Redemption Part 2

 

Five minutes into the drive home and, still, Blair hadn't said a word. Jim took the back roads, wanting to approach the loft from the rear in hopes of avoiding any stray reporters. Odds are they'd recognize his vehicle, anyway. Maybe he should rent a car for a few days and go in cognito.

Glancing at his partner, Jim frowned. Blair sat motionless in the passenger seat, his shoulders hunched as he stared out the window. It was all *wrong.* Blair looked miserable. He was supposed to be happy. He had his life back. He could publish his thesis. People would know he wasn't a fraud. His good name would be restored. Rick would be able to stay at Rainier. Dr. Stoddard could now reapply for grants and, with Rainier's new prestige and Sandburg's new fame, he'd likely get them.

So why did Sandburg look like his whole life had just ended all over again?

Jim's voice broke the silence. "Talk to me, Chief."

Blair sighed, keeping his gaze focused on the passing scenery. "Did you hear a word I said back there?"

*Yeah, Chief. I heard you. I heard those four words. 'I should have died.' I heard them loud and clear.*

And those words had brought him back to that awful day. He'd found his eyes drawn to the fountain and he could *see* it happening all over again -- Blair floating face-down in the water, his jacket ballooning around him. The pain hit him full-force, stealing his breath. In one agonizing moment, *everything* had been ripped from him. All he could think of over and over again was that it couldn't be happening. It couldn't be happening. He'd give anything for it *not* to be happening.

Thinking back on it made everything else seem trivial. Blair was alive. Jim had gotten his wish. *Alive, but not LIVING.* It wasn't fair. He didn't want to look back and have regrets about the choices he'd made. He sure as hell didn't want Blair to regret *not* dying that day.

And he knew if Blair were ripped from him again, he'd say the same prayer all over. He'd make a thousand promises, just like he made before. He'd scream his secret to the world if it meant bringing Blair back. And he would. *Why do we always wait until someone dies before we say how we REALLY feel about them? We promise them the world, then, if only they'd come back. If only they wouldn't leave us alone. That's what I promised that day, Chief. And now you're alive, and I'm going to give it to you while I can.*

Jim swallowed, taking a deep breath. "I heard every word you said."

"But you did it, anyway."

*Yeah, I did.* "C'mon, Chief. You've been miserable these past few weeks. Now, you've got everything you lost back -- and more -- and you still look miserable. What's wrong?"

Finally, Blair turned his head to look at him, but Jim kept his gaze on the road, keeping tabs on the young man with his peripheral vision.

"Did you hear me say what would happen? The fame? The money? Who are you kidding? There was a *reason* I held that press conference. It was between my career and our friendship and, as I told you before, our friendship is more important. Truth is, though, I didn't even know if you'd want to have anything to do with me -- even after the press conference. Hell, maybe *especially* after the press conference. But I held the conference, anyway, because I wanted to give you your life back. I saw what it was doing to you, and I couldn't stand to sit back and watch that happen. Now, I'm going to have to watch it happen all over again."

"It won't be that way." Jim stopped the truck at an intersection, grateful for the red light as he turned to look at Blair. "Last time, it exploded in our faces. Caught us off-guard. We were in the middle of the Zeller thing, reporters were everywhere, things were spinning out of control. Now, we do it our way. On our terms. We're prepared for it. It's all about control." He allowed himself a small, self-deprecating smile. "So, as you said in your thesis, as long as I'm in control, I'm easy to get along with."

Blair's lips twitched. "Jim, I never said you were easy to get along with -- under any circumstances."

Jim grinned, almost giddy with joy that he'd manage to pry even a tiny smile out of his friend. "Smartass. But, now back to the subject. This is going to work out. You get your career back. Your respect. You get what you deserve. Be happy."

Blair's tiny smile faded and he sighed. "Jim..." He looked back out the window and, when he spoke again, his voice trembled ever-so-slightly. "I just don't want our friendship to get messed up. I know how hard it'll be on you when reporters start sticking microphones in your face again and calling you a freak. Basic fight or flight response. You'll feel threatened. Crowded. You don't run. You can't run. So you'll lash out -- at me and everyone else. You'll... you'll end up hating me for turning your life upside down."

Jim closed his eyes. Damn. Looking back on that whole mess with the dissertation, he could see through more objective eyes just how cold he'd been to Blair. "That's not going to happen." A car horn startled him, and he opened his eyes to see that the light had changed green. Slowly, he pressed the accelerator and urged the truck through the intersection.

"Chief, this time I made the choice. The truth is, I wouldn't be sitting here right now if it weren't for you. The very first day we met, you almost killed yourself to save my ass. You pushed me out of the way of a garbage truck - after I'd assaulted you, threatened you, and belittled you. So, I owe the past four years to you."

"You don't owe me, anything."

Jim smiled. "Oh, I owe you quite a lot. You always seem to know what's going on with me. Hell, when I don't listen to you, I usually pay the price. That first day we met, I didn't listen to you and it almost got me killed. Then, with the Golden, you told me to not get it on my fingers, but I didn't listen to you and I paid the price. When I got that cold, you told me to stay away from drugs and, again, I didn't listen to you. That one almost cost me my life and your life.

"This whole thing with the thesis. That was both our faults. All these years, I danced around the issue. I knew what this whole thing was about from Day One. I pulled you in because I needed you, then I started with the restrictions. I was vague. I didn't want to risk being blunt and pushing you away. If you figured out you wouldn't be able to publish, what reason would you have to stick around? So I stayed vague, telling you I wanted the final say. Big deal. That's about as far as we got. You never pushed either. Probably afraid of the same thing. If you pushed, I'd say 'no' outright and then this Sentinel thing would be over. So, we were both stupid. We weren't communicating and look where it got us.

"So, from now on, no more of that. We talk. I listen to you. You listen to me. No more garbage trucks are gonna run us over. Got that?"

He glanced over at Blair to see the young man smiling at him, his eyes bright and filled with a hint of disbelief. "Yeah, I got that."

Jim grinned and turned his attention back to the road. Maybe he was finally getting through to the kid. "So be happy about this deal, and don't think I'm doing it entirely out of the goodness of my heart. I expect half of any book revenues. And, with your new-found wealth, I was thinking we could purchase the loft next to ours. That way --"

"Oh." Blair sounded almost deflated. "You want me to move out."

"No!" He almost laughed. "No, I meant we could purchase the loft next to us and tear down part of the connecting wall. Make it one big space with four bedrooms. You could make one into a study and we could use the other one for a guest room. I mean, if you want to stick around. And --"

"I want to, Jim."

"Good." He glanced again at Blair, feeling almost foolish about what he was going to say next. "And, uh, if you ever, you know, meet a woman and get married, I was thinking maybe we could put the wall back up and you two could live next door. I mean, these senses of mine aren't going away, right? And you're the only one who really knows what's going on with them. So, I'm kind of hoping you plan to stick around. You know, permanently." He took a deep breath. There, he'd said it. It was out in the open. The ball was now in Blair's court.

And Blair was silent. Jim's chest tightened and he glanced back at his friend. Sandburg was looking at him like he'd just grown a second head.

"Jim, you... you think I'm gonna take the money and ditch you?"

"No." *Okay, I'm screwing this all up.* "I just mean that you might find a woman. It's not unreasonable, right? This time, I just want us to plan for these things. I want you to know you have a home -- for good. No matter what."

He heard Blair sniffle and looked over at his friend, but the young man's face was turned toward the passenger window.

"Chief? You okay?"

"Yeah, Jim." Blair turned to look at him, his eyes tinged with red. "But, uh..." He looked away shyly, a faint smile on his lips, "I never thought I'd hear you say all that. It means a lot to me. If this is all a dream, I'm gonna be real pissed when I wake up."

Jim chuckled and reached out with one hand to squeeze the back of Blair's neck. "It's no dream, Chief. Or should I call you Doctor, now?"

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

Jim smelled the tell-tale odor of cigar and extended his hearing to hone into the drum of footsteps in the hall outside. He'd called Simon right after he and Blair had gotten home from the meeting with Chancellor Edwards. There were several things they needed to discuss in light of Sandburg's changed circumstances.

Jim glanced at his partner, who sat nestled securely in the corner on the other side of the couch. "Simon's here." A fraction of a second later, a knock pounded on the door.

Blair nodded, his gaze focused on the movie playing on the TV screen. "Yeah, I guess he is."

Jim frowned. He was comfortable, damnit, and he didn't want to get up. Glancing at the door, he grimaced when he saw that the chain was locked. So much for just yelling, "Come in!"

"Hello?" Three hard knocks followed Simon's inquiry. "Ellison, are you in there?"

"Yeah!" Jim sighed, rising from the sofa. "Don't strain yourself, Chief."

Blair's eyes remained locked on the TV. "Okay. Whatever you say."

With a grunt, Jim shuffled over to the door and disengaged the chain to let his captain inside.

"About time," Simon grumbled, walking into the loft. "Don't tell me you didn't hear me coming."

Jim closed the door and turned toward his captain. "Oh, I heard you." He threw an annoyed glance at Blair, who had finally turned his attention from the TV and was now smiling up at Simon.

"Hello, Simon."

"Sandburg." The captain nodded a greeting and dropped into the nearest armchair. Then he glanced back at Ellison. "So what did you two want to talk to me about?"

Jim propped himself on the arm of the couch next to Blair. "Sandburg won't be going to the academy, sir." He struggled to keep the grin off his face.

"What?" Simon tensed, his eyes darting to Blair. "Why not? I thought… Sandburg, I thought you wanted this? I mean, it's the only way the Brass will let you stay partnered with Ellison."

Jim cleared his throat. "Oh, I don't know about that, sir. I mean, we haven't heard from the mayor or commissioner yet about this Sentinel thing, but they know Sandburg and I are a package deal. I don't see why they wouldn't let a Ph.D. consult remain attached to Major Crimes, especially now that they know he's the only person qualified to help me with my senses."

"Jim, I don't think… Wait. Did you say 'Ph.D.'?"

This time Blair spoke up, and he was grinning ear-to-ear. "Yes, sir, he did."

*It's about time.* Jim allowed his own grin to surface as he looked down at Blair's smiling face. *There* was the confirmation he needed that he'd made the right decision. Blair was finally allowing himself to feel happy about returning to academia.

Simon leaned forward, his brow furrowed as he glanced back and forth between the two men. "I don't understand."

Jim almost chuckled as he slapped a hand down on Blair's shoulder. "We saw the Chancellor today. We're going public, Simon. She's desperate to publish Sandburg's thesis now that it looks like Kapler may steal Rainier's thunder. Blair's going to get his Ph.D. along with a full-salaried, tenured, part-time position at the university. I figure the other half of the time he can be with me in the field."

Simon sat back, his jaw slack. "Public? Jim, or you sure?"

"Yes, sir, I am." He nodded confidently. "The cat's already out of the bag and, this way, we can do it on our own terms."

"What about every psycho trying to --"

"What? Gain a reputation by going against a Sentinel?"

Simon nodded. "Hell, yeah!"

"I don't think that'll be a big problem, sir. I mean, first, criminals have a vested interest in *not* getting caught. Most, if they believe this sentinel thing, will probably just avoid Cascade all-together. I mean, you don't hear of criminals flocking to cities that suddenly get state-of-the art equipment and develop new crime-fighting techniques. As a matter of fact, that acts as a deterrent, right? Now, I'm sure there will be a few egos out there who'll want to go against a Sentinel and…"

"Gee, Jim, talk about ego," Blair muttered.

Jim just swatted his partner on the head and continued. "And, as I was saying, if they do, that's fine. That's my job -- to catch the bad guys. Besides, Cascade already seems to attract the biggest psychos and drug-runners around. Can it *get* much worse?"

Simon shrugged, flashing a weak grin. "Okay, I see your point."

"And, this way, as Sandburg pointed out a couple of days ago, I can testify in court about my senses. From now on when I see a guy fifty feet away at night beneath a quarter moon in a dark alley, I won't have to pussyfoot around that fact."

Simon nodded. "Okay, but what about your vulnerabilities? If everyone knows about your senses, and if Sandburg's thesis is published, they'll know about your tendency to zone and they'll figure out how to combat your abilities. Need I remind you of Brackett? White noise generators? Dog whistles? Anything and everything else they can throw at you."

Jim glanced down at Blair. That was something he *had* thought about, but hadn't really figured out what to do about.

Sandburg jumped in. "That might not be as big a problem as you think, Simon. First, as Jim is so quick to point out, he was a good cop *before* his senses came on line. He relies on them, but he doesn't actually *need* them to function as a cop. Which means he can turn down the dials to normal and function just fine.

"Of course, that's only when he's expecting countermeasures. There will be times when he'll have to use his senses and he'll be vulnerable to attack. That's where I come in. White noise generators only block his heightened hearing. They downgrade him to normal, so to speak. Big deal. So he's a cop with normal hearing. As for dog whistles, we'll just have to sharpen his skills. I think I can teach him to react quickly to those kind of sensory assaults. We'll practice having him slam down the dials on each one of his senses when confronted with these type of attacks. We've also got those white-noise earplugs if he has trouble with the dials and needs to protect his ears."

Blair looked up at Jim, his eyes suddenly wide and uncertain. "That is, if you'll go along with it. I mean, we're gonna have to do some pretty intensive training and testing sessions. I know how you hate --"

Jim smiled. "Whatever you say, Chief. Remember our deal? I listen to you from now on and you listen to me. No fighting one another."

Blair smiled, his shoulders slumping a fraction with relief. "You'll have to forgive me if that concept takes a bit of getting used to."

Jim raised his eyebrows, mocking a glare at his young partner. "I'm gonna have to do something about this lip thing you've got going on, Chief."

Chuckling, Blair scooted away from Jim, his hands raised in mock-defense. "Now, now, Jim. You touch one hair on my head and I'll add another chapter to my thesis on the inversely proportional relationship between sentinelism and… uh… size of..."

Jim's eyes narrowed and he loomed dangerously closer to the young man. "That's a load of crap."

Blair grinned, his eyes twinkling. "Oh I know that and you know that, but the rest of the world doesn't know that." He waggled his eyebrows. "You *are* still interested in dating, aren't you?"

"You're evil, Sandburg."

"Just defending myself here, man."

Jim snorted and looked to Simon. "You're witness to this blackmail, right?"

"Oh no you don't, Jim." Simon shook his head. "You threatened him first."

"With all due respect, Captain, he started it."

"Did not!" Blair protested.

"Did too, Chief."

"Ladies, can we get back on track here?" Simon let out a tired sigh and shook his head, a slight smile playing on his lips. "I already have to deal with one teenager on a regular basis, I don't need two more."

Jim's face grew serious. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

Blair nodded. "Of course, Simon."

Banks glared at the younger man. "That's, Captain to you, Sandburg."

"Okay, Captain, and that's *Doctor* Sandburg." He raised his chin a fraction as if in defiance, his lips twitching to betray his amusement.

Simon held his stern expression for only a few seconds before breaking into a huge smile. "Okay, Doctor Sandburg." He shook his head, looking up at Jim. "So, you have a doctor for a partner."

Jim grinned. "I sure do."

"I guess this means he'll be making more than you."

"Jim gets fifty-percent of all book revenues," Blair piped up.

"Oh?" Simon raised his eyebrows, looking back and forth between the two men. "I'd better get some kind of a dedication in this book of yours. Something like, 'I couldn't have done it without the support of my all-knowing, all-wise, extremely handsome Captain.'"

Blair looked thoughtfully at Simon. "Captain, sir, just because I admitted to being a liar, doesn't mean I'm willing to actually commit it."

Jim burst out laughing.

Simon scowled. "Watch it, Detective. I am still *your* boss, you know."

"Uh, yes, sir, sorry, sir." Jim stifled his laughter, but couldn't completely supress the residual smirk. God, it was good to hear his partner joking again.

~~~~~~~~

"Yes, Chancellor Edwards, I'm free then." *Like I have any other pressing commitments.* Blair sighed, looking up from the kitchen table and catching Jim's eye as he walked out of the bathroom. "Hold on a moment please." He lowered the cordless and covered the mouth piece. "Jim, are you free tomorrow morning at ten? Edwards wants to hold a press conference and, uh... well..." This part was the killer. He knew his friend wouldn't be happy about it, but it was Jim's idea, after all.

"Yeah, Chief? Spit it out."

"Well, she wants you there for, uh, show and tell." *Deep breath, deep breath. He's not going to go ballistic. I hope.*

Jim smiled and nodded. "Not a problem. Tell her we'll be there." Then he moved passed Blair and headed to the living room, plopping himself down on the couch.

Blair's jaw dropped open and he slowly raised the phone back to his ear. "Uh, yeah, we'll be there. No problem. See you tomorrow, Chancellor." He pressed the END button and stared at the back of the Sentinel's head for several long moments. "Who the hell are you and what have you done with James Ellison?"

Jim turned around to look at him, a relaxed smile on his face. "I knew going into this deal that I'd be put on display. I don't expect you to just get up and claim your research really *wasn't* a fraud without offering proof." He shrugged. "It's no problem. We can think up some suitable ways to wow everyone."

Blair shook his head and rose from the chair. "Call me stunned. I mean, I know this is supposed to be the new you -- err, I mean, the new *us* -- but c'mon, you mean to tell me this doesn't bother you even a little?"

Jim shook his head. "Not a bit. I'm totally fine with it."

"Uh-huh." Blair sank into the armchair, his eyes narrow. "Are you sure, Jim? I mean, we still have time to back out of this."

"I'm sure, Sandburg. Relax."

Blair studied his friend for a few seconds, noting Jim's slightly slouched posture and faint smile. *Damn, he really DOES look okay with this.* "You feeling okay? I mean, you haven't taken anything, right? Antihistamine? Beer? Aspirin?" He straightened suddenly. "Oh God, Jim, don't tell me you ate that stuff in the bottom drawer? That's been in there for --"

Jim chuckled. "I threw it out last week, and, no, I'm not *on* anything."

"You're really, really okay with this. I mean --"

"I'm okay with it."

"You don't have to do this just for me, Jim. I can --"

"Will you be quiet and relax, Chief?" He smiled, taking the sting out of his words. "Just sit back, do some deep breathing, and relax. I'm fine with this. I'm A-OKAY. Got it? Are *you* okay with this?"

Blair swallowed. "I, uh, well, I don't know. I mean, God, I'll be getting my Ph.D!" He smiled suddenly, his chest tight with excitement. "I mean, I really, really am going to get my Ph.D! I'll have an office. I can teach. I can still work with you in the field. Hell, I'll be making money! Lots of it! A real salary! I'll be an official *doctor.* Doctor Sandburg. Doctor Blair Sandburg."

Jim laughed. "Okay, Doctor Sandburg, how about rounding us up some dinner?"

Blair practically leapt out of the chair and rushed to the kitchen. "Sure thing, Jim. No problem. Oh! We gotta..."

"...figure out what we're going to say and do tomorrow. I know."

"Well, the Chancellor has a speech prepared. I guess she doesn't quite trust me NOT to screw it up. She did, however, give me some leeway in deciding how to show off your senses."

"How generous of her," Jim mumbled.

"Hey, she's a... Well, you know. Unfortunately, she *is* the Chancellor. Kind of like making a deal with the Devil."

"Yeah, well, did you tell her we wanted it in writing?"

"Yes, I did. She'll have the contract for us to sign tomorrow."

"Good. I called a law firm and --"

"When did you do that?"

"This morning. Anyway, I'll let them know that tomorrow's the day. They should have someone available to come with us and look over the contract."

"A firm, Jim? Isn't that expensive."

He shrugged. "I've got a nice little nest egg in my savings and, once we go public, I don't think money will be a problem."

"We should draw up a contract, too. You know, stating you get fifty percent of --"

"What? You gonna cheat me, Sandburg?"

"No! I just... Well, I just want to do this right. I want you to know..."

Jim twisted around on the couch, trapping Blair with his eyes. "I know, Chief. I trust you. We don't need a contract unless you really want one."

Blair swallowed hard and took another deep breath. He'd been taking *a lot* of deep breaths lately. This whole thing seemed like a dream. But it wasn't. It was *real.*

"No. That's okay." He managed a shaky smile and walked up behind the couch, extending his arm. "I think a handshake will do. Don't you?"

Jim raised his eyebrows and rose from the couch, turning all the way to face Blair. He dropped his eyes to Sandburg's outstretched arm, then slowly extended his own and grasped Blair's hand firmly. "It's a deal, then."

Blair nodded. "Deal. Fifty-fifty, all the way."

"Not your university salary, though. You keep all of that."

"You sure?"

"Blair, that's your *salary.* Got it? Hell, you put in four years of blood, sweat, and tears at the station without ever receiving a dime. You deserve it. What kind of a guy do you think I am?"

"Okay! Okay!" Blair pulled his hand out of Jim's and held his arms up. "I'll keep all of my salary -- if you're going to twist my arm."

Jim chuckled and patted Sandburg's cheek. "Good. Now, let's figure out how we're going to dazzle them tomorrow."

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

Blair's heart raced and his breaths came in quick, shallow gulps as he paced anxiously behind the couch. Jim glanced over the railing near his bed as he fastened the tie, his eyes tracking the young man moving back and forth downstairs.

"Chief, would you calm down?"

Blair looked up at him. "I'm calm. I'm calm. I'm breathing. I'm calm."

With a chuckle, Jim shook his head and trotted down the stairs, fingering the knot on his tie. "I hate these things."

"Then take it off. You don't have to wear it." More pacing.

With a sigh, Jim moved forward and grabbed Blair's arm as he passed, stopping the young man in his tracks. Placing both hands on Blair's shoulders, he backed his friend around the couch and forced him down into the armchair, then sat himself on the edge of the coffee table. "Breathe, Sandburg."

"I am. I'm breathing. If I weren't breathing..."

"Be quiet."

Blair raised his eyebrows.

"Close your eyes, Chief."

After a moment, Blair obeyed. "Okay. Now what?"

"I want you to take in a slow, deep breath and hold it until I tell you to exhale." He watched silently as Blair complied. Mentally, Jim counted to three. "Okay, now slowly exhale as much as you can.... Okay, now take in another slow, deep breath..... Okay.... Now exhale again.... One more time. Inhale.... Exhale.... Good. Now you can open your eyes."

Blair opened his eyes and he looked remarkably calmer. Too calm. He held Jim's gaze for several seconds, then swallowed. "Last chance, Jim. Do you want to back out? Once we give this press conference, there's no turning back."

"I'm not backing out."

"They're going to be calling your father and Steven like they did before. Some will call you a freak. It might get uncomfortable for you at work -- not the guys in Major Crime, but cops in other departments."

"My father will just have to deal with it. Stephen, too. As for me, I've been through much worse, Chief."

"But you don't have to."

"It'll only last for a while, then it'll die down like everything does. Besides, you think I really care what other people think? The only people who matter to me are you, Simon, and the guys in our department. Those are the men I have to work with every day."

Blair seemed to study him for several seconds, then he dropped his gaze to the floor. "*Why* are you doing this, Jim?"

"What do you mean?"

Blair looked back up at him. "Just what I asked. I need to know. *Why?* The truth."

Jim leaned back a fraction, stunned by the sudden intensity of Blair's gaze. Just what was the kid fishing for? *And what if I give him the wrong answer?* "I'm doing this to set things right." He spoke slowly, deliberately. "You threw away your career, your reputation, and your life's dream to protect my privacy. I've never known anybody who would do that for me. To be honest, I didn't expect you to do that." His voice dropped lower. "I never could have imagined you'd do that. I watched that press conference and it hit me all of a sudden. I'd been a jerk. I did my best to push you away -- short of kicking you out... again. But, for some reason, you wouldn't go." He allowed himself a small smile. "The longer you stay around me, the worse things seem to get for you, but you still stay. I figured it was time I did something for you. For our partnership. It's time I accept who I am -- really accept it. No more hiding from it. With the Chopec, I wasn't hiding. In primitive tribes, do other Sentinels hide their abilities from the tribe members?"

Blair shook his head. "No."

"Of course not. I think that's been the biggest problem between you and me. All this secrecy has kept tearing us apart. It's made you lose everything you've worked for."

Blair shook his head again. "That's not true, Jim."

"Just let me finish, Chief. I know our friendship is important to you. I figured out just *how* important when you gave that press conference. If you can do something like that for me, I can do this. It'll be hard for awhile, I know, but in the long run, after things die down, we'll be better off. You'll have your career and money and all the respect you deserve. I won't have to hide my senses anymore. I can use them freely at crime scenes and when I ask people to be quiet, they'll know why. I can testify about what I see and hear in court and have it be accepted. So you see, this makes sense."

Blair was smiling now, and Jim found himself relaxing.

"Okay, Jim. You ready?"

He nodded. "Ready, Chief."

"The lawyer's gonna meet us there?"

"Yep. He's a shark."

"Today our lives change, man."

"I know. You excited?"

"Oh yeah. You?"

Jim ruffled Blair's hair and rose to his feet. "Of course. My partner's getting his doctorate. Afterwards, we're going to celebrate."

"If we can get past the reporters."

"We'll stay and talk to them for as long as they want. Then they'll get all the questions out of their system, realize they have to get back to work, and leave us alone."

Blair looked up quizzically at him. "That could take hours, Jim."

"You got someplace you need to be?"

"Nope."

"Me either."

"Okay then." Blair rose and followed Jim to the door, grabbing his jacket and keys on the way out.

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

Jim and Blair arrived at the Chancellor's office to see two dark-suited figures standing near the receptionist's desk. As the two men approached, the figures turned. One was a graying man in a dark blue suit and the other was a young woman with small, oval glasses dressed in a navy pants suit.

The woman stepped forward and extended her hand. "Mr. Sandburg. Detective Ellison. I'm Sandra Greene from Baker, Johnson, and Greene."

Jim shook her hand first, then Blair. She gestured to the other man. "This is Rob Miller, the university's attorney. He faxed me a copy of the contract last night. We've made some changes to it and I'll go over it with you now before the press conference. If it meets with your approval, all you need to do is sign." She looked at Sandburg. "If it doesn't, we can haggle it out and, hopefully, make the changes and print out a new copy before the press conference."

Blair nodded. "Okay." He didn't expect there to be a problem. Right now, the only thing that mattered was getting *through* the press conference. He didn't really care what kind of salary he got from the university as long as it was enough to pay the bills.

She carried a small briefcase and set it on the edge of the receptionist's desk. The secretary threw her an annoyed glance, but turned back to her computer without comment.

Greene snapped open her briefcase and pulled out a two-sheet document. "This is the contract. Read it over carefully. Essentially, it contains the following terms. First, you get a salary of $85,000 per year, and..."

Jim spoke up. "Is that what Rainier's highest paying professor makes? I thought it would be higher."

Greene shook her head. "No, this isn't the highest salary, but it's a pretty good salary for someone who will only be putting in twenty hours per week." She looked back to Sandburg. "That's the next important term. It states in the contract that you are required to work a minimum of twenty hours per week. You do get standard sick leave and vacation days, as well as full medical benefits."

"What if he's needs a medical leave?" Jim asked.

Blair raised his eyebrows. *Gee, don't I get to say anything, here?*

Ms. Greene looked back to Ellison. "He gets two weeks of vacation per year and one week's worth of sick days a year. However, he will be able to take a medical leave if a doctor signs off on it. In other words, if he gets shot in the field --" Jim winced, but Greene didn't seem to notice, "-- his physician will have to write a medical clearance note and send it to the university."

Blair nodded. "Okay. What else?"

"The university receives the right to academically publish your thesis any way they see fit. There's the matter of the original publisher who was interested in the work. If that company publishes your thesis, the university gets 25% of all royalties."

Blair nodded. "Okay, sounds fine."

"You maintain all rights to novelization, screenplays, etc. This is the area we haggled over. The university wanted full rights to the thesis. They claimed they already had full rights based on your employment contract, but the applicable term in your original employment contract is slightly vague. I told them if they wanted to go into years of litigation, fine. If they wanted to go forward quickly, we could work out a different deal. At any rate, I didn't think it was in your best interest to give away all rights to the thesis. As it stands, they can publish it academically -- in journals, etc. This allows them to promote it their way and gain the prestige from the discovery, that's all. Any monies that come in from any type of publishing are divided. Seventy-five percent go to you. Twenty-five percent goes to the university. You are not at all precluded from publishing, but both you and the university have to sign off on any publications so that no conflicts arise. In other words, if your publisher takes it, he'll want exlusive rights. That means no one else can publish the thesis. It wouldn't work for you to give him the right to publish while the universtiy has granted someone else the right to publish."

"Okay." Blair nodded. He didn't care about publishing. The university could do whatever the hell it wanted with the thesis. All he wanted was his *job* and *reputation* back. Eighty-five grand a year was way more then enough for him to live on. Of course, Jim deserved to get something out of this, so that $3 million dollars would do a lot of good. Jim would get over a million -- enough compensation, Blair hoped, for the inconvenience of going public.

"About the publisher," Blair began, "does anyone know if he's still interested?"

Greene nodded. "Oh yeah. We did call him. The university has said it will sign off on giving exclusive rights to the publisher if they maintain the right to have you present the findings at academic seminars and other events. The publisher readily agreed. It just promotes the work. The university is only really interested in gaining the prestige from the work - you know, grant money, etc., and twenty-five percent of the $3 million is quite a lot."

Blair looked to Jim. "What do you think?"

The detective nodded. "Fine with me."

Greene smiled. "Good. One final matter - the university wanted you in a thirty-year exclusive employment contract. I didn't like this. Essentially, it meant you couldn't quit. We renegotiated. As it stands, you have an exclusive employment contract with the university *academically,* but you *can* quit. However, you're committed for at least five years to Rainier, then you have the right to terminate if you give thirty days notice. However, if you quit, you cannot work for another university for at least five years *after* the termination of your employment here at Rainer. You can, of course, work with the police department concurrently, so your work with Ellison will not be affected. The university just wants to make sure you don't jump ship and go with another university who happens to offer you more money. The university also reserves the right to terminate your employment after the five year commitment period is up, but they have to provide you with six months notice."

Blair nodded. "Sounds fine. I wouldn't go with another university, anyway. I'm staying right here in Cascade to help Ellison."

"Oh, and, of course, as soon as you sign, the university has agreed to officially grant you your PhD. You don't even have to defend. That's another little bit I worked out for you. I didn't want you signing and then defending and have them refuse to furnish you a PhD by claiming your thesis didn't measure up. Not that I think they'd do that, but I just want to make sure you're protected every way possible."

Jim nodded approvingly. "Good work. Looks like I picked the right firm."

She smiled. "You most definitely did, Detective. We're one of the best when it comes to contract negotiations. Of course, it would have helped if we'd had more time instead of doing it all last-minute." She looked back at Blair and handed him the contract. "Okay then. Read this over. If you have any questions, just ask me. Once you sign, we can go downstairs and talk to the reporters waiting."

Blair nodded, swallowing hard as he glanced at Jim. "Okay." He took the papers, a slight tremor in his hand. "This is really it."

Jim smiled and slapped a hand down on Blair's shoulder. "Congratulations, Doctor Sandburg."

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

It seemed as though hundreds of bulbs were going off simultaneously, and Blair blinked against the harsh flashes, glancing at Jim who seemed equally uncomfortable. "Dials," he whispered.

Jim looked at him and nodded, offering a small smile.

Chancellor Edwards stood at the podium in front of the crowded group of reporters. Voices filled the room like a roar and, when she spoke, they suddenly quieted.

"Thank you all for coming. As you know, Dr. Kapler has claimed to discover Sentinel abilities in Alex Barnes. I'm sure you all remember Mr. Sandburg and his thesis, as well as the fact that he claimed his data demonstrating Detective James Ellison has heightened senses was fraudulent. The truth is, *that* was a lie. Every word of Blair Sandburg's thesis is true. In fact, the thesis also reveals Alex Barnes as a Sentinel. Hence, The credit for these discoveries should properly go to Mr... *Doctor* Sandburg." She turned to look at Blair. "I now introduce Doctor Blair Sandburg and his good friend and partner, Detective and Sentinel James Ellison. They are here today to *prove* the validity of Sandburg's thesis."

She stepped aside and, with a deep breath, Blair walked up to the podium. Jim stayed right next to him. More bulbs flashed and the roar of voices rose quickly as reporters fired off questions. Blair looked down at the prepared speech and read the first line. Immediately, the voices quieted.

"As you all remember, I stood here only a few weeks ago and claimed my thesis on Sentinels was a fraud. The truth is, the thesis is valid. James Ellison is a sentinel. I disowned my work to protect Ellison, my primary subject. An anthropologist's primary duty is to people and, most especially, to his subjects. James Ellison had not wanted his abilities made known and I did the only thing I could to protect his privacy. However, James Ellison has now granted his consent for me to go public and we're here today to tell the world that, yes, Sentinels do exist. We believe this discovery has profound implications for many disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, medicine, and law enforcement. There are --"

"Doctor Sandburg," a male voice spoke up from the crowd, "how do we know Ellison really is a Sentinel? We --'

Blair looked up. "He's here to prove that to you."

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

Jim cleared his throat and leaned closer to the microphone, looking straight at the reporter who'd asked the question. The man was small, no taller than 5'4" and he wore a checkered blazer with a garish, yellow tie. "You smoke. You drink coffee. You die your hair because it's graying. You have a very fine scar just beneath your bottom lip on the right side. You --"

"Okay," the reporter interrupted, fidgeting nervously while his peers either scribbled furiously in notebooks or made sure their cameras were rolling.

Jim let his gaze sweep over the group. He pointed to a woman in the very back. "You ma'am." He zoomed in on the press tag clipped to her jacket. "Ms. Jaden from the Cascade Times."

She perked up. "Yes?"

"Whisper a number as low as you can. Any number."

She looked at him skeptically, a shy smile on her face, then her lips moved.

Jim smiled. "Thirty-two and a half."

"That's right!" the woman announced.

Jim's gaze shifted to a man standing in the middle of the crowd. "Mr. Davis with the Gerald. Whisper anything you want." Jim cocked his head as the man's lips moved, then he smiled and chuckled. "You just recited 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'"

The reporter grinned and nodded. "That's right. Just making sure."

A woman's voice spoke up from the crowd and Jim shifted his gaze to look at her. She was a petite blonde with a cameraman standing right behind her. "Detective, I'm going to write something on a piece of paper. Can you read it from where you're standing?"

Jim nodded. "Go ahead."

She pulled out a notepad and pencil from her purse and scribbled something on the sheet. Holding it up, the writing was virtually microscopic. Jim doubted anybody with normal vision could read it without holding the sheet right up in front of his face. He zoomed in on the tiny scribbles. 555-2134. His cheeks grew hot and he glanced at his partner. Blair simply stared at him expectantly.

Fidgeting, Jim looked back at the young woman. "Is that your phone number, ma'am?"

The room burst into a roar of laughter. Beside him, Blair snickered and Jim shot the young man a deadly look that, unfortunately, seemed to have no affect whatsoever.

He opened his mouth to reply when he heard a low growl. Snapping his head around, he searched for the source, but saw only the reporters. The growl rumbled again and, this time, he whipped his head to the right and saw it. His chest tightened and the room seemed to grow cold. There in the back corner of the room stood a spotted jaguar.

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

Blair must have seen something in Jim's expression, because the young man leaned close to him and asked, "What's wrong?"

Before Jim could reply, the door to the conference room opened and a tall, lean man with speckled hair and glasses walked in. He looked straight at Jim and, a second later, gestured to someone in the hall. Two larger men entered, a familiar, blonde woman situated between them.

Blair gasped, and Jim, his eyes trained on Alex Barnes, placed a reassuring hand on his partner's shoulder. The crowd of reporters followed his gaze, and soon a low rumble of voices rose as Kapler and his companions made their way further into the room. More bulbs flashed, and Alex winced, flinching away from the brightness.

Jim studied the other Sentinel critically. Her eyes looked glassy and unfocused, as though she was drugged. The two men kept one hand around each of her arms as they escorted her toward the podium. Her head bobbed unsteadily a few times as her eyes darted between Blair and Jim.

Reporters fired off questions, obviously recognizing Kapler and his charge, but the psychiatrist ignored them as he moved to stand in front of Ellison. The questions suddenly ceased as the two Sentinels and their companions faced off, studying one another in silence.

Then Alex gave a low, soft whimper, her gaze falling to Blair. Jim heard his friend's heart rate spike suddenly, but Sandburg didn't move.

Alex's next words, spoken in a hushed, strained whisper, caught Jim off-guard. "Help me, please." The plea was directed to Sandburg and Jim looked at the young man to gauge his reaction.

Blair's face had lost all its color, but his eyes were steady as he looked at Alex. He swallowed hard, then looked at Doctor Kapler. "Get her out of here. Are you crazy? Do you have any idea how dangerous it is bringing her here?"

A slow smile tugged at Kapler's lips. "She's been given a sedative. I assure you, she's safe enough right now." His gaze flickered to the reporters. "I think I have a right to be here and defend my discovery."

Blair shook his head. "That's not exactly what I mean, Doctor, but drugs don't always work effectively on Sentinels."

Alex tried to twist away from the two men holding her, but they only tightened their grips. "Please." Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at Blair. "Don't leave me like this. You're the only one who ever helped me. Please. I'm sorry I hurt you. Please help me."

Blair took a deep breath, moving a fraction closer to Jim. "Alex, there's nothing I can do for you now."

Her face crumbled, then, suddenly, she exploded, whipping her head around to bite the shoulder of one of her captors. The man screamed and released her arm, which she then used to smash the nose of her other escort.

"Damn you!" Free, she lunged toward Blair, her hands reaching for his neck. Her fingers brushed against his collar as he stumbled back, but Jim intercepted her, wrapping his arms around her in a tight bear hug.

She slammed her heel down on his foot, and he winced, his grip loosening just enough for her to drop out of the hold and duck beneath him.

The room erupted into chaos as bulbs flashed and reporters moved against one another to get the better view.

"Alex, no!" Blair fell backward as she crashed into him.

She screamed at him, landing several hard blows to his chest as he raised his arms to protect himself. One fist came down hard on his right shoulder, and he cried out, looking momentarily paralyzed by the pain.

A deafening roar rumbled through Jim's skull and he staggered beneath its assault. Then a hot burst of rage bloomed in his chest, primal in intensity. It obliterated all rational thought, and he launched himself toward the other Sentinel.

He felt absolutely none of the attraction to her that he'd experienced in Sierre Verde. Now she was in his territory and going after something that did not belong to her. He tackled her, throwing her off his Guide and slamming her bodily to the floor. She screamed and bucked, but he didn't give her a chance to escape. Reaching one hand around his back, he slid his hand beneath his jacket and withdrew his handcuffs, then, roughly slapped them around her wrists.

"You have the right to remain silent." His voice was low, almost a growl. "Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law." He slid off her, grabbing her shoulders and rolling her onto her back. "You have the right to an attorney." Sirens sounded in the distance and the flash of bulbs washed over him. "If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you by the court."

He moved away from her, every muscle in his body tense, quivering with the strain of restraint. Inside, the lust for combat pulsed through his veins, but he held it back. He was a Sentinel, but he was also a cop, and he had a duty to perform -- an oath to uphold.

And a partner to protect. Spinning around, he saw Blair curled on the floor, his left hand clutching his right shoulder. His eyes were clenched tight, his face twisted with pain. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead, and his breathing came in shallow, quick gasps.

"Blair!" Jim scrambled toward his friend. "Someone call an ambulance!" The sirens screamed outside, and everyone could now hear them, but those were police sirens. Blair needed medical attention.

"Come on, Chief. Let me see."

Blair relaxed infinitesimally as Jim pulled the young man's hand away from the injured shoulder. Quickly, he unbuttoned Sandburg's shirt and pulled the material aside, then tugged at the collar of the cotton undershirt to get a look at the shoulder.

Blair's stitches had been taken out already, but the scar was still fresh. The small, mended wound where the bullet had penetrated looked swollen and red. Jim brushed his fingers over it, feeling the heat of inflammation.

"Oh man, that hurts." Blair finally opened his eyes, taking a deep breath and uncurling even more.

"Is he okay?"

Jim looked up to see a crowd of people around him, but it was the Chancellor who had spoken. She looked down at Blair, her brow furrowed with concern. Jim raised his eyebrows, wondering whether she was genuinely concerned for Blair or for her investment. After all, as it stood, Sandburg was the world's only known expert on Sentinels.

Blair struggled to sit up, and Jim slid his hand beneath the young man's back to help him up. "He'll be okay, I think."

Blair took another deep breath and nodded his agreement. "I'm fine, Chancellor. She just hit me in my bad shoulder. I was shot recently and it's still a bit sore."

"A bit?" Jim grabbed Blair's good arm and helped him to his feet. "I'd say it just got aggravated quite a bit. We should go get it checked out. Her punch could have reopened something beneath the surface."

Blair shook his head, rolling his shoulder experimentally and wincing only slightly. "No, I think it's okay."

"Chief, you had *surgery.* The tissue hasn't completely healed yet."

"It feels fine." Blair turned away from Jim to look at Doctor Kapler, his eyes flashing with anger. "And now do you see? You have no idea what you're doing with her. You can't just pump her full of drugs and bring her face-to-face with another Sentinel on non-neutral territory."

Kapler took a step back as more camera bulbs flashed. The reporters had grown strangely quite, apparently wanting to let the events unfold as they would -- on camera.

The doors burst open and three uniformed officers rushed in. Jim waved them over to Alex, who was curled in a ball with her hands behind her back, her eyes staring blankly ahead.

"Take her. She's not in her right mind, so be careful. She's dangerous." He jabbed his thumb toward Dr. Kapler. "Take him in, too. He's her physician." Jim turned his gaze to Dr. Kapler, waiting for him to protest, but the doctor simply nodded and shuffled over to his patient.

Jim draped an arm carefully across Blair's shoulders, being very careful not to jar his injured one. He swept his gaze over the group of reporters. "This conference is now over. Thank you all for coming. If you have anymore questions, the Chancellor here is fully equipped to answer them."

His announcement was met with another flurry of flashes and questions as he gently steered Blair toward the door. He gestured to one of the uniforms, who nodded and stepped in front, clearing a path through the mass of bodies so that Jim and Blair could get through without much jostling.

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

"How's your shoulder?" Jim turned left at the intersection, heading toward the loft.

"It's fine. Pain's almost gone."

"You sure you don't need to go to the hospital?

"Jim, man, it's fine!"

"Sorry."

Blair sighed, closing his eyes and tilting his head against the seatback. "Sorry. Didn't mean to snap."

Jim nodded, frowning as he glanced at his partner. Blair's heart rate was still elevated and, although he was doing a good job of looking composed, the tiny tremors in his hands couldn't escape Sentinel eyes.

"Well, Chief, at least we gave them a good show."

Blair barked a laugh, opening his eyes to look at Jim. "Oh yeah. That we did."

"You okay?"

"I said I'm --"

"I don't mean the shoulder."

Blair averted his gaze, looking at the road ahead. "Just a little shaky, I guess. I wasn't expecting that."

"Really? You mean getting body-slammed by another Sentinel wasn't listed in your contract?"  Jim was rewarded by a quick smile from his partner.

"Funny, man."

Funny, but there was more serious business they needed to discuss, as well. "I saw the jaguar before she came in."

"So that's what you were looking at."

Jim tapped the steering wheel thoughtfully. "I guess that means she *is* still a Sentinel."

"She'll always have her senses -- or at least the potential for them. Right now, they're just out of control because she fried her circuits back at the temple."

"She's insane." Jim pulled the truck in front of their apartment building.

"Definitely." The anthropologist glanced at him, his eyes wide and uncertain. "What happened with you back there?"

Jim's jaw twitched. "What do you mean?" He turned the key, shutting off the engine.

Blair sighed tiredly. "C'mon, man, I thought we weren't gonna do this, anymore."

Jim shifted in his seat to face Blair. "You're right. Sorry. It's just... I'm not exactly sure what happened. I almost lost it."

"I know. I saw it in your face. In your eyes. Hell, you were shaking, Jim."

"I felt... rage. Strong. I... I wanted to..."

"Hurt her? Kill her?"

Jim's flinched visibly, then his eyes hardened. "I wanted to bash her skull into the floor."

Blair's face remained impassive. "So there wasn't any attraction this time, I take it?"

"No way. Weird."

"Not really. This time she was back in your territory. Like I said before, it's instinctual. When she's invading your turf, your hackles rise. When you're both on neutral territory, other drives take over."

"Drives?"

Blair nodded, but he lowered his gaze, his face uncertain. "You probably don't want to hear this."

"Go ahead. You're going to compare me to a samon, or something, aren't you?"

Blair looked back up at Jim, his lips twitching. "Not exactly, but you got the idea. You're not going to get offended, are you?"

"Just spill it."

"Okay. Well, we all have drives. *All* humans have drives. Sex drive. Defense drive. In fact, all animals have these drives, but there are some differences between species. Take dogs. They have sex drive, defense drive, play drive, and pack drive. As a man, Jim, you have certain drives. As a Sentinel, you have other drives. When confronted with another Sentinel in your territory, you go into defense drive. Fight or Flight. You aren't going to be run out of your own territory, so that means you're going to fight. When you're not within your territory, this defense drive isn't triggered simply by another Sentinel. So, other drives come to the forefront. Sentinel genes are rare and pretty advantageous. It makes sense that when two Sentinels of opposite genders meet on neutral territory, their sex drive takes over to propagate the Sentinel genes."

Jim considered that explanation. It fit. It made sense. Odd, but now that he'd come out of the closet, so to speak, he felt more relaxed. He could listen to Blair's detached, clinical explanation and hear the truth behind the words. As he thought about them, he realized that's exactly how he'd been feeling. "You're right. It makes sense, Chief."

Blair smiled, his eyebrows rising in surprise. "Really?"

Jim couldn't help but chuckle. "Yeah, really. Don't look so surprise. You're the doctor, after all."

Blair looked away, a hint of embarrassment coloring his cheeks. "Thanks." He grinned, but still kept his gaze averted. "I think I know a way to combat your sex drive, though, so you're never, ever attracted to Alex again. Ever."

Jim tilted his head. "Feel strongly about it, huh? Well, I'm game. How?"

Blair finally looked back at him with serious, solemn eyes. "You need to be neutered."

Jim choked on his own saliva, his eyes tearing as he coughed. Blair was now grinning unabashedly. Finally, he got himself under control and reached out, grabbing the back of his smartass partner's neck and giving him a firm shake. "Watch it, Junior, or I'll take *you* to the groomers and have them give you a buzz cut."

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

The elevator languished to a halt at the third floor. Jim's sensitive ears picked up the murmur of voices from inside the loft, and he cursed silently. He'd forgotten. *How* could he have forgotten?

*Damn.* The thing with Alex must have affected him more than he'd thought. He glanced at Blair, trying to gauge the young man's mood. Sometimes it was hard with Blair. The kid so often put forth a front, always trying his best to convince everyone he was okay.

Like now. Jim could tell Blair was in pain. For one thing, the anthropologist was still favoring his right shoulder, keeping it and his right arm unnaturally still. A pang of guilt twisted in Jim's chest as he once again thought of the *reason* Blair now had a bum shoulder.

*My gun. My bullet. My fault.*

"You gonna open the door?"

Jim snapped back to the here-and-now, realizing he was standing in front of the loft door. Inside, he could hear Simon's voice.

//"I don't know if Sandburg's gonna be up to this."//

//"We could call."// Joel's voice. //"Maybe he's at the hospital. Sandburg looked pretty rough."//

Jim sighed and looked at Blair. "You feeling okay?"

Blair shrugged his left shoulder. "Yeah. I told you, already. I'm fine."

*Uh-huh.* Jim withdrew his keys and unlocked the loft door. This was all part of the plan. Considering the effort that had been put into this little event, it would be nice to go through with it. Besides, food was a-wasting inside. He could smell the tempting aroma of sauce and cooked beef, combined with the sweeter scent of chocolate and graham cracker.

But if Blair wasn't up to enjoying the festivities, it would all be pointless. He didn't want to spoil the surprise for his partner, but at the same time, he didn't want to spring this on Blair if it wouldn't be welcome.

*Only one way to find out.* He opted to go through with the surprise, but he'd gauge Blair's reaction. If it looked like his friend wasn't really *into* it, he'd figure out a polite way of getting everybody out. That shouldn't be too hard. From what he'd heard, they must have seen the news, so they'd understand if he called a premature end to the party.

He pushed the door open partway, moving in slowly and blocking Blair's view. Inside, Simon, Rafe, Joel, Brown, Megan, Rhonda, Daryl, and Naomi were all gathered around the living room. The TV news played on the screen, showing the Chancellor at Rainier still answering reporter's questions.

Jim nodded quickly to give them the go-ahead. Immediately, the TV went dark as the men and women scrambled into a huddled group near the kitchen. Jim opened the door all the way to let Blair inside.

"'Bout time, Jim. What's going...."

"SURPRISE!!"

"Whoa!" Blair jumped, wincing as he jarred his bad shoulder. Jim heard the instant spike in the young man's heartbeat, but then the flash of fear on the young man's face melted to a surprised smile and he stepped all the way into the loft, his eyes wide as he took in the banquet spread out on the table, oven, and kitchen aisle.

A pot of meat sauce simmered on the stove next to a colander of pasta. On the aisle sat a dish of pita and tongue. The table was covered with a bright blue cloth, and in the center rested an enormous, round cake with the words, "Congratulations, Doctor B.S. We always knew you were full of it!"

Blair turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. A large banner hung from the railing of Jim's bedroom, proclaiming "You're not a cop, Sandburg! You're a doctor!" in large, bold letters.

Blair's smile grew until it took over his whole face. Naomi walked up to him, her eyes bright, but there was a hint of concern around their edges. "Are you okay, honey?"

He nodded reaching out with both arms to draw her into a hug, though Jim detected a slight flutter in Blair's heartbeat that betrayed the pain that maneuver caused him.

"Yeah, Mom, I'm fine."

"We saw it on the news."

"It was no big deal." He pulled back, then gestured to the cake. "This is great. I can't believe you guys did this."

Jim recognized his partner's attempt to change the subject and decided to help him. "Yeah. Can you believe the size of that cake?"

"I know. It's awesome." Blair grinned, moving away from his mother to stand over the behemouth dessert.

"Yeah." Joel chuckled. "I say we skip the meal and just cut into the cake."

"No way. I want some real food." Simon moved forward, gazing sternly down at Blair, but the edges of his eyes crinkled with affection. "You know what this means, Sandburg?"

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Uh, no, Simon. What's that?"

"You have to call me 'Captain.'"

Blair's brow furrowed and he glanced in confusion at Jim, but Jim made sure his face betrayed nothing. Turning back to Simon, Blair shook his head. "Uh, how do you figure that? I mean, I'm not going to be a cop so..."

Simon reached into his pocket and withdrew a leather fold, opening it to reveal a shiny "badge." Blair's eyes widened and he took the offering, holding it up for inspection. His lips formed a smile as he read the words on the metal. "Blair Sandburg, Special Consultant."

"Wow. Simon." Blair looked up, his jaw slack. "What does this mean, exactly?'

"Well, I got official word from the Brass." Simon glanced up at Jim. "Seems Ellison gets off with a two-week paid suspension." He winked. "Consider that vacation time. You'll need it to escape the reporters. Anyway, they want to keep the nation's only known, functioning Sentinel on the Cascade PD, and that means they need you. Knowing your aversion to guns, and now that you're a PhD, they decided to create a job title for you."

"A job title? So I don't need to go to the academy?"

"Nope, *and* you get a paycheck."

"Really? Wow." He looked at Jim. "Man, I'm gonna pay back my loans in no time. Two paychecks!" He looked back at Simon and tilted his head. "How much?"

"Based on part-time status -- twelve thousand a year."

Blair nodded approvingly. "Man, that means I'll be making close to a total of one hundred grand a year." He chuckled. "All right!"

Jim slapped his partner on his good shoulder. "Yeah, Chief. That means I'd better get a damn good christmas present this year."

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

Blair got to the last present, a red-wrapped box with a bright yellow bow on top. Jim could see the lines of pain etched around Blair's eyes. It was obvious his shoulder was bothering him.

"Hey, Chief, let me unwrap that one for you. I don't see why you should get all the fun."

Blair smiled gratefully and shifted on the couch, sweeping his left hand over the gift in a gesture of permission. "Go ahead, man. Be my guest."

Jim grabbed the box, then pulled off the envelope taped to the top and opened the it. He pulled out a card with a drawing of a graduation cap on the front. Opening it, he read the contents. "Congratulations, Doctor Sandburg. From, Megan."

"Okay, now open it," the Australian inspector prodded, leaning forward in the armchair with a huge grin on her face.

Jim tore off the paper ungracefully to reveal a plain, white box. Popping the top, he looked inside and smiled. Then chuckled.

"Come on, man." Blair slapped Jim's knee. "What is it?"

Jim managed to school his expression as he reached into the box with both hands, grabbing each item delicately. When he lifted them out of the box, he almost burst out laughing at the expression on his partner's face.

Blair's cheeks went red as he stared at the silk boxer-and-tie matching set. Both were bright red and decorated with little, black graduation caps. One of the guys standing behind the couch let loose a cat call and Blair's blush deepened.

"Model it for us, Sandburg!" Brown yelled, slapping a hand down on Blair's good shoulder.

Megan chuckled. "Oh that would be something I'd stay late to see."

Jim dropped the items back into the box, and Blair snatched it out of his hand, setting the gift on the floor as he looked up at Megan. He cleared his throat and smiled bashfully. "Uh, thank you Megan. Who knows, we ever go undercover again, maybe you *will* get to see me model them."

She smiled, a hint of red finally touching her cheeks. "Oh, I don't bother with covers."

Blair choked, coughing violently, and Brown patted him on the back. "Now look, Connor, you embarrassed him."

Jim laughed as Blair struggled to get himself under control. "Yeah, I think you offended his sense of chastity."

Simon snorted. "What chastity?"

"Hey, hey guys." Blair raised his hands. "Cut me some slack. I'm not *that* bad."

"Oh yes you are," they all rang in unison.

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

Hours later, Jim dried the last cup and placed it in the strainer. Turning, he caught Naomi's smile as she finished wiping the counter and tossed the rag into the sink. She jerked her chin toward the couch and raised one finger to her lips. Jim walked over to the sofa and peered down at the crumpled, sleeping figure propped awkwardly against the arm of the couch.

Blair lay on his left side, his head at an uncomfortable angle against the arm. One sneakered foot had found its way onto the cushions, while the other dangled off the edge. Even in sleep, Jim could still make out the faint lines of pain on the young man's face.

"He needs a pain pill." Turning to the kitchen, he flashed a reassuring grin at Naomi. "He still has half a bottle left."

She nodded. "I know. He hates taking them."

Jim reached to the top of the the refrigerator and grabbed the bottle of pills, opening the cap and spilling one into his hand. Recapping the bottle, he returned it to its proper place, then grabbed a clean cup from the strainer and filled it partway with tap water.

"You want to stay in his room tonight?" Jim propped himself on the coffee table in front of the sofa and gently tapped Blair's cheek. "Hey, Chief. Wake up."

"No. Actually, I ran into an old friend and we're going to head to Seattle. I figured you two have had enough of me for a while."

Blair groaned as Jim looked up at the woman sharply. "That's not true, Naomi."

She smiled sweetly. "Thank you, Jim, but I think you two need to spend some time alone. Go take a vacation."

"'im?"

Jim looked down. Blair was blinking up at him groggily. "Pain pill, Chief." He held out the pill and the young man obediently opened his mouth, looking barely awake. Jim raised his eyebrows, somewhat surprised by his partner's easy acquiescence, but decided not to question good fortune as he quickly popped the pill in Blair's mouth. Jim held the cup to his friend's lips, letting him take a sip to wash back the pill.

"Mmm. Thanks." Blair's eyes closed and he sagged back against the arm of the couch, wincing only slightly from the movement.

Jim grabbed the afghan from the back of the couch and draped it over his friend. Blair stirred again and cracked his eyelids open a fraction.

"I'd 'lper," Blair mumbled drowsily.

Jim leaned forward. "What was that, Chief?"

"I'd help her," he enunciated more clearly, his eyes drifting closed, "if I could."

Jim stroked his hand across the top of Blair's head. "I know you would."

~~~~~~~~~~~

"Dr. Kapler, this is Blair Sandburg."

Jim trotted down the stairs, seeing his partner seated at the kitchen table as he talked into the cordless phone. Jim was a bit surprised to hear Blair talking with Kapler, but he didn't have any trouble figuring out the reason.

"Look, this will just take five... No, Doctor, I'm not trying... Will you just listen to me for a second?" Blair sighed, holding the phone with his left hand. It was obvious he was still taking it easy with his right shoulder. "Thank you," the young man continued. "I just want to inquire about Alex Barnes... Yes, I know... No, that's not why... I just thought you *might* be interested in knowing that Sentinels have unusual reactions to drugs... No... No, I'm not a medical *doctor.* Look... Well, you obviously haven't got a clue because... No! Will you... I thought you'd want what's best for your patient... I see. Fine... Uh-huh. Good-bye."

With a frustrated sigh, Blair hung up and tossed the phone onto the table. "Damn."

"He wasn't receptive, I take it?"

"He's a jerk!" Blair rose from the table and grabbed the cordless, setting it back on the base.

Jim shrugged. Yeah, Kapler was a jerk, but there wasn't much that could be done about Alex. *Even if I cared all that much.*

Odd. How could he have felt such *overpowering* attraction to her in Sierra Verde and now be left with only this animosity? Sure, Blair's explanation made intellectual sense, but inside it just felt strange. Not that he didn't believe Blair's theory. In fact, he *knew* it was right. It felt right. It just didn't feel *normal* to go from that kind of intense attraction to this kind of intense hatred. Well, not hatred really. Yeah, for a moment back there when she'd attacked Blair, he'd wanted to kill her. Really kill her. But that desire was gone. Now he just wanted her *out of the way.*

And he definitely wanted her out of his mind. Time to change the subject. "How's the shoulder?"

Blair nodded once. "Okay."

Jim shuffled to the table and pulled out a chair. "Sit."

With a sigh, Blair dropped into the seat. "It's fine, Jim."

"I just want to take a look."

"Look. Don't touch, man."

"If it's fine, then you shouldn't be worried about me touching it."

"It's just sore, that's all." Slowly, Blair began to unbutton his top shirt. Jim noticed that he was using both hands. That, at least, was a good sign.

However, getting the shirt off proved to be an entirely different issue and required a lot more movement. Jim watched silently as Blair slipped out of the left sleeve, then eased his way out of the right one.

"Uh-huh. Sore, Chief. Sure. Now, what about the undershirt?"

Blair sighed, looking defeated. "Okay, okay. So I can't raise my right arm."

"How did you get the undershirt *on?*"

"By totally stretching out the collar, thank you very much."

Jim couldn't help but grin at the exaggerated annoyance in Blair's tone. "Here, let me." He reached for the collar and yanked it over Blair's head, then pulled it forward off his arms. "See. Piece of cake."

"Yeah, yeah. Just hurry up because it's cold and now I'm gonna have to get dressed *again.*"

"Why won't you just let me take you to the hospital?"

"Okay."

Jim blinked. "What?"

"If it'll shut you up, I'll go. But only because you're being a nag about it."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "It hurts that badly?"

Blair ducked his head a fraction. "Yeah."

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

Blair sat on the exam table, bare-chested, his legs dangling over the edge. He shivered slightly. Why did hospitals always feel so *cold?* It was fifty degrees outside but they *still* had the air conditioning on.

The doctor placed one hand firmly on Blair's injured shoulder. "Well, it looks like you've got some nice bruises here. I saw the press conference, by the way. She hit you pretty hard."

"Yes, I suppose." Blair forced himself to hold still while the doctor probed the shoulder. Had *everyone* seen the newscast?

"I was wondering when you'd finally get around to seeing me. I was just about to call and check up on you myself."

Blair shrugged his good shoulder. "I don't think it's that bad. It just hurts a bit."

"A bit?" The doctor grinned. "If you say so. You seem to be favoring it rather significantly." He gently probed the wound. "Does this hurt?"

Blair winced. "A little."

"Can you move the shoulder for me?"

Slowly, Blair rotated his shoulder, trying to ignore the flare of pain in the muscle.

"Does it hurt when you move it?"

"A little."

The doctor raised his eyebrows skeptically. "On a scale from one to ten, ten being the worst, how badly does it hurt when you move it?"

Blair sighed. "Six, maybe."

The doctor nodded. "Okay,  it feels hot, and you've got some significant bruising. There's also swelling around the wound. I'm going to order some tests. See if you've got an infection. We'll do that now.  Hold on a second." He turned around and left the room, his shoes squeaking on the tile floor as he made his retreat down the hallway.

~~~~~~~~~

Jim fidgeted uncomfortably in the chair. An hour and a half had passed since Blair had disappeared into the examination room. That couldn't be good. If his shoulder was okay, he'd have been in and out.

*So what's taking so long?* He shifted again. Five other people filled the spacious waiting room, and he tried not to pay attention to their curious, furtive glances. Apparently, almost all of Cascade had seen the newscast. Reporters were still hounding him and Sandburg, but at least the paparazzi groups had stopped.  Now, all they had to deal with were phone calls and interview requests.

Several minutes later, Jim spotted Blair's doctor heading toward him. He tried to gauge the man's expression, but the physician's features looked remarkably neutral. Quickly, Jim rose from his seat.

"How's Sandburg?'

The doctor stopped directly in front of him. "He's got a staph infection and we've put him on intraveneous antibiotics. He'll have to stay overnight, I'm afraid."

"Overnight? How serious is it?"

The doctor sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "Moderate. It would have been better had he come in earlier. We could have nipped it in the bud. Unfortunately, it's had time to gain momentum. I won't lie to you. This type of infection can be pretty serious, but we've put him on a very aggressive antibiotic regimen and I'm fairly confident it'll be successful."

Jim swallowed, his gut twisting. Damn. He should have brought Blair to the hospital right after the attack. He should have *insisted.* "What if it's not successful/"

The doctor hesitated a moment. "Well, uh, worst case scenario? Amputation."

Jim stopped breathing. *No.*

"But I really don't think it'll come to that." The doctor offered a small smile that was obviously meant to be reassuring. "The infection isn't *that* progressed and, although he has a fever, it's not very high. I'm pretty sure this regiment will work. Let's not worry too much about what *could* happen until we see how the infection responds to the treatment. Okay?"

"How long has the infection been going? He was attacked --"

"Yes, I know. I saw that. Odds are he had a low-level infection before that. The tissue trauma probably just kicked it into high gear."

"Can I see him?"

The physician smiled. "Sure. He's been asking about you. He wanted to come out here earlier and tell you to go home -- once he knew he'd be staying overnight. I told him I'd take care of it, but things have been busy here.  Sorry I kept you waiting this long."

"Not a problem. Can you take me to him, now?"

"Yes. He's in a room hooked up to an IV. Just follow me."

~~~~~~~~~

Dr. Kapler studied Alex Barnes. She lay strapped to the mattress, her eyes vacant and glassy as they stared at the ceiling. Her lips moved, repeating a silent mantra over and over again.

She was, without a doubt, insane. *But why?* He'd poured over her file. Before going to Sierra Verde, she'd been functional, bordering on brilliant. Yes, she'd been a criminal, but the fact that she'd been so successful proved she'd possessed sophisticated cognitive abilities. She'd been able to reason, plan, and implement her schemes.

But then she'd gone to Sierra Verde. Something had happened there. The record was vague, but the events had involved Ellison and Sandburg. Alex had been carted out of some kind of temple, then shipped back to the United States. She had been deemed incompetent to stand trial and placed in the custody of the hospital; and, fortunately, she'd become his patient.

*Now, if only I could figure out what's wrong with her. Then I'd have a chance of making her functional again… and then I'd have a full-fledged Sentinel to study.* Granted, once she *became* functional, she'd stand trial, but he'd still get his chance to study her and publish his findings.

He'd been so close. Sure, he'd still published and gotten some recognition, but Sandburg had ruined it all, taking the spotlight. Now, they were calling the Sentinel thing "Dr. Sandburg's discovery."

*It should be mine.*

If only the anthropologist had stayed out of the way. Well, one could still hope. Sandburg did work with that cop, after all. Maybe he'd get shot in the field. *That would leave me as the only remaining authority on Sentinels.*

He stopped. Backtracked. *What am I thinking? Did I really just wish Sandburg dead?*

He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. *Yes, I did just wish him dead, didn't I? Truth is, my career would skyrocket if he just disappeared. Then I'd be the only one. I'd have Alex. Hell, maybe even Ellison would be forced to turn to me for help with his senses. I can do so much more than Sandburg has ever done. He's not a medical doctor. His theories are all wishy-washy. Speculation. I can study the BIOCHEMISTRY of heightened senses. I can figure out what really makes Sentinels 'tick.'*

God, the potential was incredible. Maybe he could figure out a way to help those with sensory impairments. Perhaps there was a way of "triggering" heightened senses in normal people. He'd studied Alex's eyes and ears. The organs looked normal. He'd taken a very small sample from her tongue. She had normal taste buds.

The only "anomaly" he'd been able to find had to do with the density of her taste buds -- higher than normal, but not extraordinarily so. Not enough to account for the level of heightened taste sensitivity she possessed.

So, did that mean her receptors were just more *sensitive?* These were questions *he* could ask and, hopefully, find answers to. He had the training and the resources. What could Sandburg do? He was only an anthropologist. A social scientist. All he could do was form theories and talk about primitive cultures and speculate about genetic selection.

Kapler snorted. What would an anthropologist know about genes? Sandburg was part of a discipline that talked about nonsense such as "genetic memory." Any first year biology student would be able to debunk that concept without even glancing at a textbook.

It was absurd. Blair Sandburg was a quack, but he'd managed to convince everyone he knew exactly what he was talking about. Hell, some people were even calling him a hero -- a researcher who'd been willing to sacrifice his own career to protect his subject.

No one seemed to care that Sandburg *lived* with his subject and *worked* with his subject. What kind of a researcher threw away his objectivity like that and still had the guts to call himself a professional? Only a quack. When it came right down to it, Sandburg really was a fraud -- promoting himself as a "scientist" when, in fact, he was nothing but a charlatan.

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

"Right in there. We put him on vicadin, so he may be feeling a bit floaty."

Jim didn't need to be told. He could smell Blair. He could hear his heart beat -- slow and steady. Was he sleeping? Jim opened the door as the doctor left to attend to other business.

Inside, the room seemed colder. Blair lay on the bed, hooked up to an IV and a heart monitor. His eyes were closed and Jim wasn't sure whether he was sleeping. Grabbing the small chair situated in the corner, Jim dragged it over to the bed and dropped into the seat.

Blair moaned -- something like an aborted yawn -- and his eyelids fluttered open. He turned his head to look at Jim. "Hey." His voice sounded low and tired.

Jim leaned forward, placing his hand on the bedrail. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay. Kinda drowsy. Doc told you?"

"Yeah."

"Sucks. Every time I come in here it seems I have to stay."

"Just overnight, Chief."

"I know." This time he gave into a full-fledged yawn. "You should go home now. Get some rest. Sorry you had to wait so long."

"It's only three O'Clock. Not even dinner time."

"Really?" Blair's brow furrowed. "Seems later."

"That's because time always goes slower in a hospital."

Blair's eyelids grew heavy. "Yeah... I know."

"You sleep. I'll be back to pick you up tomorrow."

"'Kay, Jim."

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

Kapler studied the woman strapped to the bed. "What is it you keep saying, Alex?" It was a rhetorical question. He didn't expect her to answer.

But she did. She lifted her head and tugged against the restraints. "I need to see Sandburg." There was such conviction in her eyes, that Kapler found himself holding his breath. "You can't help me. He can. I'll make him."

Kapler raised his eyebrows. What *would* Alex do if she came face-to-face alone with Sandburg? Try to kill him like she'd done before?

Hmmmn... He glanced at the straps around her wrists. If she escaped, what would she do? Would she head straight for Sandburg or just take off?

He almost smiled. *She'll go after Sandburg. She's fixated on him and Ellison.*

Sandburg would be first on her list. Then, once that was taken care of, she'd probably head to Ellison, but Ellison was stronger than her and his senses were fully functional and under control. He'd win. Alex would be captured again, then brought back here.

If she somehow managed to escape...

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