a small spider skirt the perimeter of the campfire. Then, in an instant, almost as if time had skipped a track, Blair was on top of him.

He heard footsteps. Someone was running, making a hasty retreat. Pursuit was impossible. Blair was dying and he needed immediate medical attention.

"Jim," Blair croaked, his eyes locking with Jim's.

"Sshhh. Don't talk, Chief."

The young man ignored him, his eyes filled with misery, his face etched with pain. "Naomi." His voice was barely a whisper. "Tell her it wasn't her fault. Tell her I love her."

Jim suddenly couldn't breathe. No. Warm wetness stung his eyes, and his senses retreated, pulling back in and focusing on the fragile life beneath his hands. Blair's heart beat slowly, its rhythm fading. His breathing came in shallow rasps, the air sounding like sandpaper as it rolled in and out of his lungs.

"Don't do this, Chief," he pleaded. "Just hang on, please."

He removed one bloodied hand from Blair's chest to grab his cellphone from his pocket, snapping it open. He had no idea if it would work in the mountains, but it was Blair's only hope. He dialed 911 and pressed the CALL button, waiting those few agonizing moments to find out if the call went through.

"Emergency Dispatch. What's your emergency."

His hand shook with relief, clutching the phone until his knuckles turned white. "This is Detective James Ellison. I'm up near Colby Peak and I've got a man down. One bullet in the chest. I need a chopper here ASAP!" He spoke quickly, breathlessly, painfully aware of the fading heartbeat under his palm.

"Jim," the soft voice pulled his attention downward, and he found himself captured by Blair's intense gaze. "Iceman. He..."

"Blair. Shhh..."

"Colby Peak. Where? We need a precise location."

"Just tell the damn choppers to look for a blue and white pickup parked at the edge of the road next to a green Volvo, but the Volvo probably won't be visible from the air. We're less than a mile north up the hill."

"Yes, Detective. Stay on the line please."

"Just hurry up, goddamnit! He's dying!"

"Jim," Blair croaked again, a soft smile touching his lips. "Please. It's... It's okay. It's better... this... way. I'm glad... I could do... this for you."

"No you don't, Chief. No you don't!"

Jim had never felt so close to panic since... He closed his eyes. No, not again. Not so soon. He couldn't lose Blair now. Not now. That morning at the fountain had been one of the worst of his life... Until now. He lowered the phone to the ground, keeping an ear tuned to the dispatch on the other end of the line in case she requested more information. Slowly, he raised one hand to Blair's face, pressing his palm against the young man's cheek, marring the pale complexion with bright red blood.

"Listen to me, Blair. Just listen. You're going to keep on breathing, you hear me? You keep breathing! Focus. All you have to do is keep your heart beating and your lungs pumping. Got that? Help's on the way, so just hang on. Hang on."

He lowered his hand back to Blair's chest, pressing both of his palms against the wound, trying desperately to keep the life from flowing out of his young partner.

Don't let him die. Please, don't let him die. He had no idea who he was praying to. Anybody and everybody. Whoever would listen. God. Incacha. The spirit guides. Whatever was out there that had saved his young Guide a year earlier. He remembered the shared vision -- the wolf and the panther colliding in a burst of light. Where the hell are you now? He felt no connection to the panther this time around, his line to the spirit world gone.

The weak rhythm beneath Jim's hand faltered, faded, and Blair's eyes fluttered closed.

"Blair!" He pressed down harder on the young man's chest, shaking him. "Don't you do this! You stay with me! Goddamn you! You hear me? Stay with me!"

He heard the chopper whirring in the distance and lifted his eyes to the sky, silently urging the pilot to hurry.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The chopper hadn't even touched ground before the medics jumped out, meeting the small group of physicians on the rooftop. They pulled the stretcher from the helicopter, and the swarm of medical workers surrounded Blair, each spewing off statistics as they whisked the body away.

Somehow, Jim found himself sitting in a chair in the waiting room. He had no recollection how he'd gotten from the rooftop to the waiting room, and a sudden surge of panic enveloped him when he realized he had no idea what they had done with Blair. He shot out of his chair, but a hand pushed him back down.

"Easy, Jim. They'll let us know when they have something."

The Sentinel turned his head to look at the concerned face of his Captain. Next to Simon sat Joel Taggart, and in the seat next to him was Brown. Jim looked around, finally noticing that the waiting room was filled Blair's friends. Rafe and Megan occupied two more chairs against the wall, and Naomi sat in the furthest one, her face white and her cheeks lined with tears.

"Naomi," he whispered, both surprised and horrified to find her there.

She looked at him and opened her mouth to speak, but a small sob cut off her words. He rose quickly from the chair, this time encountering no resistance, and took the empty seat next to her. She sank into him, and he wrapped his arms around her small frame, pulling her gently against his chest.

"I'm sorry, Naomi. I'm so sorry." His throat tightened, and he shifted his gaze to look at Simon, his eyes asking what his mouth could not.

"They don't know yet, Jim," Simon replied. "They're still working on him. You know... He...His heart wasn't beating when they got to him."

"Excuse me."

All eyes turned to see a graying man standing in a white lab coat standing a few feet away. "Are you the Sandburg party?"

"Yes," Simon said. "How is he?"

The doctor's face looked grim, his eyes dark. "Are any of you related to him?"

"I am," Naomi spoke up weakly, pulling away from Jim and rising out of her seat. "I'm his mother." She looked down at Jim, then back up at the doctor. "Is he alive?"

The doctor nodded. "Well, yes, but..." He glanced around at the wary faces. "I'm sorry, but I think it would be best if we talk in private. I'm Doctor Cohn, by the way. Will you follow me please, Ms. Sandburg?"

Naomi shook her head. "You can say whatever you need to here. These are his close friends."

The doctor inhaled a deep breath, then sank into the last unoccupied chair as Naomi returned to hers. Jim placed a protective arm across her shoulders and shifted to look straight at the doctor.

"The news isn't very good. He's on life support right now. We repaired the damage to his heart, but his rhythm isn't stable. He was in cardiac arrest for at least five minutes. During that time, blood wasn't being pumped through his lungs, so his brain was deprived of oxygen. We are unable to determine if there's been any brain damage. The good news is that the MRI looks good, but we won't really know for sure if there's been any damage until he's wakes up... If he wakes up. Right now, his chances are, at best, fifty-fifty."

The doctor's prognosis left the group speechless. No one knew what to say. Jim himself had a hard time processing the man's words. Brain damage. He swallowed. Even if Blair survived, he might not be the same. That thought scared him almost more than losing Blair altogether. Maybe Blair wouldn't be able to do math in his head or type 60 words a minute on his laptop -- that was one thing. No big deal, he'd take that in a second compared to the alternative. But what he couldn't fathom, couldn't bare to think about, was having Blair live through the ideal and emerge a near vegetable. The kid deserved so much more than that.

"Can I see him?" Naomi's voice disrupted the silence.

Jim straightened, his back rigid.

"Of course," the Doctor replied, rising to his feet. "This way."

The Sentinel watched Naomi leave, wanting so much to follow her but knowing that the next few moments were reserved exclusively for mother and son. He envied her in that way. Being blood allowed her first rights to Blair in these type of situations.

"Jim," the Captain began, his deep voice suspiciously soft. "What happened?"

Jim tore his gaze away from Naomi's retreating figure and looked at Simon. "I found Blair's campsite. We talked. I... I'm not sure what happened exactly Simon."

He closed his eyes, leaning his head against the wall, reliving that awful moment when he'd snapped back to awareness and realized that Blair was bleeding all over him. God. He opened his eyes and looked down at himself, seeing the dried blood on his hands and shirt and realizing he hadn't cleaned up yet. He clenched his dirtied hands into fists. Shit. He'd touched Naomi -- held her -- with Blair's blood all over him.

"Jim?"

Ellison shot out of his chair. "Excuse me, Sir, I need to go clean up," he said, taking off for the bathroom before the Captain could reply. He knew exactly where all the restrooms on the first three floors were -- a sad testament to the frequent danger he brought to those around him.

Jim bounded through the bathroom door and flew toward the nearest sink. He pumped the soap dispenser with one hand and turned the faucet on with the other, then scrubbed the lather all over his hand, fiercely trying to get the blood out of every crevice.

I shouldn't have let her see me like this, he berated himself silently. God... Naomi... I'm so sorry.

Thrusting his hands under the spray, he winced at the unexpected coldness and quickly pulled back, using one soapy hand to turn the hot water handle. As he rubbed the soap off his skin, he glanced in the mirror.

Blue eyes peered back at him. Eyes that were not his own. He jumped back, spinning around.

"Blair?"

The restroom was empty. His heart dropped to his stomach. He could have sworn he'd seen Blair's reflection in the mirror, as if the young man were standing just behind him, peering over his shoulder like he had so many times before.

A slow, cold dread rose from his gut and spread to his chest, wrapping like a fist around his heart. What if it hadn't been his imagination? Oh no. Dear God, no. He moved like lightning, exploding out of the bathroom and barreling down the hall, his ears searching for Naomi's voice, Blair's heartbeat, or anything that would lead him to Sandburg.

What he heard turned his blood to ice.

"No respiration! No pulse! Get that crash cart, damnit!"

"Please... Don't let him die," Naomi's voice pleaded.

Jim flew passed the waiting room. Simon shot out of his chair, along with the rest of the group, but the Sentinel didn't spare them a glance.

"Jim!" Simon's called after him, breaking into a run in pursuit.

"Oh God," Megan muttered, near tears. "He hears Sandy."

"You mean...?" Joel asked, unable to complete the question.

All four officers took off after Jim and Simon.

Moments later, Jim slid to a halt in front of the ICU. A mass of bodies surrounded Blair, and Naomi stood discretely in the corner, tears streaming down her cheeks as she watched them work.

"Clear!" One physician yelled.

"Oh God." Simon whispered.

Jim was only vaguely aware of the arrival of his fellow officers as he watched the doctor raise the paddles and bring their smooth surface down on Blair's bare chest. The young man's body arched violently, and the heartmonitor gave a brief response, then flatlined.

"Two hundred!" The doctor called. "Clear."

Again, the current tore through Blair's body, hitting him with such force that he almost flopped off the table. It was agony to watch, but he couldn't pull his gaze away.

Come on, Chief! Fight! Don't do this. Don't give up.

The beeping of the heartmonitor fluctuated, then steadied, and Jim almost sagged to his knees, catching himself with one hand on the glass that separated him from the Blair.

"We got him!" the doctor announced happily.

"Thank God," Simon muttered, placing a tight hand on Jim's shoulder.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Naomi sat by Blair's bed, her fingers intertwined with her son's. Jim took up the chair on the opposite side of the bed, his ears tuned to his partner's soft breathing and steady heartbeat, but his eyes focused on Naomi. She looked exhausted, ready to drop at any moment. Her eyes looked bloodshot, and deep lines framed her mouth and eyes, making her look much older than her forty-some years.

She kept her eyes glued to Blair's face, using her free hand to gently stroke his forehead. Jim wondered if she was aware of anything other than her son. Did she even know he was in the room? He'd walked in about an half an hour ago, and she hadn't looked up once.

It was time to break the silence. She needed sleep and food. "Naomi," he began.

She looked up, her eyes pools of grief that threatened to overflow. "I'm sorry, Jim," she said, her voice barely audible. "I... I've messed up everything. I shouldn't have told him what you said. I just... "

"It's okay, Naomi," he replied gently, leaning forward in his chair and placing one hand on the bedrail. "Before Blair lost consciousness he asked me to tell you that he loves you and that none of this was your fault. He knew you'd blame yourself, and he didn't want that. He loves you more than anything, Naomi, and right now he needs you to be strong."

She seemed to consider his words for several moments, tears welling in her eyes and spilling onto her cheeks. Quickly, she looked back down at her son, one tear rolling off her chin and dropping onto Blair's hand.

"Thank you, Jim," she whispered. Soon, her tears flowed freely, and she made no effort to hold them back.

"Shhh." Jim rose from his chair to offer her comfort, but a soft groan from the bed stopped him.

Blair's eyes fluttered open, his gaze immediately focusing on Naomi. Jim held his breath, his chest tight, hoping Blair would recognize her. Hoping he would prove the doctor's wrong about the brain damage.

"Mom," the young man croaked, and Jim sighed, sinking back into his chair.

"Oh, honey," Naomi said, smiling, her tears flowing from joy now as she pressed one palm against the top of Blair's head.

"Don't cry," he pleaded softly, raising the hand Naomi clutched and extricating his fingers from her grasp. "I'm sorry." He cupped her chin in his hand and stroked away the tears with his thumb. "I'll glue it back. I'll fix it."

Her smile faded, and she glanced at Jim, fear evident in her eyes. Then, quickly, she covered the emotion, plastering a fake smile on her face as she looked back down at her son. "It's okay, honey. Whatever it is, it's okay."

Blair closed his eyes, his hand drifting slowly back to the bed. One tear slid out from under his eyelid and fell to the pillow. "Didn't mean to, Mom. It just slipped. Tell Gaya I'm..." is voice drifted off as he slipped back into a deep slumber.

Jim swallowed hard. "What... Do you know what he's talking about?" he asked.

She met his gaze, nodding slowly. "I think so. When he was six he knocked a small clay pot off a shelf. It was something a very dear friend of mine gave to me. Her name was Gayala, but Blair used to call her Gaya. He was very upset that he broke it, tried to glue it back together, but it had shattered into too many pieces. I took one look at his face as he held out the broken fragments and pulled him into a hug. He looked like he'd just committed an unforgivable sin." A soft, sad smile played at her lips. "I always was a sucker for those baby blue eyes of his."

Jim mirrored her smile, but it was forced. He hoped Blair's confusion had been a result of the trauma and the drugs, and not a symptom of something more serious.

Rising from his chair, he head to the door. "I'm going to get the doctor," he said. "Let them know he came to."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Right now, it's useless to worry," Doctor Cohn informed Jim and Naomi, glancing at his young patient before turning his attention completely to the mother. "He's bound to be a bit incoherent and confused. He's on a number of drugs right now, and he's still weak from the trauma and the surgery."

"So you're saying it's not a sign of brain damage?" Jim prodded.

The doctor shrugged. "I'm saying there's no way to tell right now. We'll have to wait until he's in better shape. Once the drugs wear off and his body's had more time to recuperate, then we'll see."

Naomi nodded. "Thank you, Doctor."

The older man managed a small smile. "We'll keep a close eye on him. Don't you worry, Ms. Sandburg. Your son is in good hands."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Beep. Beep. Beep.

He wished the sound away. It was really annoying.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

His eyelids felt like lead, but he forced them open. White squares cloaked his vision, and he blinked, but the whiteness remained solid. It almost seemed to press down on him, and he could swear he felt the weight of it on his chest.

Beeping noise. White tiles. Chest hurts. He took stock. The facts added up to one conclusion. Hospital.

A warm softness enveloped his left hand. "Blair?"

He turned his head toward the voice. His mother stared down at him, a strange smile on her face. "Mom." The sound came out sounding more like a cough than a word. His attempt to speak also made him realize just how dry his mouth and throat felt, the sensation of thirst so powerful that it threatened to overshadow the pain in his chest.

She bent down and brushed a her lips gently against his forehead. "It's okay, honey. Don't talk. Rest."

For a moment, he was lost in blank confusion, wondering what had happened to cause the lines of worry that creased his mother's forehead. Then it came back to him. Iceman. Gun. Jim. He jerked with the unexpectedness of it, but a hot flare of pain exploded in his chest and pulled him back to the mattress.

"Jim," he gasped, closing his eyes against the pain.

"Relax, Chief." A gentle hand touched his shoulder. "I'm right here."

Blair opened his eyes, a wave of relief washing over him when he saw the Sentinel staring down at him, eyes creased with concern. "Zeller," he breathed, the faint word melting in the air.

"It's okay, Chief. Don't worry about him," he assured the young man.

But Blair wasn't appeased. Twice Zeller had tried to kill Jim, and twice he'd failed. He didn't want the third time to be the charm in this case. He lifted his head off the pillow, gritting his teeth against the flare of pain the motion produced in his chest.

"Did you get --"

A firm palm pressed against his forehead, pushing his head gently back to the pillow. Jim reached down and found the call button, pressing the buzzer for the nurse. "Take it easy, Chief. No, I didn't get him. He's still out there, but he's not getting anywhere near you."

Blair wanted to scream and shake the Sentinel, but he barely had enough strength to lift his arm. "Not me. You," he rasped.

"Blair, it's okay," Jim repeated firmly, gentle stroking Blair's temple with his thumb. "Simon's on it. Okay? He's not going to get within a hundred yards of here. I promise. Rest. Don't worry about it."

Blair swallowed, his throat screaming for water. He knew Jim was trying to keep him calm, but the words didn't reassure him. Jim often took risk with his own safety, especially when trying to protect others. "I want... to talk to... Simon," he ground out, the effort leaving him breathless and aggravating the pain in his chest.

Jim sighed and sank into the chair. "Okay, just calm down. I'll call him and tell him to come down. Maybe you'll listen to him."

He glanced up at Naomi. She had recaptured Blair's left hand, stroking the fingers lovingly with her own. He studied the soothing motion for several seconds, then turned his attention back to Blair. The younger man's eyelids looked heavy, and it was obvious he was struggling to stay awake.

"Since we're sort of on the topic," Jim began, "I guess this is my chance to thank you for saving my life." He leaned forward, his gaze intense but softened by the tiny smile on his lips. "Next time just yell 'duck.' Please. I don't want to lose you, Chief."

Blair's eyelids drifted closed, but an intangible smile brushed his lips. "Would have... but... you zoned."

Jim sagged in his chair, flashing an abashed look at Naomi. "I know," he confessed quietly, closing his eyes in shame. "I'm sorry."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two Days Later...

Blair's jaw dropped open when he caught sight of Jim on the television screen. He shifted uncomfortably in the hospital bed and hit the remote. The TV was bolted to the wall, nearly touching the ceiling, so he didn't have to raise the bed to view the picture.

"Detective Ellison! Is it true that Klaus Zeller has been captured?" A reporter blurted.

Lights flashed, brightening the twilight air. Jim blinked, looking very much like a deer caught in headlights as he stepped through the hospital doors. Blair's brow furrowed, and he wondered when the event had happened. Jim was wearing a gray flannel shirt, and Blair struggled to remember what the Detective had been wearing a few hours ago when he'd left, but the memory eluded him.

"Can you confirm that Blair Sandburg has been offered a position with the Cascade PD?"

"Do you know why Zeller targeted Sandburg? Has he received other death threats?"

"How can the police department justify allowing a confessed fraud access to --"

"Enough!" Jim bellowed, and the barrage of questions ceased abruptly. A smirk touched Blair's lips. Very few people would not have shut up after that command. Jim took a deep breath, his eyes wandering over reporters, most unseen behind the cameras. "Blair Sandburg is not a fraud. He's not a liar. He's the noblest, most kind-hearted and self-sacrificing man I know. Zeller wasn't targeting Sandburg. He was targeting me. Sandburg threw himself in the line of fire to save my life." He paused, lowering his head and raising one hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose.

Blair lay there, stunned, suddenly light-headed. Tears stung his eyes, but he pushed them back, even though there was no one there to see them fall. The confession was the most he'd ever heard from Jim... The most praise the Detective had ever bestowed upon him. It nearly broke his heart to realize he'd almost walked away from such a man.

He studied Jim's face on the screen, noting the paleness of the man's complexion  He looked exhausted. Haunted. Like he hadn't slept in days. Stubble darkened his chin, and it was obvious he hadn't been taking care of himself. Finally, the Sentinel inhaled a slow, deep breath and raised his head, fixing a determined gaze on the camera, obviously coming to some kind of decision.

"Blair Sandburg did not lie in his thesis," Jim announced, producing hushed murmurings from the crowd.

Blair's heart skipped a beat. No, Jim. Don't...

"Everything he wrote was --"

"-- Not meant to be published," a familiar voice interrupted.

Blair stopped breathing as Naomi pushed her way to Jim's side. She looked straight into the camera and said, "What he wrote was research based on his Sentinel studies, but it was not meant to be published. I took it without his knowledge and had it published. Jim Ellison is not a Sentinel. Blair was using his real research to work on a fiction novel, and he used Jim Ellison as a model. The story was to be based on a police detective with heightened senses. I had no right to send it to the publisher. None of this is Blair's fault."

Blair winced, closing his eyes. Oh mom. The excuse was weak. No one would buy it. It just made everyone look like fools.

"If it was meant as a novel, why the mystery? Why did he say it was a lie? Why not just admit it outright?"

Good questions, Blair agreed, opening his eyes to look at the screen. Would Naomi have answers?

"Because the Sentinel in Blair's mispublished thesis does exist, but he promised to keep the man's identity a secret," Naomi replied. "After the book was published, Ellison and the real Sentinel were each to get a cut of the profits, but Blair was only allowed to perform his studies in return for complete anonymity. He could not publish an thesis based on such anonymity, so he decided to work with the police force to use Jim as a model for the main character and to work on a separate thesis about police subcultures." She took a deep breath, glancing uncertainly at Jim. "Blair would never breach a confidence. He knew that the only way he could rectify the situation without hurting me, Detective Ellison, or the real Sentinel, was to say he made the whole thing up."

A slow smile spread across Jim's face, and he pulled his gaze away from Naomi to look at the camera. "It's true. Every word she says. Blair Sandburg threw away his career rather than break a promise. He would not point the finger at his own mother, and he would not reveal his primary subject's identity. He's a man of honor and integrity, and you can quote me on that."

The scene cut to the newscaster, who gave a few more words about the subject, then the show cut to a commercial. Blair closed his eyes and sank into the pillow, a smile on his face. Just days before, he'd thought his life was over, but he'd suddenly had it all given back to him. It wasn't just the attempt to restore his good name that gave rise to the warm feeling in his chest -- a feeling that seemed to dull the ache from the wound -- but it was the fact that the two people he cared most about in the world had just done something incredible for him. Jim had been willing to go public just to salvage Blair's reputation, and Naomi stepped and gave one of the feeblest excuses he'd ever heard... But that was okay, because it was, after all, the thought that counted.

He heard the door click open and opened his eyes. Seven smiling faces entered, crowding around the bed, each carrying some type of offering, from flowers to presents..

"Hey Hairboy! How ya feeling?" Brown asked, setting bonsai plant on the stand next to the bed.

Blair raised his eyes, peering at the unusual gift. "A bonsai?"

Brown grinned and shrugged. "I heard you mention wanting one once."

The anthropologist felt his face grow hot, and he flashed an embarrassed grin. "Thanks."

Jim stepped forward, smiling like a fool. "You doing okay, Chief? We had to bully our way through the nursing staff, ya know."

Blair nodded, feeling the resurgence of tears in his eyes as he gazed at his friend. "I saw the news," he said, his voice rough. "Thanks, man. I know what you were going to do. It means a lot to me that you were willing to do that."

Jim looked down at the floor, shifting his weight on from one foot to the other. "Well, uh, it... I mean, you went the extra mile for me, Chief." He looked back up at the young man, his eyes bright. "You saved my life. I wanted to return the favor."

Simon stepped forward, slapping Jim on the shoulder and chuckling as he peered at Blair. "Soak it up, Sandburg. You'll never here him get this mushy again."

A chuckle rose in Blair's throat, but he suppressed it, knowing the motion would only cause him pain. "I know," he said, looking pointedly at Jim. "And I'm sorry I acted like a jerk up on that mountain... Though I still don't remember exactly what I said."

Jim laughed. "I'll tell you all about it later."

"You're not gonna make stuff up, are you?" Blair asked warily.

"Well he told us that he found you hugging a tree, 'bout ready to propose to it." Brown chimed.

The room erupted in laughter and Blair blushed.

"Oh leave Sandy alone," Megan piped up, but Blair couldn't see past the large mass of muscled bodies in front of him to catch a glimpse of the woman.

Jim held his smile, reaching forward to place a hand on Blair's elbow. "I don't know if they'll give you your university position back," he said, his voice low. "But I hope you'll still consider being my partner. The badge is still waiting for you, buddy."

The Sentinel's words broke through his tenuous control, allowing the tears to emerge. They glistened in his eyes, but did not spill onto his cheeks. "Whatever happens, Jim," he whispered, struggling to keep his voice steady, "I'm with you. Whatever it takes."

To Be Continued by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo...

The End