Disclaimer: Bugger, actually very little of this belongs to me - a Bon Jovi song gave me the idea for this story, one from Anastacia is responsible for the title, and you all know whom the guys and Megan belong to. About the wife... you'll see at the end of the story. At least her character is mine, as well as the story itself, and that's at least something!

Thank you's: Lyn and Xasphie, for the great beta, and in-between-parts feedback! And to everyone who took part in the discussion a few weeks back, when I asked you about your opinion of this scenario. Stefanie, for telling stories on the phone. C-ya @ Starbucks sometime...

Warning: Not sure if this is necessary, but it deals with partner betrayal in a very literal sense, so I mention it, at least, if you absolutely hate that kind of story... there are some bad words, too (what else is new?).

Feedback: Sure! It's very much appreciated.

 

Pieces Of A Dream

By Demeter

EMAIL: Demeter

 

"I light a candle

In the garden of love

To blind the angels

Looking down from above

I want, I need

The fruit of your vine

It tastes so bittersweet

'Cause I know it's not mine"

(Dirty Little Secret,

ã J. Bon Jovi, R. Sambora, D. Child, J. Shanks, 2005)

 

I

Sometimes fate does strange twists. Blair and I surely had our share of that, but, it seems there is no end to it. He met the love of his life in - no surprise so far - a bookstore. She is heavily into the Victorian era, and was asking the salesclerk about the newest Richard Burton biography. The clerk had her almost desperate with suggestions about Burton, the actor - which doesn't really fit with the Victorian age, but never mind.

So Blair steps in and educates the guy, explaining about the brilliant research Mary Lovell did in her book that came out in 1998, and he turns and there she is: impatient brown eyes, long, auburn, wavy hair that comes down to her shoulders, and 'that woman has a presence!'

He fell in love right away. Or so he told me. I can surely relate to that. Jess Burke is the kind of person you instantly like. She's smart, kind, with a sort of attractiveness that you don't find in the magazines, but in people who are beautiful in their passion for something or someone, as if it makes them glow. Don't be so surprised. I've lived with such a person for some years now. I sure recognize them when I see them. She and Blair are a perfect match.

Where was I? Right. Jess is so grateful that, with a team effort, they finally get the clerk to order the wanted book, she invites Blair for a coffee. Sandburg, never one to turn down an offer from a beautiful woman, goes with her, and they sit in the cafe, all day, and chat about Burton, history, coincidences - 'the rest, man, is need to know.'

I remember that day clearly; I think I always will. For once, I had been waiting for him turning up for dinner, and couldn't raise him on the cell phone. Knowing Blair like I do, I was one hair's breadth away from asking Simon to put out an APB.

When he came home that evening, it soon turned out that I didn't have the heart for reproach of any kind, because he was practically glowing, rambling on and on about her. At first, I didn't take it too seriously; in any case I was happy for him. After all that chaos surrounding the dissertation issue, it was good to see him smile again.

I had no idea.

~~~~~~~

"Jim. I want to marry her."

We were on a camping trip, and I had yet to meet the most wonderful woman of all. Can you believe it? Jess is a cop, a beat officer in Portland. I was getting more and more curious about her.

"You told her yet?"

He nods, unable to keep the smile off his face. I can see she's got him, hook, line and sinker.

"She said yes."

"That's great, Chief. Congratulations." I'm absolutely serious. It's a wonderful thing. No jokes about better investigate her before taking that final step. This time it's different. Jess is the one. We hug, and I'm a bit amazed how much this is touching me, how he's become so important to me that his happiness is - mine.

He sits back, looking at me. I've rarely seen him like this, calm, at peace. Wow, I think, I want to meet this woman. She seems to have quite an influence. So they're going to marry. Much later, I come to think that this'll make one hell of a difference - for us, our 'arrangement'.

Simon has arranged for a paid consultant's position, while the university, reminded of the possibility of a lawsuit, has agreed to let Blair finish his doctorate; no teaching though. For a while, things have been almost calm around here.

He seems to be reading my thoughts. Must be some shamanic ability.

"I've been thinking a lot," Blair says. "I don't want you to think I'm letting you down."

"Why... no," I protest. "This is your life. You have to--"

"Remember the responsibility I've accepted, yes. Look, I was going to talk to Simon, maybe he can put in a good word for us. Jess doesn't have any family or other important ties in Portland. She'd be willing to move to Cascade."

There's no expressing how relieved I am to hear this, even though I know, it's a lot to expect from your best friend. It's true, I want him to be happy, but if Blair can be happy in Cascade, that's even better. "You don't have to do this, you know."

"I want to," Blair says, and one look tells me he's dead serious. He can never hide anything with his eyes, especially not from me.

"Thank you." My voice is a bit husky, and I think it would be better not to say any more.

"There's more, Jim. You know, we've been so close all the time; I've had girlfriends I've shared a lot less with, and I don't want to change the way we are, or what you mean to me - but I don't want to have to lie to her. I want to ask you for permission to tell her about the Sentinel deal."

Whoa. I don't answer at once, trying to anticipate what this will mean for us, for me. With everything he's told me about her, Jess doesn't sound like an irresponsible person. She'd certainly keep the secret.

Truth is, you never really know. But this is important to him. I try to remember the early days with Carolyn, when I was really in love with her. Could I have lived with keeping the truth from her?

I contemplate it for a moment, while Blair already prepares for a retreat, "If you don't want me to, that's okay with me. I just--"

"No, it's alright. You should tell her. Would be bad if some of the talk at the station reached her, and she got the wrong idea."

Oh yes, he knows exactly what I'm talking about. Some of the innuendoes just never died down, no matter how many 'train wrecks', both his and mine.

"You're right," he says with a mischievous grin. "You know what? I love you. I really do."

"That's alright. I love you, too, Chief."

It might have been said with a smirk, but we both know the truth behind those words. There's a connection between us that has often led people to the wrong conclusions. If Jess is going to be a part of Blair's life, she deserves to know. And one more initiate, I can handle.

~~~~~~~

We take her out to our favorite Italian restaurant, Angelo's. Any doubt I might have had until the moment she arrives at the loft, dissolves into nothing when I see her. It's strange - there's such a *rightness* about her, as if my senses confirm every expectation I didn't dare to have. She has a pleasant voice, her perfume is sweet but unobtrusive, and when we shake hands, touch confirms what the others have informed me about her: She is the one.

It's good to see she's obviously as much in love with Blair as he is with her. Everything is okay. I'm okay with her knowing about my senses, even if I won't go as far as telling her that I've experienced her very own scent under the fragrance she is wearing - those are the things you just don't share with your best friend's fiancé.

"I love being a cop," she tells me between wine and lasagna. "It's all I ever wanted to do - but I've yet to meet one who knows that there was an explorer named Richard Burton."

I smile at her. "I know now. Blair has told me all I wanted to know and - then some." He rolls his eyes at me, but doesn't really mind.

"Oh yes," Jess returns excitedly. "It must have been destiny that brought us together in that bookstore. He knows a lot... about many things." She grins at her husband-to-be, who blushes a little at the praise, and at that moment, the air is so heavy with pheromones, it almost makes me dizzy.

But I instantly like her; I'm convinced this is going to work out, and I'm enjoying spending time with the two of them.

"By the way, you're going to be his best man, aren't you? Blair has told me so much about you already, he convinced me you're perfect for the job before I even met you."

I raise my eyebrows at him, and he shakes his head. "Not yet," he says, and Jess looks from him to me interestedly.

"I'm flattered. But I think there's something else Blair was meaning to tell you."

We look at each other again, both bewildered and amused at how surreal this seems. We surely have never rehearsed for this moment, but it is here now. It's turned out that the Sentinel sensation was strictly local. So far, Jess is oblivious, but she must have wondered about the detours in Blair's life.

"Jess, I've told you about the subject of my Master's thesis," he begins.

"Sentinels," she says promptly.

"Exactly. Jim is a Sentinel." No circumventing, Blair gives her the truth straight. Her reaction is nothing like we've expected.

Jess chokes on her wine, starts coughing, then laughing, and with a smile, she says, "You're kidding me, right?" When she realizes that we aren't, her eyes widen. God, that woman is beautiful! Blair is damn lucky to have found her.

"Oh wow. Guys. This is... amazing! You're a..."

"Don't say 'caveman'," Blair warns her. "Jim doesn't like that."

It's funny, seeing that enthusiasm in her eyes, I had to think of that moment, too, the not so easy start Sandburg and I had. We are all laughing. Jess doesn't seem to think that enhanced senses are anything freaky, and she says it's so cool that Blair got to fulfill the dream of a lifetime.

"Both of them," he says, his love for her shining in his eyes.

We let our glasses clink together, to the future. To dreams and their coming true.

~~~~~~~

While the adult, rational part of me argues that this is just the normal course of things, my senses tell another story. It's been almost three months since Blair moved out to share a comfortable little house with Jess, his wife now, and still I reach out with my hearing for his heartbeat. That's silly, isn't it? With a little training, I could possibly get that far, but that's not exactly the point.

It's not like he's not constantly worrying about me being alright, whether the dials are working, did any spikes occur, anything unusual? Nothing new, so far, but how could I explain this? Can he, even?

Jess has indeed transferred to Cascade; sometimes we all go out for dinner, and Megan Connor joins us every now and then. She's quickly formed a friendship with the younger beat cop.

It's not the same though, in every way.

Do I envy them? Kind of, I admit that. But that's not the true reason, and I don't know how to approach the subject. It's strange that I never seemed to notice just how much time we'd spent together, Blair and I.

He seems to be in seventh heaven still, but Jess must have been more observant, because she comes to visit me one evening, alone.

"Can I offer you something to drink?" I'm not really jealous of her, I decide. She's much too good for Blair. All it'll take is a little adjusting.

"I'd go for a coffee," she agrees, and follows me into the kitchen.

I set up the coffeemaker, feeling a little self-conscious, when I turn around and realize she's been watching me the whole time. "What?"

Jess doesn't look away. "I'm just thinking... you and Blair have been through a lot together. You must miss him."

"Well, he hasn't left the state."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes." I hit the button, and the coffeemaker stutters to life. "But what's the point? I didn't expect him to stay with me 'til old age. That Sentinel thing doesn't mean we have to be together all the time."

"Sometimes I feel a little guilty," she confesses.

"That's crap, Jess, and you know it. For once, marrying me was never in question." The corner of her mouth twitches into what's not quite a smile. "Apart from that, Blair loves you. And I'm really glad he has you, because you're good for him." The smile is more pronounced now. I hand her a cup of coffee, the innocent gesture seemingly taking on a different quality when my fingers touch hers. Has she even noticed?

"Thank you, Jim," she says. "I really needed to say this once, and... yes, I'm happy, too, about how it all worked out so far. You're such a good friend."

Somehow, that makes me even more self-conscious. She's just like Blair, emotions always on the sleeve. "You, too."

That night, the heartbeat I'm always trying to hear is replaced by the echo of another. It doesn't mean anything, really. Jess' heartbeat is by now almost as familiar as Blair's is to me.

~~~~~~~

As a patrol officer, you don't always get to lead a safer life than us detectives - I hadn't given it much thought before, but the thought crosses my mind when Blair calls me on the cell phone, close to tears, when he tells me, "Something's happened to Jess. Please - come."

No. No, it can't be.

That's the only thing on my mind, and I don't question my shocked reaction. After all, she's a friend, and Blair's my best friend, and he just wouldn't be able to live with it, if she...

I inform Simon, and he tells me to go immediately, and keep everyone updated. The gang has kind of adopted Jess, and they are all worried. Megan is out on a case at the moment, and Simon promises to tell her when she gets back to the station:

Jess has been shot.

That was about the only thing I could get out of Blair, before he crumbled and started to cry, and I'm frantic to find out more as I head through the entrance of Cascade General. I find him in the waiting area, looking forlorn. With him is Jess' partner, Mike Travis, who looks pale, lost in a disturbing world of fears of his own.

I draw Blair into my arms, and let his fear and despair wash over me. Holding him close, I send a questioning look at Travis over his head, and he tells me the story. It was meant to be a mere routine control of driving licenses; the guy had been driving just a bit too fast. He pulled over, and when Jess asked for his papers, he pulled a gun and shot her point blank. She's alive, in surgery, but has lost a lot of blood.

"She's a fighter," Mike says stubbornly. "She will pull through."

"I'm sure. You hear that, Chief?" He's still holding on for dear life, but has gotten calmer. "Jess is going to make it. I know that." I don't know anything at the moment except my own confusion and nagging fear, but it seems to help Blair, and I'm grateful for that.

He backs out of the hug, taking a deep breath. "Man, I'm sorry. It's just when Mike called, and I thought she was... I can't lose her. I just can't," he says desperately, and I can still feel the echo of his emotions within me.

No, I agree silently, Jess can't die.

"It's okay, Chief. You won't lose her." I only hope I'm not making promises I won't be able to keep.

~~~~~~~

If Blair is bad when it comes to hospitals, Jess is even worse. When she's aware for the first time, her first question is when she can go home. I told him to go in alone, but he wants me with him. I feel relieved. I want to be there, too, check for myself with everything that I've got that she's going to be okay.

"Hey, sweetheart," Blair says. "Now I know why Mom always told me not to get involved with cops. It's because this constantly having to worry about them is a killer."

He bends down and kisses her softly. "I'm sorry, but it seems like you've got to stay for a while. I'll be visiting you everyday."

She's trying to smile, but still under sedation, and it seems that her facial muscles are not quite obeying her. Or is it something else? Don't start seeing ghosts, I chide myself. She's been injured. Of course Jess is not yet ready for humor, subtle, or otherwise.

Tears form in her eyes, and Blair wipes them away tenderly. "Oh no, don't cry. It'll be okay, baby." Her heart misses a beat, and suddenly I just know.

I search her eyes, hoping I am wrong, but I only see confirmation. I open up my senses, until they tell me what I didn't want to know. Damn it. Blair is unaware, just so happy that she'll recover completely, as the doctor had said. But he hasn't told us everything. I leave the room quietly, feeling burdened with the knowledge.

~~~~~~~

Jess is still on sick leave. When I drop by one morning, Megan is there, spending her day off with her friend. Her gaze is sad, so she knows, too. Only Blair doesn't have a clue, because he told me yesterday that he's worried, because Jess is so depressed, and he doesn't know what to do.

Megan announces that she's going to get some breakfast for us; Jess nods without much enthusiasm. She sure hasn't eaten much recently; it shows.

She used to have an appreciation of fried bacon for breakfast, and Wonderburger at any time, which had Blair complaining about our profession creating heart attacks. A little fat would do her one hell of good now.

When Megan is gone, I go straight to the point. "Jess, you have to tell him."

She leans forward to cover her face with her hands. "Not yet."

It's understood what we're talking about here; the fact that she has been pregnant, and the stress of having been shot has caused her to have a miscarriage.

"When?"

"It's not that easy, you know?"

"I can imagine, I..." When she opens her mouth to speak, I continue quickly, "You're right, I surely don't understand what you're going through. But -- this is not fair. Blair deserves to know."

"Right," she retorts angrily. "He deserves. I deserve to have a family. My baby deserved to live. The fucking bastard deserves to rot in hell. We don't always get what we deserve though." Now she's yelling at me. Given that she's been close to apathetic ever since she woke up in the hospital, I guess that's a good sign.

"I know. Let me ask you something: Do you still love him?"

"You're not fair," she sniffles. "Of course I do. It's just that I... couldn't save our baby! And now I'll never have the chance..."

Oh God, I think, as I pull her close, this is even worse than I'd thought. But anyway. It might be a tragedy, unfair, but I know it won't change the way Blair feels about Jess. I've seen my own marriage go to hell over a lack of communication. Of course, it's always easier to tell from the outside, but if I can be any help here, I'll give it a shot. They have to talk.

Meanwhile, I'm also trying hard to clamp down on the whirlwind of emotions inside of me. The taste of her tears, the touch of her warm skin; it feels so right to hold her, and that's the last thing I should be thinking now.

"It's not your fault. The only one at fault is the idiot who shot you. Blair knows that."

"You think?"

"I know it," I say with absolute certainty. "Just don't waste any more time."

~~~~~~~

I'm right, of course. You can't ignore the changes when you see them together, but it's like the shared grief makes their bond even stronger. And that's good, because it's the only way they will get over it eventually. It's also good, because it helps to shut up the little voice in me that still whispers about the impossible.

Blair told me over some beers one night that he was shocked to find out about her fears. "I mean, it's kind of extreme, I haven't even given much thought to being a father, and now it looks like it's never going to happen..." He swallowed hard, and his pain was so obvious, so palpable, it made me want to cry. "But that's the way it is. I want to be with Jess. That's more important than everything else."

"You're doing the right thing, buddy. You know what? I admire you. You always know what's right." Could be the couple of beers we already had that lead to this conversation, but basically, it's the way I feel. No two ways around it.

"You know how I do it. Making it up as I go," he returned with a crooked smile.

"Liar. I know you, Shaman of the Great City."

This time, his smile was genuine.

There hadn't been much space for anything mystical in our lives lately. Maybe it was for the better; I sure hadn't missed it. Jess and Blair were both healing from the devastating incident, and getting some couples' counseling regarding the fact they were never going to have children of their own.

Slowly, something akin to normalcy returned.

~~~~~~~

You want to know about Paul Griffin, the man who shot an officer just because she's asked for his driver's license?

This is the story:

Megan and I have been digging deep into the bastard's life. Talking to his former colleagues at the office where he had been working, even finding a former girlfriend who confirmed his inclination to violence. Then one of the women in middle management came forward to tell us that Griffin had tried to rape her one night after she'd been working late.

Piling up evidence that the guy hated women, especially those in authority positions, and he should be put away for a long, long time.

We succeeded, but between Jess, Blair, Megan and me, we still would have preferred an 'eye for an eye' solution, for the life he had taken.

~~~~~~~

A silver lining is starting to show on the horizon.

We're celebrating Blair's birthday, the first one with Jess around; everybody's having a good time, and the mood is lighter than it's been in a long time. Megan is flirting with Rafe, and I'll be damned if the guy isn't drinking it up. I've suspected for quite some time that they have a thing for each other.

Jess and Blair share looks that are bound to set the room on fire. It's good to see. It wasn't so hard to read between the lines before, and to imagine that sex hadn't been an issue for quite some time, understandably, but that seems to have changed.

I started dating Michelle, a new homicide detective, two weeks ago, would have even brought her, but she has to work tonight. Somehow, I don't regret that very much; should have been a warning to me.

At some point, all the noise and smells are a bit much, and I seek refuge on the balcony, relishing the clear night air. Trying out my senses like you'd rein in a line at fishing, thinking I'm doing pretty good when a distinct sound meets my hearing... I hear her moan.

Oh, shit.

I should go back inside this very moment, but I don't, I stay there, guiltily, and don't pull back.

"Baby," Blair says, his voice rich with arousal, and something like amazement. I can sympathize. I think I'd find it amazing to sleep with her, too. Oh, just leave it alone, will you? That'll never happen.

"Yes," he whispers, as her breathing is deepening. "Oh yes."

With a start, I realize what I'm doing and turn to go back inside so abruptly I almost run into Megan who's stepping outside at the same time. She's giving me a quizzical look.

~~~~~~~

I could use a cold shower, here. The thought makes me laugh mirthlessly. This isn't how it's supposed to be. This is my best friend's wife. I love her as I love him - as a friend. Platonically. Yeah, right.

That's no explanation for why I dream of her that night, kissing and touching her, only to hear her make that sound again. It doesn't matter. Dreams don't matter, because they don't mean a thing.

At least, that's what I tell myself.

~~~~~~~

"Shrink says we can do without her now," Blair says. He's looking good, the sparkle renewed in his eyes, as we're sitting outside the small cafe, enjoying an early leave from work.

"That's good news. Have you made up your minds already? Want to adopt a kid later, maybe?"

"Possibly. But first, we're going to take some more time for ourselves. I wanted to thank you again for all the support. You've been incredible."

The stab of guilt almost leaves me breathless, and Blair looks at me worriedly. "Jim, are you alright?"

"Sure. Thanks. I'm just glad you're both okay. You did enjoy your birthday party, didn't you?"

His face reddens. "Oh no, you didn't..."

"Well." I shrug. "It's not much I can do about it. I've got this built-in alarm telling me about dramatic changes of your heartbeat." It's not a lie. I just don't add that this extends to Jess, too.

He isn't mad about it, more amused. It's not exactly news to him, and there's a reason why dates had to be carefully scheduled when we were still living together. "I guess I've got to live with it then. So, what about Michelle? Anything important happen yet?"

"Not really. We just didn't hit it off."

"Sorry about that," he says seriously.

"No big deal." I make it very clear that I don't want to deepen the subject, and fortunately, Blair doesn't prod, as always, empathetic, and basically a great friend. I find myself wishing back for those days when it was just the two of us. We'd date someone, break up again, be heartbroken, and then start searching again. Leaving out the heartbroken part more often than not.

Our friendship, however, has remained the reliable constant, something we could always turn to.

I'd be crazy as hell to endanger that.

~~~~~~~

Blair is working late on some project at the university. I call Jess, even though I know I shouldn't, and find out she's home alone. She invites me over; I say yes, before my mind can come up with any excuse why it's absolutely impossible.

Crap, to all that. I need to act normal around both of them. Two people that are just friends can meet and spend some time together. This is not "When Harry Met Sally".

She has set the table for two, lit some candles, has music playing in the CD player. What are you looking at? Blair and I used to have dinners like that, sometimes, on special occasions, and we certainly hadn't planned on seducing each other. The thought makes me smile.

"Penny for your thoughts," Jess says, her eyes shining in the candlelight.

"They're worth less than that. Thanks for the invitation. I would have ended up at Wonderburger for sure."

She giggles. "Maybe we can sneak out sometime. Without my dear husband giving a lecture afterwards." There is no scorn in her voice, on the contrary.

That's something I've noticed in both of them, this tenderness when they're talking about one another. As I said, it's perfectly harmless to be here. "You just can't change a cop's way of life, can you?"

"Most certainly not."

She's serving dinner, a delicious-smelling stir-fry, while I pour us some wine, then we sit down at the table. "You know," she says, "I was really tired of eating all alone. I know Blair is doing important work, and he's damn good at what he does, but sometimes I get really jealous of all those books and reports he's got to work through. I've had fantasies of mutilating the laptop."

We're laughing together. "I've had a moment or two like that. But then again, I admire his dedication."

"Yes," she sighs. "You're right. I'm glad you're here though. Talking to the plants gets old eventually."

We do the dishes together, then open up another bottle of wine; still no sign of Blair. We sit together on the couch, and talk. Jess admits that she's sometimes tired of the job. "In my family, that's never a subject." She's told me before that her father was a cop, and her grandfather before him. There wasn't much of a discussion, even though Jess has always pointed out she made the choice herself, too.

"That's understandable. I feel that way every now and then."

"When there's somebody you can't save?"

I know she's talking about the baby, and don't know what to say. She continues, "I've talked it to death with the shrink. I know this is some 'period' that'll be over eventually. I only wish it was now. I used to love my job, but at the moment I don't feel like I'm making much of a difference."

She turns to me, and I hold my breath for a long moment, suspended in time.

I want to tell her something reassuring, how she's making a difference everyday, how she is needed, but what I do is to reach out and touch her hair. It's enticingly soft against my fingertips.

This is where she should tell me to leave her the hell alone, but instead, Jess leans closer. And closer still, until her lips touch mine.

Here it is, the missing piece. The real thing. Not just the chaste kiss on the cheek we used to greet each other with, but an open-mouthed, indecent kiss. She tastes so good, I wait, I wait for her to put up some resistance, but she doesn't, and I pull her to me, while I'm tasting her over and over again. She's boneless in my arms, wanton, and I'm lost in the sensations, the sound of her rapid heartbeat, the heat of her skin where her shirt is riding up, and God, I need to touch her...

It's only when I pull her up against me for maximum touch, when there's no denying anymore, that I 'm jolted back to awareness of what I'm doing here.

Her hair is kind of wild, cheeks hot, and the look she's giving me...

"I'm sorry," I say, cringing, because it sounds beyond lame.

"I know," she says. "We... just shouldn't..."

I pull her close again, and then the phone rings. None of us bother to care, but then the machine picks up, and there's Simon's urgent voice to be heard, "Jess, if you're there, pick up the phone. Something's happened... Blair is missing. If you can reach Jim, do it. I'll see you at the station."

~~~~~~~

We look at each other in shock. What the hell has just happened? I jump up to my feet, while Jess grabs the phone.

"I'll call a cab," she announces. "Neither of us can drive right now, not with all the wine we've had."

She has a point there, but the waiting is hell, even if it takes only a few minutes.

~~~~~~~

"What happened?" Megan is already there; she and Simon give us a puzzled look as we both come into the bullpen together. "Over at Rainier, a student found Sandy's papers on the pavement. There was blood on them." She gazes at Jess sharply until the other woman looks away. "We also have the pattern of tires, and a witness who possibly saw something."

Just how long has this been going on? "When?"

"Two hours ago," Simon answers for her. "We couldn't reach either of you."

Jess shrugs, her shoulders slumped. "I had the phone turned off for most of the evening. It's not like I could know..."

"Of course not. For now, let's concentrate on finding him, right?"

~~~~~~~

We're damn lucky the kidnappers have run several red lights, and before midnight, we have a picture of the car, and the license plate. I know the name before DMV gives it to us - Morton Frasier. Last year, we sent his son to prison for drug trafficking and attempted murder.

The realization sends a cold shiver down my spine. In court, he kept yelling that he'd get back at me eventually. Seems like the day has come.

And I haven't suspected anything, no vision, no warning, just the knowledge that he's not the only jerk in this chapter. I'm praying that we'll get Blair out of this alive. And then I'll tell him the truth. I owe him that much.

~~~~~~~

We track Morton down to a warehouse by the waterfront; I'm silently cursing about that fact. Why does it always have to be... - Whatever. The guilt I've laden upon myself has taken a backseat now. My only focus is on the sparsely lit building in front of me, Megan hovers close, just in case I zone.

I can hear them now.

"You're a fool to think that this'll get your son out of pris--"

Blair's words are cut off abruptly, and every muscle in my body tenses as he cries out.

"How many are in there?" Megan asks.

I reach out again, beyond Blair's heartbeat that is thundering in my ears, ignoring Megan's and my own. "Frasier... and one more. Let's go in."

~~~~~~~

It's a justified shot. Megan will confirm that later.

When I enter the warehouse, Frasier has pointed his gun at Blair who lies on the hard cement floor, unmoving. If he actually intended to make the shot or not - it's too big a risk to take, and I pull the trigger. The other guy tries to reach for a weapon also, but Megan is faster and has cuffed him before he can even think of doing anything stupid. I briefly touch Frasier's carotid to confirm what I already know, then kneel down beside Blair.

Bloody and bruised, but he doesn't seem to be severely injured. What a relief. I run my hands over his body, doing a quick check. At my touch, he struggles to open his eyes.

"Hey, buddy. I thought you wanted to stay out of trouble when you became a married man." Emotion breaks through anyway. "It's okay now," I'm saying it like I desperately want to believe it.

"My... hero," he returns, not without irony. Then a wave of pain washes over him, and I shift, so I can hold him against me until the paramedics arrive. If he'd been a Sentinel, he could have smelled her on me. But now is not the time for this.

~~~~~~~

Time goes on. And I've found there's never been a good moment for telling him something like this, especially when I know Blair's still in a lot of pain from the beating he took. Two ribs were broken, as was his left arm.

Wounds that will heal.

But I can't stop thinking about Jess, that stolen moment on the balcony, and the kisses we've shared. And make no mistake, if Simon hadn't called that evening, we both know the danger of going too far had been there.

I know I'm being a jerk here. But I fall asleep every night to the fantasy of tasting her all over, 'til she's dizzy with lust. And it's even worse to know she's dreaming about it, too.

Well. Maybe we could discuss a ménage à trois. Like hell.

~~~~~~~

Jess and Blair are going on holiday, to get away from it all for a few days. Walking in Burton's footsteps in Brazil and Paraguay. I'm a bit worried about Blair, wondering if he's up to it yet, but I don't have much of a chance to voice my concerns.

I haven't talked much to either of them, ever since that day when the boundaries of acceptable behavior between friends had been crossed, feeling uncomfortable around them.

The choices you make when things are on the edge... as soon as something like everyday life returned, it was clear that there would be no confession. It was simply too dangerous - Jess and I wouldn't take it any further, no way, and neither of us wanted to lose the most important person in both our lives.

This vacation should do them a lot of good. And I should really come to my senses here, pardon the pun.

Megan and I accompany them to the airport. Watching them closely, I decide it was the right choice. They look quite happy, eager for this trip. They both have been through so much; I don't need to add to that load.

Blair and I embrace, and something like sorrow brushes me like a feathery touch. I'm so sorry, passes unspoken between him and I. I never meant to hurt you.

"Well, I hate to interrupt," says Connor in her typical brisk manner, "but they're going to miss their flight."

I hug Jess briefly, and she smiles, a little sadly, but we're on the same page here. It cannot be, and we've both accepted the facts.

Megan and I wait until *I* can see the plane take off into the blue sky. She pats my shoulder. "Come on, Jimbo, they'll be fine. Didn't you say something about buying me breakfast?"

"I don't remember anything like that."

She laughs, and when I see the relief on her face, I wonder just how much Jess has told her. I don't need to ask though.

"I know it hurts, but you're doing the right thing. It's far better than creating chaos."

What else can I do but agree? She's nailed it perfectly.

"Now, let's go. At Ally's, there's this breakfast buffet with our names on it."

~~~~~~~

Despite the decision made, I'm uneasy, on edge. Bizarre dream fragments at night, foggy visionary things during the day, way to keep a guy occupied!

It can't be the current case Megan and I are working on, a string of robberies in small grocery stores. The perps, according to the owner's descriptions, are young, not even twenty, and we assume it could be gang-related, maybe some dare even. So far, we have no real clue, nor do our snitches, except they are wearing red scarves, and that doesn't fit with the information we have on any Cascade-based gang.

"Too bad Sandy isn't here to go undercover," Megan sighs over a coffee we have together in the break room. "He could pull this off, but we're--"

"Too old," I offer.

"Too 'cop'," she returns, rolling her eyes at me. Yeah, she's right. Blair could weasel his way in, but those times are long gone. As an official consultant, he's not supposed to get that close to the heat of the action, no more bending of the rules.

Maybe we could get one of the newer additions to the Major Crimes unit to do it. We really need a break on this one.

But why those dreams? I want to take them seriously, but my favorite translator is not available right now.

~~~~~~~

That night, I wake up in a cold sweat, bolting upright in my bed; I think I must have screamed. No shadowy shards of an image anymore; this time I saw the wolf, howling miserably, the silver fur matted in blood.

It was dying.

It's four a.m., and I'm driven by a sudden urgency, as I get up and hasten down the stairs to power up the computer in the office. Blair's old room. Some time after he moved out - okay, some *months*, I admit it - I had finally found the heart to make some changes, turn it into an office/guestroom, with a PC and a fax machine.

That's when I see it: Foreign tourists killed in Asunción, Paraguay's capital. My heart pounding, I pick up the sheet where I'd noted the address and phone number of Jess and Blair's hotel. The line is busy. That doesn't have to mean anything, right? I click through a few more web pages, frantic to get some information.

There it is. The 'Albergue Del Amistad', that's the name of the hotel. God help us all. The short news flash describes how armed men entered the hotel at night, killing some of the guests, and taking hostages. Relatives are to call the US embassy in Asunción for more information.

That's what I'm going to do.

~~~~~~~

"Please, you've got to help me. I need to know... Sandburg. Blair and Jess Sandburg. Caucasian, early thirties..."

Part of me is kind of stunned at the desperate tone of my own voice. I'm used to being at the center of situations like this, and keeping my head. Right, it makes one hell of a difference if you're talking about your own.

There is no distance.

The woman on the other side of the line is sympathetic. "From what I know, there were seventeen of the guests killed, but so far, none of them fits the description. They haven't all been identified yet, though. I'm really sorry, Detective; I can't tell you any more at the moment."

"What about the hostages?" I query.

Now she sounds very tired. "At this moment, we don't know anything," she says. "The group hasn't even made contact yet. We have no idea what they want. Well, except for money and weapons, but that's pretty obvious."

"You're right. Look, I'll be there as soon as I can. Where can I meet you?"

I'm determined. She doesn't think it's a good idea, but I claim I know the area pretty well, and finally convince her. Sitting around here in Cascade and waiting for news, I'd go crazy.

~~~~~~~

"Do you want me to go with you?" Megan asks, dead serious about it.

I contemplate that while Simon grumbles, "I don't happen to have a say in this, do I?" I know he'd like to come, too, but it's impossible, with one detective just having gone undercover with the Red Scarves. We're closing in on the boys, and realistically, it's also impossible for both leading investigators to head off to South America at the moment.

He sighs. "On the other hand, I know both of you won't be any good for this case now, so, alright, go and bring them back. That's an order, detectives."

We cover it with gallows humor, sure, to hide the fact we're all scared shitless. It's unthinkable, I can't imagine a life without Blair and Jess, and these two here with me can't either.

What if -- I abort the thought rudely. No fucking way. That kind of thinking won't get us anywhere.

~~~~~~~

We're on the plane a few hours later. There are tears in Megan's eyes, and she wipes them away angrily. "I'm sorry," she says, "It's stupid. We don't know anything yet. No point in losing it already."

"I understand. I'm afraid, too."

She gives me a grateful look. "Do you get anything - Sentinel-wise?"

"No," I admit regretfully. I tell her about the nightmare that woke me in the middle of the night. Since then, the psychic line has been dead. I wish Incacha would help me just one more time. "But I think I'd know if -- if he was..." I might have indulged myself into fantasies about Jess, which I wish I hadn't, but this is still true: There's this connection I've never had with anyone else.

"So it's not the case. We have to believe that."

Yes. Until we learn otherwise. But I don't say that out loud.

~~~~~~~

Paula Rodriguez is the official from the US embassy I talked to on the phone. She confirms that all the murdered hotel guests have been identified now; Blair and Jess are not among them. The hospitals are being checked as well, so far - nothing.

It's still enough to make my knees go weak with relief. That gives us options. In situations like this, people often wander off in shock, get amnesiac, maybe hurt and unable to get help. At least, not dead. Six of the guests are still missing; it's assumed that the men who ambushed the hotel took them hostage.

Paula can't tell us anything about it, but I'm quite sure that they must have made a move already started negotiations with the government. There are a few contacts I still have around here, and tonight, we're going to meet one of them. He's bound to know more.

Still, I'm hoping we could just find them and bring this mission to a successful end. At the moment, I can't deal with all the emotions underneath.

We step outside the embassy building into the early evening, and I turn to Connor.

"Thanks for coming," I say.

She simply nods.

~~~~~~~

We have spent long hours of searching the area, with no result. When the time arrives, we all but stumble into the bar where we're supposed to meet Jorge.

Black hair with just a few strays of gray bound into a ponytail, tanned skin and sharp brown eyes, he hasn't changed much. We hug, then he casts a curious look at Megan.

I introduce them. "Jorge, that's Inspector Connor, my colleague. We're here to learn about the group that took hostages in the 'Albergue Del Amistad'.

He's looking concerned. "Nobody you care about, I hope."

"My best friend, and his wife."

Jorge is cursing in Spanish, forgetting for a moment that I've spent too much time in this country to *not* understand him. "Paramilitary group, relatively new. From what I've heard, there's nothing much political about them. They're bloody killers."

Beside me, I notice Megan holding her breath.

"Then why are they taking hostages?" she asks.

He shrugs. "As a means of blackmail, I guess. Have someone to act out their hate on. I'm sorry, Jimmy, but if your people are still in the hands of those bastards, you might as well wish they'd killed them first."

I almost snarl at him for making such a suggestion, even if I have too many ideas disturbing of what he's talking about. "Where do I find them?"

Jorge looks at me as if he thinks I've gone crazy. Maybe he does. "For Heaven's sake, don't do anything stupid. I'll see what I can find out, get back to you in a few days. You just can't--" He shakes his head. "No, I just prefer to believe you're not that stupid. We will find out what happened to your friends. See what we can do about it, but 'til then, I want you to play low-key, is that understood?"

There's a lot I'd like to say to that, but he's our best bet at the moment, so I bite back the protest that's on the tip of my tongue.

~~~~~~~

Sitting on the bed in my hotel room, Megan looks defeated. "I wish this was just a nightmare, and I'm going to wake up any minute."

We are so much agreeing with each other these days, it's downright scary.

Scared, we both are.

And then the phone rings.

It's Rodriguez who tells us that a woman has turned up at the hospital, disoriented, injured, but not life-threatening. The description fits. It could be Jess. My stomach is tied up in anxious knots as I'm trying to figure out why she's been found alone.

~~~~~~~

A concussion, several abrasions and bruises. There's a cut right over her eye, and a bandage around her right arm. She's staring straight ahead, her face tear-streaked and pale.

Jess.

Megan sits beside her, starting to talk softly to her, while the tears are running down her own face. "Jess," she whispers. "Everything's going to be alright now. You're safe."

There's no change in the heartbeat, no sign of recognition. I'm still standing at the door, as though paralyzed, while a thousand questions are running through my head. It's her, and she's alive - but what if she never remembers - either what happened, or any of us?

My vision blurs for a moment. I think I could zone on the sound of Connor's voice, possessing a softness I've hardly ever heard from her, as she seeks to comfort her friend.

"Come on, look at me. Yeah, that's it, mate. You know me, don't you?"

Indeed, Jess is looking at her now, and Megan carefully reaches out to touch her arm.

With a shuddering whimper, Jess draws back, and wraps her arms around herself.

"Okay, my fault. I won't do that again. I promise. It's okay, baby."

Baby. Blair used to call her that. But what happened to him, why wasn't he with her? The image of the dying wolf suddenly swallows my vision, and I can't help myself, can't stay in the room, because I feel like I'm going to suffocate.

What does that ever mean? I'm afraid to take a closer look. Outside in the hallway, I finally let the tears I've been holding back so desperately, fall.

I've got to begin to face reality - that I might have lost my friend forever.

~~~~~~~

Time has no meaning, I'm unaware of its passage, until I jerk out of the half zone when Megan touches my arm. I haven't even noticed the doctor going inside.

"She hasn't spoken yet, but I think she knows who I am," Megan says hopefully. "I talked to the doctor briefly. He said someone brought her to the hospital and disappeared. But no one knows anything about Sandy. I feel like--"

Frustrated, she throws up her hands. "Hell, I don't know how I feel. I'm so glad we've finally found her, but..."

She doesn't complete the sentence; it's crystal clear what she was going to say.

~~~~~~~

Jorge has nothing new for us. We spend as much time as possible with Jess in the hospital, both of us still in denial. Unable to let go yet, even though we both know that she needs to get home in order to recover from her ordeal. That's what we came here for.

No, I think. We came to bring them both back. But that might never happen.

And then Jess wakes up from her trauma-induced waking nightmare.

~~~~~~~

She's in pain, and screaming with it; it's as if it's hitting her all at once. The doctor has given her some pain meds, and Megan is holding her. Jess seems so fragile now, I barely dare to touch her.

But she recognizes us.

Shuddering sobs are shaking her body, as she relates, bit by bit, the horror she's been through, ever since she woke to the feel of a gun to her head.

Connor gives me a warning glance, seemingly reading my mind, but I couldn't hold back the question to save my life. "What about Blair?"

I don't need to hear any words; the utter desolation on her face tells me the story, and I turn away in shock, disbelief. "No." I didn't realize I'd said it out loud.

If looks could kill, Megan would have been responsible for me dropping dead. "They beat him up badly," Jess says quietly. "I couldn't do anything... you must believe me."

"I do." I almost choke on the words.

"They told me he's dead, and, I -- I think they were telling the truth. One of them let me escape, and he said that all the other hostages were dead."

The lure of a zone, caused by the irregular patterns of her heartbeat, is too strong. I don't try to resist it any.

~~~~~~~

Neither the government, nor Jorge can come up with anything, and it becomes the official version that Jess Sandburg remains the only survivor of the hotel massacre. Even if, with the five still missing, no one can say for sure. No opportunity to say goodbye, no body to bury.

I've given up hope, and I still feel like I'm letting him down. We track down Naomi, and she and I, and all our friends come together for something like a wake - it seems way morbid to me. I still can't believe it, still think that any moment, he'll be coming through that door, laughing at our foolishness.

My best friend. My Guide. How can I ever go on without him?

~~~~~~~

Jess is thinking about selling the house; she has trouble coming up with the monthly payments, and she says it's too big for her alone anyway.

It's so damn sad; I remember well when they had been moving in, talking about kids even. Dreams can burst so suddenly.

I still dream about the wolf frequently. It's got to mean something. Anything I must be able to do; so I offer Jess some help with the house. It's not fair that she should also lose her home over this. She... we have lost so much already.

~~~~~~~

Almost indiscernible, the grief turns from a sharp pain that leaves you breathless, to an ache ever-present, but becoming duller.

Jess is studying for the Detective's exam; it gives her something to do, something to hold on to, and of course, the Gold shield will put her on another salary level. Simon has confirmed that there's a place for her on our team anytime she wants it.

She's close to tears at this vote of trust, but Simon and I remember something else; the day when we'd said the same to Blair.

Jess and I spend lots of time together, going through photo albums, crying together, remembering him. We never talk about the sparks that had been flying once, afraid to wake them up at this moment, when it's the most inappropriate.

I tell her stories about the time when Blair and I were living together, and from before, when he was trying to convince me to let him study me. And the not so glorious moment in our early days that had me slamming him against the wall of his office.

"Unbelievable!" She's laughing. It took us all a while to be able to laugh and *not* look over our shoulder, as if we were expecting someone to punish us for it. "So that's why he told me not to call you a 'caveman'. I've always been wondered."

Then there's the less pleasant memories. Lash. And Golden.

"He was special." Did I ever tell him that, I wonder? Don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, how true. I blink back the tears that are threatening again, when Jess touches my arm.

"Yes, he was. And he knew that you loved him. I know that for sure."

"I did." And then I gather all my courage, and tell her about Alex. Jess doesn't judge me; she simply listens.

When I'm finished, she says, "We all do stupid things now and then. Hurt the ones we love. No one can really say they've never done it before. All I can say is, when I came to Cascade, I saw two friends that had a love so strong, I envied them. For quite some time, I was wondering if I could ever keep up with you."

"I'm afraid Blair found you more attractive," I say.

There's a blurry line between our laughter and tears.

~~~~~~~

Jess passes the exam, top grades, of course. We come together for a little bit of melancholic celebration. Rafe and Brown are there, Simon, Joel and Megan, Mike Travis and the newest detective, Gary Taylor, who went undercover to solve the robberies of the Red Scarves.

He's twenty-four, the youngest in the MCU at the moment, and every now and then someone calls him 'kid', and then holds his or her breath as if having violated a sacrilege.

Megan provides us all with champagne, while she declares, "I really think it's time I should have a permanent and official partner. Don't you think, Captain?"

"Sure. I think you and Ellison are a match made in heaven." Simon smirks, and she swats his arm rather affectionately.

"You know what I mean."

She's right; I haven't zoned in quite some time, and the risk has become minimal. I've stopped using my senses ever since we said goodbye to Blair, anyway. There's just no use in it anymore; a Sentinel without his Guide is nothing. I chose not to be a Sentinel anymore.

Megan and Jess would make a formidable team, no doubt about it. I refuse to paint an imaginary picture of the could-be reality - Blair and me, Jess and Connor. It would have been too good to be true.

"You know that I won't accept any other." Jess is already a little inebriated, obvious by her reddened cheeks. She looks dangerously beautiful. "We girls got to stick together!"

The otherwise male audience groans in response, as the two of them high-five.

"And here I thought that Sentinel stuff was bad news," Simon says with mock frustration, but only for me to hear.

"By the way," Jess is serious now, as she gets up, "I want to thank you all for coming, and sharing this moment with me. As you all know, the past few months have been a continuous nightmare for me. I might have gotten on your nerves, I might have needed you when you needed time for yourself, because -- I know -- it wasn't easy for any of you, either.

"I'm back among the living. I'm healing. And you all played a big part in that. Thank you for believing."

We are all a bit speechless, touched by her words, when she adds,

"This is for Blair. We might have lost him too damn soon, but it would have been worse if I had never had him in my life."

All of a sudden, everybody's eyes are just a little bright.

~~~~~~~

I stay longer than everyone else, help her clean up ("You be good," Megan had told her before she kissed her on the cheek and said goodbye, looking at me pointedly.). What is she thinking?

We sit by the fireplace, have one last drink together. "Your speech was wonderful," I tell her.

"I didn't get too melodramatic, did I?" she asks, smiling wistfully.

"No way. It was perfect."

Jess stares into the flickering flames. "It's just the way that I feel. You know, life really goes on. But it's still like there's a chunk torn out of my heart that can never be replaced. I still miss him so much."

"I know what you mean."

We hold each other in a completely innocent embrace.

~~~~~~~

Naomi has invited Jess to spend some time during Christmas time with her at a retreat in Canada, and Jess agrees, promising she'll be back for New Year's Eve. Naomi also calls me. "You know, I'd invite you, too, but this is an all-women thing." She laughs a little. Like all of us, she still grieves for the very special man that was her son, but she's calm. Naomi's beliefs are a great comfort for her, and I think it'll be good for Jess to be with her mother-in-law for a while.

There's an email from Naomi on December 25th:

//Merry Christmas, Jim. Follow your heart when you're ready.//

~~~~~~~

When Jess returns, some of the restlessness has left her. Her color is better than it has been in quite some time, and she's gained a little weight, looking all the more gorgeous.

The dreams return, and this time, I don't accept the guilt so easily. It isn't like we'd be betraying anyone. //I'd take good care of her,// I promise to Blair. Lord forgive me, I still want her so much. And I take my time to observe her. I wouldn't want to mistake the need to have a shoulder to lean on for something else.

One day, after work, I meet her in the parking garage. It's a Friday evening, I have the weekend off, and I ask her out. She says yes.

After dinner, we go to see a movie, though I can't tell you what it was, the only thing I remember was holding her hand in the darkened room, and I was feeling like a teenager on the first date. To hell with the guilt.

There's a bar near the movie theatre, and we go dancing. For the first time, there's no restraint, I'm holding her as close as I dare in public, breathing in her scent, enjoying the softness of her hair against my cheek.

She's turning me on so much, and I can tell she wants me just as much from the way she's pressing her body against mine. I can barely wait for the moment when we'll be skin to skin.

"For God's sake," Jess whispers hotly. "Get me out of here."

~~~~~~~

And so it happens: We're back in the house, undressing each other, and there's no way we'll make it to the bedroom. It doesn't matter, all I want is to taste her all over, to hear her make those sounds, to make her quiver with need.

How long have I been waiting for her to touch me? The reality of it is mind-blowing.

I don't miss those senses. It's like they belong to another reality, I have no desire to turn them on again - it's kind of a sacrifice made, like in any of those cultures Blair told me about, where precious things were buried with a special person. Sometimes even animals, or worse, humans.

In this case, it wasn't all that hard to do.

Later, when we have finally made it upstairs, holding each other in the king-sized bed, that blissful feeling remains. Everything happens for a reason, Naomi would say. If she can accept this, we should too.

I kiss Jess softly, hands caressing her warm, soft skin, and she sighs in pleasure. "I'm so glad we finally had the guts to do this," she says dreamily.

Me, too.

A bit of the sorrow remains, though. If I could turn back time to where Blair was still alive, I'd do it anytime. Even if I'd never had this.

~~~~~~~

We have agreed not to tell anybody yet, at least for a little while. This is the time we're taking for ourselves, trying to come to terms with the lingering of guilty conscience, with the justifying, and the discovery of what our relationship really means.

She makes me feel alive, and so it must be a good thing, because I haven't felt that way since I read about the attack in Asunción.

By the way, Jess and Megan are about to become Major Crimes' most successful team. I don't mind. I'm really proud of them.

As for the legend of the Sentinel - it's over.

But for everything lost, something new is found.

 

II

Jess, the love of my life. I wanted her the first moment I saw her. If I concentrate, I can still conjure up the feel of her skin against mine. The sound of her voice washing over me like a caress. The sweet scent of her. My eyes can never get enough of her, and tasting...

I try to fill my senses with her, just so I don't feel the pain anymore. Try not to think about the fact that they most likely killed her already. I'll follow her soon, no doubt about it, and then we'll finally be together again.

Sometimes the image shifts, and I find myself in a memory of one of the less dangerous camping trips I've gone on with Jim, a warm veil of safety and belonging falling down, keeping out the confusion and hurt, leaving only clarity.

Those are the good moments, and they are rare. Most of the time it's mocking voices, the hunger, and more pain. I'd end it myself, if there was any opportunity.

There is none.

~~~~~~~

At the touch, I make a sound like a wounded animal, and for a moment, reality disappears to make room for the blue jungle; I see the wolf, lying on the ground, suffering in a deathly fever.

But that touch is gentle, not like that of my captors. As the dizziness passes, I get a first view of the man; he looks like a soldier, and I briefly think of Jim, but that is wishful thinking, of course. This one's got blond close-cropped hair, and green eyes.

"Just lie still," he says. "We'll get you out of here in a minute. It's over."

If I hadn't hurt all over, I would have laughed at him. Over...? This could never be over.

It would be with me wherever I'd go. Jess... I would have cried if I'd found the strength for it.

~~~~~~~

"Jim. Wake up."

I open my eyes to find Jess standing beside the bed, looking confused, in shock somehow. I'm wide awake immediately, all but jumping up. "Jess? What's happened?"

"I just got a call." Her voice is shaking so badly, she can hardly get the words out, but there is also a smile wanting to spread over her face, while her eyes are shiny with tears. She wouldn't be smiling if it were bad news, would she? "Oh God, you won't believe this." She shakes her head. "I can hardly believe it myself. That was Paula Rodriguez."

I recognize the name instantly even though we haven't spoken to her ever since we'd returned from Paraguay. "And..."

She throws her arms around me. "Blair... he's alive."

I hold her close to me, almost shaking as badly as she was as I try to take in what she just said. "My God."

Both of us are so incredibly happy, we don't even stop for a minute to think about all the explanations we have to make. The miracle has happened, and nothing else really matters to us.

~~~~~~~

Blair has been transferred to the hospital in Seattle, straight from the airport, and we just throw a few clothes on and head straight for the car. It isn't until we've been driving for a few minutes, that an uneasy silence starts to spread in the confined space.

I reflect on the recurring dreams of the injured wolf, even when we had pretty much given up every hope that he could have been still alive. I haven't listened, as usual. But what could I have done?

When we have to stop at a red light, I ask, "How do you want to handle it?"

Jess doesn't look at me. "Hell, I have no idea. I... I love you. You know that. You also know that my feelings for Blair have never changed. So, how do think I am going to handle this?"

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize for something you can't change. I, for once, know how I felt in that hospital in Paraguay. I was a breakdown waiting to happen, and it certainly did happen. I would have been helplessly overtaxed with any more complications."

I didn't even manage to tell him about that first kiss. How to break it to your best friend that you've slept with his wife? All my carefully constructed justifications are about to crumble. There is no excuse, for either of us.

And then there's the things Jorge has told us about the kidnappers. Blair must have gone through hell, while we...

That's when I feel her gaze on me. "I know," Jess says. "I think about it all the time."

And still, it's all so stupid. How can we not be perfectly happy when the impossible has become possible? "We should call Naomi," I realize aloud.

~~~~~~~

Jess is making a few more phone calls, to Naomi - I swear she stopped breathing for a moment, but then she says she's going to take the next flight - and to our friends, especially Simon and Megan. Then there's no respite anymore: We have arrived at the hospital.

There's the sound I thought I'd never hear again.

God.

I've never understood it before when people said they felt like embracing the whole world, but I definitely feel it now.

I'm way out of practice regarding the use of my senses though, that's why I pull myself back before I start to zone and Jess will have to answer some unnecessary questions from the doctors around here.

Having seen victims of longtime hostage situations like this before, I steel myself mentally while Jess briefly talks to Blair's doctor, a middle-aged woman called Dr. Rosen. He's alive, that is all that counts at the moment.

We enter the room very quietly, but he still cringes at the almost non-sound, a bit like a Sentinel with his senses out of whack. Come to think of it, that's pretty much the way trauma victims feel. Their senses aren't obeying like they should do.

A few years back, Blair did a paper on that subject, entertaining me with details of this almost every night, until I told him I'd be traumatized myself if I had to hear any more of it.

The fear in his eyes turns to disbelief. "Jim?"

"Hey, Chief," I say, barely able to speak around the lump in my throat. "You sure took the long way around this time."

"Wasn't my choice, man."

Hell, I know this should be the moment for the reunification of husband and wife, but I just can't help it. I lean down to very carefully embrace him, mindful of his battered body. "Welcome back." Something snaps back into place then, I can't explain it, but it sure feels good.

"Thank you."

Then his eyes widen, and I'm wondering what they see, until I realize it's Jess.

"I--I thought..." he stutters, and it's pretty obvious what it means. She thought that he was dead. I guess the same was true vice versa.

I stroke his hair softly, then straighten up to step aside and make room for her.

Jess takes one step closer, and then she faints. I reach for her just in time to keep her from hitting the floor.

~~~~~~~

I slip into the room a little later. Anxious blue eyes meet mine.

"It's okay. Just a little faintness, nothing dangerous."

"And here I thought she was glad to see me. They -- they told me she was dead."

"I know. But it's over now. We're all happy, you can't imagine how much..." I sit down beside him, and without any self-consciousness, reach for his hand. I need that physical connection now. "As soon as Dr. Rosen says it's okay, we'll get you to Cascade."

He manages something akin to a smile. "I knew you'd never give up on me. I wouldn't have survived otherwise."

His eyes close as exhaustion gets the better of him, and I lean forward, until my head rests on the side of the bed. Just how will we ever resolve this?

~~~~~~~

I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I know, Simon is there, talking to Blair.

"You know, Sandburg," he says, surely aiming at a joke, but he doesn't go through with it. "Hell, kid, I can't tell you how glad I am you survived this."

"Yeah. Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Blair quotes, his voice still weak, but I do detect the trace of sarcasm. Meanwhile, Megan enters the room, behind her Jess, looking reluctant.

I don't get the hint at first, until Simon tells me unmistakably, "You two can keep on holding hands later. I think we should give the married folk some time now."

True, but--

Beneath the happiness of the unexpected reunion, I see the helplessness in both of them. They're going to face a hard challenge.

~~~~~~~

Simon complains that no way is he going to give Jess, Megan and me another unlimited leave of absence, and did we even consider that he's running a police department on the side? The bantering brings a small smile to Blair's face. Other than that, he seems quite overwhelmed, and I realize that we probably shouldn't gang up on him like this in the near future.

We arrange our shifts so that Jess works days and can be with him afterwards; Megan and I will drop by days.

Jess stays a little longer, and Megan says she'll drive her home.

Before I go, I stand beside Blair's bed for a moment.

"The... legend continues, huh?" he whispers.

"You betcha."

As my fingers encircle his for a moment, feeling the rhythm of his pulse, it's like the first time I actually feel it's *real*, and I'm overcome by a wave of happiness so great it makes me dizzy. Ignoring any spectators, I bend down to kiss his forehead. "Welcome back, partner."

He squeezes my hand in return.

I just know we can get this right.

~~~~~~~

I'm scared beyond everybody's imagination. Scared I could just one day wake up and realize I just made this up in one of my pain-induced hallucinations. Scared to close my eyes, because every single dream turns into a nightmare, bringing me back to the place some part of my mind has never really left.

When I was still in the hospital, I was on too many meds to have a normal sleep rhythm, but now every fall of dusk makes me uneasy, because I know what is going to happen.

I hear Jess scream as they're tearing her away from me. My angry retort is cut off by the first punch, and then they're just raining down on me, the sound of a sickening crunch, blood, it goes on and on until oblivion envelopes me in a merciful mantle.

Waking up to other horrors. We are all naked in the small chamber. One man has a broken nose, he looks like he's in shock. We all are. Our captors wear masks, carry heavy weapons. We've all heard them being engaged; there must have been a lot of casualties at the hotel.

What do they want? Who are they?

We never get to know. In our minds, they are reduced to cruel eyes and hands.

"Your woman?" says one of them. "She was good."

I scream --

to wake up in my own bed, alone, shaking so hard my teeth are chattering together, my body drenched in cold sweat. Jess is off at work; I was going to read a bit, but must have fallen asleep. Even though I dread it, it happens quite often. I've been able to leave the hospital a few days ago, but I'm still beyond exhausted. Guess those meds I'm still taking are messing with my system, but without them, I'd go crazy.

I don't want to call anyone. I don't want them to think I can't handle it.

Even if it's the truth.

~~~~~~~

How to explain this? Plead temporary insanity?

Jess and I have retreated to the loft for lunch break. It's not like anything has changed regarding the way I feel about her. I've been a complete and utter fool. I should have noticed -- the moment I met her, she seemed to fit just like the long-missing piece you finally find to complete the puzzle of your life.

All the time, I suppressed my feelings with the interpretation of being so glad Blair had found a woman as wonderful as her.

We make love slowly and carefully, as if one wrong move, one wrong touch, would tear apart our safety net of denial. And it would. It is like, it must be, saying goodbye. We stay silent for a long time afterwards, just relishing each other's presence - and the shadow of doubt slowly chasing away the light of bliss.

Fools we are.

"We can't go on like this," Jess says.

I agree. But where *can* we go from here?

"How are things at home?"

She lies back with a sigh. "Bad. You know, those nightmares, I expected them. I had them myself. But Blair absolutely refuses to see someone, no matter how often I try to tell him how it's helped me. I feel so useless."

I stroke the hair out of her face, and she holds my hand in place for a moment.

"I could talk to him," I offer.

"Yeah, maybe. I'm not sure if it would change anything."

I draw her close for another moment, before we both have to get back to work.

~~~~~~~

"How was work? Catch any bad guys today?"

Jess gives me a tired smile. "Not really. Megan and I got assigned to a new case, a little girl's been kidnapped. I wish you would consider coming back sometime soon, if only for a few hours. We could really use your help."

We sit, snuggled together in front of the fireplace with a hot chocolate. Alcohol is still off limits.

"I'm officially on sick leave, remember?" I don't know why this sounds like the retort of a sullen child. She just said they need me. It's something I should appreciate, right? It was strange to find out Jess had stepped up the career ladder in the meantime. Detective Sandburg; it had an odd ring to it. Again, I should have been proud of her.

"Sure. I didn't mean..." She lets her words trail off, turning to give me a quick kiss. I had thought I'd never have that again, holding her close to me, running my fingers through her hair... Our kiss deepens, and I let my hands slide under her sweater.

-- //Stop!//

It's that moment where I get afraid, frustrated, because I just can't let it get beyond that, just be with her. Something's still unclear, I know she feels guilty, because she came out of it much sooner than I had. I don't want to confront her with that fact, don't want her to see the scars-- even though I know, she's confronted with the less visible ones every day.

She's looking at me, not with the disdain I sometimes fear to see, but with another expression I've learned to read already.

"No," I say, getting up from the floor, and wincing. She jumps up to help, and I brush off her hands. "I'm not going to see any shrink. I've had enough of that for a lifetime, and I know all their lines."

"But it would help," Jess argues. "Something can be done, you know it's post- --"

"-traumatic stress, I *know*. Can you leave it alone now?" I just can't stand that sad look in her eyes. "I'm sorry, baby. I just need... a little more time, okay?"

"No problem." She wraps her arms around me, and I embrace her in return, but she's tense. I don't tell her that the biggest problem is the thought of leaving the house in the first place.

~~~~~~~

//If that's all, can you leave me alone now?//

Megan isn't easily discouraged. //I know you're angry. You've got the right to be, it's not fair what happened to you, but don't forget we're not the enemy here.//

//Alright, I hear you. And I'm tired. I don't want to go for a walk.//

The desolation in his voice breaks my heart. What to do?

I meet Megan down in the hall. The picnic was her idea, but Blair would have none of it. According to Jess, he hasn't even been outside in the garden ever since he came back from the hospital; appointments with the doctor always have him on the edge of a panic attack. No, a picnic is not a pleasant concept for Blair at the moment.

"So." Megan sighs a little, but she's still determined. "Jess really needs to get out, it's great weather, and we're going."

"I could stay here," I venture. Searching Jess' gaze, I find that she'd be more than okay with the idea. Could be that spending time, she and I, and her best friend, could get just a little uncomfortable.

That's not the only reason, though.

~~~~~~~

This house has always felt like home to me, from the moment they moved in. I'm in the kitchen, making coffee; before the ladies left, I snatched some of the pastries Megan had bought, and I'm setting the table, while Blair is still upstairs.

I'm almost finished when I hear hesitant footsteps padding down the stairs.

Taking a close look at him, I think that if he wasn't still much too thin, I could almost fool myself into believing that things were back to normal. They aren't, and they won't be for a long time; Jess and I saw to that.

But anyway, seeing him, my best friend, alive and back on his feet, puts a silly grin on my face, no doubt. "Sorry if I woke you up. I didn't feel much like going to a picnic myself."

"It's okay." He smiles. "It was the aroma of the coffee, you know. No one knows how to make it like you. I love Jess, but she's terrible at making coffee. Um, just don't tell her, okay?"

"Scout's Honor, Chief. It will be our secret."

He watches me for a while, and I know he wants to ask me something. I'm just hoping it's not what I'm afraid it could be.

"Do you think I'm going crazy?"

Oh, Chief. That's an easy one. "Of course not." I feel he needs more than a simple reassurance. Something like proof.

"Look. It's hard when you're practically torn out of your normal life, then get thrown back into it. It takes time to adjust; believe me, I know what I'm talking about."

"Peru."

"Yes. If there's one thing I've learned from it, it's that you've got to take it one step at a time. Anything else just doesn't work."

"I don't want to be such trouble for everyone," he says unhappily.

"You're not. Hell, when we got that call from the embassy... sometimes I still can't believe how lucky we are. We... we held this wake for you..."

Suddenly, it's not so clear anymore, who of us needs the comfort. He steps forward, and I hold on with something like despair. We stay like that for what seems a long time, then the sound of his rumbling stomach makes us both crack up with laughter.

"Way to destroy the sentimental moment, Junior," I say with mock indignation. "Alright. Let's check out those pastries. I had to fight Connor for them."

~~~~~~~

That afternoon with Jim was great. We didn't talk about therapy, or what happened in Paraguay. It's more those glory days that we both remember, before everything went to hell.

It's done Jess a lot of good to get outside the house, and have a 'girl's day' with Megan.

For the first time in quite a long time, there's a glimmer of hope.

~~~~~~~

"No! No, don't! Don't touch me!"

Obviously, one good day isn't enough to make those night terrors disappear. I struggle to find my way back to reality, until Jess' worried gaze isn't overlaid by the grin of my tormentor any longer.

When will this ever end?

I know she's asking that herself, and I wonder how much more our marriage is going to take, and it's not those nasty flashbacks, but a fear of the future that makes me cry.

Jess just hugs me close, the warmth of her body very slowly calming my frazzled nerves.

But the fear remains.

~~~~~~~

Blair has finally agreed to start therapy. None of us really knows what has brought on this change of heart, but we're sure glad about it. Something will go on. About other unresolved issues... Jess and I haven't met for a while. It's just too complicated at the moment.

Still, we both know that it isn't over yet. Even if we never touch again, something's got to give. It's still *there*.

He's also come back to the station for some consulting work. Jess and Megan have solved the kidnapping case, but as you know, crime's never slow in Cascade.

Don Haas has already named this man the 'Cascade Strangler', way to make a city panic. The guy enters his victims' apartments via their balconies, surprises them in their sleep. The bastard rapes them, stays until just before dawn, and then disappears. No witnesses, no traces of DNA left behind.

We're in for another challenge, regardless of the ones still standing.

~~~~~~~

"I want my life back."

I know he's pushing himself hard, too hard probably, but it feels good to see the resolution shine in Blair's eyes. All those reports about the women having been tortured and strangled, their lives shattered, those must bring up some bad memories, but he's just as determined as every one of us.

Simon has declared this case top priority.

Megan and Jess have interviewed the victims, as far as possible, and there's a rage about them when they return to the station.

We fill them in on the forensics report. Both victims had strangulation marks, but it seems like it wasn't the man's intent to actually kill them; he would have had plenty of time for that.

"Jane Trent had come from the gym that night," Jess relates, avoiding my gaze, or am I imagining things? "She took a shower and went to bed shortly thereafter. When she woke up, he was already there in the room with her, having her tied up."

"Valerie Preston," Megan adds. "Was out partying. She said she fell asleep on her bed, not even having undressed."

"Sounds like he's been stalking them, finding out about their routines."

"Yeah, well, we came up with that ourselves," Jess snaps at Blair. "What we really need is to nail the bastard!"

"Oh, right. Thanks for reminding me."

"Mates." Megan sighs. "I believe we're all on the same page here, aren't we? Jess, what was that about the gym? Which one?"

"Columbus Street," Jess answers curtly.

"Well, that's where Preston was working."

Jess has already picked up her jacket, obviously glad to be able to leave the room again. "What are we waiting for?"

~~~~~~~

This case is quite nerve-wracking, since all of us know that the creep is most likely preparing his next strike. Jess is so very angry all the time; I hardly know how to deal with her. Not that we're spending so much time together, for a big part of off-work time, she hangs out at Megan's.

At least, we're making some progress. Jim and I talk to the woman who owns the florist store across the street from the gym. She's quite observant, and tells us about a man who seemed to pick up his wife or girlfriend; but sometimes, Mrs. Bowman says, he just stood there, watching the customers come and go, and every now and then, he used to drive off after one of them.

We're getting closer.

She joins us at the station to work with the sketch artist.

~~~~~~~

Despite the progress, time is running out, and we've decided to bait the creep out. The only question is, who's going to do it. Well, not really a question.

"I'm closest to the victim profile," Jess declares. "So it's got to be me."

"No way," Blair and I say in unison, and she grimaces.

"That's not for either of you to decide. I'm a detective like any of you, and I can do this."

Something about this just doesn't feel right. And I couldn't care less about anybody's suspicions; I just don't want her in that kind of danger. Period.

"Please, don't do this," Blair echoes my thoughts exactly. "You don't have to prove anything to--"

Megan shakes her head in exasperation. "Guys, don't fall over your feet with the cavalier's act. Jess, of course you *could* do it, and you're right, you're closest to what we know about the vics. You all forgot one thing - you're not living alone. I am."

"Thank you, Connor," Simon says. "It's about time."

~~~~~~~

So it's decided; Megan has a lot more experience with undercover work anyway. Blair hangs out at Mrs. Bowman's - observing - and he swears the old lady could teach him a thing or two in that department. Jess poses as the new trainer in the gym; she's got a schedule to match with Blair's, so they can go home together.

After the workout, we follow Connor to the 'Temple', a bar where Valerie Preston often went.

This goes on for three days.

I get the feeling that things are getting better between Jess and Blair; so I haven't called her as often as I used to, even though I miss her - but with all of us working so closely at the moment, we just can't take the risk.

Yeah, I hear you. There was a time when I was thinking about telling Blair; I admit now that it might never happen. I am still in love with her. I still consider him my best friend. I don't have the slightest idea what to do.

And then one night, Jess has just retreated to the Ladies' bathroom, he shocks me with the confession that he's thinking about divorcing her.

"What?"

He stares into his beer solemnly. "I don't want to. But I just can't go on like this."

He's not mad at me, I reflect. So he can't know - can he?

"But why? Things seemed to be looking up."

"Well, that's exactly the problem," he retorts ironically. "They aren't."

"What are you... oh. I'm sorry." I feel like an idiot. I don't want to have this conversation, either. With each detail shared, he'll hate me a little more in the end. "What does the therapist say?"

With a shrug, he says, "That it takes time, and there's nothing unusual about it. Easy for him to say. I'm so tired of this, Jim. I want everything to be normal again, the way it was..." He laughs mirthlessly. "A long time ago, actually."

What am I to say?

Unbidden, flashes of guilty memory come back to me, of Jess, her long hair caressing my skin in an almost torturous fashion as she... Stop it. Damn you, I tell myself. You're really a grade A jerk.

"Don't rush things," I finally come up with. "As long as you love each other, there's something worth saving."

"I know that *I* still love her," he says, the emphasis unmistakable.

~~~~~~~

And that's about the only thing I know for sure at the moment. I've been doing hard work with the shrink, knowing that I can't undo anything that has happened and that I'll live with it eventually. He tells me I've made great progress, which is obvious: I'm working again, have stopped panicking whenever the phone or the doorbell rings.

The nightmares are persistent, but they've been getting fewer.

And still... *Everything* is different ever since I've returned from the dead, so to speak. For the second time, I might remind you. The current 'communication' problem Jess and I have, I'm not sure it's really the reason why I still can't be at ease.

Jim and I haven't talked much lately; haven't even discussed that he hadn't ever used his senses when I was presumed dead. That's not how it's supposed to be; I'm quite sure about that. But there's no time, no talking room. I've still got a lot to catch up on. Sometimes it all feels like too much.

I'm still a stranger in my home, and unless that changes, I won't be free.

I could do with a little visionary help here. Incacha, how about it?

~~~~~~~

It's the first weekend since we've started the undercover thing. The tension is rising. There were twelve days between the attacks on Trent and Preston. Ten days since Preston. If we're right, he's going to strike the day after tomorrow.

We've checked every man picking up their wives or girlfriends, and Bowman says the man she remembers isn't among them, but she's not hundred percent sure anymore. We'll have to take our chances.

Megan is resolute. "Let him try," she says. "He won't ever *want to* again."

I'd been staying a little longer to catch up on some paperwork. If it had been that easy to get everything else in order again! - some of Jim's having miraculously found their way onto my desk, but I don't mind. Simon sure doesn't mind either; he says that when it comes to reports, Jim's verbal creativity leaves much to be desired.

I come home to an empty house, with a note from Jess that says she won't be home before midnight, because they're going to catch a late movie. Alright then. I decide to find out what Jim's up to tonight. Maybe we can just spend some time together, maybe with a game on TV, just like the old days. I'd love that.

I don't even think about calling him about it first.

Which I should have.

It's like one of those rare moments at the cinema when the film suddenly stops and the screen goes black. Well, if the scene had gone black, that would at least have been merciful, I'm thinking. As it is, I can't stop staring at the two people, just as frozen as I am. Jim, shirtless, and Jess, wearing that black lace bra I can't remember her buying, but then again, I've been absent for quite some time. Lots of things happen.

She seems speechless; I can relate to that. Jim finally makes an attempt at damage control. "Look, Chief, just come inside and we'll talk about this in--"

"No!" The absurd suggestion finally shakes me out of my reverie. "No, I don't want to hear it! I don't want to see either of you again! Ever!"

I flee, slamming the door behind me. Wishing so much it hadn't been true, or that I had never learned about it, but that can't be undone now; the image has branded itself into my mind. Jess - and Jim. The people I care about most in the world, betraying me.

All that endless time during my captivity, I had thought I had something to live for; something else than claiming my job again, and resuming the payments for the house - and I had been sadly mistaken.

Hastening down the stairs, I get outside on the street, the cold rain hitting me immediately almost a relief - it gives me something else to focus on, even though I feel the warmer wetness of my tears mingling with the icy rain.

Fucking jerk. Bitch. There is no cathartic discharge in the silent swearing, on the contrary, those words feel like they are of a foreign language that holds no meaning for me. The truth is - there is nothing but the pain. Because I love them both so much. Still. And an idiot I am, I mean, how much more proof do I need 'til I get it that they don't really care about me?

Starting an affair over shared grief? Get real. That's the stuff of soap operas.

The scenery around me is starting to take on a surreal quality, the cars, buildings, people, even - it's like they're not really there, or maybe I am not quite here. I don't know how it has happened, but then I find myself in the middle of the street, car horns blaring, as if sending a message I don't really understand. Figures. I've always been a little late getting the message, haven't I?

Screeching tires; I spin around, and there's this car, its headlights blinding me, but I still imagine I could have seen the driver's eyes widen in shock, before there's lots of pain, and, finally, the merciful black that consumes my vision, and consciousness, too.

~~~~~~~

The sensation is quite like having been punched in the gut, and it happens a split second before I hear the sickening sound of metal hitting flesh, and the spiking of the heartbeat I've been following, before it's starting to slow down.

"Oh my God!"

"What? What happened?" Jess is yelling at me.

I've already grabbed my shirt, and I'm hurriedly putting on my shoes. "It's Blair. He's been hit by a car."

Nothing else is said. We've been stretching our luck for way too long already.

~~~~~~~

Someone has called an ambulance. I flash my badge and the circle of spectators widens to let us through. The driver, a young man in his twenties, seems in shock, he is chalk white and keeps rambling, "Stepped right in front of me, didn't have a chance to, I, man, I tried to stop, but..."

I tune him out, tune out everything else, even Jess beside me, as I kneel down beside Blair. He's unconscious, but breathing, heart rate too slow. I reach out very carefully beneath his head; my hand comes away crimson red. His left leg is at an odd angle, most likely broken; he's bound to be bruised all over, but it's the head injury that has me worried. Oh God. It's all I can think. What the hell have we done?

I lean closer, whispering to him, even though I know Blair can't hear me. "Listen to me, we'll get you through this. Nothing else is important at the moment. You're going to make it, do you hear me?"

Holding on to his hand until the paramedics arrive, I can't help staring at my blood-stained hands. Even when I'm going to wash them, it's the guilt I won't be able to remove.

And silently, I'm making a deal with God. Everything. Just let him live.

~~~~~~~

Two fools who couldn't say goodbye. That's what we are, what has brought us here. It's going to change. I look at the woman I've been wanting so badly, who told me she'd love me too - and really look at her.

Jess hasn't moved since she slumped in the plastic chair, silently crying. I sure haven't made her happy.

No word on Blair yet, but there are some things I can determine myself. The broken leg - didn't feel like a clean break. There was lots of blood from the head injury. Could be a hairline fracture; not worse, if we're lucky. They're going to stop the bleeding, and to check for possible internal injuries.

All we can do is wait - and regret.

~~~~~~~

We both jump at the sound of Jess' cell phone. She reaches for her purse and takes it out, in order to turn the alarm off, but then decides otherwise when she sees the number of the caller.

I hear Megan's voice, calm, but tense, as she says, "We got the date wrong, mate. I need some backup - pronto."

"I'll handle it!" I feel like I need to argue with Jess, but the truth is, I'm torn, and we haven't got the time for this either. She tells me that she is going to call Simon on the way; and that I should call her the minute I find out something.

Even though everything is rather chaotic now, it feels like the right thing to do. Jess is capable, she *will* be okay. And she's right, what I really need is to stay here.

~~~~~~~

Megan has carried through her threat, though it obviously wasn't easy. She's sporting a shiner and a bloody lip, but the man who had been breaking into her apartment, has cuffs around his wrists, and looks to be in some pain. Which doesn't keep him from mouthing off about the 'damn cunt.'

"Good work, Connor," I say, between relief and exhaustion, managing a grin. We might not always see eye to eye, but she sure can be trusted to get the job done. I'm relieved, too, that it hasn't gotten worse, considering this was rather unexpected.

"Just shut up," Jess snarls angrily, meaning the perp, of course, but it sounds a little like she's replying to my words, which makes us all laugh, even Megan.

"Stop it, mates," she says miserably. "That *hurts*!"

Jess jumps up to hug me quickly. "Jim, thank God. Thank you for calling. We were just waiting for this piece of trash to be picked up."

We haven't told Megan about Blair yet. Doc says there was a severe concussion, and he'll need extensive physiotherapy for the broken leg, but all in all, he must have a very competent Guardian Angel. The doctor's words. Blair and I are not exactly unknown to him.

They'll keep him under for a while yet, since he'd be in too much pain otherwise. But it could have been much worse.

~~~~~~~

I hear Jess and Megan in the hallway.

"You're sure I shouldn't drive you to the hospital?"

"No."

I've seen the marks around her throat, but I agree, there's nothing much a doctor could do for her right now, except for maybe prescribing some Tylenol, which she's got in her medical cabinet.

Fucker walked right into the trap, even if it was sooner than we planned. And he sure didn't count on his next victim being a police detective trained in hand-to-hand combat.

"He didn't get that far," Megan says, and then I hear the rustle of clothing as Jess pulls her into her arms.

I feel quite superfluous. Sentinel of the Great City, life sure goes on without me.

~~~~~~~

The netherworld is a safe place. I want to stay here, but someone's urging me to wake up. Better not. For once, I could wake up on a cellar floor in Paraguay. Or in a dentist's chair, with a madman in my face, for that matter.

Or I could find...

"Come on, Chief. I know you can do it."

Everything in me rebels. No. Way. I don't want to see him, or talk with him. I just want to be left alone. "Go," I try out on my lips, uncertain if I've made any sound at all. For Christ's sake, get lost.

"Can you try to open your eyes?" a soft voice queries, a nurse most likely. "He's gone."

So those old senses are still working alright. Why should I even care anymore? I cater to the nurse's wish best I can, but I'm just so tired, and that's fine with me, because I don't want to think. I can't stand my life at this very moment. "Tired," I manage to whisper, and she finally leaves me alone.

I'm disappointed.

I'd kind of hoped that this time, I'd be dead for real.

~~~~~~~

In the meantime, we've initiated Megan, which is a good thing, because at the moment, she's the only visitor Blair accepts. We should have expected that, but it's still... unsettling.

Not even after Alex was it like this, and the fear grows within me that I have really blown it. This cannot be. There must be a way, some second chance... but I'm no farther along than I was months ago.

It was impossible from the beginning, and we, Jess and I should have been able to see it. But we didn't, and that's the situation we have to deal with now.

~~~~~~~

Megan sat with me for a while, until I threw her out, too. I don't need to feign that I'm tired or in pain, because I am, but the reason is a different one. I don't want her to see me cry. I don't want anyone to know I'm stupid enough to give a damn.

The tears, feeling hot on my face, remind me that I am, obviously. Hate would be so good, a relieving emotion, clear and distant, but I just can't reach it. Instead... I can't quit pondering those questions; how long has this been going on indeed? How could they... Funny, isn't it, I can hardly remember any situation in the past few years when we were interested in the same woman anyway - except for Alex maybe, and that was quite a different story.

Oh fuck, just - don't - think - about - Alex.

If I wasn't lying in a hospital bed at the moment, I'd like to confront my so-called best friend, what did he ever think, accusing me of *betraying* him? A violation of friendship and trust, that's sure been taking place. He's always been so damn self-righteous about any mistake I've made - so now he just expects me to go along with it?

Forget about it. Jim obviously did okay without Sentinel senses; without me. All the time when I was so certain he'd need me, I'm beginning to think I was only fooling myself, wishing I was that important.

As soon as I get out of here, I need to decide what to do with the rest of my life - and who I still want to be in it. Jess and Jim are not high on that list at the moment. Let them live happily ever after, I tell myself with a sarcasm that only reaches myself.

I'm clueless.