Spoilers for TSbyBS, Sentinel Too and maybe others. :-) Originally posted to the Sentinel Angst list as text e-mail, so the formatting is for plain text and not html. I'd like to thank my SA listsibs for pointing out typos, etc. so I could correct them before putting this story up on the web.

Redemption

"Hi. Thank you all for coming. I just have a short speech prepared here. Um... In our media-informed culture, a scientist receives validation by having his or her work published, and after years of research there is great personal satisfaction when that goal is reached. However, my desire to impress both my peers and the world at large drove me to an immoral and unethical act. My thesis, 'The Sentinel' is a... is a fraud. While my paper does quote ancient source material, the documentation proving that J-James Ellison actually possesses hyper senses is fraudulent. Looking back, I can't even say that it's a good piece of fiction. I apologize for this deception. My only hope is that I can be forgiven for the pain I've caused those that are close to me. Thank you," he choked out at last, jerking away from the podium and hurrying out of the room.

Dr. Steve Kapler stared at the TV. The mug fell from his hand and clattered to the floor, spilling hot coffee onto the white tile. He hadn't watched the news all week, and it was obvious he'd missed something big. Hell, he'd barely opened a paper. He'd been at the hospital virtually twenty-four seven, leaving little time for anything else.

The image on the screen shifted to a newscaster who gave a brief summary of the controversy surrounding Blair Sandburg and his Sentinel research, including the Nobel Prize nomination. Kapler stood mesmerized.

Damn, oh damn, what a bombshell. Hyper senses? He felt the jitter of excitement bubble in his chest and a broad smile broke his face. Dear God, thank you!

It suddenly made sense. The puzzle had at last been solved. At first, he'd simply attributed her ramblings about "the voices" to dementia, but then when she'd related the contents of a conversation he'd had with a nurse in the hall, he'd been truly puzzled.

Heightened senses. Alex Barnes had super hearing.

And her complaints about the smells? That makes two.

And the time she'd scratched gashes into her arms, screaming that the sheets were burning her skin... That makes three.

And when she'd screamed about the giant ant on the ceiling that was, in fact, barely visible, he'd simply attributed that to her deteriorating mental state. Four.

And, finally, when she'd almost choked on the mashed potatoes, then threw them at the wall and screamed about being poisoned... too much pepper... hell, he'd just attributed it to her paranoia. But that's five right there.

The last piece of the puzzle? Sandburg. He knew that name from Barnes' file. She had killed Blair Sandburg. She had tried to kill Sandburg's partner, James Ellison, but she'd failed. During her treatment, she'd mumbled and screamed about Ellison and Sandburg and the jungle and Sentinels, but he'd attributed all of it to her dementia.

Alex Barnes was mad.

But Alex Barnes was a Sentinel. Blair Sandburg had to know that. And that must mean Alex's ravings about Ellison and the black jaguar weren't simply a product of her delusions. Jim Ellison was also a Sentinel.

Which meant Sandburg was lying about his thesis being a fraud, probably to protect Ellison. But there was more than one potential subject. Alex Barnes had five heightened senses, and Kapler had himself an actual Sentinel. His smile broadened and he spun around, practically running toward his office. Blair Sandburg may not want to publish, but Kapler had no such inhibitions.

Alex Barnes would make his career. The Nobel Prize could be his!!

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

Jim pulled the truck in front of the deli, surprised to actually find a parking space so close. He glanced over at Blair seated in the passenger's side, but his soon-to-be-official partner didn't notice, seemingly engrossed in something outside. Say it. He opened his mouth, but his throat tightened. He didn't know quite how to say it. How do you thank someone for sacrificing his life for you?

Actions speak louder than words, he'd always believed. He and Simon had had to move heaven and earth to get that badge for Sandburg and he wondered if the kid understood all that he and Simon were really saying when they'd presented the shield.

He swallowed, forcing the words past his throat. "Come on, Chief. My treat." Thank you.

Blair turned his head to face him, a soft, lopsided smile playing on his lips. "It'll have to be. I'm unemployed now, at least for a while."

Damn. He hoped Blair hadn't taken his offer as a gesture of charity. "Hey, once you finish the academy, you'll be making more than you ever did as a student."

"That's true." Blair said nothing more, just opened the door and slid to the sidewalk, heading straight for the deli's entrance.

Frowning, Jim raised the dial on his hearing to listen to Blair's breathing and heartbeat. He found both a little fast, but... What was that? He tilted his head and shifted the focus of his hearing.

//"...hand it over now or I'll blow a hole in your chest, man!"//

Oh hell. Can't we get five minutes worth of peace? "Get back, Chief! There's a--"

A single gunshot broke the air and Blair ducked instinctively just as a tall, wiry man with stringy hair and wild eyes flew out the door, nearly slamming into Sandburg.

Shit. Jim's hand flashed to his gun and, in a split second, he had it aimed at the guy.

But the perp was already swinging the gun toward Blair even as the young observer raised his hands and backed away.

"Drop it!" Jim's finger tightened on the trigger.

So did the perp's.

Jim fired. The gun exploded out of the robber's hands. Blair snapped backward and landed hard on the sidewalk. The gunman looked momentarily stunned, then spun around and took off, rounding the corner and disappearing from sight.

"Blair!" Jim returned his gun to its holster and rushed forward. Sandburg lay limp on the sidewalk, unconscious, a pool of blood forming rapidly beneath his right shoulder. Quickly, Jim slipped out of his jacket, then took off his flannel shirt and pressed it hard against the wound.

What happened? The perp's gun hadn't gone off, which meant...

Oh God, I shot him.

~~~~~~

"I don't know what happened, Simon. The bullet hit the perp's gun, I know it did. The gun flew out of his hand. The only thing I can figure is it ricocheted off the metal and hit Blair." Jim scrubbed his hands over his face, pacing the small confines of the hospital waiting room. "I shot him, Simon. God, I shot him. Can you believe that? He survives Zeller two -- no three -- times, including the shoot-out in the bullpen, and he goes with me to a deli and I shoot him. Shit. It could have killed him. What if it had hit his heart?" The words stopped him cold the moment they left his mouth and he stiffened, standing rigid in the center of the room. "Oh God, I almost killed him. My partner. I shot my partner."

"Jim!" Simon was suddenly in his face, his hands pressed hard on Jim's shoulders. "Sit down."

The captain guided him to a vacant chair, moving slowly from his recent injury, and pushed him into the seat. "Now listen to me, Ellison. There are two things you've got to get through that thick skull of yours. Number one, Blair is going to be okay. You heard the doctor. No major damage and they're removing the bullet now. He'll have his arm in a sling for a while, but he'll be okay. Number two, it was an accident. You can't control physics. The bullet ricocheted. Not your fault. If you hadn't fired, the robber would have shot Sandburg at point-blank range and the kid really would be dead now. You saved his life. Again."

Jim closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Maybe." He swallowed and clenched his eyes. "But I just keep thinking one thing over and over again. The bullet came from my gun. He's not even my official partner yet and I nearly kill him. I'm supposed to be watching his back when he graduates, not putting bullets in him." He lowered his voice suddenly and opened his eyes to look at the captain. "The only reason I went for that shot was because of my sentinel vision. I saw the gun, zoomed into it, fired. Otherwise I'd have gone for his chest and, if I had, Sandburg wouldn't be laying in a hospital bed right now."

Banks sighed and sank into the nearest chair. "And how many times have your senses saved Blair's life? Remember Lash? If it weren't for your abilities, Blair would have died years ago in a duck pond."

Jim looked away. "If it weren't for my senses, he wouldn't have been following me around. Lash would've never even met him."

"That's no kind of logic, Jim. Besides, what's the point in going over this. He's going to be your partner now. Officially. A cop."

"I know."

"Does that scare you?"

Jim closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. "Yeah." It was a whisper-silent admission. "It scares the hell out of me. I already lost one partner. I don't want to lose another. When he's official, I won't be able to tell him to stay in the truck, anymore. He'll be right in the thick of it. All it takes is a split second. One bullet."

"Hell, he's been in the thick of it for the past four years."

Jim shook his head. "Not like he will be as an official cop, Simon. You know that."

Simon seemed to deflate somewhat and nodded slowly. "Yeah, I know that, Jim. But this is where we are right now. This is the only way to keep him partnered with you."

"I know."

"You want that, don't you?"

"More than anything. Does that make me a jerk? I could give him back everything he lost. All I have to do is tell the truth about this sentinel stuff and Blair'll have it all. Instead, I get to keep my privacy and he gets a badge and a gun. What do you think, Simon? What kind of a friend am I?"

"His best friend. But human, Jim. Only human."

~~~~~~~~~~~

Dr. Steve Kapler sat in front of his office computer and typed in the words "Sentinel AND (vision OR sight) AND hear AND smell AND taste AND touch" then hit the ENTER button. He'd tried the word "Sentinel" alone, but retrieved a plethora of anthropological articles on war practices, mythology, and other loosely-relevant topics.

This time he received three hits. One book by Richard Burton, one review by Dr. Faruk Higazi, and one paper by Blair Sandburg. Bingo.

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

Jim and Simon walked into Blair's hospital room and were greeted by the soft, steady beeping of the heart monitor. Four beds occupied the room, with Blair in the far left one. They found the young man conscious, but barely awake. He'd come out of surgery less than an hour ago, and the staff had been gracious enough to let them into the recovery room to see him.

Simon hovered near the entrance while Jim walked up to the bed. Blair turned his head to look at him, but his eyelids drooped and his mouth hung slack, making it obvious he was still feeling the affects of the anesthesia.

"Hey, Chief."

Blair blinked, then raised one hand to rub his throat.

"You want some water?"

The young man nodded.

"I'll see what I can do." Jim turned to the captain and gestured toward the hall. "Can you ask a nurse if he can get some water?"

Simon nodded. "Sure thing. Be right back." He ducked out of the room and disappeared from sight.

Blair's lips moved, but no sound came out. Jim leaned closer to his partner. "What was that?"

A hoarse whisper met his ears. "Whu happ'n?"

Jim swallowed and straightened, placing a soft hand on Blair's arm. He looked away, unable to meet the confused eyes of his partner. "You were shot in the shoulder."

Footsteps scuffled on the tile and a nurse entered, followed closely by Simon. She smiled, carrying a small paper cup with a bent straw in it and moved to the bed. "How's our patient?"

Blair managed a weak smile. She held the straw to his lips and he sipped eagerly until the water was gone. "More?" This time his voice came out stronger.

"In a little bit," she said, patting his arm. "I'll be back to check on you in a few minutes." She smiled at Jim and headed back out of the room.

Blair's eyelids drooped more, but he appeared to be making an effort to stay awake. "Robber?"

"He got away."

"Clerk?"

"Not a scratch. The robber took a shot at him, but missed."

Blair sighed, his eyes closing. "S'good."

Jim gave Blair's arm a final pat, then turned toward Simon. "Guess we'd better get out of here. They'll be moving him to a room soon, so I'm going to stick around."

Simon nodded. "So I figured. You need me to get you anything?"

Jim nodded. "The robber."

The captain grunted. "Yeah, well, we got him on the store's security tape and, of course, his fingerprints were found on the gun. There's an APB out now."

Jim jaw twitched and he glided into the hallway. "I can't wait."

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

A few hours passed before Blair woke again. The doctor had immobilized the shoulder by securing Blair's arm in a sling, and, thankfully, the surgery had repaired most of the damage. The rest would heal on its own. Jim's guilt kept him tethered to the young man's bedside. They were now in a semi-private room, with only one other -- thankfully vacant -- bed.

Blair groaned, then yawned, his eyelids fluttering open. Jim scooted his chair a fraction closer to the bed and rested his elbows on the rail. "Hey, Chief, how you feeling?"

Blair turned his head toward him and managed a faint smile. "I'm not sure yet. What happened?"

Jim cleared his throat. Obviously, Blair didn't remember their last conversation. "You were shot in the shoulder."

Realization dawned suddenly in the younger man's eyes. "Oh yeah. I remember. The deli. The guy shot me?"

"Uh, no." Jim swallowed, glancing at the fuzzy, blue blanket covering his partner. "It was... uh... It was my bullet, Chief."

Dead silence. Then, "What?"

Jim looked up finally, forcing himself to meet Blair's piercing gaze. "I said it was my bullet. I aimed for the guy's gun and the bullet must have ricocheted off the metal and hit you. I'm sorry, Chief. I --"

"YOU shot me?" Blair tried to sit up, but gasped with pain and snapped back to the mattress.

Jim was out of the chair instantly and looming over his friend. "Jesus, Sandburg, lay still. Yeah, I --" He stopped mid-sentence when he realized Blair was struggling to control... LAUGHTER?! "What the hell is so funny?!"

Blair lost all control and burst into full-fledged hysterics, wincing intermittently and chanting "Ow, ow, ow," as his spasms aggravated his injury.

Jim huffed. "Sandburg..."

"Oh man, Jim," Blair managed between chuckles. "This is too much. I mean, I managed to miss the zillion bullets Zeller poured into the bullpen, not to mention the one that went through Simon, Megan, and a wall, but I go to a deli with you and... and..."

"This is somehow FUNNY?!" Jim took a deep breath.

"Yeah. Yeah. Hilarious, man."

"I nearly killed you!"

"I know!" He disintegrated into laughter again and muttered more "ows."

"Have you gone insane? What medications have they put you on?" Jim shook his head, flabbergasted. He sank back into the chair and, when he spoke again, his voice was nearly whisper soft. "This isn't funny, Chief. My bullet almost killed you."

Something in his voice must have broken through Blair's hysteria, because the young man sobered immediately. "Jim, c'mon. I'm sorry. I don't know why it hit me like that. I don't blame you, you know. It was just an accident."

Jim raised his eyebrows, his face stone. "What the hell was so funny?"

This time when Blair answered he was completely serious. He was also a shade whiter. "I don't know. It just seemed absurd all of a sudden. Like one big cosmic joke. Everything just hit me all at once. Lash. Galileo. Peru. Zeller. Alex. My thesis. This badge thing. Everything. Just when you think everything that could possibly happened has, something takes you by surprise. I mean, we were going to a deli?! What are the odds, man? Are we, like, cosmic magnets for crooks? And then when you told me it was your bullet... and the look on your face -- it wasn't really funny -- just... hell, Jim, I can't explain it. I guess I'm just doped up and it's kind of been a rather stressful two weeks. Everything's happened so fast. First my thesis getting out. Then Zeller. Then Simon and Megan getting shot. Simon just got out of the wheelchair. Your leg's almost back to normal. I'm getting ready to go to the academy. It's just... well... it doesn't seem real. I know, I'm not making much sense. I guess I was just venting."

Jim leaned forward, draping his arms over the rail. His expression softened. "Yeah, I think I know what you mean, Chief. It's been one hell of a ride."

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

Ellison opened the door, keeping one hand on Blair's elbow as he guided the younger man inside.  Blair sighed, growing tired of the Sentinel's fawning.

"Jim, man, I appreciate the concern, but it's my arm that's in a sling. My legs are fine." He moved past Jim and headed for the couch, exhausted by the pain the jostle of the walk had caused his shoulder. He wouldn't, however, let his partner know that.

"I realize that, Chief." Jim closed the door and tossed his keys in the basket. "But you're looking a little pale, there. I just wanna make sure you don't take a nose-dive and end up kissing the floor."

"Funny, man." He sank slowly onto the cushion, suppressing a relieved sigh.

"You want something? Doc said to keep your fluid and nutrients up. Soup? Juice? Tea? I can make you up a batch of --"

"No, I'm okay, thanks."

Jim moved over to the couch and stood directly behind Blair. "You sure? You took a nasty hit there and lost a lot of blood. You want to get your strength back up."

Blair's lips twitched and he suppressed a smile. "Jim, I'm fine. This wasn't your fault."

The sentinel deflated suddenly, sagging into the neighboring armchair. "I shot you, Chief."

"No, you shot the robber's gun. The bullet ricocheted and I happened to be in the way." He paused, taking a deep breath. "Simon told me just how guilty you're feeling. He told me your concerns about when I become your official partner."

Jim's head snapped up. "He had no right --"

"Didn't he? Don't I have a right to know these things if I'm going to be your official partner?"

Jim swallowed and looked away. "It's not that --"

"-- you don't think I can handle myself," he finished. "I know that. But this had nothing to do with me being a cop. This was totally random. I just happened to be in the wrong place in the wrong time. Like usual."

"I know that." Jim leaned his head against the back of the chair. "I just... If I tell you something, do you promise me you won't get upset?"

Blair raised his eyebrows and leaned forward. "I promise."

"I just have this thing in my mind... I keep thinking about how you gave up your life to protect the truth about my Sentinel abilities and... well, I'm afraid that you'll be out in the field one day and get killed. It almost happened this time and I know you weren't out in the field, but I just keep thinking that it's going to happen because it's one of those things that do happen. You give up your life to protect me and that ends up getting you killed. Not directly, I know, but would you be a cop if you still had your position at the university? You see where I'm going with this, Chief? I know I'm not explaining it very well, but I keep thinking back to the wolf and the arrow. Just like with Alex. Somehow, you're going to die because of me. Either because you associate with me or because you gave up your career for me... or something. Get it? I know it makes no sense, but I have this cold feeling in my gut and it's scaring the hell out of me."

Several moments of silence reigned and, when Jim raised his head to look at Blair, he nearly gasped at how pale his friend had become. "Blair --"

Blair sighed and spoke very slowly. "Are you saying you had another vision?"

"No. Not really. Just a feeling, but not even that. I don't know, maybe it's like you said. It's been two weeks of hell and we're both off our game."

"I'd rather not repeat the death thing, Jim, so if you do have a vision, I'd appreciate advanced warning this time."

Jim felt like he'd just been punched. "You have my word, Chief."

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

Dr. Kapler set the video camera up and focused the lens on the fragile-looking woman strapped to the bed. Then he hit the RECORD button. His tone flat, he related the pertinent details. Date. Time. Location. Subject name. Purpose of experiment.

Thanks to Barnes being mentally incompetent and therefore a ward of the state, he wouldn't have to deal with those pesky consent issues when it came time to publish.

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

Ouch. Blair groaned and opened his eyes, the hot ache in his shoulder dragging him awake. The pills weren't doing much against the deep pain, and he silently cursed the doctor for not prescribing something stronger. Like a twenty-four hour morphine drip. Yeeeaaah. Now that's a nice thought.

Since he didn't have the morphine drip, he contemplated asking Jim to just knock him out and wake him back up when the wound was healed. It wasn't like he had any pressing business to attend to, after all.

The thick aroma of fresh biscuits wafted to his nose and pulled him out of bed. Yawning, he shuffled through the doorway and blinked at the mini-banquet decorating the kitchen table -- eggs, biscuits, pita and cheese, and, of course, a collection of teas. Jim stood hunched inside the open refrigerator, scrounging around in the interior. He straightened and looked over the door, smiling when he caught sight of Blair.

"'Morning, Chief. How're you feeling?"

"Okay, I guess. Just a bit sore." His eyes drifted back to the tempting breakfast display. If this is Jim's way of working through his guilt, I think I can live with it.

"You need me to change your bandages?"

Blair shook his head. "No, I don't think so."

"If you want to try a shower, there's plenty of hot water. I haven't taken one yet. I can unwrap your shoulder if you need me to."

Blair smiled and muttered a "no thanks," as he walked to the table. He was touched by the way Jim was treating him -- making him breakfast, leaving plenty of hot water -- but every time the Sentinel looked at him, Blair caught the twinge of guilt in his eyes and that spoiled any real enjoyment he derived from the royal treatment.

He sat down in one of the vacant chairs and sniffed at the food appreciatively, closing his eyes to enjoy the aroma -- and also to let his friend know that he really appreciated the effort. "Oh man, this is great. Thanks."

Jim shrugged. "I was in the mood. I put some teas out. Pick one and I'll make it for you."

Blair opened his eyes and looked at the Sentinel -- who was now studying him from the opposite side of the table. "Jim, man, why don't you sit down and enjoy this?"

"I will, Chief, but you can't very well make tea with one arm. So what are you having?"

Blair sighed. Okay, no use arguing. "Earl Grey. Thanks."

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

Blair shifted on the couch, stifling his moan a second too late. Jim seemed to appear out of nowhere, suddenly seated on the coffee table directly in front of him -- and managing to scare the hell out of him in the process.

He jumped, then flinched at the pain the motion caused. "Jesus, Jim! Are you the Flash now?"

The Sentinel ignored the question. "Are you okay? You need me to adjust your pillow?" He glanced at the clock. "You need another pain pill? You're due in only half an hour, you know, so I think it'll be okay to give you one now. How 'bout some juice? Tea? You know the doctor said to keep your fluids--"

"Jim!"

The detective leaned forward eagerly. "Yeah, what is it, buddy?"

"Breathe."

Jim leaned back, raising an eyebrow. "I am breathing. If I weren't, I'd be passed out on the floor now."

Hmmmm... Blair contemplated that scenario a moment too long.

Jim cleared his throat, looking suddenly uncertain. "Am I hovering too much?"

Studying the obvious insecurity in his friend's face, Blair felt himself melting. "Look, Jim, how many times do I have to tell you this wasn't your fault? You can stop feeling guilty."

"I know. I'm not doing this out of guilt. I'm doing this because you're my partner and you're injured. It's nothing less than you would do for me."

Oh. Well, if that didn't just put him in his place... "Uh... Um, thanks." He suddenly felt like the biggest heel. A selfish ingrate.

Jim smiled and patted his knee. "Don't mention it. Now, why don't I get you a pain pill and some tea. I got that special blend you like -- the green tea Jasmine Or--"

"--Orange Pekoe from the shop an hour outside of Cascade?!!"

"Yeah."

"Is that where you went after breakfast? Geez! I thought you stopped by the station. You didn't need to go to all that trouble, man."

Jim shrugged. "I was in the mood for a drive. Why? Was I gone too long? Did you need something and --"

Blair dropped his head on the back of the couch and sighed.

"What is Blair? You need that pain pill now?"

"Yeah, I think so," he admitted resignedly.

Another pat on his knee. "Good. Okay, I'll get it. Also, just so you don't jostle that shoulder anymore, I cut off all the right sleeves of your shirts."

Blair's head shot up "What?!!!"

Jim grinned devilishly. "Gotcha."

Blair glared at him, trying to hold the budding smile at bay, but the teasing glint in his friend's eyes destroyed his control and he found himself chuckling. "You are such an asshole."

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

Dr. Kapler ejected the tape and placed it back in the case. The experiments had gone quite well. He'd had to taper off some of the sedatives, which made Barnes a bit less cooperative, but he'd managed to work through all five of her heightened senses.

And he'd gotten it all on tape.

He pushed off the floor and rode his chair to the computer. Now, how to start the article? He'd already called Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the New York Times to inquire about publishing. The answers were unanimous. If he could provide proof, they'd accept it. All of them. He'd have to write separate articles for each, though.

And he was sure he could get the major networks to bid for the tape. Soon, he would be a very rich and very famous man.

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

Only a week later and Blair was given the doc's go-ahead to take his arm out of the sling. Now that he was almost back to normal - and bored out of his mind - he decided it was time to go to the station and help Jim. He didn't have any kind of "official" status at the moment, but he could at least type up paperwork, or something. Maybe Simon would even let him ride with Jim.

Jim's eyes were on him even before he stepped foot into the bullpen. So were everyone else's. Some threw a few furtive glances back at Jim, and Blair wondered how much of his bullcrap press conference the other detectives believed.

He swallowed, waving to Brown and then to Rafe.

"Hairboy, how're you feeling?

Blair smiled. "Much better." He rolled the shoulder carefully for emphasis.

Simon's door opened and he took a step into the bullpen, offering a small smile. "Glad to see you're up and around, Sandburg."

Blair smiled. "Thanks, sir."

The captain's eyes scanned the rest of the small group. "Okay. Everyone in my office now." He looked back at Blair. "That includes you."

Uh-oh. Simon's tone did not sound good.

Slowly, Jim, Brown, Rafe, Joel, Megan, and Blair made their way into Simon's office.

The captain shut the door and walked to his desk, leaning against the edge. "Okay. This is how it is." He looked straight at Blair. "Sandburg, we've been talking about you in your absence."

Blair raised his eyebrows, his gaze drifting apprehensively over the detectives. "Uh... Yeah?"

Joel fidgeted, glancing briefly at Jim before turning his attention back to Blair. "We all know your press conference was bogus. Jim really is a sentinel."

A slow panic formed in Blair's chest and his eyes shot to Jim. He didn't know what he expected to see on the Sentinel's face, but a smile wasn't it. "I..." He swallowed. He wasn't really surprised by this revelation, but he didn't know how to respond. Okay, what do I say, here?

Jim stepped forward and slapped a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay, Chief. They've spent four years around us. I've been careless with my senses so many times. It all just clicked when your thesis got out."

Blair flinched as though he'd been struck and took a step away from Jim, slipping away from the touch. Just how many people hadn't bought into his press conference? Although he trusted this small group in Simon's office, there were others in the precinct who had also seen Jim use his senses, not to mention other criminals.

So did I trash my reputation and career for nothing?

Jim's smile faded and he stepped forward, closing the distance between them again. "It's all right, Blair. They're going to keep this under wraps. At least this way I'll be able to use my senses more freely around them, and --"

"He's right," Brown chimed. "We're not going to tell a soul."

Blair took a deep breath. Didn't anybody get it? "It doesn't matter." He spoke low, his voice barely above a whisper. His eyes locked with Jim's. "I guess I was stupid to think my press conference would solve the problem. It may have convinced the general media and the university that I'm a fraud and you're not a sentinel, but what about all the criminals you've arrested who saw, first-hand, you use one of your senses? They just didn't know what you were doing at the time, but now I bet it's crystal clear to them. And what about the IA investigation? You testified in front of a panel that you saw Danny's shooter from an impossible distance in pitch darkness. And there are other examples, too numerous to mention."

Total silence reigned and Jim looked as though he had a bad taste in his mouth.

Blair continued. "And your undercover career is pretty much blown. If you ever use your senses in front of anybody who watches TV, man, well, they're gonna put two-and-two together."

Finally, Jim spoke. "We'll deal with all that when and if it happens."

Blair shook his head. "You know, I'm almost beginning to think we should have just kept it public. Let things die down. At least then you'd be able to testify in court that you saw or heard something a normal person wouldn't have. That'd help you out immensely. This way, maybe the media stuff has died down faster, but now you still won't be able to testify in court and yet, look," his arm swept over the small group, "your secret's still out. Not just here. Other cops, too, I'm sure. Other cops who aren't your friend. Criminals, too." He sighed. "Face it, we're screwed. And you know what? You were right. It was my fault. I tried to fix it, but I guess I can't. There's nothing else I can do, is there? I can trash my career and ruin my reputation and destroy my credibility, but that thesis still got out and there are the wrong type of people out there who know the truth."

Jim's face looked suddenly hard. "Are you saying you want me to make it all public?"

Blair shook his head. "No, Jim. I'm saying you need to think about this and prepare for it. Cascade's not that big when it comes to these things. Maybe the news didn't get the extensive coverage nationally that it got locally, so maybe if you move out of Cascade --"

Jim shook his head. "Not an option."

"Then I guess all we can do is wait and see what happens. Maybe I'm just being pessimistic. Maybe people really won't remember." He turned toward the door, keeping his eyes on Jim. "I really am sorry, Jim. We should have talked much earlier about all this. I should have forced the issue. That was my responsibility. If I had, maybe I would have realized there was no way I could publish about Sentinels. I'd have found something else to work on for a dissertation and we wouldn't be here now. But, it's like they say -- hindsight's twenty-twenty."

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

Jim watched as Blair bid a slow retreat from the office to take up residence at their shared desk in the bullpen. Blair's lips were moving, so Jim extended his hearing to catch his his partner's words.

//"I'm sure you've got something around here I can do..."//

The phone at Jim's desk rang and he extended his hearing even further to listen to the caller. Blair answered, "Ellison's desk."

//"Is James Ellison available?//

//"He's in a meeting right now. This is Blair Sandburg, his partner. Can I take message?"//

//"Sandburg? This is Robert Carey from Channel 10 news. Are you aware that a psychiatrist treating Alex Barnes has diagnosed her as a Sentinel? We're running a story on it now and would like to get a comment from you or Ellison."//

Jim tensed just as he heard Blair's sharp gasp. He saw Blair look up at him, his brow creased and his face white with near-panic.

//"No, I... I... No comment."// Sandburg slammed the phone down and ran his fingers anxiously through his hair, then moved around the desk and hurried back to the office.

Jim grabbed the remote from the desk and turned on the television, flipping quickly through the channels until he reached Ten News.

"Jim, what --" Simon's question ended abruptly when he heard the name 'Alex Barnes.'

//"...Barnes was involved in the theft of nerve gas last year and was, coincidentally, eventually captured by James Ellison. Ellison, as you may remember, recently came under the spotlight with the release of Blair Sandburg's thesis on Sentinel's. Although the dissertation focused on Ellison as a Sentinel -- a man with five heightened senses -- Sandburg later repudiated his work, claiming he had fraudulently manufactured the data proving that Ellison was, in fact, a Sentinel. It would seem a remarkable coincidence that the very woman Ellison captured just one year ago has demonstrated Sentinel senses. The question foremost in many people's minds with this recent revelation is whether Blair Sandburg's thesis on Sentinels was, in fact, a fraud. Did Blair Sandburg make up his data, or did he lie to protect his subject's privacy?"//

Jim sank into the nearest chair. "Damn."

The door to Simon's office opened and Blair flew inside. "Jim, man --" His eyes found the television and his breath caught as he listened to the reporter.

//"Neither Ellison nor Sandburg could be reached for comment, but...//

Damn, Blair thought, finally closing his mouth, that was fast. I just talked to the guy.

//"... officials at Rainier University who, just a few weeks ago, dismissed Sandburg for fraud, have stated that, if the thesis is valid, they may be willing to reconsider his dismissal. Tonight, Spotlight TV will be airing a full story on the Sentinel controversy. Watch tonight at 8 pm and decide for yourself whether Sentinels are myth or reality."//

Simon's phone rang, startling the group out of their stupor.

"Banks.... " He looked up at Jim, his eyes dark. "Uh... Yes, sir, I just saw it and... No, sir.... I realize that... Okay. Right away. We'll be there." He hung up the phone and released a low sigh, then looked up at Jim. "Well, we have a meeting with the commissioner and the mayor in one hour. I suggest you two decide what official story you want to present before then."

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

It was a madhouse outside the station as reporters crowded the sidewalks waiting for a glimpse of Ellison or Sandburg. Figuring Jim's truck might be recognized, the three men opted to take Simon's car. Fortunately, they didn't need to brave the crowd outside. Instead, the elevator took them straight to the garage and they hurried to the captain's maroon sedan.

The drive to the Mayor's office took only twenty minutes and they still hadn't decided with certainty whether they would go with "official denial" or come clean with the truth. Part of their decision depended on what the Mayor and Commissioner presented. In other words, how much bullcrap did it look like their superiors would be willing to ingest?

If asked upfront, however, Jim and Blair decided to just go with denial. If Alex Barnes was a Sentinel, they knew absolutely nothing about it.

They arrived, walking silently up to the elegant reception area. The assistant seemed to be expecting them, because she waved them toward a closed, cherry wood door, simultaneously buzzing her boss to alert her to their arrival.

Jim and Blair exchanged glances as they followed Simon into the office. It was Showtime.

"Gentlemen." The mayor rose from her seat at the head of the long conference table, offering a shallow smile as she extended her hand. She was a middle-aged woman with short, dark hair and a worn face. Next to her sat a plump, graying man -- the commissioner.

"Please sit down," she instructed.

Simon took the seat at the other end of the table while Jim and Blair sat next to one another on the side nearest the door.

Her eyes drifted over the three men. "You know why we've asked you here?"

Ellison put forth his best poker face, giving no sign of the agitation he felt churning in his gut.

Simon nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"Enough is enough. We're here for the truth. I'm in no mood for more bullshit, Captain. When this thing first hit the fan, you assured me it was false. Then Sandburg admits to falsifying his thesis." She looked pointedly at Blair, but held his gaze only briefly before turning her attention back to Simon.

Jim listened to the jackhammer pounding of his partner's heart and threw the younger man a reassuring look. Blair didn't seem to notice, though. His entire attention remained focused on the mayor.

"We've given you an extreme amount of discretion, Captain. We've indulged your request to allow Sandburg into the academy. However, our patience is not unlimited. I find it a little coincidental that a dangerous criminal who Ellison apprehended is now being presented as a legitimate Sentinel by a respected medical doctor and researcher."

The commissioner leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. He glanced at the mayor before interjecting. "We've gone over all of Ellison's prior cases and his file. We know about the 'sensory problems' he requested leave for during the Switchman case. The IA investigation. We also went over his IA affair. He testified in front of a panel that he saw --"

Simon took a deep breath. "With all due respect, to cut this short, you want to know whether Ellison is, in fact, a Sentinel?"

The mayor and commissioner nodded.

Simon looked at Jim. "Detective?"

Jim straightened. Now or never. Come clean or lie. He opened his mouth.

"No, Ellison is not a sentinel," Blair interrupted. "He does, however, have one heightened sense. Vision. He also has a very sensitive sense of smell, but not high enough to be documented as 'significantly heightened.' As you know, sensory sensitivities vary among people. Some people naturally have keener eyesight or a finer sense of smell. Ellison's olfactory abilities are simply on the upper tier of the normal populace."

Silence reigned. Finally, the mayor spoke. "Touch?"

Blair shook his head.

"Then how do you explain trial testimony stating that Ellison figured out the precise figure of a dead man's tattoo simply by feeling the subtle scars left by the removal procedure?"

Surprise flickered over the young man's face and he glanced uncertainly at Jim. "Well, uh, scars of that nature aren't indiscernible and..."

"More bullshit?" the mayor asked bluntly. "No heightened sense of taste either? Then what about complaints our office received about Ellison's disturbing the peace at a local restaurant when he claimed his food was poisoned. This was the same time he sought medical attention for 'sensory problems.' No super hearing, either? During the Switchman case..."

"I falsified those reports," Blair interrupted. "I had access to Ellison's computer. I typed up his reports half the time. I needed documentation for my thesis, and police reports are always official documentation. As for the testimony about Ellison 'feeling' the tattoo, that's true. Have you ever tried to feel a removed tattoo? It's quite noticeable, actually. The human fingertips are the most sensitive region of the body besides the lips, having more tactile receptors than --"

"You're saying you falsified police reports? Do you realize the implications of that admission."

Jim sighed, rising from his seat suddenly. "Enough. Look, Mayor, Commissioner, this has gotten way out of control. Sandburg's just trying to protect me and he's obviously willing to throw away his career and his life to do so. He's being a good friend. I wouldn't be equal to such loyalty if I were to allow him to make such a sacrifice. If you're talking criminal prosecution here, forget it. The truth is I am a Sentinel and every word in Sandburg's thesis is true."

Blair shook his head. "Jim --"

"I can prove it," Ellison continued. He tilted his head and looked at the mayor. "Right now your heart's racing. Your clothes smell like cat, so I'm guessing you own one. Black. I can see a few remaining pieces of hair that your lint brush missed." He then looked at the Commissioner. "You had hazelnut coffee sometime today and something with blueberries. You have a slight heart murmur, not serious. You wear contact lenses. You--"

"I think we've gotten the point," the mayor said. "You may sit down, Detective."

Jim shook his head. "No, ma'am, not yet. I'm not done. Captain Banks has no blame here whatsoever. As far as he knew, Sandburg was working on a 'closed society' thesis. That's what everyone believed. Only Sandburg and myself knew the truth. Now, you can do with this information as you please. Fire me. Fine. Go public. Fine. If you do that, my ability to function as a police officer will be severely hampered. Whatever you do is your choice, but I want to make very clear here that neither Sandburg nor Captain Banks are to blame. My partner was simply protecting my confidentiality. He never committed any fraud, but he destroyed his career and his reputation to protect my privacy. He never falsified a single document. Furthermore, he and I are a package deal. I can't use my senses effectively without his guidance, so if he's not allowed to remain my partner, you'll be receiving my resignation."

The mayor stared coolly at Ellison for several seconds, then finally gestured for him to take his seat. "If you're finished, please sit down, Detective."

Jim glanced briefly at Simon before complying. Well, the truth was out and now he had only to wait and see what happened next.

The mayor didn't keep him waiting long. "I understand your reasons for keeping your abilities secret, Detective Ellison. However, the fact remains that you lied to both the commissioner and myself. Do you remember the oath you took when you graduated the academy?"

Jim stiffened and nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"You have breached that oath by lying about a fact that has a material affect on the performance of your duties. Do you agree?"

"Yes." Next to him, he heard Blair's heart skip a beat. Keep a lid on it Chief. Now is not the time to antagonize the brass.

The mayor sighed, her shoulders sagging a fraction. Her expression softened. "I do understand, Detective. I respect your desire for privacy. We'll consider this, for the moment, a medical condition, subject to the same rights of privilege. However, that does not get you off the hook for your misconduct."

Jim nodded. "I understand." So what now?

Suspension? He could live with that. Dismissal? That would be harder to handle. His career as a detective would be pretty much over, even if he moved out of the state. His service as a police officer and subsequent dismissal would be readily available to other recruitment personnel.

But Sandburg was man enough to trash his career to do the right thing. How can I do any less to protect him?

The truth was, he was just as much to blame as Sandburg for this whole mess. I dodged the thesis issue, too. It was me who decided to keep this whole thing secret - even from the brass. I accepted the responsibility that comes with carrying a badge and a gun, and I swore to abide by a certain code of conduct. I hid relevant information from my superiors. In the military, I could be court-martialed for that.

The Mayor seemed to be studying him. "Any thing else you want to say before we get ready to adjourn?"

Jim shook his head. "No, ma'am."

"Very well then. The commissioner and I will discuss your case. We'll let you know what, if any, disciplinary proceedings may be initiated against you. I do recognize your desire to maintain your privacy, so if action is warranted, we'll let you know prior to commencement. If you wish to resign, I promise you we won't divulge the nature of your abilities. On the other hand, if you decide to proceed with whatever action we commence, you'll have to realize that the nature of the charges against you require divulgement of your abilities. Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."

"Very well. You are all dismissed."

~~~~~~~~~~~

They walked to the car in silence. Simon slid behind the wheel, Jim took the passenger seat, and Blair claimed the back.

It wasn't until the captain turned the key in the ignition that he finally spoke. "Well, that was something. What now? We never did get lunch. We could go someplace and talk about this."

"Not the loft," Jim said quickly. "It'll probably be crawling with reporters." He looked over his shoulder at Blair. The young man occupied the seat directly behind Simon and stared blankly out the window at the passing scenery. "Chief? You with us?"

Sandburg blinked, then turned his head to look at Jim. A half-hearted smile touched the one edge of his mouth. "You know Jim, with both of us jobless, we might have to start looking for some good, solid cardboard boxes."

Jim smiled, but something cold twisted in his chest. Things were pretty messed up. "It'll be okay, Sandburg."

Blair held the shallow smile a moment longer before turning to look back out the window. "Are we still doing the official denial thing with the public?"

Jim shifted back around to look out the front window. "Yeah. For now, at least." He sighed heavily, closing his eyes and leaning his head against the neck rest. "I really don't know what's gonna happen now."

Simon cleared his throat, but Jim kept his eyes closed. Right now, he just wanted some peace and quiet.

"Don't worry," Simon reassured them. "I've got plenty of room at my place."

"Hey, we could start our own PI firm!" Blair's voice sounded suddenly so vibrant that Jim opened his eyes and looked at his partner in the rearview mirror. A familiar, amused glint lit the young man's eyes as he met Jim's gaze, and he grinned mischievously. "You know, kind of like Dan Tanna in Vegas. Or maybe we could do the super hero thing. Of course, you'd have to get a much cooler car and we'd have to come up with some kind of signal. You know, like they had the bat signal for Gotham City."

Almost against his will, Jim found himself smiling. He shook his head, a picture of Blair in tights with a cape flashing in his mind and bringing laughter to his chest. He tried to quell the laughter and invoke a measure of insult in his expression, but he glanced at his own reflection and realized he'd failed miserably. "The truck is cool, Chief. It's your green tin can that has to go."

"No way, man. The thing's a classic."

"So's the truck."

"It looks like it belongs on a farm. Do we look like we're anywhere near a farm? If you're gonna do the super hero thing, you need something a bit more intimidating. Something black and sleek. No, make that blue. Yeah, a nice blue sports car."

Jim raised one eyebrow. "And where would we two unemployed, reputationally-impaired men get the money for a sports car?"

"Well, first you'd sell the truck, of course. Then..."

"What about your Volvo?"

"Do I get to drive the sports car?"

"Not on your life."

"Then the Volvo stays."

Jim considered that for a moment. "Okay. Fair enough. What about our outfits?"

Blair beamed. "I got just the thing. No tights man, but something nice and form-fitting on me. Sleek. You'll need something a bit more generous to hide your paunch." He patted his own stomach for emphasis and wiggled his eyebrows at Jim.

"I don't think they make sidekick outfits small enough to fit you, Junior."

"Ouch, man. And who said anything about me being the sidekick? In more primitive cultures, the Shaman is the center of the tribe. A teacher and a healer. You might be Luke Skywalker, but I'm OBI-wan and we all know OBI-wan was NO sidekick. R2 was the sidekick."

"About your height, just as jabbery. Fits perfectly. Besides you're not old enough to be OBI-wan"

"Oh that's just so hilarious, man. Forget it. I'm OBI-WAN. Now that leaves Simon."

"No it doesn't," the Captain piped up. "Don't drag me into your insanity. I don't do tights."

"We're not gonna have tights, Simon. Geez! Haven't you been listening?"

Jim chuckled, glancing at Simon, his eyes drifting over him as though fitting him for an outfit. "Man, now there's a scary thought."

Simon threw him a glare. "Keep your eyes and your thoughts to yourself, Ellison. Now where the hell do you two want to go to eat?"

Eat? Jim raised his eyebrows. Oh yeah. He'd forgotten... actually for a few moments there he'd forgotten about the whole damn mess. He looked back at Blair and offered a small, grateful smile, then turned back around and shrugged.

"You pick, sir."

Damn, the kid was a sly, crafty devil.

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

They decided just to go to Simon's place where they could eat and talk in private. Unfortunately, the hound-dog reporters turned out to be rather smart, because a handful of them were waiting there for them. Apparently, Simon, as Jim and Blair's captain, was also a target.

"Damn." Simon turned the car around before he got within half a block of his house, thereby avoiding the small crowd of reporters. "I should have them all arrested for loitering."

"Yeah, just forget about that whole First Amendment thing," Blair commented.

Simon decided not to reply. He was rapidly getting in the mood for an argument and he knew biting Sandburg's head off would do no good.

Jim looked at the captain. "Where to now, sir?"

"A restaurant?" Hell, where else could they go? Not to the loft and not to the station - not unless they wanted to meet a swarm of reporters. But we can't hide forever.

"I guess so." Ellison's voice sounded flat, resigned. "We'll just have to be careful to keep our voices low."

Simon grunted. "Jim, man, I think this secret thing of yours is on its way out."

The detective sighed. "Maybe." He cocked his head slightly, then looked back at Blair.

Simon frowned, glancing at the young man in the back seat. Sandburg now sat huddled against the car door, once again staring out the window. It didn't require a degree in psychology to read the misery and guilt written all over his face.

Jim shifted toward the back, his movements restricted by the shoulder belt. "Don't look so down, Sandburg. Like you said earlier, things will work out."

Blair didn't shift his gaze away from the window. "I didn't exactly say that."

"What's bothering you - exactly?"

Simon kept glancing in the rearview mirror at the young man. The memory of Blair's press conference suddenly came back to him -- Sandburg's shaky voice, his red nose, and the barely restrained tears in his eyes. It had been painful to watch. Too painful. He hadn't seen it live, but one of the news stations had shown a clip during a later story -- damn them. Like one premiere of the kid's humiliation wasn't enough.

Finally, Sandburg looked over at Jim. "I tried, you know. If your secret really is out and your life's a mess, it's basically my fault. I just trashed my entire career and reputation to give you your privacy back, and now it looks like it was all in vain. I have no career, and the world still seems to think you're a sentinel... And now you might not have a career, which means the academy is out for me, too. So that's what's bothering me, and I don't expect you to say or do anything about it because there's nothing you can do and it's not your fault, anyway." He shifted, rolling his right shoulder and wincing ever-so-slightly. "I'm just not in a happy-happy mood right now. I tried. I'm trying, but I can't help but feel kinda shitty right now."

Jim opened his mouth to speak but Blair raised a hand to silence him. "I know, I know. I made my own choices. You don't have to say it."

The sentinel raised his eyebrows. "I was going to ask if your shoulder's bothering you."

"Oh." He looked back out the window. "No, not really."

"Uh-huh, sure." Jim sighed. "Look, Chief, whatever happens, we'll get through it."

"Boy, you sure changed your tune. A few weeks ago, this was DEFCON one."

Jim shrugged. "Yeah, but I've had time to process since then... and, well, I guess you can say I re-evaluated my priorities."

"What priorities?" Blair glanced briefly at him. "Your privacy? Your life? Your career."

A heavy silence followed the questions, then Jim turned back to face the front. "You... And this thing we started."

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

Blair's eyes stung and he blinked, not quite believing he'd heard what he thought he'd heard. Jim sure seemed to be changing. First, that speech in the hospital weeks ago -- that had been probably the most affirmation Blair had gotten out of Jim during all their years together.

He didn't even come close to that kind of sentiment after I came back from the dead. But then, he BROUGHT me back, so I can't complain too much. Actions speak louder than words, after all. And it's hard to top the kind of message resurrection sends.

Now this small, softly spoken admission. Blair smiled, and he saw Jim's eyes focus on him in the sedan's wide rearview mirror. The edges of the sentinel's blue eyes crinkled, and Blair knew his friend was smiling, too.

Grinning, Blair ducked his head and looked back out the window. He felt suddenly warm inside, knowing he'd made the right decision by sacrificing his career for Jim. At first, when he'd prepared to give the speech, there was a small flicker of doubt inside him. Sure, he'd realized what the real Brass Ring was - his friendship with Jim. He just hadn't known if he still had that. But he hadn't given the press conference to win Jim's trust back, though a very large part of him hoped he would. He'd stood up there and trashed his career and his reputation for a principle. Because he could have prevented the whole mess, and it was his responsibility to rectify it.

And because he couldn't stand to see what the publicity was doing to his best friend.

And because the way Jim looked at him and talked to him made him want to crawl in a hole and die.

And there was something else -- something he'd never told Jim. Something he never, ever would mention. His eyes stung just thinking about it. One moment. A single revelation. It had been the final nail in securing his decision to hold that press conference.

He'd been sitting on the sofa, his mother standing in front of the balcony windows, and the thought had just popped up. A flicker. So sudden and so brief he'd almost missed it.

He'd realized if he had stayed dead at the fountain that day, none of this would be happening. That was an awful feeling -- to know you'd have done your closest friends and family a huge favor by dying.

So, in comparison to death, what was the loss of career? It kind of put everything into perspective.

Living with the decision, however, had almost made death look attractive. Until Jim had looked at him in the hospital... looked right at him, his eyes holding a tenderness Blair had never before seen. And, ironically, Blair couldn't meet that gaze for very long because he knew if he did, he would crumble from the sheer power of it and break down right there. And he didn't want to lose it in front of Jim. He didn't want to see the affirmation he'd finally found in those eyes turn to pity.

Even though he'd been feeling pretty pitiful himself.

"Blair?"

Jim's voice brought him back to the present, and he looked up to see his friend staring at him. Only now those sharp blue eyes were pinched with concern.

Blair smiled, though he was sure it looked rather pathetic. "Yeah?"

Jim cleared his throat, his expression serious. "You can drive the blue sports car, okay?"

Huh? For a second, Blair had no idea what Jim was talking about. Then he remembered the conversation. Funny how serious thoughts could just chase away everything else. Unexpectedly, he found himself laughing. Jim grinned, his eyes dancing, and turned back around to face front.

"But if you scratch it, it comes out of your hide."

"Jim, man, who has the record of destroying vehicles?"

"He's got a point, Jim." Simon glanced at the detective. "I think your insurance carrier would probably mandate that you let Sandburg drive."

"You know, I hate it when you two take the same side," Jim grumbled. "It always gives me the shivers. It just isn't natural."

Simon grunted. "I wasn't taking Sandburg's side. I was NOT taking your side. There's a difference."

"What difference?" Blair leaned forward, grabbing the back of Simon's seat. "You were so taking my side."

"Was not."

"Oh yeah you were."

"You're delusional, Sandburg."

Blair rolled his eyes and sat back. "Fine, protest all you want, but Jim and I know the truth."

"Sure do," the sentinel agreed quickly.

Simon sighed. "You two are pains in the ass and doubly annoying."

"We do our best, sir." Jim grinned and caught Blair's eye in the mirror.  "So where to, Chief? Pick a restaurant and I'll treat."

"All right, I can get down with that. You actually letting me pick and offering to pay."

"Call it a moment of temporary insanity. Now hurry up and decide before I change my mind."

"And before I run out of gas driving aimlessly around," Simon added.

"Fine. Fine. Jupiter's. How's that? Noisy enough to cover our conversations, but not noisy enough to give you a headache, Jim."

Jim nodded approvingly. "Good choice."

Blair raised his eyes heavenward. "Well, of course. I made it, didn't I?"

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

Simon, Jim, and Blair sat at a large, square table in a corner. Blair already knew what he wanted, but the two other men hadn't yet made up their minds. Jupiter's had a very large menu, with just about something for everyone, from greasy hamburgers to vegetarian dishes. There was even a Kosher section.

The soft buzz of conversation hung in the air, which was just what the three men needed to cover their conversation. The last thing any of them needed at the moment was to have someone - anyone - overhear them talking about the Sentinel thing.

A petite, slightly plump waitress walked up to the table, notepad in hand. She glanced at Sandburg, a crease forming in her brow, then her eyes flickered to Simon. "Are you gentlemen ready?"

Blair nodded. "I am, but I'm not sure if the old folks are."

"Watch it, shortie." Jim closed his menu and placed it on the table. "I'll have the bacon cheeseburger with fries."

"Figures," Blair mumbled.

The waitress smiled and looked at Simon. "And for you?"

"Guess I'll have the chicken-fried steak."

She nodded and scribbled the order on her pad, then looked at Blair. "You, sir?"

"The salad and half sandwich -- turkey."

The waitress smiled and marked her pad. "To drink?"

"Water," Blair said.

"Coffee," Simon and Jim chimed.

The woman's smile grew and she looked on the verge of smirking. "Okay, I'll take your menus."

The men handed them to her and she snatched them up. Flashing a shallow smile, she spun on her heels and walked away.

Simon chuckled, turning his head as he watched her leave. "You think she noticed our, uh, diversity?"

"What's to notice? Me the long-haired hippie health nut sitting with two very large, middle-aged guys who obviously scream cop?"

Jim smiled. "Don't look so smug, Sandburg. Or have you forgotten the big 3-0 is coming for you very soon."

Blair's smile faded just a fraction. "Yeah... I did kind of forget, actually." He shrugged. "But it's just another year. No big deal."

Simon and Jim exchanged glances.

"Oh?" The captain leaned forward. "You mean you're not the least bit anxious about turning thirty? Officially becoming an adult. The 'you can't trust anyone over 30' category?"

A flash of something touched Blair's eyes, and Jim frowned. He wasn't exactly sure what was going on in his partner's head, but it was obviously time to change the subject. "So, Chief, I think our waitress likes you."

"Can you blame her, man?" His lips quirked, but he didn't smile.

Simon seemed oblivious. "C'mon, Sandburg. You must have some plans for your thirtieth."

"Nope. I leave that in your capable hands." He grinned briefly, but it looked thin and shallow.

Jim sighed inwardly. Simon, give it a rest.

Before the captain could make another remark, a young man Jim recognized but couldn't place walked up to the table.

"Blair?"

"Yeah?" When Sandburg looked up, his eyes widened in surprise. "Rick? Hi, uh... I mean, it's good to see you."

Rick swallowed, glancing briefly at Jim and Simon. "Yeah, uh, you too. So, how are things?"

"Good. Okay."

"I, uh, I tried to call you earlier today, but you weren't home so I left a message. Funny catching you here."

Blair fidgeted in his seat, his eyes darting to his two friends. "Yeah, well, been busy." That was a lie since he'd just gotten his arm out of the sling and had been sitting on his butt for about a week.

The neighboring table was vacant, and Rick borrowed one of the chairs, sliding it over to the table. He sat down, looking like he wanted desperately to be somewhere else. Jim's eyes narrowed and he extended his senses. The young man's heart was pounding. Something's up. Rick... Recognition dawned on him. This was the student Blair had caught cheating with Ventriss - the boyfriend of the girl that SOB had raped.

"So, uh, Rick, I don't think you've met Jim, my roommate."

Jim nodded, his expression flat.

"And this is Captain Simon Banks."

"Nice to meet you." The captain extended his hand, and Rick shook it quickly, then looked back at Blair. It was obvious even without Sentinel senses that the young man was very nervous.

"Look, uh, Blair, the Chancellor asked me about you. I guess she tried to get a hold of you and couldn't. She figured I might know where you were."

Blair creased his brow, looking a shade paler. "Why?"

Rick shrugged. "'Cause we're friends, I guess." He leaned a bit closer to Blair and lowered his voice, but Jim was easily able to pick up the words. "Do you think we can speak alone for a few minutes?"

Blair glanced at Jim briefly, then nodded, looking back at Rick. "Uh, sure. No problem." He rose from his seat. "Excuse me guys. I'll be right back."

Jim watched silently as Blair followed Rick outside. A large window set next to the glass doors gave him a clear view of the two men.

He cocked his head. Simon glanced at Sandburg and his friend, then back at Jim, keeping his silence as Jim listened into the conversation.

"Okay, Rick, what's up?"

"The Chancellor wants to talk to you."

Blair ran his fingers through his hair, glancing at the window, but Jim knew the younger man couldn't see him. It was much lighter outside the restaurant than inside, and they were seated about ten feet away from the window, so odds were the two young men couldn't see either him or Simon.

"Well, I'm not interested in seeing her," Blair said.

"Look, Blair, please. I mean, she's been on my back. I guess she thinks I should know where you are."

"How did you find me?"

"Stroke of luck, man. I came here with some friends to have lunch. I was heading to the bathroom when I saw you."

"Awfully coincidental."

Rick sighed. "Look..." He glanced at the window and scratched the back of his neck nervously. Then he leaned closer to Blair and lowered his voice. "Can he hear us out here?"

Jim had a clear view of Blair's face, so he saw the flash of pure panic that crossed his face.

"Don't tell me you're buying into all this Sentinel garbage," Blair said quickly.

"Cut the bull. C'mon, don't tell me you really faked your thesis? After the Ventriss thing? After coming after me for cheating? No way, Blair. I've known you too long. Besides, this Dr. Kapler guy says he has a real Sentinel. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why you held that press conference."

Blair sagged against the window, suddenly looking very, very tired. He scrubbed his face over his hands and looked up at Rick. "Can you please just drop this?"

Rick fidgeted, glancing back at the window. "I'm sorry, Blair. I'm not going to go blabbing my mouth off. All I'm asking is for you to talk to Chancellor Edwards. The trustees are throwing a fit. You could have won the Nobel Prize - or been nominated at least. You know what that would have done for Rainier's reputation? Anyway, now with this Kapler thing, they feel like the rug's been pulled out from under them. Chancellor Edwards wants to strike some kind of a deal with you. She doesn't want Kapler to steal the university's thunder, I guess."

"What are you talking about?"

"I think she wants to invite you back."

"No good. I'm not publishing."

Rick looked on the verge of tears and Jim extended his hearing further to listen to the young man's heartbeat. It was racing. What's going on? Why's he so upset?

"Please, Blair," Rick pleaded.

"What's up with you, Rick? C'mon, why are you so persistent about this?"

The other man swallowed and glanced back at the window. "She found out I wrote Ventriss' paper for him. She strongly hinted that if I didn't convince you to see her, she'd have me expelled."

Blair paled. "She can't do that!"

"She can. Blair, man, I can't lose my position. I'm six months away from graduating. You know how much debt I'm in? How many college loans I have waiting to be repaid?"

Jim stiffened, his jaw clenched. Apparently even those in academia weren't above resorting to blackmail to get what they wanted.

Blair sighed, low and heavy. "Yeah, I have an idea." He took a deep breath, apparently steadying himself. "Oh man, I'm sorry, Rick. Look, I'll go see her, but nothing will change. There's no way I'm publishing."

Rick seemed to deflate, his shoulders sagging. "Thanks, Blair. I don't envy you, man. She's gonna pull out all the stops, believe me. Have you heard about Dr. Stoddard?"

Blair straightened. "No? What about him?"

"He lost his grant money."

"What?! Why?"

"Uh... Look, Blair, I just don't want the Chancellor to sucker-punch you."

"What do you mean?"

"Rumor has it the grant committee refused to renew his grant because your name was on some of the papers he'd published a while ago. You know how stiff the competition is for grant money. It's all politics."

Jim closed his eyes. Damn. He knew what this would do to his friend.

Blair spoke again, but his voice was a whisper. "You're saying he lost his grant because of me?"

"No, man. I'm saying that's the rumor mill. Really, I think they'd just had enough of his research. It wasn't really turning up anything new. Right? Remember five years ago the biochemist who lost his grant after 15 years of research? It's not you, I'm sure, it's politics. But that's what I bet the Chancellor's gonna use to get you to see things her way."

Jim opened his eyes to look at the two men.  Blair's face was so white, he looked ready to drop. Jim almost shot out of his chair, but Simon must have read something on his face because the captain placed a restraining hand on his arm.

"Wait, Jim. What's going on? Unless the kid's being threatened, I think you need to leave these two alone."

Jim sighed and nodded, making no move to get up. "Rainier's Chancellor wants to speak to Blair. Apparently she's been blackmailing his friends to get what she wants."

Simon opened his mouth to reply, but Jim raised a silencing hand when he heard Sandburg's voice.

"I can't believe this is happening. I didn't mean to mess things up for you or Dr. Stoddard. I just..."

Rick placed a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Hey, man, I know why you did what you did. I can't say I'm happy about the fall-out, but I understand. As your friend, though, I gotta tell you -- reconsider. I mean, is it worth all this? Would it be so bad if you published? Millions of dollars? The Nobel Prize? Is that guy -- Ellison -- is his privacy worth all these careers?"

Blair's head snapped up. "That's not fair, Rick. I..."

"You're a good guy. You helped me out when I was in a bind. I just don't want to see you destroyed over this."

"Too late for that."

"No it isn't man. Go see the Chancellor."

"I will, but I can't publish. It's not my decision."

"Well, then you'd better get yourself a lawyer."

Blair tensed. "Why?"

"One of the secretaries mentioned the Chancellor's looking into your contract. She wants to see if the university can stake claim to your thesis under a work-product theory."

"No way. She can't do that! She... Oh man, no way."

Rick shrugged. "I have no idea if she can or can't. You're a grad student. You know what that means. You're under the thumb of the university. They pay you. Of course, I don't really know if she can. I'm not a lawyer. I just heard she's looking into it, so, if I were you, I'd find myself an attorney."

Blair closed his eyes and raised one hand to rub his temple. "With what money? I got fired, remember?"

"Look, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I just wanted to warn you... and to ask you to see her. I can't get kicked out. Please..."

"I'll go see her, Rick, but that's all."

"Thanks."

"Yeah, whatever."

"Well, I guess I'd better get back to my friends."

"Yeah, I guess you'd better." Blair followed Rick back inside the restaurant, but the two men parted and Blair took his seat just as the waitress arrived with their food.

She set the plates down in front of each men, then the drinks. With another smile, she turned and headed off. Blair stared silently at his salad and sandwich, and Jim leaned forward, listening to the pounding of his friend's heart.

Blair frowned, lifting the bread of his sandwich. "This is a ham sandwich. I ordered turkey."

"That's easily fixed." Jim eyed the waitress near the bar and waved her over.

She finished talking with a customer and then walked back over to the table, looking directly at Jim. "Yes, sir?"

Blair cleared his throat and offered a weak smile. "Don't mean to be a bother, but I ordered a turkey sandwich. This is ham."

The waitress barely glanced at the young man as she took the plate. "I'll be back with a new sandwich."

Jim frowned, looking at Simon and seeing the suspicious glint in his eyes.

Simon leaned back in his chair. "The service here could be better."

Blair shrugged. "Maybe they just like to keep to a certain standard in their clientele."

Jim frowned, hot anger blooming in his chest. He extended his hearing, listening to the workers in the kitchen.

//"So, what's he like?"// a woman asked.

//"I don't know, and I don't care,"// the waitress responded. //"He's a fraud. Why should I smile and pretend to be nice to someone like that? The guy should be in jail, if you ask me."//

Jim frowned. Screw the waitress. He didn't have energy to waste on small minds. Right now, he and Blair had more serious problems. He leaned forward, his voice low. "We'll both go see her, if you want."

Sandburg looked up, his eyes rimmed with red. "I figured you were listening."

"Who is she trying to blackmail?" Simon asked.

Blair sighed. "Rick. She found out about his helping Brad Ventriss. She's threatening to kick him out unless he can get me to see her."

Jim cleared his throat. "I'm sorry about Dr. Stoddard. I know he was your mentor."

Blair nodded slowly. When he spoke, his voice was only a whisper. "Yeah. I'm sorry, too." He picked up his fork and played with a leaf on his salad plate. "What are we gonna do about the lawyer thing?"

Simon leaned forward. "What lawyer thing?"

Jim answered. "Apparently the Chancellor wants to stake claim to Sandburg's thesis under some clause in his employment contract. I'm not sure what that's about."

Blair looked up, his face etched with worry. "This is a real mess. I don't know what to do, Jim."

Jim looked down at his plate. Anything to get away from the misery in his friends painfully-expressive eyes. "I'm in this with you, you know. We'll go see a lawyer together, on me."

"It can get expensive, man."

"I have money saved up."

"If you get fired, you're going to need that."

Jim forced himself to look up, hoping he managed to infuse a bit of confidence in his gaze. "This will work out. Okay? Trust me. One way or the other, we'll get through this."

Blair swallowed hard, dropping his gaze back to his plate. "Okay. Whatever you say, Jim."

Ellison frowned. God, he sounds so defeated. So empty. It nearly broke his heart to hear it.

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

Blair looked at the limp, slightly damp leaves of his salad and, suddenly, he just wasn't hungry anymore. But Jim's paying for this, so I'd better eat something. He'd offer to pay himself, except he was running really low on money at the moment. No job, no paycheck. He'd given it all up.

But I never thought I'd take them down with me. Rick. Dr. Stoddard. Those were two he'd just learned about. Could there be others? He never imagined the fallout from his press conference would be so wide. He knew he'd destroy his own career, but he never imagined he'd ruin others, as well.

He swallowed hard and stabbed a leaf with his fork, raising it slowly to his mouth. Dr. Stoddard. A graying man with a round face and kind, happy eyes. A man who'd taken him under his wing when Blair had first started at Rainier at the impressionable age of sixteen. A man who trusted me. Had faith in me. Gave me chances when others thought I was too young.

Blair dropped his fork back to his plate and stood up. "Going to the bathroom," he mumbled. "Be right back." He wondered if his face showed what he was really feeling. Probably. That was his curse. He never could hide his feelings very well. Oh he'd done it on occasion when his life depended on it, but when it came to stuff like this, Jim could always read him -- when he was paying attention.

And he knew the Sentinel was definitely paying attention now. He could actually feel those eyes watching his back, boring into his neck. He tried not to break into a run. He needed to get to the bathroom now. He needed some place where he could be alone for just a few minutes. And please, Jim, leave me alone. Don't follow. Don't listen in. Not this time.

He spotted the door marked MEN up ahead and quickened his pace, pushing his way into the three-stall bathroom. Two were empty and he ducked into the farthest one, locking the door and taking a seat on the toilet, lid down. He closed his eyes and focused on just breathing. In. Out. In. Out.

In saving one friend, he'd hurt another. Betrayed another. Damn. Life really sucked sometimes. Oh who am I kidding? It's not life. It's ME. I screwed it all up. I was CARELESS. Stupid and careless. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Someone should just put a bullet in my head right now before I do anymore damage. Before I--

He sucked in a sharp breath. There he was, right back at the fountain again -- that one inescapable fact slapping him in the face. It really would have been better for everyone if I'd stayed dead. He clenched his eyes tight, knowing he was wallowing in self-pity but too deep into it to give a damn.

How am I going to fix THIS? I can't get Dr. Stoddard his grant money. That's already gone. Even if I come clean now, it's already been given to someone else. He'd have to reapply. Months. Maybe a year. What's he supposed to do in the meantime? What have I done to him? I should go see him? Does he even WANT to see me? He hasn't called. He knows my number. He... He... He probably hates me. Can't say I blame him. Oh God, I've messed everything up.

A squeak outside. The door opening. Blair tensed, opening his eyes and holding his breath - a pointless gesture. If it was Jim, he'd be able to hear Blair's pounding heart.

"Chief?"

Shit. "What?"

"You okay?"

"Yeah, fine." The words came out bitterly.

"Obfuscating again?"

Anger flared hot in his cheeks. What kind of a comment was that? "Go to hell."

A sigh. "Sandburg, I didn't mean it like that." His footsteps beat heavy against the floor until his legs became visible beneath the stall door, his shadow darkening the white tile.

Blair closed his eyes and tilted his head back, his anger leaving just as suddenly as it had risen. "I know. I'm sorry. Guess I'm a bit touchy about it."

"Will you open the door?"

"You know, I could actually be going to the bathroom in here."

"But you're not."

"Privacy is a wonderful thing, Jim. Do you always listen in when I engage in routine bodily functions?"

Another sigh. Blair knew he was really pushing the Sentinel's buttons. "Chief, I'm not going to be baited into an argument with you."

Blair couldn't help but smile at that comment. Damn, he really was getting easy to read. "Why not? It'll probably make me feel better if someone yells at me."

"That makes a whole lot of sense, Sandburg."

Blair sighed, his voice soft. "Nothing makes sense, anymore."

"Open the damn door."

The door two stalls down opened. Blair heard footsteps beating a hasty retreat, then the main door squeaked again and slammed shut. Blair chuckled. "I guess we scared him off."

He could almost hear the smile in Jim's voice. "Two guys having a one-on-one in the men's room. I wonder why he took off so suddenly."

"I hope he actually finished his business."

Jim chuckled. "Well, he didn't wash his hands."

"Gross, man. I'm glad I'm not eating at his table."

"And now to get away from changing the subject, will you please open the door?"

Blair sucked in a heavy breath and released it slowly, his shoulders sagging. "Fine. I guess privacy was too much to ask for." He leaned forward and slid the lock out of the hook, letting the door swing inward.

Jim pushed it all the way open, his eyebrows raised. "Thanks. Now, you want to talk?"

"If I wanted to talk, I wouldn't be hiding in here."

A tiny smile softened Jim's face. "It's okay, you know."

"Nothing's okay, Jim."

"No. I mean, it's okay for you to feel sad. You don't have to hide it from me. I actually kind of wish you wouldn't."

Blair's throat grew tight and he cleared it quickly. How could he let Jim see how miserable he was inside? There was nothing like making the ultimate sacrifice and then moping about it for the rest of your life. All he'd be doing would be rubbing Jim's face in it and probably making him feel guilty. That wasn't exactly productive.

Jim took a small step inside the stall. "Look, Chief, you and I have hit some rough spots.."

Blair almost laughed. That was an understatement.

"...but I'm trying to make things different. You're a good man and one hell of a partner. You've stuck with me through all kinds of weird crap, and I want to do the same for you. This isn't going to be easy. The shit's hit the fan all over again but it's not your fault."

"This time," Blair added, dropping his gaze to the floor.

"I didn't say that."

"You didn't have to. I did. All this is happening because my thesis was released. You blamed me for it and I didn't want to accept the blame, but the truth is I could have prevented it. Unfortunately, the cat's out of the bag and there's nothing I can do to put it back in. I know wallowing here in the bathroom isn't going to help anything, but right now it's kind of what I want to do. Okay?"

"Well, hell, if I can wallow and mope, I figure you're entitled to do it every once in a while."

Blair looked up to see Jim smiling. He didn't know whether to feel touched or infuriated. "You're cracking jokes about this?"

Jim sobered immediately. "No, I'm... I'm..." he sighed, his brow creasing with frustration. "You really are trying to bait me here, aren't you?"

Blair took another deep breath and ran his hands through his hair. "I guess so. I just... I just want to yell or... or... hit something!" He slammed a fist into the stall door, then winced. "Ouch. Damnit!"

Jim chuckled. "Easy, buddy, okay. No injuries today."

"I forgot about my shoulder. Remind me not to hit anything for at least another few days."

"I'll make a mental note. Okay?"

Blair finally smiled. "Jim, man, can't you at least play along? I mean, what's with this 'new' you? I don't remember you ever being this patient before."

Jim shrugged, his face growing serious. "I'd like to think I'm smart enough to learn from the past. Let's face it, Chief, when you and I butt heads, disaster usually follows. I figure it's about time we started working as partners for real... and I don't just mean watching one another's back out in the field."

Blair nodded, his eyes stinging. "Thanks, Jim. It's, uh... It's good to hear you say that."

Jim took another small step into the stall. "This thing with Dr. Stoddard -- you don't know he lost that grant because of you."

"I don't know that he didn't." Blair shook his head. "You don't understand what losing grant money can do to a person. He won't be able to fund field expeditions without it. That's what he does to publish. Even when he's teaching, he has grad students at digs in other countries. And, from the sound of things, he won't be getting other grants anytime soon."

"You're one student, Sandburg. You can't ruin a man's career single-handedly."

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Really? I managed to destroy yours."

"Not single-handedly - and you haven't destroyed mine. I'm sure this thing with the brass will work out. There aren't many Sentinel cops in the world, right?"

"Right. They would be stupid to let you go."

"See? So that'll work out. The rest of the stuff we'll just have to work on."

"The university thing is a whole different issue, Jim."

"Maybe, but the first step is for you and I to go see the Chancellor."

Blair nodded, rising to his feet. "Yeah, I know. That should be a whole lot of fun."

Jim grimaced. "Yeah, I know, but we got through the mayor and the commissioner. The Chancellor shouldn't be that hard to deal with."

Blair chuckled, but it sounded bitter and hollow. "Jim, man, you know nothing about academic bureaucrats."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`

"She's been expecting you. Go right in."

Blair swallowed nervously and muttered his thanks, glancing anxiously at Jim as he walked past the receptionist's desk to Chancellor Edward's office. Jim followed, his hearing extended as he listened to Blair's near-frantic heartbeat.

Calm down, Chief. Play it cool and we'll get through this.

Blair didn't bother knocking. He simply turned the knob and pushed, walking right in. Jim stayed behind the younger man, stopping when Sandburg did. They stood less than a foot from the Chancellor's desk, and she smiled and rose from her chair to greet them.

"Mr. Sandburg, Detective Ellison, I'm glad you both could make it."

Blair stood rigid, every muscle in his body tense. "What do you want, Chancellor?"

She moved around the desk to stand in front of Sandburg. "You've heard about Dr. Kapler, I assume?"

"Yeah. So?"

"He's submitted compelling evidence to some extremely respectable journals that Sentinels do, in fact, exist."

"And?"

"We'd rather he not get the credit for your work."

"My work is a fraud, or don't you remember that little press conference I gave after which you told me very clearly to clean out my office."

She smiled. "I believe I know why you held that press conference. It's rather obvious in light of this new information, and I applaud your actions. We've read your dissertation, and --"

"How? Only the publisher had the full manuscript and he only released parts."

"Oh, he sent it to us the moment the Nobel committee was brought into it. It is university property, after all."

"Like hell."

"You were working on Sentinels as part of your dissertation. All discoveries that you make are university property. If you were to leave the university, your notes on the Sentinel research you conducted while under our employ would remain with us."

Jim heard Sandburg's heart do a triple-hammer and he found his own nervousness start to rise. Could Edwards really publish the thesis on her own, without Sandburg's consent?

A distant, muffled sound caught his ear, and he cocked his head. //"Help! No, please! Rob, don't!"// The sound of flesh hitting flesh was immediately followed by a loud thud and strangled cry.

"Excuse me." Without further explanation, he spun around and ran out the doorway, hearing Blair call to him from behind.

"Jim, man, where're you going?"

Footsteps pounded behind him, but he didn't slow his pace. He tracked the woman's low sobbing down the hallway. It was coming from somewhere below him. He dashed into the stairwell and flew down two flights until the crying sounded very near. Emerging onto the floor, he headed straight for a closed door at the end of the hall. Drawing his gun, he burst inside, not wanting to lose the element of surprise by knocking.

"Police! Freeze!"

Two young people -- a man and a woman -- stood calmly in the center of the room, smiling slightly as they looked at him.

"I... What's going on here? I thought --"

"Jim!" Sandburg slid to a halt behind him. "What's going on?"

"A test," answered the Chancellor.

Jim turned around to see Edwards standing behind Sandburg, grinning like she'd just won the lottery.  Shit. From her expression, he knew he'd just been had.

Blair turned to face her. "What are you talking about?"

"I now have incontrovertible proof that Ellison does, in fact, possess heightened senses." She gestured to the two young students. "I'd like you both to meet Sarah Bailey and Jason Marco, grad students here. They were kind enough to help me out with this little experiment. I needed something Ellison couldn't possibly resist, a crime in progress. Of course, no one with normal ears could have heard these two from two floors away."

Jim inhaled a slow, deep breath, feeling hot rage well in his chest. "Come on, Chief. Let's go." He looked pointedly at the woman. "We'll be contacting a lawyer, so I suggest you not do anything with that thesis, or you and the university could find yourselves liable to Sandburg for a great deal of money."

She raised her eyebrows. "Don't threaten me, Detective. I've already spoken with the university's lawyers. I know exactly where we stand." She turned her gaze to Blair. "We're prepared to offer you your Ph.D. and a full teaching position if you agree to recant the statements you made during the press conference. You'll still have to defend, of course, but that'll be pretty much a technicality. We'll also grant you immediate tenure once you officially receive your doctorate."

Blair swallowed, glancing at Jim with wide, almost frightened eyes. For a moment, Jim thought he saw something else in those eyes -- hope, maybe. Then Sandburg looked back at the Chancellor and said, "No. If that's all you wanted to ask me, you needn't have bothered." He turned away from her, facing Jim but not looking at him.

"I see. Well, as I said, we don't really need your consent, but your retraction would enhance our credibility once we release the thesis. It's really not fair for Kapler to profit from your years of research. We already know you found out about Barnes well before he did. It was right in your thesis. The territorial chapter. It was also right there in the police reports, if one knows what to look for."

Blair didn't respond. He walked right past Jim and headed for the stairwell.

"Oh, did Rick ever get a hold of you?" the Chancellor asked. "It's a shame, he's such a bright young man, but, as you know, academic dishonesty is not something we can tolerate at this school, especially in light of your recent confession. We have a reputation to rebuild."

Blair stopped. Standing frozen in the hallway. After a few seconds, he turned around slowly, his eyes angry as he met the Chancellor's smug gaze. "Are you saying that if I don't give that retraction, you're going to expel Rick?"

"That's not what I said. I was simply stating a fact. We have to rebuild our reputation. Now, if something were to happen to restore our reputation, we'd be in a better position to show leniency to students like Rick."

Jim could barely believe his ears. This woman was a real piece of work. He looked at Blair, almost wincing from the abject misery he saw etched on his friend's face. He knew the anguish Blair was feeling. Protect one friend, destroy another. And, in light of Kapler's studies and Jim's revelations to the brass, was there any practical reason to even try to keep Blair's dissertation under wraps? Would it be worth another young man's career? Was it worth the loss of Dr. Stoddard's grant money?

Was it worth Sandburg's career - again? Here the kid was being offered everything back. His job at the university. His reputation. Everything. All he had to do was say "yes."

Blair swallowed, straightening his shoulders as he took a deep breath. "This isn't my decision to make." He looked at Jim briefly, then turned back toward the staircase door and walked away.

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

Blair made it outside the administrative building and halfway to the truck before he heard the rapid patter of footsteps behind him. The delay told him Jim had stayed behind a few minutes to have "words" with the Chancellor. Not surprising. He only wished he had Sentinel hearing so he could have listened into the conversation without actually having to maintain his proximity to the woman.

"Chief! Wait up!"

Blair snorted, but slowed his pace. Like I could ever outpace you, Jim. He didn't bother turning around, though. Instead, he spent the few seconds he had until Jim would overtake him to get his breathing and emotions under control. By the time the Sentinel maneuvered in front of him and put a hand on his chest, Blair had attained a measure of calm.

Jim peered down at him, his jaw hard but his eyes touched with a gentleness that almost stole Blair's breath. "We should talk about this."

Blair nodded slowly, squaring his shoulders and hoping he looked marginally in control. "So talk."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "You want your life back."

"It would be nice." Blair shrugged. "Unfortunately, we can't always get what we want."

"Are you being deliberately obtuse?"

"I'm not being obtuse. I'm stating a fact. My dissertation can't be published. Period. I thought you and I were pretty clear on that fact."

Jim sighed, his shoulders sagging. "Things have changed. I can't see any reason why you should suffer like this if my secret's already out."

"It's not already out -- yet. It's only less 'in the closet' than it was before."

"I'm thinking maybe we should consider… I mean, if she can publish anyway, you should at least get something out of it."

Blair shook his head. "Why would I want to be part of an institution that would do something like this?"

"Don't give me that bullshit, Sandburg. I saw your eyes when she offered you the silver platter. You want it. Don't you think I know what this means to you? You think I've lived with you for over four years without figuring out how much you love anthropology?

"Are you telling me it means nothing to you, now? You've held onto your books for… What? To use them as paperweights? Why the hell do we keep getting the Journal of Cultural Anthropology delivered? You just forgot to cancel the subscription? You don't think I see you reading it? You don't think I notice the way your whole face changes when you get so deep into an article that you block out everything else?"

Blair stared at the grass for a long time, damning himself for being so transparent. Then he took a step back and maneuvered around Jim, resuming his trek to the Ford truck. "Whatever you thought you saw in my eyes back there, Jim, you were wrong."

A hand wrapped around his arm and pulled him back. Jim moved a step closer to him. "I wasn't wrong. I don't understand you. This is obviously what you want. A few weeks ago if I'd have said, 'Sure, Chief, go ahead,' you'd have been dancing on the ceiling."

Blair took a deep breath, wishing Jim would just leave him alone for a little while. No, the guy had to crowd him twenty-four-seven. The man who was the master of repression suddenly wanted to talk everything to death. It was really beginning to piss Blair off. Well, get used to it because you're stuck with him. The bitter words hit him like a physical force and he closed his eyes, silently recanting the thought. This is the Brass Ring. Remember? This is the choice you made.

When he spoke, his voice was low and strained. "A lot has changed in the past few weeks."

Jim tightened his grip, and Blair felt a twinge of pain in his arm. "I know that. You don't need to remind me, but I'm trying to help you, here. Why won't you at least talk to me about it?"

Blair eyes flashed with anger and he yanked his arm out of Jim's grasp. "Because I know what will happen if I take it! We'll both be famous. Yippee! You won't be able to do your job, you'll start to resent me -- again -- you'll give me that look, that goddamned look I can't stand seeing, and by that time it'll be too late and the money and fame will mean nothing! So don't stand there and try to kid yourself into believing you can handle it, because you can't."

He spun around, but Jim's next words stopped him before he took even one step. "What about your friend, Rick? What about Dr. Stoddard? Are you going to be able to put aside your guilt?"

Low blow, Jim. He didn't know how to reply. Would the Chancellor follow through on her threat and expel Rick? That would mean the end of the young man's career. He's a good guy. He doesn't deserve to have his future ruined.

A cold, biting breeze rose, and he shivered, hugging his jacket more tightly around himself. A soft gurgling sound like running water jumped out from the hum of background noise, making the breeze seem even harsher. His eyes searched for the sound and he found it up ahead to his right. A gasp escaped him. The fountain. Right there. Stupid that it took him by surprise. He hadn't even realized how close he was to Hargrove Hall. He wondered what they'd done with his old office.

The fountain remained the same, though. Magnificently grand, deceptively serene. It stood there, unmoving and uncaring, mocking him. He could almost feel it tugging at him, as though it was somehow exerting an invisible force, pulling him forward. He took a small step.

"I should have died."

"What?"

Blair's heart skipped a beat and he tensed. Oh God, tell me I didn't say that out loud.

"Blair?"

A hand came down on his shoulder. He shrugged it off, but turned around and forced himself to meet Jim's eyes. "I said I could have died -- when the Chancellor told us it was all a trick back there with the two students. I never expected her to do something like that." It was a good cover. No one ever accused him of not being able to think on his feet.

Jim held his gaze for several long, excruciating seconds. Then his eyes shifted to look at the fountain. He stood there, rigid as a statue, and Blair watched as those blue eyes clouded. He could almost see the memory playing behind them. Finally, Jim's eyes cleared and he looked back down at him, and, with a sudden pang in his chest, he realized Jim hadn't bought into the lie.

Blair opened his mouth, prepared to do some fancy double-talk, when Jim turned around and walked stiffly back to the administrative building, his back straight and his shoulders squared.

Oh no. What are you doing, Jim? Blair took off after his friend, catching up to him easily. "Jim? Where are you going? What are you gonna do?"

The detective didn't look at him. Didn't even acknowledge his presence. He just kept on walking, his eyes focused on the building and his movements stiff and exact, more like a machine than a man. He ascended the stairs and pushed through the doors, then ducked into the stairwell.

Blair followed, reaching out to grab Jim's arm, but something stopped him at the last moment and he let his hand drop back to his side. A voice inside told him it would not be a good idea to try to stop the man right now. He didn't think Jim would hurt him. No, he knew Jim wouldn't hurt him, but there was something almost terrifying about the way Jim moved -- every muscle in his body tense yet, somehow, he exuded an overall air of unnatural calm.

Jim emerged onto the Chancellor's floor and headed straight for her office. Blair remained at his heels, outwardly silent but screaming inside. No, no, no. He knew what Jim was going to do and there was no way he'd stand for it.

The Sentinel reached turned the knob, walking right in like he'd been given an invitation. Blair glanced behind him, wondering where the Secretary had gone.

"Hello, Mr. Ellison. Glad to see you back so soon."

Blair turned his head back around to see Edwards rise from her chair and move around her desk, a huge smile on her face as she stopped directly in front of Jim.

"This is the deal," Jim began, his voice flat and steady. "Sandburg gets his PhD, full tenure with benefits, and a salary to match your highest paying professor. He works part-time here so he has time to work with me in the field. You can publish his thesis, but he gets all other rights to it. You take no action against Rick. If you don't accept, we can fight it out in court and, after years of litigation during which time Rainier's reputation will be dragged through the mud - I assure you - you may lose and end up with no thesis and a huge judgment against you. So, yes or no?"

Blair took a step forward. "No."

Jim and the Chancellor both turned to look at him, but Jim spoke. "Chief --"

"It's my thesis and my answer is no. No deal. No way. Forget it."

Jim cocked his head, his eyes steady. "It's not your decision. That's what you said, remember?"

Blair wanted to scream. "I don't care what I said. I'm saying 'no' right now."

Jim's eyes narrowed. "It's my decision. My anonymity. My life… And Rick's life. And Dr. Stoddard's life. The original deal was I got the final say on when you published." He turned back to the Chancellor. "Is it a deal?"

Edwards looked at Blair briefly, waiting for him to protest. He wanted to. He almost opened his mouth to, but he couldn't. Jim had known just what buttons to push by bringing Rick and Dr. Stoddard into the equation. The Chancellor smiled and nodded. "It's a deal. Congratulations, Dr. Sandburg."

Blair just stood frozen. He should be happy. He knew Jim was doing this to make him happy, but he couldn't help feeling like it was the beginning of the end.

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